What Would Mom Say?

When I’d be moping around in my adolescent funk or otherwise being disappointed with what life was — or wasn’t — sending my way Mom would often say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it!” Then she’d keep silent, letting reality sink in. She said a lot of wise stuff about life! This is just one that’s popping up a lot these days.

Earlier this week I was speaking with a dear, dear friend. She, too, is a Mom. In fact, she’s a Grandma seven times over. One of her children is considering a job transfer to a different city. This is really a painful decision for everyone involved. No more having just the grandkids for an overnight. No more spontaneous visits to the Children Museum. No more school productions or soccer games to applaud. Yes, life sends plenty of disappointment our way.

But what really took me off guard was Sarah’s response. Ever the “Mom” with wisdom aplenty she said to her son: “Yes, I would be very sad. I would really miss you. But you need to know this… You are not responsible for my happiness — I am!” Talk about profound, honest, empowering wisdom from a mother!

Yesterday was a day filled with many frustrations… a home repair project for a friend took twice as long as it should have, the caulk-gun didn’t work when I wanted to seal cracks in the driveway, insulation we had installed the day before wasn’t sticking to the window as it should, battle was waged with a health care system more focused on profits than on people, my 16 y/o car has developed a metallic clatter that I can no longer ignore.

No wonder the wisdom of these wise Moms resurfaced from the recesses of my consciousness. What am I to make of this litany of frustrations? Do I really want to concede my emotional wellbeing to the power of caulk-guns, window insulation, and the clatter of a car engine?  I guess the choice is mine!

We still depend on our mothers’ wisdom to navigate life’s disappointments, salvaging happiness from a litany of frustrations.  We might say of our mothers what I imagine Sarah would say about her grandkids, “They may be gone, but they never leave us.  And that’s a good thing!”

A Bizarre Juxtaposition

Strange how our brains work! This morning my nephew’s six kids, ages 4 to 14, came to mind as I was reading about second century Egyptian hermits. Truly, such an improbable connection surprised even me.

Yes, the kids are pretty typical in every way with their child-like antics and periodic meltdowns. Though we love them, the general chaos of the household leads us to stay with their grandparents when we are in Omaha. Add our niece’s three kids who are regularly part of the mix and you have quite a catalytic explosion on your hands.

But as we have visited or hosted the families and viewed photos on Facebook, we’ve noticed something exceptional. They really get along! They are a cohesive unit. Yes, they fight and sometimes throw fits if they don’t get their way. But the care and bond each has for the other is palpable. Every child should be so lucky to grow up in families with siblings and cousins like these children.

So, here’s the piece from the second century desert hermits that worked its strange alchemy on me this morning. The bizarre juxtaposition still brings a quizzical smile to my face:

Abba Pambo, one of the early monks of Nitria, received a visit from four monks of Scetis. As each one talked to Pambo, he spoke of the others’ virtues. One had fasted, another had lived in poverty, the third was known for charity. The fourth monk, who “had lived for twenty-two years in obedience to another man,” was praised as the greatest. Pambo said, “Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.”

What we have noticed about our nephew and niece’s kids goes beyond the fact they get along and like each other. They truly care for each other — they watch out for each other and have each other’s back. They have learned how to share — perhaps the proximity of so many others has something to do with making this a necessity. Yes, each is right on schedule with the normal stages of strong ego development! But they have a quality of self-giving within a web of community that is remarkable in 21st century America.

We can spout all sorts of platitudes about family values and how parents are our first and best teachers. All this is true. Though my nephew, my niece, and their spouses would absolutely deny it and call me deluded and uninformed; they and their kids come about as close to the ideal as is humanly possible.

Yes, their kids are still children! However, from my vantage of 65 years I see them ideally positioned to one day comprehend the fullness of the Christian proclamation…

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
and became obedient to death–
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

In another place Scripture says, “…and a little child shall guide them.” Today my grandnieces and grandnephews have much to teach this old man.

_____________

The story about Abba Pambo is originally from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Rev. ed CS 59. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984. #196 (Pambo 3).  I read the account in Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition by Jane Foulcher. Cistercian Publications. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2015. pp 75-76.

Doing What We Must

How did I ever managed to keep a job? At the end of each day there remains so much left undone! Retiring two years ago seems to have only shifted treadmills. I only have a husband and a dog — how do other people do it?

We can identify sources, suggest reasons, even assign blame. One thing for sure, it’s a whole lot bigger than any one of us, my particular family or our “plugged-in” digital culture. It would be futile to try rolling back our lives to some idyllic past that exists only in our imagination. How, then, do we live well within the truth of our lives?

One wake-up call came via David Gregory’s new book, How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey. You may recall Gregory as a former White House correspondent for NBC and then moderator of Meet the Press. Married to one of four federal prosecutors who gained the conviction of Timothy McVeigh, he and Beth Wilkinson are the parents of three young children. They certainly ride the crest of our frenetic, digitalized culture.

It took this Jewish author, wrestling with the salience of his faith and values they want to pass on to their children, to remind me of something foundational: Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.  Wham — keeping Sabbath ranks right up there with (in fact it gets higher billing than) not killing, stealing or committing adultery.

That having been said, an important proviso needs highlighting. Pope Francis offered that essential reminder in a different context this week. Our “obedience” is not a ploy to earn or deserve God’s love. No, mature obedience is our generous response to finding that we are already loved by God.

We keep Sabbath, not to placate a vengeful God, but in faithful gratitude for having been created in God’s own image and called into Covenant relationship. That spirit comes through in the simple meditation David Gregory reads around the family dinner table on Fridays:

As I light these Shabbat candles, I feel the frenzied momentum of the week slowly draining from my body. I thank You, Creator, for the peace and relaxation of the Shabbat, for the moments to redirect my energies toward the treasures in my life which I hold most dear.

All Ten Commandments prescribe elemental parameters for who we are, practical reminders of what went wrong in the Garden of Eden — we too easily think we are God, or at least need to act as if we are gods. Yes, regularly pausing to take a breath seems impractical, impossible, foolish — and that is precisely the point!

Keeping Sabbath is not just a Jewish thing; it’s a human necessity. It prescribes that we at least slow down, if not stop. We are reminded to let go, look around, remember and savor creation. Shabbat is time to observe, perhaps to see; to listen, perhaps to hear.

On the sixth day of each week we too look over all God has made, and we see that it is very good! We remember who we are, as a person, as a people, as creatures within a most splendid creation.

We do so in obedience to a Covenant that binds us in love only to set us free.

_______________

How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey by David Gregory.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. My reflection was inspired by pages 65-68.

Pope Francis’ comments about obedience were made during a homily at a weekday Mass earlier this week.  My source was a post on Twitter.

Taking Personal Inventory

“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.

Forty-Eight Hours Before the Wedding

Do you believe in serendipity?  Its more than coincidence.  More than luck, even.  Serendipity surprises us unaware with the appearance of valuable connections or pleasant experiences we had not anticipated nor could have even sought.  Serendipity is a lot like sheer grace.

Participating in “Prayer at the Fair” — the Sunday morning ecumenical service at the Minnesota State Fair — presented a marvelous moment of serendipity.  I am still savoring a poem by Maya Angelou days later:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

__________

Maya Angelou’s poem is entitled Touched by An Angel and is readily available online and in the poet’s collected works.

For the Love of Strawberries

A story is told of Bertha and Abraham Maslow… like many couples who marry at a young age — she was 19 and he was 20 — they struggled financially as their daughters Ann and Ellen arrived. As Abraham completed his degree at City College, the young family indulged simple pleasures within their constrained budget.

A favorite family outing was to go to one of the many city parks in their New York neighborhood where Abraham and Bertha had both grown up. During strawberry season the parents would splurge on one carton and carefully divide the berries among the four of them.

The parents would generally nibble on only one strawberry. Being the ebullient young children Ann and Ellen were, the girls would quickly gobble down their full share oblivious to their parents restraint. Abraham and Bertha knew their children would soon be back asking for more of the juicy, sweet treats.

Years later, after he had become one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century, Abraham would recall moments like these in the city park, “Bertha and I learned that strawberries never taste better than in the mouths of our children.”

My unexamined assumption is that the Maslows were Jewish. Their religious affiliation does not matter — their human experience as parents points to something foundational to all the great world religions — a deep, down unity and goodness girding all creation, the felt experience that all is bound up in the Holy, and we are “wired” to participate in this Love.

Contemplative practices of all faith traditions entice, nudge, cajole us to embrace a single-hearted unity with all creation — what my friend Ellen Swanson likes to call “community without conformity.” The Maslow’s strawberries — indeed the simplest of all genuinely human encounters — open for us what is nothing less than a mystical experience, we find God in all persons and all creation!

The mature spiritual life takes us beyond the prescriptions of what is “right,” “moral,” “just,” or “equal.” We are set free from the prescriptions for every step we take or move we make because some authority has “said so” or “others are watching.” We ourselves become the dance; our living becomes the loving; we are swept off our feet by the One who is Love.

The Maslow family came to appreciate this Love through strawberries. Jesus speaks of this in many ways, at many times and ultimately with his life — “unless a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die…” We find our life by losing it. Those who would save their life will give it away.

Love, life, God are never so wonderfully tangible as when shared in selfless communion with family, neighbors, whomever is hungry among us.

Needing to Knead

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!