Thursday, December 17, 2009

End of the Year

When I opened this blog, I entitled it Desert Year, not Years.

Did I know, intuitively, that a year would be long enough? Did I hope for some kind of transformation; did I hope that in a year the desert would bloom again?

It's been a good place for me, this blog. Sometimes it's seemed like one long wail ~ against the loss of my beautiful child, against the disappearance of God, against the end of life as I knew it. Sometimes it's been a place in which to digest the trauma of suicide; to come to terms with one of, ironically, life's heaviest and loneliest experiences. Sometimes it's been a place of profoundly moving friendship, as other mothers have generously shared their own sorrows.

But I think it's run its course. I am, surprisingly to me, in a new place, something that's happened in just the last few days. In some ways a harder place ~ I think that I have found my way through an exterior shell of anger and pain and I am going to be left with a deep and pervasive sense of loss. There is not going to be anything to protect me from the reality that my beloved son is truly gone.

A couple of weeks ago I heard a talk by a 60-year-old man, and he mentioned having called his mother over the week-end. Such a casual remark is like a sharp stab into a tender spot for me; when I am 91, there will not be a 60-year-old Josh to give me a call. (Dear God, if I live to be 91, I will have spent 35 years without him, which is ten more than the short 25 we had. I am not hoping for 91.) Those are the moments, and they occur multiple times every day, with which I am going to have to contend without the protective veneer of the past fifteen-plus months.

But God is present to me again, in a way God has not been, and the air has cleared enough for me to recognize that the face of God has been present to me, albeit unrecognized by my grief-stricken heart, in the gifts of my family, of countless friends ~ some of whom I have known for years irl and some for only weeks online, and many in between ~ and most especially through the remarkable men who have persisted as my spiritual directors in incredibly patient and nonintrusive constancy.

I found the following a couple of days ago and posted it on my Advent blog, but I think it serves as a good ending to this one. Of course, total silence is beyond me, and I hope you'll still visit Search the Sea, where the journey will continue, sometimes no doubt loudly, but I think usually quite differently. This blog will stay up for awhile, at least until I decide what I want to do about it.


The 14th century Dominican mystic, John Tauler, explains the gift of Zechariah's silence like this: “God cannot leave things empty; that would be to contradict his own nature and justice. Therefore, you must be silent. Then the Word of this birth can be spoken in you and you will be able to hear him. But be certain of this: if you try to speak then He must be silent. There is no better way of serving the Word than in being silent and listening. So if you come out of yourself completely, God will wholly enter in; to the degree you come out, to that degree will he enter, neither more nor less.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Suicide Sadness

When I check my stat counter, I usually find that at least one or two people have come to this blog via searches along the lines of "surviving child's suicide."

Two young men in circles connected to friends of mine have died by suicide in the past week. I doubt that I would have known about either death had it occurred two years ago, but now I am one of the people who people know, as in "I know a woman . . . ," and so I hear about them.

I am dumbfounded by how many young people die by suicide. I had no idea.

Per a request that came to me, I left a message on the funeral home condolence website for one of the young men. It has not been printed online. Was it too raw? I wonder. I commented on what a wonderful person the young man seems to have been, given the memories posted by those who knew him; I offered a listening ear; and I was honest (quite briefly) about what lies ahead. There are, of course, several messages which contain those dreaded words, those "I can't imagine" words. Interesting, if I am correct, that the website censors are more comfortable with words that push away rather than words that acknowledge.

Both young men were Catholic and apparently there have been issues in both cases in addressing the manner of death in funeral services. I am at a loss. We found nothing but openness and offers of help in our Presby church, and I have found 100% the same from my Catholic friends. In fact, some months after our son died, one of my Presby seminary friends commented that I must have found myself wary of discussing my son's death with the Catholics in my life, and I was very surprised. By that time, practically the only people outside my immediate family with whom I was discussing it in detail were Catholic priests.

I am also dumbfounded by how few in the clergy community seem to know how crucial open conversation is to the process of healing or, perhaps, how to initiate or withstand it such engagement. I suppose it is the withstanding that seems so daunting, and so the initiating does not happen.

Apparently there is a website now via which one can end ones' Facebook career via virtual suicide. I learned that from a longstanding blogging friend; from another, commenting on the former's information, I learned about a concert she had attended in which a piece of narration used the simile "falling like winter suicides." I got into a Facebook debate myself a few weeks ago about a writer's use of the word suicide which many people had found . . . meaningful in various ways. I thought their arguments were preposterous.
One of them responded with words to the effect that my own language was flat rather than provocative.

Perhaps that is a consequence of a very real acquaintance with suicide. It is no longer (if, indeed it ever was) merely a source for a provocative pushing of the the limits of language and imagination. It is a horror which flattens all which follows.

I was wrong about the condolence guestbook. As I was writing this last night, my note was published. It, and this post, became the source of a lengthy conversation, as Gregarious Son wandered in while I was writing and asked what I was doing.

He shrugged as I read the condolence note to him. "What you said is true," he said.

It's difficult even to remember what life was like before I knew some true things about suicide.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


My blogging friend Ruth has just lost her mother, and has shared this Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotation from her pastor's funeral homily. I am thinking that from now on it will go into every condolence note I send.

"Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first; but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God does not fill it, but on the contrary, keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Suicide is Different

I've been thinking about the essay to which I posted a link yesterday.

I've been thinking about the friend whose son shot himself on Christmas Day eight years ago. I had emailed her earlier this week to see if she wanted to get together, and she responded yesterday that her daughter's best friend's young husband had shot himself the night before.

All I could think was that if there was ever someone who should have understood the legacy he was leaving to his family, it should have been that young man.

Which reminded me of the darkness, the terrible and incomprehensible darkness of pain and despair, that must fill the heart of someone about to die by suicide.

And then I thought of the two young men at a nearby college who have died by suicide this fall.

And then I thought: How did this happen, that my mind is filled with images of young people shooting themselves and hanging themselves and filling their bodies with lethal doses of drugs and jumping from buildings? Thoughts which never entered my head two years ago and now there they are, side by side all the other thoughts.

And then I thought again about that essay, in which the writer says that however it occurs (and he includes suicide in his list of possibilities), the death of a child is one of life's worst experiences.

And then I realized that, much as I hate to dwell on it, suicide is different. Even though I do not believe that suicide is a choice in the way that we generally define the word, there is an element of initiative in it that renders it the worst possible kind of death, at least for the survivors.

There. I've said it.

Who is God?
Does God care about anything at all?
Who was this child with whom you were entangled from the moment of his conception?
Is anything that anyone ever says or does reflective of what they actually mean?

Those are the questions.

Suicide is the worst because it is unthinkable and yet: there it is. Completely real. And leaving the rest of us with no choice at all but to contend with it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Make Straight a Path Throught the Desert

Today is the day in the church year on which we read about John that Baptist, that seemingly deranged cousin of Jesus, he of the animal skin attire and the crunchy locust meals, out in the desert crying for the path of the Lord to be made straight, for valleys to be filled and mountains leveled.

I have always been mystified by John's obsession with the destruction of some of the most beautiful of our planet's geographical features. Year after year I have listened to this text and wondered: What would you do away with? The Pacific Crest Trail? The valleys in which the lochs of Scotland lie? The Tetons? What kind of a proclamation is this?

This year, I think, I am starting to get it, for the first time ever. I wonder whether I would ever have had a glimpse of what it means had I not been stumbling around in another dimension for the past fifteen months.

I have used so many geographical and geological metaphors to describe this journey, a journey that I would run from as fast as possible if that option were open to me. Relentless tsumani. Insurmountable mountain. Rock-strewn trail. Impenetrable wilderness. And, of course, desert. Endless, dry, empty, lonely desert.

None of them is a road back to the light. None of them is a road to hope.

It seems that they must all be navigated. There is no other sound option; we have to swim, climb, and walk through the terrain of grief, inhospitable as it is, or we will not reach that juncture at which it becomes not merely agonizing but transformative. We don't get to dispense with the wild craziness that makes the aftermath of loss so intolerable; we don't get to pretend that we're all right or that it never happened.

But ~ and this is what I think John the Baptist is talking about ~ we do have to find the way out. We have to reach, with our eyes open, the place where the swells of water become gentler, where the density of the forest begins to recede, where the desert seems to offer something other than parched wasteland.

I don't think God wants us to level the Alps. In fact, Jesus always found God in places like mountaintops, deserts, and valleys ~ the story is quite clear on that point. But what he found there is a transparency of vision that we so often lack. That most of us, I think, lack completely when we are plunged into the darkness that follows the death of a child.

And so the invitation, perhaps, is to go to the places he went but also to see as he did, with clarity and gratitude, rather than with eyes clouded by tears and a mind crumbling under a weight almost too great to bear.

I have, of course, no idea at all what I am talking about. I was moved to write this post by the words of this father, who lost his nine-year-old son to a malignant tumor several years ago, and who I found via my friend and fellow traveler Karen, mother of beautiful Katie. He is much farther along the road to gratitude than I am. But as I skimmed his essay again, I couldn't help but notice how many allusions he makes to things which have appeared in my own thoughts and writings: the suffering of other parents, the Holocaust, the omnipotence or lack thereof of God, the compassion ~ or not ~ of God, what prayer is and isn't. And even the Wizard of Oz.

Oh, for that elusive pair of ruby slippers.

We have to find clarity without them.

And so: Advent.

(Cross-Posted from Advent blog.)

Friday, December 4, 2009


where would I go
if I could go anywhere at all
it wouldn't matter would it
the places I have held sacred
a trail skirting a mountain high above a glacial lake
a wide and empty beach with the tide creeping inward
Chartres' labyrinth
a pathway through the mountain laurel
a waterfall into which we all plunged
the desert under the Sonoran stars
windblown wild wondrous places
it wouldn't matter at all
it could be the sidewalk in front of the house
where three children drew with colored chalk
and sold lemonade
it could be anywhere
where the three of them are
and there is no such place
there is no season of the year
in which they are all held
in my arms

Boy Interrupted

I just read about this film, and thought I would post this review for those who might be interested. I don't think I want to watch it during these holiday weeks, which are difficult enough all on their own, but maybe in January.

Sundance Report #4 – Boy Interrupted Review

By John - January 16, 2009 - 23:17 America/Montreal

Boy-interrupted-review.jpgPROSPECTOR THEATRE, PARK CITY

“Oh my God, we’re at the Sundance Film Festival because my son killed himself.”

These are the words spoken by Dana Perry, director of “Boy Interrupted,” when asked what was going through her head while watching the world premiere of her documentary film. Since leaving Temple Theater about 30 minutes ago, I’ve been searching for the right way to talk about this film – a film directed by the mother of a boy who committed suicide at age 15 after 10 years of battling with diagnosed bipolar disorder. He goes through periods of happiness, then periods of extreme depression. Suicide is a subject all-too-common since the age of 5. All seems to be going well for the first time in years as he moves into his teenage years, but then he’s slowly taken off meds and, without warning, he jumps from his New York apartment bedroom window. It’s a heavy experience, so here’s what I’m going to do – split this two ways:

Emotional: Hard to argue with such a personal story. With both parents of Evan Perry, the subject of the film, intimately involved with the project as director and cinematographer, respectively, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how it must have been to distance themselves enough from the material. Hart, the father, made it clear to the audience during the Q&A that this film was really about sharing the experience of their journey toward trying to make Evan well and not about the extreme grief of losing a child to suicide. However, it’s tough to escape that framing since it underscores so much of the film. Both Dana and Hart entered into the project also hoping it might allow them some closure, but found that not the case in the slightest. Though Evan’s death is now three years in the past, the wounds are clearly still fresh. As Dana said following the film, “that’s the first and last time I’ll have seen this film with an audience.”

Technical: This is not a film that prides itself on production quality. Told mostly through somewhat blurry home video clips and talking-head interviews, it’s not a film that will win awards for cinematography or for editing. At first I was struck by the lower perceived level of quality, but at the end of it all, the quality of the imagery on screen doesn’t really matter. The story is communicated effectively and with a lot of emotion. What more is needed?

Should you see this film? Not if you’re disturbed by teen suicide or the thought of your children killing themselves. But if you’re up for an emotional story about loss and a family’s journey to try and save their son from his own mind, then it’s definitely worth a look.

You can find out more at


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ignatian Accompaniment Through Grief

I've had a lot of time in the past fifteen months to reflect on what it means to accompany someone through terrible loss ~ what it means in general, what it means for me as a devastated mother, what it means for me as a spiritual director, as a would-be pastor or hospital or hospice chaplain. What is good and helpful and considerate? What is not?

This post, I do believe, is going to turn into a paean to Ignatian spirituality and to those whose lives it shapes, whether Jesuits or others who do spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition. In my case, it means two Jesuits in particular: my former director, who had the temerity to move away after helping me for two years, but has remained one of my great supporters through seminary and has been a source of wisdom and challenge via email and occasional visits during this past awful year, and my current director, who thought two-and-one-half years ago that he was signing on for a monthly hour of support and guidance for a seminary student, and had to turn into a consistent and faithful source of compassion, prayer, presence ~ and, yes, wisdom and challenge, too ~ during a year of such harsh and time-consuming need that I cannot even begin to describe it.

(And that description doesn't even take into account the many others in my life who have brought their Ignatian experience to bear upon our conversations and friendships. Maybe some other posts someday.)

What is so distinctive about this spirituality that makes it so pertinent to accompanying someone through the journey of grief?

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius suggests a wide variety of types and forms of prayer. Some lend themselves more to certain situations or meditations than others, but I've never had a director suggest that I should limit my prayer in one way or another. Flexibility ("accomodation" is Ignatius' term) is key, and I have been graced by finding directors who are fearless in their willingness to venture into unfamilar territory.

Given the range of prayer in the Exercises, it is nontheless the case that imagination is a significant hallmark of the Ignatian understanding of encounter with God. When a person makes the formal Exercises, there are many opportunites to pray, or meditate (Ignatius usually uses the term contemplation here ~ not to be confused with the emptying form of prayer so popular in contemplative prayer practice today) imaginatively throught the life of Jesus. Imagine the place, imagine the sights and sounds, imagine yourself as a person among his followers or family, on the edge or in the midst of his circle. Imagine yourself watching, listening, speaking, participating. Who are you? Who might you be called to be? Imagine Jesus into the circustances of your own life. What does he say; how do you respond?

You might be able to guess where I am going here. If you're a regular reader, you know that I have often bemoaned the statement so frequently made to me after our son died: that "I can't imagine" sentence. In fact, its repetition by a few individuals has resulted in my consistent avoidance of them. (The Lovely Daughter tells me that people are trying, and that I could be more generous, but I have my own problems with imagination ~ I find it difficult to imagine either that they are or that I could.) As a statement of intended solace, "I can't imagine" is not as bad as "I know just how you feel" ~ but it's close.

This past week it suddenly dawned on me why my Jesuit and other Ignatian friends have been such a source of help to me. Steeped in the practice of imaginative prayer, it never occurs to them to say, "I can't imagine." They seem to slide into imaginative accompaniment effortlessly. They don't have to be parents or to have suffered this degree of loss or faced this kind of horror; they can imagine it, at least well enough.

It's not effortless, of course; even as a neophyte director, I know that it takes considerable intentionality and attentiveness to imagine yourself into someone else's life and concerns. It also takes great generosity of spirit: as you share the Scriptural and prayer lives of others, you begin to understand how differently we all respond to, understand, and encounter God. You seek, always, to reverence both the other person's experience and your own; to absorb the similarities and the differences, to recognize that God is reaching out to each of you, and and to know that you can listen contemplatively and imaginatively even if what you are hearing is nothing at all like what you yourself would have come up with. It's not effortless at all.

But there it is. Just as even I, with some considerable practice, can access the notes to a simple Bach composition on the piano and with them, an entire tradition of music, so someone practiced in imaginative interaction with Scripture can access a tradition of prayer that makes it possible to walk with someone through the universal and yet endlessly unique pathway through grief.

I don't think I've ever heard someone well versed in Ignatian practice say, "I can't imagine." I know that these are people whose imaginations are at work all day, who are accustomed to drawing on their interior resources in all circumstances, and to allowing them to expand whenever they seem inadequate to a particular situation. God's gift of imagination is how we find God in all things, even ~ somewhere, someday ~ in this wilderness of sorrow.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent Retreat

Today I'm posting solely at my Advent Blog, where I'm following the RevGals Retreat.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Playing By The Numbers

I was thinking about how I would describe it all using a numerical scale. 1 = life is very, very good and happiness and contentment and delight abound. 20 = as bad as it can get and yet you are somehow still alive.

First year of seminary = 1, sometimes migrating down to 2 or 3.

The first days and weeks after Josh died: 20.

The first months back at school, through the winter and spring: mostly around 17-19. I mostly remember thinking that I had landed on some new planet, uninhabited by anyone who spoke my language.

Summer Hebrew: 17/18 slowly making way for 15/16. It was at the end of July that I said to my professor's wife that I had discovered that people can, in fact, live with this degree of pain.

Since then: a pretty steady 15. (Oh, except for that attempt at a silent retreat: a solid and relentless 19.)

In the last few days: some plunges down to 17. It takes my breath away: how quickly the smallest of memories can turn the world dark.

I think I can do 15. It's the 18s and 19s that loom on the holiday horizon that scare me.

And this year: I'm an intern. In a church. Last year we pretty much skipped Christmas altogether. This year there are four whole Advent Sundays ahead of me.

Tonight I ran into a couple I met recently who have also lost a son to suicide ~ this will be their fifth Christmas without him. They are full of energy and smiles and life. They look so ~ so all right. "Are you?" I asked them.

"Oh, no," they said.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Holiday Survival

It's hard. It's just really, really hard.

I felt such a depth of joy in my family, the kind that can only come from childhood losses that ensured that I would never take the wholeness and vitality of my own family for granted.

And now it's so hard.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Tinged with Sorrow

Karen says it better than I ever could: Such gratitude for those of us who have found each other through our sadness:

Karen's Quilt.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mishbarim: Dismantling Your Life

Like most middle class Americans my age, I have invested most of my life in building. School, marriage, family, career, home. It all went pretty well for awhile. I was a reasonably generous person ~ nothing outrageous, no Mother-Theresa like complexes for me ~ but certainly I gave of my energy and my time and my money and my gifts to my family, my church, and my community. And why not? I had plenty to give; it hardly hurt me to spread a little of it around. Oh, every once in awhile I would find that I had over-committed myself in one realm or another and I'd have to invest some effort into stepping back, but that was about as difficult as it got. We are not talking Ms. Self~Sacrifice here. Except for a couple of times, when disaster hit and left our family confused and hurting ~ but we were capable of determined re-building efforts, and we were always surrounded by people who helped us. So re-build we did.

This is different. This is so different.

Everything has to go.

OK, not everything. Not much of anything exterior, really. The house is still (barely, per usual) standing , the Quiet Husband is still employed, I am still in school. The Gregarious Son and The Lovely Daughter are employed and moving forward, and working to heal a little. We are all trying to heal a little.

But the interior everything ~ it has to go. I have found virtually nothing in a traditional life of Christian faith and practice, at least as I once knew it ~ and I knew it pretty well ~ to sustain me. I remember that a year or so ago, a fellow blogger wrote frequently of feeling shielded under God's wing. No wing for me. One of my professors, when I visited him last spring to seek some academic advice, apparently felt obligated to offer some of what must have seemed to him to have been kindly words of pastoral assurance. It was all I could do to escape his office without throwing up. I have had a number of conversations with others who have experienced similar depths of trauma in recent years ~ and very few have found in church a place of respite or solace.

I have found nothing in my own efforts. I have been busily erecting walls of self-defense against the endless waves of sadness and anger but there is, in fact, no technology available for building walls thick enough to withstand them. I know that, of course. The primary emphasis of the program which I attended a few weeks ago on death and dying was on the need to go deep into and all the way through sorrow in order to make any sense at all of it and to absorb it into the rest of your life. That was not news. But the reality is that the dailiness of life requires a good deal of wall-building. The balance ~ between the barriers you need to secure in place to walk through the grocery or to withstand a basic class discussion on baptism (oh, right, actually I didn't make it through that one . . .) and the openness and honesty needed in order to confront and accommodate one's real life of struggle and sorrow ~ the balance is a tenuous one to maintain. It's no wonder that bereaved people tend to isolate themselves. I'm certainly much more content when I do.

I like that word, accommodate, at least for now. I've read several comments by parents of children who have died by suicide to the effect that acceptance of our loss will never be a possibility, but that accommodation is a realistic hope. I looked it up in the thesaurus and, while some of the synonyms make sense in this context and some do not, the one that resonates with me is attune. We do have to make room for and host this terrible reality, whether we want to or not, but it is perhaps an additional goal to attune ourselves to the nuances of loss and pain in this world, beyond ourselves.

To dismantle and to re-attune who we are, how we hear, what we see, how we know and how we understand. It seems to me an optimistic approach, given that our lives have been pretty well smashed into little bits of broken debris.

(And here's something interesting, for the academically inclined: For that mammoth paper I've finished on Psalm 88, I did a little research on the word mishbarim (breakers), because of the line in verse 8, "Every breaker of yours knocks me down." It seems that the word mishbarim is used in ancient Semitic writings in two fundamental ways: to mean either "waves" in the context of the sea, or "pangs," as in birth pangs (which of course, come in waves). In either case, it refers to powers that shatter or break. In one text in the Dead Sea Scrolls (no no no, of course I haven't read the DSS ~ but I can read about them), the images of birth pangs and the waves of a storm at sea are combined, and the mythologies of other Mediterranean cultures are filled with references to waters, waves, and floods of chaos.)

I am quite taken with that information; that for thousands of years people of a multitude of cultures have melded wave imagery for sorrow and brokenness with wave imagery for birth, and have woven both strands into their sacred texts.

Many (many!) years ago, before my children were born, I read some words of wisdom in some magazine article or other. In response to someone's Yuppie-oriented reluctance to have children for fear that they would change her life, the writer suggested that no one should have children until and unless she wanted to change her life ~ that that is the point, to want to change your life by bringing the abundance of love into it in a form that will change it in every possible dimension. To welcome mishbarim, both literally and figuratively.

Well. One does not want or welcome the mishbarim of the death of a beloved child. But here they are. Breakers and birth pangs, the complete dismantling of the old outlook and understanding.

Can it be reshaped, perhaps tentatively and gingerly, with something fragile and frail? That's what I'm going to imagine this Advent. I'm going to spend some time over in my Advent blog, and I'm going to take at least part of it to explore the Advent of the Heart words of Alfred Delp, S.J. Alfred Delp was a Jesuit caught up in the Holocaust. He shares a great deal in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose work we read a bit of in school last quarter; both were engaged in resistance work against the Nazis, both were imprisoned, both were executed shortly before the end of the war. (Interestingly, according to the introduction to this particular book, during his imprisonment Father Delp received assistance and care from a Lutheran pastor, and is probably quoting Martin Luther at one point. It would appeal greatly to my ecumenical leanings to know that Deitrich Bonhoeffer received care from a Cathoic priest as well. I have certainly heard him quoted in Catholic sermons. One never knows.)

At any rate, Advent of the Heart has popped up on my computer screen via various sources over the past couple of weeks, so I am taking that to mean something. There was nothing fragile or frail about Alfred Delp or his faith as he confronted evil and chaos during Advent. Nothing about Bonheoeffer or his, either. Mishbarim in both of its meanings, and neither of them ever forgot it, whereas I am much more inclined to let myself be shattered rather than reborn.

May this Advent be for the latter, even if in only the smallest of ways. For the tiniest flicker of candlelight in the midst of all this darkness.

(Cross-posting at Search the Sea.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reflections on Suicide and the Holocaust

I write this with hesitation, and with apologies to those who may be offended. But there is a sorting process that occurs in grieving, as we try to discern what is true and what is not, what to hold and what to discard, how we might someday embrace life again and where death has caught us in its tangled grasp.

A couple of months ago, the journal published by Spiritual Directors International, Inc. contained a wonderful piece about accompanying suicide survivors in our journeys. The writers have both lost sons to suicide and, between the two of them, three other family members. Their article stresses that this particular path is a very long one, and emphasizes the time and patience demanded of the spiritual directors who venture across its rocky twists and turns with those who have no choice but to walk it. I know a couple of people who can attest to that.

At one point in the article, and here the exact words escape me, they claim that the experience of surviving a child's suicide is akin to that of Holocaust survivors.

Now, I do not believe that we can compare and contrast experiences of loss, or slot them into a hierarchical framework. Mine is worse than yours, and yours than his, and on and on. But I was startled enough by their argument that I gave it a great deal of thought in the ensuing weeks, and now I have returned to it.

I know a number of Holocaust survivors, and many of their children, and many more of their grandchildren ~ my former students and colleagues, their grandparents and parents. I have listened to many stories. A few years ago, one of my high school freshmen, who did not know much about that part of her heritage, opted to write and perform a soliloquy as a history project based on her World War II research. "Ms. Gannet, Ms. Gannet," cried my students as she finished her presentation, "Ms. Gannet, are you all right?"

All I had been able to think about, as she spoke, was that two generations earlier, it would have been them. My beautiful students, murdered in horrific ways, with perhaps a few of the boys surviving the "Left, right, left, right" as they disembarked from the trains as Auschwitz. Most of them, through, would have been gone.

One of the grandfathers, on Holocaust Remembrance day, came to an assembly to tell the story of his own experience. As he spoke, I was somewhat baffled; the details of his liberation story sounded so familiar, but I was sure that I had not heard it from him. And then he mentioned that he had been in the same compound as Elie Wiesel, and I understood ~ I had taught the book Night on more than one occasion, and my students and I together had explored not only the events of the Holocaust but the range of human response to the questions of faith that arise in the context of a nightmare life.

And so, when I read the article linking my experience to theirs, I was taken aback. And I thought, No. I have not witnessed the murder of my entire community, have not hidden, trembling, as terrorists burned it to the the ground, its inhabitants trapped within it buildings. I have not had to absorb the discovery that members of my family died in agony as Zyklon-B hissed into their nostrils. I live in a comfortable home and I sleep into a warm bed every night. This is nothing at all like Holocaust survival.

And then I thought: they have a point. It lies in that question of human response. It lies in the questions that seep, unwanted, into our consciousness and settle into every corner of our lives. Questions about who God is and who we are. About what matters to God and about how people treat one another. About what we once took for granted and never can again. About who bears responsibility, and for what, exactly? About how time seems to move forward and about how we long for it to reverse direction. About who or what, if anything, is reliable. Or good. Or graceful.

I stand in the cafeteria line, wrinking my nose at meatball sandwiches or smiling gratefully when linguine with Alfredo sauce comes up, and I ponder those questions. I sit in class, taking notes, and they fill my head and cause me, upon occasion, to write "No" in the margin next to one assertion or another. I take long walks and try, in my prayer, to place my thoughts before a God whose priorities are no longer apparent to me.

One of my colleagues once told me something of what it feels like to live in a world in which the Holocaust happened to your family. I was stunned by what he thinks of the culture in which he makes his way, by what he anticipates people like me might do in circumstances like the one from which his family emerged. Stunned. "It's difficult to hear, isn't it?" he said. And then he added, "This is the first time I've ever discussed these things with someone who isn't Jewish."

"You should do it more often," I told him.

We should all share our stories more often. It is only in sifting through our stories that the answers to those hard, hard questions emerge.

Elie Wiesel was once a devout young boy, eagerly studying Torah with the neighborhood rabbi. He became a hardened adolescent, indifferent to the suffering of his own father he witnessed in the concentration camp to which they were both sent and in which most of his family died. He grew into one of the most wise and compassionate of men, someone whom I described to one of my students who was off to sing in a Carnegie Hall concert at which he would be in attendance, as one of the giants, one of the great heroes, of the past century.

He has somehow, absorbed the living of those questions into his very being. Who is God and who are we? What matters to God, and how do we treat one another? Who bears responsibility? Who takes care? What is reliable? Good? Graceful?

It is these questions which we share in common. Our experiences of a world turned in upon itself, of tumult and catastrophe, weight different scales. But the ultimate question, and the text, we do share, remains. We sink into its regret and anguish and then, perhaps, we will stride forward, changed by its challenge: How then shall we live?

(Image: Ezekiel. Source Unknown.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Just a Day

Early this morning, just before walking over to a particularly challenging exam for which I've been studying for weeks, I opened my Facebook page to discovered that an internet friend had posted the following quote:

Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing. ~ Cormac McCarthy

I posted a response, to the effect that that was an awful thing to say, and then forced it out of my mind so that I could focus and write steadily for the next three hours.

After lunch, there was a bit more Facebook discussion, which got a little testy and then, relieved to have put my school quarter behind me, I packed up and drove home.

I spent some time talking to the nurse in my doctor's office ~ not great news, but not terrible either.

I thought about how to respond to an email from someone asking how I am. Since we haven't talked in months, I had to conclude that any attempt at a genuine answer is now way beyond my capacity. A reminder that if we don't keep up with people, we lose them.

I stopped at the bookstore to purchase Kay Jamison's Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. A psychiatrist who herself suffers from bipolar disorder, she is an elegant and brilliant writer ~ but I've been told that this one is a very difficult read for survivors. I may set it aside for a few more months, but in the bookstore I did flip it open to a section on parents. The lifetime of guilt and sadness that awaits me ~ nothing I hadn't already figured out.

And all this time, I was thinking about that stupid quote on Facebook. When I got home, I read a few more of the comments that had been posted and realized that for the others in the dicussion, it was an intellectual exercise. They had found the quote provocative, while I found it repugnant and self-absorbed.

Last week I had dinner with a friend at school who casually remarked that she supposed that it might be suicidal for her to think of taking Greek from Professor So-and-So. I glanced at her and there was a brief flicker of recognition, and then she went on talking.

I wish it were a matter of intellectual debate. I wish it were a matter of casual slang. I wish I had not seen what I have seen, read what I have read, learned what I have learned. (And, given some of the descriptions of bodies and autopsies on the Parents of Suicides mailing list, I have gotten off easily.)

I wish I could be one of those people who sometimes say to me, Oh, we in our family came awfully close to having to deal with what you are faced with. There is an entire universe, filled with black holes and ricocheting meteorites, between "awfully close" and the reality.

Last week, I took one of those internet stress tests ~ you know the kind, that allocates points to life stress events. Under 150 is a good thing, 150-300 reflects increasing health risks, over 300 is not good. My score was 495 and I feel, on the whole, pretty balanced. As I said in response to that email that I didn't know what to do with, "One adapts."

In our case, to life lived in a very different world from the one inhabited by most of the people we encounter.

And not one in which suicide is something to be romanticized or joked about.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I'm posting little retreat vignettes over at my other place as I finish up my term at school (almost behind me except for an exam on Thursday). I'm cross-posting this one because Josh so loved the loons on our Algonquin canoeing trips.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Can You Believe . .

that I preached a sermon about a mother who longed for a son and then gave him away?

Neither can I.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Surviving Loss

I'll write later about the conference I attended today, but for now, here's what I doodled to myself this morning:

What You Need to Survive, In No Particular Order:

1. You have to acknowledge the reality.

2. You have to immerse yourself in the grief; you have to go deep down, all the way into and through it.

3. You have to have companionship ~ outside companionship, not just those caught in the same sadness.

4. You have to have work (defined as expansively as possible) that is challenging and absorbing.

These are my personal and of course, brilliant, conclusions. They have evolved from decades of observing and participating in my family of origin's frequent failures and sometimes successes in dealing with loss, and from several months of reading and listening to other parents who have lost children, some of who are finding their way, and some not so much.

I believe that you need all four things. Not necessarily all simultaneously, or in any particular order, or only for a specified period ~ although in some ways they are all interwoven.

Yesterday I spent some time with my spiritual director and I realized that he is the companion who makes it possible for all the rest to fall into place. I could not go where I go into my grief without his consistent presence, and I could not be in school without his support and encouragement. Maybe for someone else the source of stability and the interplay of the four necessities would look very different ~ maybe, for instance, someone else would find that the challenges of her work serve as a foundation from which she finds companionship and is able to face and explore her loss ~ but I'm pretty sure that they are all necessary in some kind of way.

Of course, I could be full of it. Maybe what you really need are the Ruby Slippers, and the problem is that they are in Kansas somewhere.

Spending the Day Here

Healing Through Life’s Pains: The Sacred Art of Living and Dying

Richard Groves, M.A., J.C.L.

  • Experience a moving workshop-retreat with Richard Groves, internationally acclaimed author and teacher and Founder of The Sacred Art of Living Center in Bend, Oregon

  • Discover the lessons from faith and culture that help us live through the painful times of life- including illness, aging, bereavement, divorce and the end of life.

  • Encounter the wisdom about suffering and healing from the world’s great spiritual traditions, especially as found in the “common ground” of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Richard Groves is an internationally respected teacher of the sacred art of living and dying. A chaplain for twenty-five years, Richard speaks nine languages and has earned graduate degrees in theology, ethics, world religions and law. Richard and his wife, Mary, are the founders of the Sacred Art of Living Center in Bend, Oregon. More than fifteen thousand students throughout North America, Europe and Asia have graduated from the courses taught by Groves. Richard’s latest book, The American Book of Living & Dying: Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain has been widely compared to the groundbreaking work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

Friday, November 13, 2009

My Josh

Lost, canoeing with his brother in Ontario's Algonquin Park. His brother said it was Josh's fault.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Seminary Tidbits

Last night, walking back to my room (I stay in a seminary dorm three nights a week), I asked a gentleman I ran into who all the visitors on campus were. Board meeting. And so I asked a bit about him, and he asked about me and, upon discovering that I am in my last year, questioned me, "Is it tough?"

I looked at him in confusion. What does he mean? I wondered. Is what tough? School? How could school possibly be tough, in the context of living? School is . . . this week, anyway, something of a distraction. It's fine, I said. As he walked away it finally dawned on me that he wanted to hear that our program is a challenging one. Oh. How would I know? I do it, it works out . . . .

I have been working, off and on all day, on the mammoth outline I have been creating for my Church and Sacraments class. I love that class; the professor is brillant ~ quietly and modestly so ~ and his construction of the course is a work of art. As I sift through my notes, I notice the rather stark divide that emerged over the term in our discussion section. There are those who long for a church in which the lines are clearly drawn, in which authority is clear and tradition is immutable. There are those who long to fling open the doors and see barriers crumble. (And there are those who have remained silent.) I think that we all see the pros and cons of each viewpoint, but I think that we are also all settling into something of what will be our ministerial identity.

I worry a bit, about this C&S exam that I am preparing for. While I was out walking today, when I should have been reviewing some of the material in my mind, this is what I was thinking about instead:

I feel brain damaged. I feel as though my brain has suffered a major contusion that will not heal. If you took some kind of scan of my actual, physical brain, there would be a large and permanent dent in one side. I forget things: words, sequences, trains of thought, entire conversations. I forget pretty much everything I study or read within a matter of minutes. (It is rather astonishing that I remember my own opinions.) This past week-end a major conference concerning an issue I care about occurred practically on my doorstep, and I did not go to one single event, because I have to guard my energy so carefully. It has slowly seeped into my consciousness that a year from now I will no longer have the luxury of an academic respite; I need to decide something about what's next. But I can't think about that, because I have to think about now.

And yet, I have to acknowledge: it seems that with one side of my brain sadly dented, the other is unfolding a new space. If I remember (ha!) what little I know about brain development, I think it would be fair to say that this new space consists of very dense gray matter. It is jammed with what I have learned about suicide, about grief, about survival, about listening, about things that matter when none of the usual does anymore. It is packed with a kind of courage I had no idea existed. It is filled with the things that a very few people have had the grace and love to share with me, things which may be of use to others someday (much as I might wish that not be the case). And it has developed an astonishing capacity to promote silence in the context of encounters with unbelievably stupid statements aimed my way.

About a year ago, I made my first foray back into the work to which I have been called. I spent an hour each day for a week with a young lady making a retreat; she was participating in a college program and I was her spiritual director. Each day she spent a bit of time in contemplation, and then we talked together about her prayer and her life. I would get up about about 3:00 in the afternoon, shower and dress and drive to our meeting place, listen and talk to her, drive home, and crawl into bed, conpletely depleted and usually in tears.

A week or two ago, I found myself, over the course of a few days, in three major conversational and email exhanges about suicide and its survivors -- all in the course of my usual day. Other people in the computer lab are reading Facebook, working on papers, listening to music ~ and I am writing about suicide in between working on my own papers. A year ago, one such conversation would have sent me to bed for hours. Now ~ they are almost an expected part of my routine.

So. I don't know whether school is tough, and I don't have a clue as to whether I will remember what Calvin had to say about preaching or Bonhoeffer about community a week from now, when it will count toward a grade. But I do know a tiny bit about how to listen to someone who is groping for both words and connection, something I wish I had known more about fourteen months ago. I have done some learning that has been very tough indeed. Not much of it in class, though.

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, --- but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

~Edna St. Vincent Millay~

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Roundabout Connections

Dave Wilkinson, now a United Methodist pastor in Green Bay, Wisconsin, came many (many!) years ago, before he was an ordained minister, to the Methodist church to which I used to belong; he and his wife were our first directors of Small Group Ministries. They are, in fact, largely responsible for the close-knit group of friends of which we have been a part for 22 years; we were one of their original "small group" efforts. (I know it's been 22 years because the Lovely Daughter was a newborn.)

In 1998 Dave and Donna's son Dustin died at the age of sixteen from a brain tumor, and a year later the online ministry Sound Bites was born. I subscribe to Sound Bites, but tonight when I went back a few days to copy this post into my blog, I discovered that Sound Bites now appears as a blog as well! It's a collection of quotes pertaining, as Dave says, to Christian faith and life in general. Take a look.

This one is, I think, particularly appropriate to this blog:

"Healthy grief, dramatic and even traumatic as it may be, is a three-stage process. First, it is fully experiencing and expressing all the emotions and reactions to the loss. Second, it is completing and letting go of your attachment both to the deceased and to sorrow. Third, it is recovering and reinvesting anew in one's own life. Missing any of the steps in the grieving process may result in unhealthy or unsuccessful grief. Because these stages may take many months, unsuccessful grief may not show up until long after the loss…

For us to [journey through] every step of the grieving process requires awareness, courage, openness, self-support, and support from others. Because of the complexity of this process, many of us do not fully complete each necessary step…

Unsuccessful grief is also the result of the misguided ideas of courage in our society. For example, courage is often seen as a capacity to be silent when in pain, to control tears at all costs, to function regardless of the depths of turmoil inside us, and to handle our wounds and sorrows privately and independently. Few of us are so superhuman. When we try to act accordingly to these ideals, we usually deny our pain and never learn to cope with it. Since pain unexpressed does not dissolve spontaneously, we may suffer severe consequences from pretending to be superhuman…

It takes enormous courage to face pain directly and honestly, to sit in the midst of such uncomfortable feelings and reactions until we have expressed them and finished with them. It takes courage to be willing to experience fully the pain and anguish of grief and to face feelings at the time they occur rather than postponing the encounter."

-- Judy Tatelbaum in The Courage to Grieve

Friday, November 6, 2009

Day 1

Today ~ yesterday, I guess, but I'm still up ~ is the first day that I have felt like myself.

I don't expect it to last, but if it can happen once, it can happen again.

432 days.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Grieving Young People

"If it were now," said someone to my son, a few weeks after the death of his twin brother, "and your mother was a seven-year-old in the hospital after the death of her brother and mother, her father would have been surrounded by child life specialists and social workers and therapists, all providing him with the information he would need to get her into therapy and a support group, and providing him with help for himself and as a parent. I'm guessing nothing like that happened?"

"In 1960?" I said. "Nothing at all. We went home and we went on with our lives."

So perhaps it's not so surprising that I know little about resources for grieving children. Or even young adult children grieving the loss of siblings and friends. I brought home what looked like a pretty thorough and helpful book a week or so after Josh died, and his brother tossed it across the room, saying, "There's nothing in here that I didn't learn on my own in the first few days."

So I've asked around and a few answers have trickled in. I'm going to add a new set of links in the sidebar; more suggestions are always welcome.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Meditation 2: Academic

I have been trying to post this for awhile, but Blogger isn't overly enthusiastic in its welcome of documents from Word. It's also so academic that perhaps it is of no interest. But since the genesis of my paper and presentation (this Friday) lies in the events of fourteen months ago , it's meaningful to me. Finally, herewith, and nevertheless, the opening (for the time being) to my exegesis paper on Psalm 88:

Psalm 88 is a startling contribution to the Psalter. It is the only one of the 150 psalms that includes not a single explicit word of praise or thanksgiving.* It neither blatantly extols God nor celebrates God’s handiwork; it does not resolve a cry of anguish or sorrow into one of gratitude and triumph. It is a lengthy and relentless song of lament, accusation, and horror, unrelieved at any point by even a hint of explicit optimism. It has been called “an embarrassment to conventional faith” – “adamant in its insistence and harsh on Yahweh’s unresponsiveness,** and many commentators have sought either to interpret away its starkness or to rail against its inclusion in the Psalter.

However, Psalm 88 belongs in our Scriptures as a genuine, no-holds-barred expression of the sense of abandonment and loss that accompanies real-life devastation. It has a legitimate place in our compilation of the relationship between God and human as an expression of the darkness, the anger, and the bewilderment that accompany life’s most desolating events. It is only those not yet versed in the torments of life who could suggest that Psalm 88 be discarded. While “[i]n ‘proper’ religion, the expression should not be expressed . . . it is also the case that these experiences should not be experienced."**

Since these experiences are, in fact, experienced, it would be rejection of God, a conclusion that God’s silence is, in fact, the final “word” (in the Hebrew sense of event, thing, or deed) in the face of disaster, for the Psalmist to remain silent in turn. And it would be a denial of God’s interest or engagement in the depth and profundity of the worst experiences of darkness in the human experience to respond to God’s silence with a chattering insistence that “all is for the best.” To rail against God, to accuse God of disinvestment, to comment sarcastically on the consequences to God of God’s departure, to insist upon describing to God in minute detail the agonies of one’s existence – all of those movements in Psalm 88 bespeak an individual whose relationship to God has been one of such intimacy that he or she continues to honor it in the context of fury and confusion and refuses to accept without remonstrance silence on the part of God.

(*James Boice, Psalms (1994) 42-106 and **Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (1984), 78 and 53.

Thoughts on Suicide

I am a member of a circle of moms who have been conversing online for years, and the subject of suicide is one of our topics right now, due to some experiences in addition to my own family's. With some editing to avoid personal exposure, here's some of what I have to say these days:

I don't believe that suicide is a choice, I don't believe in using terminology like "commit suicide," and I find that I probably no longer believe in assisted suicide. That's not to say that I believe in heroic and unwarranted lifesaving methods when a person is close to death, and having observed such situations many times during my CPE experience summer before last, I am in complete sympathy with those who suffer end-of-life indignities and with their desire to put a stop to them. But humanely removing life support systems is quite different from actively ending a life, even if sometimes only in the motivation involved.

I have had plenty of hours (14 months x 24/7) to think about it and I am convinced that suicide is a complication of mental illness. Even a person who seems to have died as he or she lived -- perhaps selfishly and insisting upon control - was suffering from something. Ending one's bodily existence and all of one's connections to people on earth is too extreme a move for me to think of it as anything other than a consequence of serious illness. I doubt that it is even possible for a suicidal person to understand the consequences of his or her actions, to him or herself even moreso than to others. Sometimes I think that our son was selfish for not seeking help somewhere along the way, but then I realize that that behavior is part of the illnesses of depression and of personality disorders. The sufferer has no way of knowing that what s/he is experiencing is out of the ordinary, and most of us have no way of knowing that another person's secret thoughts and terrors are far different and beyond our own.

As far as the methods by which someone dies by suicide: they are all assaults on the human body. Most likely a person is not thinking at all in the way the rest of us do, or perhaps even the way she or she does most of the time, and is not making choices that are designed either to cause or to ease pain for the surviviors. I have gained considerable insight in the last year into how thin the line is between ordinary rationality and something else, into how easy it is to move into a dangerous frame of mind, and into how quickly a person can take an action that is irreversible and produces devastating shock waves that will ripple outward for generations. Our son was was one the kindest, most generous, and most gentle people I have ever encountered; he, more than perhaps anyone, would be horrified by the outcomes, in all aspects, of his death.

I don't mind discussing this subject at all, BTW. I find I am far more comfortable with it than I was before my son died, probably because it is always the foremost thing in my mind and because I have learned so much about it that it is no longer taboo for me. People sometimes tell me that they appreciate my forthrightness and transparency, but those are simply products of my refusal to deny or hide sad experience.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Meditation 1

Once I saw the freshly built dam of two beaver, a half moon with mud and slender branches, the leaves still fresh upon them; then, as I watched, the water shoved with its silver gloves and it broke, it left the world forever.

~Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and Other Writing (2004)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cemetery Yellow

You know, I used to walk in that cemetery three, four times a week.

I've been five times in the last fourteen months. Once with my family to choose the general location for the bench. Once with The Lovely Daughter to meet with The Monument Guy. Once with Musical Friend to visit her husband's place and our son's. And now twice, just to walk. I can stand it again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In All Things

I haven't read the book Heroic Living. It sounds intriguing but I've never had anything heroic in me on my good days, and I sure don't now.

I have heard about Walter Ciszek, though. In fact, I tried to find some material about him last spring, but was unsuccessful. And then, today,
this. It applies, actually, and is consistent with other counsel I've been getting. From Jesuits, not surprisingly, about my own place of imprisonment. And from the other mothers whose blogs are linked on this one; perhaps they will recognize their own heroism in doing what they're doing.

By Chris Lowney

Healthy individuals…focus energy and effort where they can exert influence and control, and they don’t obsess over what lies beyond their control. That mind-set preserves mental health, but it’s also a graceful, and grace-filled, acceptance that the world is not about us. This is not our world, but God’s, and much of it—indeed, much that affects us—lies outside our control.

The Jesuit Walter Ciszek’s life (1904–1983) embodied this wisdom. When I was a Jesuit seminarian, Fr. Ciszek and I dined for a while in the same large Jesuit community. This quiet, self-effacing old man stood about as high as my chest and seemed unremarkable by any conventional measure. Many of us regularly bypassed his company at dinner for that of more entertaining, livelier colleagues.

Now I laugh to myself about it. Fr. Ciszek’s cause for sainthood is wending its way through the tortuous Vatican machinery. I may someday have to explain to friends that I lived with a saint and paid scant attention to him. I suspect that this says something encouraging about the self-effacing nature of true saints and something discouraging about me!

Even though we lavished little attention on Fr. Ciszek, we all knew his remarkable life story, chronicled in He Leadeth Me and With God in Russia. Sent to Russia as a young priest, Ciszek was accused during World War II of being a Vatican spy and was shuttled around Soviet gulags and remote work camps for two decades. Ciszek passed days in a tiny cell that was “about seven by twelve feet, with grimy stone walls and one little window high in the wall. The room was always dark.” But that wasn’t the bad part: that seven-by-twelve cell was home to as many as a dozen people: “At night, we all huddled together on the rough-hewn benches to sleep. If someone turned over in his sleep, he was liable to wake the whole crowd.”

Imagine days with nothing to look forward to beside the next interrogation or the next meager meal. Compounding the physical privations was the frustration that things weren’t working out according to Ciszek’s plans. He went to Russia to do things; how endlessly demoralizing to sit in a prison and chew over the bitter reality that he was doing nothing, day after day.

That is, Ciszek relates, until a personal epiphany dawned. “God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ . . . the situations [in which I found myself] were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal.” Ciszek’s options were to lament endlessly what he couldn’t control or to fulfill his purpose in the small corner of the world he could control, his cell.

Fr. Ciszek in his jail cell or work camp, praying and occasionally interacting with jailers or fellow prisoners, is a poignant embodiment of a well-known phrase in Jesuit life: age quod agis—“do what you’re doing!” We tend to obsess over what we wish we were doing, or what we might be doing instead of our boring jobs, or what we would like to be doing that someone else is doing, or what we could have been doing if our luck had been better. Such preoccupations distract us from whatever real opportunity lies right in front of us. If we do what we are doing, we focus on the opportunity at hand, even (or perhaps especially) if all we can do is sit in a jail cell, pray, think good thoughts, and treat our captors with civility and kindness.

None of us finds peace or performs effectively without learning Fr. Ciszek’s hard-won lesson, because each successive phase of life brings new circumstances that change what is and isn’t within our control. While we are young, we may have energy, time, and freedom but modest financial resources. In middle age, we may have young families to raise and love but limited freedom to take on other obligations and opportunities. Retirement often bestows the talent of time once more. Our challenge, like Fr. Ciszek’s, is to accept peaceably what we cannot control and make the most of what lies within our control, never losing sight of our purpose and vision along the way.