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I’m still here and still doing my retreat. During this time, I’ve talked about shaking things off, or having things chiseled off. And for a while, that has been happening. Many things have fallen away or been taken away from me: worldly and spiritual indolence… arrogance… trying to be somebody other than who I am and who God created me to be… overall malaise… grudges and non-forgiving… putting too much value on material things… lots of unhealthy and unattractive things.
I have now come to a place where I am rather bare. Raw in some spots. Vulnerable. There are things I would still like to shake off or have removed. And God says, “There are some things that can’t be shaken. And there are some things I will not remove from you. There are some things so integral to who you are that you would not be yourself without them. You may not understand them. You may not want them. You may think they are not good for you, that they are even harmful to you. You will understand someday. For now, you have only to trust me and accept them. Accept yourself.”
This takes me back to the very first day of my current retreat, when I pondered weakness and strength. I put my finger squarely on one of my greatest weaknesses: namely, that I hate weakness. Now, I have been brought to the heart of the matter. After so much has fallen away from me, I still have weaknesses. It’s still difficult to accept them and to put them in God’s hands. But it is far less difficult than it was on day 1.
Things that can’t be shaken… things integral to me… I think the chief among these is grief. A few nights ago, it hit me like a hammer: the loss of my father, and ever farther back, the loss of my intended husband. I wept and cried and felt the losses in my soul as I have not done in years. I think that my grief for my father has only recently fully sunk into me. And I think the reason is that I’ve put up barriers to it… not been true to myself and to my situation. It’s one of those spots that has newly been stripped away. Grief, for losses old and new… it is always going to part of me. Not only my past, but also my present and future. I can’t be rid of it and still be myself.
But the surprising and wonderful part of this is: when I acknowledge that grief has a place in myself and in my life, then that place becomes very defined. Because grief has a place, it can’t fully occupy me or take over my whole life and being. When it has a place–and when I allow it its place–it stays in its place. And that’s a good thing. Grief occupies its own chamber within my heart. But my heart keeps beating and growing and expanding. It opens wide to include new people and new joys and new possibilities. When I give grief its place, then my life and my love and my self flourish.
St. Paul’s words come back to me: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” I think I understand that better now.
There are many other such integral and unshakable things. Some are genuine strengths–for we all have strengths, just as we all have weaknesses. Some are strengths that may come across as weaknesses to the outside world–I am a “still waters run deep” kind of person; not very impressive on the outside, but a constant wellspring of thinking and sensing and reasoning and understanding. Sometimes I would like to be a lot more impressive on the outside, but then I would be just a shallow, dried-up, graven image of a person, and not my authentic self.
Being anything other than my authentic self is just draining… exhausting… it doesn’t get me anywhere. I’d rather just be myself, with all my strengths and weaknesses and quirks. That is when I can make true progress. That is when I can be closer to God and to other people.
The seasons have changed once again–both physically and spiritually. Summer is my least favorite season; I know that in some places it’s lovely, but I don’t live in one of those places. It is uncomfortable, often oppressive. The sun is hot, the wind is hot. Cicadas fill the air with a drone that dampens other sounds, creating a kind of strange quietness. Most of the delicate things of Spring cannot withstand the heat. Clouds and rain become rare, unless a big tropical storm or hurricane spins them up this way–but I don’t want them at that cost.
I know it could also be worse; I don’t exactly live in a desert. Spiritually, however, I feel like I’m in the middle of a desert. It’s like a completely different world. In the Spring, I was grateful that my life had changed with the seasons, but I should have known that Summer would take over. Somber, oppressive, tiring Summer, and spending it alone in the desert.
The rosy new relationship that had brought so much new happiness and hope has wilted away, its soothing blooms replaced with wounding thorns. I thought I might be able to hold on to it and maybe revive it. But it’s proven too difficult and painful.
And I already have other difficulties and pains that I have no choice but to bear. My loss and grief for my father’s death have increased, along with my yearning for his strong and dependable support and warmth and counsel and reassurance. April brought the anniversary of his passing; June brings Father’s Day and his birthday, which are now and always will be commemorated in a cemetery.
I know I’m not really alone. I know. But I feel alone. And I am lacking the sense of my own worth that my dad, more than anybody else, gave and reinforced for me. Again, I know I have worth, and that nobody can take it from me–but I don’t feel it. My heart is parched and thirsting. It feels barren. Everything feels barren.
In the same way, I know that God exists and that He loves me and provides for me. But the feeling and the certainty are nowhere to be found.
The desert is where faith, hope, and love become acts of sheer will. It’s a test, a training drill. I’ve been here many times, in many circumstances, and have come through it with varying degrees of success–but always better than I was. I understand what it is, and I see the purpose and the ultimate reward–but that doesn’t make it easier. It’s a place where one must face death. People and relationships die. Sometimes, they disintegrate quickly and completely, as with my romance. Sometimes, they just change so radically and earth-shakingly that your entire life must become re-oriented and re-built, as with my father’s death.
It’s also a “Memento mori” place where you must face your own death that is coming, be it in a very near or still-faraway moment. While we hope in the afterlife, death is still death, and we will experience it as such–a moment where everything and everybody we’ve ever known falls away from us, we lose every feeling and sense of joy and love, and we are alone. Whatever eternity lies beyond it, we will experience death as death, even if for a brief instance. That is part of what it means to be human. Even Christ, in His humanity, had to experience this, hence his cry, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?”
Likewise, Christ spent time in the desert–both physical and spritual desert–in preparation for His life’s work and for His death. And so, I am hardly alone in this season and this place–all Christians must follow Christ, and the desert is part of this. I know it’s not supposed to be easy. But please, in your charity, offer up a little prayer for me to be steadfast of will and keep my eyes on the prize!
(Photo source: Chris Schenk, U.S. Geological Survey)
This feast day is a much-needed spirit-lifter for me, and it came just in time!
Last night, I was feeling so much sorrow and pain, over various things, but especially the loss of my dad and of my once-fiance, Patrick (I’ve been thinking about Patrick much more since my dad died–both of them so important to me, and both of them sorely missing in my life). I was praying and begging for relief. I told God that I felt like I was dying a slow, agonizing death. That was all I could make of the pain I felt at the time–death.
Today, however, I am reminded that suffering gives life as well. The Cross of Christ bears witness to that.
To destroy the power of hell Christ died upon the cross; clothed in strength and glory, He triumphed over death.
The Lord hung upon the cross to wash away our sins in His own blood. How splendid is that blessed cross.
How radiant is that precious cross which brought us our salvation. In the cross we are victorious, through the cross we shall reign, by the cross all evil is destroyed, alleluia.
We worship Your cross, O Lord, and we praise and glorify Your holy resurrection, for the wood of the cross has brought joy to the world.
(Antiphons from Morning Prayer of the Divine Office)
I heartily recommend reading “The Dream of the Rood” on this feast day.
Here is my favorite previous post on this feast day: The Tree of Life
My parish church has a most splendid, towering Crucifix in its sanctuary. It portrays not only Christ on the Cross, but also the figures of the Blessed Mother, St. John, and St. Mary Magdalene mourning at the foot of the Cross. At the back of the church there is also a beautiful pieta.
I am always drawn to these sculptures whenever I am in the midst of suffering or difficulty. But I recently had a particularly profound experience when a confessor asked me to pray the Hail Mary as part of my penance.
As usual, I went to the altar rail to pray and do my penance. As I prayed the Hail Mary, I looked at the figure of the Virgin standing at the foot of the Cross. She looks up at her dying Son, one hand clasping her mantle, perhaps in response to the piercing swords in her heart, the other raised to her face in a mournful gesture.
I felt a strange stirring in my own heart as I prayed. Curious, I repeated the prayer, and I realized that it took on a whole new meaning when prayed before the Sorrowful Mother. I couldn’t believe I had not realized it before.
The prayer is derived from the Archangel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary at the Annunciation and from St. Elizabeth’s greeting at the Visitation, so it is not unreasonable to associate the prayer primarily with the joy of Christ’s Incarnation and Mary’s miraculous blessed motherhood. But the Incarnation was destined to lead to the Crucifixion. And Mary’s motherhood made her a most intimate witness to it all–the sorrows and sufferings as much as the joys.
And yet we still pray:
Hail Mary, full of grace!
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and Blessed is the Fruit of thy womb,
I guess my realization was that even when Mary is at the foot of the Cross, the Lord is with her and she is blessed. And the same is true with me or any of us: in our times of suffering, the Lord is still with us and we are still blessed. Those things do not change. We may feel as if they do, as if God is absent, as if we are alone, as if we are cursed. Mary’s life and example, like those of Christ Himself, show that we are not, that God is faithful, and that He exalts the humble and comforts the mourning.
Life has continued its complicated path. In fact, it’s gotten more and more complicated.
For over three months, now, I have been in numb shock at my father’s death. But the shock has been wearing off, and the pain is coming through much more strongly. The pain complicates things. Even the most ordinary, mundane things can seem so difficult. Even enjoyable things can be too much to handle. Work. Writing. Play. Socializing. Prayer. Even my relationship with God has been complicated lately.
The thing is, I didn’t really believe my dad would die. I thought that God would spare me such grief if I asked Him. And I did ask Him, every day. I asked Him to make my dad well, even if it required a miracle. I asked Him not to take my dad from us. I asked Him to please give me a break from grief. After all, I had spent the five years before that grieving the death of another important man in my life. I couldn’t possibly lose my dad too, right on the heels of those long five years. God wouldn’t ask me to go through that when I was just then finally recovering and becoming whole again. Surely, surely He wouldn’t. This is what my heart constantly poured out. I believed it so much.
But God didn’t make my dad well. He didn’t spare me a new grief. He didn’t provide the miracle for which I had prayed so fervently. That was perhaps the most shocking thing of all.
Mind you, I don’t know why I expected a miracle. Families lose beloved members every day to cancer and every kind of ill or injury. Miracles are, by definition, rare. So I don’t know why I was so sure a miracle would come through for me… but I was.
So lately, I’ve been trying to live with the fact that my miracle didn’t come through. Trying to figure out why God permitted things to happen as they have. Asking so many questions. What is the meaning of all this loss and grief and pain and disappointment? What have I done to deserve it? How can I keep going on this way? Was I foolish to pray for a miracle? Was I foolish to pray at all? Is God even there? My doubts can be extremely weighty and extremely dark at times.
But I have also been starting to understand. Small lights have begun to pierce the darkness of doubt.
I recently recalled a passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. Lewis possessed a wonderful understanding of pain and grief and persevering in faith. He wrote many great things on these subjects, but none of them have resounded with me quite so much as this passage from one of his books for children.
In this scene, the Lion Aslan, confronts the boy Digory, who has awakened the evil Witch/Queen in Aslan’s newly created land of Narnia:
“Son of Adam,” said Aslan. “Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very day of its birth?”
“Well, I don’t see what I can do,” said Digory. “You see, the Queen ran away and–”
“I asked, are you ready?” said the Lion.
“Yes,” said Digory. He had had for a second some wild idea of saying “I’ll try to help you if you’ll promise to help my Mother,” but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with. But when he had said “Yes,” he thought of his Mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:
“But please, please–won’t you–can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another. But I have to think of hundreds of years in the life of Narnia.”
There is so much in this one brief excerpt that it takes my breath away every time I read it. Above all, it reminds me of two things:
First, I am reminded that God–particularly our Lord Jesus–is completely sympathetic with those who grieve and suffer. He does not cause nor inflict those pains. He never intended for us to experience such things. And yet He Himself was not above them. Scripture tells us that Jesus wept. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, even though He had the power to raise Lazarus back to life. He wept over the holy city of Jerusalem and all the people He desperately wanted to save, but who rejected Him. And then, there was the Agony in the Garden and the Passion. We all have to pay the wages of sin–but we are not alone, for the greatest portion of the wages was paid by God Himself.
Second, I am reminded that it’s not all about me. Life and creation do not revolve around me and my needs and wants. God doesn’t drop everything and everybody else in the universe to cater to me. I am just one person, just one creature. My little life is at least a third over already. I am just a tiny mote of dust. Does that mean that God doesn’t love me? Does that mean He doesn’t care? No. Part of God’s greatness is that He loves me, even me, with an infinite love and care–and not only that, but He loves all the other little motes of dust in exactly the same way, without ever having His love exhausted! I thought I knew what was best when I prayed my prayers–but who am I to know what is best, even for myself, much less everybody and everything else?
Sometimes we can be so set upon what we want and what we think is best that we don’t recognize the good and wonderful things God does for us and gives us. We get selfish and petulant because we don’t get our own way. We accuse God of not listening to our prayers, of not having pity upon our sufferings, of not loving us, or of not existing at all. And then, if we are fortunate, we realize how petty and blind we’ve been.
The miracles we ask for, the miracles we expect, may not come through. But there are so many others that we take for granted every day: life and love and the fact that God always, always comes through for us.
Tomorrow will be 2 months since my father passed away. It’s been just a little over 5 years since my fiance passed away. I knew that the two griefs would be very different, just as the two men and the relationships I had with each of them were very different. But I’ve been pretty amazed by just how vastly different the experiences have been.
The diversity of grief is quite impressive. I say this in the same way that I say I was impressed and fascinated by the power of the shingles virus as the disease wreaked havoc and pain on my body. If you can just distance yourself a little from the situation, even the worst, most painful things can fill you with wonder. I’ve always been rather reflective upon my sufferings.
One thing I’ve been reflecting upon lately is the difference that faith has made in my experiences of grief. When my fiance died, I was without faith–but in fact, that loss gained faith back to me. In grieving my father’s death, I have found myself faced with a far greater challenge: maintaining my faith.
The work of grieving can always be likened to walking through a dark valley. Back then, my faith was like a glowing torch, suddenly burst forth in the darkness. It was something new. Now, my faith has grown and matured, and at its center is the Cross. And it’s heavy. And Satan is working very hard to get me to drop it. He’s trying very hard to convince me that God is not with me. “If He were with you, you wouldn’t be suffering so much.”
What a conniving and sometimes strong temptation that is. But how false! How false it is to assume that God exists to take away our pain, and that if He doesn’t then He either doesn’t exist or is a big old meanie. We are not ourselves without pain. And the reason for that is not that God is a sadist who created us to suffer. The reason for that is that we allowed ourselves to be destroyed by Satan.
No, God does not rid us of pain. But He does free us of it. There’s a big difference between those two. We each carry our cross because God has given it to us. Not because He’s a big old meanie, but because He first carried His for us. That we must carry our crosses, that we must experience pain and suffering, are simply a matter of justice. He willingly experienced pain and death because of our wrongs. But justice demands that we each also bear the consequences of our wrongs. There is nothing mean or unfair about this demand. Understanding this simple principle of justice can take a lot of bitterness out of our sufferings… if we let it.
But what really frees us from pain is the perfect mercy that balances out God’s perfect justice. He is never more merciful to us than when we attempt to suffer pains patiently and humbly, as He did. How do we suffer well? First of all, we don’t give into that dreadful temptation to blame or to dismiss God. Rather, we spit in Satan’s eye and tell him we’d much rather suffer under our crosses than to lounge beside the lake of fire! (Note: getting angry at Satan and telling him where to go is a great stress reliever.)
We simply have to refuse to reject God. That’s all we may be able to do during painful times. And it is enough. God doesn’t ask more. He is never unfair, never unreasonable, and certainly never cruel. He never exploits our weaknesses nor demands the impossible, but rather understands and has compassion for our weaknesses. He always bears the brunt of our burdens–here and now as much as at Calvary all those centuries ago.
So, while I am undeniably experiencing pain, I am also experiencing God’s mercy and love. While I sometimes feel tempted to reject God, I am blessed with the freedom to say no to Satan. Really, why on earth would I go groveling after the one who brought ruin upon our race in the first place? I much prefer to walk through the dark valley with God.
Sorry for the lack of posting. I keep of thinking about things to write, but then when I sit down to write… nothing comes together.
Life is a big haze lately. It’s been just over a month since my dad passed away, and sometimes it feels like it’s been years… and sometimes it feels like it happened this morning. Grief plays weird tricks with time. I still feel the same way about Patrick, who passed away over 5 years ago. And sometimes their deaths don’t seem real at all. Sometimes I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if one of them called me on the phone or knocked on my door. It’s strange.
I just keep trying to get through one day at a time.
My mom and sister went to Pittsburgh today to take care of some business and ship down some of Mom’s belongings. I wish I could have gone with them, but I just can’t miss any more work right now. I know it must be incredibly hard for them to be there, so close to all those reminders of Dad. I’ve been thinking of them and praying for them often today. It sounds like they are getting things done, though, which is good.
I’ve gotten so used to spending weekends with Mom that I am going to be lonely this weekend. I was going to go to the office tomorrow to catch up on some work, but the library is closed on weekends now that the semester is over. I will probably stay home and catch up on housework instead. And go check in on Mom’s kitties.
Oh, and celebrate Pentecost! One of my favorite holidays! That’s something to rejoice in, at least. And I really need something to rejoice in. Really, really, really.
I hope you’re all well. I’ll keep trying to write more. God bless you!
Mom called first thing this morning and said that Dad was refusing to eat and that delirium was setting in… and that the hospice doctor said he would probably pass within a week.
I am going to the funeral home in my hometown to set up some arrangements.
I will probably go back to Pittsburgh on Thursday.
I am eerily calm about everything. Maybe it’s shock and numbness. Maybe it’s weariness. Maybe it’s the grace of God fortifying me and holding me together.
It’s all rather surreal. But it’s not a dream. Oh, if only it were just a dream!
I feel like my life is passing from one shadow to another. I was finally starting to recover from losing my fiance, Patrick, in April 2005. And now I am about to lose the most important man in my entire life… Dad… I feel like my wounded heart is bursting open all over again, just when I thought it was healed and whole again.
Oh, why must things happen this way? I thought we’d have more time together. I thought I might get at least a few years of a normal, happy life. I thought my Dad would walk me down the aisle at my wedding someday, and get to know a grandchild or two. Oh, why couldn’t things have happened that way?
Happy and blessed 2nd Sunday of Advent. Today’s readings, and our pastor’s homily thereafter, were so beautiful and comforting. And I needed them so very much. I’ve been feeling like I’ve fallen into a deep ravine and can’t get out. Just as I was feeling so ready to move forward with my life, I’ve been brought down with a lot of grief. Such grief as I have not felt in a long while now. It’s hard not to panic a little. To wonder whether I will ever make it back up and be able to continue on my journey. And honestly, it’s hard not to feel a little forsaken. Does God care? Will He help me? Will anybody?
And what do I hear at Mass today? From the Old Testament:
God has commanded
that every lofty mountain be made low,
and that the age-old depths and gorges
be filled to level ground,
that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
And from the New Testament (a quotation from the Old Testament):
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
From the Psalm:
Those who sow in tears
shall reap rejoicing.
Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.
And from the Epistle:
I am confident of this,
that the one who began a good work in you
will continue to complete it
until the day of Christ Jesus.
See what I mean? I like the parts about depths and gorges being filled, and about coming back rejoicing. One line from the Baruch reading says that the people are “rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (Bar. 5:5). These are people who have suffered captivity, exile, diaspora, and other tragedies. People who had probably suffered more than me. And God did not forget them–he will never forget any of us, no matter what. He will rescue us and lift us up. We can have complete confidence in Him, as St. Paul does.
Looking at my life, I know that God would not bring me this far just to drop me in a hole and let me rot there. Thinking about it like a rational person, I can see how absurd a fear that is. But, because I’m irrational sometimes, and stubborn, and a bit dense, I just need to be told over… and over… and over again. And God and the Church are very good about that. They never get tired and impatient. They know how I am made. They know how we all are made.
I have to say though, I have no doubt that the Advent season is working its wonders in me. Father said that Advent exists to shake us from our complacency, to make us realize what we are lacking, and to fill us with an intense longing for Christ and Heaven. That’s definitely going on with me!
I’m so happy that my parish is offering extra opportunities for Eucharistic Adoration during Advent. That really has filled a great need for me. It’s like a fresh oasis in everyday life.
And we get a Holy Day of Obligation this week, and for once, it’s not transferred to Sunday! I always consider that a bonus. It’s 8 December–the Immaculate Conception. I look forward to that!
So, anyway, I’m feeling happier and much better now. I hope it’s a happy and blessed week for all of you!
I’ve been thinking and dreaming about my deceased fiance Patrick lately. Probably because of All Saints and All Souls Days. And every time, the phrase “a thousand days apart” has come into my head. It’s an odd recurring phrase.
Patrick died 28 April 2005, so we’ve actually been apart about 1,654 days. Just over 4 and a half years.
I guess “a thousand days” is one of those symbolic numbers that means “such a long time.” It has been a long time, and will only keep getting longer. Seeing him in my thoughts and dreams can be nice and comforting. It can also make coping with our separation harder in everyday real life.
I didn’t realize it was still so hard for me. But it is sometimes. I don’t think I’ll ever entirely “get over it.” I don’t think that “getting over it” is the point. The point is to bear it through everyday real life. Not ignoring it or denying it, but just carrying it in a certain place and in a certain way.
Life-long separation from somebody who was such an important and treasured part of my life and identity is part of my own personal cross. As such he is still an important and treasured part of my life and identity. Just a very different one.
As always, we can either love or hate our crosses. We can either suffer them well or suffer them poorly. They don’t disappear. Even if we drop them and walk away, they are still there and still ours. We don’t “get over” them.
These may seem like gloomy thoughts. But they’re just about coming to terms with life. And taking life on its own terms gives a certain peace and liberty. It’s such an important choice we’re giving. I choose to love my cross and suffer it well.