realization

It’s funny how time works.

For example, I find it hard to believe that next weekend begins Advent. It seems like it was just the first day of my daughter’s Senior year. I ask myself, “How is it that time sometimes moves so quickly?”

There are situations in which time seems to stand still, too. Like when you’re waiting for your child to come out of surgery, and you need to know that all will be well.

Then, there are the places where time splits a particular thing into two separate and very distinctive parts. Something happens that changes the landscape of a particular situation so dramatically that you can’t help but think of it as two, rather than one.

…The life I knew before I got married, and the life I have had afterwards.

…The dynamics of our family before my dad died, and the dynamics in our family afterwards.

…That life-giving friendship before we had a falling-out, and the pain and sadness in my heart over it afterwards.

…The distance I felt from God before I went on retreat, and the transformation in me afterwards.

…It may be the day of your cancer diagnosis. Or the day you found out you were expecting a child. Or the day you decided to transfer to a different college.

A few years ago, I made Ignatius’ retreat for everyday life. One of St Ignatius’ primary teachings is that by entering into the stories of scripture using one’s imagination, you can experience God in an intimate and personal way. Perhaps you are one of the shepherds that come to Bethlehem after hearing the angels on high. It could be that you are Peter’s mother-in-law, healed by Jesus’ touch. Maybe you are the centurion at the foot of the cross. As you image yourself in each of the scenes, you consider the sights and sounds, you tune into an awareness of your feelings, and you give honor to where you resist going deeper.

Powerful and sometimes life-changing, this profound use of the senses invites and challenges you to a deeper understanding of your life with God.

In this month of honoring our saints, I have been invited by God to enter into a similar closeness with those who have gone before me. In my mind’s eye, I have been at the old house sitting with Grandma and Grandpa at the kitchen table, her long, red nails and the perpetual twinkle in his eye drawing me close. On another day I saw myself at my dad’s knee, “helping” him in his workshop out back.

In doing this, what have I learned this November?

I’ve discovered that when time seems to split a relationship with our deceased loved ones into two distinct parts, there is hope and comfort found in a continued connection with them.

I’ve learned that regular prayer and meditation sometimes stretches me in unexpected, powerful ways.

God is good, and God’s time is good. Today, I find myself profoundly thankful for this mystery.

I invite you to give thanks for this mystery of God’s time.

We should honor our dead and honor the cemeteries where their bodies now rest, but we meet our deceased in “Galilee”, in those places where their spirits flourished and where our own souls were stretched and instructed and warmed in our contact with them. More than honoring their graves, we need to honor their lives, we need to honor the wonderful energy that they uniquely incarnated and which, in turn, nurtured, instructed, stretched, cajoled, consoled, warmed, teased, honored, steadied, and blessed us.

When we do that our relationship with them does not just continue, it deepens.

-Ronald Rolheiser, in Finding Our Loved Ones After Their Deaths

formation

In the early morning, just after dawn, I see them. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of geese. They form lines in the sky, one taking the lead, now another. Maybe, if it were just one, I wouldn’t even notice. It is the formation of many that catch my eye. They are in communion. With the backdrop of the brilliant blue autumn sky, the field of gold, and the reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn color in the distance, it occurs to me that I’d love to know how to paint this lovely scene. When I was small, I would watch the geese in the sky, and then I’d take my crayons and draw a perfect V formation of birds on the blue construction paper, the birds always precariously close to the sun with its yellow and orange crayon-lines streaming outward.

It seems the geese are always seeking a perfect place, always on the move. It occurs to me now that the geese can represent much to us humans.

We yearn for a perfect place, whether it is a perfect home life, or perfect job, or perfect partner. The geese do this, too. In the fall, they fly south in an effort to stay warm and happy. In the spring, they come back north to raise their little goslings. My mom tells me stories of the geese that return, year after year, to her property to raise their babies. Apparently, the adult geese lose their feathers when their goslings are young. They only get them back when the goslings are ready to learn to fly. If only we, too, could sometimes focus simply on staying out of danger and learning to fly again.

On a recent business trip to Los Angeles, I stopped to visit the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Its scale and design remind me of St Francis de Sales in my hometown. Four windows form the giant cross above the altar. The walls of the space are decorated with amazing tapestries depicting saints that lived throughout history. What is most striking about them is that their figures face the cross, as if they are standing beside the people in the pews, looking towards the altar. These holy men and women remind us to focus on staying out of danger and on learning how to keep the goal of returning home in focus.

During this month of celebrating our saints, I encourage you to stay focused on the cross. And when you see a formation of geese in the sky, perhaps you will consider the saints in your midst, always focused on their direction, and always there to remind us of our true home.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

-Hebrews 2:1-2

perfection

Recently I received a text message from a very dear friend that I met in high school. She was dropping her oldest daughter off for her first day at band camp, which prompted her to reminisce about how she and I met at band camp so many years ago. On their way to the school that day, my friend told her daughter, “On my first day at band camp, I met a friend that I would love forever. I hope you’re as lucky as me!” This text message made me a bit misty. In a beautiful way, the connection she made between our friendship and her daughter’s similar experience graced my life.

The truth is, when I hear a lovely little story like the one my friend told, I sometimes feel regret that I have not been a perfect friend over the years. I don’t keep in touch as well as I should. Sure, I send a Christmas card, write an occasional email, and try to see my friend when I am visiting my hometown. But life is so busy, and time is so short, and there is always so much to do. In a perfect world, I would be able to see everyone and do everything and, somehow, not go crazy trying.

And then I hear God’s whisper. And I take a deep breath, and try to remember that God is in the messiness of life as much as God is in the “perfect.”

Lately, I’ve been trying to live comfortably in the grey area rather than see everything as black and white. For me, this is a very difficult proposition. I tend to be a perfectionist about everything, and when I am not “perfect,” I get annoyed. My behavior with my friend over the years is a good example. When I think of how I’ve failed her, immediately my mind goes to, “bad friend.” And yet, in my heart, I know that my friend and I could pick up tomorrow as if no time had passed. I am aware that the connection between the two of us is the gift. The way that each of us is compelled to keep that connection alive is the grace.

The same holds true for the “good friend” label. I could ruminate over my definition of a good friend here, and I could give examples of the times I have lived up to that standard.

And yet, that’s not really the point. The point is, we are friends. My role in this friendship is not “good” or “bad.” Instead of using these labels, I’d prefer to say that our friendship is blessed with beautiful, illuminated, authentic moments. Moments that take my breath away and moments that bring me to tears. All are gifts. All are grace.

To be human is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often.
–John Henry Newman

saints

Not long ago, I heard a priest begin his homily with a query: What is the one thing that all saints have in common? The dramatic pause after he posed the question allowed all of us in the pews to consider possible answers. Responses that came to my mind? Holiness, humility, grace, service…

It turns out that my answers were not what he was looking for.

His answer, and the point of the homily, was that all saints are dead. In other words, canonization (which only occurs after death) is the only thing that makes a person a saint. The preacher went on to point out that we’re all sinners – a product of the human condition – and it’s not until after death that we can truly become saints.

I beg to differ. Though his point is well taken (and, I must admit, probably theologically correct), I believe that in our response to the call to holiness, we are continually being invited to choose a path to sainthood. This choice can only be made by the living, as a conscious response to God’s invitation to live a life of grace. Those who are canonized in death got there by living a life of holiness, humility, love, grace, and gratitude. True, they may have been great sinners in life. Yet at some point, whether knocked off a horse or called to conversion on their deathbed, these saints made a choice that only a living, breathing human being could make.

I believe that in our call to be holy in life, being conscious of examples of living saints can help us along the way. People who love, and love well, are the saints I have known. For me, when I think about those living saints I have known who have died, my mind’s eye inevitably focuses on their hands. Hands that showed years of service to family, work, or community. Hands that put a little girls hair into pigtails a thousand times over. Hands that held the steering wheel on the way to church. My dad’s hands were calloused, yet somehow gentle and soft. His mother had beautiful, long fingers with red painted nails.

Today, I give honor to a woman whose love for each individual she came in contact with was a shining example of holiness, humility, grace, and service. My
Grandma Engle. I think about gram’s hands… well-worn and wrinkled. In my minds eye I see her puttering around her kitchen, putting on a pot of coffee for whomever had just walked through the front door. She loved with her hands and with her entire heart. She loved and truly accepted every person she knew. She loved the outcast and the sinner in each one of us. She made a choice to love and continued to live out that choice throughout her life. In all likelihood, she will never be canonized, and yet she is one of the saints I have known.

Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy.

Today, cooperate with the Spirit who makes you holy. Think about your saints – the ones you know. Make the choice.