A Mid-Life Epiphany

I remember in my late twenties in a literature class hearing about an author my same age who had already written a number of books and was considered of great literary fame. I remember the thought passing through my mind, “Where have been?”

Maybe I felt like I was going nowhere fast. The complexities that enter into how we perceive our lives are not easy to untangle. Now in my fifties, I look back at the years that are folded up now and set to rest, and wonder still what I have attained. Once I participated in an ice-breaker in a meeting of my sisters in Rome, and we had to state one word that described ourselves. I immediately put down the word, “Search.” I’m always on a search. And I realize now that I have subtly have considered this to be a negative thing. If I’m searching, I haven’t found something. I’m not settled. Not finished. Maybe I’ll never be finished looking for that something I wish I could find.

The Magi whom we contemplate today had spent a good bit of their life-span searching the skies for a star they knew would one day appear. Their search indicated that no other star was sufficient to move them, to transform them, to uproot them, to cause them to bow down in worship. They sought because they had not found. And that was a good thing. They knew that everything they had as yet encountered was good, but not great, not THE THING that was to mark their lives forever. And so they continued searching.

The star they followed led the three on another search. First they thought it would lead to a political kingdom, then to a religious elite, but ended up surprisingly in a poor hut where they laid their precious gifts before a Babe and his teenage mother. There as they discovered the King and God whom they recognized they had been searching for all their life, they also discovered themselves. Julian Carron, president of Communion and Liberation, wrote in his book Disarming Beauty, “A person rediscovers himself in a living encounter…. It is in an encounter that I become aware of myself…. The ‘I’ awakens from its imprisonment in its original womb, awakens from its tomb, from its sepulcher, from its closed situation of origin and–as it were–‘resurrects,’ becomes aware of itself, precisely in an encounter. The result of an encounter is that the sense of the person is kindled. It is as if the person were being born… This encounter enables us to discover the mystery of our ‘I.’ ‘He was himself, but even more himself.'” (page 79f.).

How do we experience this encounter today? An encounter that shifts the foundation of our personality and consciousness so that we become “even more of ourself”?

Our searching into our middle years has led us through many encounters, careers, hobbies, places of residence, relationships…. Our restlessness, we finally realize, is finally settled into quiet restfulness when we encounter Jesus. I could list a number of places where we could encounter Jesus today…all of which you would know. The point the story of the Magi makes, however, is to be ready for the unexpected places where God will encounter us.

Encounter happens, however, when we’re ready for a relational experience. There are times in all of our lives when relational openness and intensity grows a little dim. This is a simple contemplation you might make to strengthen your readiness to encounter the divine in your life:

  1. Remember a moment in your past that brought you great joy. Talk to God about how much you appreciate what happened. Express to him gratitude.
  2. Ask Jesus to tell you what he wants you to know about that experience.
  3. Ask Jesus to show you where he is in your life right now, to make you aware of his presence.
  4. Bow down beside the Magi and worship.

Mid-life is a great time to think about what you’ve been searching for and if you’ve found it. Sometimes we have found it, but don’t know how to rest in it, to stop searching and instead relish it and delight in it as it transforms us. It could be we haven’t found what we’ve been looking for and a contemplation such as the one above could be the Star that you’ve been waiting for to lead you to an encounter that will totally satisfy you.

In either case, on this Epiphany day, may you follow his Star wherever it leads!

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Advent Melts Now into Christmas Joy

Almost too soon, it is Christmas Eve. A busy night. Christmas trees and gifts and Christmas Eve dinners. Christmas family traditions, decorating, preparation for Christmas Day cooking. Christmas cookies, and wrapped Christmas gifts. Excited children trying to sleep so Santa can bring presents to good boys and girls…. The kitchen in the convent is clearing out. Sisters have been cooking all day and a group of us went in to do the dishes. A table is filled with cookies and fudge and fruit cake for our guests after Mass tonight (and the sisters too!).

All these years as we each turn the pages of the calendar Christmas after Christmas, our busyness makes us think that Christmas is something we bring about, something we produce, something we give each other, something we do for others or for God.

The ways of God, however, are always an unexpected reversal. Mary proclaimed in her song of praise the Magnificat that she knew it was the Lord, who was the Giver of all gifts, who had done great things in her. In awe at the unfolding mystery of God’s gift, Mary put herself at the service of all God had planned. This is Mary’s way of putting herself at God’s disposition. When it came time to give birth to her own Child who would sit on the Throne of David forever, she makes no attempt to orchestrate the perfect situation for his birth. She has no pretense of greatness for having said yes to the angel Gabriel and having given her body and soul as the home of God’s Son for nine months. She is waiting, watching, listening, serving, letting him lead. She lets Jesus give the gift.

Marian eyes. Have her eyes in these days as Advent melts into Christmas joy. Eyes that look to see what Jesus is accomplishing right in front of you. Eyes that transmit faith. Eyes that offer love and understanding. Eyes that can still experience wonder at the mystery of the birth of God in our midst, saving us.

Mary left behind her planned preparation for the birth of her baby, for the uncomfortable and probably dangerous trip to Bethlehem, trusting that God had a plan. She says to me, don’t hold too tightly onto your preparations and expectations. You will be called to your unexpected Bethlehem, and it is there that you will receive the gift of Jesus.

Rest from all the work you’ve done now. Christmas is here and it will be what it will be. Let Jesus in and see what he will do within you and through you.

My heart cries out with Mary: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

The royal King has come to make with us his home

We feel his footsteps near,
the Bridegroom at the door–
Alleluia! The lamps will shine
With light divine
As Christ the Savior comes to reign.
Wake, O wake, and sleep no longer
by Philipp Nicolai; Translator and Adapter: Christopher M. Idle

Wake, O wake and sleep no longer. It is an imperative. A command. There is an urgency to the wake-up call.

I used to revel in the darkness, in the weeks of waiting, the wonderfully haunting readings of the Advent liturgy. But the entrance hymn of the First Sunday of Advent sung in St. Peter’s in the Loop in Chicago this year changed all that for me.

Wake… Hear, the midnight bells are chiming / The signal for his royal coming.

Midnight… The time of deepest dark yes, but also, as Jesus has told us in his parables, the time of the arrival of the Bridegroom. When the Bridegroom arrived there was a flurry of preparation among the virgins, half wise, half foolish. Trimmed lamps burning bright, the wise virgins stood ready to meet him with open hearts.

Midnight… At a time when you do not expect the King will return and blessed shall we be if we are waiting in expectation.

Midnight… In the darkness of the shortest days of the year begins to burn the Light of the world, the radiant Sun of Justice.

Midnight… In a world torn by violence and uncertainty, the voice of the newborn King of Peace cried out in the night, held by the chorus of angel-song.

We feel his footsteps near, / The Bridegroom at the door….
Our hearts are thrilled with sudden longing.

Longing springs up in thrilled hearts. It is not a melancholy feeling of holy sadness. It is the leap of the spirit, of the soul, when it senses the Lord and Lover of mankind is near. Christ, her friend, and lord, and lover, / Her star and sun and strong redeemer– / At last his mighty voice is heard.

The hymn doesn’t sing of a tiny babe shivering in a Bethlehem manger. It proclaims that the royal King has come to make with us his home: / Sing Hosanna! The fight is won, /  The feast begun.

Christmas is a feast proclaiming and rejoicing that we have caught the eye of our Creator, and he has wooed us with his love.

Naturally, we look forward to December 25, less than three weeks away now. But the hymn reminds us that our little Christmas celebrations are but a tiny reflection of the eternal festivities of the Bridegroom’s love:

Awake, God’s own Jerusalem!…
Twelve the gates into the city,
Each one a pearl of shining beauty;
The streets of gold ring out with praise.
All creatures round the throne
Adore the holy One
With rejoicing…

This Christmas, no matter how heavy the burden of your heart, lift up your head and look on high to the eternity already begun that will have no end of joy and delight. Lay your head on the straw next to the Child of the Ages and honor him forever on his throne as King of Kings. Plunge your heart into the tender and pierced Heart of the Savior, dry your tears on the mantle of the Shepherd who is Good.

Awake, O awake, the night is flying….

 

Why We Just Need a Little Compassion

At some point in life, in our younger or later years, we all do something or experience a situation that we truly regret. In our younger years, it is usually an individual situation, something we did, a decision we made, an experience we had, or an incident that has re-written the script of our life without our permission, such as an illness or accident. In our older years, we may feel uneasy as we recognize that a pattern of regret has stamped itself on our entire lifetime, creating an ocean of sorrow within and around us.

Each of us has arrived at the age we are now, bearing many scars. Some of us have scars from an imperfect or even abusive family life, unkind teachers, envious siblings, or teenage romances that broke our hearts. Others have been wounded by employers who fired us, spouses who betrayed us, colleagues who took advantage of us, and children who were ungrateful.  Our regrets are built on years of memories of hurts and disappointments, both intentional and accidental.

Some people may feel like victims of random situations or hurtful relationships. We don’t know why things happen to us the way they do. Our lives don’t match up with the seemingly magical lives of those around us, and we don’t understand why. But the “random” situations in our life that we regret are anything but random. It is possible, and even liberating, to identify the recurring patterns that lay beneath our regrets.

The patterns beneath our regrets can be difficult to discover because on the surface every situation is unique. For example, consider Stacy, a woman with a successful career as a lawyer. She is a no-nonsense person who gets what she wants, regardless of how it may affect others. As a parent she challenges any negative feedback regarding her children. She pushed her oldest child to attend a top-rated college and to follow in her footsteps in the field of law. While Stacy acts differently in her career than in her parenting, we can see a similar pattern in both spheres. As a lawyer and a parent, Stacy tries to dominate and force others to do what she wants. In one sphere it might work, but in another it causes Stacy serious problems and leads to broken relationships.

Scott is someone who finds his life frustrated by a series of failures that he always thinks another person caused. For every failure, Scott faults anyone but himself. When something goes wrong, Scott has fallen into the habit of shifting the blame and not taking responsibility. People who are close to Scott try to help him see the part he plays in his difficulties, but he is not open to feedback. But if Scott looked closely he would realize that his own thoughts, beliefs, and responses play a part in this pattern of blame in his life.

Each of these unfortunate situations is unique because every one of us is unique and we experience the world differently. Yet our experiences often form a more general underlying pattern. Unless we make a concerted effort we rarely discover these patterns, and when we can’t see them we are doomed to repeat them again and again.

When I was told that identifying patterns behind the things I regret in my life was a powerful way to make new choices for my future, I was skeptical. “Prove it,” I said. But when I tried this little exercise I began to clearly see some of the patterns that were influencing the circumstances in my life. First, identify an issue that is causing disruption in your life. Count back seven years and ask yourself if you experienced the same issue in some aspect of your life seven years ago. Count back another seven years and do the same. And another seven years. And another until you can go back no further.

The patterns in our life help us to identify something within ourselves that needs God’s mercy and his compassionate Healing. We can also hear our own inner heart-cry for  mercy and compassion, that special gift we alone can give to the wounded places in ourselves. Amazingly, as we bring these patterns to the Lord for healing, the situations around us begin to change. As we grow in freedom, in some mysterious way so also do others.

Photo Credit:
Yoann Boyer

Why Can’t I Feel God’s Love?

Loneliness is one of the greatest heart-pains people report when it comes to their relationship with others and with God.

We could look enviously at Mary and Joseph, the shepherds who could see Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem. Or the Magdalene. Peter and the apostles. The blind man on the side of the road calling for the Lord’s attention. Even Paul.

They could see and interact with Jesus. Seeing His eyes, being in His presence, even feeling His touch and hearing His voice…it must have been so easy to feel God’s love communicated through Jesus.

Jesus’ promise to Thomas that those are more blessed who believe without seeing doesn’t make Him feel any closer. Doesn’t satisfy our need to feel Jesus close in our hour of need.

One night, bowed low in the dark and yet familiar place of our convent chapel, I prayed. Jesus asks me, Can’t you see me? I am here. I have always been wherever you are.

Pages flipping. I know I’ll find the words Jesus said to someone else comforting. Someone. Else. He and I, a popular book of spirituality. Jesus on July 17, 1939 to Gabrielle Bossis: “Is it so difficult to talk with Me? Everything that interests you, every little detail of your life, tell me about it. I’ll listen with such attention and joy.”

Gently Jesus urges me to close the book…. Child, I spoke to her 75 years ago, but tonight I want to speak to you.

But why can’t I know. Hear. See.

I remember moments of deep relational presence for me. My 25th anniversary of profession. The success of a project that restored in me a sense of belonging. A graduation. A prayer experience. Relive the joy and gratitude. Feel the warmth of appreciation deep within. Jesus, I am making a heart-request. Can you show me where you were in these experiences?

I wait. Enter within myself.

I see you, Jesus. I see what I missed then. You were standing beside me, rejoicing in these little details of my life, events that meant so much to me. You stand there smiling as if you were personally giving me a very cool gift and wanted to see if I liked it. I feel you now next to me, Jesus. Are you there always?

“I call you my friends. I am with you always.” (Words of Jesus recorded at the Last Supper and at His ascension into heaven.)

And where were you when I was hurt? Child, I had made everything okay, before it even happened. Look at Me.

I shift a little bit closer. Maybe this is what C.S. Lewis meant when he said: “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

Every detail. Every hope. Every sorrow. His. Only for His eyes. Offered to Him to see, to hold. to care for, to be with. With. The secret for enjoying the security of Jesus’ presence.


Try this yourself. What event(s) in your life do you look back on as special evidence of God’s love and care for you? Relive them. Reexperience the gratitude and appreciation. The more you reconnect with memories that elicit gratitude and appreciation the more you will find satisfaction in your relationships with others and with God.

 

I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

Psalm 77:11

 

 

 

 

When the heart breaks

Why is it that God allows our hearts to break? That love could cause us such pain and suffering and yet survive and even thrive is a miracle. God’s own heart broke at the dawn of creation when we chose our own way to happiness. And since we have done so again and again. And Love? That Love, eternally multiplying magnificence of tenderness and care, has bent over us again and again, believing in our capacity to welcome his heart one day.

I think God knows how fragile we are, which is why he persists in knocking at the door of our hearts. Showing us the miracle of Love which alone can mend our own broken hearts.