What Did You Learn?

“The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in.” (Luke 15:28)

The two boys really weren’t all that much different, when you think about it — the two sons in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Prodigal, in case you don’t know, means — according to our good friend Merriam-Webster — “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure: lavish.”) They both were concerned primarily with themselves; they just expressed it differently.

The younger son wanted money so he could go off and do what attracted him — which unfortunately involved not only travel but reckless spending. The older son stayed with his father and worked, knowing that when his father died everything would be his; after all, his brother was long gone!

The difference between them was a fairly simple one. The younger son gained wisdom and humility. The older son’s heart was hardened and he remained selfish.

Whoa! I can almost hear you saying, “You’re misreading that parable.” Most of us identify with the older brother. Most of us, especially those of us who attend church regularly and try to do what is right, are in truth like the older brother in some respects. We shoulder our responsibilities rather than attempting to flee them. We do the work which must be done rather than heading off on adventures. We put one foot in front of the other, not expecting anything special — and sometimes getting exactly what we expect. (Occasionally, we have friends, families or co-workers who appreciate what we do and show us, but not always.)

We appreciate the father’s love for both of his sons — and are grateful for that metaphor of God’s love for us — but we understand the older son’s anger. We would be angry, too. And that’s what I should understand, right? It’s righteous anger that the older brother shows, not a hard heart.

Perhaps, but I strongly suspect this is another parable about personal growth. In the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:4-8), we learn that our environment affects the way we receive the Word of God and the way it grows in us. In the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), we learn that we must learn to live in a less than perfect world, and trust God with the harvest. I suspect this is about learning from our experiences, learning to have a right relationship with God.

The younger son didn’t want the life his father lived — he imagined something different and went out into the world to build that life for himself, failing abysmally. From that, he learned that he hadn’t appreciated what he’d had and returned as one who had grown in wisdom, capable of humility. The older son wanted what his father had and worked hard — like a slave, he claimed (v.29) — but this work didn’t deepen his relationship with his father or his appreciation of the life he had chosen. He lashed out at his father in anger when his father acted in love.

But his father doesn’t give up on him, either. Instead, he is the same loving father who greeted the wayfarer son with love. He goes out to meet his son and patiently explains their relationship: “You are always here with me and everything I have is yours” (v. 31). And then, he goes on to explain the celebration: “He was lost, but now he has been found” (v.32).

It’s not just about us, son, the father said. It’s not about what we do or what we have; it’s about relationship. In this case, it’s about creating a sanctuary so the lost can come home.

The parable does not end with the older son in his father’s arms. The parable ends with the father’s lesson  to his son. Because so many of us identify with that son, the question becomes: how do we respond? Do we learn to open our hearts and our lives to others? Do we learn to welcome those who have been lost? Do we embrace them and share with generosity?

Do we learn the lesson and throw ourselves into our father’s arms to receive his kiss? Or do we remain angry and walk away? The choice is ours.

 

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Weaknesses and Deficiencies

“It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves, but for others. When we do this, we will be able to face, and accept, our own limitations. … We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.” (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island)

Thomas Merton wrote this in his Prologue to the book, No Man Is An Island, which was published the year I was born. I  discovered it about the time I turned 45 — the book with its prologue.

Thomas Merton, who died in 1968, is one of those men who truly changed the world, and continues to change the world, though non-Catholics may be entirely unfamiliar with him or with any of his work. Merton was a Trappist monk, whose autobiography revealed how God can touch even the most unchurched of us. I’ve read that a whole generation of seekers was inspired by The Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography, and it has never gone out of print.

He is known in Catholic circles for taking contemplative prayer out of the monastery and into the lives of the laity. (That’s what the average church-goer is called in Catholic circles.) However, he was also a behind-the-scenes peace activist, encouraging those on the front lines, like Dorothy Day. As a monk in a religious order where speech is strongly discouraged, he was remarkably vocal, writing numerous books and innumerable letters which continue to impact people today. One of my favorite authors, James Martin, SJ, speaks and writes often about the impact of Thomas Merton on his life.

But I will, possibly forever, remember Thomas Merton for the lines quotes above. When I first read them, I could not continue with the book. Night after night, I would crawl into my bed, grab No Man is an Island, open it to that page and reread the section of which that is a part. That passage called for a radical shift in the way I thought about myself and about my relationships with others.

Merton went on to write, “My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others…. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore, the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation…. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ.”

Thomas Merton introduced me to the concept of our inter-relatedness. Americans glorify the rugged individual and we idolize those who rise to the top of the heap, regardless of how they got there. They have money and therefore they are successful. That is why our nation has none of the programs which support the health of the family found in other industrialized nations, and why we have the appalling tendency to denigrate the poor, regardless of how hard they work and regardless of how much their quality of life was created by the greed of those at the top.

(Lost a lot of you there, didn’t I? You don’t agree. You like the way you think. You’ve worked hard for what you have achieved and to hell with everyone else. Yep! I can hear one of my brothers from here — and he hasn’t even read this yet.)

I didn’t function well within the average American mindset. I was always getting sidetracked by someone  in need — the single mom who grew up in the foster care system and had no real concept of family though she was desperate for love, the recovering drug addict I met while selling Avon products, the unemployed teacher who ended up delivering newspapers and working as a motel housekeeper to keep a roof over her head. I simply could not fail to offer assistance, though more often than not the only assistance I could provide was my time and a compassionate ear.

But time, as every American knows, is money and money is the measure of success. Right? Merton said, “No, it’s not.” Merton said our lives are inter-related, that my strength meets your need and, in that, Christ is present.

For the first time, I didn’t feel like such a loser. For the first time, I thought, “OK, I can live this.” It took a seven-day silent retreat five years later and a little (well, more than a little) adversity to fully appreciate what Merton was saying, though. I was comfortable in being the one with strengths who could help others. I could accept not rising to the top of the great American heap, but I was not equally comfortable with the whole weakness component. It always humiliated me to the bone to ask for assistance. I felt like the animal excrement a farmer scrapes off his boots every time I had to ask, every time I had to accept assistance.

But, the year I turned 50, I gave myself the gift of a seven-day silent retreat during which I came to understand that to be whole in Christ, we have to accept the whole Christ; we must be willing to receive as well as give. Yes, Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick. But Jesus also said he was found in the hungry who were fed and the homeless who were given shelter and the prisoner who was visited (cf. Matt.25:34-40). It’s OK to be strong, I came to understand, but it OK to be weak sometimes, too.”

Even today, I can’t say I am at home with weakness and with receiving, but I have learned to accept gifts with a little more grace as a result of  learning about this idea of wholeness that Merton introduced and long hours of prayer affirmed. And, as a result, I’ve come to see God in unexpected places. My daughter and her husband, for example, will undoubtedly be on the right-hand when the day of judgment comes for they feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless month after month. Although they don’t attend church with same regularity that I do, they open themselves to be God’s hands in this world as though it were the most natural thing  in the world.

I wonder if most of those on the right at the last judgment won’t be just like them. After all, according to Jesus, those on the right didn’t even know they were caring for him by their actions in this world. “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?” they asked. When? When? When? (Matt. 25:37-39) It’s a sobering thought.

Taking Jim’s Advice

In case you opened this to see what words of wisdom my brother imparted — wrong Jim. I’m actually referring to Father James Martin, SJ.

Since reading his book, BECOMING WHO YOU ARE: INSIGHTS ON THE TRUE SELF FROM THOMAS MERTON AND OTHER SAINTS, (three or four times, actually) I’ve become a fan of his. I’ve read or listened to most of his books, including THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING, which I also read more than once. In addition, I’ve become one of his 55,000 Facebook friends, and had the audacity to contact him personally on several occasions. He had the graciousness to respond, and signed his email messages “Jim.” And so I’ve come to think of him as Jim.

This morning, before I even crawled out of bed, I checked Facebook to see what he’d written about the Apostolic Exhortation the Vatican released today. Evangelii Gadium — or, for those of us more fluent in English, “The Joy of the Gospel” — is the first major document that Pope Francis himself penned. Earlier this year, an encyclical that Pope Benedict XVI wrote and Pope Francis lightly edited was released — Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) — but it didn’t sound like the pope who has inspired me from the moment his election was announced.

The words of Pope Francis so often inspire me that I put the Pope App on my phone so I could read his homilies. And because I am trained to recognize an author’s voice — it’s absolutely amazing what years of college literature classes will teach you — I’ve come to know the way he uses language, the poetic way in which he uses repetition to create depth of meaning, the inviting way in which he shows us how our lives can be transformed by the Word of God. Pope Benedict’s writings inspired me, but Pope Francis’s words excite my imagination — perhaps just a difference of nuance, but definitely a difference.

And because Jim had read the interview with Pope Francis which was published in AMERICA MAGAZINE, a national Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits, before publication, I anticipated he’d read “The Joy of the Gospel” as well. Since I knew I wouldn’t get to it until after work, I wanted a hint regarding what it contained. What he wrote made it difficult to wait until this evening to begin it: “I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprisiing and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.”

As he briefly summarized Pope Francis’ vision for the Church I found it difficult to be the lone Catholic in this household. I wanted to share what he’d  written. “Francis is challenging himself … it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo … it seeks to overturn the way that we have done things, and to be fearless in doing so …  it is a hope-filled, positive and energetic view of the church actively engaged in the world….” Near the end of his blog, Jim wrote, “My advice to Catholics would be: Read the entire document.Take your time. Be generous with it. Let it excite you. Pray with it. And be open to the Holy Father’s call ….”

As I sat down with Evangelii Gadium tonight, I found I could only take my time with it. In fact, I read only the first section — eight paragraphs. Some sentences I read over and over, letting them seep into me. I made marginal comments and checked one Scriptural quotation. (Is that really in the Bible? Yes, it is! How could I have not seen it before?)*

Nearly an hour after I began to read, I knew I could read no more tonight. One passage had touched something deep and I needed to reflect on it, on the sense of affirmation I experienced as read those words for the first time — an affirmation as ethereal as an angel’s touch and yet undeniable. Pope Francis had written, “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [God’s} boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will” [3].

Start anew, as I am now. The other night as I sat knitting a blue cowl for Sara, I thought, “I’m pregnant.” Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. I am waiting, just as I did when I carried my beloved children, for the moment of birth, for that new beginning. It’s coming; I’ve felt it for months. Sometimes it’s powerful, almost tangible, as it was on those summer mornings when I felt I was living on the cusp of a miracle. At other times, it’s gentle, and the mystery of not knowing the shape it will take is balanced by a quiet certainty that in trusting God at this moment I am allowing his promise to ripen within me.

That is not to say I sit around and twiddle my thumbs — or knit. No, I get up in the morning and go to the $8 per hour Experience Works position that has been mine since mid-October, and put in the allocated hours (not to exceed 21 per week). At home, I do the laundry, help out with the dishes and the twins, and occasionally do a little cleaning as well. My primary job, though, is seeking employment. In the evening, I sit down at the computer I inherited when Sara and Brodie upgraded and do what must be done — job searches, resume revisions, application submissions.

But under the activity is a quiet assurance that God is at work, and when the time is right — hopefully sooner than later — a door will open that I cannot even begin to imagine at present. As I once rested my hand upon my swollen abdomen to feel my children move within me — not knowing in those pre-ultrasound days whether I carried a son or daughter — and knew an inexplicable contentment, I now rest my hope in the Lord and feel equally content, equally blessed, knowing my life will again be touched by the mystery of the new life.

This is me, lifting  up my head. This is me, not stripped of my dignity by life experiences that eroded my self-confidence for a time. This is me, experiencing joy which the Lord has restored to me. I may be 58 years old and virtually unemployed, but God has touched me with his boundless and unfailing love, and with great tenderness has opened my heart to the possibility of a personal resurrection.

Yes, Jim, I will take time over Evangelii Gadium. Thanks for the suggestion.

* “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means … Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment.” (Sirach 14:11,14)

Naked

“Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11)

I’ve been meditating on Genesis 3 this week as part of the Ignatian Prayer Adventure (found at Ignatianspirituality.com), an online retreat I started earlier this year. I intended to make the retreat as part of my Lenten journey, but work in the form of an erratic and exhausting schedule got in the way. I set the retreat aside with regret, hoping I would get back to it.

And last week, I did — get back to it, that is. I began the Third Week. The focus is our sinfulness. “We look closely at sin and how it plays out in every human heart. Our aim is not to become mired in guilt, self-hate or despair. Instead, we ask for a healthy sense of shame and confusion when confronting the reality of sin,” Kevin O’Brien, SJ, writes in the introduction.

I had been hoping for a more cheerful topic, since depression has made a mess of my life yet again. However, I decided to stick with it even though I was not looking forward to reflecting on my sinfulness. I know from experience that depression can be a powerful distorting lens and I feared I might become — to use Father O’Brien’s phrase — “mired in guilt, self-hate or despair.” Instead, I’ve found comfort.

Comfort in reflecting on my sinfulness? No, comfort in reflecting on the Word of God.

The third chapter of Genesis starts with the infamous scene of the serpent tempting Eve. Eve apparently accepted the status quo until the serpent raised a few questions, and then she reconsidered the matter. She “saw that the tree was good for food,” (animals must have been enjoying the fruit without negative consequences) “pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it” (v.6).

Theologically, this is about free will and obedience. I know this, but I found myself filled with compassion for Eve. We are created in God’s image — and this God in whose image Eve was created wasn’t a God who was satisfied with the status quo. He’s got a perfectly good void, but He starts fiddling with it. He creates the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). Then He creates light and separates the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:3-5). He doesn’t stop there, he just keeps fiddling with things, changing things, improving things, creating things. That’s His nature.

And Eve was just like Him — exploring possibilities. There was one big difference between God and Eve, though. Eve was the creature and God was — well, God. And as the creature, Eve could not see beyond her limited understanding; she could not see the consequences of her actions. How often, I found myself thinking, is this pattern seen in my life? How often do I act on my limited understanding and discover that I erred?

I reflected on this overnight before moving on to the next verses. The following morning I was struck by God’s question. Who told you that you were naked? Who told you? It struck me that Adam and Eve looked no different after they ate the fruit than before they ate the fruit. They simply saw themselves differently.

I wrote in my journal, “We can’t bear to stand before God once we see ourselves with the eyes of the world. The eyes of the world change the way we see ourselves. We become ashamed. We stop seeing ourselves as created in God’s image; we stop trusting his perfect care. We see ourselves as naked and vulnerable; we rush to take action to cover ourselves.”

Over and over, in the days which have passed since then, I find myself coming back to the idea that when we see ourselves with the eyes of the world, we see ourselves differently than when we see ourselves as beloved children of God. When we see ourselves with the eyes of the world, then we judge ourselves by the standards of the world and we act in ways to elevate ourselves in the eyes of the world. But, we can’t do that and remain in a healthy relationship with God.

At least, I cannot. I know the gifts that God has given others are different than the gifts He has given me. I know that others are able to immerse themselves in worldly matters and still see, when they look in the mirror, the image of one created in God’s image. God works in them differently than He works in me.

This new understanding of the way in which I am tempted does not exempt me from my obligations in this world, my responsibilities, but it does subtly shift my focus, my emphasis. I must learn to see myself as God sees me, with the gifts and strengths He has given me, and I must learn how to reflect these into the world. For when I do this, when I live as a beloved child of God, created in his image and use the gifts He has given me, then I will give glory to his name. Whether or not I am doing this will then become the measure of my life — and I won’t feel naked.

I won’t feel vulnerable, because I will be looking at Him and living in him — whole and beloved.

Terra Sancta

If I were Charles Schultz’s inimitable dog, Snoopy, I would be doing a happy dance today. Nose in the air. Arms joyfully thrown out to embrace the universe. Tail wagging furiously. Feet beating the staccato of blissful gladness.

Yep! That’s what I would be doing. The universe shifted this week and I am so filled with gratitude that I cannot contain my joy.

As much as anything, I’m grateful to God for patience; Father James Martin, S.J., for his book THE JESUIT GUIDE TO ALMOST EVERYTHING; Father Raymond Deisch and Monsignor William O’Connell for their moving “Terra Sancta Prayer;” and my spiritual director for affirming the movement of the Spirit in my life.

I’ll begin with Part I: God. More than a decade ago, after a painful church meeting, I went into the sanctuary to pray and ended up crying. I crossed my arms on the back of the pew in front of me, laid my head on my arms and cried out to God, “I don’t know what to do.” I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a voice say to me, “It’s together we’re the Body of Christ.” I lifted my head, intending to pour out my heart to the compassionate person who had taken pity on me …

… and found myself alone. In the church. With the phrase I’d heard repeating itself in my head like a scratched record (which younger readers will undoubtedly find to be an obscure reference). Together, we’re the Body of Christ.

That’s pretty straightforward and Scriptural. “As a body is one though it has many parts; and all the the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. Now, you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (I Cor. 12:12,27). I knew God was trying to tell me something, but didn’t quite know how to live it, especially since I was a Democrat in a predominantly Republican state and the bishop, who I strongly suspect of being a registered Republican, had thrown his weight behind Republicans running for office through the expedient method of suggesting Catholics must consider one issue only when voting (which, by the way, is not the official position of the Church).

I got into the bad habit of Magisterium bashing whenever I observed evidence that Church leaders were indulging themselves in a cafeteria approach to the Church’s teachings in an effort to promote specific political candidates and agendas. Not only was I not working to build up the Body of Christ, at that point, I was also feeling divided myself. On one hand, I was nourished by the grace of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. On the other, I was becoming increasingly more disenchanted with the way the Church’s social justice teachings were being ignored or shunted to the side.

Fast forward ten difficult years to Father Martin and the Terra Sancta Prayer. The prayer was written when the Rapid City Diocese decided to purchase an old monastery and convert it into a retreat center. At the time, I didn’t live in the diocese and just happened to be visiting the weekend the prayer cards were handed out. I found the prayer to be deeply moving and adapted it for my personal use. It became the way in which I opened my daily devotions.

“Heavenly Father, at the burning bush, you called to Moses to remove his shoes because he was standing on sacred ground. Daily you call us to remove from our lives all the obstacles that distract us from doing your will. Please remove from me all spiritual blindness. Renew my walk of faith with your grace, rekindle joyful hope and ignite a love of giving. I ask this, as in all things, in Jesus’ name and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

An odd thing happened. Instead of becoming nearly meaningless, as can easily happen with oft-repeated prayers, the prayer began to speak to me on deeper and deeper levels. I found myself lingering over it, dwelling on its phrases. One day, a question popped into my mind: Was taking off one’s shoes a common practice in sacred spaces or was God asking Moses for a small act of obedience as a sign of faith?

At the time, the obedience issue had been looming over my prayer life for months. At a retreat, I’d felt strongly that God was calling me to learn obedience and humility. What exactly was that supposed to mean in terms of my life? I found an answer in Father Martin’s book, THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING.

He described the experiences of Jesuit priest, Walter Ciszek, in Russia following World War II. At the end, he summed up what Father Ciszek had learned: “God invites us to accept the inescapable realities placed in front of us. We can either turn away from that acceptance of life and continue on our own, or we can plunge into the ‘reality of the situation’ and try to find God there in new ways. Obedience in this case means accepting reality.” Again, the question for me was: How do I live this?

The morning I found myself considering the Terra Sancta prayer in terms of obedience, I found I also knew what inescapable reality I was being called upon to accept. I choose to remain Catholic, despite my reservations about some of the decisions being made by Church leaders, despite invitations from pastors of other Christian churches to consider the possibility that God might be calling me to the ministry — in a demonination which ordains women as well as men.

I knew then the Catholic Church is the inescapable reality I was being called upon to accept, that magnificent work-in-progress with all its warts and pimples, wisdom and grace. I knew I had to stop Magisterium bashing — which is not to say, I needed to stop entering into dialogues about some of the issues when the opportunity presented itself. I simply needed to learn to be more circumspect and respectful in those discussions. (Father Martin’s Facebook page is a great aid in helping me learn to do this, so maybe I should have mentioned that I’m grateful for him twice instead of just once.)

Out of this practice, the most amazing grace was poured into my life. God opened to me a favorite passage of Scripture in a new way. I have loved I Corinthians 12 for years … and years and years … since God (I think) spoke to me using that imagery. But when I heard it at Mass recently, suddenly I knew truly that together we are the Body of Christ.

I don’t have to accept the political paradigm which has invaded the Church, the conservative vs. progressive mentality which has so tragically split the Church. I can adopt as my own the paradigm that God provides through his living word — the glorious and gloriously intricate body with all it’s many parts. I do not have to see myself as the sacrificial Democrat in the den of Republicans. I can see myself as the foot who advocates for peace and justice while loving with a whole heart the head whose single-minded passion is preventing abortions in this country.

St. Paul goes on to say in Chapter 13 of I Corinthians, “At present, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present, I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (v. 12). And that’s the simple truth which must give us the humility to respect the call God places in each heart.

We don’t know the full picture. However, we can know that together we are the Body of Christ and we can ask God for the grace to live that simple truth more fully.

Grace

Peg was the last person I expected to see at the grocery store today.

No, let me rephrase that for greater accuracy. I never expected to see her at the grocery store again. Period. Just hours before seeing her, I had written the parish advisor indicating a willingness to be one of the readers at her funeral Mass if the family asked for volunteers from the parish.

Truthfully, I was feeling a little sorry for myself because I didn’t have the chance to say good-bye.

When I moved to Custer a year ago, I felt God at work in my life. First of all, everything fell into place even though I was halfway across the country helping Sara move with six-month-old twins when most of the arrangements were made. Katie found my apartment, which is conveniently located across the street from the Catholic Church, and folks in Lake Preston helped me with the actual packing and moving. In many ways, I’ve never had an easier move.

I also felt God at work in the inexplicable joy I experienced for weeks. I say ‘inexplicable’ because unpacking is not fun, because starting a new job is always stressful, and because I was aware of the disconnect between how I felt and how I expected to feel under the circumstances. I found myself remembering  an article I read at one time which said euphoria inappropriate to one’s circumstances was one indication of a brain tumor. I started to wonder if I needed to do some research to see if my life was exhibiting other signs.

However, the third reason I felt God at work had everything to do with Peg. On my second day in town, I walked across the street to attend Mass. “I’m going to start this enndeavor right,” I said to myself. I had just knelt down in a pew to thank God for this new phase in my life when a woman with a radiant smile introduced herself to me. Upon learning I had just moved to Custer, she introduced me to everyone present.

That set the tone for my experience of parish life in Custer.  When the parish advisor called to set up a meeting for me to register in the parish, it felt like another hospitable hand had been extended. In the following months, I met others and experienced a similar sense of welcome. I remember tears of gratitude pouring down my cheeks one Sunday during Mass when I realized I knew everyone around me. I realized I knew more people after four months than I had known in my previous church after four years.

It was awesome, and Peg was part of it. Not only did she greet me on that first day, but she continued to show an interest in me and in my life. When I was unemployed, her weekly prayer group invited me to join them, so I  had companions for that journey in my life.

I was stunned when I learned that Peg had cancer. Yes, there was something fragile about her, but she was also radiant. Whenever I saw her, I would think of the verses in Galatians which list the fruits of the spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodneses, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23).

When I saw Peg, I would see a woman whose example inspired me — especially after I learned she  had cancer. Faith is an easy path to walk when life is good. When God allows us to be tested, as he allowed Job to be tested, it’s not quite so easy. But, in watching Peg, I did not see that. If she ever stumbled, if doubt ever wormed its way into her heart and mind, it was not evident.

Instead, love poured through her into the lives of family, friends and strangers like me. Instead, her smile radiated joy and in her presence, those who knew her experienced peace. I saw Peg’s patience and kindness in the compassion she showed during our prayer meetings when people would talk about difficulties in their lives. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. They were all there in her self-effacing humor.

If the fruits  of the Spirit indicate God at work in a life, Peg’s life was surely an example of God actively at work in our world today. When her son told me last night that she was expected to die within the next day, I was stunned. I hadn’t realized her health had deteriorated so much. How could I have been so blind?

I prayed for her off and on for the rest of the night, and off and on during the morning, asking God to grant her and her family peace in this difficult time. When I went out to run errands, she was in my thoughts. I imagined her much as I had seen my dad during his final hours when I sat with him, praying the rosary over and over because it seemed to comfort him.

I was shocked and momentarily disoriented when I parked in the grocery store parking lot to see her and her husband leaving the store. Granted, she was pale — so pale I realized the cliche “pale as paper” can actually be true in some circumstance. And she appeared more fragile than ever, but when she saw me, she smiled and her arms opened to embrace me as they always have.

 “The doctor said I could die the night before last. He said I could die last night, but I’m still here and we were out of groceries,” she said, explaining her presence at the store. She did confess that she would like God to make up his mind — to either heal her or to take her home.

The waiting, I imagine, is difficult, but I didn’t ask. I was just so grateful for that opportunity to see her one more time that I allowed her to lead the conversation. I tried to tell her how much she meant to me, how grateful I am to have known her, but I don’t know if I managed to say it or to say it right.

I do know that in dying she continues to touch those around her with love. As we embraced for the final time, she said, “It’s been a privilege to know you.”

No, no. The privilege was all mine.

Serpent in Paradise

Why was there a serpent in paradise?

That’s the question that popped into my mind this morning while I was writing in my journal. I’d been documenting some problems at work, noting not only what has happened but also how I felt about it and my brothers’ advice. Suddenly, there was that question.

The situation at work upsets and alarms me. An employee who is failing to do the work assigned to his shift has begun threatening me. He doesn’t know that until now, I have stood between him and the door. When the manager was talking about firing him, I suggested retraining and closer supervision instead. Needless to say, at this point, I am regretting that.

The employee, instead of being grateful he’s still employed, has become hostile because we expect him to work instead of read while on the clock. He began, on the night he was told he would be retrained, to bully me, telling me that nobody liked me, that I had no people skills, that I had no business working at a job involving people, that I should quit. About the third night I heard this, I told him he had no business accepting a paycheck from an employer if he wasn’t going too do the work for which he was being paid.

Since then, the verbal assaults have escalated. When I told him to stock the beer cooler, he threatened to go to the owner with all of his co-workers and demand that I be fired. When I told him the floor wasn’t properly mopped, he threatened legal action, saying I was creating a hostile work environment. He went on to write  the manager a note about my “foul attitude and harrassment.”

With the most recent attack, I felt in danger physically even though he didn’t actually threaten to strike me. The extreme response to what was an appropriate evaluative remark from a supervisor, though, set off warning bells. “This man,” something inside me said, “is an abuser nearly at the breaking point, watch out.”

I didn’t say a word in his response to his vitriolic tirade, but I did notify the manager. The manager just laughed — not at me, but to indicate it wasn’t anything about which I needed to be concerned. I am concerned, though; the disproportionate response to a normal workplace remark terrifies me.

I have been around abusive people. I know that when an abusive person is ready to snap, provocation is totally unnecessary. An abusive person will find an excuse to strike out at the selected victim — and the victim is selected. An abusive person doesn’t lash out randomly, like an angry person who snaps at everyone and anyone. An abusive person will often be charming and even professional with everyone except the selected victim. The abusive person will collect all the little frustrations and irritations life offers and unleash his response on one person.

I am afraid of being that person with this man. I was writing about these feelings in my journal this morning, and noted that fear has slipped into my consciousness like the serpent in paradise. Suddenly, my mind was off on a tangent. Why was there a serpent in paradise?

God creates right and left in the first book of Genesis, declaring what he has made to be good. Then he creates man and woman for one another,  placing them in the Garden — with an enticing serpent. I’ve often wondered if the serpent was incredibly beautiful — Whitney Otto writes in the novel, “How to Make an American Quilt,” that beauty makes us want to listen — or if Adam was the strong, silent type and Eve was just lonely for conversation. Really, why talk to a serpent?

But, this morning, the question changed. Why was there a serpent in paradise?

I’ve heard — I’m thinking this came out of Anthony Hopkins’ mouth when he portrayed C.S. Lewis in “The Shadowlands”  — that God wants us to grow up, that he allows suffering so that we can grow up. I suppose that answer would make as much sense as any other in response to my question. We do, after all, learn from experience.

In Adam and Eve’s case, the learning curve must have been rather steep. One day they were in paradise; the next they were on their own.

Maybe the answer is a little subtler and a little deeper than that. Maybe God wants us to grow up AND as we grow up, to develop fully into individuals created in his image and likeness — individuals who are creative, as God is creative, and capable of building community. After all, Adam and Eve ran around naked as a jaybird — a 20th Century idiom, which replaced the 19th Century idiom, naked as a robin, both of which are strange since birds have feathers — until the serpent entered into their lives. Then the spark of creativity which God placed in them lit the fire of their imaginations and they clothed themselves.

If I am going to theorize in that direction, I must ask myself this question: why this serpent at this time in my life? Why this fear of this man at this juncture? How can I grow more fully into the image of God in this situation? What is God attempting to spark in me?

I wish those were rhetorical questions. They aren’t. I don’t know the answers. I will have to live my way into them. But, oddly enough, just knowing God is at work in this in some way comforts me. That has to be a good starting point.