“What Do You Want For Christmas?”

Many are familiar with my banana story. A few years back on April 5, my mother’s birthday, I was slicing a banana over my morning Raisin Bran. A warm consolation suddenly transported me back nearly 60 years. I was a little boy and Mom was slicing a banana over my breakfast cereal. She gave me half. To my protestations of wanting the whole banana Mom simply said, “Richard, you can have your share but you need to leave some for the others.”

This morning her words again hit me with a jolt. Sitting in my recliner, French Roast in hand, I felt a sudden, final “drop” of an elevator settling upon arrival on a lower level. For years I have been focusing on only half of her wisdom — “you have to leave some for the others.” That’s essential counsel for a 5 year old, especially given Mom’s challenge of feeding ten kids. But Mom was also saying, “You can have your share.”

These days — and many decades beyond 5 years old — its easy to deflect our loved ones’ queries about what we want for Christmas. “Oh, honey, I don’t need a thing! A pair of socks or underwear would be just fine.” How deflating is that to their holiday spirit! The temptation to take less under the pretense of appearing “loving” lurks just below the surface in many of us. Such pseudo-humility still leaves its focus on me. More insidiously, it risks gutting our inherent value as persons.

It’s taken decades for me to glean the gentle, compassionate wisdom elders have been quietly modeling. To be truly humble means to be grounded, like humus, in the richness of our true selves. Humility has little to do with making ourselves less than we are. Rather, humility lies in the honest acceptance of our true selves as blessed creatures with legitimate desires and needs — as well as faults — woven into relationship with others within this magnificent creation.

Yes, in a consumerist culture fixated on “self” and “stuff” there are enormous pressures to buy, binge and indulge. Powerful forces easily subvert moderation, balance, equilibrium. Needs get inflated, desires distorted. But for mature people intent on doing good, the more pressing danger is much more complicated and fraught with peril — that we make too little of ourselves!

Mom unwittingly conveyed another bit of essential wisdom. Born before women had the right to vote, cultural norms continued to constrain her options and proscribe her self-initiative. Weighed down by ten kids (as her tenth child I have a distinct right to state this), Mom was further coerced into putting others first.

This morning, over my cereal, I hear her saying, “Richard, you have to have a self before you can give it away.” In this, too, she remains one of my best teachers and most humble human beings I will ever know.

Too many are still prevented by social norms and unjust structures from discovering and celebrating the fullness of their God-given dignity. Is there any question about what should be on our Christmas wish list?

Bring It On… All of It!

Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed? And if we don’t, who among us does not succumb to the seasonal pressure to pretend that we are. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday — and all the rest — whisk us toward the inevitability of “the Holidays.” Baubles galore are dangled in front of us as if material consumption can somehow quench our deep human longing. It’s exhausting!

Need it be? We too easily buy a bill of goods feeding a belief that the good life is one of luxury and ease, a life free of pain or insecurity. The older we get the more we appreciate the foolishness of our ways and the incapacity of that standard to deliver. In fact, those fortunate enough to reach the Biblical benchmark of three-score-and-ten are quite familiar with diminishment, loss and slowing down. What might that be about?

Despite our frenzied pace, even with our convenience items, not withstanding our creature comforts, we know in our gut there is something more. Our hearts crave something deeper. We seek a joy greater than mere happiness; we desire an abiding serenity that rests securely beneath all the turbulence; ultimately, all we want is to savor a bit of that Love which resides within the eye of the hurricane.

For millennia, that’s what this time of year has been about. The winter solstice invites us to celebrate the potency of womb-like darkness. Christians know this season as Advent — a period of intentional longing and expectancy for the pregnancy of time to finally deliver light, life, a savior. As with the birth of every child, we cannot short-circuit the development only patience brings forth. We can only enter the process, embrace the promise. We must receive the powerlessness and vulnerability of a newborn into our lives.

Our cultural traditions and social customs — richly diverse as they may be — have the potential to distract us from this one necessity. We can flutter above in a frenzied haze and never find that which alone is the “perfect gift” we seek. So knowing it as a wish for myself as much as for anyone else, I offer the following as a prayer. May we all experience more of what this season has in store for us:

I do not know what these shadows ask of you,

what they might hold that means you good or ill.

It is not for me to reckon whether you should linger or you should leave.

 

But this is what I can ask for you:

 

That in the darkness there be a blessing.

That in the shadows there be a welcome.

That in the night you be encompassed

by the Love that knows your name.

 

-Jan Richardson from Advent 1: A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark

_______________

Thanks to the website of Wisdom Ways, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, MN for brining this poem by Jan Richardson to my attention.

The Paradox of Parents

Mom and Dad had tough lives! Married in 1931 as the Great Depression and drought was overtaking their Nebraska farming community, they wouldn’t leave the farm until 1945 at the end of World War II. I’m the youngest of ten kids and how they managed to feed, clothe and educate us all in Catholic school remains one of the great miracles of our family history. Naturally, my parents and the life they passed on conjures special memories at Thanksgiving.

Dad dropped out of school in the 10th grade because Grandpa needed help on the farm. Grandpa was known to have said, “After you have reading and can work numbers, what more do you need?” Cultural norms presumed that every girl was destined to become a farm wife. These values precluded Mom from even beginning high school despite earning the top score in Cedar County on the standardize 8th grade exams.

There was a time while pursuing professional and advanced masters degrees that my parents lack of formal education was an embarrassment. I lived in fear that if my “sophisticated”, upper class friends really new of my humble, uneducated heritage they would see me as the fraud I was. Clearly, my exaggerated ego and fragile self-image was a powerful force in all this pretense and hiding of factual truths. No more!

This weekend I’m savoring The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life by William Martin. It’s been news to me that Lao Tzu is said to have been the teacher of Confucius more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Unlike his much more prolific student, Lao Tzu left us only about five thousand words. Most of these are in his Tao Te Ching. His is not esoteric, academic “book learning” as my Grandpa might have said. Rather Lao Tzu passes on practical wisdom, the sort of genius I now recognize my Mom and Dad had in abundance.

Today’s a case in point. I’ve been mulling over #52 of Tao Te Ching‘s ninety-one brief teachings:

The world has said

that those who do the right things,

choose the right careers,

work hard,

and avoid mistakes,

shall satisfy their desires

and be at peace.

The sage knows

that this is an illusion born of fear.

Great accomplishments do not bring peace.

Massive failures do not bring despair.

The choice between peace

and despair

is an inner choice

that may be made at any moment.

***

I see much despair among the aging

that is so unnecessary.

Our history does not determine our present.

Peace is always available to us.

It is a matter of choice.

William Martin’s new interpretation in The Sage’s Tao Te Ching is masterful for the way it captures the nuanced polarities of our lives some sevenhundred generations after being composed. He captures the perplexities and paradox of success and failure, gain and loss, love and fear, sickness and health, life and death embedded in Lao Tzu’s genius.

Mom and Dad probably knew very little about Confucius. I’m certain they had never heard of Lao Tzu. But they seemed to have known every bit as much when they’d pass on such aphorisms as, “Life is pretty much what you choose to make of it!” or “You are about as happy as you make up your mind to be!” Yes, their lives where tough! Yet, their lives were distinguished by generosity, love, faith, determination and hard work. Circumstances didn’t often lend themselves to having fun, but they even indulged a bit of that from time to time.

This Thanksgiving weekend, kicking back and relaxing as we are able, I am immensely grateful and proud to have been raised by ones so learned and wise. Mom and Dad passed along the best education I could have ever received.

Letting Go

Those who love me do so despite my over-sized ego, propensity to confuse my considered opinions with objective truth, and a dogged commitment to “my way” of doing things. This is not a new insight and some especially good friends have been able to reflect back to me some of this truth, if ever so cautiously.

At 67 I’m trying to accept a certain “fixed-ness” about my personality. I’m trying to live with a turn on the popular phrase, “What I see is what I get it!” On this Thanksgiving weekend I am increasingly aware of and grateful for those who look beyond my faults and failings to love me for the jumbled mixture of good and bad that I am.

For awhile now, my “sacred word” in a sputtering practice of Centering Prayer has been rapha, meaning to be weak, to let go, to release. Given my challenge outlined above, there should be no surprise that its grounded in “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10). Some more learned than me suggest my “sacred word” might better be translated as “cause yourselves to let go” or “let yourselves become weak”.

Many days I struggle (a more honest verb might be avoid) fitting in my 20 minute meditation period. While the house is quiet this Thanksgiving morning and my husband makes pies for our family feast this afternoon there are no distractions from climbing the stairs to my prayer “cave”. As always, Jeb the Dog dutifully follows and positions himself on the rug behind me.

Rapha … rapha … rapha … settles my breathing as I attempt to be still, let go, release from my over-sized ego-self. Thoughts and distractions vie for attention much like frenzied fans yell, “me, me, me; here, here, here” to the stadium attendant tossing wiffle balls into the stands before a game.

As my iPhone timer silently ticks off the assigned 20 minutes, more pious thoughts wedge their way into an array of flashy images being cast onto the scrim of my ego. From Philippians 2: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped [now there’s a huge ego distraction for you!] but humbled himself.” The Annunciation… “Be it done unto me according to your will.” Or Jesus in the Garden… After expressing his opinion to the point of sweating blood, it was not his ego-self mustering a reluctant “But not my will but yours be done.”

Rapharapharapha … soon even such piously occluded projections fade as the distraction they are from a much needed nudge to become weak, to truly let go, to actually release my 67 y/o ego-self to the One who is truly God.

Rapharapharapha … as the iPhone chimes gently invite me back after the assigned minutes it is not the psalmist, Mary of Nazareth, or even Jesus facing crucifixion that grounds my consolation. Surprisingly, but ever so graciously, May Sarton’s AutumnSonnet gives voice to that which is anything but a distraction: “cause yourselves to let go”; “let yourselves become weak”.

With the suggestion that “my ego” be substituted for “you” in the first and last lines, I offer her words to you…

If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one,
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure — if I can let you go.

———————-
AutumnSonnet by May Sarton, from “Selected Poems of May Sarton” 1978.
John J. Parsons provides a marvelous reflection on “surrender” and more fully explains the Hebrew origins of rapha. I encourage you to take a look at:
‪http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Meditations/Be_Still/be_still.html ‬

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.

What’s Really on My Mind; What’s Really Going On

You’re correct… I haven’t been blogging much recently. Part of the reason is that I have felt constricted by a presumed obligation to write “for others” and not for myself. Would my honest curiosities and musings be too raw, too honest? Would anyone else really care? I’ve heard the blank response from my family (perhaps the only ones caring enough or willing to tell me), “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!”

Well, today is different! Here’s what’s on my mind, the stuff I really want to talk about, what I’m really wrestling with inside. It’s from an email I just sent to a dear soul-mate friend with whom I had a long overdue phone conversation last evening. I offer it here with the simple desire to transparently “let others in” and with a faint hope that something, anything, will be of interest — maybe even helpful — to someone else. Here’s what’s been on my mind and what I really want to write…

Thanks for the great conversation. Really good to reconnect. It’s triggered a few more thoughts prompted by recalling that I had not spoken of a key awareness central to the “shift in consciousness” I’m aware of HAPPENING TO ME. And that last part is critical… happening to me.

I used to interpret the likes of Stephen Fowler and such behavioral psychologists as if we/I somehow had the ability or responsibility to “recraft” or even “recreate” our sense of meaning (e.g., our understanding of God, our “faith” as if it were some sort of volitional act). No!!! Now I’m recognizing that this “reformulation” is something that happens TO US, is done FOR US, is given (grace).

This is why talking with you is so important. I don’t create or craft the “shift in consciousness”. I don’t do the work. It’s done to us, for us!!! Nevertheless, speaking about it clarifies the experience (sheer gift) and enables me to recognize it, to RECEIVE IT! Thanks, buddy!

Another recognition from the past couple months of my wrestling with what felt like depression (dark night?)… the institutional church (in my case, the Society of Jesus but compounded by the global clergy sex abuse crisis that triggers my PTSD) betrayed me. Charlottesville and the pardoning of the AZ sheriff, etc. further sends me over the edge because it to also triggers my sense of betrayal.

I’ve both a BA and MA in Political Science, I worked for the Nebraska Legislature for 4 years, been a delegate to state Democratic conventions, staffed a district Congressional office (all before entering the SJ). I taught American Government as a regent, did a summer internship in DC with Network, spent three years doing human rights advocacy at the Jesuit Conference again in DC. I could be fairly described as having been a “Faith & Justice” Jesuit (I would be honored by such an epilation).

Trump and our thoroughly dysfunctional Congress feels to me like wholesale betrayal (not to mention the racist and fascist undertow and allusions) by the institutions of government — our “public life”, really — paralleling the earlier betrayal by the church. In other words our public institutions have proven themselves to be wholly undeserving/unworthy of the faith I/we presumed I/we could place in them.

This is the context in which I experienced the killing on July 15 of our neighbor, Justine Damond, by a Minneapolis police officer. She had called 911 for help — actually she was reporting what she feared was a sexual assault in the back alley. She was doing what she trusted was the correct and right thing to do. Those who were invested with the public trust to “protect” us shot her! (Welcome to the world of Black America!!!!).

Again, those in whom we thought we could place our trust proved, not only to be unworthy of trust, but abusive. In sum, the core institutions of our culture — the very foundations for my sense of meaning and trust — have proven to be bankrupt and even a source of betrayal.

That’s the context for my outrage about “God never gives us more than we can handle” bullshit and my passionate insistence, “Oh yes He does, AND THAT’S PRECISELY THE POINT!!!” I/we don’t reformulate or recreate “our” concept of God or recompose our understanding of faith. It’s done FOR US, TO US. My best way to give expression to the experience is that “We are BIRTHED into it!”

BTW, I hope you noticed that I used male specific language to describe God just above. That was choiceful and deliberate! Even our politically correct language and tip-toeing around our God-talk for fear of “offending” someone else’s sensibilities — or that gender-specific language somehow “limits” or “constrains” God — is fairly bankrupt in itself (if not a pile of bullshit — but we dare not say that out loud, do we😨😱😃👍👏👌)?

Maybe the reason I don’t blog very much any more is because this is really the stuff I want to write about. And I’m aware that most people wouldn’t know what the hell I’m talking about (I hope that’s not as elitist as it sounds). And for those who do, they’d take it as a cognitive exercise, an “academic” speculation, a Lonerganian “insight” we think we can “comprehend” in our 30s. And the truth is it’s just the opposite.

It’s not something we comprehend or “command” as as if we were strategically moving pieces in a cosmic game of chess! Every shift in consciousness is done to us, for us, is wholly given! We are continuously re-birthed when the womb in which we have found so much security and nourishment is found to be inadequate (i.e., “not-God”), actually idolatrous. When God gives us (i.e., invites, teases, nudges us to experience) more than we can handle!!!

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity sayeth the Lord!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

TS Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”: “I should be glad of another death.”

😎😃😉🤡🤓 Smile… this is all very Good News!

Mustering Gratitude

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!”