Storms When Everything Went Dark

Dark Window DSCN7347With the snow storm that recently passed through the eastern part of our country, many were — and still are — left without power.

When a similar storm passed through Michigan a couple winters ago, I wrote this blog. Seems timely to share it again:

It was another one of those sleepless nights. I was in my upstairs flat, a small hermitage of three room, and decided to make some tea when, during a winter storm, the lights went out.

It was pitch black, too dark for even shadows to fall. Groping and stubbing toes, I swept one hand back and forth in front of me seeking a safe way through the dark. My other hand grasped the back of a chair, reluctant to release something familiar.

There was the sudden momentary fear of disorientation. Not knowing where I was made me feel vulnerable. A heartbeat ago I could see where I was heading, a bright light guided me. Now all I saw were navy-blue blotches floating like ghosts against a sheet of black.

I felt I was suffocating with fear in the blanketing silence. No humming of motors, no ticking of clocks. My ears strained to hear past the sound of my own heartbeat. Did the downstairs door just click open? Are those footsteps scraping across the floor? Was that the stairs I just heard creaking? What monsters under the bed!

I was in the dark; the margins of safety became blurred. Caught in a wave of fear of imminent harm, images flooded in and drowned common sense. Flashbacks of years ago blinded further. Where did the security go that was so clear only a minute ago? My arms swam through air as I willed myself to move forward, anticipating at any moment an unknown force laying me low.

I dared not stop, dared not turn away from the direction I was heading. It was the right path a moment ago. I knew there was a candle in the other room. It became more than a candle to calm my frightened heart. As a friend once wrote it was “a pillar of fire” that both guides and tests.

I tripped and stumbled. Disoriented, I come up against a wall and wondered which way was the right way. I leaned against the wall for support though at the same time I knew it blocked my way. But what was the way? Where would I be once I got past this wall? I doubt myself when in darkness.

I told myself to be calm, that though I was in darkness God was in it with me. I told myself to keep moving toward a known source of light even when it can’t be seen.  I held on to hope that in my seeking I would find what I was looking for, blindly rummaging, feeling my way, trying to recognize by another sense what would normally be easy to spot.

The candle was pulled from the cabinet and lit. It was in my hand, firmly gripped against the tremors. I remained kneeling on the wooden floor as the flame’s soft glow illuminated the table-top crucifix. My world was now less frightening.

This is not the first time I’ve been thrust into darkness, and it will not be the last time I grope through it desperately seeking The Light. One day I will be calm as I traverse dark nights, believing in what is concealed just beyond its edge.

Image by Pippalou, morguefile.com.

A Virgin’s Fear

Antonello de Messina, Vierge de l'Annonciation, 1475. Public domain, commons.wikimedia.org

Antonello de Messina, Vierge de l’Annonciation, 1475. Public domain, commons.wikimedia.org

The angel appeared and said “Do not be afraid…”

Some heavenly being popped up in front of me, I’d need calming down too!

These words were spoken to Zechariah in Luke 1:13; and a few months later to Mary, Luke 1:30. Let’s never mind about St. John the Baptist’s father.  Consider only Mary for a moment.

Mary was well educated in the foundations of her religion. There is no doubt that she observed the traditions of daily prayers. One day while offering these prayers, a being, like no other, enters her private chambers.

Now, you and I have been taught that this was a glorious moment, an angelic event of great joy—and presumed peace-filled. Well, maybe later since the line in Luke 1:29 indicates otherwise—“for she was greatly troubled”—and the angel Gabriel had to settle her down before he could deliver the next shock to this little human girl!

I don’t imagine Gabriel to be a tiny Tinkerbell kind of being. Even an entity Disney-small entering into my oratory would cause me to jump back a bit. A being as prominant as Gabriel would fill the whole room suddenly and completely. Is it any wonder Mary was greatly troubled and filled with fear?

Still, trying to recover from being startled—her heart racing and adrenaline flowing—the message is spoken that she will conceive in her womb a child, God’s own son.

The God she knew was unimaginably, and quite terrifyingly, powerful. He was a God that comes in storms, fires, and floods. If He comes to her what of her fragile humanness, of her delicate womb?

The Virgin Mary may also have considered God’s gentle ways, for he created the rosemary plant with its scent that filled a home. He gave to them sweet honey wondrously made by tiny bees.

We are not told what she thought, other than she was initially startled and afraid.

She had but one question for this messenger from heaven…How? Still some fear. If God took on a body, it would surely be greater than a mortal’s. Would he come to her through the body of her Joseph? If not through her betrothed, than what of the scandal?

Gabriel assures her that in the most unobtrusive element on the earth, a mist of a shadow, God would envelope her.

We are not told if she had time to pray, to brace herself, to ask for mercy.

Here her faith stilled her heart. The answer was not a helpless resignation from this very young woman, she had a choice. She chose to let go of her fear. She chose to surrender her body to an unimaginable event—full union with God.

Gabriel received a willing yes, and then departed, and Mary was left in wonderment.

And the privacy of the conception of a child remains—as it should—between the parents.

The Virgin Mary’s moment of fear turned into trust and the world’s salvation began. Ten months later, the world in wonder rejoiced.

May the peace of Christ be with you dear reader, now and throughout the new year. My Christmas gift to you, if you would like, is a year of prayer…please leave your request in the comments.

 

Quandary of Self Loathing

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Image morguefile.com

In Luke 10:27 a young lawyer answers Jesus with a statement that has convicted me throughout adulthood: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

The loving heart, soul, mind and body I’m okay with.

And, unlike the lawyer, I’m not confused about who my neighbor is. It is everyone beyond my personhood. The one who is spiritually or mentally challenged, the dysfunctional family, and the physically needy—and it seems too often that those who are easiest to help are always at the back of the line.

What convicts me in the lawyer’s answer is to love these people as myself. Some days loving myself is lacking. And if what the lawyer said is true (and Christ said it was), then I should be ashamed of my paltry offering to others.

This Bible passage, also present in Mt 22:39, makes me ask: How much do I love myself? How gentle, understanding, patient, kind, and encouraging am I toward my own endeavors? Would I behave as coarsely toward someone who has made mistakes like my own? Would I speak to them in similar self-deprecating or angry words?

Whatever the level of care I give to myself is the same level I can give to my neighbor. The same dignity and charity expressed for others can be no greater than what I express toward my own being.

If I have but little love for myself—being part of the family as one who is made in the image and likeness of God, one who is the hands and feet of Christ, one who brings the Holy Spirit into a moment—then my ability to share that love is negligible. I cannot give away what I do not have. To fake that love is to bring deceit instead of Christ. As sad as it is to admit, I have been deceitful on occasion.

To the extent that I believe in and am open to the love from God, the more readily I can give the same to others. But here’s the rub: when I see myself as undeserving, the little holiness that manages to get in to my soul is all I have to give out. The selfishness of seeing my self as unworthy limits my ability to serve Our Lord fully.

Those failures I fear in myself—the brokenness, helplessness, and anguish—cause me to reject the people I encounter. These faults become interior mirrors that halt forward movement and cause a turning away from the same in the world.

If I loath myself for my shortcomings, I will direct that loathing toward my neighbor. To the level in which I can forgive and accept my blunders and breaks, so too is the level I can bring Christ’s forgiveness and mercy.

For, if I block my true self, I block the presence of Christ.

Like the neighbor left on the road by the robbers (Luke 10:30) I fear seeing my own nakedness, and being laid bare to others. I fear my vulnerability and of being exposed and helpless beyond my own ability. I fear the debilitating attack that will leave me repulsive and rejected by others—and myself.

Walking among the destitute has chafed against these fears. I’ve gratefully begun to see the person behind the poorness: The not-so-old single woman with no one to care that she is impaired by a stroke, the man that fixed school busses now homeless, hopeless, and suicidal, the lady who worked the flower shop lost to Alzheimer’s. These are my siblings in whom I see the nakedness of need.

It is among them that I realize I want to give more but I come up lacking.

Christ desires mercy. The trick is to have that for one’s self in sufficient amounts to offer it to others. And when I see this in myself, I find my spiritual belligerence unbecoming.

(Image from morguefile.com.)

 

 

Mouse in the House

It’s turning cold outside, and with it comes that scratching sound that distracts me from my prayers. They’re running up the chimney wall and across the ceiling. With any luck the rodents will run under the bathroom sink and into the cheese-filled trap.

I’m conflicted. I really hate having to kill mice. They are funny little things. One late summer evening sitting in the yard, I watched a pair of them scurry, hop, and tumble with one another under the sunflowers, gathering fallen seeds from birds.

I remember from childhood sleeping on the floor in the back room and, having saved tiny pieces of bread or corn from dinner, would place it under the radiator. Soon enough my “pet” field mouse would run up and snatch my gift. It wasn’t long until the little rodent was waiting for me to feed it. It would tickle my finger tip with its tiny paws, eat, and eventually dart off. The mouse was always aware of any danger to its tiny being and would run for cover at the slightest threat.

Having grown up in Detroit in an area where personal threat was a very real thing, I am (still) uncomfortable and distracted in public. For the love of God, I set that fear aside. It is not just the opportunity for physical harm that keeps me mindful of my surroundings, but mental and spiritual peril as well.

I fret over what my responsibility is in public situations—of men being sarcastic and mean to women, mothers being verbally abusive to energetic and misbehaving children, cell phone users speaking inappropriately (ignoring their companions or children) in public spaces—and the general rudeness of people living under stress and the oppression of being without a sense of God. My confidence of being a good Christian often wanes in public.

To be some sort of a presence of Christ we all work at being attentive to people and their wants, confusions, challenges, and stories. It is in our silence that they reveal their needs. I attempt to be a source of calm, offering prayer so the Holy Spirit can work in them.

I sidestep sharing on the same level. The encounter is not about me. They needn’t know more than I am a gardener, Benedictine Oblate, and that I love to pray—the people I meet fuel my desire to do so.

I see myself as a mouse, scurrying about the perimeter of life to avoid detection, and at the same time aware of what is going on around me. I snatch up little morsels of food I find—those little bits and pieces of human sorrows, needs, and emptiness that are dropped—and carry them back to a place of safety for prayer.

Meanwhile, the devil prowls about ready to pounce, and sometimes I get caught in his claws. Wounded, I know where to find healing. And from the wounding I learn to be more vigilant, to circle sooner behind the Holy and wait.

It’s not about being perfect in our encounters, or praying more. It’s about doing and being our best no matter how small we are.

(Photo by Rama, Wikimedia)

Uprooted and Reorienting Fear

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Image morguefile.com

The word “transplant,” both verb and noun, is from Late Latin, transplantare, trans“across” + plantare “to plant”. It means to move from one place and place to another…remove, uproot, reorient, shift.

We gardeners do this often for the health of the plant, for better balance in the landscape, or to open up space for other good things. In anticipation of the uprooting, we plan accordingly.

The best transplanting is done when a plant is healthy and the season is right. The gardener prunes the tops and roots and waits for healing. She then digs deep to thoroughly remove the plant while maintaining a healthy root system. The new location, which she’s prepared ahead, offers lots of room for development.

We who garden know that plants go through transplanting shock after this process. The leaves will wilt, droop, and some will die off. We also know that near the scar on the stem from an old leaf, or from pruning, a new bud will often emerge.

What matters most is the timing of the transition and support given the plant during this time. Move a plant when it is too hot and it will dry-up; too rainy and wet, and it will rot; too cold and the roots cannot penetrate frozen soil—and the plant dies.

At one time or another in our lives we are uprooted. We are planted across from familiar to different.

Over the past several months I’ve smiled to myself remembering the saying “God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.”

Affliction had come being called from a familiar life of solitude and into more contact with the community. It’s been a challenge. And, like most people, not the first uprooting I’ve experienced. With each transition we become more confident in our ability to survive a wilt, knowing the hands of The Master Gardener will be attentive to our needs as we set new roots.

The most Perfect Gardener will not leave us unattended when we are removed from what is familiar. He will not uproot us if we are not strong enough to manage the transition.

These past few weeks, our Lord was very attentive and supportive of, not only my shift from one environment to another, but also during a small crisis.

An issue with my eyes aggravated my insomnia. My doctor prescribed medication, but somewhere the prescription was misunderstood. After six weeks of overdosing, I collapsed on the basement floor while folding laundry with tremors and in a full blown panic attack. I had no idea where it had come from. We soon discovered the overdose.

Withdrawal, even from a six week physiological addiction, was frightening and chaotic. The “comforting the afflicted”, for me, came by way of a physician and a psychotherapist.

I had to quickly develop skills to stay-in-the-moment and manage the unfounded sway of emotions, setting my roots firmly in trust of God. Over the next several days, with each peak of anxiety and valley of despair my confidence grew—I was reorienting fear.

When the detox experience was over, I realized I’d made my transition to a more public life as well. I learned that the fear and anxiety felt leaving my upstairs hermitage to bring Our Lord, in some small way, to others, was also unfounded. I was becoming off balance and unhealthy in my solitude, so He dug down deep knowing I needed reorientation.

The shifting is done, roots are setting, and new buds are forming. I’m opening up for other good things.

And all good gardeners know that transplanting before it storms is best for encouraging roots. God’s timing is always perfect.

(Image by pippalou from morguefile.com)