Break: A Spirituality of the Eucharist in Four Parts

(This is the third post in a four-part series.  To see my intro from Part 1 about my inspiration for this series, click here.)

Break

As I was praying for insight regarding the meaning of “breaking” in my own life, two ideas came to me.  First came the memory of those moments when things just happen to us, and in those moments even time itself becomes broken, in a sense, from their experience.  There is only a “before” this event, and an “after” this event.  Those moments may include things like the loss of a loved one, the end of a friendship or relationship, or the relocating of our families.  But there are also times where we notice we need to “break open” in a sense to new thinking and new ways of seeing others and ourselves.  It is this latter type of “breaking” that I want to illustrate for you today,  because these moments are very often moments of “subtraction” and the “second half of life” experiences that I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

(Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, the story I’m sharing today was originally posted on my blog in November 2012 under the title “I Will Always Be a Rule Breaker,” but even now it best illustrates, I think, why we can find reason to give thanks for those moments where we find ourselves broken…and humbled…and perhaps in the truest sense of the word, “blessed.”)

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,  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 is judgment transformed.

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Freely Given

When I was a tween, I loved the “Flowers in the Attic” books by V.C. Andrews.  They were among one of the first “scandalous” books about love and family I’d read, and they initiated my cross-over from the  babyish “Young Adult” section to the grown-up “Fiction” section of the book store.  In the pages of those books, I had become so engrossed in the lives of the characters, that I was truly sad to say goodbye to them.  So you can imagine my elation when, a short time later, I learned that V.C. Andrews was releasing a new book—the start of another series.  Wanting to read it right away, I knew it would take a while for me to get a newly released book at our local library, so I made a plan to save up my money and buy it as soon as it hit the book store shelves.  For weeks, I saved up my hard-earned money until finally, I bought the book!    That is why it was such a painful decision when my neighbor–somebody that would hang out with me out of convenience of proximity more than out of interest in being my true friend–asked me if she could borrow the book.  I hadn’t even read it yet, and I told her so.  To me, the fact that I hadn’t yet read it explained everything, but she didn’t seem to think so.  She continued to pester me for the book.  She assured me she would take good care of it.  I felt guilt sinking in.  I began to reason the possibilities.  It’s a brand new book.  She might lose it.  She might not ever give it back.  She might drop it in a mud puddle or spill food on it.  There was no way I would give it to her. But then, my Sunday school upbringing and the image of the Santa Clause-like God that was supposed to teach me goodness and save my soul, (even though He seemed a little bit scary, incredibly powerful and very judgmental), pushed the guilt I felt to an intolerable level within me.  The angel of my conscience must have been all but visible on my shoulder.  You should share. Let her borrow the book. It will get you to heaven.  In the end, my conscience overpowered me.  What could really happen? I shrugged and reluctantly handed her the book, fully expecting it would come back to me as good as new.

Not surprisingly, it took weeks for her to give it back to me.  I would ask about it and drop hints that I would like it back pronto, but it seemed that she was in no hurry.  Further, she informed me the book wasn’t nearly as good as she’d thought it was going to be.  When she finally did return it to me, I nearly cried.  While I clearly enjoyed reading books and tucking in bookmarks to mark my pages in an effort of new-book preservation, she clearly preferred to wrap the front cover around the book as she read, and dog-ear pages or leave the book cracked open, face down to mark her place.  The book no longer looked new.  I was sick to my stomach thinking about the generosity of my heart and the sacrifice I’d made to give her the book.  The world had taught me an important lesson:   Don’t be a doormat.  Stand up for yourself.  Do not be bullied into sharing things that belong to you, even if someone makes you feel guilty. 

I never forgot that lesson the world taught me.  I rarely loaned out books at all, and when I did it was only when I was sure I was done with them, totally prepared to lose them forever.  In other words, only when it would be of no sacrifice to me whatsoever.

As the years wore on, I met others who loved books every bit as much as me, but seemed to have no attachment to them at all.  Instead, where my paranoia and need to control who was taking and bringing  books from my personal library had me feeling frayed and frustrated, they would demonstrate—time and again—their lack of attachment by sharing with me books they’d enjoyed, with no expectation or deadline for their return.  Their actions demonstrated for me a new way of handling my books.  For me, it was the “Jesus way,” the flesh-and-blood-God-with-us experience that opened my heart to reconsider my death-grip hold on my books. That experience softened my approach.  I began to share my books a little more freely, but only to those I had faith in, those who were deserving, those who’d earned my trust.  This loosening of control over my personal library left me feeling God-like.  Generous. Almighty. What I failed to see though was that I had only “evolved” into the God of my youth—the Santa Clause-like God who gave toys to only the “good boys and girls.”

Years later, the fact was dawning on me that perhaps my “generous” actions to embody the “image” in Whom I’d been made were no longer a true representation of the God in which I believed.  This was barely a thought, really.  But it is clear to me now this thought was dawning on me because I’d made a new friend who was raising the bar for me in the world of book-loaning.  I had taken note with awe at countless books she’d given me.  Time and time again.  At least a dozen.  Maybe more.  And I mean GIVEN.  Freely.  “You might like this,” she would say.  And inevitably I would.  I would like it.  I would LOVE it, in fact.  And I would tuck it safely on my library shelf, partly because I didn’t know of anyone else who would be interested in reading it, but really–mostly–because I wanted to OWN those books for myself.

Then, barely recognizable, an opportunity presented itself.

Some might call it a “test.”

My husband told me of someone he knew who was really struggling, a recovering addict who was trying to hold his marriage together and stay “recovered,” but who was also feeling so lost and confused and unsure—particularly about God—that he just didn’t know what to do.

I felt for the man as my husband shared his story with me.  I wanted to help him, but how?  Suddenly, I had an idea.  I went and grabbed a book out of cardboard box.  “Tell him he should read this,” I said.  And I showed my husband what I thought would be the perfect answer for this man.  It was my newly bought, unread copy of my favorite author’s book that I had just received from Amazon.  As I showed my husband the book, I felt something stirring inside of me.  A long-forgotten memory perhaps?  I knew this man was struggling.  And I desperately wanted to help. “Tell him to get this book and read it,” I said again, tightening my grip on the book and waving it in my husband’s face.

That lesson of the world was still with me.  I knew that giving things away that were special to me, could leave me feeling very short-changed. This book was unread.  Brand new.  Mine.  I was starting to panic a bit because I had a sinking feeling that I should give him this actual copy, and not make him order his own.  Let’s face it, I knew that when I am struggling–full of fear and doubt and concern and worry—like this man, what helps me most has never been someone telling me to spend my own money, order a book, wait for the book to arrive, and then begin reading.  What has helped me has been someone putting a book in my hand and saying, “Read this.”  Just like my friend had done for me time and time again.  But then a voice of reason chimed in:  if I haven’t read it yet, how do I even know if it’s what he’ll need.  A good point, but quickly forgotten, as my eyes came to rest on the spines of all the books on my shelf given to me over the years by my friend who’d never once asked for reimbursement, nor for their return.  In fact, in that moment I came to the full realization that she’d never even asked me if I’d read them.  And I didn’t know a single person who was more at peace and content with life than her.

I realized then that she, through her actions, had provided for me the experience– the Spiritual embodiment –of “gifts freely given.”

It was the God-like image I was being invited to become myself.

It was also the same opportunity to experience transformation now, just as it was when I was a tween.  The only difference was that now, so many years later, I had the Triune wisdom—the Father, Son and Spirit–of my choices to topple the “worldly wisdom” that had been prevailing within me for so long.  What seemed like “common sense” to hold onto something I’d just bought and hadn’t yet had the chance to enjoy, suddenly seemed hollow and empty in comparison to the opportunity to provide something that just might be the tool this man needed in his struggle.  The “ramifications” of my choices were crystal-clear now:  I was no longer choosing between an angel on my shoulder and my so-called friend’s guilt-trip.  Now, I was choosing between my own selfishness and reaching out to a man in the midst of struggle.  I was experiencing the promise that Jesus made of “his yoke being easy and his burden light.”  The decision was so easy, it could hardly be called a decision.  It was more of a shifting in the wind.  A change in perspective. A “giving in” to the flow of a current much more powerful than I.

“No,” I said then to my husband, “scratch that.  Don’t tell him to get it.  Just give him this one.”

And I see now that both as a tween and as an adult in these two opportunities, I said yes.  But, the first time, I didn’t have the life experience to understand the benefit of my actions, and so I was left with only the “world” pointing out the foolishness of my ways.  Don’t be a doormat.  Stand up for yourself.  Do not be bullied into sharing things that belong to you….  Those thoughts transformed me in ways that I am only now– decades later– beginning to undo:  the hardening of my heart, the giving in to reason, the berating myself for being “too nice.”

For me, had I not stayed on a spiritual journey– not “found God”– I believe it wouldn’t matter how old I lived, I would still have the mindset of my tween-self.  Because without God, without Jesus, without the Holy Spirit to guide me, there are really only two choices in every decision:  one that leaves me feeling like I did the “right thing” or one that leaves me feeling like a “fool.”

Now, as I continue on my journey, I am reminded time and time again through similar opportunities to give away, to share, to be made a “fool,” that it is not so important what we give, or to whom, or even why…but that we do give.  Freely.  Because the truth is that I am neither the “good person” I once thought I was, nor am I the “fool.”  I am merely an “image” of the God I love. And that “image” –in every instance –has the power to transform.