Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The "O" Word

As a child, I had a list of things I would begin to do and no longer do when I became an adult. It included going to bed when I pleased (my bedtime was so strict, during daylight savings time, I was in bed before the sun set), eating dessert instead of dinner (dessert was usually the most edible and certainly my favourite part of the meal) and never again wearing hand-me-down clothes (in eleven years, I was bought perhaps five or six new skirts or dresses). My list grew with each injustice that I suffered, real or perceived. Adulthood was the halcyonic time when I could do as I pleased, when there would be no one to answer to, no constraints. I imagined that then everything would make sense. That there would be no more bizarre requirements, no more cruel limitations. I looked forward to that time with great longing and hope, spent quite a lot of time imagining what I would do, how life would be on that glorious day.

I was not an obedient child. Though he excelled at issuing commands to anyone within earshot, I knew my foster father had no right to tell me what to do, knew that I had no responsibility to listen to him. He tried to compel me, actually spoke of “breaking me to his will.” I would not be broken. I did what I was told except when I found some way to avoid doing it. As I grew older, I found more and more ways to avoid doing what he wanted and did as I pleased as long as I could do so without provoking him to violence (and how often I failed at that). I was not at all obedient.

Obedience has two etymological roots: ob audire (to listen to, as well as the person from whom one hears or learns anything) and also, obsequor (to follow, to accommodate ones self to the will of, to give ones self up to). Without the totality of meaning inherent in both roots there can be no obedience. There must be someone who in some way extends the invitation, “Follow me!” and, if I am to be true to myself, all I can do is walk the path he sets before me; I must eagerly desire to learn from him, must wholly give myself over to him. Obedience is the way we actually live out love. Obedience is love. Obedience is relationship.

My foster father did not love me nor I him. He tried to possess me, to own me. I could not be owned. I struggled to survive and finally escaped him with my life and most of my sanity intact but without much experience of obedience, without much experience of relationship, without much experience of love. I am still endeavoring to learn now what I did not learn as a child. Certainly I’m not the most selfish person around. In fact, there are those who will insist that I’m not terribly selfish at all. Even so, I struggle with obedience, struggle with relationship, struggle with love.

And I am not unique. So many of my contemporaries were deprived as I was. Many of them could tell their own stories of abuse. Many others were simply never invited, never had the opportunity to give themselves over to someone because no one asked. Others would tell different stories but ultimately, all our stories attest to the fact that many, many of us learned to cringe away from rather than follow after on light, joyful feet, that many, many of us believe that obedience is doing as we are told.

But now we have grown up and there are fewer and fewer people who tell us what to do and we are left free to do as we please, free to fulfill every desire we have listed, free to be single, free to be alone. We seek relationship as long as it doesn’t require the “o” word. But obedience is not optional. Every relationship we enter involves listening to, learning from, following, giving ourselves over to – requires obedience. And we simply cannot be fully human without it. Were that not so, Jesus would never have been obedient to his parents, never have “bec[o]me obedient unto death.” He followed after us, gave himself up to us so we could follow after, give ourselves up to him.

The “o” word is difficult to write about: I’ve been working on this piece since I made my last post. And though I’ve had a some interference from health and work, that hasn’t been enough to explain such a lengthy delay. But I knew I must delve into the “o” word early on, no matter how hard the struggle. Since obedience is essential to being fully human, we cannot be open to marriage, open to any sort of consecrated state, without it. If we are to fulfill our vocation to love, we must love today; we cannot avoid obedience now with plans to pick it up once married or otherwise consecrated.

Once again I find I haven’t got all the answers, find that even after much time delving and thinking and praying and conversing, I’ve got little more than a few reflections that may or may not be useful. One thing I have come to see these past weeks is that obedience requires I rip up the list of things I will and will not do. Maintaining that inventory is tempting but means that I am still looking forward to the day when I can do as I please, still limiting obedience to the minimum. But limiting myself to no more than is absolutely necessary limits my ability to give myself over to someone, someone to whom I want to respond with eager joy as he extends the invitation, “Follow me.”

* It has been pointed out to me that marriage is a consecrated relationship.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Two Vocations" - I Have Been Unable to Post Comments

Gregaria -

In your reading on this subject, have you come across anything that says that some people may not have a vocation?

No. We all have a vocation to love as Christ loves us and the church provides us with specific teaching about living out that vocation according to God’s will. Why do you ask if some people might not have a vocation?

I also wondered if you were saying that consecrated non-religious life is a Vocation, too.

I am saying that consecration to Christ is one way to realize one's vocation to love. The consecration is usually formal: consecrated virgins, hermits, the members of communities such as Communion and Liberation's St. Joseph's Fraternity, etc. Both formal and less formal ways of consecrating oneself to Christ should be discussed with one's pastor and/or confessor.

And, also, from your point of view, would sickness be a valid reason to live a consecrated non-religious life?

Of course not – the only reason to consecrate oneself to Christ is in response to a specific calling that is discerned within one's immediate experience of the church – one's confessor, pastor, parish (always essential), lay movement, etc. Depending on its severity, sickness can be an impediment. It can also be part of the discernment process – many have realized that illness has limited them so much that all they could do was be consecrated to Christ and such consecration was, in fact, the realization, the living out of their vocation.

PS – I assume by "non-religious" you mean outside of a religious community/order.

PPS – I will be writing more about illness and ways of living out one's vocation and impediments and obedience and all sorts of issues related to this topic.

Monday, September 24, 2007

"Two (and Only Two) Vocations"

The question has arisen: does the church really teach that there are only two vocations, marriage and consecration to Christ? (In the latter I include mystical marriage to God as well as those who make a vow of celibacy and live in obedience, formal or otherwise, to their bishop or some other authority.) When I wrote my first post on this subject, I had read a great deal of Theology of the Body and all of Mulieris Dignitatem and, was, in fact, participating in a study group with several theologians that focuses on Theology of the Body and discusses this very issue. Since then, I've read nearly all of the first, reread the latter and also read Familiaris Consortio. Additionally, I continue my participation in the study group and have had many discussions on the topic with priests and theologians. My additional reading and some of those conversations require that I alter my language a bit - the church teaches that there are two ways to realize our vocation to love, marriage and consecration to Christ (though, as I've indicated already, that consecration need not be "formal").

Theology of the Body and Mulieris Dignitatem call us to give ourselves in one of two ways, marriage or consecration to Christ. As Mary Beth Bonacci puts it, "[a]s far as the Church is concerned, [an unconsecrated single "vocation"] doesn't exist." That’s not surprising – the concept of a vocation to the unconsecrated single life is quite modern and though the magisterium reads the signs of the times and speaks the truth regardless of the clamour from the marketplace, their teaching is rarely clairvoyant nor is it normally pre-emptive.

But already Familiaris Consortio teaches: "Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person, in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. Either one is in its own proper form an actuation of the most profound truth of man, of his being "created in the image of God."

The encyclical goes on to define what is meant by virginity or celibacy: "In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the church, giving himself or herself completely to the church in the hope that Christ may give himself to the church in the full truth of eternal life. The celibate person thus anticipates in his or her flesh the new world of the future resurrection."

Then it addresses unmarried Catholics who have not given themselves completely to the church: "These reflections on virginity or celibacy can enlighten and help those who, for reasons independent of their own will, have been unable to marry and have then accepted their situation in a spirit of service. (emphasis added)

[F]or reasons independent of their own will is extremely important – that is what I am writing about, the ways I choose to close myself to marriage. (This is, after all, my story.)

Of course there is still a great deal of discussion about vocation, including the possibility of a vocation to some sort of unconsecrated single life. But discussion is not church teaching. And just as there has been and continues to be development of the theology of the body, the same is and will be true regarding development of the theology of vocation. In fact, the two go hand in hand. Yet, over and over again, when the magisterium of the church discusses a possible vocation to single life, they also point out that that life must have a purpose that is lived within the church and is self-giving and, those bishops keep coming back to some sort of formal or informal consecration to Christ. Again, that's not at all surprising. Development seeks to be consistent and grows out of existing Church teaching and tradition.

Living out our vocation to love requires commitment, requires that we ratify a specific call from God. The church teaches that that call always takes us into deeper and deeper relationship within the body of Christ including relationship with those of the opposite sex. And though, within marriage and giving ourselves completely to the church, there are many possibilities for living out our ultimate vocation to love, there is no call to a life apart and certainly no call to reject those of the opposite sex.

So if I live living out attitudes that close me off to marriage such as:

- I'm fine on my own
- I have my friends, my job, my activities, I go to mass and confess regularly, men are superfluous
- I don't need a relationship with a man to be fulfilled, I can be fulfilled on my own
- Men are so much work, why bother

is then, in fact, being I would be selfish. It is living for myself and defining God and the world by the yardstick of my wounds, my brokenness, my sin.

Married couples are called to be open to children but they are not commanded to have them. Such command is not possible, children are a gift. Whether married couples are truly open is something only they and God know (honestly, only God really knows). Confessors, families, friends – all might have some knowledge about a couple's openness but there is no litmus test – openness is truly a matter of conscience.

Relationships are also gifts. Marriage is a gift. As is consecration to Christ (and the vocation to love). Vocation comes from God. I am only asked to listen and do the best I can to respond to his voice. And though the church's teaching about realizing vocation will continue to develop, that is really not my concern, at least not at this moment. I am not waiting for the church to tell me that it's okay for me to stay single, to stay as I am. I am not Catholic so that I can stay as I am. I want to be conformed to Christ's image and am deliriously happy to do my best to follow the teachings of the church. I spent too many years in the Anglican communion trying to follow Christ amidst a paucity of church teaching and a deficiency of church authority. It just didn't work: I am simply too small to teach myself, too small to be my own authority. I need the church's teaching and authority. Obedience, even when it is difficult, is radically better than making it up for myself.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What It's Really All About – Part 2

I have never been able to avoid suffering. In my life, the cross is real. Of course that's true for each person though it often goes unrecognized, relabeled as bad luck . But the fact of it remains and is so significant, I expect to experience it even in seeking to fulfill my vocation. If the cross is real then so is the empty tomb – facts generate facts. So I am not looking for Mr. Right, neither he nor Miss Right exists. They're lovely fantasies, nothing more. I have spent a great deal of time dallying with, wallowing in, comforting myself with such fancies: one of the first books I read was, unfortunately, Perrault's retelling of Cinderella: for long, I dreamt of and awaited my Prince. But the imagined brings only fleeting, barren comfort, a comfort that is, in the end, no comfort at all. The realization that I controlled my fantasies made them increasingly unfulfilling. There are those who prefer the control fantasy offers. Charles Williams examines that choice in Descent Into Hell, a book I highly recommend. But ultimately, fantasy is choosing less than nothing. I want more. Choosing more always includes choosing Calvary not as a final stopping place, but rather as necessary fact preceding the empty tomb.

Choosing more also requires saying yes to a vocation that "is love in its fullest sense, which is to say, not merely relational and social, but spousal, …full and complete communion with another. ...[We are not] called to be alone because 'it is not good that man should be alone.' None of us has a vocation to [isolation], without God or other persons, which is singlehood in its fullest extent." None of us is called to reject the other sex. Some are called to sacrifice marriage with the other sex and instead, enter into direct spousal relationship with God himself. But God calls none of us to decide that the other sex is irrelevant in our lives. Nor does he call any one of us to decide that such relationships are not worth the bother. "Male and female" he made us, of a woman was he born: men and women participate in each others holiness. When women reject men, they reject God who became man. When men reject women, they reject the woman who brought God into the world and so, reject God who became man as well. By taking on our humanity, God has forever made it impossible for us to reject one another without also rejecting him.

We have a particular vocation, a vocation tied to the relationship between male and female. Sin in this fallen world can present impediments to the manifestation of the results of that vocation but we have a Father in heaven who accepts our desire as fact. It is not given to us to control results but only to respond to the call. If we get up and, to the best of our abilities, seek to respond to his voice, even if we are too weak to get far, even if we find our paths blocked by insurmountable barriers, even if we die along the way, our Father counts our desire as accomplished fact. But, if we say, "It is impossible!", if we decide not to try, then we choose less than nothing; we choose death.

Spousal relationship is really all about holiness, being made able to spend an eternity in the relationship that is utterly self-giving, utterly creative, utterly love. It is essential to being conformed to Christ's image. Spousal relationship means making a conscious commitment to embrace the hardships of life. Not just my own personal hardships either. Nor is it just embracing hardships in a fashion that I can control, making a commitment that I can resign when I'm tired or if something else more important comes along. Rather, it is vowing to embrace the hardships that come in consecrated relationship, relationship that once entered into becomes necessary fact in our relationship with God himself. Such embracing begins as unconsecrated men and women whose hearts are and remain open to respond with Fiat!: this is the first hardship we must embrace. We are here to learn to "bear the beams of love," to bear the brightness of a relationship that would utterly destroy us unless we have become something more, a something more that only comes from the kind of self-giving that counts neither the cost nor the passage of time but trustfully waits with open hearts to be disposed of in consecrated relationship as he sees fit.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What It's Really All About - Part 1

This morning I awoke feeling unsettled, my mind filled with images of being sexually abused. I asked God, what it was all about and burst into tears. Then came sobbing and pain in my heart and more and more and more crying.

Over the past few days I’ve felt something was off, felt the occasional twinge of pain in my heart; my behaviour has been a bit manic at times. I’m not easily depressed at least not anymore. I am, in fact, probably one of the happiest people on earth – I was born that way. That tendency to happiness has stood me in good stead particularly during the years when I lived in a cloud of depression – from the time when my parents were killed, when I was about four and one-half or five, until my mid-twenties when through much therapy and much prayer and steady outpourings of grace the lights were turned up and everything became brighter and sharper and clearer; though God had given me great interior illumination throughout my childhood, once healed, I felt as if I had never experienced real light before. The healing process continues and now depression is a rarity. Still, on occasion, something will poke me and I know, time for more healing.

When I began studying philosophy last autumn, my spiritual director told me to ask the questions to which I don’t already have answers. I find myself doing just that more and more. Certainly, I don’t know the answers to being and remaining open to marriage for years, perhaps even for the rest of my life. But it really doesn’t surprise me that exploring the question reveals tender places and unhealed wounds. In fact, if this is as important as I believe it to be, I expect writing about it to be a dredging process; if there were no impact on me, the question wouldn’t be worth asking. Still, I am not accustomed to waking to such thoughts. Neither am I accustomed to bursting into tears that continue and continue and continue.

In answer to my question this morning about the thoughts that filled my mind and the sobbing and tears, I found myself face to face with white hot terror and thinking, Nobody wants me! It’s an old fear that is particularly healed in the experiences of community, of the Body of Christ which saturate my life today. But not so many years ago, when I found an antique volume of Tennyson’s poems and joyfully told my Anglican rector about it, he told me to read Maud and then quoted, Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null...; I realized he was talking about me. This morning, memory of him quoting those words accompanied the white hot terror and I found myself feeling there would be no sustainer, nobody who wanted me and it was all my fault.

I wanted to delve into them, to analyze all the reasons men might see experience me as Maud. And I could have filled the rest of the morning distracting myself with them, picking them apart, laying them out neatly and trying to justify or resolve each one. Except the feelings and reasons don’t matter. The fact is that I am terrified that nobody wants me and it is my fault but, at the same time, I am called to be open to marriage and that is utterly ludicrous. Utterly impossible. I just don’t know how to do it.

Recently my rheumatologist prescribed injections of methotrexate to treat the autoimmune diseases with which I live. Arrangements were made for a nurse to teach me to inject myself. I was given a fake leg to practice and merrily filled the syringe and stabbed the unfeeling rubbery plastic several times injecting it with a good amount of saline solution. Then it was time for me to inject myself. Filling the syringe – no problem. Ditto swabbing and pinching the site. I plunged the needle towards my leg but suddenly stopped short just as it touched my skin. “I can’t,” I told the nurse. “I just don’t know how to choose to hurt myself.”

She said, “Look, I’ll hold your hand and we’ll do it together.” I watched her take hold of my hand and when I stopped short once again, she gently continued to push it forward until we had plunged the needle into my leg. Doctors and technicians stab me with great regularity and it always hurts but surprisingly, this injection didn’t, not even a little prick of pain.

As I recall learning to inject myself, as I consider the terror that no one will want me and it is all my fault, as I am tempted to delve into all the reasons why I don’t know how to be open to marriage, I realize once again, I don’t need to know how to do it. Belonging to God means there are infinitely strong, unimaginably gentle hands wrapped around mine; the experience of his arms holding me is present in my earliest memories. He will provide the way for me to be open despite all the tender places and wounds.

I am not writing a “how to” manual for myself or for anyone else. And ultimately, the real terror is not that nobody wants me but rather that I am not really open to marriage, not really open to the violence of divine love. And that is unacceptable because there is something I want so much more than marriage. I want to live Fiat! In reality not just in my words. There is a song I desperately want to sing. A song of mercy and love, a tiny echo of that greater Magnificat. He who is mighty continues to do great things and being open to marriage is all about being open to his gentle might.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Possession – Part 2

[She] belonged to him so completely that he could even decide not to keep [her] for himself but to order that [she] be given to another, by an act of obedience… (C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength)

I did not learn until several months ago that the Church teaches there are two (and only two) vocations, marriage or the consecrated celibate life. I had honestly believed being single was a third vocation, had been told as much by both Anglican and Catholic teachers. Of course logically the default state is single. It’s the way we all begin. Yet the Church views it as a temporary state, as transitional – Catholics take Genesis seriously: "[i]t is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.” (Genesis 2:18 from Robert Alter, Genesis a Translation)

It has been almost exactly three years since I returned to the Catholic Church after spending a number of years in the Anglican Communion. In that brief period, there has been a radical change in me. As an Anglican, my immediate response would have been to deconstruct the Church’s teaching, to find it’s deep, spiritual meaning which ratified my belief that being perpetually single was actually God’s will. As a Catholic, I simply accepted it and now the real work begins. I am accustomed to being single, do all sorts of things, conscious and unconscious, to remain that way, take great delight in doing as I please with my life.

But I want to belong to God even when I fight against him, even when I resent him doing anything at all with me; too often I feel that he should do with me as I please. And I can’t fix myself – even to belong to God. I am so weak and inept I cannot even give myself to God unless he gives me the ability to do so. But my automatic response to follow church teaching, to relinquish my belief that I am okay on my own, is evidence that he is giving me that ability. Something truly has changed in me: I value the Church’s teaching more than I value my own preferences and inclinations – I am learning obedience.

What was so laughable about my foster father’s attempt to arrange a marriage for me was that he failed to realize it had been many years since I had obeyed him. He believed he owned me, could dispose of me as he pleased. For my part, I wasn’t even aware of his attempt to do so. Had he never told me he wanted me to marry the seminarian, I’d have just continued to think he was weird for expecting me to entertain that poor young man – it really was a silly thing to expect of me. But he didn’t know that. My foster father didn’t know he didn’t know me, didn’t know I was only using him to get back to New York, had never noticed that our relationship had undergone a radical change and I now manipulated him. And because he was simply something to use there could be no obedience. Obedience belongs to the province of love and I did not love him. There was absolutely no connection between us – we spoke radically different languages, came from radically different perspectives.

Though I did not obey him, within me there was a hunger to be obedient. I wanted someone to whom I could listen, someone to follow. Eventually, I even tested whether I had a vocation as a consecrated celibate and though I knew obedience would be very difficult, it was also exciting. But the discernment process showed me I had been saying to God, I love you so much I’m willing to do anything you want and then had immediately assumed I knew what that was. (What else does one deliriously in love with God become?) But I came to see I had never considered the importance of sex (something I shall address in (an)other post(s)) and then realized I had never asked God, What do you want me to do? When I did ask, the answer was simply to live and become holy. So as long as I obeyed the teaching of the church, obedience seemed not to be an issue any longer.

But neither the teaching of the church nor obedience mean much in the Anglican circles I frequented. Though there are many people who will tell one what to do, the teaching there has become so murky, so capricious, there’s no path to follow, only many different ways to become lost. But now that I am safely back in the Catholic church, I do have a clear path and if I am to belong to God, I must accept that being single is not a viable vocation. Since I am not called to the consecrated celibate life, I must be open to marriage. That doesn’t guarantee that I will marry – this is still a broken world and much is not at all as God would have it be. But if I am to obey, I cannot make a decision to be perpetually single. Obedience demands that I prepare myself for marriage, that I live my life in the hope that God has made me to be, has made for me a sustainer and that in the fullness of time we will be married.

I did not belong to my foster father. He had no right to dispose of me as he saw fit. I knew that, knew that it was not my business to obey him. I do belong to God. I am his to with as he pleases. That is exactly as it should be. And though I am a woman of this age and not another so that the very idea of being given in marriage is fraught with all sorts of modern connotations, and though my feelings still tell me that single is a perfectly fine default position, I can accept that the modern connotations are wrong and my feelings are broken. It really does seem I am learning obedience.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Unmarried Not Single

Additional posts onthis theme coming soon - my health is being fractious. I am engaged in lots of thinking and can't wait to be able to spend some time writing. Pray for me.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Possession - Part 1

My foster father chose a husband for me.

He was a Victorian relict. Of good French peasant stock and attitude but shaped and reduced like a court bouillon by being transplanted to Louisiana at an early age, by living with twenty siblings, by the death of his father when he was eleven, by his mother becoming Baptist after her husband’s death (Baptists were ubiquitous and had been helpful), by his mother’s abuse, by the depression. He romanticized his childhood as well as the age that had begun passing away before his birth and, by the time he was a husband and father, everyone including him had forgotten it: what existed in his mind bore no resemblance to the reality that had been. But he was determined his fantasy would exist in his household. He owned us – such was his firm belief. The children he had fathered, the children he fostered, his wife – all were his possessions to dispose of as he saw fit. He was not only king in his castle but it’s god as well. And not a benign household god like those Rebecca hid from Laban. Rather a cruel, terrifying god – more like Moloch come to life and requiring the souls and personalities of many, many children and one or two wives to maintain his existence.

And I had escaped him. Was, in fact, the only one to leave. I had earned a scholarship to a small women’s college in the east and at sixteen, had fled his house in California. Adjusting to freedom was not as easy as I had imagined and I romanticized about what was behind but after experiencing an horrific Christmas holiday back in California, I realized my fantasy did not exist and that I would be insane to go back. I planned never to return. So, the summer after my freshman year, I visited the families of school friends who lived in and near Colorado and then spent time exploring that part of the United States until lack of money sent me reluctantly back to my foster father’s house for the last three weeks before school began.

At the beginning of that summer, I had not told him that I would not be returning to his house until the last minute, had even tried to exchange the ticket he sent me for airfare to Colorado but was unable to do so without his permission. On the day I was scheduled to fly to California, I called and told him I was not coming back but instead, was going to Colorado. He was extremely displeased, called back and spoke with one of my roommates who gave him the first address I would be visiting. (She was one of those people who delighted in hurting her friends whenever an opportunity arose.) My foster father sent the police to retrieve me but since he had told them I was a college student, they, like so many others, assumed I was at least eighteen and merely asked me to call him. I did and reiterated again that I would not be returning to California. Still, when I ran out of money three months later and did not know what else to do, I knew he would send me a ticket and he did. (I did not even concern myself with getting back to New York. I had three whole weeks to attend to that.)

There were no recriminations beyond him telling me that he could “do nothing with me” but I had long outgrown his various iterations of that particular theme. It seemed to me it was not his place to do anything with me but I was no longer foolish enough to try to silence him by voicing my thoughts. I was simply glad that I needn’t withstand days of his attacks, even dared to hope he would let me be, would allow me to live my own life. But then, I was just seventeen at the time.

On the first Sunday I was back, I realized I would have to attend services at my his church particularly since I needed him to buy me a ticket back to New York. But since I had been accustomed to sneaking out to attend mass from the time I was twelve or so, doing so again was simply a return to the familiar.

I came down on Sunday wearing trousers and he objected until I reminded him that I had a cold. Avoiding a chill (for all Victorians worthy of the name) took precedence over the proper fundamentalist Baptist attire. When we were in the car, he told me how glad he was I had returned in time to meet the young seminary student who had interned for him that summer, that I’d be able to hear him preach that day. I made the sort of noncommittal noise I had discovered years before, the kind that he heard as, Oh, isn’t that lovely and allowed him to continue; my foster father was never interested in what anyone else had to say. No one noticed that I did not pay attention to the sermon. And when my foster father suggested his intern take me to China-town for lunch, suitably chaperoned by the assistant pastor and his wife, it seemed a welcome opportunity to have a good lunch and avoid my foster father’s presence for several hours. Life was unexpectedly good.

It was an excellent lunch. Lots of delicious dim sum. And I seem to recall there was actual conversation and that it was rather interesting as well. But when the assistant pastor and wife left me with the seminarian so we could get ice cream and told me he would see me home, I became a bit suspicious. I did not know this young man. And whereas he had certainly been a perfect gentleman, the set up seemed too much like a date and no one had asked if I was interested. He bought me an ice cream and we ate it as we walked along. (He seemed a bit amazed that I ate the cone backwards but as that has always been my favourite way to eat ice cream, I saw no reason to change for him.) When I saw my bus coming, I told him to run or else we’d have an hour’s wait. I ran and caught the bus. From the window, I saw him standing on the sidewalk with another amazed (or was it dazed?) look on his face.

The next day he returned to seminary. During the following weeks, my foster father sang his praises and repeatedly asked me what I thought of him. I didn’t think much and made more noncommittal noises. When he suggested he would not send me back to New York, that in fact, I should transfer to a nearby women’s college and think about settling down – perhaps with the seminarian who would graduate and return the following summer – I told him that I’d join the army instead and travel around the world. He bought me a ticket and left and never returned.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Time For A Change

After 16 essays on suffering, I’m ready to write about something else (though I’m sure suffering will rear it’s head on occasion). But right now, vocation – particularly being a “long-term” single and remaining or becoming open to marriage – is much in my thoughts ad conversations and, in fact, everywhere I go. (I live in New York. One of our favourite topics of conversation is the lack of a Catholic dating scene.)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Suffering and the Problem of God – Desire

[T]hey heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the evening breeze, and the human and his woman hid from the LORD God in the midst of the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called to the human and said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard your sound in the garden and I was afraid, for I was naked, and I hid." (Genesis 3:8-10) (1)

On retreat about one and one-half years ago I prayed about my health (actually, I was moaning and fussing at God about it). It had been getting worse and worse and I was not at all happy. After a bit, I saw the face of a young Chinese man and it struck me that nearly a quarter of the people in the world do not know that God loves them. The realization that they could live and die in such darkness was sadder than any sadness I had ever known and far more important than my disgruntlement over my health. Within me there arose the desire to do something so that that young man and all those in China might come to know God.

I heard the familiar voice in my heart, “The price is high.”

“Well of course it is,” I replied. “But that that young man should never know you – that’s intolerable. Absolutely intolerable. He must know you. All of China must know you. The price is well worth it. Lord, with just one like that young man or even a few, you could remake all of China.

“And I want a part, even a little part. I want to help. Maybe you could use this illness. That would be okay with me.”

We are involved in an overwhelming love. It is so great, all the love stories we humans have ever imagined, can possibly imagine are pale shadows, trite fairy tales in comparison. I am convinced that on the sixth day, God took some dust into his hands and said, ‘I will make you like me’ and then proceeded to fashion humans in his image and likeness. In the garden, God shares an intimate relationship with our first parents. Reality for our first parents is truly: “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.” (2)

This love is also a great tragedy for when they eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, when they realize they are naked and try to hide themselves from each others eyes, from God himself, they rupture the relationship God has given them. They step outside the community of love in which God has created humans to live and move and have their being. So that Job’s demand: “How long wilt thou not look away from me …thou watcher of men?” (3) only echoes the actions of a man and a woman in scratchy fig leaf aprons trying to prevent God from seeing them.

The love might have ended in that garden except it doesn’t – this is truly the great love and can never end in tragedy. It continues through long, long years, through countless incidents of behaviour so ugly and hateful that long ago, any of us would have walked away. The love continues today and will continue through eternity because we are the objects of that love and our behaviour does not alter the one who has chosen to love us: we must either reject him or stand still and with his help let ourselves be loved.

He wants us. He longs for us. He desires us. To be God is to be relationship, to exist in the mutual desire between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. To be human is to be offered a place in that desire; it is intolerable to God that we should not know him. We can reject him if we choose, for he values our freedom above our lives, but we will know that we are rejecting his overwhelming, absolute love. God desires us so much, he is quirky.

After the humans eat of the forbidden fruit, God utters the curses that fall upon each of them and their posterity and evicts our first parents from the garden into a hostile world. The story should be predictable from that point but it’s not because God engages in one of his quirky acts, he makes soft, warm “skin coats” (1) to clothes these rebellious humans; fig leaves are terribly scratchy, not at all suitable as protection. Abba has clothed his children, prepared them to live in a hostile world. Betrayal is answered not by destroying the betrayers nor by unmaking their actions. Consequences are as real as the soft clothing and the promise of seed that shall “trample” (1) the beguiling serpent. That seed is God himself whose love for us burns so intensely he will take on our dust, clothe himself with the humanity he has created, abandon himself to the treacherous completion that is foreshadowed when Adam blames him, saying, “[t]he woman whom you gave by me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” (1) (emphasis added) For though God cannot take on the blame, he will in yet another quirky act, take on the punishment.

But he does so according to the reality of what it means to be God, in community with those who love him, with those who hate him, with those who are only doing their job, with those who hang about because they have nothing better to do than be incited against innocence. God enters into our broken communities and allows himself to be broken so as to bring us back into community with him.

Suffering and community go together. From the first breach, to the spectators at Calvary, to the Church’s martyrs who continue to suffer today – suffering takes place within community. Suffering continues to be the means through which God pulls us into the body of Christ, brings us back into community with himself and with each other.

It would be easy if he did it all for us and we reaped the rewards – that’s what we expect – then we could write lovely tales of the battle in the deeps of time, a battle that does not impinge on our lives. But that’s not what he offers because he really is making us creatures of dust like him. When God took on our humanity, he took on our suffering. When he remade our humanity, he remade our suffering. It is the path back into relationship, the means through which we learn to love as he loves, give as he gives, grow into his image and likeness.

I look forward to the day when I shall meet the young man God showed me; I believe he will come to know God’s love and will help bring God’s light into the darkness of his country. Though I do not know his name, he is part of me and I of him: we are in community with each other. I am very, very fortunate. I have no memory of a time when God’s love was not the central reality of my life. Though I have been through great darkness, God has always illumined my path. And now, I have an opportunity to participate in bringing God’s light to those who live in darkness without knowledge that light is even a possibility; it is intolerable that every person in China should not know of God’s overwhelming love, his boundless desire for them. And it is a gift far beyond my imagining that I should be granted even a tiny flickering of God’s desire for the people he has created, that I should have even an infinitesimal part in helping to restore the Chinese to the community God has created them to enjoy. “[T]he sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (4) The glory of being part of God’s community.

1Genesis – Translation and Commentary, Robert Alter (1996 W. W. Norton & Company) *

2 Song of Solomon 6:3

3 Job 7:19-20

4 Romans 8:18

* I highly recommend this translation as a resource for those interested in serious study of Genesis.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Suffering and the Problem of God - Diamonds

Last Saturday morning, pain awakened me in the middle of the night. I lay there for a bit confused at being awake until the ache in my joints and muscles provided explanation. I decided to take some pain medication, my doctor has started me on something new that knocks me out but that’s not a bad thing in the middle of the night. Then I remembered that the pain had been bad all day and I had already taken as much as was allowed in 24 hours and I would have to wait before taking another dose. So I lay there, knowing there was nothing else I could do, feeling miserable and a bit cranky.

I found myself thinking of what a bit of coal must feel like when it is being pressed into a diamond, thinking that I am like that bit coal, undergoing a process that is making me into something splendid and beautiful and glorious. I found myself thinking of Bernadette, my confirmation saint who had tuberculosis of the bone and suffered for years without any of the modern medications that make my life quite bearable. “It’s not so bad,” I told God and myself . “And besides, it’s not as if I have to suffer it all on a Friday morning. I get to do it in tiny stages and this one isn’t so bad.” Finally, I realized what an honour it is to be made able to suffer even if I can only do it a little bit. Not terribly long after that, the pain eased and I fell asleep again.

I am very fortunate and I know it. At times I’d like to be cranky at God because things aren’t as I want them to be but then he reminds me how horrid it would be if they. There’d be no pain, no fatigue, no tests or procedures, but I’d also have no hope, no future, nothing beyond what I can imagine and that’s absolutely terrifying. I am absolutely convinced that on the sixth day, God took some dust into his hands and said, ‘I will make you like me’ and then proceeded to fashion humans in his image and likeness. I am absolutely convinced that we are like bits of coal being made into something far greater than diamonds. I am absolutely convinced that the thing that is going on, the thing that is bigger than I can ever realize is that he has told us the truth: we really are sons of God, heirs, able to grow up and be like him. I could never have imagined it, don’t know how it will happen, know I don’t deserve it, but if that’s what God wants, it’s fine with me.

It’s not easy but the difficulty is a guarantee that sonship is certain: if the cross is not real, then resurrection cannot be either. But since we live Good Friday, we can be certain that we will also live Easter.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Facing It All

My health is not good and, unless God chooses to work a miracle, it will continue to decline though I may experience periods of remission. I am, according to several doctors, an interesting case. Which means this illness doesn’t progress (or remain stable) as expected. The actual autoimmune diseases have actually been mild but each comes with an array of possible secondary diseases and problems and my body seems to delight in developing the more serious ones. Much of last summer was devoted to a medical tests to measure my esophageal motility. Of course the results told my doctors what I had been telling them all along – I was having greater difficulty swallowing. But now there is substantial documentation and I know the joys of tubes pushed down my noise into my stomach and the sublime experiences of swallowing one vile substance after another (and vile comes in many flavours which is rather silly – the world is not crying out for more varieties of vile).

So, the problems with my heart, though unusual, are not unexpected given my medical history. (As one doctor put it, those who develop one generally go on to develop many rare problems.) In fact, it’s probably the progression of two existing secondary problems. My intention had been just to ignore the chest pains and breathing difficulties but then my internist vetoed that plan and sent me to the cardiologist. (Lent is my preferred time to be sick. And if not Lent, then at least let it wait until autumn or winter when it’s cold and I want to be inside anyway.) Essentially, I find all this a nuisance, I’m just a big kid and I’d rather be playing.

Recently a friend told me that I’d helped her get through the discomfort of a sonogram. Knowing what I undergo, she imagined me uniting myself to Christ’s sufferings and the image helped her do the same. It was a lovely, lovely complement yet I had to disabuse her because I do not often remember to unite my sufferings with Christ’s and that is particularly true when I am being asked to swallow something vile or remain still while a snake is being pushed through my nose and down into my stomach or when someone is about to make a tiny incision so as to thread a catheter from my groin to my heart. Even with drugs (and I insist on being unconscious or at least adequately numbed whenever possible), such experiences are bloody awful and I at those times I am really a big kid. In fact, I regress to about the age of four or five. All I can remember to do is snuggle into my Father’s arms and wait for the horribleness to go away.

After my Grandp√©re and Ti were killed, my Papa took us to Europe for a time where I was introduced to strange adults. Looking back, I realize they were probably very kind people but when I was a young child, I did not like them. They were big and new and frightening and strange. Upon meeting one of them, my immediate response was to press myself against my Papa’s or Marmar’s legs. If I encountered a particularly alarming adult, I’d hide behind one of my parents (preferably Papa) and peep out from a place of safety. With Marmar or Papa behind me or better yet, acting as my shield, I could encounter strange beings, I could encounter face anything. That is what I still do today except now I hide in my Father’s arms which are even safer than my parents’ were.

I know that God uses this illness along with everything else I’ve suffered as well as my joys and my entire life to fulfill his purpose. I know he loves me. He has cared for me my entire life; were he to stop now, heaven and earth would no longer be – loving us is simply what he does (and he doesn’t find it a nuisance either – go figure). My life is his to do with as he pleases and I needn’t get it right all the time; I can focus on snuggling in his arms; I needn’t be a grown up when I’m really just a child.

[He has] calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast... (Psalm 131)

Monday, April 02, 2007


Thank you all for your prayers. The medical emergency has abated somewhat. I'm back at home, resting, I even went back to work for a few hours today because I need to save time off for whatever the future holds. I'd appreciate continued prayers; the autoimmune diseases which form part of my life seem to be taking an unpleasant turn. And I am very grateful to be part of the Body of Christ in this wonderful way.

God bless you all.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Suffering – Transfiguration

In writing about suffering, I’ve followed an outline of sorts and am at the issue of suffering and God, the place to which all meditations on suffering must lead us. Part 1 dealt with risk. Part 2 will explore the issue of community. Part 3 will be an exploration of creatures and creation – which is what we are and is also the crux of the problem of suffering. But of course, this isn’t under my direction or control: as hard as it is for me to admit it publicly, I am God’s to do with as he pleases and there is absolutely nothing I want more, nothing better for which I can hope. And, every so often, I discover an unexpected addition to my planned outline. Today is such an occasion (though I do think it is integral to the problem of suffering and God).

This past week, I had planned to see my spiritual director, a Dominican priest, for confession on Thursday. At almost the last minute, he had a conflict and asked to reschedule to Friday. On Friday, I arrived at the appointed time, rang the bell to the parish house and waited. No answer. I rang again and again. Still no answer. I looked into the church, saw the pastor praying and decided not to disturb him.

Now I don’t own a cell phone though I flirt with the idea of getting one. But since I need a great deal of time alone to think and listen and, since cell phones seem to make their owners always available, I have avoided them like the plague. I often walk until I’ve come to the end of all my distractions and feats of ledger domain and then, in the stillness, when I’m not yet physically exhausted but certainly tired of filling time, I discover I can’t stave off God’s voice any longer. It is then that I realize, once I attend to what he is saying, that I have been very, very silly for trying to avoid him. Cell phones seem to interrupt that process of being alone with myself until I am willing to be alone with God. And for me, that would not be good. (Though if the time comes when a cell phone is important in my life, I will get one – I’m actually very technologically savvy.) All of which is to explain why, when my spiritual director didn’t come to the door and wasn’t in the church, I went home before I called him. After we exchanged apologies, we scheduled a meeting for this morning before mass. That seems to be exactly what God wanted.

Confession was all about my pride, about the things I’ve held onto and not given to God. I know better and would counsel anyone to give God everything – feelings, attitudes, convictions – no matter how ugly they are. When we were children we brought our parents gifts – flowers. Often they were weeds. But if our parents were at all loving, they accepted our gifts with joy, even put them in water and gave them a central place. (A friend of mine used to bring her mother worms and her mother graciously thanked her and then put them in a jar on the windowsill. My friend didn’t realize until we discussed it, long after her mother’s death, that those worms were always gone the next morning.) We should do know less with, expect no less from our Father.

My spiritual director spoke to me about the Transfiguration and the willingness to love God open-endedly, without any restrictions – to really be his and let everything I am and have be his to do with as he pleases. After confession, while performing my penance in the church, I realized there was something else I had not given to God – the immense pain of losing my family. It became clear to me that I have held onto that pain, tended it, cared for it like a flower in my garden, saw it as a responsibility that only I could fulfill. But if I am truly to be his, then my pain must be his as well: I cannot keep this flower for myself. That hurts. It’s excruciating. My self definition has been intertwined with this particular loss: it has been central to who I am. Giving it to God is self-abandonment, excruciating self-denial. But I love him. What else could I do but give him this thing that is so precious to me?

My prayer that God would take my pain and do with it as he pleases came out with sobbing and tears and that was not surprising – at least not to me. But then there was a voice: “Are you crying? Oh no! I know you’re not crying!” Then there were arms around me, hugging me, holding me, not letting me go and that same voice asking me if I was okay, if the problem was that I needed to go back into hospital – asking what was wrong. Though my initial reaction was to tell her to leave me alone, finally, I hugged back and told her that I would explain later. What else could I do when my friend saw my heaving shoulders and tears and came to be with me?

When I offer something to God – particularly something painful, I always know that his response could be to have me continue in pain – and that’s really what I expect – that he will give me the strength to continue hurting. But sometimes, maybe even often, his response surprises me – and that’s even more painful. I was willing to carry the pain of loss through the rest of my life, willing to relinquish my request that it be healed. It didn’t occur to me that he might ask me to hurt while someone who will never be my mother, who can never be her or even much like her – someone who can never make me forget Marmar – hugs me and will not let me go. In time I will probably understand better but for now, a friend’s hug responds to my need in a way I could not have foreseen so that it’s no longer just my suffering – no longer a flower I get to nurture and keep to myself. Somehow, my suffering now belongs to the body of Christ. It ain’t just mine anymore.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday – An Invitation

"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)

This Lent, please join me in praying for those who perform, those who assist in performing and those who support abortion. It’s easy for us to remember their victims but those who perform and support killing children suffer far more than we or they know, than we or they admit.

Those who abort children and those who support such unspeakable acts debase their own humanity, create a huge split in their hearts and psyches and inflict terrible damage on themselves. At the same time, they must become extremely adept at ignoring their own pain, at ignoring their natural repulsion to what they are doing – God did not create us to destroy children but rather to love and nurture them as he loves and nurtures us. We cannot know what their souls suffer. We do know that whenever we cut ourselves off from being fully human, we cut ourselves off from God.

So during Lent, please add a petition to your prayers for those who “know not what they do” to tiny babies, to their mothers and fathers, to all of us, and to themselves. Pray for the healing of abortionists and abortion supporters. They too are created in God’s image. They too are called to be heirs in hope to God’s kingdom. They desperately need our love. And if we are to be conformed to Christ’s image and likeness, then we must prayer for those who heartlessly cause suffering just as we pray for their victims. We must not close our hearts but must love as God loves us. Love isn’t a matter of what we feel but a matter of what we choose to do.

Monday, February 12, 2007

God and the Problem of Suffering - Risk

I was utterly dumbfounded when I realized it. No words could express my immense shock and disbelief but though it seemed impossible, it was true, God had used my foster father to save my life. For perhaps half an hour, quite a long time by my standards, I could neither think nor speak; I felt that the room had suddenly expanded, that the world held far more now than it had an instant before. It was like the first time I saw a water bug. That sight was so astounding, I sat on my bed shaking my head in disbelief: how could anything be that big? And yet water bugs are that big and now, the world was revealing itself as something far bigger than I had ever imagined, something that might contain all sorts of things I had never before encountered. Finally, I heard myself say aloud:

“How could you be so stupid?”

My words surprised me but the anger they revealed was an even greater surprise. But with God, I had learned not to dissemble so I demanded:

“How could you be so stupid, God? How could you take such a risk? On me? Why would you do such a thing? Don’t you know me? What if I had not turned to you? Don’t you know how awful I can be? How much I hated him? How I wanted him dead? How badly I wanted to die? How could you do such a thing? How could you take such a risk on me? It was apparent that God was unimaginably dumb.

My thoughts turned to the Annunciation. Often I had imagined heaven holding its breath as it waited for Mary’s response. But really, what else could her decision have been? She had been prepared. Immaculately conceived. Made able to say yes when it would have been so natural to say no, so natural to believe that the angel was just a silly fancy. But I am not the Blessed Virgin – nothing like her. I am self centered and terribly childish. God takes care of me, protects me from myself, mitigates my worse impulses; his presence makes it so I need never grow up. But without him, I would not be at all safe. I would be an enraged child making the world pay for all I have lost, all I have suffered. Or I would be dead. And though he has always been with me, though I have absolutely no memory of a time when he was not a palpable presence in my life, I am so much less than I should be; I do not respond to his love as well as I could and sometimes mine is willful failure. I am definitely not someone on whom he should take such a risk .

God made no answer but the world did not regain its accustomed size. Instead possibilities presented themselves to my mind: What if heaven had held its breath for me too? What if I too had been prepared? What if four and one-half years with my parents and a lifetime of hanging out with God had been part of it? What if God knows me better than I know myself? What if he knew that I could have said no but also knew that he had given me everything I needed to take my immense pain, my horrible wounds to the only parent I knew and say, like the little child I am, ‘I’m broke. Fix me.’ What if God really did know what he was doing?

Again I was dumbfounded because I knew my possibilities were facts so that whereas I might have chosen to wallow in my pain and be a tortured soul, I had also been given what I needed to be a broken little girl presenting her wounds to the only doctor able to heal her, her Father. And with that knowledge came wonder – that God would do such great things for me, that he would love me that much, that he would take such risks and have such hope for me. With the wonder came immense gratitude – perhaps the first real gratitude I had known since I was a child. And in the midst of gratitude, another possibility arose, something so big I could not even begin to express it. All I could do was whisper:

“There is more going on than I ever realized, isn’t there God?”

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Mercy of Disappointment

Two or three weeks before Christmas each year when I was a child, I became ill, usually with strep. During the day, my foster mother had me rest in her bedroom where it was quiet and I was allowed to watch TV for short periods as a treat. (For us kids, watching TV was strictly limited to an hour on Saturday morning and a film after dinner on Sunday evenings.) And while she and the housekeeper dusted and vacuumed and scrubbed the rest of the house, I lay in her big bed with a book and the remote control and a glass of orange juice in the morning or ginger ale with crushed ice in the afternoon – a perfect picture of a little girl being very sick. And I was sick, very, very sick. But still, while they were downstairs cleaning, I explored my foster mother’s closets and drawers because I was curious and because it was Christmastime and I wanted to find the presents which she hid in her closets; I, along with my foster siblings – both the natural children and those born to other families – feared that we would not be remembered and somehow searching eased that anxiety.

Buying Christmas presents was a year-long adventure for my foster mother. She loved giving gifts and, with so many children in the house, shopping was a big job. She hid gifts bought earlier in the year in the cellar or the attic or at the top of the linen closet. But as Christmas approached, her closets were also pressed into service. Most years, we kids discovered everything except those hidden in her room, which was a sacrosanct place, only entered by us after her invitation and usually while she was present. So for me, being ill each year was the opportunity we all awaited – it was my job to memorize the gifts I found and report back when I was well enough to come down to the living room in the evenings.

The year that I was seven or eight I found a doll’s carriage and tea set which must be for me (at eleven, my next oldest foster sister had already announced she would not be playing with dolls any longer). I was very excited – these would be the first toys, since coming to live with this family, that would belong just to me. There was one problem – no doll. I did not own one and though my next oldest foster sister had given up such childish toys, she refused to give me her doll, would only allow me to play with it for brief periods under her watchful eye. How could I play with a stroller and tea seat if I had no doll?

I imagined approaching my foster mother and telling her that she had neglected to get me one. But if I did, she would know that I had rifled her closets. Finally, I found an advertisement in the newspaper that pictured two dolls, a toddler and a baby. “I really want a doll,” I said as I showed it to her. “Do you think this one would be alright? Is it too expensive?” She replied, “We’ll see.” A few days later, she called me to her room and showed me the toddler doll, “Is this the right one?” “Yes,” I said even though I had really wanted the baby doll which would have been far more suitable in the carriage. But I could not tell her and, taken unawares, I did not know how to ask for what I really wanted. That Christmas morning, I was terribly disappointed. I had seen all my gifts, had even chosen one of them. Though I had been remembered, there were no surprises.

We try to provide for ourselves and we fail – or we succeed, giving ourselves exactly what we wanted or at least near enough. And usually we are more or less disappointed. Something is not right, something is missing. Doing it for ourselves, doing it on our own is empty, hollow. Something inside us longs to receive from someone who sees us and knows us, a teacher, a parent, a spouse, a friend. We long for surprise – to have someone look inside us and see something that we do not know about ourselves, something that answers a need we do not even know we have, something we would enjoy, something that shows us that we can be more than we thought possible.

To live without being known and provided for, to live without surprise is agony, terrible loneliness, something greater than any heart can bear. And yet we cling to our attempts to be self providers and regard disappointment as a flaw in our psyches when in truth, it is a gift of mercy telling us that we are not enough for ourselves, that our hunger to be seen and provided for by another is our heart longing for the one who really knows us. Disappointment hurts, it reminds us that we are not in union with the one who really knows us, that we are not at home where we belong. But the mercy of disappointment is being reminded that my manipulation, my imaginings, my way are far too little. Disappointment demands that I seek more than I can give myself.

The gifts I receive these days are usually books, music or personal accessories – all of which I love. I no longer want dolls but I do long for trucks. Actually, I’ve grumbled and groaned because of a dearth of trucks. (I’ve never understood why being an adult means I must give up the innocent things that I still enjoy.) But the lack of toys, and trucks in particular, has continued. Until this Christmas when a friend, who had told me she had no money for gifts, handed me an interestingly shaped package that was obviously not a book, nor a CD and was probably too heavy to be a personal accessory. It was, in fact, a truck and I was very happy. But not only was it a truck, it was a Transformer, and only years of training in manners and proper deportment kept me from leaving the dinner party to rush home and play with it. And nothing could stop me sitting up with it into the wee hours. As I write, it sits about three feet away and each time I look at it, each time I play with it, each time a guest takes it up and transforms it from one iteration to another, I smile and my heart melts in gratitude a little bit more. It was more than I knew to ask for. It tells me that my friend sees me and loves me. It reminds me of the one who has always seen me and loved me and provided for me even in the midst of my misguided attempts to provide for myself.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Both Sides Now

My foster mother’s death was ugly – months of loneliness, anger, frustration. Sickness and death filled the house. The children existed to be shushed, to fetch and carry and participate in the most intrusive aspects of caring for her declining body, to be pummeled with helplessness and torn down whenever we reached for something that was not illness, something that was happy and joyous and full of life. We were not important. Neither was she. Impotence, my foster father’s impotence, was what really mattered. And anything any of us did trumpeted that one fact, he was powerless before death.

She shouted repeatedly, “The devil is a liar!” – a mantra he had insisted she use to fight demonic possession, to fight the disease, to fight off death. And as she became sicker, he heaped much blame on her: she didn’t fight hard enough, she should have insisted that she was really, really sick, she hadn’t somehow prevented this terrible disease from taking hold of her. A great deal of money was spent on ambulances and private nurses and attendants who accompanied every member of the house when we were bundled into sundry vehicles and transported to faith healers and miracle workers; their requests for donations continued to come for years after her death. Ultimately, my foster father began to be convinced that he too could work miracles. When she died, he took me and one of his daughters to the funeral home to show us how beautifully he had arranged for her to be prepared for burial and the two of us held our breaths in terror as he commanded my foster mother to “come forth!” What if she did?

Years later, after Mass one Sunday, a friend who often gave me a ride home asked if I’d accompany him to the hospital to visit his cousin. For me it was one of those overwhelming, tingly experiences of God telling me this was very, very important. On the way, my friend explained that his cousin had lived a prodigal life: gambling, prostitutes, alcohol. No one in the family had heard from this wayward child until his mother had received a telephone call about a week earlier that he was very ill and in hospital. My friend, the only family member in the area, had been visiting him and doing what he could but now, feeling helpless, sought the comfort of a friend; his cousin had AIDS and was very close to death.

An emaciated, severely jaundiced young man lay in the bed. He was being well cared for, my friend had seen to that, and was very happy to see both of us. He kept repeating something over and over but my friend’s queries began immediately we entered the room, in a hollow, almost booming voice and prevented us from hearing what he was saying. I walked closer, finally told my friend to hush, and finally we heard the young man’s breathless amazement: “I’m going home. I’m finally going home.” “Yes you are,” I said. And then turned to my friend and said, “Sometimes questions aren’t important. Sometimes all you need to know is that you’re going home.” And I took the cousin’s small, wasted hand and put it in my friend’s large, strong one. We prayed together, thanked God for making him, thanked God for making home. About a week later, my friend’s cousin died.

I had hated hospitals, remembered them as places where I was left to sit in the waiting room or hallway because I was too young to see my foster mother stuck full of needles. It was an experience of awful smells, of loneliness, of despair. Without God telling me it was important, I would have refused to go with my friend. And I would have missed something. Because the awfulness was not the smells, the being left alone, the illness, or even my foster mother’s death. The awfulness was despair, was impotence before death, impotence before life. The awfulness was that in the midst of the agony, we could not thank God for her, we could not thank God that she was finally going home.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Holy Innocents – What I Left Out

Thanks to all who have commented on the Holy Innocents pieces and please forgive my failure to respond. This has been a very busy time in my life and, as Anonymous commented on Holy Innocents – Part I, it is very difficult for me to write about the loss and the abuse, and perhaps even more difficult to write about what God has done with them. And that’s odd since through therapy and prayer and grace, I have already worked through everything I am writing about. Except, perhaps, the working through is a bigger process than I knew and this too is part of it. And too, writing about this makes God’s grace more real, more palpable but it’s excruciating, like warm water over frozen fingers (I have Raynaud’s and that pain is very familiar).

One thing I edited out of Part II that I’ve come to realize is important to the story: As a child, I honestly believed that I was supposed to be dead – I knew I belonged with my parents and if they were dead, I should be too – that is why I waited for the executioner to come and chop off my head. In fact, I would apologize to God whenever I failed to kill myself – that is how deep the conviction went.

But I wasn’t some sort of extraordinary child, conscious that suicide was wrong. I saw death as young children do and it certainly did not mean to me then what it means now, what it began to be after my foster-mother’s death. Death was a journey, was being with my parents and God. It was a very good thing and what God wanted for me.

His response to my childish conviction was a resounding, “No!” and he gave me exactly what I needed to stay alive until I was old enough and strong enough and healthy enough to accept life even without my family. I am continually awed and overwhelmed with gratitude. And I suppose that one reason I began this blog was to give a Catholic witness to God’s presence in our lives – to his extravagant love. Just thinking of how much he loves us is one of those warm water experiences.

Thank you all again. And thanks for making me aware of the Ravensbruck prayer – I was not aware of it. More to come soon.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Holy Innocents – Part II

As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good. (Genesis 50:20)

There is much I never told my foster father. He heard many of my complaints, quite a lot of sarcasm, earfuls of vitriol; though it cost me in tears and scars, I refused to back down. After hitting me, he would say, “I am doing the best I can.” After my foster mother died, he often added that he had to be both father and mother to us. I would mutter that he was neither to me which often led to another attack. But I never muttered that I loved him. Nor did I tell him that his worst crime was that he was unable to give me my parents. And I never told him that his best, though it was filled with rage and hate, had had immense value in my life. But then, while he was still alive, I didn’t know how important he was, how God used him to help me.

In my foster father’s house, I was never allowed to speak of my own family. It was assumed that I would forget them, would accept his family instead of my own. My foster father prided himself on loving us all equally. But I ached for my parents with an indescribable pain that filled my life, made nearly every moment dark. I was never happy, only distracted for a short time. Everything, every book, every moment of play, every bit of quiet, every conversation led back to tears, to confusion, to longing for death.

From five until about a year before my foster mother’s death, I’d crawl under the bureau in my room, place my neck over the stretcher and wait for the executioner to come and chop off my head. I tried smothering myself but couldn’t keep my face pressed into the pillow long enough. Night after night I begged God to let me die but each morning I awoke to the pain. Eventually I began rummaging through the medicine cupboard and swallowed anything with a warning label – aspirin, Tylenol, cold medicine – except they didn’t work. When I was nine I found some quinine tablets. My foster sister had collected a prescription for her boyfriend who was planning a trip to the far east. I hid them, read and reread the warning label, talked to God about them and one afternoon, when I had been sent off to have a nap, I swallowed four capsules and thought that now I would go to sleep and not wake up. Half an hour later I was vomiting and crying inconsolably. No one understood the violence of my reaction. I had often been sick before.

Soon after that, my foster mother’s illness permeated every corner of our world. A nurse and daily helper supplemented the regular housekeeper – there were more eyes around and no opportunities for anything other than attempts at smothering myself. Within the year, my foster mother died.

While she lived, she had stood between her husband and my responses to the abuse. After her death I faced my foster father’s brutality without any mitigation. But he also faced me, my anger, my rage, my stubbornness. I fought him just as I had fought her and refused to give way. Whereas my foster mother had often tried to understand me, he only tried to control me, to break me. I would be neither controlled nor broken and continued to fight with everything in me. Fighting him saved my life.

I was deadly serious about dying, more serious than I knew. As I grew older I became more daring. And because I am so smart and so curious and so capable, I would have found a way, would have succeeded – eventually. Kindness hurt too much. My foster mother’s kindness, though sullied with her own brand of abusiveness, was still excruciating. But that brutal child abuser was not kind and neither was I. We fought and fought and fought. And I learned that my life was worth fighting for, worth living; I learned to fight my own desire for death. My crazy foster father directed my attention away from wounds that were too big for me, wounds that were destroying me. Had I not been forced to fight him, I would have died at my own hand and God knew it.

John Hume in G.K. Chesterton’s, The Moderate Murderer, asks, "Did you ever hang somebody to prevent him being hanged?" I did not know what God had done until my mid-twenties and when I saw it, I was awed that God knew precisely how to break my insane focus on death and bring me back into life, that he would risk hanging me to prevent me being hanged. The abuse in my foster father’s house was horrible, was absolutely real, something no child should experience; I saw it do immense damage to me and my foster siblings. But that damage is only one part of the story and not necessarily the biggest part. Once I stopped insisting that I had already fulfilled my quota of suffering, once I was willing to see how God used abuse for my good, it became a source of healing, became additional evidence of God’s favour and love.

I wonder what use God might make of the abuse in the lives of my foster siblings. What story might they someday tell? And I wonder about my foster father. Whether he sought forgiveness as he died. Whether God credited to him all he did for me. I was never able to tell him how God had used him to help a desperate little girl but perhaps he knows now. Perhaps he knows that for a time, he wasn’t my father but he was the father I needed. Perhaps I will see him again one day and with my papa, we will all laugh for joy because of what God has done.