Friday, April 26, 2013

Tornadoes, Shadows, and Muck

Boston bombings, West explosion, Senate gun vote, watching the documentary "Trigger," discussing the idea of personal and collective shadow, thinking about my own shadow, waiting to find out when I'll go to Palestine, finances, Spanish classes: all in my mind, sometimes spinning, swirling, not yet settling, twisting together, not in neat patterns, but tornadic whirls, forces within that leave me with brows furrowed.  That is my starting point right now.

It's the tornadic whirls within that have kept me from writing sooner this week.  I want to have control over the words that go from my fingers to this page and I was not certain, and still am not certain, that I'd like the words that might spin out of me.  I'm only hoping that the honesty that may emerge (if I allow it) is an asset.

So maybe I should start with this: "Your life is a secret to me."

Words said in the context of a Spanish lesson, spoken in Spanish.  Words I am fairly certain I didn't acknowledge at the time, because how do you acknowledge that a loved one feels like you are keeping secrets, especially when it's said in the context of a Spanish lesson?

Insert knife.  Twist.

In an effort to ignore the pain, I moved on with the lesson.

However, I am in the middle of teaching my spirituality students about the shadow that each of us has within us.  It is virtually impossible to teach about the shadow without admitting to one's own.  Consider this my admission.

Yes, I have a shadow: a part of me that I don't like, don't want, hope you never see.  So do you (she types accusingly).  But we don't need to get into yours (she types, backing off, knowing that her accusation in no way helps her to go where she needs to go).

If you've read more than a post or two, you've probably witnessed my shadow and could probably tell me something about it, so why I think it's some great revelation to say I have one, I'm not sure.  I guess I wanted to believe I can fool you into thinking I'm the perfect Self I long to be.  Now maybe I hope that my admission will help me to accept what Richard Rohr writes in Everything Belongs:

"The only true perfection available to us is the honest acceptance of our imperfection. If we must have perfection to be happy, we have only two choices.  We can either blind ourselves to our own evil or we can give up in discouragement. But if we put aside perfection, then we can hear the good news with open hearts."

I want to hear the good news.  I want to have an open heart.  I want to accept my own imperfection, so that I can accept yours, too.  This weekend I'll have the privilege of reading my students' spiritual biographies.  I'm sure their stories will reveal a piece of their shadow.  When I told my students I was excited to read their stories and learn more about them, one student said, only half-jokingly, "So you can learn about our weaknesses and use them against us?"

"No," I answered.  "Because sometimes I forget that each of us walks into the room with our own muck and when I know what some of that muck is, I am more likely to treat you with compassion."  Without knowing about the muck, I may take someone's behavior or attitude personally, when it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with what he (all my students are male) is going through.  I don't always succeed in the compassion area.  I've failed exponentially before, because I, too, walk in with my muck.

But the muck doesn't have to just be muck.  If we give our muck some time and space, if we accept it and warm it up with our love ("yes, muck, even you deserve love"), much like the heat of the sun does to a compost pile, it could turn into rich soil, fertile ground for new seeds of life.

If we're willing to give some attention to the muck, God will wade in it with us.

If we're willing to walk into the shadow, God helps us work our way back into the light.

God wants us, weeds and wheat (Matthew 13:24-30).

God works in the midst of our swirls and twists and helps to settle the winds and restore balance, the balance of light and darkness.  I know this because in the time I've been writing this, I received an email from a good friend who wrote to me "You are an important part of God's plan for the healing of this world;" I saw a former student who told me how much he had liked my class; and within minutes of that, I saw a former colleague who passed along an affirmation from another former student (such encounters are the beauty of writing in a coffee shop).

I knew none of the above would happen when I began writing. It's as if God is saying, "Yes, you've got shadow, and it's OK that people see it, (isn't it a relief to not hide it?) because, guess what?  They also see your light and, while I wish you knew this on your own, let me throw a few people your way to help you see."

Thanks, God.

I pray that all people receive the affirmation and acceptance I have experienced in this short time.  I pray that I may be a conduit of affirmation and acceptance for others.  I pray that we believe the affirmations and receive the good news of the love we receive with an open heart.

Friday, April 19, 2013


I started this post weeks ago, but words evaded me.  I don't know if they'll come today, but the word "forgiveness" continues to push itself into my consciousness.  I am paying attention and believe that doing so will bring forth whatever words need to be written.

I was supposed to lead a writing retreat this weekend, but unfortunately, it had to be cancelled.  The first invitation I planned to make for retreatants and myself was to choose a word to focus on during the retreat.  More accurately, I would invite us to be attentive to the word that would chose us. Though the retreat is not happening, a word has chosen me.


Thanks to my Lenten pledge to practice Forgiveness Fridays, I've had plenty of occasions to consider forgiveness over the last few months. I collected quotes; I created and led rituals with my students; I thought a lot about who I need to forgive and who I need to ask forgiveness.  When I began my Forgiveness Friday practice, I wasn't sure I'd have enough material for a new forgiveness-focused ritual or practice each week.

What arrogance.

I quickly came to realize that I have enough material in my own life (and I consider myself to be a pretty decent human being) to focus on forgiveness every day...some days, every hour.

I have begun to realize how often I push away those who love me (this includes God) and who are trying to love me better.  I have begun to realize how often I judge others because they don't fit the image I think they "should." I have begun to realize how often I judge myself because I don't fit the image I think I "should." I have begun to realize how often I have to both ask forgiveness and extend it.  I've been trying to do so more faithfully, but know that if I made a list of people I needed to forgive or ask forgiveness, it would be long.  I don't want to think about that list, because I don't know how to approach most of the people on it to admit what I have intentionally or inadvertently done to hurt them.  Perhaps writing here is my coward's answer until I have the courage to admit face-to-face the pain I cause.

I have been watching coverage of the hunt for the second Boston Marathon bomber. A reporter asked the uncle of the young men, Ruslan Tsarni, what he'd like to say to his nephew who is still on the loose.

“If you are alive, turn yourself in and ask forgiveness from the victims, from the injured. … ask forgiveness from these people.”  

I doubt that it will happen, but it is good advice nonetheless. Not just for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  For all of us.  We all have something (or many things) for which we need to ask forgiveness. 

During one Forgiveness Friday ritual, I read a story from Mary Lou Kownacki's A Monk in the Inner City about forgiveness.  The father of a boy who was arrested for the brutal murder of a young girl asked Sister Mary, a Benedictine sister, to visit Scott, his son-turned-murderer.  Before the boy was arrested, Sister Mary had made the statement, "I'm afraid if I met the murderer, I'd want to rip his heart out." Needless to say, it was a challenge or her to minister to the murderer, a boy she knew personally.  

Like the uncle of the Boston bombers, Sister Mary urged Scott to ask forgiveness.  When talking to him, she did not sugar-coat her own struggle with the murder or his role in it. She didn't claim that people would ever forgive him for his heinous act. 

 "God, however, is a different story." If he was truly sorry, she told Scott, God would forgive him.  Later she admitted to Kownacki, "I certainly believe in a God of unlimited forgiveness and compassion, but it was a stark reminder of how far I am from the scripture - 'Be compassionate as your God is compassionate.'" 

I, too, have a long way to go to live that way.  But I am trying.  And I am learning.  What I've gleaned so far: 

Forgiveness, like any other skill, takes practice.  Lots and lots (and lots!) of practice.

Forgiveness is not an act, but a process. 

Forgiveness is hard work.  “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” 
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

Forgiveness takes time.  Sometimes it takes years. 

Forgiveness is necessary work for our own well-being. "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you." - Lewis B. Smedes 

Forgiveness, even for heinous acts, is possible.  This story of forgiveness inspires me: 

Michel Quoist wrote a prayer, "Lord, Deliver Me from Myself."  It includes the response God might give.  Perhaps these words can help us to practice forgiveness:

I have heard you. 
I am sorry for you. 
I have long been watching your closed shutters.  Open them; my light will come in.
I have long been standing at your locked door; open it; you will find me on the threshold.

I am waiting for you, the others are waiting for you,
But you must open, 
You must come out. 

Why choose to be a prisoner of yourself?
You are free. 
It is not I who locked the door,
It is not I who can open it.
...For it is you, from the inside, who persist in keeping it firmly barred. 

May we acknowledge that it is we who close the door on God and each other.  May we throw wide open the door to love through the acts of offering and accepting forgiveness. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


It's been almost 3 weeks since I last wrote here.  I had gotten into the habit of writing once weekly, though I told myself I wanted to write more often than that.  I didn't make the time to do it. And then I missed a week.  And another.  As I come back today, I see myself as the dog coming in, tail between the legs, head bowed.  I doubt any of you have any need or desire to scold me about my absence.  I do the scolding well enough on my own. You're probably kinder to me than I am to myself, anyway.

Then there's this other thing going on in my life, a quite unexpected,, and quite welcome change of patterns: my house has been consistently clean for longer than it has ever been.  Ever.  EVER.  This is not to say it is immaculate.  And some people might still call it messy.  However, I cannot leave my bedroom in the morning without making my bed.  I cannot take off my pajamas without folding them.  I cannot take clothes off at the end of the day without rehanging them, folding them, or tossing them in the hamper. To walk into my bedroom and see the entire floor- the whole thing except where it's covered by furniture- is something new. And it happens even when I am the only one in the house.  Perhaps these accomplishments do not impress, but those who have known me for many years could attest to the magnitude of these feats for me.

Slowly, habits that eluded me for 30+ years attached themselves to me, starting when I lived with nuns in India, solidifying when I lived in community in Palestine, and continuing as I traveled through Europe, and came back to my house.

One of my Lenten resolutions this year was to write daily.  Most days my writing took the form of journaling, a writing form I've done in fits and starts throughout my life.  During Lent I did miss a few days because I fell asleep on my couch before I'd written or I simply forgot, but I never willfully chose not to write.  When Lent ended, I stopped writing daily, but I am writing more consistently than before.  It's a start.

Maybe I need to make sure my journal is out where I see it all the time.  Maybe it needs to live on my nice neatly-made bed, so that I can't go to bed until I have written in it.  Maybe if I make those little changes, new habits will form.  Maybe daily journal writing will help me to do more and more blog writing.  When I came home I declared writing as one of my major pursuits, but it seems that as I get busier, writing is the goal that I push aside for other things.  For less fulfilling, sometimes mindless things.

I need to write.

Today I am choosing not to beat myself up for my lapse in blog writing.  I am choosing to forgive myself for my faults.  I am choosing to stand tall and hold my head high.  Today I am choosing a new start. A new habit, that given a little care, will become as natural and necessary to me as that little activity called making the bed.  If that habit is a reality, surely this can be, too.