Saturday, May 12, 2012

Adversity with Grace

Click here to read some samples from my new book, Facing Adversity with Grace.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I've loved Rumi for many years and when I visited Turkey, I got to go to his tomb.  I really should write about it.  It was one of the seminal experiences of my life.  In the meantime, here is one of his poems that means a great deal to me right now. (Not sure how the copyright works, so here's the link:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
    translation by Coleman Barks
Copyright 1997 by Coleman Barks. All rights reserved.
From The Illuminated Rumi.
© design by gratefulness team

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

My article on St. Francis of Assisi. Check it out online at

Of all the saints of the Church, St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most famous and most beloved. He has been adopted, or perhaps appropriated is a better word, by everyone from radical feminists, environmentalists, reformers and animal lovers to secularists, traditionalists and more. He has had words put into his mouth that he never spoke (see sidebar on “Prayer of St. Francis”) and had his own words ignored. Characterized as the “holy hippie,” he has inspired millions for nearly 800 years.
“Francis of the received tradition is a happy troubadour of God,” said Dominican Father Augustine Thompson, author of a new biography titled “Francis of Assisi” (Cornell University Press, $29.95). “That’s the popular image and it’s not made up. He loved to sing in bad French and play his air violin, but the Francis I came to know experienced the deep darkness as well.”
Man and myth   
In this extensive work, based on all the existent original documents, including those written by Francis, the saint emerges as a much more complex and complicated man than previously believed, tormented by interior demons, nearly overwhelmed by the challenges of governing a religious movement and troubled by self-doubt, yet still a shining figure of the transforming power of an encounter with the living Christ.
The Prayer of St. Francis
“I have often been astonished at how unhappy students can be when they encounter a different Francis from the one they expect. Oddly enough, the most painful moment usually comes when they discover that St. Francis did not write the ‘Peace Prayer of St. Francis.’ … The ‘Peace Prayer’ is modern and anonymous, originally written in French, and dates to about 1912, when it was published in a minor French spiritual magazine, La Clochette. Noble as its sentiments are, Francis would not have written such a piece, focused as it is on the self, with its constant repetition of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me,’ the words ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ never appearing once.”  
Father Thompson, professor of history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and a member of the core doctoral faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., has created a two-part book. The first half is a biography written for popular readers; the second half is a scholarly treatise of the medieval sources and academic issues surrounding Francis, including how to construct a biography in the modern sense when even his first biographer had the agenda of presenting him as a saint and therefore utilized hagiographic stereotypes and mythical events.
It’s not that the earlier versions of Francis were wrong per se: “Every myth, modern or medieval, contains a truth. What a hagiographer does is remodel the story to give a theological message,” Father Thompson said. “The job of the hagiographer is not to tell a history. ... Legends about Francis are true, they just aren’t historically true. I’ll give an example. I don’t believe there was any dream by Pope Innocent III about this little man holding up the Lateran Basilica. However, the introduction of that dream by the hagiographer is not a historical point. The function of the dream to explain what Francis is about. That his mission of creating a new religious order is going to save and support the Church. The hagiographer uses hagiographical types to comment on the saint.”
Because of that, traditional hagiography helps the reader understand that the person is actually a saint. “They conform them to the canons of what an age thinks a saint should be like,” Father Thompson added. “By the way, I’ve done it too, in the sense that I’ve made a human Francis and our age wants our saints to be human. We want to hear [that our saints] are like Christ, which means they have all the weaknesses of humanity except sin and at the same time God is present and working in them.”
The Francis that Father Thompson discovered in his research was very human. “Francis goes through dark nights of the soul, when he was feeling inadequate,” he said. “Francis is not the birdbath saint, not someone who never discovered he was wrong on anything or who never had any doubts. He was a very fragile psyche, who carried with him a lot of demons, not just those that attacked him. He struggled with the horrors of the battles he witnessed. I don’t like doing psychology on someone who lived 800 years ago, but he was clearly traumatized by his time in the military.”
And yet, “The image of him spontaneously desiring to follow God’s will wherever it would lead him; that’s the kind of free spirit part of Francis that is true. If he perceives God is telling him to do something, if it’s something he doesn’t expect and it’s weird, he will do it. I think that is beautiful and it’s true.”
Major misconceptions   
Of all the misconceptions we have about Francis, three seem prevalent. The first is that his parents were bitterly antagonistic to him. In looking at the documents, Father Thompson came to a much more sympathetic picture of Pietro de Bernardone, his wife Pica and their other son, Angelo. In the earliest accounts, “they don’t understand they have a saint on their hands, that’s the earliest description of the relationship. … By the time you get to the 1240s, his father has been turned into a totally evil person and his mother has become the secret protector, but in the earliest versions [his father is presented] as someone who is suffering and doesn’t understand his son.” In fact, Francis behaved in ways that weren’t always saintly with regard to his family, such as mortifying Pietro by hiring a man to follow him through the streets of Assisi calling out a blessing.
A second misconception is that Francis’ great conversion came as a result of renouncing his family fortune, when it actually occurred a bit later when he worked among the lepers. “This encounter with lepers, not the act of stripping off his clothing before the bishop, would always be for Francis the core of his religious experience,” Father Thompson told OSV. “As near as we can tell, it happened on the outskirts of Assisi. … Wherever the leprosarium was, Francis lodged there with the residents and earned his keep caring for them. His experience with them had nothing to do with choices between wealth and poverty, knightly pride and humility or even doing service instead of conducting business. It was a dramatic personal orientation that brought forth spiritual fruit. … Francis says, ‘When I was in my sins, God took me among the lepers and he worked mercy through them and he made what was previously bitter to be sweet. I did not wait long to leave the world.’”
The third and perhaps most major misunderstanding is his relationship to the Church.
“Francis was a faithful Catholic,” Father Thompson said. “If there is a problem with the appropriation of Francis as an ecologist, a feminist, you can go down the list, how he would have identified himself is lost.”
Even though we frequently bring Francis into our modern preoccupations and issues, Father Thompson reiterated, “The problem is that these are modern concerns, and Francis isn’t a 21st-century American.” He stressed that “the one thing people need to remember Francis was a devout, committed 13th-century Catholic and that helps explain many things about him.” Often biographers edit out things that don’t make sense to modern readers, like his preoccupation with clean altar cloths and proper vessels for Mass. “He has six letters harping on this,” Father Thompson said. “The usual biography of Francis just deep sixes that because today being a rubric hound and sacristy rat is not what those who like to talk spirituality think a saint should be.”
Dependence on God   
Father Thompson said that if we are to know the real Francis, we have to be willing to shed some of our preconceived notions. One is that of “Francis as a religious genius at war with the institutional Church, misunderstood by the institutional Church. This is the theme, implicitly or explicitly, of virtually every Hollywood version of Francis. … It is completely anachronistic. … One of the things Francis taught me is that holiness is impossible without fidelity to Catholic teaching.”
Father Thompson said that among the positive things he learned from his study of Francis are that “the love of God is something that remakes the soul,” and that “true Christian freedom comes from obedience, not autonomy.” But perhaps the most important lesson is that “the core of his spirituality was absolute dependence on God, and the desire to always be the lesser brother. … His willingness to follow wherever God leads him even when it’s not something he expected, that kind of spontaneous seeking to do God’s will … is a theme of his life, a beautiful theme and I think it’s true.”
While this new look at Francis might prove disturbing to some people who have been weaned on such pious legends as the Wolf of Gubbio, the real saint may be even more compelling, since he suffered from many of the doubts and stresses we experience today including trying to hear and obey God’s call in our lives.
Yet, despite it all, he shows us that the only true way to peace and eternal happiness lies in becoming the unique individual God has created each of us to be.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Being Patient with Grief

From the chapter on Grief in my upcoming book, Facing Adversity with Grace.

The poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “After the first death, there is no other.” [1] Some have interpreted that line to be a poetic way of saying “we only die once,” but like all good poetry, it is subject to a variety of interpretations. For me, it has always meant that once you truly experience the profound suffering that comes from losing someone you love, you’ll never experience grief the same way again. But that “first death” isn’t necessarily the first time you experience death; rather it’s the first time you experience it in a way that wrenches your heart and soul.

As I write this, I am mourning the loss of my mother, who died at age 92 after a lengthy period of decline. While my heart aches, hers was not my “first death.” I experienced that some years ago when, of all things, a beloved cat died. It was then that I was utterly struck by the pain and loss that death brings and the soul-wrenching loss of grief.  Of course, the grief from the loss of a pet, no matter how beloved, differs from that of the loss of a human, as it rightly should. But the one thing that I learned from that “first death” was how I process the stages of grief made famous by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

The fact is that we all process grief in our own unique ways.  Some are stoic, keeping a steely countenance and dealing with the emotions internally.  Others are wild-haired and vocal in their suffering, keening and wailing both literally and figuratively.  The comfort that comes after once having experienced real grief is that from then on you know your own reaction, the way you will cope and process it.  And, in addition, you know that you will get through it.  Along with recognizing the stages of pain, you can begin to see the stages of healing as well.

For me, I know that I pass through the stages of denial, bargaining and anger relatively quickly, but become ensnared by depression and deep sadness before I finally come to acceptance.  For me, some time after a grievous loss, even the most sunny of days is tinged with grey clouds in my soul.  But I know, too, that when I first begin to sense a quickening of hope and a calm, no matter how momentary, that the healing is beginning. It may take a long time, especially when the loss is as profound as that of my mother, but having lived through grief before, I also know that healing will come, in its own time and own way.

I just have to be patient with it...and with me.


Monday, May 07, 2012

Griefwalking Into My Own Death

Last night, I couldn't sleep.  I was restless and agitated until I finally dozed off about 1 or 1:30.  A few minutes later, I was awakened by a phone call.

It was like a replay of January.  "I just wanted you to know that she has passed."  Almost identical to the words I heard that early morning a little more than three months ago. 

A dear friend, whose mother had been dying from lung cancer, made her final transition in the wee hours of the morning, just like my own mother.  At the news, I felt a similar sort of shock, panic, sorrow and fear as I had before.

I wouldn't have wanted Maggie to linger and suffer anymore than I wanted my own mother to remain as she was.  But today, as I fought back tears that I'm not sure were for Maggie or for my Mother, griefwalking has made a sudden U-turn.  I feel like I'm back just a few days past my mother's death and all the road I've walked has disappeared under my feet.  Even with the bright sunshine and soft spring breeze, I feel the chill of winter in my heart.

Mortality has once again come up and placed its cold, haggard visage in front of me, demanding that I stare into the eyes of the abyss.  I look deeply into the darkness and see my own face, knowing that I, too, will die, perhaps not today or tomorrow or for many years, but that I am now the one standing on the brink of eternity, as my son and his yet unborn children line up behind me.

So it comes to this...the griefwalk has become as much a walk into my own death as it has been a walk through my mother's and now Maggie's.  The mourning has become a wail for my own life as much as for theirs.  The pain is being transmuted from pain for them into pain for me and my own losses.

Perhaps the road hasn't really disappeared. Perhaps I've just become aware that the trail has taken a turn I hadn't expected.

But maybe it's where I am supposed to be right now.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

From the Other Side

About a month after my mother's death, I wrote about seeing her in a dream.

In the dream, she held a Mass card with the date May 12th on it.  I believed that she wanted me to have a Mass said on that day.  Well, I tried.  Every parish I contacted had the date already filled and every priest friend I asked couldn't for some reason.

So here is it, a week before the day and I hadn't been able to fulfill her wish from the other side.  But I decided to go to Mass at 5:30 this evening, something I've avoided because that was the time I always went when she was alive. I would either spend the afternoon with her and then go to Mass or go to Mass and then spend the evening with her.  And it is at the church where her funeral was held, so it has been doubly hard for me to attend.

But today I went and when I was there, I noticed in the bulletin, which I don't normally read, that if you dropped a card in the collection basket, your mother would be remembered at all the Masses next weekend--May 12th and 13th. 

So I wrote her name on a card and put it in the collection basket.  Mother gets her Mass on the day she wanted.

I think she knew how it was going to work out all along.

If this is Sunday, it must be gratitude day

I was thinking this morning that the past year and a half has been the most difficult of my life. I have gone through hard times before, but none have been as challenging on so many levels as these months have been.  It has been a dark night of not just the soul, but the mind, body, emotions, finances, physical surroundings, and life in general.  It has felt like all the joy has been been sucked from the world...and yet, I continued to see happy people all around me, so I knew that it was only my world, not the whole world.

I mention this on Gratitude Sunday because a friend of mine told me yesterday that she is seeing signs that I am slowly coming out of the deep grief, that I am getting better and more like myself.  I don't see it yet, but I believe her.

I trust that this will not last forever, because nothing does, and that another chapter of my life will open, one that I might not even imagine possible (because I certainly didn't imagine these past 18 months and their pain could have been possible!)  I am just hoping that the next chapter contains a little more joy and few less tears.

So with that, this Sunday I am grateful for:

1.  The color purple--not the book or movie, but as in wisteria and lilacs.
2.  Hot water for a long bath, after a good cry.
3.  Silence, when there isn't any sound but maybe the click of my keyboard keys.
4.  Cell phones, which let me call someone no matter where I am (or where they are.)
5.  One more week of griefwalking done and one more Sunday (the hardest day of the week for me) coming to a close.

Prayer Update: 
Nothing to report.  Nine prayers on list still waiting for some sort of answer.  Four "yes" if you include the bad surprises, two "maybe," and one "no." (Unfortunately the "no" was a biggie.)