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.
Everything was perfect… a sunny afternoon in August, the scenic-byway along the Mississippi, light traffic making the drive even more leisurely, blissful solitude. All foretelling my destination… three unencumbered days basking in the silent, spacious rhythms of the Trappist monastery.
Then she appeared — mature, strong, beautiful, lithesome, her stature confirmed in the confidence with which she cocked her head. How can anything so graceful be a threat? How can a creature so singularly at one with her environment possibly be a danger?
It happened so fast, no more than a few seconds. Ballerina legs coming to an abrupt stop. Bulbous eyes signaling fright, foretelling terror. A frantic pause to let the first car pass. Then an impulsive choice amid confusion, an instinctive response to fear, a fateful leap toward her final destination.
A resonant thud was the sole consequence of my desperate efforts to break. In a split second all the mirror reflected was a whirlwind of gray gravel on the far shoulder. A flash of self-inventory overtook the shock of the moment. “I’m fine. Everything’s okay. What’s there to do but keep going? Did this really happen?”
Now, it’s a week later. Perhaps this majestic deer was not a danger, never a threat any more than I am a danger or a threat. Certainly there is a hint of Eden lurking along the Mississippi in mid-August. Places of spacious solitude are there to enfold and refresh us. None of this is of our own creation. It’s all given. Everything is gift, everything!
Each nanosecond before my impact with hard reality has been replayed many times. Yes, I would choose the scenic-byway again. Yes, I’m a good driver — even the insurance company agrees this was simply an accident for which I am not culpable. But ultimately we all come to learn, begrudgingly, that we are not in the driver’s seat.
It’s an illusion to believe we are in control of our lives. That’s not to say we do not have tremendous potential, talent, skill, abilities as well as obligations and responsibilities. But one of the hardest lessons we must learn is that we are not God. Such myopic delusion only leads to exhaustion or failure — a living hell.
Yielding our fates to the impetuosity of roadside deer, even acknowledging our inherent powerlessness, runs the risk of fatalistic resignation or nihilism. Doesn’t have to and it shouldn’t! That’s only the result if we fail to recognize beauty, embrace love and celebrate the majesty of creation — if we choose not to take the scenic-byway! If we fail to see everything as gift; yes, everything!
It’s all so much grander than our puny egos deluding ourselves with whatever we can muster. It’s all so much bigger and better when we yield control, when our most heartfelt prayer ends up becoming, “You’re God. I’m not. Thank you!”
Though we’d like to think we are simply ordinary folks and “middle class” by economic standards, the truth is we’re privileged! Simply by virtue of the fact that you are viewing this post defines you as more technologically savvy than most, have the discretionary income to afford an iPad and WiFi connection, and the leisure if not intellectual curiosity to reflect on musings such as these.
Being privileged in these ways comes with a whole set of hazards and pitfalls. Most of us are too sophisticated to fall into blatant arrogance, snobbery or condescension. No, most of us have polished our self-regard into respectable forms of social acceptability. Or, we skillfully retreat to our very own safe-place of silent superiority. An excellent barometer for whether this “fits” may be to ask how satisfied or protective we are of the status quo or self-assured we are of “how things ought to be.”
I’m certainly not immune to that of which I write! My political views are not only well-informed, they are most assuredly correct. I am certain of moral truth and clearly understand what the Gospels teach. I’m even confident in my opinions about what careers others should pursue, the persons they should marry (or not), and how they are to raise children. It’s all quite obvious to us average, ordinary folks!
No, it’s not! Truth does not come easily. Rarely is it ever obvious. Life is hard. Wisdom isn’t cheap. Rather, life has a way of tripping us up, turning us inside out and upside down. As the Buddha discovered, “Life is suffering!” So much for our protective obsession with the status quo, our blissful preoccupation with stocking our pantries and filling our days with gadgets or endless forms of entertainment!
Here’s where the actually poor, those on the “underside” or the “outside” have an advantage over us average, middle class folks. They know their powerlessness. They don’t have the privilege of holding their suffering at bay. They don’t need a 12-Step program or years of expensive therapy to wrestle with the truth of their lives.
No, the poor are not saints any more than the rest of us “privileged” types. They are subject to the same pitfalls, addictions and sins as the rest of us. They simply know better than most that “the way things are” ain’t okay. This seems to give them an inside track on the truth — we are powerless. Theologically speaking, we are not God — so get over it!
Recently, a man shared with me a heart-wrenching story about the bottom falling out of his life as a result of his abuse of alcohol. We could easily substitute any story about our worlds collapsing or our dependence on “the way things ought to be” crumbling — a debilitating medical diagnosis, floods in Louisiana, the death of a loved one. This man is one of the lucky ones — he readily acknowledges his addiction, his idolatry.
The first step is to admit our powerlessness. It’s the hardest step by far. None of us want to take it. There are an infinite array of ways we distract and divert ourselves into denying this truth. But then, and only then, do we learn how to pray. Then, and only then, do we really learn how to live.
My friend shared his simple prayer with me. I have heard none better: I can’t! You can! Please help! He then substitutes Thanks! for what’s become an all too average and anemic “Amen”.
We would all do well to pray and live more like this extraordinary and exceptionally honest man!
This time of year reminds me of a church discipline from childhood I’ve long discarded. It’s called the “Easter Duty,” the obligation each Catholic has to go to Confession sometime during Lent. In theory it’s a beautiful and sensible practice — preparing for a full-blown, no-holds-barred celebration of Easter.
Fact is, no one does it. I haven’t for years. But something is shifting this year, something feels different, something is quickening deep inside. The desire to again look at the directive, perhaps even to reincorporate it into my spiritual practice, is awakening. As with all new growth, it’s fragile and might be easily smothered. But this year it seems I’m being urged to take a fresh look.
Numerous reasons might be cited. First, and most significantly, my experience as a “spiritual coach” for men in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction has a profound reciprocal effect on me. Everyone familiar with the 12 Steps knows the critical importance of the famed Fifth Step — that arduous encounter with another human being when we admit out loud the exact nature of our wrongs. This is done after a fearless moral inventory.
One need not be a rocket scientist to see the close connection between the Fifth Step and the Easter Duty. Both traditions are inspired and come to the same conclusion. An honest, accurate and thorough admission — out loud and to another person — of our moral failures with acceptance of responsibility for the wrong we have done engenders the recovery, health, well-being and serenity we seek. Twelve-Steppers understand such acknowledgement is critical and essential to their recovery.
So, yes, with restored resolve I intend to make my Easter Duty this year. But something more is stirring deep down within this quickening awareness. It’s as simple as the archaic aphorism that has also fallen out of vogue: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” In fact, I would amend that to say, “What’s good for the adult male goose is good for the gaggle of geese!”
Pope Francis prophetically leads the way in gestures like the one we saw yesterday. In a monumentally historic statement the Roman Pontiff and Russian Orthodox Patriarch jointly affirmed, “We are not competitors but brothers, and this concept must guide all our mutual actions as well as those directed to the outside world.”
Like every courageous and prophetic acknowledgement of moral culpability and consequent responsibility to make amends, such acknowledgement is easily ignored, overlooked if not denied, and often subverted by powers-that-be.
Yes, I intend to make my Easter Duty this year. I propose the “gander” do as well — by this I mean Francis’ fellow bishops and all church hierarchs (not all of whom are ordained). Even more, “What’s good for us geese has got to be good for the gaggle.”
We will gather as one Body in Christ to celebrate the unmerited grace of God at Easter. What then might be our corporate, collective “Easter Duty”? …a collective, corporate, fearless confession of our wrong doing with “a firm purpose of amendment”?
Unquestionably, a good place to start would be for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to launch and fully fund a truly independent, unhampered and fearless “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” regarding clergy sex abuse. But this is only a first essential step, the litmus test by which we demonstrate our sincerity to enter into the “repentance leading to resurrection” offered us in the Easter Triduum.
In the absence of such resolve by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, there is nothing preventing leadership within local dioceses from embracing an authentic season of conversation, shepherding us through death to life. I can think of no better place than our own Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis for this to begin.
Is not this the repentance God seeks, “to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6). Would this not be a Jubilee Year of Mercy, truly of Biblical proportions?
It is long past time for each and all of us to perform our Easter Duty!
“You can take only your own inventory, never anyone else’s!” remains a bedrock tenet for any who seek the serenity promised by 12 Step programs. I pushed the limit yesterday in my assessment of Archbishop Neinstedt’s appearance in First Class.
Here’s the rest of the story… I had brought Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir for reading onboard long trans-Atlantic flights. Disclaimer: No, I have no plans to write my memoir! Discovery: Karr’s incisive instruction for writing about what really matters offers a brilliant view into how we might better access and express our spiritual lives in prayer or with others.
I had highlighted Karr’s reference to George Orwell’s masterful essay Shooting the Elephant, “You wear a mask, and your face grows to fit it.” Yes, I could accuse John Neinstedt of that. More importantly, I need to accept that truth as my own truth as well.
Speaking of her literary efforts Karr concludes, “No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle … The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.”
How I wish we’d hear such earthy, blunt preaching from our pulpits! I now cringe when I recall how many of my homilies relied upon an array of disembodied platitudes and pious principles — Lord, have mercy!
Why? Why do we retreat to the impersonal and theoretical? Karr observes, “We each nurture a private terror that some core aspect(s) of either ourselves or our story must be hidden or disowned.”
Though speaking of the craft of memoir writing, her wisdom equally applies to our most intimate selves and spiritual lives:
With every manuscript I’ve ever edited — even grown-assed writers’ — the traits a writer often fights hardest to hide may serve as the undeniable facets both of self and story. You bumble onto scenes that blow up the fond notions of the past, or whole shifts in attitude practically rewrite you where you stand.
Karr’s cure for writer’s block — so familiar and feared by any who put pen to paper — applies equally well to boredom in prayer or spiritual desolation. When our faith seems to have withered, even evaporated; when our prayer feels dry, hollow and purposeless; we’d do well to follow her advice: “Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”
Now you know the rest of my Neinstedt story. I need to ask myself: What fires my visceral reaction to the Archbishop’s appearance? What might I be projecting onto him that I dare not admit about myself? What is so unacceptable about my own story or life that I so vehemently condemn or seek to control in others?
Yes, it’s time to focus on taking my own inventory! For sure, there are stories to more than fill a lifetime.
Quotes are from The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015, #2276 and 2278 of Kindle edition.
My last post already confessed to my compulsion for needing the last word. Yes, that’s a well-ingrained fault that warrants my continuous attention (not always successfully). But there are other reasons I don’t want this site to degenerate into a Twitter-like roster of cut-n-paste stories Yours Truly finds of interest.
There’s a reason this blog is named, Kneading Bread! Watching my mother knead countless batches of flour, yeast and water I learned that her labor was not just about the bread. As growth enabled me to deduce patterns I discovered something quite interesting. On those days my mother chose to bake bread — often indulging a little extra energy really getting-into the kneading, I began to recognize it wasn’t primarily about the bread or our family’s love of her good food!
Yes, this blog enables me to wrestle with ideas and issues of importance to me and topics I believe to be of spiritual and social importance. If it’s not obvious, I “need to knead” this batch of ingredients the world regularly plops in front of us to see what comes of it, to discover what value it holds for our health and well-being.
But Kneading Bread is intended to be something more, more than my personal playground for having the last word or indulging my fiercely defended opinions! No, my purpose would fall short if posts failed to stimulate reflection or provoke the reader to wrestle with your own values, beliefs, convictions, commitments and ways of acting in community. As my mother demonstrated, it’s as much about the laborious act of kneading as it is about savoring the finished product!
She also demonstrated in countless ways that there are always exceptions to any rule. That’s true today. Sometimes you come across a quote that is so incisive, so well-crafted, so true it would be wrong to do a thing to it. Today is such a day! I can do no better. On my best days, I wish I could say it so well:
We have become a society of machines and business degrees, of stocks and bonds, of world power and world devastation, of what works and what makes money. We train our young to get ahead, our middle-aged to consume, and our elderly to be silent. We are sophisticated now. We talk about our ideas for getting ahead rather than about our ideas for touching God, We are miles from our roots and light-years away from our upbringings. We have abandoned the concerns of the civilizations before us. We have forsaken the good, the true, and the beautiful for the effective, the powerful, and the opulent. We have abandoned enoughness for the sake of consumption. We are modern. We are progressive. And we are lost.
These prophetic words were written by Sister Joan Chittister, OSB. I came to them via my friend Sheila Wilson’s Facebook posting. The only citation I can give is what Sheila gave. It is from Chittister’s book, What Does It Mean to Be Human? In a way, a specific page reference is unnecessary — anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading!