Impossibly Grateful

One of the down sides of having something you perceive to be “impossible” happen for you at a young age,  is that it becomes pretty easy to believe that “impossible” things will become possible for you just because you write them down and want them to happen.

I think for years I believed (still do sometimes, when I forget that I know better) if I just wanted something enough, willed it into my life, it would happen.  Then, when those things did happen, not knowing any better, I’d call it “karma” or “dumb luck” or a “blessing.”  And as long as life continued on, more or less as I planned for myself, than it was easy for me to continue believing that way.

The problem came, though, when suddenly life was not going according to my plan.  People I loved died for no reason, friends turned on me, distance came between me and the ones I loved.  What was I to make of my “dumb luck”, then?  Was this what I’d willed for myself somehow?  And, if so, how could I will it away?

Very often, for most of us, it is in these more desperate hours that we turn to  God.  What do I have to lose?,  we reason.  And so we try our hand at prayer.  We hope that the Being we are praying to somehow picks up on our invisible “smoke signals” of desperation and makes things right for us.  But until then, we have to live with the unknown.  Which can feel a lot like suffering.

But then eventually, somehow, in a way we can’t explain, things do get better for us.  Easier somehow.  Is it time that has healed our hurts?  we wonder.  Is it maturity?  Wisdom?  We don’t really know, but life is suddenly good again, so we do not question.  We simply pick up the pieces and move on.  Hoping for the best, once again.  Perhaps a little more cautious now, but moving forward all the same.

And that’s a shame.

Not that we move forward, or that we remain hopeful, but that we Do. Not. Question.

On a spiritual level, if we do not begin to question our own thinking at some point, especially when life is “good,” then it becomes really easy to say that either God does not matter at all because he has no part in anything we do, or contrarily, that when we make “good” choices God “rewards” us for them, and when we make “bad” God  “punishes” us for those.

Because I’d been brought up a “believer,” I never really considered not “believing. ”  Instead, my belief system for years was more that of  “reward and punishment.” I was especially mindful of it in college and my early adult years.  I’d go to church to “earn God’s favor,” and I’d find life looking up for me.  Then I’d get cocky or bored or self-righteous, stop going to church for a while (which for me was virtually the only time I would pray), and eventually find myself struggling again.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that this makes God moody and vindictive.  A God who wants for us what is good, only when we ourselves have earned that goodness.  A God who then punishes us unless and until we can figure out where we went wrong.  This is very often the God we are introduced to as children in nearly any Old Testament story:  God creates the world and it is good.  Woman (and man) makes a wrong choice, therefore they are punished.  They begin to make better choices,  life gets better.  The world they populate continues to make bad choices,  so God sends a flood to wipe the earth clean.  It goes on and on.

Hopefully all of us at some point, reach a time in our lives when we are forced  to ask, Is this really the God I believe in?  One who gets great joy out of watching me walk through a minefield of missteps and explosions only applauding me when I’ve avoided the mine?   And if we don’t ask different questions, force ourselves to see a bigger picture–ask God to show us a bigger picture– we can all too easily think this is how we are meant to live.  As if God is some sort of Master Programmer who insists on making us guess the rules of  the game.  The problem here is that, if we don’t question Who it is we believe in, we might easily end up believing in a God whose love we must earn, and we forget entirely about the God who from the very beginning “looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” (Gen 1:31)

For me, it wasn’t until I  became a parent myself that I finally began to ask the bigger questions.   Suddenly, I had to take into account what I would teach my children about God.  And I had to take into account how I felt about my children, and weigh that against what I believed God felt about me — one of His children.  This helped me grow a bit and see that while, yes, I do punish my children from time to time for making bad choices, I also –most of the time, in fact–am simply content to let them be, discover, learn and grow on their own.  They do not have to earn my love.  Ever.  Because, as the famous movie line goes, “They had me at hello.”  And if I, in my fallen human state, can feel this kind of love for my children, I reasoned, then how much greater must God’s love be for me?  For us all?

The  journey becomes easier then, when we change to that mindset.  Suddenly, from this perspective we realize that the question is not “What did I do to deserve this suffering?,” but rather, “Have I ever done anything to deserve any part of my life–good or the bad?”

And the seed of gratitude is planted.

Gratitude is often the “cure” for just about anything that ails us.  In a state of gratitude, I am reminded that nothing is promised me.  Not wealth.  Not fortune.  Not fame.  Not motherhood.  Not marriage.  Not success.  Not recognition.  Not power.  Not wisdom. Not even My. Next. Breath.

It’s all a gift.  Freely given.

From the vantage point of gratitude, I can see that while I’m disappointed because I’m not getting what I want right now, at the same time, I can see all the things I’ve been given up until now that I also didn’t deserve.

For me this makes God a much more lovable Being.  A Being worth believing in. Someone with whom I really wouldn’t mind spending all of eternity.

That is the pilgrim’s journey that I am celebrating this holiday.

It is the best and only way I know to honestly “give thanks.”

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Doing the Impossible

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss, but that it is too low and we reach it.   Michelangelo

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I may be settling for less than my full potential.    When I’m feeling this way, I spend some time writing down some things that I would love to be able to say I’ve done, but that I really don’t think are within my grasp of doing before I die.

I’ve been doing this since I was in high school.  At that time, I was invited to a youth leadership conference at one of my home state’s three major universities.  I was 17 years old, and one of the motivational speakers at the conference challenged us to write 100 things that we would like to do before we died.  Today such lists have grown in popularity and have been dubbed “bucket lists,”  because they are things you’d like to do before you “kick the bucket.”  But back in 1990, this was the first time I’d heard of such a thing.  I was hooked!

I went home and made my list.

Now, crazy as it may sound, one of the things that I really wanted to do at the age of 17 was fly an airplane.  No doubt this was in large part due to  having just seen  The Navy’s astonishing and very impressive Blue Angels that summer at our local air show.  The thundering of the engines, the deafening roar of the jets, the formations and aerobatics were spectacular and made an impression on me.  So, it was a no- brainer, of course.   And we’d been told to put anything on there, no matter how crazy and ridiculous it sounded.  I had no desire, mind you to get a pilot’s license, but I also had no intention of just flying as a passenger either.  How will I ever be able to fly an airplane, with nothing more than an expectation?  I wondered.  I had a pretty good idea that  this would be one of those dreams I would probably eventually outgrow before I’d had a chance to do it, but I was willing to see what the world might offer me.

Fast forward a few months when I started dating a long-time friend (who is now my husband, I might add).  I was fascinated to learn one day that one of his 4 brothers  was a flight instructor at the time, at a nearby university.  I can’t even recall anymore how the rest of the story came to be…did my husband tell his brother I wanted to fly a plane?  Were we just bored one afternoon and decided to go flying?  The details of how we made a decision to fly around for the afternoon escape me now.   What I do remember is that we pulled into the small airfield where his brother worked and I thought my (future) husband and sister-in-law and I were all going to be passengers in the little four passenger Cessna, but as we climbed in, his brother said to me, “Did you want to be the pilot today?”

“WHAT??!?!?!  How is that even possible?” I asked, dumbfounded (and slightly giddy).

“This is an instructor plane,” he informed me. “We both have all the same instrument controls, so I can override any mistakes you might make,” he said.  “Except the brakes.  I don’t have brakes, ” he said.

Aren’t those kind of important? I thought, but I didn’t dare ask out loud.  Instead, before I could change my mind, blink, or most worrisome of all–wet myself –I was sitting in the pilot’s seat ready for takeoff.

“Clear prop!”  I bellowed out the window.  To which all three passengers on board with me laughed as there was no one around but maybe a stray cow or two.   Still…it was part of protocol on the checklist my brother-in-law had shown me .  (There was just no need to say it so LOUD, he informed me later.)  Next thing  I knew we were taxing down the runway, reading the gauges, pulling back the wheel and in the air!

Whew! We made it! Now what?  I wondered.  We circled around in the air for a half hour or so, taking in the views of the Mississippi River as it bent its way around the river town of Dubuque, Iowa.  As our air time was nearing its end, my brother-in-law radioed the tower for something called a  “touch-and-go.”  This meant, he informed me, that we would be touching down on the landing strip, accelerating, and taking off again.  As we touched down, I pulled back on the wheel, accelerated and before I knew it, we had left the ground again, all under the control my own two hands!  In case there was any doubt later in the minds of our two other passengers, my brother-in-law grinned at me and turned back to look at them with his hands in the air to indicate I had just landed and taken off in the airplane– all on my own!

Though we’d landed safely shortly after our “touch-and-go,” I didn’t come down off the proverbial “Cloud 9” for probably another week or two.  I could hardly believe that one of the FIRST things I’d been able to cross of my “bucket list” was one of the seemingly most impossible things!  This left me both thrilled and somewhat disappointed.  On the one hand, if I was able to cross this item off my list–an item that had seemed laughingly impossible–then what other seemingly impossible things might I be able to accomplish in my lifetime?  On the other hand, to have something so seemingly impossible come to fruition so easily made me wonder for a moment, did this mean I was going to die soon?  And, if so, it was disappointingly obvious that this single event, though thrilling, was hardly enough to leave me satisfied leaving this earth for an early grave.

Then I remembered something the presenter had told us when he challenged us to write the lists.  He said to never stop updating them.   So after a few days’ time, I wrote a new dream in it’s place:  Fly with the Blue Angels.

Of course, when I first wrote down these desires at the age of 17, God and His plans for me was not near as much a part of my daily life as it is now. Still, I can’t help but think now that God was sending me a very powerful message at that time, and His Spirit is reminding me of that message in the memory of it all: anything is possible. Don’t settle.

Now that I’m older, I still have the list.  I’ve realized an added benefit to it, too, as the years tick by: the more things I write down, the more I force myself to realize what I really want out of my life instead of what others may want me to do. Plus, I have the added benefit of an ongoing relationship with God now, which of course means that I now know with even greater faith and understanding that “all things are possible.” Mt 19:26

It’s been years since I wrote down that desire to fly with the Blue Angels, and it still sits untouched on my list. Now, as an almost 40-year-old mother of three with no connections to the military it seems all but impossible I’ll ever get that chance.  In fact, a few years ago, my husband worked with someone who had been a mechanic on an aircraft carrier for the F/A-18’s, (the same model as the Blue Angels)  and told him I had dreams of flying with the Blue Angels one day.  My husband then asked him what the “odds” were of me ever being able to fly with the Blue Angels.  His co-worker told him my chances were “pretty much impossible.”  My husband came home and shared this little insight with me.  “You may just want to cross that one off your list,” he said.

While I realize that he’s right–my chances really are almost impossible–the thought of taking that dream off the list makes me feel as though I’d be letting myself down.  What it stands for means so much more to me than actually getting the chance to do it.  That’s when I realized that  I hope to never stop coming up with things for my list because the more I see some of the seemingly impossible goals get reached, the more I stretch myself to go further.   I shook my head at my husband and flashed him a grin. “Nope.” I told him, “Not a chance. I’ve done impossible things before.   It’s staying on the list.”

And I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly the kind of “impossible” thinking God was hoping to spark within me all those years ago.

I Will Always Be A Rule Breaker

Over the years,  through a process of prayer and discernment I’ve become more aware of how I judge others.  Don’t let the word discernment intimidate you.  Discernment is really a fancy name for taking notice of our choices in life, and asking for (then interpreting and following) God’s advice.  In many cases, it’s where our gift of human reason gets sprinkled with some Divine Intervention.  Through this process we learn a lot (sometimes painfully) about others and ourselves.

One painful experience I had with this process took place a few years back.  I was waiting to pick my kids up at school and saw a young mom standing with a child on her hip, waiting for her other children to be dismissed from school.  On her shoulder, I noticed a tattoo of  a giant feathered wing of some sort (I presumed part of an eagle) and some writing as well.  I couldn’t read the writing at all, but upon seeing this enormous  (and, in my opinion– obnoxious– tattoo) I did a mental eye roll and turned away at the sight of it.

Ugh.  Tattoos!  I thought , Why do people think they need these??  And what kind of mother goes around with a giant one on her shoulder, like that?

It was that second sentence that, moments later, stung me the most.

As the woman moved closer to me, I could make out the words on the tattoo.  It turned out the wings were not those of an eagle, but of an angel.  And the letters spelled the name of her dead son.  I knew his name because it was unique, and I’d noted it as I’d read about him in the newspaper only a few weeks before.  The article had been about his battle with brain cancer, and their family’s struggles as they balanced jobs,  three other children, and his illness.  It ended with his losing the battle before  he’d celebrated his second birthday.

In that moment, my own thought came back at me with a stinging slap and I realized exactly  “what kind of mother she was.”  She was “the kind of mother” who had experienced depths of sorrow and grieving beyond anything I could even imagine.  She was “the kind of mother” who had seen her infant son’s face twist and wrench into pangs of terror and shrieks of agony beyond anything humanly imaginable.  She was the “kind of mother” who had to answer the difficult questions  of why from her three other children, as they struggled with the loss of their brother, doing her best to answer when she herself couldn’t even really know.

And I wondered why I’d thought it logical and acceptable to cheapen and limit the depth of her motherhood all because of a tattoo.

In that moment of facing my horrible judgment of another, I realized I had a choice.  I could either dismiss and defend my thought by saying to myself something as ridiculous as, Well, even so, I would never get my child’s name tattooed on my shoulder!”   (I mean, while that’s probably true because as a matter of preference I still don’t like tattoos–I also don’t like  skinny jeans or crocheted toilet covers– that was hardly the point).   The point is that her tattoo, in memory and honor of her angelic son, was also a simple matter of her personal taste.  The fact that I’d tried to judge her personal taste to be a reflection of her  ability to parent, was my problem not hers.

I could only think of one thing to do.

I searched deep within my heart and asked, What would You have me do now?   And the answer came so swift and sure, I had no doubt:  pray.

So I did.

Every time I saw her.  (And, not by accident I’m sure, I saw her nearly every day).

Of course, I’d see her mostly at school pickup, but sometimes randomly around town, too.  And each and every time, no matter what kind of frenzied pace I was keeping in order to conquer my day’s activities, I would slow down, at least for a moment, and pray.  I prayed for her, for her children at home, for her spouse, for their health, and for their son in heaven.

I also prayed for me.  I prayed for forgiveness of my petty judgments (including those yet undetected), for the blessing of motherhood, for the gift of healthy children, and for the need to be reminded (often!) of the fact that despite our personal tastes, despite our harshest criticisms of others, the truth of the matter is that most of the time we’re all just doing the best we know how with the cards we’ve been dealt.

As a result, I no longer worry about “breaking” the rule that says, “Do not judge.” (Mt 7:1)  In my fallen human state, I doubt I’m any more likely to follow that law to the letter than I am of driving the speed limit.  Instead, I do the only thing I know to do:  I observe my judgments as I become aware of them, and I ask in the depths of my heart, What would You have me do now?

And what I get in return is never the finger-wagging reprimand with a harsh command to stop judging, that I feel I deserve.  No.  Instead, I most often get the simple gift of seeing how my harshest, pettiest judgments can be turned into loving actions for others (and even myself).

And that is a “breaking” of a whole other sort.

It’s judgment transformed.

“Do Not Judge!” (Oh,But I Do…)

The older I get, the more I understand that any rule I am given out of concern for my own well-being, is worth taking a second look at.  Especially because such rules, at first glance, are ridiculously easy to understand, (i.e., go on green, stop on red), but many more, while just as easy to comprehend are far more difficult to carry out  (i.e., while I understand a speed limit of 55 mph means that 55 mph should be my maximum speed for the safety of myself and those around me, I very often go 60 mph because that is the speed that I deem will keep me “safe” from getting a speeding ticket).   Such rules, then, as we grow more confident and comfortable with the intention of them, quickly become something we dub to be “rules of thumb” rather than “hard and fast” rules (i.e., don’t drink and drive).

Many of the rules that Jesus gives us can begin the same way:   easy to understand, but difficult to follow.  Most recently, I came across this passage in my Bible study class on the Gospel of Matthew:  “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1).  And upon reading this, I was hit with two thoughts:  Yikes!  That sounds impossible!   and almost at the same time:   Thank goodness I don’t judge people as much as some people I know!  (Read that sentence again if you missed the irony of it).

The truth is that both of my reactions to this rule are just that:  reactions.  And reactions,  by their very nature, don’t take into account the larger picture of the reason for the rule.  Reactions don’t cast light on the myriad of ways in which we judge others, ourselves, and even God.   In fact, because I was so busy reacting, it wasn’t until I read the passage a second time that I was even able to comprehend the rest of the sentence–the part that  explains WHY we shouldn’t judge– “so that you may not be judged.” (Mt 7:1)

I was reminded then of how, years earlier, I’d made a Lenten promise to “give up” my sins of judgment and jealousy.  Now, I knew this would be a challenge, but I thought I could at least go a day or two before I would really be tested in the process of “giving them up.”  Much as He always does, though, God had other plans.

Ash Wednesday morning, (a.k.a. the FIRST DAY of Lent), I had a petty thought about a friend of mine:  I immediately “predicted” she would fail to “properly observe” the Holy Day by wiping off the ashes on her forehead after attending morning Mass.  (As Catholics, we are taught from a young age that doing so is a big “no-no”).  I’m embarrassed for having entertained this thought now on so many levels, but at the time, I didn’t see my “prediction” as a judgment at all.   I merely saw it as a “logical prediction of future behavior based on past behavior” and all but accepted it as “fact.”   Later that day, when I bumped into my friend,  I was shocked to see the ashes still on her forehead.   Shocked only because I’d been proven wrong.

After some introspection, (a.k.a. an inner tantrum-throwing fit whereby I attempted to vehemently defend my inexcusable judgment of my friend to God), I was able to be grateful for the gift of having been shown my fault.  If my friend had behaved as I’d expected, I would likely have been able to go the course of the entire day patting myself on the back for having successfully “given up” my sins by having made no judgments at all.  It was only in being proven wrong, that my eyes were opened to the fact that I’d judged my friend.

To this day, I think that being wrong about such a “prediction”  of my friend’s behavior on the first day of Lent was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I shudder to think about how long it may have taken me to realize that I was judging someone else if my “prediction” had been “right.”

The Five Books That Most Shaped My Mystic Mind, Day 5

I sincerely apologize for my long overdue reveal of the Number 1 book on my list to date.  Sometimes, despite my best intentions, I get sidetracked from this “job” in Blogville, that I enjoy so much.  For me, the past two weeks have been full of other volunteer duties, as well as the traditional duties that fall under that grandest of job descriptions commonly referred to as “mom.”  While I regret none of the time spent on my other projects and activities, I do regret that the trade-off ended up being time spent away from this blog and YOU.

With that, please know that it is with great pleasure that I  pick up today where I last left off–with the one book that I’ve most recently read that has shaped my mystic mind!  This particular book is one that I stumbled upon in my parish library last spring.  In it, I was introduced to the desert fathers of the early church.  This introduction into the desert fathers is largely responsible for the progression of this blog.  With the simplest of lifestyles, these desert fathers (and, as I discovered in other books… desert mothers!) seem to have developed a deep, deep wisdom from spending time alone (with God) in the desert.  It is amazing to me how, like the wisdom of so many holy men and women, the truths of what they learned still have relevance in the 21st Century.

While I’ve read several books on the desert fathers and mothers since last spring, the first book that introduced me to them is the one that I will never forget, as it is the book responsible for opening the door for me into their way of life:

1.  Heaven Begins Within You by Anselm Gruen

Without question, for me, it was the title that first intrigued me.  The idea that heaven–that often thought of far-off place where we hope to reside upon our earthly death–begins within me, was so intriguing a thought, I simply had to read on.

Like all the great mysteries of life, I often find it difficult–even forget completely sometimes–what I’ve learned about “heaven” from reading this book.  That being said, I do have a much better awareness of “heaven” in my life, when I experience it.  It comes as a surprise to me, both in the ways in which God brings tastes of heaven to me here and now, and in my own willingness to see it.  And perhaps that is what this book has opened me to the most, the idea that our relationship with God is really about two distinct relationships that depend on each other:  1.  our relationship with “God” –that vast and endless being we can neither see, nor properly define– and 2.  our relationship with “self,” which is really no less vast nor easily defined.

This book draws that picture quite clearly from the get-go when it brings up the words of Evagrius, a desert father and early church monastic, who boldly states from the first pages, “If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first!”  Since first reading these words last Spring, I’ve continued to scratch away at these two relationships.  The two relationships that the mystic Frances of Assisi stated simply as two prayerful questions, “Who are you, God?  And who am I?”

I find it simultaneously embarrassing and comforting to tell you that most of what I’m left with by asking these questions about God and self is really…more questions!  But, the comforting part is that each of those questions call me deeper and deeper into their respective relationships with self and God.  And that leads me to the only “answer” I can seem to find:   that in both of these relationships we are required to accept an unfathomable expanse of uncertainty.  By this, I don’t mean the hand-wringing, gut-wrenching uncertainty that accompanies us when we are in a state of doubt.  I mean the uncertainty that we knew as children, when we were free to wonder, and ponder, and hold in awe the possibility of what is yet to come.

And that is where I am now:  comforted by the realization that as I approach the BIG 4-0, I have  been released from the bonds of needing to know everything.  Worries, while still present, are more quickly eased.  Doubt, which still tempts me, is more readily extinguished.  And fear, which still grips me from time to time, is eased with the balm of that which I know for sure:  I always have a choice.

I can choose to become consumed with worry about the things I desperately want to control, but can’t, or I can choose to accept worry as a natural reaction of my all-consuming self and then–just as freely–choose to let it go.

I can choose to be swallowed up by doubts, or I can choose to accept doubt as a natural stepping stone in the process of faith, by remembering that doubt’s opposite–certainty– has no part of faith either.   Because that which we already know, has no need for us to “believe.”

I can choose to become gripped with fear about everything from getting my Christmas cards out on time to my own untimely death, or I can choose to accept that fear is a side effect of my fallen human state and that while understandable, is hardly effective in helping me deal with the Divine Reality that IS.

And there it is.

Those last three paragraphs that I just typed right there.

Did you see it?  Did you feel it?

As best I can describe, it is in those moments of awareness in my own ability to choose (free will)  that I see how God is both in control, and has given me control.  It is how God is both present in all that I do, but not micro-managing me.  It is how I  grow in both self-knowledge and in Divine Wisdom.

For that reason, I urge you to continue  your own journey.  The journey within you, and the journey into the Divine. The journey into your Truest Self, and the journey into the Ultimate Being.

And while I confess that I forget it much of the time, through those journeys I’ve experienced the surprising realization every once in a while– like the shock of static received from innocently dragging my stockinged feet across a carpet–that in probing  these two relationships, I am really not on two journeys at all, but One Great Journey.

Along the way, there have been moments when I’ve experienced the Absolute Truth where my Deepest Self and the Divine Being that I call God intersect.   When that happens, it is like an ancient gong has sounded the eternal cry:  “the truth [has] set you free.” (John 8:32)

And I don’t know about you, but I can think of no better word to describe that experience than “heaven.”