Tag Archives: vulnerability

Where there is injury, pardon

God-vulnerability-forgiveness

My pastor gave me a copy of the Prayer of St. Francis when I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation during Advent, and I have been praying it every day since. The words that jump out at me almost every day are: Where there is injury, pardon.

Why those words? I ask God, and what does injury mean?

I usually think of injuries as resulting from accidents—wounds that need stitches, casts or surgeries. But what kind of injuries need pardon? In St. Francis’ day the word probably had a different connotation.

As I pray these words every day, I ponder injuries. I tried replacing the word injury with other words to see if it makes more sense to me—sin, hurt, harm, betrayal, etc.—what would warrant pardon?

And is pardon synonymous with forgiveness?

Perhaps it was this prayer that predisposed me to ponder forgiveness this Lent.

I struggle with forgiveness for several reasons, and perhaps the biggest is my fear of looking foolish. I can hear my father’s voice in my head discouraging me from being taken advantage of and encouraging me to stand my ground. It was important to him not to look weak and he was slow to forgive those who had crossed him. To him, forgiving equaled vulnerability and weakness.

Vulnerability was not something he valued.

It took me a long time—and a fair amount of prodding by God—to consider vulnerability as something valuable, something desirable.

I once befriended a women who had committed a horrific crime. She was vilified and hated in our community. The newspapers and television media portrayed her as a monster.

But God placed her on my heart, and I could not stop thinking about her—and feeling compassion for her. It was as if God was showing me how God saw her—not the monster she was portrayed in the news, but as a person who, no matter what she had done, was still a child of God.

Not many people knew about my visits to her in prison or of our friendship. Sometimes, the things God asks of me seem outrageous even to me.

This particular friendship has been resurfacing this Lent. She was a woman who needed pardon, forgiveness and acceptance.

Perhaps she has been coming to mind because of all the mass shootings in our country. My friend had a history of mental illness and a record of multiple hospitalizations related to her mental illness. Yet she was able to walk into a store and buy a gun. No questions asked. No thought to why she wanted a gun or what she might do with it. No concerns that she would walk into the mall and open fire.

Or perhaps she has been coming to mind because she taught me so much about vulnerability and forgiveness.

I suppose God has been nudging me toward acknowledging my vulnerability for a long time, teaching me that embracing my own vulnerability puts me on the path to pardon.

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God-forgiveness-vulnerability

Return to God

Return to me with your whole heart—Joel 2:12

One theme that emerged during my recent retreat was home, as in coming home or being at home.

I had brought last year’s journals with me, and one entry reflected a conversation with a friend who had been going through a rough time but was starting to feel like himself again. He said he had started to feel like he was inhabiting his body again and that he was looking out through his own eyes.

It was as if he was coming home to himself.

I resonated.

For so long, I have felt out of sorts. Great loss and grief can do that. So the idea of coming home to myself is appealing. I want to live in my body and to look at the world through my own eyes.

Another coming home is the actual coming home to the place where I was born and grew up, which is what I did five years ago. Living near my family is a blessing for which I thank God every day.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityA third coming home is returning to God, and in the midst of Lent, I find myself thinking of what it means to come home to God.

Lent invites me to turn away from what separates me from God and turn toward God.

Recently, several people have come to me with questions about prayer or about nonprofit management. After each of these conversations, I am left with a clearer understanding that (1) I have a depth of experience in these two areas, and (2) my experience can be helpful to others.

Sometimes, though, my experience leads me to insights that might be uncomfortable or challenging to those asking for my help.

A young woman came to talk with me about the anger she carries toward the man who raped her. “How can you suggest I forgive him?” she asked with an edge to her voice.

“Your anger does not affect him; it affects you,” I offered. “He doesn’t even know that you are angry; he has moved on.” Not forgiving him does not hurt him in the least; but holding onto her anger keeps her in bondage.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityI think she both wanted to hear that message and did not want to hear it. Forgiveness can be so difficult, and radical forgiveness—forgiveness for some horrible act—can seem impossible.

I know because I, too, hold onto some anger for past hurts. I want to forgive, even the people who hurt me the worst, who left the deepest scars; it is difficult. I pray for the grace to let go, and I look to Jesus’ example for inspiration. At the moment of his death, he forgave those who put him to death.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityComing home to God, for me, means being true to my history and experiences. It means speaking of radical forgiveness and believing in it.

I want to return to God with my whole heart—and with my heart made whole.

 

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Abide in love

My Advent reflection book contained portions of a story by Bishop Ken Untener called the Dream Fixer. The reflections were about our being God’s dream, and the ways we are broken dreams. One piece read:

Let me put it in terms that have a familiar ring to them because they’re taken from the story of…Jesus.

~I am the sheep that wandered off into the wilderness, alone, hungry, afraid.

~I am the younger son who took the inheritance and squandered it…

~I am the one the robbers beat and left half dead on the road to Jericho…

 As I pondered each of these people from Scripture, it came to me that while I can easily imagine myself in these sympathetic roles, I can also see that:

~I am the failed shepherd.

~I am the older son, resentful and angry.

~I am one of the robbers, using someone to my advantage.

It seems natural for me to align myself with the innocent victim—and more challenging for me to see myself as the less sympathetic person. But, I can be both.spirituality-forgiveness-LentPreparing for my retreat last month, the phrase, abide in love (1 John 4:16) came to mind. I have been pondering the many manifestations of love and also thinking of February as the month of love, so it did not surprise me that this phrase popped into my mind.

Loving family and friends seems a like a good first step in the practice of abiding in love. Being loving toward those closest to us can be enough of a challenge, but I believe God’s calling is to go deeper and wider.

God calls me to love myself, to see myself as God sees me and to accept God’s version of me. God calls me to love those seemingly unlovable parts of myself—the failures and anger and aggression. How do I take responsibility for my failures, my resentment and my aggression? How do I love myself in those unlovable places?

And, as important, how do I love others who fail or are angry or cause harm to others? Can I see them as God sees them? And love them as God loves them?spirituality-forgiveness-LentAbide in love instructs me to do just that. To live in love, to continually dip back into the love of God to remind myself what it means to see people as God sees them and to love them as God loves them—that is the invitation and the challenge.

When I can embrace the failed, angry, aggressive parts of myself, perhaps I can have more empathy for those traits in others. Maybe a greater awareness of my own darkness will make me more understanding of others, more willing to forgive, more willing to be compassionate and accepting.

My Advent reflection fits into my retreat invitation—and into a Lenten practice.spirituality-forgiveness-LentLent is a time of conversion, a change of heart. The fact that Lent began on Valentine’s Day this year magnifies the invitation to abide in love.

 

 

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A gentle push toward God

When I tell people I am going on a week’s silent retreat, the usual reaction is a grimace. A whole week without talking? Follow-up questions usually run along the lines of, “You mean outside of the sessions?” or “You mean outside of the meals and breaks?” or some version of looking for an out.

I do talk with my spiritual director once a day—a check-in to see where God is leading me—but otherwise there are no sessions, no chitchat, no casual conversations, no television or internet. Retreat is an opportunity to disconnect from the world. Every year, I look forward to it.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityOnce people accept I really mean silent, the next question is usually, “Then what do you do all day?”

Mostly, I pray, meditate and rest. I also take walks—both exercise and meditative walks. I knit and do puzzles, and I write—a lot.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityAbide in love was the phrase I took with me on retreat this year. I was clear this phrase was from 1 John 4:16 rather than John 15:9 (As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love.) Although this is one of my favorite scripture passages, I hear it more as an invitation to stay close to Jesus, to remain by his side.

I hear the other abiding to be more outward focused—as if there is a pool or lake of love and I am invited to stop there, to dip into this pool of love, and then go out to others.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityThe beauty of stepping away from the world is that it offers an exceptional opportunity to be mindful, and I find it much easier to notice what I notice, to pay attention to the words, images and memories that arise in the silence.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityOne day, after a long walk, I sat on a dock overlooking a wildlife area—a frozen bog with brown grasses swaying gently in the breeze—and a Simone Weil quote about a labyrinth popped into my mind.

The story is that a person enters the labyrinth. He continues walking, not really knowing if he is making progress or merely walking in circles. Eventually, with courage, he finds the center, and there he meets God. God consumes him, and he is changed by this encounter. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening.God-spirituality-vulnerabilityI love the image of meeting God in the center and then being consumed by God—to give myself over completely, to surrender to God and to be changed by the experience.

Reflecting on that image reminded me of something I had read on the feast of St. Francis de Sales the week before—about encouraging people to find the religious dimensions of their lives.

Noticing what I noticed, I wondered if God is calling me to be someone who stands at the entrance of the labyrinth and gently pushes others toward the center.God-spirituality-vulnerability

 

 

 

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Does it bring you joy?

Does it bring you joy? Someone suggested asking this question when paring down my possessions.

After some pondering, I realized that when considering holding onto or getting rid of some possession, I am more apt to ask myself, would letting it go make me feel guilty?

I have been incredibly blessed by generous people throughout my life, and my house has lots of objects I received as gifts. I imagine if I had bought all of those things, it would be easier to let go of them, but so much of what I own has a story and a memory connected to it.

Is it possible to hold onto the memory and the story—and let go of the object?God-spirituality-joyMany years ago, I read a book about holding onto the gifts of retreat.

Retreats can be sacred moments in life, creating space to step out of daily routines, clear my mind of everyday worries, and focus on God and God’s will for me. Retreats offer the opportunity to get some distance and perspective, to look at how I am living and to consider any needed course corrections.

While on retreat, I often talk with God about what in my life needs to go—usually old fears, insecurities, anxieties and hurts.God-spirituality-joyHolding onto those insights from retreat once I am back in my daily routine can be a challenge. Daily prayer helps. Regular meetings with a spiritual director also help. This book suggested asking these questions about everyday situations:

  • Is this what I really want?
  • Will this matter tomorrow? In ten years? At the end of my life?
  • What do I think? feel? need? want?

The second set of questions has been the easiest for me to answer because I can see how insignificant many everyday occurrences really are. These questions have helped me let go of a great deal of hurt and anger. How much energy am I going to give to something that really has very little long-term significance?

The other questions, though, continue to challenge me. Like the question about what brings me joy, asking what I want or need seems somewhat foreign to me. It must be the way I was raised—spend very little time or thought on my own needs; focus more on the needs of others.  This is also the message I take from the Bible.

Of course, I know that I do have wants and needs, and over the course of my life, I have come to see how much healthier I am when I get in touch with them.

So, what is it that brings me joy? The objects in my home? Or the memories attached to them?

It is definitely the memories that remind me how blessed I have been.

Last year, I committed to writing a “love” letter every day in February—a note to someone who had blessed my life and brought me joy. I called it twenty-eight days of love. I thank I will do that again.God-spirituality-joy

 

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I love you more than…

I love you more than you will ever know.

Those were among the final words my friend Ted spoke to me when we were together just before he died from esophageal cancer two years ago.

I told him that I knew how much he loved me, and I believed I had a pretty good idea; we had been good friends for more than thirty years. During his illness, we spoke every day, sometimes two or three times. I knew he loved me.God-friends-cancerMy friend Lisa recently told me of the death of one of her guy friends. She was devastated by this loss and inconsolable in her grief.

Good guy friends are great gifts. They are also not all that common—which makes them even more precious.

My friend Jim used to tell me that he believed I had good friendships with men because I grew up with brothers (one older and one younger). He believed that growing up with brothers taught me to accept both the gangster and the vulnerable sides of a guy.God-friends-cancerI would agree and add, “My brothers taught me to have realistic expectations of men.”

One of the relationships I kept up after I left the FBI was with an agent named Bob Hickey—formally known as Robert J. Hickey, Jr. For ten years after I left the Bureau, Bob and I got together regularly, even though he lived in Washington, D.C., and I was in Philadelphia. Our friendship was important to both of us, and we dedicated time and energy to keeping it alive.

Bob encouraged me in my running, and we often ran the Mall in D.C.  I remember a run on one of his visits to Philadelphia; I wanted to quit, and he kept urging me to go on. The run ended at a bridge over a railroad track, and running up that hill seemed impossible. “It’ll build character,” Bob prodded, which was just the dare I needed to dig deep for the last burst of energy. It is also a line that has inspired me when I have faced other challenges.God-friends-cancerThen I moved to Canada, and Bob married a woman who seemed a tad bit jealous of our friendship. I tried to reassure her that while I loved Bob dearly, I did not want to marry him, and that I was happy for them. But, things were different after he got married.

Bob loved all things Irish—music, dance, literature—and he loved to visit his relatives in Ireland. The last time we spoke, I was planning my trip to Ireland in August. He was happy for me.

Bob died last summer. Since learning of his death, I have been recalling wonderful memories of our friendship, and I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude. Just thinking of him makes me smile. Like Ted, Jim and the other men who have blessed my life, his friendship brought me great joy.

I love you more than you will ever know.God-friends-cancer

 

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Becoming

During my twenties, I worked as a stenographer for the FBI, the first five years in the Norfolk office and then I transferred to Philadelphia. I left in 1979 to get a college degree, and I planned to go back as an FBI agent.

But things did not work out quite the way I had planned. After college, I didn’t return to the Bureau, and I let go of most of those relationships.

I have no regrets—except for a brief moment when I turned fifty and it occurred to me that if I had gone back to the Bureau, I could retire with a great pension and excellent health insurance. But…God-vulnerability-hopeSeven years ago, a woman I knew in Norfolk “friended” me on Facebook, and two years ago, another women from Norfolk “found” me through a Google search. A few months ago, a third woman from the Norfolk FBI Office connected with me through Facebook.

The wonders of technology.

I hadn’t been avoiding them, but I also had not thought of reaching back to that period of my life. To what end?

This third woman sent me her phone number, and I called her the other day.

Let me give you a little background. My twenties were no picnic. I made one bad decision after another, stuck in a dark place I did not know how to escape.

With very little effort, I can still conjure up the shame and guilt from those years.God-vulnerability-hopeI steeled myself before calling Debbie Sue because I had a pretty good idea of how she would remember me.

Debbie Sue was the daughter of a Baptist Pastor; she introduced me to Christian revivals and altar calls. As a northern Catholic in southern Virginia, I was a distinct minority, and Debbie Sue was the person I went to when I experienced discrimination because of my religion or my northern accent. When it came to religion and Yankees, she was unambiguous, and her certainty helped clarify many things for me.

So, how did she remember me? Well, I was one of the first women she had ever heard use the “F” word. Yeah, that was me—crass and confrontational. I was called “Mad.”

But then our conversation moved on to what we each had become. We shared our life stories and marveled at how good God has been to us.

“When did you become a Christian?” she asked.

“You are not going to believe this,” I said, “but it was March 7, 1973,” which was in the midst of that dark time. I then shared my St. Paul-like conversion experience and how I started going to daily Mass to atone for my sins.

“Oh, I believe you,” Debbie Sue affirmed. God forgives; we keep moving forward. Debbie Sue suggested that, like St. Paul, we should take new names. I told her I am now called Madeline.

People in the Norfolk FBI Office saw me through a dark time, and I am grateful for my history with them. Talking with Debbie Sue reminded me that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26) and that I am not defined by my past.God-vulnerability-hope