Friday, July 31, 2009
Thursday, July 30, 2009
A typical Ignatian-style retreat is made in silence, and includes a daily conversation with a spiritual director who listens to what you have to say, makes a few comments or asks a few questions designed to help you deepen your experience of prayer during the week, and then suggests some material for you to pray with over the course of the next 24 hours.
Your director might suggest just about anything ~ art, music, poetry, other reading, pretty much any kind of prayer or contemplation at all ~ but the hallmark Ignatian form of prayer involves imaginative interaction with Scripture.
Last year I met with my director late in the morning and we agreed to meet again before supper, since we were just getting started and only had five days. He suggested a few passages of Scripture for me, passages which I'm sure he uses all the time to help someone start a retreat.
When I returned late that afternoon and described my day, he asked, "Why do you think it is that no matter what text you encounter, everything that emerges is about Famous Giant Hospital (where I had just completed the summer chaplaincy program)?"
I looked at him and said, surprised by my discovery, "Because I have been completely traumatized by my summer there."
We talked a bit more and he suggested some more readings, but told me to lay off until the next day. "This has been a little intense," he said "Take a complete break tonight."
Our son died during the night, and I found out the next afternoon and went home that evening.
Words like trauma and intense hardly describe the subsequent eleven months.
And so day after tomorrow I am off for another weeklong retreat. Not to last year's place ~ I can't imagine ever returning there ~ but to Guelph, where I went two years ago.
"What do you desire from this week?" Always one of the first questions.
I have no idea.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Like many of you, I receive a daily reading from Inward/Outward, a ministry of the amazing Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. When I saw today's caption, I groaned ~ please not, on my birthday, someone trying to tell me to make the best of things.
And then I saw the name of the writer and knew how wrong I was. Alfred Delp was a Jesuit priest imprisoned and executed for his resistance to the Nazis ~ one of those people who has the right to speak to any situation.
It does happen, even under these circumstances, that every now and then my whole being is flooded with pulsating life and my heart can scarcely contain the delirious joy there is in it. Suddenly, without any cause that I can perceive, without knowing why or by what right, my spirits soar again and there is not a doubt in my mind that all the promises hold good.... Outwardly nothing is changed. The hopelessness of the situation remains only too obvious; yet one can face it undismayed. One is content to leave everything in God's hands. And that is the whole point. Happiness in this life is inextricably mixed with God. Fellow creatures can be the means of giving us much pleasure and of creating conditions which are comfortable and delightful, but the success of this depends upon the extent to which the recipient is capable of recognizing the good and accepting it. And even this capacity is dependent on our relationship with God.
~ Father Alfred Delp, S.J.
Monday, July 27, 2009
The young lady on the other end said she had the matter in her tickler file for follow-up at the end of the week.
I asked whether she might follow up today, the end of the week being five days away and meaning, no doubt, at least another week's delay.
She repeated that her follow-up is scheduled for the the of the week.
I suggested rather more strongly that a two-sentence email this morning would be in order.
"I have other things to do," she said.
I couldn't count how many times in the past year I have thought that we should perhaps engage in every business encounter as if it were a pastoral matter. I have been the beneficiary of a ridiculous number of mishandled, carelessly handled, or not handled matters. And of course, unlike this morning's exchange, the person who has made the mistake or created the delay or forgotten the task altogether seldom knows that he or she is working with someone trying to accomplish something under the most stressful and painful circumstances possible. But maybe we should always assume that the person we are attempting to serve is, in fact, in some distress, and that anything we could do to help might, completely unbeknownst to us, ease a difficult situation.
And , oh yeah, I left a message with the young lady's supervisor. I did not swear and I did not raise my voice, and she did not return the call.
Needless to say, I have not been studying for my Hebrew final.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
From Zorba the Greek, found in Love is Stronger than Death by Peter Kreeft:
Zorba: Why do the young die? Why does anybody die, tell me?
Scholar: I don't know.
Zorba: What's the use of all your damn books? If they don't tell you that, what the hell do they tell you?
Scholar: They tell me about the agony of [those] who can't answer questions like yours.
Friday, July 24, 2009
I started a little series some posts back on our son's great gift of France to us via his 11th grade year spent there. If I can get some help from The Lovely Daughter later, I'll try to scan in some photos. In the meantime:
Of course, the rest of us went to France for Christmas. We spent the first few days in Rennes, where our son lived with his wonderful family: Marithe, his French mother, her friend, and her two sons, one a couple of years older and one a couple of years younger than Chicago Son. Marithe is a nursing home administrator and had to work on Christmas Day, but she welcomed us on Christmas Eve with an extraordinary meal that went on for hours. It was such a joyful and festive evening: reunited with our son after three months, meeting his family and enjoying an evening of food and wine and gifts Francais-style, all of us so delighted to meet one another and laughing over our limited communication capacities. Geoff, his mother's companion, and Thomas, the oldest son, were both excellent English speakers, and Chicago Son could manage quite well in French by that time, so all was not lost.
After a few days in Rennes, which gave us a chance to get to know Chicago Son's family and city a bit and visit the coast of Normandy, we headed for Paris. Three highlights of that trip:
Chartres, of course. Although we had rented a car to travel in Brittany, we took the train to Paris and then, still uncertain about our movements, took a day long bus tour to Chartres. Anyone who has read much of my other blog knows that I fell in love with the city as soon as we began to ride through its narrow streets and with the cathedral as soon as it loomed before us. I had a moment of apprehension ~ it was absolutely freezing in France that holiday season, with temperatures seldom out of the teens, and it suddenly occurred to me, sitting in the toasty coach-style tourist bus, that an 800-year-old building was unlikely to feature central heat. Sure enough ~ we spent a very cold few hours there, but they were enough to lure us back a few years later (in the summer!).
New Year's Eve on the Champs Elysees. I don't much care for crowds and you couldn't get me to Times Square on New Year's Eve for anything. I would have been happy with a tiny cafe in a deserted neighborhood. But everyone else wanted to go outwhere the action was that night and I figured, What are the chances of ever again celebrating New Year's in Paris? What incredible fun we had! I don't know how many hundreds of thousands (literally!) of people from all over the world crowd the Champs Elysees on New Year's Eve, many of them carrying freely-flowing champagne, but it was really, really, wonderful! (And very, very cold!) A bank of clouds settled in around the top of the Eiffel Tower at about 11:55, so we couldn't see the fireworks at midnight, but it didn't matter. It was completely exhilarating to be out partying with all those people who had found their way to such an extraordinary spot.
And a small memory, one of many. We stayed here, which has become our favorite Paris hotel. A couple of doors down is a creperie, and it took us about five seconds to discover its chocolate crepes, which became standard fare for us as we were left or returned from our various jaunts through Paris. When my husband and I were back two summers ago, we smiled immediately at the thought of our three teenaged children dashing out the door to the creperie window in the mornings.
We were so incredibly fortunate to have those ten days all together in France.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
I was alternating between trying to grasp the text (carrying a xeroxed copy covered with a plethora of tiny handwritten notes) and pondering the questions that plague me these days. Hebrew must be memorized, but one cannot lose a child to suicide in the middle of seminary and not have one's concept and dreams of ministry utterly changed. The constant dualism of my train of what passes for thought.
And then I saw this little bird in someone's yard and turned my attention to it. The words "chipping sparrow" slowly emerged from the very dim recesses of my very much fogged and disabled mind. A mile or so later and another one appeared at the reservoir around which I walk. Chipping sparrows. Birds that in another lifetime I would have noted or checked off on a spring migration list.
Who was that woman? It seems so odd to me, that there are still chipping sparrows and that I still notice.
Monday, July 20, 2009
I stood there and looked at the damp spots for a minute.
The night after our son died, I did not go to sleep. I lay down on our bed at about 2:00 a.m., and at about 5:00 I decided that I had pretended long enough that sleep was a possibility. I went down to the kitchen, looked at the filthy floor, and thought about all the people who were about to show up. It's a large kitchen, so I pushed the table and chairs aside and mopped the half on the sink and refrigerator side.
It was so humid that the floor wouldn't dry, and when my brother came down half an hour later and went to get some juice, he left huge and grimy wet footprints across the mopped half of the room.
I looked at his footprints and thought, Why on earth would anyone in the world care about a kitchen floor?
I didn't bother to re-wash it, or to do the other half.
It's a beautiful day today. So sunny that I can dry hand wash outside, and so breezy that I can do a little house and yard work comfortably.
Who knew that a damp kitchen floor could carry so much weight?
Sometimes, when you are living this intensely and this painfully, it's difficult to figure out whether you are present to your life or whether you've inadvertently slipped away for awhile.
And so for some pondering, today I'm stealing this from The Mercy Blog:
I would love to make you love Scripture, and go there for yourself, to find both your own inner experience named, and some outer validation of the same.
Only when the two come together, inner and outer authority, do we have true spiritual wisdom.
We have for too long insisted on outer authority alone, without any teaching of prayer, inner journey and maturing consciousness. The results for the world and for religion have been disastrous.
I am increasingly convinced that the word prayer, which has become a functional and pious thing for believers to do, is, in fact a descriptor for inner experience. That is why all spiritual teachers mandate prayer so much. They are saying, “Go inside and know for yourself!”
I offer these reflections to again unite what should never have been separated: Sacred Scripture and Christian spirituality…
This marvelous anthology of books and letters called the Bible is all for the sake of astonishment! It’s for divine transformation, theosis, not intellectual or “small self” cosiness.
The genius of the biblical revelation is that we will come to God through what I’m going to call the “actual,” the here and now, or quite simply what is…
God is always given, incarnate in every moment and present to those who know how to be present themselves.
Let’s state it clearly: One great idea of the biblical revelation is that God is manifest in the ordinary, in the actual, in the daily, in the now, in the concrete incarnations of life. That’s opposed to God holding out for the pure, the spiritual, the right idea or the ideal anything. This is why Jesus stands religion on its head!
That is why I say it is our experiences that transform us if we are willing to experience our experiences all the way through.
“God comes disguised as our Life” (a wonderful line I learned from my dear friend and colleague, Paula D’Arcy).
~ Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden pp. 5, 7, 15-17
Sunday, July 19, 2009
How did that happen, that the regular world became the outside world? So fast . . .
Last Monday, I heard an interview on Talk of the Nation with two law professors who've written a book entitled Beyond Bars. It offers advice on how to take up life again after having been released from prison, and the discussion with the authors and the callers was fascinating. One of the major topics of conversation had to do with the difficulty of finding employment; in this day of the internet, it is virtually impossible for someone to dispense with even an expunged record. One heartbreaking story: a gentleman who, finding most doors to employment barred, started his own business, eventually employing 50 people. When the bank where he maintained a large line of credit asked him to apply for a SBA loan, the requisite criminal records check finished him off ~ his bank withdrew its longstanding loan, and he was forced to close.
It was one of the smaller issues that caught my attention, however. There was some talk about the need for former prisoners to re-learn the simple means by which common societal interaction is eased: how to walk, how to make small talk. In a hostile environment, one learns to walk defensively or aggressively, depending on the context, and to avoid eye contact. And small talk, needed for job interviews and most employment situations, is entirely avoided.
I listened intently.
"I'm just like 'them,' " I thought. In what I have come to refer to as the parallel universe which I now inhabit, certain skills are now elusive. I am fine -- usually -- when the conversation is serious and focused, but I have lost most capacity for the fluff that eases our way through life. I now often avoid groups of friends because I realize that the most inappropriate things come out of my mouth ~ they think we are talking about a baby shower, and I think we are talking about the death of a child; they think we are talking about home renovation and I think we are talking about rooms that echo with the sound of a voice now gone. I can speak in seminary classes, I can do spiritual direction, I can write sermons ~ I can engage in interactions in which the topics are weighty ones upon which lives depend ~ but I can barely manage a wedding reception.
(Or perhaps I am simply struggling, in an atmosphere which seems far more dense than previously, with some of the same issues pertaining to ministry that I found so disconcerting last summer. I recall writing about an encounter when, on a brief break from CPE in which I wanted nothing more than a walk and an opportunity to think about anything other than what goes on in Giant Famous Hospital, a neighbor on the street asked me why there is suffering. Now, with my combined persona of soon-to-be-minister and bereaved mother, people decide that wedding receptions are good places in which to address matters pertaining to both.)
At any rate, I am going to be looking at Beyond Bars for insight in the same way in which I look at books more obviously centered on theology and spirituality. Because grief is its own prison, and I am guessing that "their' experiences have much to tell me about my own.
There is, of course, no 'they,' which is why I place the word in quotation marks. Even the people whom I now think of as "them," the people with what appear to me to be lives of normality, have their own hidden sorrows. And I need to find the same degree of patience and insight toward them as I long for for myself.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
She sent back a note telling me about her grown children's multiple graduations (including one just out of law school and en route to an L.L.M.) and her and her husband's successful law practices and recent purchase of a home on The Great Lake to the North. As far as I can tell, the lone bump in the road has been their inability to sell their original home for the past year. She added that she hopes that things have turned around for us.
"Hope things have turned around." That's not, you know, a remotely applicable phrase. I suppose she imagines that someone has lost a job, or perhaps gotten really sick ~ situations that might, indeed, turn around. Or not. And I find that I have no desire at all to explain our move to a parallel universe.
Facebook can be a real PITA.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
One of Chicago Son's best gifts to us was France and, even better, his French family. First, the journey there:
When he was in 10th grade, a team from School Year Abroard visited his school and he became entranced with the idea of spending the next year in France. He had been studying French since first grade, and the summer camp where he had by that time become an employee welcomes a large influx of international counselors every year, so he was well primed for adventure. His joy when the acceptance letter arrived in April ~ a couple of weeks after it had been expected, so we were on pins and needles with the waiting ~ was something to see. By the end of the summer he was packed, his suitcase containing a beautifully carved display box he had made for his soon-to-be French mother (I have one just like it), and off with his father to Providence, where my sister-in-law and her husband live. The plan was to make a college visit to Brown University, our alma mater, on September 11, 2001, and to fly out of Logan (the Boston airport) with the school group on September 12.
Needless to say in this blog, plans change.
Chicago Son and the Quiet Husband did make it to Providence, after a wide detour around New York City, and spent an eerily quiet September 12 on the Brown campus before returning home. No one knew what to do. There were four young people from his high school who had been on the first leg of journeys to France and Spain when the planes hit, and they all enrolled and tried to catch up in the classes that had begun two weeks earlier at their home school. Emails came from the SYA office almost daily as the organization scrambled to re-group.
And . . . about twelve days later, the same group of about 40 young people gathered at JFK and boarded an Air France plane to cross the Atlantic. That time, I was one of the drivers (we went with another dad and his son), the Quiet Husband having taken time off from work two weeks earlier. It was not easy, dropping our children off for an overseas flight and a year abroad less than two weeks after 9/11, but nearly every family did it. We did not want to let the evil and ugliness of terrorism cow us or deter our children from their eager embrace of the world and the variety of people and experiences it holds out to us.
Would I do it again? Would I not only permit, but encourage, a seventeen-year-old son to live away from us for a year, had I known that that he would be gone only a few years later? I like to think that I would. I like to think that I would still have urged him to reach for his life, to soak it all up, to immerse himself in the goodness and joy of this world, even if, and perhaps especially if, we had known. Because we never do know, not in any single second, what the next one will bring. Carpe Diem. Always.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
The only reason I'm not saying anything is that I find myself completely overwhelmed by this week's Hebrew. Understanding, on second review of things I thought were clear in class: about 60%. Ability to remember what I do understand: 0%.
So I'm reading whenever I take a break, and will contribute later.
In the meantime: Carry on.
Monday, July 13, 2009
The groom's grandmother approaches me at the reception. "I don't believe a word of it," she announces. "Ridiculous."
"Weddings?" I ask her. "You've given up on marriage?"
"No, no ~ weddings are fine. The religious stuff. It's absurd."
"Oh. I thought you were Catholic, too."
"Not me. None of that stuff for me. I can't believe that otherwise intelligent people buy into it." She squints up at me. "But I suppose you believe it, don't you?"
"Yes," I say.
"Does it help you; does it give you any comfort?"
"No," I say.
The real answer is actually much more complex. But this is a wedding reception.
"I don't know how you stand it," she says. "I suppose you have to."
I look at her and wonder if I am supposed to have some kind of answer. Some kind of satisfactory explanation of the universe. She has two daughters, six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. All well and happy. For the last two weeks, I have been watching her twin great-grandchildren, little towheads here from Germany for the month, playing in the back yard next door, where the groom and his sisters, one of them now the mother of the towheads, grew up. They look exactly like the little people who used to play in my yard. I don't think that I have any explanation of the universe, satisfactory or otherwise.
"I don't like the mushrooms and I don't like beef, so there's really nothing for me until dinner is served," she says. "I guess I'll get another drink."
Saturday, July 11, 2009
I don't know what other such meetings for other inquirers (that's what I'm called at this stage) are like. My last two have been mostly about my son's death and its aftermath. The members of the committee are extremely supportive and I am extremely honest. I think it has helped to keep up with this blog, as I am not disturbed by questions about how I manage my work, what kinds of accommodations professors have offered me, how we are planning to mark the one-year anniversary, how I take care of myself.
Someone asked me at one point what I thought they should be asking me. That was a good question, and one I had not anticipated. Later, I thought of two things.
What is it like, to survive this kind of loss?
You learn to to live with constant pain. There is nothing that happens, nothing that anyone says, that doesn't remind you of something. When your Hebrew professor says in the middle of class that you can remember how to pronounce the word for "tent" (oh-hell) if you have ever spent the night in a tent during a rainstorm, your mind immediately moves to a night on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park which you have not thought about for years, and the drying-out routine the morning after, and your son's good-humored laughter. The laughter you had been foolish enough to count on hearing for the rest of your life.
As pastors, what should we know, what should we say, when we go to the home of a family where the sudden death of a child has occurred?
You shouldn't say anything, really. You should begin with, "Tell me about your child," and then you should listen. And you should keep listening, for months and years. You won't have the time, and if you have children of your own it will be too hard, but you should do it anyway.
I don't know why I didn't think to say those things. Maybe because I didn't think they were being asked. It's often hard to guess where people are in their curiosity. Most of the time, they seem to be nowhere close to the reality and, regardless of their genuine concern and interest, or perhaps because of it, it feels as if it would be cruel to fill them in. Better to live without this knowledge for as long as you can.
As we talked, I thought about my best friend at seminary. A vibrant, energetic woman, bursting with gifts for ministry. I thought, Her enthusiasm would fill this room. I should be her.
And then one of the gentlemen, a retired minister, said, We are hearing a lot of good things here, and I just want to say, I would love for you to be my pastor.
(Cross-posted at Search the Sea.)
Thursday, July 9, 2009
I live in Ohio, and I am Presbyterian, and I attend seminary in Pennsylvania, where I am studying Hebrew in my school's summer intensive language program. And I am working on a certificate in spiritual direction at a Jesuit university in Ohio. And my beautiful and generous and funny son Josh died by suicide at the end of last summer. The Jewish name Joshua means "God saves." It is also a name of significance in Christianity (!), although at the time Josh and his twin brother were born, that was not our reason for choosing it.
Wayne lives in Pennsylvania and is Episcopalian and is an artist and teacher and prays with the Jesuits at one of their most beautiful ever retreat centers in Wernersville. It's due to the Jesuit connection that we found one another through our blogs.
Gal lives in California and is Jewish and is soon moving to Ohio, where her husband will continue his rabbinical studies. Their youngest daughter died almost a year ago, when she was about two months old, after a courageous battle waged by her family and doctors against a medical condition which had revealed itself before she was born. Their daughter's name is Tikva, which means "Hope." We found one another's blogs because of a mutual friend of a friend, who lives in St. Louis.
Yesterday I received a card from Wayne, a card with one Hebrew word beautifully written. Sadly, I struggle mightily with the ancient languages I am required to learn, and so I was unable to decipher it. Wayne sent me an email tonight to help me out.
The word is TIKVA: ת ק ו ה .
Some nights I feel the weight of this sorrow so deeply that I can barely move.
Some nights all I can do is hope that God's salvation means something much wider and wilder than I have ever been able to imagine.
I plan to put the card on my door at school, where I usually stay three nights a week, and contemplate tiny Tikva and tall Josh ~ and hope.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Blessed are You,
Saturday, July 4, 2009
I am about about to wrap up several months of bi-weekly meetings with a grief counselor and last week she asked me whether I felt that I had returned to seminary too soon. I wasn't sure what she meant; everything seems too soon, but I think ten years from now everything will still seem too soon. Including getting out of bed in the morning.
There is, it seems, a school of thought that by returning too soon to some semblance of regular life, whatever that once was, a person might be repressing her experience of grief, only to see it emerge in destructive ways later on.
As I've thought about her question, I've concluded that I've made good decisions. I remember little of the winter quarter of seminary, but I know that I was supported and encouraged by friends who, had I waited a year, would have moved on in their classes and activities. It was terribly difficult in many ways ~ my husband, a web designer, pointed out that while his work is something of a break, mine ~ Christology, ethics, pastoral care ~ is relentlessly about exactly what our lives are about: life, death, meaning, meaninglessness, purpose, despair, hope, anguish. No wonder I reassesed what I was doing pretty much minute-by-minute.
It's worked, I think, because I have tried to be honest and open without monopolizing center stage. I haven't, of course, always been successful. I have left classes and chapel services to cry in solitude and peace. I have been less than encouraging to hopeful pastoral care classmates who would like to believe that they can bring words of comfort to a grieving family. I am sure that I have offered unwelcome doses of reality from time to time.
I've learned to ask for what I need. More time, more space. Deadlines for papers and the stimulii of others in a classroom during a test are often just over the edge of what I can manage. More help. I realized this week that my spiritual director, an exceptionally quiet and reserved man, might best be described as heroic. I know this has been and continues to be a time-consuming and long and painful and frustrating slog for him.
I have discovered that people respond with surprise, even astonishment ~ or, rather, of course ~ when they learn the circumstances of my life, but that a degree of candid openness seems to dissipate fear. Yesterday I met with the senior pastor of the church where I will be doing my field work next fall and one of the topics that came up was my participation in funerals. He seems completely unintimidated by the challenge, appropriately aware of the need for sensitivity and also appropriately aware of the need for me to be able to do the full range of work in a church ~ all of which contributes to my own sense of hope and confidence.
Next week I meet with the committee which will (I hope) approve me to go forward with the next step for ordination. When I met with them in December, I spoke for nearly an hour about the events of the preceding three months, and then waited for them to say, "No way can you do this." Their reaction was quite the opposite; I hope that still holds. Assuming it does, I go before my entire Presbytery a few weeks later. A few weeks ago, in the first of this three-part meeting process, I met with my own church session, and our senior pastor came right out with a question about my son and how the past year has unfolded.
I speak, at times like that, about the same things I write about here. The bewilderment, the guilt, the frustrations. The communities and individuals who surround me. The work I am surprised to find myself still called to do
Did I short-circuit grief by scavenging for pieces of life too soon? I don't think so. After my mother and brother were killed in that car accident at the ages of twenty-eight and one, my grandmother coped for awhile by reading an Agatha Christie mystery a day. But she also took care of us, my surviving younger brother and me. Only on the rarest of much later occasions did she find the courage to speak of that bleak year. But she did live it, and she did much to give life back to us.
Perhaps the gift that emerges for others in the "return" ~ and I guess I wouldn't really call it a return, since that life is gone ~ is the honest demonstration that the pieces you recover are smashed and jagged fragments of what once was, but hold the potential for being soldered back together into something else, as long as you are willing to experiment with undesirable materials and shapes and to accept a finished product that looks ~ um ~ a little battered and wobbly.
Yesterday I received an email from a friend asking about my willingness to accept an imperfect gift. He had made something for me and then messed it up. It's not ruined ~ it's just not what he had planned.
He recognizes, I think, that I am the Queen of Imperfect Gifts ~ in both the giving and the receiving.
So no, I haven't short-circuited my grief. I live it every moment: on long walks alone, in hours of prayer, in classrooms in which I speak out and in meetings in which I listen. Wisdom does not mean pretending. Courage does not mean waiting until your pain is resolved (which would be when, exactly?) or the pieces of your life fall back into place.
So maybe I have learned something about wisdom and courage in spite of myself.
Wisdom and courage ~ picking up those slivers of glass that cut your fingers, rearranging them into patterns that defy conventional standards of beauty, and recognizing authenticity and generosity as the measure of wholeness. Wisdom and courage ~ the recognition that you will never succeed in reaching some destination of impeccably elegant completion, but that you will be utterly delighted when someone asks, "How are you at accepting imperfect gifts?"