So Vast and Shattered

   This mosaic is composed of a handful of shapes repeated over and over to form five major faces and several minor ones on the canvas.     Artwork by Daniel McCullagh 

This mosaic is composed of a handful of shapes repeated over and over to form five major faces and several minor ones on the canvas.

Artwork by Daniel McCullagh 

I've been listening to Leonard Cohen while I drive. He's got several songs that deal with brokenness and being shattered, and the Love that is so vast and shattered that it will reach us anywhere.

So, with his lyrics dancing in my head I wanted to write a post on the state off being broken, our lives crashed around our ankles and the redemption and light that can arrive at the end of such a difficult journey, if we pray for discernment and grace.

I had several false starts. I wrote about brokenness in general, as a necessary state that we will all go through at certain points in our life. That it is an important state that we must all learn to navigate  

It occurred to me that I already wrote words on this subject; in fact I wrote a whole novel on this subject. Here is an excerpt toward the end of The Narrow Gate when Rose, the protagonist, has survived a terrible year.

"Rose is making her bed, the Miraculous Medal still hangs around the bedpost. These late October mornings are breathtaking—in another week the leaves will be swept off the trees as November settles in. Late October in New York is the height of autumn, nature’s magnificence on bright display as something to take forward into the darker days to come.

She takes the small gold medal from its resting place and runs her fingers over Mary’s face and hands. Months ago Rose asked for a miracle. She got a breakdown. Jimmy died. She went into a tailspin. Her marriage was in crisis.

Her faith shattered into shards revealing what? Seed planted on good soil, like she thought when she was young and untested—I'm the good soil that hears the word of God and keeps it—such arrogance in a child, such childishness in faith, yes, childishness; she was a child.

She discovered that she was more like the seed planted on rocky ground: roots shallow, pulled away at the first strong wind leaving only bare pebble and sand. What could be planted on that kind of heart? Something cold and stony, hard and unyielding.

But no, the rocks have shattered. Under the rocks the soil is soft and rich; tender. New faith stepping out. God, its hard. I cannot see, I’m battered, broken. Questions replaced answers. Questions still don’t have answers, and maybe they never will. And maybe thats just the way it is: open ended, messy, ambiguous.

No one with any sense would seek out a broken heart. We try to protect ourselves from broken hearts but at some point the protection is more expensive than the truth and then it all must crumble under its own weight.

We just can’t do anymore and we break down. Can’t hold back crying. Can’t hold on to what passes for dignity and if we ever cared about such things, we just don’t anymore.

We see how stupid it all was. Broken hearts hurt down to the core of us. They rend us alone in the dark, unconnected, cut off. All the ways to describe isolation, severance: birth. We do what we can, desperately if need be, to be connected, encumbered even, with with lies.

Its better than being alone. Abandonment as our most basic fear, not falling, but exile. If I tell the truth I will be exiled. I will have to connect with other exiles. The island of misfit toys. All the children’s stories were written to warn us, weren’t they?

Is this theology? The theology of the broken hearted, the crushed, the humbled.

The road to perdition is broad, but isn’t the road to salvation broad? The narrow way is just that, narrow.

I asked for a miracle. What I got was a breakdown. Just what I needed. Miracle of the broken heart.

Rose undoes the clasp of the gold chain and fastens the medal around her neck."

There is something about us humans: we cannot reach true adulthood unless we’ve been through—and examined—a crisis or two or ten or a hundred. I think it goes back to Adam and Eve and Original Sin and that niggling trait we all have that just wants to rebel, just wants to challenge, just wants to stand up to the big man and stamp our feet. Or, our vision of life never matches up with our reality. I know we are supposed to claim our own destiny and power and bliss—but really, we still have to deal with who we are, imperfections and all.

If we are not cracked open every once in a while we become stagnant. Our normal starts to show wear and tear and that leads to boredom, or existential angst or ennui, depending on the books you read. If life doesn’t present you with a crisis, it is in our nature to manufacture one.

In our brokenness we descend into Hades or our Dark Night, just as the heroes and heroines of mythology and saints must, in order to become our truer, braver, better selves, filled with light, with our weaknesses, some of them at least, left in the underworld.

After being shattered, we seek wholeness. It will be a different wholeness. A wholeness with cracks that add to the beauty of what a life becomes, and hopefully, our brokenness will allow us to become compassionate and understanding and generous and loving.

Of course, it can work the other way, and often does. We can take our shatteredness and become angry and vengeful and tight and mean or inflate our narcissism, but that is a different story.

Therein lies the tension of any heroic journey, and I contend that we are all asked to embark on our own heroic journey. Some say yes, some say no, some say maybe. Free Will.

When we are broken, we must reside for awhile in darkness, a kind of death to the incomplete notion we have of ourselves, and out of that, with grace and love, we may enter the light.

June

This June marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Seventy years and the blood of those young men is still fresh in our collective memories.

Most of those men were younger than my sons are now--my youngest on the verge of his 24th birthday, later this month.

My mother would have turned 91 last week. My father died, after a long, long struggle, the day after my son's birthday. He was 94.

When I was young, I assumed the rather practical mindset that when people get old you must expect them to die. Well, of course. We will all die. The more days we have lived past say, eighty or ninety, every day is a grace, unearned, after all, because in the history of humanity, the odds were not in favor of such extended years. Both my grandmothers died when I was in elementary school, each of them    around 79 years old. Sad, of course, but I didn't know them very well. One, because I'm not sure she even knew my name and seemed to focus all of her attention on my oldest brother, something I accepted without fuss.
My other grandmother had been in some degree of senility as long as I could remember, and I am pretty sure she had no idea what my name was, either. Again, I didn't take it personally.

After all, I was in the middle numbers of their grandchildren, my parents and aunts and uncles contributed their fair share of babies to the post-war boom. When you are a middle child in such a crowd, you learn to not take much personally.

And, of course, there was the news. I was in the first grade when JFK was killed. In some ways, the years telescoped with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy. We were a news family, so our background noise was the rolling list of casualties every night peppered with a Walter Cronkite reporting from the jungle and young men my brothers age coming home in body bags. And, of course, the Civil Rights movement and the violence that accompanied that moved closer and closer to home.

I grew up in the bounds of New York City and we learned, as a matter of course, as part of the culture, that as carefree as our childhoods were, and we were very blessed, there was always danger, always, at any moment, something could erupt, and often did. We each had our armor, invisible, perhaps, but I know mine would be activated at any hint of danger. How else could one survive?

Last year I gave a eulogy at my father's funeral. He had been in WWII like almost every man of his generation. He landed in Marseilles in December of 1944, then sent north on a cattle car to the Ardennes, a group of virgin warriors pitted against a seasoned set of SS Troops who grew up in mountains and handled the depths of snow with ease. Most of the GIs were killed. My father survived, was promoted for heroism, then sent to Les Vosges, where his history would be marked, degrees deeper than it had already been witnessing the deaths of his friends.  

In March of 1945, just weeks before the war was to finally end, Dad was shot, several times. Life threatening, life changing. It is amazing he survived. Head, shoulder, back. 

His men said, 'we saw who shot you. We're going to get him.'  Now, there he was, bleeding out, probably dying and he forbade them to kill the young German. "Don't, do it", he commanded.

Later, when we asked about this, six children around the dinner table, after my mother told us this story (he did not talk of war, unless asked directly, and that was rare) his reply struck me, has stayed with me. "I thought of my own mother, home, worrying, praying the Rosary for me. I knew this kid's mother was doing the same."

Well, of course.

Watching the coverage of D-Day last week, of course my heart ached for the soldiers, some still teens, jumping out of planes, charging off boats, the water red with young blood. I watched out of respect and awe. I watched, mostly, as a mother.

Soon after my fathers stroke, the news again, always, was filled with soldiers deaths. I said to him, 'I feel like everyone's mother,' watching as another young life was blown up. His response, 'that's good'. I didn't argue my point that it hurts, it hurts to feel like everyone's mother when young soldiers, or street thugs, or kids in a car, or cancer victims, or any of the other heart breaking, everyone's mother detail of duty, entailed. 

But, he knew that it cost me. And it is good, in its way, that it does cost. It is the price of our humanity to enter into the suffering of each other. If every hurt is a prayer, then maybe, maybe, like my grandmother's prayers for her son kept him alive, the prayers and pains of all the mothers, and fathers, will save one soldier, one child, one struggling person another moment, another chance at grace to spare a life.

Happy Birthday Mom, Happy Father's Day, Dad.

 

 

Light Breaks Blue

  Image courtesy of   Frank1030's Flickr stream   under   Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Frank1030's Flickr stream under Creative Commons

It’s dark. He turns right, to the aurora of street lamps along Forest Park Drive, to the diluted light pushing its way through the trees that have arbored this area for generations. Wind whips up under his shirt and slaps his back. Jimmy steps out from the awning. A smoldering cigarette in one hand, an empty beer bottle in the other, he raises his arms over his head breathing in the cold, clean, wet dirt smell. His upturned face receives the sharp needles of rain. A baptism. 

The wind and rain pick up. A crackle of light breaks blue deep into Forest Park. Thunder reverberates his thin frame, tolling out the bell of him. Somewhere in there, somewhere in here, I still am. I am.  (Chapter 58, The Narrow Gate, JBMcCullagh, 2012)

The sacramental nature of the ordinary is a recurring theme of mine. I suppose all writers have themes. A few of mine are: finding grace in the ordinary, the communion of saints, the light that darkness cannot overcome, the heroic journey and redemption, no matter how late in life we say yes to it.

In this small excerpt from my novel, Jimmy, who is in his early fifties, has reached the realization that he's been on a course of destruction for decades. There is grace and forgiveness and redemption to be had if only he will say yes to it. Even a faint hearted yes will be a start. 

I am at a disadvantage in explaining faith. On one level I know that faith cannot be argued or terrified into anyone. On the other hand, the evidence of God and redemption and the power of prayer and grace surrounds us and if we have the eyes to see and the heart to receive, it will overwhelm us beyond any need for argument or persuasion.

My disadvantage is this: I have always believed. In God, in Jesus as God, in the whole array of saints and angels. I feel confident in the use of the word always, because my understanding of this knowledge pre-dates my childhood, pre-dates my infancy, to whenever the beginning is.

I never had a Damascene moment, a falling of the horse and struck blind a la St. Paul event forcing me to recognize Jesus. I didn't have to. I always believed.

I have certainly had epiphany moments, moments of clarity and beyond the veil moments (another theme of mine) that have given me strength and courage and hope and direction. Transformational, transcendent moments that are pure gift, pure unearned gift. Grace.

Grace and belief do not spare you from struggle. The struggle of dark nights where you plead and pray and many of the Psalms seem like they were written for you. (Out of the depths I cry unto you O  Lord, Lord hear my prayer, over and over and over and over) The struggle of feeling forgotten, ignored, unanswered. No, belief does not spare you that. It reminds you to hold on, though.

The example and witness of others, be they canonized saints or some wonderful grandparent whose whole manner of life pointed the way beyond the present to the eternal, should teach us to face our struggles with hope, to remind us that we are not alone. The witness of grace in suffering and of joy in the everyday ordinary wonderful gifts of life, testify to the life giving fruits of faith.

Faith doesn't make you less stupid or even less sinful, necessarily, though I think it would give you pause by engaging your conscience and reminding you that you indeed do know right from wrong.  Faith and grace do supply the light to pierce the darkness of sin and doubt and hopelessness. They allow the light to break blue in our darkness.

Fairy Godmothers and Wicked Witches

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I was in good company last week. I was watching the grandkids so my daughter could work on illustrations for a children's book. So there were cartoons. Lots of cartoons. Since cartoons, like any media, are not created equal, I needed a break. I needed one of those cartoons that kids and adults could stand, I mean, watch.

Enter Sleeping Beauty. A Disney classic that I saw countless times when my kids were small, particularly when my youngest child, John, identified so much with Prince Philip that he carried a makeshift sword of truth and shield of virtue and defended fair maidens (his big sister was granted an aura of royalty that her other two brothers had failed to detect).

This time around I was watching with an eye as to how the story played out not only classic hero journey motifs, but motifs that fall under the category of Catholic fiction.

What is Catholic fiction as distinguished from other fiction?

Well, that's a longer answer than will fit here, but for the purposes of classic tales, there is the element of hope, there is virtue--light-- that can conquer darkness. Yes, there is struggle, there needs to be struggle or there is no story worth telling, but struggle aided by prayer and divine intervention, aka, the fairy godmothers.

The magnificent villain Maleficent-- what a name!!-- whom everyone is obsequious to and dare not provoke-- wields her terror from the christening of the fair child until the hero, filled with the courage that only love can generate, aided by his angels, risks his all to battle through the dark forest to save his love.

I know that all these 'fairy tales' have been derided over the past generation as being too sweet, too perfect, too ridiculous, to be a paradigm for children. But what have we lost in dismissing these stories? What have we lost in dismissing fairy godmothers and hope that goes beyond our limited human resources?

If we accept the metaphor of fairy godmothers standing in for angels, then they are anything but sweet. Angels are ferocious. Think of all the images in our collective imaginations of Archangel Michael slaying Lucifer.

I wonder if there is a correlation to the trend of making 'realistic' heroes for children, heroes who rely only on their own wits and strengths, and the preponderance of angel stories bursting through the fringes of our culture?

Begin Each Day With A Grateful Heart

In the past few days, I have come across a small buzz on Facebook and in conversation with women sharing the word they have chosen to guide this new year. So, in place of doomed to fail New Year's resolutions, I have chosen a word.

Grateful.

Gratitude banged around my head a bit, but it wasn't quite right. Gratitude is a virtue, but I was looking for more action in my word. So, grateful moved the virtue into a state of being, an active state, an active decision.

During a handful of phone conversations I had with my mother, before Alzheimer's stole those moments completely, she often spoke of being grateful. Grateful for her wonderful husband (she said that often), grateful that they had enough, enough to eat, enough to live; enough. I was struck by that because, after all, she was in the grip of a terrible disease, and yet, she was grateful.

I must remember that.

In the years between my mother's death and my father's stroke, my father and I spoke often of how fortunate we each were to have been loved by a spouse who thought we were wonderful. My father recognized these precious qualities in my husband, and that's a pretty good nod from a father-in-law.

Every evening before we fall asleep, my husband thanks me for a lovely dinner, whether I spent real time preparing it, or we had Chinese take-out or even if he cooked (another thing to be grateful for, I married a great cook). When the meal was particularly pedestrian, I laugh, and he responds that he is thanking me because we shared the meal.

How fortunate am I? I cannot possibly calculate that answer.

So instead of counting blessings which stretch out before me and behind me and surround me in every direction. I hope to begin each day with a grateful heart.

Now, before you think I'm auditioning to be Little Mary Sunshine, this word chose me, so to speak, because I need an anti-dote to the creeping hold of ugly vices such as resentment and envy and perhaps greed. (Throw in a little sloth and there's a more complete picture of me.)

They are not called deadly sins for nothing.

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice. — Meister Eckhart (1260-1329)