Unthinkably Perfect Vision

See the source image“For our faith to evolve, we need to look at the old and original in order to build something new and novel.” Richard Rohr

It’s impossible to miss all the memes and jokes that have been circulating as one calendar year closes and a new one begins. There have been plenty about dressing for the roaring 20’s, Barbara Walters uttering 20/20 as she did for years (for those of us old enough to remember), but also plenty of jokes about perfect vision. I have no such thing. The closest I come are through the progressive lenses I wear to assist in seeing more clearly. Heck, I can’t even seem to hear correctly if I’m not wearing my lenses! We make a lot of these new beginnings, facing a new year, with great anticipation, often with the expectation that somehow everything of the past year will fade into the sunset. It may be true in some sense, but really only if we are willing to work on perfecting our own vision and sense of awareness of where we have come from and where we are being led at the ringing in of a new year. If we’re honest with ourselves, we never truly know where it will lead us!

In looking back, to say 2019 was anything but monumental would be an understatement. There have been times the past few days when I’ve looked back and wondered how I was able to come to this point, the threshold of 2020, not being totally destroyed and utterly depressed. It was early in the year, when resolutions and hopes still rang true, when out of necessity of my health and well-being I needed to step away from priestly ministry. Anyone who has stepped away from any type of life commitment knows, that, once you have been pushed so far off the edge, in those moments there isn’t much chance to return. Again, for those old enough, how many times did Wiley Coyote attempt to do such a thing only finding himself falling flat on his face! It feels as if the ground has dropped beneath you and there’s nothing left to stand on at a time when you need it the most. The questions swirl, especially of the critics, including my own inner critic, as to how this is going to look, degrees of shame, hurt, kicked while you’re down, and all the rest that causes great unrest. You quickly learn who cares about you as a person or simply a persona, role, or identity of which you are associated. Your heart screams out reminding you that your worth is in you as a person, a human, but institutionally, unfortunately, not always the same.

I’ve written before about the level of angst I have lived with over the years, an angst that was norm. The consistent message was to fit into the proper place, but because of my own lack of awareness and deeply-rooted fears, it was easier to not fit than to have to confront what I was running from myself. If the experience has given any glimmer of hope it’s that the angst of trying to fit into what’s not and the necessity to run is no longer the name of the game. They are, though, a part of the story of moving towards that more perfect vision, unexpected as it is. They are moments I will never forget and will even take a great deal of time to heal. I have lost people in my life but have also become much more aware of the people who really matter. If I can offer 2020 anything of myself and the vision that has become more fine-tuned over the past year, it would be a restoration of humanity. We’ve lost touch with our humanity as a society, including many proclaimed Christians who forget it’s the foundational message of Christmas. I suppose it’s easier to dispose of people when we see them as something less, whether some image, their political affiliation, their way of living rather than a part of the human family they are.

The irony in the whole situation, for me, was that I had to step away in order to understand what faith was really about. Taking that step, as for anyone facing change, is to take the first step without knowing where you’ll land or if life really will go on. We have a tendency to get stuck right there, on the cliff, but never willing to step for fear of falling. Of course, there is a fall! There’s a fall from grace and yet into grace. There’s a fall into fear and yet excitement at the same time. There’s a fall into deep sadness but one that leads to great joy! I’m not sure I’d be the man I am standing on the threshold between years and decades without that fall. I can sit and write and find gratitude for the fall because the fall allowed me to reconnect, or maybe simply connect, with my own humanity and no longer shadowed by a role or identity. There have been plenty of times in the past year where I have sat at Mass and wondered how I was able to keep it up for as long as I did. It was about pleasing, all while grumbling within. Of course, there have been plenty of times where I have sat there, left before it ended, and saw for the first time why people don’t return. It felt like I was being fed stones in a moment when, in my own poverty, I desperately needed bread. Vision. How easy it is to become clouded standing atop a sanctuary, looking down, but looking at the wrong thing (that will be the next blog).

After returning from a month-long retreat at Saint Meinrad, I realized that it would be impossible to return at that time; more time was needed more. It was then I was pointed to Catholic Volunteer Network and came across a place close enough, yet far enough way, Bethlehem Farm. It was going to be another act of trust, as much of this experience had been, to keep moving towards rather than running. I began to notice the difference. When they agreed to take me on, another piece of the story, which was unknown just a few weeks earlier, was my dad being hospitalized just four days prior to my arrival date, was also beginning to unfold. After leaving active ministry in January I had started spending more time back where I grew up, not knowing what was about to evolve or devolve for that matter. I hadn’t realized, of course, that the weekend before Easter would be the final time I’d see my dad at home, sitting at the head of the table where he often did.

While his life was unraveling, slowly and quickly at the same time, the farm was beginning to give me what I needed and what was missing in my life, connection to myself and a grounding in the real and in love. For the first two months there, when there was a break from groups, I’d drive up to visit my father in the hospital, slowly watching life escape him. Each time there seemed to be another machine or gadget that was keeping him going. We should have known then, that, when so many artificial means are necessary to live there’s not much longer. It too would be a test of faith. In all reality, death is the ultimate test of faith and trust, not only for the one passing but even more so for those who grieve, despite never leaving. I can only imagine what was going through his mind or anyone in his situation, possibly questions I was asking of myself in those moments. How will I be remembered? Will I be forgotten? Will it be as if I never existed? In the moments of great unraveling lie these existential questions and thoughts of regrets and given but this one life to address them, hopefully before our final breath.

The final breath eventually would come in 2019. It was something not on the radar screen when I had left in January. It was something not on the radar screen when a 50th Anniversary was being planned, or for that matter, an impending wedding, all of which would fall during these months and days. The final breath is that moment of ultimate faith and has a way of perfecting our vision like nothing else. There it was, before our very eyes. After six months of my own tumultuous unraveling and grounding, and despite the sadness associated with death, all I could do was stand in awe. By the end of May I knew the moment would arrive. I could just tell that there was no recovering. Similar to my situation, once you are so far off the cliff, there’s nowhere to go but down. At some point in our lives, the only down is six feet but at others, seemingly a freefall. Little did I know that such an event would solidify that grounding that began at the farm a few months earlier. It was a grounding that would stand the test of the greatest of hurricanes and yet still remain tethered to the real. The vision became clearer and all I could do was continue to walk and walk forward.

It by no means diminishes the grief that needed to be felt; there’s always grief in life’s changes and unraveling. If the year has taught me anything it’s a constant reminder that I can’t think my way through everything, as much as I sometimes try. Some things about life just need to be felt. That’s not easy for a thinker. When the dust finally settled, I landed at one of the great spots for healing in my life, Acadia National Park, and would spend countless hours near the water. There was not only the grief of losing my dad, but the grief of losing relationships and a life once lived. The place which was my escape for so many years, in order to catch my breath, was once again a place of healing. We all have those places in our lives, where we can simply go and find solitude. They are not only the places to encounter the divine but also ourselves. I write these words sitting near the ocean once more, simply allowing myself to slow down and be with myself and hear the roar of the water that stands before me. It is the same roar that lies within me, a roar for life.

I sit here now as the sun begins to rise on a new day (preferred to midnight!). It would be easy to say it’s all behind me but I’m not sure a new year means simply dumping what was and starting new. Sure, there is a sentimentality that accompanies it but the year that now stands behind will be teaching me for the rest of my life. No one can experience life in such a way, and begin to see more clearly, without it being carried the rest of life. If anything, it has taught about what faith is really about. After studying about it and preaching it for years, it finally caught up in my own life and made me eat my own words. Life is all about trust and faith. Yet, nothing is desired more than integrity in an age when it is all but absent. Nothing is more desired than faith in a day when we put more trust in failing institutions than we do in ourselves and the eternal. Nothing is more desired than hope in a culture that demands instant gratification and the absence of death. Nothing is desired more than life when it’s what we fear the most that prevents it from happening.

As a new day dawns, with a morning chill still in the air, I sit, still, in awe of a year gone by. It is a year without regrets. It is a year when I connected and reconnected with the people that matter most. It is a year when I faced death in more ways than one. It is a year that taught me about faith in the absence of what was thought to have given it to me. It is a year that taught me all will be well and all will be well. It is a year of new birth, baby steps to a new way of living. It is a year where fear was taken head on and confronted. It is a year that allowed me to be me and experience the freedom associated with it. It is a year of which I will always be grateful for having the courage to take one step a year ago this month, taking that last breath in order to breathe again, cut from an umbilical cord that poisoned. It was a year when I closed my eyes, jumped, and yet saw more clearly than ever. It is a year that taught me to live without while recognizing I had it all. It is a year I can’t simply let go of, but as I stand now on this threshold, I continue to take very little with me for all I need I have. It is, after all, ending as it began and beginning as it ended, in a moment to trust and to have faith in my own birthright and that, in seeing more clearly, all really will be well. With that, I bid adieu to a year that was and welcome a year of possibility, filled with teachable moments of faith allowing the unthinkable to be seen more perfectly.

A Path To Peace

Christmas Narratives continued…

There’s a belief that the problems we face and encounter in our lives are often of the psychological nature, which tells us there are a great deal of issues that encompass a broken humanity.  At the same time, though, it’s believed that the solutions to the problems are spiritual, a matter of the heart, which explains why problems seem to never end and this pursuit of peace seems rather insurmountable.  We’re not very good at matters of the heart.  It’s a challenge with problems and difficulties we face individually and so as a city, a country, and the world, handling heart and soul begins to make us feel helpless in the face of such suffering.  You may have heard Pope Francis mention yesterday on the eve of the New Year that humanity wasted 2017 on war and lies.  When we avoid the matters of the heart the pursuit of peace never seems possible.  It becomes much easier to inflict our pain and hurt onto others.  It’s easier to stay in war and locked in a violent cycle here in Baltimore than it is to do the difficult work of heart and soul that the gospel demands.  And so as we begin the new year we pray for peace but first in our own hearts and souls.

It is a theme that threads through Luke’s gospel even as we hear in the continuation of the Christmas narrative we hear on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  She reflects and ponders and holds all these things in her heart.  Luke returns to it throughout the gospel but he’s not meaning the beating heart that keeps us physically alive.  He speaking of the oneness and union of mind, soul, and spirit.  He’s talking about how Mary steps back from all that is happening and allows the space of this mystery to unfold.  There’s no need to react or explain.  There’s no reason to attack their enemies.  Mary and Joseph, for that matter, have found that gift of peace and are at peace with the overwhelming gift which will now see them through the darkness of Herod as we hear on Epiphany on Sunday.  The gift that is given to them is then freely given to anyone who dares open themselves to it being offered.  When we find that peace and become that peace within our own hearts, as Luke describes, not even the harshest reality of war will stop us from facing the broken humanity and to truly work towards peace.

When we fail to seek healing and solutions as a heart matter and rather resort to a shallow political system here in the city as well as the country, we’ll continue to get the same results, trying to solve issues from the same level in which they were created.  Both extremes of the political narrative use fear to control and manipulate, just as Herod and Caesar Augustus did, who Matthew and Luke reference.  They try to bring about a peace that is rooted in fear, as we heard on Christmas.  They thrive on keeping people in the dark, separating and dividing.  At some point we have to face the fact that it no longer works for the people, especially the Joseph and Mary’s of the world, the poorest of the poor.  It no longer brings peace nor the pursuit of the common good.  Like Herod and Caesar Augustus it’s about building their own kingdoms and making politics into a god.  It’s how we have the problems that exist and that’s not the way to solve it.  It’s a matter of the heart.  It’s a matter of the soul that is necessary in these days.  We can’t stand for another year as we did in 2017 here in Baltimore.

It’s easy to pray for peace and we’ll continue to pray for peace on this World Day of Prayer for Peace but we also turn to Mary as our model on this feast of the Mother of God.  She is the one that teaches us to ponder, to reflect, to hold all these things in our hearts.  When we lose that space, as we have as a society and culture, we react and react and react to every blessed thing that is thrown our way and we become part of the problem not part of breathing peace and healing into hearts that hurt.  We become what we hate about the other.  Demonize the other.  Cut off the other.  Fearing what we don’t know and clinging to what we think we do.  We no longer have that space in our own hearts, as individuals, community, city, nation, world, for the sense of mystery that Mary ponders.  We hold on, and hold tightly, to what we know, what we see.

Our problems may be psychological but the solutions are a matter of the heart, are spiritual.  The path to peace is a difficult one.  It lies beneath the surface and is often what we can’t see or know.  It’s what we so often fear.  Yet, if we want that peace we have to work at it, not politically but in prayer, in silence, pondering the healing that is needed and take a contemplative stance towards a hurting world.  The Herod’s of our time can just as much be us if we don’t do our own work and on this feast we turn toward the Mother’s guidance in Mary, to ponder, reflect, and hold this mystery close to who we are that we may seek that oneness and union, not only within our own lives, but in the city and nation.  The pain runs deep in this city and nation and if we’re not willing to do it differently we’ll only perpetuate and mirror 2017 by wasting another year and another chance for the breaking in of the Christ which calls us to a new way, to a changed heart, to an opportunity for hope and peace that is rooted in the Christ, looking up and gazing into his mother’s eyes, pondering what sort of greeting this might be.  If we want peace then it must first begin with me.

Reflections of the Heart

Luke 2: 16-21

The chief service to the world of a contemplative is “this silence, this listening, this questioning, this humble and courageous exposure to what the world ignores about itself–both good and evil.”  Thomas Merton

In the movie, Mary of Nazareth, the makers of the movie tried to portray the image of the gospel that we hear on this New Year’s Day.  As the shepherds approach the newborn babe, Mary scurries off with the child, frightened, knowing the circumstances and life of the shepherds out of fear for the child’s life until Joseph can assess the situation.  However, they come with great news as to the identity of this child that Mary hides and as the story unfolds, the child is handed to all the shepherds, each kissing and holding the child, thanking God for the gift that has been revealed in time.  In the messiness of their own lives, God becomes flesh.  Their automatic response is one of gratitude.

As we close out one year and move into 2014, we hear in this gospel how Mary spends much of this experience just “taking it all in”, pondering all that is unfolding in her heart.  What is true for Mary is also true for us on this feast of Mary, Mother of God, that God is also trying to bring to birth something new within our lives, waiting in labor pains so often for newness to unfold.  We’re often not left pondering and reflecting upon the experience, but rather agonizing over change and holding onto the anxiety of the experience, failing to see God pushing us to new life.  This time of year is an opportunity for us to experience the gift of contemplation, pondering the works of God in our own lives and the great themes that have unfolded over the past year….life, death, fear, faith, love.  All too often we’re ready to throw out the previous year, living with some sense that we can simply forget all that has happened, the good and our participation in evil, leaving us to become complacent in our lives, often to run in fear, to hide Christ within us.  

Yet, if like Mary, we spend time contemplating this mystery and reflecting upon the workings of God in our lives this past year, we can begin to recognize and accept these themes that unfold and follow the model placed and the example of Mary and Joseph in choosing life over death, in choosing faith over fear, in choosing love and the life that follows.  Ultimately, it leads us to the shepherds within us, giving thanks to God for the gift of life unfolding and birthing within.  As we draw one year to an end and begin anew, we are called to find that silence within and to reflect and contemplate this mystery that lies within us, the good and the evil, and to discern the call to life that God calls each of us to, giving thanks for the gift given and shared.