“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.