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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.
This morning I went to a meeting of my parish pro-life group. We had as our guest speaker Darlene Ellison, one of our own co-parishioners and author of The Predator Next Door. She’s a wonderful lady, and gave a powerful talk… a very brave, very open talk. She spoke of how tragedy helped her begin to truly believe and live out her faith, and how, in looking back at her life, she could see that God had been subtly building her up to face the tragedy–and to overcome it, to grow from it. He brought new life and purpose from it. He brought understanding from it.
Although my story is very different from hers, I identified so much with what she was saying. I too re-discovered my faith in tragedy, and I too can see how God was working to build me up to face it, to overcome it, to grow from it.
This might sound strange, but when I think of the time leading up to Patrick’s death, it was almost as if I had premonitions at times–without fully realizing it at the time, of course. It’s really hard to describe. A lot of little things that sort of subconsciously or unconsciously jolted me with the message, “You won’t be able to have him with you much longer… but you will get through it… I will be here to see you through.”
The biggest thing I remember was the night when Patrick pointed out the church that was to become my parish church. Part of me deep inside knew that it was going to become my safe haven, my castle keep, my second home. Part of me was poised to flee to it, and when the awful time came, flee to it I did. Amid all the shock, confusion, and anguish, I gravitated to the Church, and to this church in particular. It was like a homing beacon had gone off.
People don’t always understand how I could regain my faith and my relationship with God in the midst of tragedy. I can see how it might seem counter-intuitive. We often hear of people losing their faith and turning against God or ceasing to believe in Him at all in response to tragedy and suffering, and we can hardly help but understand and sympathize with that.
I don’t really know how to explain it. Perhaps I never entirely lost the faith of my childhood. Perhaps there was still a tiny speck of faith left in me. Faith that informed me that suffering and tragedy bind us to the Cross–and to Resurrection. Faith that informed me that God would never abandon me. When I was a child, I often looked at this plaque my grandmother had at her house upon which was inscribed the poem, “Footprints.” Maybe that memory was a tiny seed that had lain dormant in me all those years, waiting for a moment in which to burst forth in all of its meaning. Waiting for the moment at which I would really need to know its meaning.
It was a moment that had to come sooner or later. No human being alive has any guarantee against it. And God generally doesn’t protect us from it. But He does enable us to weather the storm and then to grow–even flourish. He never fails to bring forth goodness from tragedy or from evil.
It is always good to have other people re-affirm these truths and re-affirm for me that I’m not really all that strange for gaining faith from tragedy. It emboldens me to tell my own story and give my own testimony to how very good and powerful God is.
Yesterday at my formation meeting at the priory, we learned about and practiced lectio divina. Our formation director gave us a nice little pamphlet based on the article, “Accepting the Embrace of God: the Ancient Art of Lectio Divina” by Fr. Luke Dysinger, OSB. We practiced as a group, using the Gospel reading of the day.
It was a very interesting experience! It turned out that each of us focused on a different aspect of the passage, and each of us came up with very interesting insights and ways in which the reading relates to our lives. Each of us was coming from a unique perspective and unique circumstances, but I think we all were able to identify with and understand each other.
I thought that I would try it on my own each day, using one of the daily readings set forth by the Church. Since lectio divina is about hearing God’s voice, I figured the Gospel readings would probably be most appropriate. So I pulled up the Gospel for today. I read it through once and was like, “Hmmm. Nothing is really jumping out at me.” But then I just quieted my mind and read it again, slowly, out loud. I felt attracted to the quotation from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
I slowly began to “ruminate” on this brief passage and to think about what it communicates about the Lord. I just let it soak in for a good long while. I sort of formed some mental images in my mind: Christ the Savior, Christ the prophet, Christ the merciful, Christ who has acted time and time again in my personal life. And I just filled with tremendous awe and praise for Him.
Above all what came to me is that I am to imitate Christ. By my baptism, I too am to be a prophet, a person who acts in service and in mercy to others. And I have to tell you, that hit me pretty hard, and honestly it was a bit unnerving. I started saying to God, “Lord, I want to be more like You and imitate Your deeds. But Lord, I am such a weak person! I’m timid and clumsy and don’t speak well. I have trouble reaching out to people. I just don’t know what I can do!” And I felt tears come to my eyes… I just felt so laid bare… I felt so small… I felt like a big disappointment.
And then something really amazing happened. Suddenly, words just left me. I had things I wanted to say, but words just evaporated. And I allowed them to go and allowed myself to fall silent. And I felt a rather powerful sensation in the region of my heart. Not really a physical sensation, but a very warm, encompassing, fulfilling sensation. I felt as if all the weak spots and all the gaps within me were being filled up and made solid… all the rough, unfinished edges were being made clean and smooth. I just sort of let myself go and enjoy the feeling–it was quite pleasing, and very comforting.
I felt that I was not alone, and that I wasn’t so weak any more. I felt His presence within me and all around me. I felt like a little infant cradled in His arm, and His warmth and strength and love penetrated straight into my very center. And I didn’t think anything or say anything. I just rested and took delight in being with Him.
Gradually, I sort of came back into the world, and my mind and voice started working again. All I wanted to say was, “Thank You, Lord, thank You so much! I love You so much, and I never want to be separated from You!”
And then I was like, “Oh my gosh, that was awesome, I have to write it down!” So, here I am. And I just feel so… fresh and renewed and invigorated! I am actually looking forward to getting to work tomorrow and just pouring myself into every little thing! Maybe that is where I need to start for now: just doing the ordinary, everyday things of my life with greater love and dedication. I have to admit that I’ve been feeling pretty burned out… but maybe starting right now that will cease to be the case!
I can say one thing: I am definitely going to keep practicing lectio divina. And I think I’m going to keep a journal about it.