The Mother: A Story Retold

Mother and Child

Mother and Child (Photo credit: Forever Wiser)

Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope you enjoy this humble story (more of a poem, almost) inspired by Christmas Eve meditations on what it meant for God to come alongside us, to be truly one of us.

*****

The waves of pain kept bringing her back to the inescapable moment. She could no longer think about the strangeness of it all, the small dirty alien place where she was giving birth. Only intermittently was she aware of more than her own body, her own breathing: the smells and sounds of the animals, the pressure of her husband’s hand, the circle of light from a single lamp, the dark closing in all around them.

Those months ago, she’d quivered in the angel’s shadow, hesitated before saying yes, knowing once she did there was no turning back. If there ever was a choice, there was none now: her whole body strove for Yes, the moment of birth, first breath, first cry.

It was not her Yes alone. It was Yes to everyone she knew and all their ancestors, her entire people who had waited so long. It was Yes to all the promises she grew up hearing, as much a part of her as blood. It was Yes to the unknown future, the as-yet unimagined, a family more numerous than the stars. She felt full of meaning and empty as a clay jar. She felt like nobody and everybody.

She groaned and knew the universe groaned along with her, embracing salvation’s crowning moment with both pain and joy. Somewhere above her in the sky, she felt the birth of her son’s twin: in the cold void, a bright star blazing.

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This Year, I Really Do Want World Peace

Candles

Photo credit: magnuscanis

My partner and I light a candle and read together from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

We take a walk to look at Christmas lights in our favorite neighborhood. The sidewalk is a river of families and children, and I find myself praying for their safety. I come home and turn on the Yo-Yo Ma holiday album, Songs of Joy and Peace, on which no fewer than five tracks are versions of “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I’m glad to have it repeating, filling my ears and my mind.

I’ve never felt such a desire for peace at Christmas, such an urgent hope for light. The events of the last few weeks have made the darkness seem so great. Not just the darkness of death, but also the darkness of not knowing why. With the shooters dead, there is no way we can really know what was going through their minds when they brought death and terror to so many. We analyze, hypothesize, call for change, and so we should, but deeper questions remain. Why does such darkness exist in our hearts? Why such a thirst for violence? What is wrong with this world?

It’s easy for people like me to forget that every Christmas comes to a dark world. Thousands of children die daily around the globe. Some are killed, while others die from hunger or disease, and few of us outside their communities or families notice or care. Jesus was born, too, into a world of senseless violence, especially against children. The Gospel of Matthew reports that, threatened by the birth of a baby King, Herod arranged a massacre of all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. While scholars disagree on the historicity of this story, it doesn’t seem out of character for Herod, who famously killed his own sons.

Not a part of the Christmas story most of us think about.

So, yeah, it’s pretty much always been dark out there. It’s dark in here too, in my heart, behind my eyes. That’s harder for me to forget than the outer darkness, but I believe it’s all connected. I used to think I wasn’t a violent person. Little old five-foot-three, skinnybones, Prince-of-Peace-believing me? I’ve never laid a punch in my life, and I’m even gun-shy in video games. Yet when I sleep easy while nations war on my behalf, can I really say my hands are clean? And there are those who know me well enough to give a list of the damage I’ve done in a single moment of stupid rage. Mostly words are my weapon of choice, but who’s to say that in a different situation, I might not make a worse choice? Am I not capable of just as much as anyone else?

So I pray for light to flood the world and illuminate the shameful places in me. I pray for peace on earth, as audacious and crazy as that sometimes feels. But that’s the very beauty of Christmas, the way it calls us to believe six impossible things before breakfast, starting with the idea that a virgin can give birth. That this could be the birth of a person fully God and fully human, the unknowable Divine suddenly with fingerprints and a heartbeat. That God would stoop to sneak into our world one dark night, let himself be shoved into a stable for heaven’s sake, and take the shape of one more fragile little child. That he would grow up to teach enemy-love and the blessedness of peacemakers, then become the ultimate innocent victim of violence. That his horrific death would transform into abundant life for all the world. And that he himself would be Light for us.

Against all reason, even while I mourn the dark, I will cling to that Light this Christmas. Like so many before me, I will pray with all my heart:

Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. Amen.

P.S. Here is another prayer I like for peace, a peace that starts with me.

The Father: A Story Retold

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now it’s definitely Advent, the time of waiting. Waiting on a very small scale for Emmanuel, God-with-us. For the anniversary of God making known that his presence is as pervasive as everyday blessings like bread and water, wine and fish, fruits and seeds and wheat and weeds. I long to know his presence in my bones, especially when the winter feels too dark and hard, when all seems overwhelmed by pain and muck and mess.

It occurred to me that, to hear Jesus tell it, God also longs for the likes of me. And so the story below was born.

* * * * *

There’s never a night I don’t dream it: a flicker of movement on the horizon, the faintest, shadowiest silhouette no one else would recognize. My heart’s desire. There’s no room in my mind for questions, no desire to wait for an apology. There’s no need to know anything but this: he came back. He turned around. Instinctively, my tired body starts to move, to leap and run, my arms spreading wide to welcome him… and then I wake up.

My friends, their faces starting to crease with age like my own, tell me to cut my losses. I have my other son, the one who starts the coffee while I’m still sitting in my room in the blue dawn, staring out the frost-feathered window. Who has grown strong bringing in harvests with me, who has grown shrewd multiplying my money, who has grown wise leading men, who looks more like me every day. Who still looks at me like a little boy sometimes, eyes hungry for love.

I do love him. I’ve told him over and over: everything I have is his. Sometimes, as we sit by the fire together wordlessly, he looks at me and seems to know how much his presence means. Other times, especially on the holidays, he sweats and swears trying to make everything his idea of perfect, as if I cared, as if I wanted or needed anything other than him sticking around and still giving a damn.

He’s still just as angry about his little brother taking his share of everything and driving away, screaming he’d never see us again, as he was the day it happened. As for me, the rage and shock and grief of that day have long since given way to a spectrum that runs from worry to cold fear. If I know my younger son, and no one knows him better, that money is long gone and he’s worse off than before, nothing standing between him and the many addictions that drove him to cut and run. Now every time I go to the city I half expect to see him standing on a corner with a cardboard sign. I half want to. He could well be dead.

But he could be alive, and the thought haunts my thoughts, waking and sleeping. Sometimes I think about leaving all of this, packing up the truck and leaving to look for him. But I gave him his freedom, and he could be anywhere. Better to stay where he knows I am and hope he realizes someday there will always be a place for him here. All he has to do is turn around.

I mostly don’t tell my older son I’m thinking these things. He knows anyway, and sometimes he looks at me wonderingly. Why, Dad? Why would you want him back after all he’s done? Why not just try to forget?

I can’t forget. It’s not in my nature. Lost or found, my child is my child, and I’ll never stop loving him. His brother’s not the only one who looks just like me.

My Faith Autobiography, Part 1: Donuts

Krispy Kreme glazed donuts.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a kid, I went to church for the donuts.

Yes, that’s right, parents. If you want to raise your children into adults who treasure their faith above all else in this increasingly secular world, for heaven’s sake do not let the churches stop serving donuts. Like the spoonful of honey traditionally given to children with their first Hebrew lesson, it certainly doesn’t hurt to pair sugar with something else you want your child to love by association. However, before this starts sounding like product placement for breakfast pastries and Mary Poppins, let me add that although I happily went to church, attended religious education, and got baptized as a child, I didn’t really “get” the Gospel until the age of eighteen. Not only that, I spent the five years previous to my eventual heartfelt conversion (that is to say, most of my teenage years) avoiding church and loudly saying that Christianity was the stupidest religion ever. By that point, my parents didn’t really care whether I went to church or not, but if they had, no doubt it would have been an even more painful five-year period in our home.

So I would advocate both a) donuts and b) at least five years worth of patience up your sleeve. These things happen on God’s time.

I was in second grade when my mother experienced a spontaneous conversion to Catholicism. Before that time, our family had never really talked about God, and I’m pretty sure I had never seen the inside of a church building before. We as a family were into camping, yoga, takeout pizza, cat ownership. Certainly not Jesus. It was all a little out of the blue for me, and specifically I was not happy to learn that church happened on Sunday mornings. I am not and have never been what you would call a “morning person” (I entered this world at 5:55 a.m. and have rarely seen that time of day since) and I was dismayed that in addition to having to get up in time for school five days a week, I was going to lose another precious opportunity for sleeping in to this church thing, whatever it was about. I remember kvetching about this to my second grade best friend, Barbi, just days before my very first Mass. But as for my mom, no argument could move her. I was going. We were all going.

Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church was at the end of a long dirt road, surrounded by lots of Arizona desert and not a lot of neighbors, much like our own house at the time. My sister and I sported our Sunday best (heretofore referred to as “party dresses”) although most of the other congregants wore humble blue jeans. It was a folksy, friendly place where, we were to find, people shared enough in common to feel unity but didn’t feel compelled to contort themselves into total uniformity (thank you for that, Vatican II). The main feature of the church, besides the life-size crucifix of course, was a floor-to-ceiling window behind the altar that showed a breathtaking view of purple mountain foothills. Hence the name. Apparently “Welcome!” is written above the door now, although I don’t remember if it was back then, and anyway I was probably too short to notice. I don’t really remember feeling particularly welcome, that first day. I remember feeling like I’d suddenly been dropped onto an alien planet, but this was not an unfamiliar feeling to child me, so I rolled with it.

I found, quickly, that I liked this place. As an anxious kid who craved structure being raised by two generally laissez faire parents, liturgy was a balm to my soul. I liked knowing exactly what to expect from the service: a little singing, a little reading, a little Father Bob talking about the reading, a little eating (or, before I completed my sacraments, getting a little blessing). For the next few years I tasted it all and called it good: youth groups, monasteries, soup potlucks, labyrinths, rosary circles, practically living at the church on Holy Week. I don’t remember a lot of people talking politics, from the pulpit or otherwise. Nor do I remember a lot of people talking about radical discipleship. It was a cozy, sheltered time.

My enjoyment of glazed donuts quickly became symbolic of a deeper hunger I wanted my childhood church to fill. Oh no, it wasn’t the hunger for communion with God. I wouldn’t wise up to my need for that until age eighteen, as I mentioned. No, it was connection with people I craved most at that age. Church was something my family did together, often going for breakfast afterward, like we were all pals.  Already my little nuclear family was tragically mutating under the strain of addiction, mental illness, and my parents’ turbulent relationship, and in contrast, church felt so comforting and normal. It also placed my family in the context of a larger community, blessing us by association, erasing all our stigmas for a few hours once a week. I came to love casually mentioning to my elementary school classmates that my family went to church together. See? Even though we live in the middle of nowhere, I have constantly unbrushed hair and a college-level vocabulary, and my mom keeps getting sent to a special hospital for reasons I’m not allowed to discuss, we’re just like you after all.

Yep, as an elementary school churchgoer I was neurotic, bewildered, and thoroughly shallow, hoping church could be neatly stuffed into the gaping holes in my life without demanding much of me in return. (No wonder I decided as an embittered teen that the Christian religion was nothing more than a crutch.) But looking back, it wasn’t a total loss.  There were moments, small ones, where God actually managed to catch my attention. I can still recall exactly where I was sitting in those rows of vinyl-upholstered chairs when I heard bits of the Gospel that shocked me out of my daydreams. Things like “If anyone would be my disciple, he must deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” Whoa. What? What does that mean?

Or “When you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” A difficult concept for me to grasp even now: doing good things with no immediate reward whatsoever? Not even looking good to others?!

Or how about “If my brother comes to me and asks for forgiveness seven times in a day, should I give it to him?” “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” Wow, that’s a lot of times, I thought to myself, having just learned the multiplication table without ever expecting it would be used in such a strange and provocative way.

And I do remember one thing from the very first service. I remember the first time I sang the Gloria and felt swept up in this huge current of joy, singing gloria in excelsis deo and on one level not knowing what the heck I was saying but on another level understanding with all my heart that this was what I wanted to do for eternity.

Still, mostly, in those days, it was about the donuts.