Life often brings changes we are not prepared for nor expect.
I remember a conversation I had with a bishop/friend of mine when I was a young priest. I remember him quoting a scripture to me that disturbed and puzzled me at the time. Jesus was talking to Peter after the resurrection:
"I tell you solemnly:
as a young man
you fastened your belt
and went about as you pleased;
but when you are older
you will stretch out your hands,
and another will tie you fast
and carry you off against your will."
(John 21: 18-19)
John says this indicated the sort of death by which Peter was to glorify God.
I do not recall what the conversation with my friend was about, but I sure remember this scripture. Twenty years later I think I finally understand: Life often brings changes we aren't prepared for nor expect.
This is certainly true of my life. In the past twenty years I can list more than a dozen major changes in my life that have required radical adjustments, including when I took leave of the priesthood for five years and when I was hospitalized several times. Each of these events brought enormous stress requiring that I struggle to regain stability again and again.
At the present moment, my life is more stable, thank God, but it seems that I still have to figure things out almost on a daily basis.
I am reminded of the story about monks in the early church who wove baskets one day and unraveled them the next. We take two steps forward and sometimes three steps back. I have learned that "the only thing that is certain in life is that there is no certainty." We never know what's going to happen next.
Though there are fortune tellers and psychics, it seems to be ordained by God that we not see our future. We can have hunches about our future; we can have dreams, but, for the most part, as we saw in our last issue of Arise, we can only be certain of the present moment -- actually the present second, for in the next we might be having a heart attack. I have always found it fascinating that human beings are defined by the fact that we live on planet earth. And to live on planet earth means that (with some exceptions that I will not note here) we are bound by time and space. We can live only in this moment.
There are many people, dear to my heart, who honored me at various times to help them figure life out all over again. I think, first of all, of three mothers whose children God took to himself. There is probably no greater heartache than for a mother (or father) to lose a child. I think of Nancy (names changed) who lost her very special three year old in a house fire. I think of Kathy who lost her son in the prime of his life to a drunk driver. I think of Marge whose son just turned 21 before his death from a brain tumor.
All three of these women have adjusted. Though, inside, they surely will bear their heartache the rest of their lives for no parent wishes to out-live the death of a child. I journeyed with one of these mothers for a full two years after her son's death. As she was to write to me some years later, there was a kind of blessing there because the tragedy brought her back to the Eucharist, a gift which has nourished and sustained and comforted her.
I think of George. He and his wife had just celebrated their twenty fifth wedding anniversary when his spouse announced to him that she wanted a divorce. This was a severe blow to my friend -- so severe that he nearly fell apart during the initial months of dealing with this. George was able to accept my counsel that he look deep within. He faced the pain of finding out what happened in the marriage and, in so doing, he became emotionally free to enter marriage again. He went through the annulment process, during which he saw serious problems before and during the early years of marriage which he was unable to see earlier. Again, we note that this person of faith had to figure it out all over again; he was not prepared for what happened nor did he expect it. George has not only survived but has moved on with his life, fallen in love again and, from what I can tell from this distance, is now in a fruitful and nourishing marriage.
I also think of a lady, dear to my heart who is in her nineties. Just this summer she has had to make the severe adjustment of leaving her home behind and adapting to life in a facility that cares for the elderly. Mary has been a dear friend of mine for many years. She was a dear friend of my mother as well. My heart goes out to her as she tries to figure life out all over again.
Now to another friend. He's a young man named Paul who has succumbed to a crack cocaine habit and the serious illegal behavior that often accompanies it. Through my many years of experience with assisting addicts and alcoholics, I was able to help him respond quite well in recent months to the possibility of recovery. I have been able to help him strengthen his motivation to move his life forward. Through intense prayer by many, Paul now has the opportunity to move his life forward.
But figuring life out all over again will be very difficult for Paul. In fact, I don't think he realizes how difficult. And that's the danger. We have to look to authentic sources of wisdom and counsel to be sure we are on the narrow road that we have to find when life crashes in around us. Nevertheless, Paul is grateful that he has the opportunity to figure things out all over again, as I have been profoundly grateful for the opportunity to start a second career as a writer.
Paul's story brings out an important point for us as we are figuring things out. We have to be willing to go through many changes to adapt to life as it presents itself on its own terms. Paul has to put behind behaviors and attitudes that pre-dated his addictions and which made him susceptible to it.
I think of myself as I have had to deal with the loss of loved ones. In 1988, I lost my dear buddy Phil, a seminary classmate and wonderful priest of my diocese. We often would drive 100 miles to spend our days off together. I still miss him very much. I doubt that the quality of this friendship will ever be replaced. His memory is so fresh that it is as if we were together just yesterday.
My serious illness has brought me changes that were sometimes fearful and anxiety-producing. Back in 1983 while I was on leave of absence from the priesthood the only job I could find was to be a housekeeper in a cavernous hotel. I remember the end of my first day. I was in a long line -- the only male among 50 well-seasoned maids. It took some scrambling of my emotions to come to grips with my reality that day.
Actually, I learned a great deal there. God had provided exactly what I needed at the time, the opportunity honed my tendency to arrogance and deepened my humility. Besides, everyone was very gracious to me. This is just one (small) incident in which I have had to figure it out all over again. And again and again.
The present moment of my life, this fall 1995, has me figuring things out still again. I loved parish ministry, but it became clear that my illness would not allow me to cope with the stress of parish and rectory life. I spent two years getting my writing degree and now I am trying to figure out a way to be financially independent of my diocese. I am exploring ways to do this, including the hope of expanding the mailing list for Arise. The problem, as always is money. So here I am, once more, trying to figure it out all over again. It's hard sometimes, but after all the times that I have had to make changes, I have developed a sense of adventure about life, though I can never be sure what is going to happen next. I have a sign on my mirror that says "Seek equanimity." I am getting much better at that, but haven't arrived in the kingdom yet!
We have to be willing to grow. For life on its terms requires that we grow. We grow or perish. Darwin spoke about the "survival of the fittest." The "fittest" among us are those who see life as a journey, as if down a river, which presents always new challenges around the next bend. We cannot become complacent; we must keep growing. We survive only if we are adaptable.
I know that I could not have ever made it by myself. We all need God to receive the strength and the grace to accept at times what seems impossible. God has also provided the wisdom and discernment I needed at every turn in the bend. What I could not figure out for myself, I was able to receive the guidance I needed to adapt and change what was necessary.
I have also come to realize that I need community. God's grace and wisdom often came through the words of others. I live in community and constantly maintain and build a support system for myself. All of the above folks, especially Paul, needed to realize that they must rely on others. Sharing our "experience, strength and hope," as AA and NA tell us, is an essential ingredient to our lives. If we take the time to build a community for ourselves, when life's difficulties come we will have a support system in place to help us. I remember with great affection the kind of support that parishioners in some parishes offer each other at crisis times in their lives.
Everyone of the crises in my life have turned out to be wonderful opportunities. Sometimes God casts us into the "refiner's fire" to be purified and strengthened, to hone us and shape us into a beautiful masterpiece of God's all-embracing love. I perceive life now to be an adventure. I am less fearful of what's around the next bend. I feel confident that I can meet the very next challenge, not because I am strong -- for I remain a fragile earthen vessel -- but because I know where to go to receive the strength that I need.
In learning to figure life out all over again, we will learn how to survive. We will learn how to adapt. And we will also learn how to thrive because we have learned how to find -- and live in -- the flow of God's all-healing grace!