Stop! Look! Listen!

I lead a retreat three years ago, in June 2016, about remembrance, and its place in our spiritual life. I opened the retreat by telling a story.

Storytelling lies at the heart of my approach to leading retreats. I learn about God through my life. I pray. I reflect on Scripture. And, as much as possible, I knead to Word of God into my life — to borrow an idea from French mystic Madeleine Delbrel. As a result, my life becomes the tool God uses to teach me and to draw me into a deeper relationship with himself.

That particular story began seven years earlier, and wound through life experiences and dreams — the nighttime kind, not the wanting-in-life kind. It ended with me reviewing an old prayer journal one Saturday morning and finding an entry that made me laugh out loud. I realized when I read the journal entry that I had entirely misinterpreted an experience in prayer, and that God had fulfilled his promise even though I hadn’t noticed until that Saturday morning.

I concluded my opening remarks by saying, “I have really come to believe that remembrance is an important dimension of the spiritual life. … Remembrance helps us to give credit where credit is due, and when we begin to see God at work in our lives, we become more sensitive to his hand turning us to the left and to the right. For me, journal writing is a way of becoming more open to that guiding hand.”

This morning, I find myself thinking I should probably make a habit of practicing what I preach. I should review my journals on a regular basis to see how God is at work. This practice would enable me to be a more intentional co-creator, collaborating with God’s hand rather than running around willy-nilly chased by emotions, ego and pride.

Not surprisingly, since God has not seen fit to send angels my way, but occasionally speaks to me through dreams when I am being especially recalcitrant, a dream provided the necessary nudge. I dreamed I had to solve a problem. As my alarm relentlessly drew me out of sleep, I was scrambling to solve the problem, knowing that if I failed, the repercussions would be irreversible and devastating. As I was pulled from the dream by the fast current of awakening, I realized I couldn’t solve the problem because I didn’t understand it.

I woke feeling distressed with a question on my lips. What if I got it wrong?

A dream through which God hopes to work (plans to work? works?) usually lingers rather than fading. And so it was on that occasion. The question lingered. The dream image of being pulled away from a conference table and out of the meeting room lingered. The growing awareness that I hadn’t understood the problem we were attempting to solve lingered.

As I wrote in my journal that evening, I realized I was wearing blinders. I realized I was spending less time in prayer, meditation and reflection than is necessary for me to live attuned to God’s voice. I realized I had allowed myself to become so busy — an unfortunate pattern in my life that always proves to be counterproductive — I could only see the immediate present and ways it deviated from what I wanted.

I realized it was time to stop, look and listen. I needed to stop doing so much I sacrificed my prayer time. I needed to look back, to review journals and to identify how God has been at work. If I can’t see him at work, I can’t remember what he has done, and if I can’t remember, I am not open to the guidance he provides.

Finally, I needed to listen. I needed to listen to the way he was speaking through the circumstances of my life and the desires of my heart. The listening has been greatly facilitated by the decision to work less and pray more. I’ve needed to adjust some routines, but already I am more at peace.

Reviewing my journals and reflecting upon what I find on those pages helps, too. As I remember times over the past year when I have experienced peace, joy, love, and the other fruits of the Spirit, I am filled with a quiet certainty that God has been at work. I may not understand his ineffable ways, but I can trust the evidence he scatters through all my days. And so, like the psalmist, I will remember.

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The Magic Of Books

I firmly believe the answer to any problem can be found in a book. I further believe that synchronicity brings us into relationship with the book we need when we need it.

However, if I am to be honest with myself, I must consider the possibility that my belief in synchronicity — a concept psychologist Carl Jung developed over a period of 30 years — is a holdover from graduate school and my foray into reading Tarot cards. I wanted to write my thesis on the works of Canadian writer Robertson Davies, specifically a trilogy (I think) in which a reading by a gypsy fortune teller was woven into each plot.

This appealed to me because I had read somewhere while earning an undergraduate minor in psychology that Jung used Tarot cards with his patients. Assuming my memory is accurate, he didn’t use them for fortune telling, but rather to open the minds of his patients to new connections through the archetypes found in the cards. Having been raised Catholic, I shied away from anything related to the occult, but I was still intrigued.

When I ran across the reference to Tarot cards in a novel in one of my grad classes, my ever-creative mind found a valid loophole for exploring them. I felt I needed to understand the cards themselves before I could understand Davies’s use of them in his novels. I felt that as long as I limited the scope of my research, I wouldn’t slide into anything my Catholic conscience would consider sinful.

And thus it began.

I ended up reading Tarot cards off and on for 20 years — far more off than on. I only read them regularly for a little over a year. After that, they lay in the bottom of a dresser drawer until I finally gave them away. You aren’t supposed to read the cards for yourself, but I could never resist the temptation to do so when my life was in transition. Yes, during difficult times, I looked to Tarot cards, hoping God would use them to provide some guidance, because he never saw fit to send angels or burning bushes to give me direction.

Eventually, God managed to wrap my head around the idea that I needed trust him to work in my life one day at a time. Eventually, I learned I don’t need to know what is going to happen when my life seems to be unraveling around me; I need only know that when all that makes my heart ache and my stomach churn and my head pound finally passes, and the dust settles, all will be well. While I may find myself in places I would not have dreamed possible, I will be grateful.

Of course, I would be negligent if I didn’t say this: Sometimes those periods of uncertainty last for years. The path of faithfulness is not for those who lack courage. Trusting God for daily bread when you are unemployed — tough. Trusting God to give you wisdom to traverse the minefield of a relationship in turmoil — tougher.

But you do it. And books can help — if you are receptive to the possibility.

Whether finding the right book at the right time is simply synchronicity, one of Jung’s meaningful coincidences, or whether God works through synchronicity to provide needed sustenance is a mystery. Personally, I lean toward the latter, but I tend to think God does work in the circumstances of our lives.

Granted, the gift of a book seems like a pretty small miracle when compared to some of his splashier jobs — creation, the virgin birth, the resurrection. But when it comes to miracles, I don’t know that size matters. Miracles essentially do two things: they get our attention and they change the world.

The right book at the right time can do exactly that. The right book will get your attention, and it will change the way you deal with a difficult situation. That change will affect the outcome, because it creates a space for God to work.

So, lately, I have been wrestling with a relationship in transition. A separation I chose, because it seemed like the healthiest option, is more difficult than I expected. I knew I would be sad, but I did not expect this profound sense of loss, this post-knocked-through-my-middle, will-I-ever-breathe-again pain. I vacillate between thinking I made a horrible mistake and knowing I made the best decision possible considering the circumstances. The problem with pain is that it likes to tug you into despair.

Fortunately, I experienced a book miracle. I found a book of essays called: Beautiful Hope: Finding Hope Every Day in a Broken World. I am trying to read and reflect on one of the essays every day or so. This week, I was both comforted and encouraged by one called, “Expect the Impossible” by Father Jacques Philippe. He wrote:

“Faith and hope are like the wings of love; they give power to launch out ever further, to take flight unceasingly, without getting exhausted or discouraged. When hope dwindles, love dies down; the heart is invaded by uneasiness and worry, which stifle charity. Hope keeps the heart free to love, and to give itself.”

I smiled when I read that. “Got it, God,” I thought. “Don’t give up hope.”

Hope on that particular day was truly a miracle.

Perplexed

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:26-29)

Mary was perplexed at the angel’s greeting. Personally, I would have been perplexed to find myself speaking with an angel.

Of course, it’s possible, the angel appeared in human guise. That’s not outside the realm of possibility. A popular television show, “Touched by an Angel,” chose that approach, and God does have a tendency to use themes in his creation. Horse, donkey, zebra — different, but with evident commonalities. Lion, tiger, domestic house cat — different, but with similar characteristics. It’s entirely possible that when angels make their presence known, they look enough like us to be indistinguishable from us.

If that were the case, the greeting would have been perplexing. If, during an ordinary day, when I was about my ordinary business, a stranger greeted me by saying, “The Lord is with you,” I would feel a shimmer of disconnect. I hear a similar phrase when I attend Mass — “The Lord be with you” — but that’s part of the liturgy, and doesn’t set me apart from others who worship. To hear it not as part of a liturgical prayer, but as a statement of fact would be disconcerting.

The Lord is with me? Why? Why me and how do you know? Yet, during this Christmas season, isn’t that the message angels bring each of us? The Lord is with you.

We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born; his birth wasn’t registered at the local courthouse with parents identified and attending physician noted. We celebrate shortly after the winter solstice because, for us, he is the light which shines in the darkness, a light not overcome by that darkness (Cf. John 1:5). It makes sense that we would name clearly what ancients only intuited and celebrated by other names.

However, none of us can fully grasp the mystery of God with us in a newborn child. We can’t even grasp the mystery of wonder we feel when our children are born, when we hold our grandchildren for the first time, when we see a stranger’s child in the grocery store. Something within us — spontaneously, without intent or choice — honors the miracle of that child’s life and inherent dignity. We are drawn to the hope each child signifies; God is not done with us.

Jesus — who would die for us and rise again to show us death is not the end — entered this world in exactly the same way, as a newborn child. We are told there was no room at the inn, but I suspect that was a euphemism rather than the literal truth. Joseph would have had relatives in Bethlehem, but his betrothed — a very pregnant Mary, who would undoubtedly have been condemned by gossip as an adulteress, even if Joseph did not put her aside — would not have been welcome in any “decent” home.

The innkeeper had probably been apprised of the situation and discouraged from taking them in. I wonder if it was the innkeeper who had a heart, or if it was his wife. I wonder which of them said, “Maybe we can’t give them shelter inside, but we can’t turn them away, either. It just isn’t right, especially with that young woman being so close to her time.”

And so it was that Jesus came to be born in a stable, as an outcast. But God was so proud of his plan unfolding, so proud of the son born into the world, so proud of the way generations would be transformed by that pivotal moment in time, he made the announcement to those who would listen — shepherds who kept watch by night. They believed, as do all of us who know the darkness and long for the light.

Not one of us has lived without suffering. We all can name a loss, a disappointment, a closed door, a death, that changed us irrevocably. But, unless we are still in the midst of our grief, we know the suffering, in time, eases. We know that morning follows the darkest of nights. We know a day will come when we are no longer suffocated by pain, and can take a deep breath again. That is God with us. That is the child coming into our hearts as he came into the world.

But his birth was not just a metaphor, it was a reality. His mother felt the crushing pain of contractions and spread her legs so that Jesus could slip from God’s dream for us into the world he created for us, a world in which we are shaped by choice and chance, by his hand working through the natural order of things and our responses to them. We can be like the relatives who did not make the child welcome, like the innkeeper who found a place — not an ideal place, but a place nevertheless — for the child, or we can be like the shepherds who put aside what they were doing and sought him.

When we hear the proclamation, ‘The Lord is with you,’ we have that choice. Which do we chose?

Life, Death and More Life

I don’t think I have made it through a day in the past month without crying. Please, I beg God, please don’t let me lose someone else I love during the Christmas season.

Technically, it’s Advent, and technically, Mom didn’t die during Advent. She died before the First Sunday of Advent, but it was December, and the heart doesn’t measure time with calendars anyhow. The heart measures time by experience, and my heart has Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the time between tangled in a knot of heartache and grief.

About the time I turned 40, my mom’s age when she died, I suffered an existential crisis. Whether it was an early mid-life crisis or just the crisis of living past my mother’s age of death, I don’t know. I just know that I was desperate to make sense of my life, for the pain and disappointments and mistakes to make sense. I read over and over — until I had memorized some parts — Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. So much resonated with me, validated my experience, and in that, I found a way to make peace with my life.

About the same time, I read Motherless Daughters: Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman. What I recall now, years later, is how typical my life was; I made the kinds of choices women make who lose their mothers during adolescence. That comforted me. She also said that for women who lose their mothers when they are young, that loss is one of the defining moments of their lives. And that has been true for me, too; I am a motherless daughter, and I have never stopped missing my mother. I have never stopped longing for her love — even after realizing that my mother would never have encouraged me to become a painter or to become a deeply spiritual person, two movements which give my life its deepest meaning.

Over the years, I learned to be grateful for the mentors God brought into my life, the women who mothered some part of me — Jessie, my counselor, whom I will always credit with the wholeness I was able to achieve as a result of our work together; Signe, my art instructor, who encouraged me when I entered her class with only curiosity, but no experience; Darlene, the co-worker, who listened with infinite patience as I wrestled with the life challenges I imagined I would have shared with my mother had she lived; and so many others over the years. And now, one of those precious, precious women is dying.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis — her lung tissue is thickening, so her brain and organs aren’t getting the oxygen they need. She’s been housebound for weeks, and the oxygen she’s being given has been increased. Most recently, the decision was made to begin administering morphine to help her body relax, because it naturally fights for the oxygen  it is not receiving. My heart is breaking.

Wanda, a Lutheran pastor, was my spiritual mother. I was a deeply spiritual person when I met her, and had a healthy spiritual life, but no one with whom to share my thoughts and ideas. Wanda and I had the discussions that I hungered to have with someone, and out of those conversations — often conducted over white wine (Wanda) and beer (me) — a deep friendship grew, a heart connection that endured even when we were not able to spend time together. We talked once in a while about getting a place together when she retired, but by the time she retired, she also knew she was dying. Like a good mother, a protective mother, she didn’t tell me. She just said she was going to move closer to her sister.

I saw her a few months ago, and was reminded with that visit just how much I love her. When I moved a couple years before she retired to accept a new position, I discovered she is one of those people who isn’t good at keeping in touch. And while I missed her, I always knew that I could visit her and would be welcome, which eased the ache. As time passed, the ache lessened, and I learned to live without her in my life. I continued to pray for her and to love her, but life brings these transitions and learning to accommodate them is part of living.

The visit earlier this year, and the conversation we had, even though her energy flagged after a couple hours, reminded me how very much her friendship means to me. Together, we hatched the idea of reshaping some of her sermons into meditations for a book. Wanda selected the ones she wanted to include, and I have been editing them. I hear her voice in them, and even recognize some of the ideas we discussed. I can remember sitting at a table in the pub that was our favorite getaway and saying, “But, Wanda, think about this: if there hadn’t been a cross, would the resurrection had have the same impact? If Jesus had died of old age or been killed in an accident, would anyone have noticed when he rose from the dead? His death had to be public and it had to be humiliating.” And there it is, in one of her reflections — the question I raised.

And so she lives now with me even as she struggles for each breath and her body is beginning to shut down. I have no doubt that she believes in the resurrection. We spoke of her death a few months ago, and she said, “I truly believe what I have preached at hundreds of funerals; I truly believe in the resurrection and eternal life.” Her sister said that Wanda’s mantra has become, “Life is good, but eternal life is better.”

I know this, too. I have no doubt that our Lord will wrap Wanda in his arms, and say, “Welcome home, good and faithful servant,” because she is a woman who has truly lived the gospels. But I am a selfish, selfish woman. I’m not ready to lose her — not now, the book isn’t done; not now, it’s Christmas.

Not now. But, I know this isn’t in my hands; it’s in God’s hands, and I must trust God to give me the grace to let her go with joy when the time comes. Until then, I reserve the right to cry.

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.

 

Numinous Improvisation

“You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31, GNTD)

That’s straightforward enough. An angel comes; an angel says, “This is what you will do and this is how it will happen;” and that’s what happens.

Kind of. Her betrothed almost set her aside — though he did plan to do it quietly and, hopefully, avoid the stoning which was the penalty for adultery. She gave birth in a barn — though Bethlehem would have been full of relatives at the time, which demonstrates how hardened most hearts were toward her among family members. Then, because her husband had a dream, she found herself traveling to Egypt with a newborn, possibly before she had recovered from the birthing experience, which may have been accomplished without the help of a skilled midwife.

Two thousand years have done a great job of wiping away the sweat and tears of what must have been a difficult lived experience. But stories always do that — even the stories we tell ourselves, especially the stories we tell ourselves about others. Their lives never seem to have the muck and chaos of our own.

This morning, as I sat down to prayer, which is how I start every morning when I am on my own, the daily readings included the gospel story of the Annunciation, and I found myself envying the way God clearly indicated to Mary his will for her life. I’ve not had that clarity for a very long time — since 1998, to be exact. In truth, I only had clarity in my life for one short period of time — from 1990 – 1998. I had gone to the Chicago Institute of Art with a dear friend, saw one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s cloud paintings; thought, “I could do that;” and walked out of the museum knowing in my bones that my life would be wasted if I didn’t paint. So, creating art; motherhood, the deep call of my heart; and personal/spiritual growth formed the triad that shaped my life during that period of my life.

It might be more accurate to say creating art, motherhood and personal/spiritual growth shaped me during that time, but I did not allow them to be enough. Who knows why? In a meditation published in December in a devotional called The Magnificat, Ann Voskamp, writing about The Fall in the Garden of Eden, says, “Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what he gives.” Perhaps, unintentionally, I did allow myself to be tempted away from the grace-filled gifts that God had given me.

Sister Joan Chittister, in her book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy, writes, “People who are unusually gifted in something often tend to take it for granted. … In fact, they are often inclined not only to discount the gift itself as commonplace or even worthless, but to doubt their own abilities in anything else.” While it may be arrogant to claim unusual giftedness in any of the areas indicated, it might be fair to wonder if I didn’t try to prove myself in other areas — grant writing, non-profit management, mentoring — because of self-doubt. It might also be fair to wonder if I failed to recognize the deep stirring of my heart in the areas of motherhood, art and personal/spiritual growth because I was so engaged in trying to prove myself.

I’ve been spending several evenings a week throughout Lent in prayer and in reflecting on God’s call for me at this juncture in my life. I’m turning 60 this year, and am acutely aware of time’s winged chariots. During the past 17 years, I’ve moved seven times and held nine different jobs. I was not carried on the wings of a dream or driven by burning ambition. At best, it might be said, I was a pilgrim seeking the Holy Grail of destiny or clarity or God’s will or something. I wanted to know again the passion that allowed me to balance two jobs, an art career, raising children, caring for a household, and prolific, self-reflective journal writing.

What I’ve come to realize is this — for me it comes down to three things: my relationship with God, creative expression  and — yes — motherhood. A life shaped around that sacred-in-my-life triad is deeply authentic and has the potential of becoming deeply rooted. Because I failed to value what mattered most — going so far as to set painting aside for at least five years, maybe longer — I don’t know what that life will look like. I know that I’m a deeply contemplative person, so it probably won’t be a busy life. I know that these authentic expressions of myself will have to be balanced with activities that enable me to be financially self-sufficient. I know that I will have to be flexible in exploring what all of this means, in imagining what it will look like.

Over the weekend, when I was writing in my journal, I found a phrase to describe this phase in my pilgrimage — numinous improvisation. I like the sound of that. I like the way it characterizes this time as sacred. I like the way it alludes to music and theater and other performing arts. I like the dignity it accords this shaping period of uncertainty.

I also like being old enough to appreciate a simple truth: Mary’s clear instructions didn’t reveal how difficult God’s promise unfolding in her life would be. Maybe all these years of drifting through myriad life experiences has been God’s promise unfolding my my life. Maybe, I’ve been collecting material which will provide rich earth for the seeds of creative self to grow through this numinous improvisation and  bloom. I hope so.

I switched metaphors there, didn’t I? Hopefully, you get the picture anyway.

Seamless Whole

“They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down. So they said to one another, ‘Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be.'” (John 19:23-24)

It’s all of one piece … like the robe our Lord wore … one piece … my life.

That’s what I wrote in my journal this morning. Now, I must discern what it means and how I am to live it.

(Before I start, though, let me say: God bless St. Ignatius and the Jesuits with all of their wonderful ministries! I have come to this place primarily due to their ministries: books by Jesuit authors, like Father James Martin whose books BECOMING WHO YOU ARE: INSIGHTS ON THE TRUE SELF and THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING changed the way I understood my gifts and my relationship with God; the SACRED SPACE devotionals by the Irish Jesuits, from which I learned to pray with Scripture; and now the pray-as-you-go.org website by the Jesuit Media Initiative in London, which has transformed my morning drive time into a grace-filled sanctuary. If it is true that we reap what we sow, let them reap abundantly for the seeds they sow are blessed with the living presence of the living  God.)

But back to this morning, and my journal. A glimmer… an intuition of something as of yet unrevealed … has been flitting just out of reach for a time. I cannot clearly identify when I became aware of it. I no longer have time to sit daily with my prayer journal open before me and record what comes to me as I open heart and mind to God. On the days when I do write, the notes are made in haste, a paragraph or two where once I would have written a page or two.

Late last month, I wrote, “What strikes me is that while I do not know why God has allowed my life to be touched by so much darkness — interior as well as exterior — the darkness did not shape me, at least not in the sense of warping me or making me crooked. Rather, the darkness has in some way purified me so that I can begin to reflect God and his love into the world.” That intentional awareness of the way difficulties have blessed me is part of the sense of wholeness I experienced this morning, but not all.

Wholeness has seemed, for much of my life, to be an unattainable goal — perhaps because I am multifaceted. I can do much, and while some of my skills (such as playing guitar) are rudimentary at best, I can do a great many thing well and a few things exceptionally well. I could not discern from my gifts the course my life should take — the career path I should pursue, the goals I should set for myself. Like the little bird in the children’s book by Philip D. Eastman, ARE YOU MY MOTHER?, I asked searching questions everywhere because I longed for the kind of clarity and purpose which seemed to drive others.

But instead of finding direction, I became a tumbleweed, catching first in one place and then another, learning along the way that I had gifts I did not imagine possessing, but discovering as well that I was not nearly as skilled in other areas as I had believed. Twice I experienced life-altering moments of clarity and insight. Once, at the Art Institute in Chicago, as I stood before Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Sky Above Clouds IV” and thought, “I can do this.” Before I left the museum that day, the original intuition had set into a single thought, “If I don’t paint, my life will be wasted.” For the next eight years, I worked to build an art career, but I allowed myself to be distracted and it slipped away like a silk scarf caught on the wind.

Later, the year I turned 50, I made a 7-day silent retreat, where I came to understand that to be whole in Christ, I needed to imitate the whole Christ. I needed to be Christ feeding the hungry (Matt. 14:19-20), but I also needed to allow myself to be fed (Matt. 25:42-43) — and not just by the Eucharist. I needed more reciprocal relationships in my life, friendships in which I both gave and received, instead of the unhealthy imbalance which existed. I had a tendency to care for every emotional waif who passed through my life — nurturing, mentoring, feeding, tending wounds — without counting the cost, but counted or not, the toll had to be paid. Over and over, depression would wrap its arms around my neck and I would fall; over and over, others to whom I gave little or nothing would lift me up and carry me with their love and support.

The intuition of wholeness which grows within me encompasses these insights, includes them, but extends beyond them. “What is of God endures … not only in the world, but within us,” I wrote in my spiritual journal earlier this month in response to Gamaliel’s counsel to the Sanhedrin in Acts. “Be careful,” he said regarding the apostles. “If this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:35,38-39). I heard the words as I listened to the meditation on pray-as-you-go.org, allowed my heart to respond, and then began to take an inventory of what remains in my life — my love of God (flawed though I am in so many ways), the pleasure I take in crafting language,  my unquenchable need to create (to paint, when that is possible), my dedication to being a good mother (and now grandmother), my appreciation of my friends.

I understood better that day how God works in my life — not fully. In this world, we cannot see fully, only in part (I Cor 13:9-10, 12), but that day I saw more clearly — for a moment. And then, with equal clarity, I began to understand God’s abundance in a new way. In reflecting on the “thief of life” following a reading from John’s gospel, the passage in which Jesus says, “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), I realized that life drains out of me when my time is consumed by a single endeavor over an extended period of time. God created me with a variety of gifts, and I need opportunities to use those gifts — first this gift and then that — in order to experience his abundance.

All of these flickers of light came together this morning as I listened, for the second time, to Friday’s reading. “And if I go,” Jesus said to his disciples on the night before he died, “and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:3). In this life, I  asked, how do I come to be where you are? I recalled suddenly standing in a grocery store 30 years ago, talking to a friend. In previous conversations, I’d heard this individual denigrate Red Delicious apples, so I was quite surprised to hear praise regarding the display. Above our heads hung row after row of enlarged pictures of Red Delicious apples. Turning, so we faced in the same direction, I saw instead rows of Golden Delicious apples, which he preferred.

I understood immediately, that I experience God in my life here, in my life now, by changing the way I look at things. And I glimpsed — just for a moment — the wholeness of my life, and God’s hand at work in all of it. The tension in my life, the push and pull, has been a creative tension much like that I experience when I paint, when I create depth and richness through creating layers which resonate with one another. That is how God works in my life, I understood. I could not set apart any of my life experiences without altering who I am, who I have become, how God has shaped me to hunger and thirst for him while desiring equally to reflect him into the world. It is good, I thought. It is all good.

What does this have to do with the tunic Jesus wore? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve turned it over and over in my head and in my heart. I can make facile associations, but they don’t feel authentic once expressed. And so I can only do what we all must do with the uncertainties and mysteries in our lives — wait and pray. And trust in the goodness of God.

 

 

 

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.

Bless the Lord

Bless the Lord, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
He pardons all your iniquities,
he heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
he crowns you with kindness and compassion.
Ps. 103:1-4

At Mass this morning, Pope Francis recommended praying this daily because it teaches us what we must say to the Lord when we ask for a grace. He also spoke about courage before the Lord and tenacity.

I know this because I have the Pope App on my phone. Each day, when I sit down to pray, I check the app to see what points he made in his homily. I have been deeply moved on more than one occasion when his words encouraged me in exactly the way I needed on that occasion.

Most memorable to me was a homily in which Pope Francis said unity is not uniformity, but diversity with harmony. Today, in celebratingthe Feast of the Patrons of Rome, Ss. Peter and Paul, he said something similar. He said we need to be “united in our differences: there is no other Catholic way to be united. This is the Catholic spirit, the Christian spirit.” I find remarks such as these to be comforting.

I usually reveal this with caution, because in this part of the country, the following pronouncement is tantamount to painting a bull’s eye on your forehead, but I am not a conservative. God calls me to take the gospels quite literally, which means I can’t do the mental gymnastics that conservatives do quite naturally. Because this attitude is found not only in the political arena, but also in the Church itself, I often feel like an outsider — attending Mass for the grace of the sacrament, not because I experience a sense of community among those who applaud a priest whose homilies are political in a way that on occasion troubles me deeply.

When Pope Francis speaks about diversity and differences as part of the Church’s charism, as part of our identity, he’s drawing on a heritage that goes back to the time of the early Church. St. Paul wrote to both the Romans and the Corinthians about the body with its many parts. “We have many parts in the one body, and all these parts have different functions. In the same way, though we are many, we are one body in union with Christ, and we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body”(Rom. 12:4-5).

And, in I Corinthians, St. Paul elaborates on this: “For the body itself is not made up of only one part, but of many parts…. If the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,’ that would not keep it from being a part of the body. If the whole body were just an eye, how could it hear? And if it were only an ear, how could it smell? As it is, however, God put every different part in the body just as he wanted it to be. There would not be a body if it were all only one part! As it is, there are many parts but one body” (I Cor. 12:14,16-20).

Since Pope Francis has begun to speak of this diversity as positive, I no longer feel as alienated from the Church as I did just a few months ago. The Church does not have to accept the either-or paradigm that is the political arena. The Church has room for all of us at the table. Ah! How sweet it is to have this affirmed!

That is among the four answered prayers which I have been remembering this week. Remembrance is such an important part of the spiritual life. We remember how God has worked in our lives and this strengthens us when we’re going through a difficult passage.

The first answered prayer for which I have been giving thanks is my daughter Sara’s marriage to Brodie. I knew when Sara was growing up how difficult our family life was for her. Sara needed a large, loving extended family. I don’t mean to imply that we had no family; we simple weren’t a close family, one which shared holidays and vacations. Sara needed that, and so for years I prayed she would marry into a family that could provide what she needed. When I went to Oregon for her wedding, and met Brodie’s family, I knew that God was answering my prayer. There was the family Sara had needed her whole life.

The second answered prayer for which I am giving thanks is my daughter Katie’s decision to join the Catholic Church. I left the Church when I was young, made a detour through evangelical Christianity and Zen Buddhism before returning to the Church 20 years ago with a deep love of Scripture and an appreciation of meditation (what Catholics often call centering prayer). I knew that I could not suddenly spring the Catholic Church on my girls; I could only invite them to join me. Katie, I sensed, had a spiritual nature and would be nurtured by the life of the Church, but I knew I could only pray and wait. That I did, right up to the day she received the sacraments for the first time. What a blessed Easter that was!

Pope Francis, as I have already shared, is also an answer to prayer, but the fourth which has moved me to the point of tears occurred just last week. When I was 12, my mother — a seamstress — made vacation outfits for a family from the neighboring community. One of the girls in that family, was my age and we became friends. For nearly 35 years, I considered her to be my best friend, a sister with whom I shared nearly my whole life. Then, a little over 10 years ago, we had a disagreement that escalated until our friendship was strained to the breaking point.

I had always know that possibility existed. During adolescence, she felt she had outgrown me at one stage and we were out of touch for a couple years. Too, when you lose a parent while growing up, as I did, all relationshipships feel tenuous, and you’ll do just about anything to maintain those that are important. I had gotten into the habit of not standing up for myself out of fear of losing the only person in my life with whom I had a shared history, the only person who had known my mother, celebrated holidays with me and my children, supported my various attempts at building a life out of the shattered pieces of early traumas. That wasn’t healthy, and as with most unhealthy relationships, a time came when that dysfunctional pattern ceased to work.

I grieved deeply, and kept the lines of communication open. As did she. We exchanged birthday greetings, Christmas cards, the occasional gift. However, when we made an effort to get together, the meetings had none of the naturalness that marked our friendship for so many decades. I prayed for a true reconcilliation, though. Day after day, year after year, not beginning to know whether a reconcilliation was even possible, I prayed. And then, earlier this year, she asked me to assist with a project — and the collaboration worked. She asked if she could visit and I agreed. Last week, we got together, and it was a graced experience. We made plans so that we would have something to do in case conversation was strained, but we discovered we had much to say to each other. And I was so grateful for that time together.

Today, when I read the news release about the pope’s homily at Mass and his admonition to be tenacious, I found myself smiling. Yes, we need to be tenacious in prayer. I think when we’re tenacious in prayer, we are doubly graced when those prayers are answered. Not only do we know that God has heard us and said “Yes,” but the experience is so profound, that we are given a gift to remember when the going gets tough.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Better than Chocolate

Lent has rolled around again. I missed Mass on Ash Wednesday, for which I should probably feel more guilty than I do, but I’ve given up candy, as well as chocolate in all forms, and I’ve begun on online retreat called “An Ignatian Prayer Adventure.”

I missed Mass because of scheduling and personal knowledge of my limitations. An early morning Mass works well for the average working person, but is difficult for an individual who works a 2-10 p.m. shift, and becomes more than just difficult when said person is my age and would not be able to sneak a nap between Mass and work. I went to Mass the evening before, though that didn’t involve ashes, and trusted God to make allowances more righteous believers might be unable justify.

As for the retreat, I suspect I will remain engaged in it after Lent and Easter have passed. I found myself stuck on the second day of Week One for three days. The meditation was based on Psalm 139, which has long been a favorite of mine, but I found God using it in a new way — to shift the kaleidoscope of my self-image in a way which allowed me to experience his love in an even more intimate manner than I had previously known. One night, I found myself on my knees in humble gratitude. At this rate, I’ll probably wrap it up in time to welcome the newborn Christ child months after Easter.

As for chocolate, I am beginning to suspect fasting from chocolate isn’t going to be the sacrifice it’s been in the past. As a self-professed chocoholic — it’s one of the basic food groups, isn’t it? — I have to admit that few days pass without chocolate passing between my lips. Sometimes it’s just a plain old Hershey bar with almonds. Sometimes the chocolate has a little caramel with it — or peanut butter — or crispy wafers. Sometimes I treat myself to something a little more special, like Lindt truffles. My latest favorite, though, has been dark chocolate M&Ms mixed with peanuts. (Gosh! My mouth is watering just thinking about chocolate in all it’s wonderful variations.)

But within the past week, painting has become like a drug to me — dragging me into the studio when I should sensibly go to bed or responsibly tackle laundry or wisely spend time in prayer. Hours will elapse before I emerge feeling limp with satisfaction and pleasure. For the first time since I started painting again, my work demonstrates the elements which characterized my portraits in the past — the use of color, the spontaneous brushstrokes, the structured yet organic compositions. Order and chaos. Life. Me in it.

Ecstasy. I — who pride myself on being a wordsmith, who sharpened my skills by writing tightly constructed poetry — am reduced to wordless wonder by this development. When I began painting again, I was willing to accept what came my way. William Stafford, an amazing poet who died in 1993, once told me he didn’t suffer from writer’s block because he just lowered his standards and kept on going. That was my attitude in returning to a craft I had abandoned. I would paint and take pleasure in the process and discover in that the graces God would bring into my life through it.

And there have been graces. The series of leaf paintings I began has become a meditation on community for me. When we see a tree, we don’t take note of individual leaves, but each of them is vital to the life of the tree. In the same way, each individual is vital to the life of the community. Somehow, we must learn to appreciate one another, to see each person’s value, especially the value of those for whom we do not feel a natural affinity, if we’re to be healthy as communities — social communities, economic communities and communities of faith.

That alone would have been enough. But then, between one painting and the next, my work changed. The stiffness and hesitancy departed; the instincts which years of practice had honed beyond skill to personal style returned and I relaxed into a place both familar and exciting. With that, came a new passion that goes beyond the joy that drew me back to art. If I felt alive before, I feel intoxicated now and the sensual pleasure of it is better than chocolate.

I would not have believed anything available to me at this point in life could be better than chocolate, but this is. The irony of the timing is not lost on me. Joy — just in time for Lent. This is an Easter experience. This is grace poured out in the most intimate manner possible. This is new life, and I am grateful.