Sufficient to Our Need, Despite Ourselves

It just feels relentless. Maybe this is simply what its like to be in your mid-sixties — at that ripe time in life where really painful stuff happens with regularity. Here are three current examples, all involving dear friends still in their fifties…

  • Divorce proceedings linger after nearly two years for a friend whose husband announced he hadn’t loved her since 1984!
  • The youth director at our local church returned early from leading a service trip in Guatemala after experiencing two minor heart attacks.
  • A mother of teenage daughters installs railings throughout her home and keeps a cain near at hand as an auto-immune disease steals her physical mobility.

Turning away with a smug gratitude for one’s own good fortune is not an option. With family, friends, neighbors we are bound in relationship. At times it is a painful “binding” for any with a heart that cares.

We can plant seeds in the young that we hope will bear fruit decades from now. Transformational encounters like “Outward Bound” can take our youth beyond self-imposed limits of endurance. We can wax eloquently about every athlete’s career ending in defeat — unless you are among the very few lucky enough to be on a league championship team during your final year of competition. But we just plant seeds. The harvest comes only when we are tugged kicking into our elder years.

All spirituality worth anything will nudge, coerce, entice us to embrace this confounding mystery. Mainline Christian churches too often ignore if not insulate us from pain, loss, suffering. More concerned with filling pews and feel-good sermons, too many of our faith communities have bought into the soft pastels and warm fuzzies of Easter and effectively ignore Good Friday. Too many seek a superficial solace in Sunday communion, forgetting that Christians gather for the breaking of the bread — offering stone, not bread.

Maybe because it is not my tradition, Native American spirituality has much to offer. Limited exposure to Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge, vision quest and sun dance assures me that every human heart is indelibly imprinted with a greater wisdom. Tugged, pushed, coerced beyond our puny selves and self-referential egos, we are “birthed” kicking and screaming into a life beyond our imagining.

Like it our not — and if it’s the real deal, we won’t “like it” — every spiritual tradition worth our consideration will ultimately provoke a crisis in us. That’s not all it should do, but it is futile to expect a shortcut and foolish to short-circuit it. What good is a spirituality if it stands powerless to offer wisdom and counsel amid an onslaught of human suffering and inexplicable loss? Like the temptations Jesus endured in the desert, we too are called to reject the allure of idols.

Andre Louf (1929-2010), abbot of the Trappist monastery of Mont-des-Cats in the north of France expressed our condition in an especially poignant manner.  He counsels, it is the “holy ruse of God” to allure us through poverty, weakness, radical powerlessness and evident uselessness beyond anything we could imagine or suppose. Dom Andre describes where we will be taken, certainly beyond our will, to that place of ultimate grace:

…precisely where I am at my most vulnerable, stripped of my defenses, where I am totally diminished to an almost fatal extreme of weakness, where there remains but one single hope: that of finally laying down my arms and capitulating before God, that is to say, the hope of exposing myself, of casting myself upon his mercy, of allowing myself to be retrieved by grace at the place and at the precise moment where I was at the point of foundering.

To our ears so well attuned to feel-good, consumerist, self-anesthetizing pop-spirituality, this cannot be good news. Nevertheless, it is the only gospel worthy of the name or capable of addressing the inescapable truth of our lives.

_______________

Quote is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf. Cistercian Publications. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2015., p 75.

 

Carol

Carol died yesterday. Although she bore the toll of battling four recurrences of breast cancer, and we knew this was in her future, no one believed it would happen so suddenly. We thought there would be more time. We all wanted more time. So did Carol — perhaps until the final hours when she knew the most loving thing was to let go.

Carol had an incredibly positive meeting with her oncologist recently where she learned that 90-95% of her cancer was being contained by a newly approved drug she was taking. She and Steve were planning a trip with friends to Italy in September!

Her husband of thirty years and their twin sons — both of whom live on the East Coast — had gathered in South Bend at the home of Carol’s sister as was their Fourth of July tradition. They were all at her side for her last day and hours when she was lucid and without pain. What a gift!

More than anything, Carol refused to let cancer define her life. We all want to say that and we sometimes even fudge the truth a little in our grieving. But with Carol it was absolutely true. Carol sought out people who could laugh. She remained engaged in social relationships. She was brutally honest about her physical and emotional ups and downs with a select group of intimate friends. Carol lived — until she died.

In that, she became gift-for-others. In that, Carol was ever the life-giver. The circumstances of her diagnosis and her death at a South Bend hospital were quite ordinary. There was nothing routine or typical about the way she left us, however — she left us better, blessed, believing in something more than our small, self-referential lives.

I have lost both parents, six of nine siblings, uncounted family and friends. Death always hits us in the gut leaving us empty, at a loss. Carol’s death is only the latest reminder that these holes in our hearts never go away. They recur and remain. And, neither do we want them to close. We reluctantly come to recognize such black holes of the heart to be a sacred space, a testimony to irreplaceable love.

Love endures. Love lives on in laughter, in relationships both intimate and communal. Love gives life, is always generative. Love ultimately gives its life for others.

Carol beat her cancer. Carol transformed and transcended the worst life could throw at her. She loved. She is loved.

Our hearts were ripped open a little more yesterday!  And that is as it should be.

There Comes a Time…. Then, What?

It is said that when Alfred Nobel’s brother died, media mistakenly reported that it was Alfred and printed his obituary by mistake.  We’ve all heard of people who write their own obituary. But, what would it be like to read your obituary written by the public media?

One apocryphal account should be true even if it is not. It holds that Alfred was so shaken by publicity surrounding his premature demise that he became determined to be known for something other than being the inventor of TNT.  Thus, after his death in 1896 his estate created the Nobel Prizes — of which the Peace Prize is the most prestigious.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with a local Focolare community. This “domestic church” movement was founded by Italian Chiara Lubich from amid the devastation of World War II. With death an immanent possibility, Lubich came to a deep reverence for “Jesus forsaken.” She recognized the intimate connection between Jesus’s passion and death with the unspeakable human suffering she and others were enduring in 1943.

It was not the magnitude of Jesus’s suffering that mattered — his suffering does not save. The immensity of Jesus’s love — first for the one he spoke of as Abba and us by inclusion — is the source of our salvation! Lubich spent the rest of her life, until 2008, living and leading others in her simple but onerous spirituality of bringing great love to others, especially to people and situations seemingly forsaken.

With this as backdrop I have begun reading We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer with Cathy Wurzer. This dangerously beautiful book tells the story of Kramer’s diagnosis in his early 50s of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He died just last month.

As Susan Allen Toth expressed so well, “Kramer turns his diamond-hard diagnosis like a prism, reflecting light and joy in surprising places… invite[ing] us to consider how we live in the face of impending death or unwanted change.”

One turn of the prism is to the presumption with which we all live: “If only I could eat correctly, exercise enough, hold all things to moderation, devote myself in equal measure to my family and my job, I would have a great chance of living past ninety and looking back on a life well lived.” He recalls joking that he wanted his epitaph to be: “He died racing semis on his bike.”

Kramer writes: “I know what you are thinking — that you don’t need this right now, you don’t want to think about it, that you have plenty of time.” He acknowledges that we are “totally correct in thinking this way, until…” Call it the thief in the night or whatever you wish. That “until” will inevitably come!  Ultimately, we must accept that we cannot “fix” our lives.

Kramer had the inevitability of death foisted upon him. He was “pulled into the essence of what it means to be a living human being.” He reluctantly mustered the ability to recognize that he was “just aging exponentially faster than most… accept[ing] the fact that fixing is a lie.”

Like Alfred Nobel, Chiara Lubich and so many other noble saints among us, Bruce Kramer had the courage and fortitude to look death — his death — squarely in the eye and to ask, “How are we to live?” I am still in the very early pages of the book. However, I know already it is one that I hope you go out and read immediately.

Kramer frames our perennial human dilemma: “Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question, what will you be from here to eternity?” He continues: “Therefore if I threw in my lot with trying to fix this, I would only be frustrated and bitter, and while I might glimpse the old normal Godhead from time to time, the person I wanted to become could not fix this.”

Again, the person Bruce Kramer wanted to become could not “fix” this!  Then, what?  How are we to live?

__________

We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying, Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2015.  Quoted material is from pages 17-21.  The quote by Susan Allen Toth is from the dust cover of the book.

So Much More Than a Haircut

Getting my hair cut provides an increasingly sobering experience. My hair has always been thin, wispy and generic brown, never a thick wavy mane of movie star standards. An assortment of random cowlicks have bedeviled generations of barbers. Now the whirling dervishes are only minimized by a healthy case of male pattern baldness.

Yesterday offered only the most recent humiliation. Yet another new stylist needed to be counseled about the obstinance of the cantankerous cowlick above and behind my left ear. Alyssa actually did a good job for a first-timer. Her major challenge was probably making me feel I was getting my money’s worth — no doubt she could have done her job in three minutes. Yet, she combed, spritzed and primped more than necessary to draw out the ordeal for at least fifteen minutes.

What Alyssa had no way of knowing was how troubling was the black apron she had secured around my neck.  Was she to know how brazenly white the cloth made her clippings appear?  Doesn’t she appreciate that — atop my head — hair retains a dark shade of gray? Neither does she know that my eyes are well-trained to see only the neck taper — oblivious to my invisible tonsure — when she positioned her handheld mirror for my final inspection.

This humbling brush with reality well disposed me for a delightfully sobering piece in the current issue of Commonweal [link]. Peter Quinn also bemoans changes which are only to be expected — at thirty, male pattern baldness. At forty, a first set of bifocals. At fifty, the addition of Metamucil to orange juice. At sixty, an assortment of medication that come with a lifetime prescription.

One day we hear a pin drop. Then, suddenly, we can no longer distinguish conversation from background noise (not that it matters much) at cocktail parties. Knees begin to resemble the coil springs on a rusted ’56 Chevy. We open cabinets and instantly forget what we’re looking for. The Commonweal writer confirms that the ability to attach names to the faces of friends is becoming one of life’s small triumphs.

My haircut prepared me to commiserate with Peter Quinn that the inevitability of the final curtain doesn’t make it easier to accept. I’m as reluctant and fearful as anyone else to face the end. A degree of resignation and acceptance isn’t a bad thing. Sooner or later, it’s all right to think about making room instead of taking it up.

And here is where Alyssa comes back into the picture. Alyssa expects to become a first-time mother on May 7. This balding, white-haired man had the temerity to ask, “Are you scared?” Alyssa responded, “Of course! But there’s no turning back now. It’s got a life of its own. It’s going to happen.”

Then Alyssa added, “But, I’m even more scared about being a parent — it’s not just giving birth! I want to be a good parent. This will change my life. Who knows what lies ahead? …but I’m excited, can’t wait!” Upon leaving, I was moved to give her an extra generous tip.

Others have long made the association between womb and tomb, birth and death, death and rebirth.  If Easter is about more than pastels and bunnies it’s about all that life throws at us, about dying and (expectant) rising.

Alyssa gave me a great haircut, and so much more… she reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s marvelous poem, The Journey of the Magi which more often comes to mind at Christmas. Eliot concludes:

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.

______________

I am eager to recommend Peter Quinn’s entire article, Last Word: Things Fall Apart, The Failure to Stay Young from which I have liberally quoted.  A link is provided above.

“The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot from Collected Poems 1909-1962. © Faber and Faber, 1974.

Threatened With Resurrection

Life is hard! Sometimes it really sucks! Oh, we each have our diversions and delusions. Some of us, by virtue of birth or other unmerited good fortune, have the resources to pretend otherwise. We cultivate the art of social posturing, cosmetics hide our blemishes, consumption deadens a deeper hunger, and we obsess with our frantic pursuit of the “American Dream.”

Believe me, as a white, well-educated, American male I’ve learned how to access and wield power and privilege. I have spent the good part of my life polishing my carefully crafted public persona to a high sheen. I’ve been blessed! …or, have I?

Rarely do we disclose the truth — life is hard, even sucks at times! Rarely are we willing to step from behind make-up and make-believe! Rarely are we willing to let down our heavily reenforced walls of denial.

Good Friday is one day that shoves the truth of our lives in our face. Unless we choose to look away, run away, and deny that we even know this guy Jesus, or those with whom he associated.

As her native Guatemala endured nearly 30 years of violence and repression under a series of dictators, Julia Esquivel did not look away as thousands of indigenous groups were savagely murdered. She refused to divert her gaze or run from the massive violence and brutality her people — and Central American neighbors — were suffering in the 1970s and 80s.

While others lost hope or took up arms, Esquivel claimed the role of activist, poet, and minister. She stood as a witness to God’s justice and compassion.  She found her voice and served as a healer amid a land of suffering.

Esquivel’s poem, Threatened with Resurrection perfectly poses our invitation this Good Friday — to watch, to endure, to keep vigil:

There is something here within us
Which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
Which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside,
It is the silent, warm weeping of Indian women without their husbands,
It is the sad gaze of the children
Fixed there beyond memory,
In the very pupil of our eyes
Which during sleep, though closed, keep watch
With each contraction of the heart
In every wakening…

What keeps us from sleeping
Is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall,
Though exhausted from the endless inventory
Of killings since 1954,
Yet we continue to love life,
And do not accept their death!

…Because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary
to arrive at the goal which lies beyond death…

Accompany us then on this vigil
And you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
To live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep
To live while dying
And to already know oneself resurrected!

______________
Threatened with Resurrection/Amenazado de Resurrección
by Julia Esquivel, Anne Woehrle (Translator). Brethren Press, 1994 (first published 1982).

At Long Last, Hope!

A 60-year-old woman battles a fourth recurrence of cancer and is told by her oncologist that the chemo she has been receiving for the past few months has been ineffective.

A 52-year-old man living in a Catholic Charities residence for chronic alcoholics asks, “Where’s God? I’ve pleaded… on my knees! Why won’t God take away the pain?”

With excruciating grief etched across his face, a father kneels aside his bloodied deceased son. They had gone to their masque in Yemen for Friday prayer when it became the target of a suicide bomber.

To such as these the cliché, “There is always hope!” easily sounds stupid and saccharine if not insulting!  Those who proffer such platitudes either don’t know what they are talking about or they live in huge denial of what this Holy Week is all about.

Many of you know that after twenty years of confronting anxiety and depression I went public in July 2014 with my story of sexual abuse and the compounding anguish of being dismissed by Jesuit leadership. Today I want all to know that a nasty, brutal chapter of my life has found healing and closure.

Jesuit leadership really “stepped up to the plate” and I feel validated, vindicated and reconciled. My deep respect and affection for the Society of Jesus has been affirmed. They eventually responded with the best of what I know them to be capable.

In the often nightmarish ordeal I came to learn something about hope. Just weeks before my twenty-year struggle found resolution, a good friend said to me, “Give it up, the Jesuits aren’t going to do anything.” She of all people should know better — and so should the rest of us!

A woman with cancer, a man with chronic alcoholism, a parent grieving the senseless death of a child, victims of sexual abuse… we need more than pious platitudes or cheap grace. That’s what Holy Week is all about.

At some point or another we will all be bought to a place where optimism crumbles, expectation for easy solutions shatters. We are left with raw, stark, desperate hope! We discover nothing more than a fire-tempered conviction — discovered by a frantic clinging to life — coming from a source other than ourselves.

During my twenty-year ordeal wrestling with the demon of sexual abuse I was never optimistic. In fact, quite the opposite! There was too much pain, too many brick walls, blind denials, freaked-out stares and others battening down their defenses.

As with the dejected friends returning home to Emmaus, I too was tempted, “Just give it up! They’re not going to do anything.”  Yet over time, and wholly separate from my best effort, I ran up against a deep source of energy and conviction from a place certainly other than myself.

Today I would describe this as an insistent gift, a tenacious pulse
that I did not always welcome or experience as consoling. It was
beyond me and, frankly, sometimes a burden I did not wish to carry, a thorn in my side, even a royal pain in the ass. Yet it recurred — despite my impermeability, resistance, fatigue or resignation.

Today I call this involuntary impulse, Hope! We do not profess Faith, Optimism and Love! Each of the theological virtues comes as a pain in the ass from time to time. In that, we learn they are not of our own creation but truly gift.

Recurring cancer, chronic alcoholism, terrorist fanaticism, sexual abuse bring us face-to-face with our abject poverty, structures that defend — even enshrine — personal sin or an impervious culture that seems down right hostile.

Yes, we desperately need and await a savior — not of our own conjuring, not even of our own capacity to imagine. Very much from within our creation, though not of our making. Hope makes its tentative appearance when we — even reluctantly, even wishing it were otherwise or according to our plans — hazard to trust that what we really need will all be given.

Appearing amid the brokenness of our personal and collective lives, hope appears in a way and at a time not of our choosing. It is most assuredly not anything we can provide ourselves. Despite my protestations of personal autonomy, even to say “I accept” the gift sounds increasingly dissonant and much too volitional.

Ultimately, we are brought to our knees. At some time or other we are brought low by the death-dealing that life throws at us. We are invited to our knees during Holy Week because this is the truth of our lives — despite our best efforts, ALL is gift. But, ALL will be given.

This is what we are urged to encounter this week — God giving ALL in Jesus. We are invited to accept our radical inability to save ourselves, or even our ability to protect those we love from life’s death-dealing. We are compelled to recognize the inadequacy of easy optimism and pious platitudes. The very most we can muster is to receive God’s gift — always given as a gift of self!

Our eyes are opened.  We like others before us recognize this in telling our stories, in bread blessed, broken, shared — amid the dejection, the real stuff of our lives, where we most need to be saved.

Turning It Over In Your Palm

Kayla McClurg, on the staff at the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, is one of my favorite bloggers.  Her site is aptly named: Inward/Outward, Seeking the Depths.  She never disappoints, but regularly takes me to my depths!  Her post for today, Palm Sunday, is especially poignant and captures the core invitation of this Holy Week:

For the past few years, I have sensed death wanting to be my friend. You know the type. “Let’s hang out more,” she says, “get better acquainted!” But I already have plenty of friends, a busy life, and the truth is, I’m just not that into her. Yet there she is, shuffling along behind me, showing up when I least want her around, throwing her arms around my shoulders to show how close we are, how much a part of my life she already is. “Stop breathing on me!” I want to say, but she doesn’t seem to care. And I have to admit I’m starting to get used to her salty breath, her tattered edges, her constancy. I am almost fond now of her clumsy nearness. What might she tell me if I learned to listen better; what might I see in this crazy quilt of death in life, pieced together in haphazard patterns?

Today is the beginning of the end for Jesus. And the beginning of the beginning. Do you see the wholeness of his life even as death closes in? The fragments of his final week create a story that is dangerously familiar. Read it slowly this year. Walk alongside the other disciples, feel their confusion and fear, hear Jesus confront the powers, offer the wisdom of silence, give it all and then give some more, be abandoned and wait to be found. Pick up a fragment each day or two. Turn it over and over in your palm. Ask it for a blessing

_______________
You may read McClurg’s entire post [here]. You will also be able to follow links to her site in case you’d care to sign up for her daily and/or Sunday postings.