Tag Archives: forgiveness

memory-vulnerability-compassion

How’s your memory?

In my twenties, I used to tell friends, “When I am old and can’t remember things, don’t say it is because I am old—I can’t remember things now.”memory-vulnerability-compassion

My memory has never been good. While friends could recall what they ate or wore at a particular occasion, I had nothing. Names and faces would only stick if I had spent an extended period of one-to-one time with someone. Otherwise, I would not remember them.memory-vulnerability-compassionIt could be embarrassing. Once, I approached a speaker at a conference and thanked her for her comments. I approached her as a stranger, but she knew my name. My confusion must have been evident because she added, “I met you at dinner, last night…with Sandra?” She was trying to jog my memory, but I had no recollection, probably because we were in a large group and I did not speak with her one-to-one. But still, I did not recall her from the previous evening—I cringed.

This may not be scientific, but I believe that memory is a muscle and if it is not exercised, it loses its potency. I think of memory the same way I think of biceps; if exercised they stay strong; if unused they sag and are useless.

My memory did not get exercised as a child. Too many things happened that were better forgotten; my mantra became don’t remember. What was the point of remembering things that were too painful or that others would claim did not happen? I learned to let go.

But, I have paid the price, and now that I am old, I worry about what I can’t remember.memory-vulnerability-compassionSometimes it is place names. For example, on my recent visit to Phoenix, I visited Old Town Scottsdale, but later, I could not pull the word Scottsdale from my memory. I could describe the art galleries I visited but not the name of the city.

Usually, though, it is people I can’t recall. I don’t seem able to imprint names and faces in my memory, and that can be embarrassing and worrisome. What if this inability to remember is a symptom of something worse than a sagging memory muscle?

In my defense, since moving to Michigan four years ago, I have met many people—and almost everyone in my life here is new in the past four years. I meet new people every day at work, and that adds up to quite a few new people each week. It can be too much.memory-vulnerability-compassionThe funny thing is that my memory seems to have tons of data stored in it, and I can sometimes access things I did not even know I had retained. That makes me a good team mate for games that require minutiae (think Trivial Pursuit). My brain is also good at puzzles and figuring out mysteries; I can remember and recall clues and make connections others can miss.

I have many skills, gifts and talents, but a good memory is not one of them.

 

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God-freedom-love

Treasured

I was in my early twenties when I first read the book of Isaiah, and chapter 62, verse 3, gave me a visual that I have held onto ever since: You will be a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Imagine being a diadem, a crown—or more like a tiara I used to think—all shiny and sparkly, held by God. It was a mystical moment—when I could imagine myself as seen and loved by God, cherished and held. I could imagine God smiling just at the thought of me.God-freedom-love

After that, I began to collect those moments of awareness—when I knew myself as cherished, when something touched my soul, my essence. I tucked them away in my mind and heart, little treasures I could recall when I needed to feel loved.God-freedom-loveIn a Christology course in college, the professor demonstrated the experience of Jesus in John’s gospel (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1) Professor Prusak stood by door at the front of the classroom and then began to walk sideways and ever-so-slowly across the front of the class—repeating “word” as he walked. (Picture this man in a suit, inching across the classroom, murmuring word, word, word, word…)

About three-quarters of the way across the classroom was a chair and when he got to the chair, he stepped up on it, said “word” a few times and then stepped off on the other side. This signified the intensified time of Jesus’ human life when he walked the earth.

Excellent visual, I thought, of Jesus life, and also of my own. God is with me always, and then there are those moments on the chair, when life is intensified, when I am more—more alive, more vibrant, more tuned into God—those moments that remind me what I was created to be.

I was meant to be a diadem in the hand of God—that is what God desires. To live in that awareness, though, requires me to continually forgive (myself and others) so that I can be light and free—and to love myself as God loves me.God-freedom-loveWhen I was younger, I often compared myself to others and came up wanting. Others were kinder, prettier, friendlier, livelier, etc. I never measured up. But, at some point, I learned to let go of the comparisons and move toward comparing myself with myself—trying to be the best me I could be. (Running may have had something to do with this course-correction, because, as a runner, I strove to improve on my personal best rather than worrying about how I compared to other runners).God-freedom-love

When I can be my personal best, when I can stay focused on the course God has in mind for me, I can also be freer to support and encourage others along that path. Cooperating rather than competing, accepting rather than judging, shining as God intended.God-freedom-love

blessing-forgiveness-love

Fortunate

You shall bear no hatred for your brother or sister in your heart….Take no revenge and cherish no grudge…                                                                                                                               ~Leviticus 19:17-18

On my first trip to Swaziland, Southern Africa, I met a girl named Fortunate. She was twelve years old and I couldn’t decide if her name was apt or not.

She had grown up in a homestead in rural Swaziland with no running water or electricity. She, her parents and her five siblings had lived in a one-room hut until both of her parents died from AIDS.blessing-forgiveness-love

After that, she and her siblings moved to St. Philips’ Mission where she lived in a large dormitory with fifty-some other girls.

The Mission provided food, clothing and education. There was electricity, running water and flush toilets. All good things. But losing her parents and leaving her homestead must have been incredibly difficult.

Fortunate was curious and bold enough to ask questions. She had a trusting nature and a beautiful smile; she stole my heart.blessing-forgiveness-love

I wonder what happened to her since I last saw her in 2005.

Fortunate came to mind on the feast of St. Josephine Bakihta last week.

Josephine Bakihta grew up in Sudan and was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. Her kidnappers gave her the name Bakihta, which means Fortunate.

After being sold and traded a number of times, Bakihta eventually ended up in Italy. Her owners once left her temporarily with the Canossian Sisters, and while with the Sisters, Bakihta had a religious conversion and decided to stay there. Italian law allowed her to secure her freedom, which she did. She converted to Catholicism, took the name Josephine and eventually became a Sister.

Was she fortunate? She had been taken from her homeland and endured years of abuse and mistreatment as a slave. But, in the end, she overcame these tragedies and, by all accounts, had a blessed life.

In her own words: If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today… The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone… we must be compassionate!blessing-forgiveness-love

Despite her horrible history, Josephine Bakhita became a loving, forgiving person.

She inspires me. Here was a woman who had every reason to be bitter and vengeful. She had lost so much and endured terrible suffering. Yet she chose to overcome her history. She chose to love, forgive and look for the blessing.
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I wonder if my Swaziland Fortunate was able to face her history and rise above it. Was she able to find blessings in the hand she had been dealt?

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Not everyone has such dramatic histories to overcome, but I believe most of us have something in our past that we need to overcome, some person we need to forgive or some event we are invited to rise above. Only then will we be at peace.

blessing-forgiveness-love

Jesus-heart-love

Jesus, I give you my heart

We had a visiting priest for Christmas Eve Mass, a charismatic, high-energy young man who was ordained three years ago.

His homily focused on the love of Jesus, and he shared his own story to illustrate the transformative nature of Jesus’ love. He had been raised a Catholic but lost his faith, moved away from the Church, and bought into the cultural promise that things would fulfill him. At some point, he realized that was an empty promise; he was disillusioned. Then he encountered Jesus and everything changed. He came back to the Church and eventually made his way to the seminary…and the rest is history.

He is clearly on fire for Jesus, and it was sweet to see his passion for Jesus. He so wanted to share it with us that he even gave us homework assignments. The first was to give our hearts to Jesus every morning, and he had us repeat after him, “Jesus, I give you my heart.”

As I listened to his homily, I reflected on my own relationship with Jesus. I remember those days of my early passion for Jesus. I remember how Jesus filled me with hope and gratitude, and how loving Jesus made sense to me.

Jesus’ message of forgiveness was exactly what I needed to hear when I was in my twenties and feeling lost. I had felt empty until I met Jesus. Then, like this priest, I could not stop talking about Jesus and how wonderful His love was.Jesus-heart-loveThe next morning, I began my prayer as the priest had suggested. I prayed, Jesus, I give you my heart.

To me, giving my heart to Jesus also means taking on the heart of Jesus, and I really do want my heart to be like the heart of Jesus—loving, accepting, forgiving. My prayer was sincere.

As I contemplated the love of Jesus, I thought of the people of Jesus’ time. I imagine that most people were expecting a Messiah who would free them from their occupiers.

How disappointed they must have been when Jesus told them to turn the other cheek, to actually love their enemies.

Imagine waiting for a Messiah who would give them security and prosperity and hearing Jesus’ message about vulnerability and riches in heaven.

Imagine wanting a Messiah who would make them feel strong and in control and hearing Jesus’ message about being weak and trusting that God was in control.

Where people were concerned with overthrowing their enemies, Jesus was more concerned with building up their spiritual lives, and his plan was based on love, not war.

Two thousand years later, little seems to have changed; many people still clamor for security through aggression.

Giving our hearts to Jesus means we have to let go of the illusion of power and control so that the love of Jesus can lead us to true peace and freedom.

Jesus, I give you my heart, I am praying every morning. Make it more like your heart, I add.Jesus-heart-love

 

Lost and found

…this son of mine was…lost and has been found. (Luke 15:24)

I once had a job recruiting community members to be volunteer advocates for people who have disabilities. At monthly Board meetings, I would report on the people I had met who needed advocates.

Ellen was thirteen years old when I met her, and she lived in a group home

Her parents lived in the town where I worked, and I called her mother and told her I was going to recruit an advocate for Ellen. The mother told me how Ellen had become severely disabled as a young child; she agreed it would be good for Ellen to have someone in her life.

When Ellen’s name appeared in my monthly report, a board member asked if she was related to a family he knew with the same last name.

“Yes,” I said, “she is their daughter.”

“No,” he replied, and he named Ellen’s parents.

“Yes,” I repeated,” she is their daughter.”

“That’s not possible,” he declared and explained that he and his family knew this family very well. “They have two daughters,” he insisted.

“No,” I said, “they have three daughters.” In that moment, I realized that I had just exposed a family secret.

Ellen’s mother was quite upset with me after that. Prickly was how I described her. “I was just doing my job,” I declared defensively, but my heart broke for her as I imagined how I would feel if someone had inadvertently revealed something I had kept secret.

I started to avoid Ellen’s mother whenever I saw her, crossing the street or ducking into a shop.

A young woman named Geri became Ellen’s advocate and they formed a deep bond.

About ten years after I had left that job, I drove past Ellen’s condo one day and wondered if Geri was still involved.

Just days later, Ellen’s mother attended a fund-raiser for my current work. When I saw her walk in, I hid behind a pillar. What is she doing here? I silently shrieked, a knot forming in my stomach.

Fortunately, the venue and the crowd were large enough that I was able to avoid her.

When it was time for me to speak about my work, and as I was waiting for a final microphone check, the crowd seemed to part and Ellen’s mother walked straight toward me. Oh, God, no, I prayed. Not now. I had no place to hide.

I smiled, said hello and told her how I had recently driven past Ellen’s condo and wondered if Geri was still involved.

“Yes, she is,” Ellen’s mother said. She went on to explain that watching Geri with Ellen and seeing how Geri saw Ellen changed how she saw her daughter. She told me that Geri and Ellen had become an integral part of their family. “You gave me back my daughter,” she said, “and I want to thank you.”

Tears filled my eyes as she hugged me.

***

Have you ever been lost or found?

 

God whispers

Whisper is a word that has been catching my attention lately—as in, hearing God whisper.

Figuring out God’s will for me has not always been easy. For many years, I was watching and listening for God to proclaim the plan for my life in obvious ways—like peals of thunder and flashes of lightening or neon signs—something I could not miss.

But, as I look back on my spiritual journey, I can see that God’s guidance was much quieter; God mainly whispered.

My conversion experience when I was twenty-two set me on a path of trying to discern God’s will. My deepest desire was to hold nothing back from God and to live the Gospel radically. Ten years later, I still felt unsure of a direction for my life that would be enough to repay God for the forgiveness and love God had given me.

I considered becoming a Catholic sister, and when that did not seem radical enough, I moved into a l’Arche community and several other Christian communities after that. Even though some of those experiences were incredibly difficult and painful, none seemed radical enough. I am not sure what I was looking for, but I knew the things I was trying were not enough.

And then on retreat one year, when I was pleading my case before God, explaining all the ways I had to find God’s will for me and how I had tried to live the Gospel radically, God spoke. I never told you to go to l’Arche, God told me. I was pleased with the way you were living and the work you were doing. You wanted something more radical. You were not satisfied with the good work you were doing. Your life was radical enough for me.

Walking the retreat center grounds, I replayed God’s words in my head. Had it really been my will instead of God’s? In a flash, it became clear—I had been projecting my insecurities onto God and acting out of my belief that I was not enough and whatever I did was not good enough.

God’s assurance that the work I was doing was good enough and radical enough freed me. Suddenly, I saw that the radicalness of living the Gospel is a new way.

While I had been looking for some big sign, God had been whispering, “That person, love her,” and “That person, forgive him,” and “That person, be compassionate to her.” If I could do that and do it consistently, I would be living the Gospel radically, I would be doing God’s will.

One thing I learned from my earlier efforts to live more radically was that just about the most radical thing I could do was to touch my own brokenness and vulnerability and to allow others to see my wounds. Loving, forgiving, being compassionate to the people I meet every day—and doing that from a place of my own brokenness—now that is radical.

More mercy

The experience of mercy, the priest explained, is what Pope Francis hopes for this jubilee year.  Not the definition or theology, not talking about mercy or learning more about it, but experiencing it and living it. The presentation by a Franciscan priest on Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy helped me better understand this jubilee year.

The priest told us that the Pope had a transformational experience of mercy when he was a teen and that Caravaggio’s painting The Calling of St. Matthew was connected to that experience. The priest talked about experiencing mercy through the loving look of God, that look that melts one’s heart, the look artists try to capture.

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Caravaggio is a bit dark for my taste; I prefer Tanner’s Annunciation as a portrait of God’s light breaking through.The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

But looking at Caravaggio’s painting reminded me of my trip to Rome and a sculpture in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria—the Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila by Bernini.

gianlorenzoberninitheecstasyofsaint

 

This piece of art reminds me of one of my own transformational experiences of mercy.

It happened about thirty years ago as I was praying in the convent chapel at my parish, lost in contemplation. Then I saw myself in an old, European cathedral, the kind I had visited in Spain a few years earlier—thick, stone walls and large, open spaces. I was lying
on the floor and could feel the cold, hard tiles on my hands and cheek.

Church in spain

As I lay prostrate, the floor began to shift, and then I was being lifted up. The section of floor that was holding me became the hand of God, and God assured me that I was safe.

That was not the first time I had felt the hand of God lifting me up—that happened when I was just eight years old—but it is the memory I return to again and again when I want to recall God’s mercy toward me. It is the experience that melts my heart and makes me want to reach out to others to remind them that God holds and loves each of us, and that we are safe.

That vision encourages me to be merciful, to take risks with forgiveness and acceptance, to let go of my need to be right and allow others the chance to be heard.

In his presentation on Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy, the priest noted that we live in a culture which is more focused on people getting what they deserve and how antithetical that is to mercy. If each of us got what we deserved, he said, there would be no hope, because we all make mistakes, we all sin; most of us just don’t get caught. But when we are caught, we pray for mercy.

Experiencing more mercy by focusing on God’s love and forgiveness—and then being more merciful—that will be my Lenten prayer.