Mere Coincidence?

He died just six hours after we said goodbye. Everyone knew it was coming but he had just been transferred to the hospice earlier that morning. When I arrived in the early evening William appeared groggy. I was not able to make out his garbled words. He responded to my greeting with exaggerated eye movements. I want to believe William remembered me.

We had met earlier this year at a sober home in Saint Paul where I accompany men in early recovery from alcohol and/or drug addiction. Officially my title is “spiritual coach.” The reality is more spontaneous, mutual and relational. William and I hit it off more easily and quickly than happens with some other men. In another context we might have become great friends given all we shared in common.

William had accomplished a lot for a man in his early 40s — a distinguished leadership role with area nonprofits and health care providers, nearing completion of his Masters in Public Administration at the Humphrey School, a beaming father of boys ages 5 and 8. All this, along with his marriage, was at serious risk due his nasty alcoholism.

Anyone who knows anything about addiction understands never to be surprised, to have tenacious hope, but to be realistic about the prospect for disappointment and heartache. That sort of realism has come to temper my relationship with men at the sober home. So I was deeply saddened — but not shocked — when I learned a few months into our companionship that William had “left through the back door”, a euphemism for having relapsed.

I had so hoped it would be different for one so inherently good and talented. That was not to be. I regretted not having had a chance to say goodbye, a chance to intervene and save him from drinking. Yet, I’ve learned the difference between caring for someone and taking care of someone. One is healthy, the latter is codependent. In 12-Step language, each of us — not just the addict — needs to admit our ultimate powerlessness. Let go, let God can be harder than we’d ever imagine.

Yesterday was the first I’d heard anything about William’s whereabouts or well being. His sister, Kathryn, emailed to say William had spoken about our conversations at the sober home with her. She wanted me to know that he was being transferred from the hospital to the hospice. His health had taken a sudden turn for the worse; his liver and kidneys were failing. She thanked me for all I had done for her brother.

Of course, everything in us resists being at the bedside of one dying. So I toyed with the idea of merely assuring Kathryn of my gratitude, thoughts and prayers but preserving a safe emotional distance from the powerlessness of the moment. But I have learned, reluctantly and with much resistance, that life is really quite simple — Just show up! Deep inside my better angel was telling me that nothing would keep me from where I’d rather not be!

William appeared to be sleeping, alone in a room equipped for two. Lighting was subdued. Everything was quiet. His hair seemed more wispy than I recalled; his cheeks and neck looked puffy. My greeting brought a flutter to his eyes and a few mumbled words. He knew someone was there and I want to believe he knew who I was. At least he didn’t seem agitated or restless with my presence.

My goal was not to say anything stupid or inane like, “You are going to a better place.” I thanked him. Reflected back to him what a good man he was, how he generously made our community a better place and how he loved his boys. With my hand gently stroking his folded under a sheet, I told him we love him. He responded with single-syllable sounds and exaggerated eye movements. I whispered a prayer. He responded to the sign of the cross I traced on his forehead with a furrowed brow.

That was last evening. This morning Kathryn emailed to say she had arrived shortly after I had left. She began playing music William enjoyed and he had slipped into unconsciousness by 10 pm. He died quietly shortly before 2 a.m. She thanked me for having shown up.

But there is more, always more. Ruminating this morning about the evening’s events a warm consolation washed over me — suddenly I recalled that last evening was the sixth year anniversary of my last drink. Last evening, unknown to me at the time, I was brought to the bedside of a brother alcoholic. Mere coincidence?

Who did what for whom? Who deserves thanks for all he has done for the other? What is the gift that awaits when we recognize and accept our radical powerlessness, the radical solidarity of our human condition? In morning light I rest in the assurance that William did every bit as much for me as I was capable of doing for him.

I refuse to believe that God is a grand magician who makes such coincidences occur to dazzle, tease or reward. I reject the notion that God is a master puppeteer who pulls our strings to orchestrate human interaction. Rather, I’m convinced that the mutuality of gift that William and I each experienced last evening happens all the time, to all of us, and there is nothing we need do to make it happen. Just show up! Open our eyes!  Recognize the gift of it all and open our hearts to receive. It’s all gift; yes, everything!

“Thank you, William, for the gift your life has been to me and to so many. Thank you for being an occasion for God to reveal the serenity and love to which we are all called and in which you now fully abide. Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace! Truly, you have entered through the front door!

_________________

Names have been changed to protect personal privacy. Otherwise, the story is entirely true.

A Place for All

“You know, it’s about a hundred yards past the old Morton place.” Dad grew up where the one-mile grid of roads went unnamed. Didn’t need to be! People knew where they were by relationships and landmarks. “No, Dad, I never knew the Mortons and don’t have a clue where they lived.”

I grew up in a city where I depended on house numbers, street names and quantifiable directions to a location. “You do too! The Morton place is about a quarter of a mile south of the farm.” Though vague, at least Dad’s reference to “the farm” gave me a clue I could understand.

An orientation to place — a sense of where we originate, stand, belong — seems vital if not essential. Although driven to America by the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 in a region we know as Germany, my ancestors were typical of most. They came together in multi-family units while clinging  tenaciously to their language and religion.

On a recent visit to my mother’s ancestral village of Weiberg in the North Rhineland region of what was Prussia we were struck by how that terrain mirrors the land near St. Helena, Cedar County, Nebraska where they settled in 1861. Just makes sense — as one Nebraska author writes, we know such land by heart.

That became abundantly clear yesterday. In playful banter an eleven year-old neighbor accused me of not being a very good Minnesotan. Without even a hint of forethought I retorted, “I’ve never aspired to be a Minnesotan. I’m a Nebraskan.” Though I enjoy living here and have sunk deep roots, I know my place. My heart and sensibilities rest most happily and assuredly deep within the Nebraska prairie.

On our annual trek back to Cedar County earlier this month, my Florida brother and I reminisced, visited relatives (at least the few who are left) and said a prayer at the graves of grandparents going all the way back to Ireland and Germany.

Tending the grass of my parents grave, I stood atop the spot where my cremains will one day be interred. It felt right. Felt like home. It felt like the place where I want to be laid to rest — amid four generations of family in a land I know by heart.

Yes, my family moved from this place 62 years ago and I admit a true disinterest in whether any Mortons remain. Still, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are! That takes years, decades even; involves traveling vast distances and engaging rugged terrain; nothing short of a lifetime.

Nothing is more humbling and challenging than moving toward diminishment, even dependence. Earlier this month my brother and I visited cousins in a nursing home, stayed at the home of our brother’s widow as well as placed flowers on many more graves. In time this is the place we all find ourselves (if we are among the lucky ones).

What we depended upon for our identity and livelihood — houses, careers, bank accounts, reputations, responsibilities — prove not to be solid or even essential, loved and good as they were. Finally, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are, where we really belong.

Recently I came upon this by Brendan Freeman. It pretty much says what I have come to believe:

Our true homeland is not here; our true monastery is not a building or a visible place. It is in the heart, in the center of our being — a space that can never be diminished or demolished. It is eternal and everlasting as the heavens. …the soul lives where it loves.

And, I might add, our true homeland is as all-embracing as the Nebraska prairie.
__________________
The precise and perfect image of “knowing the land by heart” comes from Ron Hansen in his short story entitled Nebraska, in his collection of stories with the same name.

Trappist Fr. Brendan Freeman, OCSO is Superior ad Nutum of Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah. His experience of assisting the community through the process of closing is shared in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, vol 52.2 (2017) pages 221-29. “…the soul lives where it loves” is from John of the Cross in his Spiritual Canticle (8.3).

Happy Birthday, Karen!

Karen would have been 70 today. I’ve been thinking about her a lot — not just because it’s her birthday but because that’s what we do with people we love. We think of them every day, often numerous times through the day.

We saw the movie, Loving the other night (highly recommended). It recounts the story of Mildred & Richard Loving, an interracial couple married in 1958 who were arrested for violating the Commonwealth of Virginia’s prohibition against mixed-race marriages. The movie is a must-see!

Karen was very much with me in the theater. I kept thinking, “This wasn’t all that long ago. I remember!” Karen would have been 21 when the US Supreme Court overturned statutes in 27 states that prohibited marriage between people of different races. It’s of little consolation that our home state of Nebraska had removed its explicit prohibition of whites marrying either Blacks or Asians in 1964. Karen was 18!  As inconceivable as it seems today, it really wasn’t all that long ago!

The special reason Karen was so present through the movie is because she was on the forefront. Her summer jobs during college were in recreation programs for kids living in Omaha’s public housing projects. She regularly tutored disadvantaged kids through a program at Duchesne College. Her African-American “little sister” was a regular visitor to our home. Her first job out of college was teaching English at an inner-city public high school. She helped GIs get their GEDs during the four years her husband was in the Army.

But Karen was no bleeding heart liberal. And this gives me hope amid our nation’s current political climate.  Karen was a self-proclaimed “Rockefeller Republican” much to the consternation of this “Bobby Kennedy Democrat.”  Karen’s sense of justice was strong but it wasn’t motivated by political ideology.

Karen did what she did because it was the right thing to do. She understood that we are only as free as the most disenfranchised among us. She also did what she did because she was a young woman of deep faith. Sitting in the movie theater I recognized that legislation, court decisions and partisan politics — though vitally important — are not what truly endures. No, ultimately it is all about love. Only love endures. Karen loved others, often at her own expense.

“So, Karen, thanks for teaching me this and so much more about what really matters! Yes, it really wasn’t all that long ago. And as inconceivable as it may have seemed at the time, life really does go by faster than we would have ever imagined — maybe not the search for justice but at least our meteoric roles in making the world a more loving place.”

The only words that come close to honoring the loss of one so dear are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp a year before Karen was born:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

Happy Birthday, Karen! Your love endures — everyday, in numerous ways, in a multiplicity of faces.

Joseph’s Quandry

A friend shared this fresh and compelling image of the Nativity. The centrality of Joseph in the painting offers an intriguing alternative to most artistic renderings of this scene. Here, Mary yields and enjoys a well-deserved rest.

Joseph’s apparent quandary reminded me of T S Eliot’s magnificent poem, Journey of the Magi — especially the poem’s last stanza!

Consider Joseph’s gaze upon the child.  Then consider Eliot’s provocative consideration of what it is we are about to commemorate:

image

Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

___________

from Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber, 1974). Sadly, I do not know the name of the artist and am unable to give well deserved attribution.  If someone does know the painter’s name I would be eager to know it and share his/her name.

This Middling Time

Christian or not, the time between Good Friday and the dawn of Easter Sunday morning is the precise mythological and psychological representation of the breathless giving away all human beings feel when they must let go of what seems most precious, not knowing how or when it will return, in what form or in what voice. Sweet Darkness was written in a kind of defiant praise of this difficult time of not knowing, a letter of invitation to embrace darkness as another horizon, and perhaps the only horizon out of which a truly new revelation can emerge.

— David Whyte on his Facebook post this morning.

SWEET DARKNESS
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.
________________________
‘Sweet Darkness”
 From River Flow
New and Selected Poems
 ©David Whyte and Many Rivers Press.

Beyond the Expiration Date

Recent x-rays prove it! My mildly arthritic hips are reminding me that I have an expiration date. Not the sort explicitly printed on Jeb the Dog’s peanut butter — “Best used by August 2016.” But it’s written just as clearly in mild hearing loss and the fact of having shrunk an inch of height since topping out at 6’1″.

Waking from 11 hours of sleep after our first night at the hermitage, Jeb the Dog took me on an early morning walk past the barns, beyond the free-range chickens, aside the lake onto a wooded path to the road. A cascade of new smells enticed Jeb so I agreed to walk to the “T” where we intersected with another gravel road.

As we turned to retrace our steps, an imposing yellow sentinel stood to our right. “Dead End” it cautioned. Blinding eastern sunlight enshrouded its stark warning. Aside, a solitary barren tree pierced the horizon. No other reminder of mortality needed, these starkly alert any who would proceed that we will ultimately find ourselves at the end of the road.

What brought me to the hermitage was most assuredly the pregnant solitude of nature on the cusp of Spring. Perhaps this is the same impulse that has always inspired Christians to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. (Who’d forget that formula once put to memory!). Amid all that converges at this transitional moment in time, I am well aware that Holy Week lies just ahead.

Jesus’ death is intended to remind us of our own. For much of my sixty-five years I’ve given that lip service. I’ve more readily basked in the soft pastels of Spring and rushed to Easter morning ignoring — if not denying — the cold, painful journey that leads up to what I want to celebrate.

This year is different. I’m now on Medicare and can no longer claim that I’m taking “early” Social Security. Arthritic hips, diminished hearing, bone loss are all cautionary signs that a very real “end” lies down the road. Call it my own personal expiration date if you wish.  This year I’m inclined to call it my own pathway into Gethsemane.

Whatever you choose to call it, not one of us is exempt from walking this path. Despite our denials, our clutching to whatever we wish, our refusals to yield control; we have no alternative. Jesus sweat blood, pleaded for some other way. Yet transcending his own ego, surrendering his own self-interest, Jesus yielded to love, in love, for love.

From this solitary vantage of the hermitage, after some sixty-five seasons of Lent, and multiple signs of my future expiration, I am inclined to believe that Jesus did not die for us. He’s not our “easy way out.”  Rather, with love, he showed us how we are to do it.  Because of Jesus, it is possible for us to know the way. In fact, therein lies our salvation.

________________
This reflection is inspired by Living in the Light of Death by Kathleen Dowling Singh, PhD in “Ripening”, vol 1 #2 of Oneing: An Alternative Orthodoxy published by The Center for Action and Contemplation; Vanessa Guerin, editor (2013) pp 41-46.

Live the Life You’re Given, Not the One You’re Not

Laparoscopic surgery ranks right up there with GPS as a marvel of modern life. Just had the procedure a couple of weeks ago for a hernia. But as marvelous as it is, I’m learning it provides no miraculous return to “as good as new.” There are some things — like a bit of arthritis in my hip — that are a function of age and will not change.

What are we to do? Well, within the range of options I’ve chosen to smile. Yes, smile! Seems like a new companion has arrived to stay so the best thing to do is to become friends. The temptation to complain and play the “poor me” card surely pops up. I’m skilled at playing the sympathy card!

But as my parents, and other elders deserving of emulation have taught, we really are about as happy as we choose to be. Somehow they smiled, spoke mostly of what is good and praiseworthy, cultivated gratitude. Their sage advice might be: Smile anyway! Live the life you are given, not the one you’re not!

Are episodic hurdles like hernia repairs and chronic conditions like arthritic hips misfortunes, a tragedy of our inevitable diminishment? Or, can we smile? Can we befriend these physical inconveniences as the companions they are, even befriend them? Can we receive them — even invite them — as reminders and bearers of true wisdom?

Just wondering… do we fear death to the degree we fear living, really loving, being truly alive, fully human? In the much loved Canticle of the Sun Francis of Assisi speak of “sister death.” It is said the last words he spoke were: “Welcome, sister death!” What’s that all about?

Yesterday, returning about twenty freshly washed plates from Thanksgiving dinner to a shelf over my head I wondered, “Should I be doing this?” A cautious fear of falling accompanied my navigating an icy driveway. Can such new-found cautiousness lead to an ever greater curiosity rather than some debilitating concern with diminishment?

Yes, we are about as happy as we choose to be. As my parents used to say, “life is pretty much what you make of it!” I first remember them saying that when I was a disgruntled adolescent. Now at 65, a renewed curiosity about what they were trying to pass on accompanies me.

I wonder… is our fear of death commensurate with our fear of living, really living life as it comes to us, not as we wish it to be? Are we free to really, fully live only to the degree we embrace our finitude, our finality? What is the wisdom of true elders?

More and more, I’m curious about whatever comes to us as a function of age with enduring truths that will not change.