All the Zero Days

Hike Your Own Hike

(A letter to my teenage son, who stays up far too late on his phone because his suicidal friends reach out to him for a listening ear, and who will be leaving home for a week of co-ed music camp with his girlfriend this summer)

Some might say it’s just a trite trail axiom. Others might say it’s a way of life, or the only way to live.

I would say we don’t get much say in the matter. It’s not like we can hike someone else’s hike through life, as much as we might sometimes want to. Certainly no one else can walk our walk for us, although every once in a while someone else might be kind enough to help us carry our burdens for a stretch while we continue trudging along, slowly putting one foot in front of the other.

But ultimately, only you can hike your hike. Only you can live your life. No one else can do it for you. You get no choice in the matter.

Being told we have no choice pisses us off. Anger is a normal biological response to a stimuli, meant to fuel our desire to act in our own best interest and survive. When we get angry enough, we fight. But anger is a mask for fear, so sometimes, we flight. In our own best interest, we run away.

Sometimes, we do both.

That, I think, is what causes suicide. The fear we experience when we’re told we have no choice about the cards we’ve been dealt toxically mixes with the rage that fuels our desire to take action, to rebel. We throw down our hand in disgust, and refuse to play. “I do, too, fucking have a choice, and I choose to fucking end it!” And in an act of great paradox, we win the argument and lose the war.

Obviously there’s a lot more to suicide than that. There’s also the immeasurable burden of emotional or physical pain that one carries, often (but not always) amplified by chemical dependency, biochemical disorders, abuse, or trauma. The desire for relief outweighs even the strongest instinct to survive if the pain, even if brief, is intense enough.

Fear tells us the pain won’t ever stop. If the pain does stop, fear tells us it will be back, that it will keep coming back, that it will get worse, that it will kill us.

That we have no choice.

Fuck that, we say. Pain can’t kill me if I do the job first. To someone in pain, this makes all the sense in the world. So in a moment of simultaneous fight and flight, we end it.

I have a friend living with terminal cancer. Living with, not dying of; the words we use matter. He fights the cancer, hard. He carries pain that most of us can’t even fathom. I would have given up long ago. I don’t know how he keeps going, knowing that eventually the cancer will win.

Except here’s the thing. It’s not really the cancer that’s terminal. It’s life. The cancer will lose and die when my friend’s earthly body dies. The cancer will contribute to its own demise by continuing to spread and take over its host. But it’s not cancer that’s terminal, it’s life itself; we all die, whether we have cancer or heart disease or diabetes or addiction or happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or live a perfectly chaste and continent existence for more than a century. With death, as with life, we have no say in the matter.

But like cancer, we may be contributing to our own demise.

And that is a choice.

So it stands to reason – if how we choose to live can impact how we die, then how we choose to live can impact how we live, as well.

We can choose how we hike our own hike.

Hike your own hike means making choices in your own best interest, even if they are not the choices others would have you make. So first and foremost, make choices in your own best interest, not someone else’s. But keep in mind that cancer, acting out of unbridled self-interest, is contributing to its own demise.

Hiking your own hike means making choices knowing you will have to live with those choices, and with their consequences, and that sometimes your choices will be ineffective and flat out wrong, and the consequences will hurt and could do great harm. But choosing not to choose and habitually allowing others to make choices for you is also doing yourself harm. Do not purposely choose to do harm to yourself or others; that is not in your best interest.

Choose to give yourself adequate time to consider what actually is in your best interest. The easy choice is often not the best. The hard choice is just as often not the best, either. Learn to discern by giving yourself permission to make mistakes. If you have to make the same mistake more than once, forgive yourself and accept that many lessons take repetition to achieve mastery. Practice, however, does not make perfect. Practice makes better, until you are consistently doing your best. And that is something of which you can be proud, even if you are not perfect.

Remember that life is still terminal even when you consistently make the best choices. In those moments when the burdens of regret and shame from your mistakes and failures feel heavy, remember those feelings are the privilege of the living. The honors student killed in the car accident, the man in his 30s whose heart unexpectedly stopped beating, the mom in her 40s who went to bed, had a brain aneurysm and never woke up, the music teacher who lost her life while riding her bike no longer have the luxury of carrying the burden that comes with the gift of making choices. So choose to write the song, or eat the chocolate cake, or sleep late, or climb the mountain.

Choose the job that pays less but gives you the time to hike your own hike. Call in late to work and put the phone on mute, and take the time to write the love letter to your child. Be grateful every time you pay for the roof over your head even if you can’t afford to buy a new car. Remember that you can only hike your own hike with help from a higher power, which most often comes in the form of other people, even people we don’t like, sometimes people we detest. No one hikes alone, even if we hike solo; at the very least someone else made the boots we wear.

Don’t use “learning” as a justification for knowingly making a mistake. Don’t deliberately make the choice that leads to regret or shame. Growth and strength come from the discipline of making effective choices repeatedly. Progress comes from choosing to walk, and choosing to rest, each when the time is right. Listen to your gut, especially in that rare (and it is rare) instance when you don’t have time for deliberation and discernment. Listen to your heart, because that’s where your higher power lives, and where that power will speak to you. If you have time, ask other people to share their experience so you can learn from their mistakes rather than making your own. In this way you avoid picking up the burden of shame while helping to lessen theirs.

And if someone (for example, your well-intentioned mother) gives you advice for which you did not ask, consider that perhaps the shame and regret of their choices is heavy, and it’s their way of trying to set it down. Let them. Take a good look at what it is that burdens them. You don’t have to pick up what they set down before you. Like you, they are hiking their own hike. Let them.

Holey Heart

Hope for the Tribeless

Sometimes when we hear the Word of God proclaimed on Sunday, a word or phrase jumps right out. This is how I know it’s the living word of God, as if He is speaking right to my heart, and this Sunday, that word was “belong.”

My regular readers may recall this past Saturday, I was bemoaning my feeling of not belonging. This is a chronic problem (both the feeling, and the act of bemoaning). It goes back as far as I can remember; even as a three year old I felt I didn’t belong with my peers in preschool. It’s an enduring theme in my life story, and I’m sick of it. I’m also kind of embarrassed that at 41 years old I’m still struggling like a three year old.

Thank goodness feelings aren’t facts. The living word of God challenged my idea of belonging this Sunday through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

“It has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

The message didn’t really hit home until Mass was half over. I stood at the mic like I do every Sunday, leading the congregation in song during communion. The refrain was familiar, one of my favorite songs:

We belong to you, o lord of our longing,
We belong to you.
In our daily living, dying and rising,
We belong to you.

Side note: you can see the composer, Trevor Thomson, singing an abbreviated version of the song here:

Listening to the sound of my own voice singing those words, I had a revelation. There is only one solution to my feeling of disconnect, and that is to do exactly what Jesus did in Sunday’s gospel – reach out to others. When Jesus started his ministry in the Roman city of Capernaum, in Galilee, the land of the Gentiles, he did not wait for disciples to come to him like most rabbis did; he went out and recruited.

His first recruits were two sets of brothers, fishermen who were bemoaning their lack of a catch after a long night of casting nets and coming up empty. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said to his bewildered new friends Simon, Andrew, James, and John.

When we follow Jesus, community is the result. We don’t belong to a community, or a church, or a political party, or a country, or even the world. We don’t belong to our parents, or our children, or our friends, or our lovers. We don’t even belong to ourselves, though we may sometimes think we do.

We belong only to the One who created us. The one who died for each and every one of us.

Even when we don’t believe in him, we belong only to him. Even when we don’t like the others who belong to him, or they don’t like us, still we belong to him.

You and I may be united in nothing else except that we both belong to the same creator. And miraculously, that is enough.

In the waters of your mercy,
When the old becomes the new,
Souls united in the myst’ry:
We belong to you.

Filled with gifts and filled with goodness,
Spirit breathing life into
All who seek to find their purpose:
We belong to you.

When we share the bread you’ve broken
With the many and the few,
We are blessed and we are broken;
We belong to you.

We are called to share your word, Lord,
In all we say and all we do.
As our journey moves us onward,
We belong to you.

After Mass, I put into practice the message my heart received. I invited two of my friends who were at there to join me and the other musicians in singing. We could use a few more regular vocalists and had been hoping some additional singers would respond to ads in the bulletin. What would Jesus do? Ask, person to person. Time will tell if anything comes of it; ministry happens in God’s time, not ours.

Feeling “tribeless” is only the first step in recognizing a greater truth – that all our tribes are just illusions. There’s only one tribe, and we are all members whether we like it or not, with one leader, whether we acknowledge Him or not. There is hope for the tribeless, and it won’t be fulfilled by finding the “right” church or moving to a neighborhood where I feel like I fit in or making friends who “get” me. Those things are nice and help us feel comfortable, but a tribe isn’t a comfort zone. If Jesus wanted a comfort zone he would have started his ministry in Nazareth where he grew up, or Jerusalem where he found himself as a teenager. He’d have stayed with his fellow Jews in the land of Judah and certainly wouldn’t have crossed the Jordan into “enemy territory.”

Tribes weren’t important to Jesus. Rivalries certainly weren’t. Relationships were. Relationships with each other, yes, but first a relationship with Him. Sometimes I can get so caught up in feeling excluded that I inadvertently exclude others with my sour attitude. That net doesn’t catch much fish. Jesus crossed the Jordan into my “no man’s land” bringing the hope of belonging to him. When will I finally leave my empty nets and follow where he leads?

Single On Saturday

Tribeless On Saturday

It’s Saturday, and I’ve never felt more single in my life. Not romantically; like a stranger in my own country. I feel tribe-less.

I have friends marching in Washington the day after other friends attended inauguration balls. Still others share red- or blue-tinted outrage on social media, and I feel tribe-less. I’m not outraged by much these days; resentment is a luxury I can’t afford, and I have too much for which to be grateful.

A few days ago a good friend, who would attend Saturday’s rally in D.C., asked those of us staying home if we’d like our names added on the back of her poster so she could carry us with her. I thought it was a lovely sentiment and was moved by the idea, but I didn’t respond. I didn’t think I belonged there, on the back of my friend’s beautifully crafted piece of art (created by another mutual friend who was homebound with the flu).

I could have gone in person. It was my ex’s weekend with the kids. My fella is out of town on business. I know plenty of people going, so I wouldn’t be by myself with 500,000 strangers. But I don’t belong there.

I won’t go into details about why I don’t believe I belong there. For the record, I wouldn’t have belonged there on Inauguration Day, either.

Never have I felt so separated from my fellow countrymen. I hesitate even using that word “countrymen” because a good portion of the people I love would say it’s a misogynistic, non-inclusive word.

I’m a writer, and I’m afraid of using the word I want to use. Let that sink in.

Ok, maybe I get a little resentful sometimes.

In 2010 I attended a march at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, on those very same steps. I thought I had found my tribe then, a couple hundred thousand of them, but I was wrong. Many of them have since been distorted by fear and resentment. Winning became more important than principles.

My mom and dad were there with me, and they are still in my tribe. We don’t always see things eye to eye but I trust beyond the shadow of a doubt their unconditional love. I have that trust with my children, and my brother. Do I have that level of trust with anyone else?

I feel like a pariah in my own country. If my conservative friends knew what I believed, I’m afraid they would disown me, or worse, lecture me. If my liberal friends knew what I believed, they, too, would give me labels I know aren’t accurate. This is why I’ve been so solitary my whole life, I remind myself.

It goes beyond politics. I see division in my church, too. Theological differences. Hatred of my Catholic faith communicated in snide comments or outright insults. Some of my favorite people call themselves “recovering Catholics,” and when they use that term to describe themselves, they unknowingly insult a large part of my identity. In those moments, I feel like I don’t belong. I’m not looking to convert or re-convert anyone. I made that mistake before, and I learned better.

In the midst of all the marching and chanting and celebrity ranting on TV, I sit at home doing very real battle with my deepest fear – that the people I love unconditionally are not capable of loving me back unconditionally. That your tolerance extends to some but not all. I am not angry at the hypocrisy so much as saddened by the rejection. You draw battle lines not realizing I’m on the other side.

I’m the independent voter stuck in no man’s land (can I use that term, “no man’s land?”) with thousands of other voiceless, tribe-less people seeking a spiritual solution while the rest of our country lines up on the left and the right demanding political solutions that are doomed to failure.

This Saturday, I found a few in my tribe. A motley crew of people who couldn’t be more different from each other. A long-haired, metal-head biker recovering addict. A mom of a special needs child who leans right, and a recently ordained deacon who leans left. A millionaire real estate broker, and a bank teller who moonlights as a rock music critic. A high school classmate who homeschools her four kids, and friend of a friend whom I’ve met only on Facebook, living as the only liberal in his conservative Texas town. I know who they are because they have the courage to be themselves unapologetically. I have so much to learn from you.

14 years ago when I was awaiting my first child’s birth, I was a member of an online support group of other moms with the same due date. One of them was a Catholic, conservative, vegan yoga instructor in northern Virginia whose online name was “Pixiepunk.” I said at the time, “It must be neat to live inside your head!” I know nothing else about her except that she has a daughter my son’s age. If you’re out there, Pixie, I’m pretty sure you’re in my tribe, too.

When I was a teenager, I got into an argument at Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house, about caring for the homeless. I had to leave the table in tears, but 25 years later, I still still have a heart for the homeless and I still share thanksgiving with them, and we have learned to talk about other things and respect each other’s differences. Maybe they are in my tribe, too.

My biker friend posted on Facebook, “Some people will only like you if you fit inside their box. Don’t be afraid to shove that box up their ass.”

One of my mom friends said the only answer is prayer.

Still another posted a selfie of he and his wife holding a handmade sign reading, “What happens next is up to us.”

These are the anthems of my disconnected, leaderless tribe of misfits who don’t fit into anyone’s box. Who might not be welcome at a woman’s march because of their pro-life stance. Who might not be welcome at a church because they are ok with monogamous committed relationships between two people of the same gender being acknowledged as a legal marriage. Who dare to disagree with some of their respective political party platforms. Who just want the shouting to stop, and the listening to finally begin.

It’s Saturday and I’m listening. And I’m longing to be heard, and loved anyway.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” These words from the Gospel of John remind me that I’m not a tribe-less member of a leaderless tribe. I have a leader who loves me even more unconditionally than even my parents, and his love is all that matters. His power is the only power that is real. Righteous indignation is his alone; it is too toxic for me. Far too toxic. May I practice his unconditional kindness and strive to find unity in Him alone.

Holey Heart

Good Ground

Today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel has never sat well with me. It’s the parable of the sower. The sower (presumably God) casts out seed (the Word of God) which falls in a variety of hostile places and fails to grow to maturity or bear fruit. Except when it falls on the “good” soil. Then it flourishes. Even today’s psalm selection hammers home the point – the seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

How nice for the “good ground.”

This parable smacks of the kind of predestination-minded theology that makes my stomach turn. What about free will? What about “blessed are the poor?” What about hope?

I’ve always related to the “good soil.” I liked going to church from the time I was a little child. I thrived in my Catholic school. I loved pondering the scriptures, and I took the Word to heart, literally. When life gets hard, I turn to God, not away (usually). So why should I even care about the path, the rocky soil, the thorny ground?

For one, I’ve always had a special place in that “good” soil of mine for atheists and agnostics – the seekers, the questioners, the doubters, the deniers. When you love someone who wants to have faith but is too worried about their life circumstances to truly let go and let God, that parable brings little comfort. When you love someone who is a fair-weather follower who falls off the faith wagon after a beautiful conversion, that parable stings to the core. When you love someone who flat out rejects the one thing that brings you peace, that parable breaks your heart. And when that person is a child, a parent, a sibling, or a spouse, it’s almost more than one can bear.

If you’re someone with “good soil” reading this, you know the feeling. No amount of self-righteousness can ease that pain.

I don’t know about you, but I believe in a God of hope. I don’t believe in lost causes, nor do I believe in writing someone off. I believe the words of the prophet Isaiah: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”

I also find comfort in today’s epistle from Paul to the Romans. “Creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Yes, comfort. Some people might see that phrase “subject to futility” and throw up their fatalistic hands. Sometimes it seems as if nothing we do can change the overpowering tide of pain and suffering (often self-inflicted) that plagues the world. I can think if several news stories just in the last three days illustrating some of the worst that humanity can throw at itself. Human justice is an uphill, losing, futile battle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying, “Power is the ability to effect change.” In a world subject to futility, there is but one who has all power to change the soil, the soul. May we find Him now.

God throws the seed, and it does not return to him void. Even when it falls on the path to be eaten by birds. Even when it sprouts in shallow soil and withers. Even when it is choked out by weeds.

I know that in my heart, there is good soil. But there is also a well-paved path of self-will that doesn’t receive the Word. There is a fair-weather garden that isn’t suited for deep roots. And there are thorns of worry and doubt, in the darkest shadows, where the Word is all but lost. And if there can be such places in me, then there can be rich soil, if only a tiny patch, in the stoniest, weediest, shallowest heart of another. If only one seed sprouts and bears one small fruit there, that is enough to make angels rejoice.

The focal point of any parable has to be God. What kind of farmer sows seed anywhere but a well-tilled field? The kind of farmer that loves it all – the roads, the rocks, and the weeds. He showers every one of us with His Word, and His word is nothing more or less than hope itself. He litters every imperfect part of our hearts with it, because He knows hope isn’t wasted. And He challenges us to love like that when our harvest is ripe, whether we yield a bounty of a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold, or just one humble apple. Our soil is “good” only by God’s grace, and our harvest is in spite of our own futility.

God alone has the power to change the landscape of our hearts. I know that seed will only yield a harvest in “good soil;” why then do I insist on repaving the same well-travelled roads? Why not turn over the shallow, fallow fields? Why not allow the Master Gardener to remove the weeds and thorns? God doesn’t just want our “good” soil. He wants the whole damned package. He has the ability to effect change there. This is what the psalmist understood when he wrote this poetry of praise:

You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

And it’s all good ground.

Holey Heart, Uncategorized

Reflecting on Pentecost

Almost as soon as I got married I came to a heartbreaking realization: the man to whom I had pledged my entire future did not speak my “language,” figuratively speaking. I constantly felt misunderstood. I felt totally let down, and at times I even felt betrayed – not by my my husband, but by God. Hadn’t He called me into this marriage? Hadn’t we said the vows in a church blessed by a priest and witnessed by a supportive community? Was this not a Sacrament? Where was the magic that was supposed to turn two into one? Where was the unity?

God is just. He has seen to it that I have a diverse cadre of male friends, and because of them I have learned a great truth: men and women rarely speak each other’s language, and when we do, it’s only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a foregone conclusion that women understand each other, either. All of us are walking around doing the best we can to translate our native tongue into something others can understand.

In fact, this inability to communicate seems to go beyond our individual relationships. Whole groups of people seem incapable of finding common ground. People throw out words like “compromise” from their respective corners, demonizing each other while we dig ever deeper trenches of defensive self-justification, focused entirely on what makes us different instead of what makes us the same – our human dignity and the feelings we share.

What if, instead of demanding that each other compromise, we put our energy into the goals we have in common? Is it too much to ask?

I can’t help but think of the communication deficits we all have when I meditate on this past Sunday of Pentecost. The scripture from Acts detailing the coming of the Holy Spirit talks about wind and tongues of fire and the apostles speaking about God in many languages so that all the foreigners in Jerusalem could understand the story of Jesus in their native tongue. I’m pretty sure it was literal linguistic language to which the evangelist was referring. But what if it was applied to emotional language?

There are many “languages” we speak – poetry, ritual, mythology, theology, analogy, sport, music, art, humor. Self-expression comes in so many forms, and experience teaches us to interpret and appreciate all those forms. We may even become “multilingual,” but each of us has a native tongue, and when we meet someone who speaks it back to us, magic happens. We no longer have to translate ourselves into a common language. We don’t have to compromise to fit with the person on the other side of the street. Instead, we feel understood, and united.

That’s Pentecost. It was about God’s story being shared in a way that each person could intimately understand, in his or her own language. Pentecost wasn’t just about talking and being understood. It was about hearing and understanding. It was a demonstration of the powerful uniting force of love. As in the words of the St. Francis prayer:

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

If Jesus’ death and resurrection are the climax of the story of salvation, Pentecost is its conclusion. It’s the summation of all the Old Testament tales and New Testament parables that preceded it. It’s our marching orders as believers in a God who raised His Son from the dead. Speak in ways that others will understand. Share our experience of God’s love in ways that unite rather than divide. Let the foreigners know they are not so foreign after all.

Pentecost is the feast of unity.

Musical Meditations


I subscribe to a faith tradition that has doctrine enough to fill books upon books, and in my times of seeking and questioning, I find some great guidance there. But even the most faithful of Catholics cannot possibly know every little paradoxical nuance of the theology in which we believe. I certainly don’t pretend to.

I have a very simple personal theology. I was created. The creator loves me forever. I’ve got a few congenital flaws and more than a few self-inflicted wounds, and scars from harm done to me. Nothing I can do will change that, but the creator still loves me forever. No matter how broken, I get a chance to do something different with every sunrise, and that alone is reason for gratitude.

That’s the “theology of Christy.” It’s also the theology behind one of my favorite Switchfoot songs, “Always.”

When you believe that the creator will never forsake you, there is no place for condemnation, and every reason for hope. Always.

Single On Saturday

Grieving On Saturday

It’s Saturday and I’m grieving. From the looks of my Facebook feed, I’m not the only one. There’s enough dying going on in our lives right now that I’m tempted to think there’s something more going on here.

I lost a beautiful friend this week. She was not a blood relation, but her wisdom is what I would love to have received from my own grandmothers if I’d been able to have that kind of relationship with them. She gave me, and all of us who knew her, exactly what we needed to hear. A mutual friend put it this way – she was a channel of God’s love. When I grow up I want to be like her. She lived a full life and was spared the pain of a slow decline, by God’s grace. But even so, she is gone from us too soon.

Don’t you just cringe when some well-meaning person says, “It was God’s will,” when someone dies? Like that’s going to comfort anyone. Stuff like that makes me angry. It makes me angry at the person who says it, and it makes me angry at whatever heartless God would will death, whether it be after a full, rich life, or whether it come to a young father of two little girls, or whether it be a starving child in a third world country. It makes me angry because I know it is the lie of lies.

God’s will is not death, and it never was. God’s will is life. It is always life.

So it’s Saturday, and I’m thinking about life. I’m thinking about how my friend Marjorie is just as alive today as she was last Saturday, even though her physical body no longer houses her. I can feel her looking at me with love and tenderness, along with my two blood grandmothers.

It’s Saturday and I’m thinking about the creation story in Genesis; that when God created life, He called it “good.” He didn’t call it “perfect.” Maybe this whole grieving process is about grieving the idea of earthly perfection so I can accept the good of it. I think that’s what Marjorie would have encouraged me to do.

It’s Saturday and I’m thinking about my friends who are grieving their own losses this holiday season. I don’t want to be that awful person who says, “It must have been God’s will.” Instead, I want to be that person who reminds us all that no matter how dark things can be, the God I believe in has the power to make use of every dark experience to bring light into others’ lives. God doesn’t will pain, suffering, or death, but God doesn’t waste it, either.

It’s now Sunday morning and I’m comforted by the fact that pain, especially the pain of loss, deepens my capacity for compassion. For a very long time, I did my best to avoid feelings of sadness, anger, loss, and grief. But by stifling and avoiding those feelings I was also stifling and avoiding joy, forgiveness, appreciation, and acceptance. I was miserable to be around, even if the only person around me was me. Today when my heart stretches beyond capacity with the ache of loss, I realize that the emptiness I feel means I have that much more capacity to be filled.

Many years ago I heard something at a graveside service that has stuck with me because of how powerful the image was. The minister quoted Psalm 23, a common one at funerals. Then he talked about being on a two lane highway with an oncoming tractor trailer truck in the other lane. That truck doesn’t hit him, but it sure comes close. Close enough to block him from view from anyone on the other side of the road. He is hit not by the truck, but by the shadow of the truck.

Death is like that, he said. It is but a shadow. When loved ones are struck by the shadow of death, and death, like the truck, blocks our loved ones from sight, they are not gone. They are safely moving on to their destination.

I hope that image helps someone the way it helps me. And if it just makes you angry, like some other “god’s will” platitude, I sincerely apologize.

Holey Heart

Receiving the Spirit of Hope

I guess it’s just a symptom of my childlike approach to life. When I was reflecting on the feast of Pentecost celebrated this weekend, I thought of a contemporary Nickelodeon cartoon series – Avatar: The Last Airbender and its second generation sequel The Legend of Korra. I believe this series to be one of the greatest spiritual and political treatises ever produced by humanity, and I am saddened that most people will probably dismiss it because it is a children’s animated show.

The main hero in both the original Avatar show and its sequel is “the Avatar,” who has the power to control the four elements – air, water, earth, and fire. Other characters in the show can control only one element, and some have no such power at all, but the Avatar (a playful yet powerful Dalai Lama-like figure reincarnated into each generation) must overcome his or her human tendencies and use this special power to bring balance to the world.

Avatar Korra is no great spiritual master; she is a teenager and a fighter at heart, and she struggles through episode after episode to grasp the basics of meditation and surrender to a power greater than herself, whether it be the city authorities, the monk who is her mentor, or the boy on whom she has a crush.

In the last episode, Korra faces her nemesis, who permanently disables her ability to bend the the elements, and she understandably falls into a deep depression, questioning her worth and very existence now that she has lost her unique talent. It is in this lowest of moments that she finally makes contact with her own spiritual nature, and the spirit of the previous Avatar, Ang, tells her that it is when we are at our weakest that we are most open to being transformed. Korra goes on to experience a miraculous healing and is then able to heal others.

I wonder if the good folks at Nick knew they were making a story about Pentecost.

Those of us who grew up in the Catholic Church connect the annual Feast of Pentecost with the Sacrament of Confirmation, in which we are “sealed with the Holy Spirit.” Like many cradle Catholics, I went through this sacrament in high school, and like young Korra, I was disappointed when it wasn’t the deep spiritual experience I was expecting.

I thought the ceremony would open my heart and mind in some tangible way and that I would experience the Holy Spirit in the same way I could taste the host and the wine at the Eucharist. I was a little disappointed when I felt exactly the same after the liturgy was over. The sky did not split open, and I did not hear the voice of God. I didn’t even feel so much as a shiver when the Bishop laid his hands on my head.

What I failed to understand at the time is that, like the sacrament of Baptism, Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation. It’s not the end if the journey, and for most of us it is not the spiritual awakening we think of when we read the story of the Apostles’ Pentecost. It is the only the beginning of the journey.

I like to think of it as a strong wind blowing the door open, or maybe just a slight breeze. I can choose to walk through the door into a new adventure, or I can choose to stay put. But the transformation will only happen if I cross that threshold and make the journey in which I lose myself to find myself.

At the first Pentecost, the Apostles had already made that journey. They were in many ways at their weakest and lowest. Their savior and best friend had been brutally persecuted and killed, unbelievably came back from the dead, only to leave them yet again. It must have been incredibly confusing and painful.

“You’ll never know that God is all you need until God is all you have.” I know I’ve written about that quote before, but it bears repeating. It’s what Pentecost means. I must be empty and open before I can be filled. The tighter I cling to what I have or the more I fill myself with what cannot satisfy me, the less room in my heart for the gifts of the Spirit.

There are multiple readings for the Feast of Pentecost, some intended for the Saturday night vigil mass and other different ones intended for the Sunday masses. Most of the stories are familiar to us: the Tower of Babel, Moses on Mt. Sinai, apocalyptic visions from Ezekiel and Joel, and New Testament stories of the Last Supper discourse, Jesus appearing to the disciples after His death, and the coming of the Holy Spirit documented in the Acts of the Apostles. We hear of the many gifts and one spirit so familiar to us from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and lots of description of what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience in his letter to the Romans.

The singular thread running through them all is hope. “For in hope we are saved,” Paul tells the Romans. In the Avatar series, the main character represents hope for the powerless. In my life, it is hope that gets me up in the morning and keeps me moving through the low days, and it is hope that I strive to give to others on the days when I’m overflowing with life. For the Apostles, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit gave them hope to carry the message of Christ to all the corners of the world.

There is no more powerful force than hope.