I didn’t choose a “word of the year” this year. The New Year happened to coincide a particularly low point in the book process, even by doomed project standards, and I scrapped the whole word choosing process when the only options I could come up with were:
Then last Tuesday I found myself at daily Mass, and I think I got my word.
My husband had kindly arranged to take a day off of work so that I could get some time to recuperate after a month that has so far been insane on a lot of different levels. Using a chunk of my precious free time to go to church was a move borne more of desperation than of pure holiness. I had really tried to keep God out of the picture and manage everything on my own, but, oddly enough, that didn’t work out so well. I’d been overwhelmed for months. Not “life-shattering crisis” overwhelmed, but just the slowly soul-sucking, “do I really want to live with this low-grade stress every day?” overwhelmed. I knew I needed to do something about it, but I was too busy treading water to figure out how to swim to shore. Meanwhile, I barely noticed that I was gradually sinking…until after the accident, when I started to drown. And so I found myself sitting in a pew on a Tuesday afternoon, not even knowing what to pray for, but just kind of hoping that if I sat there and looked extra pathetic God would notice and feel sorry for me.
I should have known that it would be an occasion of transformation, because it was the first time in a while that I had actually put God first. In contrast to my recent behavior, going to that Tuesday Mass was a radical act of faith, a routine-shattering occasion of declaring that God will work everything out if I actually give him a few moments of my attention. And sure enough, when I returned to the pew after receiving the Eucharist, there was a message for me. When I knelt in prayer a single word came to me, stopping all other thoughts and filling my mind as if I’d heard a loud roll of thunder:
I figured it was pretty safe to say that this was from the Holy Spirit and not from the Jen’s Crazy Ideas grab-bag, since it was a) clear, b) not related to anything I had been recently thinking about, and c) carried with it a feeling of great peace. As I unpacked this word and all the messages that came with it, I became more and more convinced that this was the answer that I had been looking for — as well as my guiding word for the rest of the year.
The issues I’d been having with feeling overwhelmed could be framed as an issue of authority: When I wake up each morning and start dancing like a trained monkey in response to all the requests that wait for me in my email inbox, without once considering if this is really what I should be doing at this moment, I am essentially saying that my email inbox is my authority. When I dash around trying to do X, Y, and Z because that’s what Mrs. So-and-So down the street does and therefore everyone will obviously think I’m a terrible mom if I don’t also do X, Y, and Z, I am making poor Mrs. So-and-So my authority (and she doesn’t even know me!) When I feel like I must check Twitter or text messages or whatever before I can do anything else, that media has become my authority.
Thinking about my situation this way not only helped me understand how I got into this mess in the first place, but now I know what I need to do to get out:
Place my life under the proper authority.
That doesn’t mean that I’ll cut out all of the activities that have been overwhelming me; I may even do some of them more. But instead of rushing around at the beck and call of whatever “urgent” item has popped up on my computer or smartphone, I’ll pause to ask myself what I am really serving here, and whether it should be my authority. If the task at hand seems to be from God, either because I feel peacefully led to do it, or because it falls into the category of “One of Those Things I Know God Wants Me to Do — no discernment necessary!” (e.g. feeding the kids once in a while), I’ll do it. And — here’s the key — I won’t worry about what is meanwhile not getting done, because I will understand that those tasks have no authority over me.
We’ll see how it goes. It seems to be a natural part of life that we find ourselves in a constant ebb and flow of getting overwhelmed, fighting back the chaos, then drifting into Crazyland again. So I doubt that this will be the final solution to my tendency to get myself in over my head. But it is really helping for now — and, if nothing else, it has kindled within me a burning and passionate desire for daily prayer. Setting aside a few silent moments for God each day is a good thing for a lot of reasons, but right now, the biggest one for me is that these are moments of re-orientation, of aligning my life according to its real Authority.
UPDATED TO ADD: Don’t miss Marissa Nichols’ great post on a similar subject, in which she talks about how she’s been having a tough time lately, and offers a powerful and eloquent prayer for those who are going through Hell. Beautiful stuff.
Last Monday I did a major closet cleanout. It came about in the way all of my big household projects come about: I noticed that there was a problem, muttered something along the lines of I should do something about this at some point, promptly forgot about it, and ignored the situation until it got to the point of ruining my life. On Monday morning I was looking for a t-shirt and my arm got stuck in a jumbled of clothes, and only became more entrenched the more I struggled. I momentarily thought that my closet had become a malevolent organism that was now trying to eat me, like a bad outtake from Poltergeist, and that’s when I decided that it might be time to clean it out.
I ended up stuffing five large trash bags with clothes that no longer fit. It was nice stuff, too: my mom is the master of finding designer clothes at bargain prices, so a lot of the items in the bag were high-quality pieces that I’d only worn once or twice before I lost weight. As I dragged the bulging bags down the stairs, I thought of what a great haul this would be for someone else. I was in the middle of calculating how much time it would take to get to the local Goodwill store and back, when a name came to mind:
Our friend Alicia occasionally makes trips to her home town in Mexico, and in the past she’s asked for any extra clothing or household items we could spare, since she gives them to impoverished people down there. She hadn’t asked me about that in a long time, though, so I went back to my bag dragging.
I heard the name again. I almost considered setting these bags aside for her, but before the thoughts could coalesce in my mind, I was back to fixating how to get this stuff to Goodwill. I had a thousand things going on that day, and was feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t really had the time to spare to do this cleanout, and now I just wanted this off my plate. Besides, I wasn’t going to see Alicia any time soon — who knows how long those bags would end up sitting there if I reserved them for her? I hadn’t heard about any planned trips to Mexico either; for all I knew she’d stopped going altogether because of the drug violence. So I hoisted the bags into the car, rushed down to Goodwill, and hurried back to all the other things on my to-do list that day.
Two days later, Alicia showed up at my door.
She has a cleaning business that we support, and I had thought she might come by to do some work sometime in late April, but I never expected her so soon. I told her it was a pleasant surprise to see her and welcomed her in. After she’d been there for a while, she took me aside.
“Jenny, can I talk to you about something?” she asked in Spanish. I said of course. “Do you have any extra clothes that I could have to take to Mexico?”
I was shocked. It had been so long since this topic had come up. Alicia hadn’t seen my closet, and I hadn’t mentioned anything about my cleanout. I thought of my half-empty clothing racks, the overstuffed bags of clothes at Goodwill, and resisted the urge to smack myself in the forehead. Before I could answer, she explained the sense of urgency I’d noticed in her tone:
She has an aging uncle who lives in a particularly impoverished area of Mexico, and she’s about to go visit him because he desperately needs her help. Though she didn’t say this, I knew that it would be an enormous sacrifice for her to go without work for that time, and that it would take a lot of effort to arrange care for her ailing husband, who is not able to live on his own. But, she explained, this uncle is getting very feeble and has a hard time taking care of himself, and so Alicia and her sister have agreed to take shifts going down there to stay with him.
In the area where he lives, she explained, there is poverty like we almost never see in the United States. Her eyes grew grave for a moment, then she shook her head, as if trying not to think too much about the things she’d seen down there. Many of the people don’t own beds or blankets. They don’t have towels. The kids have nothing to wear but the tattered clothes on their backs. They don’t usually even have beans to eat: a typical meal for a person around there might be a single tortilla. Though Alicia lives well below the poverty line here in the United States, she said she feels embarrassed by her lavish lifestyle every time she goes down there and sees these people who have nothing.
“And so when I can bring them clothes,” she said, “it is a big blessing.” She told me that a few years ago she took a tattered jacket that was in such poor condition that she was almost embarrassed to give it to anyone. A local mother gladly accepted it; when Alicia returned the next year, she was still wearing it.
The image of those five bags of clothes burned in my mind. I was so exasperated with myself I could hardly speak. In the end I dug out some extra clothes I’d planned to keep and passed them on to her, and also asked about offering financial assistance so that she could buy needed items locally in Mexico.
After our conversation was over, I sat on the edge of my bed, staring blankly at the carpet. What killed me about the situation was not that it happened in and of itself, but that I was certain the Holy Spirit had tried to prompt me to save those clothes for the people in Mexico. Those five bags were meant for Alicia; and because I was too focused on my to-do list to listen for the voice of God, I gave them to someone else. I’m sure Goodwill will put them to good use, but their warehouse is already overflowing with clothes. Also, that store is located in a firmly middle-class area, surrounded for miles by other middle-class areas; the people around here don’t need extra clothes like the people in Mexico do.
That Monday morning that I hastily gave away those bags, I hadn’t spent any time in prayer. If I’m to be honest, it had probably been days since I actually set aside time to intently focus myself on the Lord. This has been a pattern for the past few months, and I keep saying that I need to make more time for prayer. Yes, my life is very busy, but if I spent even one-tenth the time I spend messing around on the internet in silent time with God, I could have a pretty solid prayer life. I know this. I’ve known it for a while. But I thought of it in a “ha-ha, I’m so bad about that!” kind of way. In my selfishness, I thought it was just between me and God.
It took the situation with Alicia to wake me up to the fact that when we’re not closely listening for the voice of God, we don’t just miss out on the peace and joy we experience from a deeper relationship with the Lord; we don’t just miss an opportunity to give honor and glory to the One who most deserves it; we don’t just miss out on answered prayers God may have had in store for us — sometimes we miss the opportunity to answer someone else’s prayer.
Saturday morning got off to a grim start. As soon as I stepped into the girls’ bedroom, my sense of smell told me that my day just took a turn for the worst. Sure enough, my two-year-old had had an accident before she got out of bed. Though it was nothing close to the wrath of the poop fates, there was still quite a mess to clean up. I am not a morning person to begin with, so dealing with human waste before eight o’clock in the morning is pretty much my idea of hell.
The girls were unphased by the biohazard, and happily made their way downstairs to wait for breakfast. I stepped out into the hall to inhale one last long breath of clean air, then marched back into the room to begin the drudgery. I tossed the throw pillows into two piles that I mentally labeled “safe” and “needs to be burned,” then gingerly leaned forward to loosen the edges of the fitted sheet from the corner of the bed, every movement making me more acutely aware of just how much I hated this. (I know, nobody likes to change soiled sheets, but when you’re the kind of person whose idea of a good life would be to be a brain in a jar, it’s really not your thing.)
All that is to say: I was suffering. Granted, it was because I’m spoiled and lazy but, nevertheless, my discomfort at that moment was great.
After a few minutes, it finally occurred to me that I should “offer it up” for someone else. I’ve talked before about how I came to understand that idea of uniting your suffering with Christ’s for the sake of others, and now that I’ve been Catholic for almost five years I’m finally at the point that that’s only a slightly delayed knee-jerk reaction. And so I paused, closed my eyes, and tried to think of whom I’d offer this up for.
An image came to mind immediately and clearly of someone who is currently caring for an aging loved one. Though I don’t personally know anyone in that situation right now, I just knew that that’s whom I was supposed to be thinking about. So before I returned to my work, I said a prayer. I told God that I was uniting this suffering, as small as it was, with the sufferings of Christ on the cross, for the sake of all those who are caring for ill or aging loved ones. And then I returned to work.
As I threw sheets and pillow cases onto the floor and made trips back and forth from the linen closet, I thought of the woman doing the same thing at this same moment because she was cleaning up after her elderly mother. My heart went out to the man who was getting his washer started for soiled sheets, just like me, only the cause of his mess was illness or physical decline, not the blessing of young life. Lost in the images of these other people, I stopped thinking about myself and my inconveniences altogether. Each movement became more careful, more loving. My actions felt less like work and more like a sacred sacrifice, once I considered that they might open a channel of grace in the life of someone who needed it.
It was a tremendous moment of understanding on a visceral level what Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross did to change human suffering. Without Christ, suffering is all bad. It has no redeeming qualities. Its effect is to isolate, leaving us in prisons of our own pain. But, through the cross, God took this most awful aspect of the human experience and transform it into a love-generating act. Suffering is now redeeming. It has the power to unite instead of to isolate. The cross took that whole mess of misery and drudgery and pain that plagues our lives, and turned it all into a currency that we can spend on the behalf of others.
When I tossed the last item into the washer, I stood in silence for a while, listening to the machine churn. I prayed again for all the caretakers of the world, knowing that I was united with them in a real and mystical way. When I thought back to how I’d first approached the messy task, it was stunning to witness the extent to which my work had been transformed. It was a moment of appreciating just what Christ does for humanity when he allows even the most spoiled and selfish among us to say, “I am glad for this suffering, if it means that you are no longer suffering alone.”
When I wrote the first post for this series back in March, I thought I’d have it wrapped up by the end of Lent. I would have never guessed that the final post wouldn’t be up until almost December! Keeping up with the project required more work than I expected, but it was so much fun. In particular, I loved hearing everyone else’s thoughts. The guest posters were constantly coming up with fresh insights I would have never thought of, leading me to see this prayer in a whole new light.
And so, nine months, 40 posts and 26 contributors later, here is a roundup on our meditation on the Our Father. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
OUR | FATHER | WHO | ART | IN | HEAVEN (1) | HALLOWED BE | THY | NAME | KINGDOM | COME | WILL | BE DONE | ON | EARTH | AS IT IS | HEAVEN (2) | GIVE | US (1) | THIS | DAY| OUR | DAILY | BREAD | FORGIVE | US (2) | TRESPASSES | AS | WE FORGIVE | THOSE | WHO HAVE TRESPASSED | AGAINST | LEAD | NOT | INTO | TEMPTATION | BUT | DELIVER | FROM | EVIL
Jason Anderson – HEAVEN
Erin Arlinghaus – EARTH
Marc Barnes – THIS
Margaret Berns – US
Melanie Bettinelli – HALLOWED BE
Betty Duffy – EVIL
Karen Edmisten – NAME
Steve G. – HEAVEN
Heather King – WE FORGIVE
Martina Kreitzer – NOT
Marcel LeJeune – FATHER
Dan Lord – DELIVER
Darwin – IN
Mrs. Darwin – WHO
Elizabeth Scalia – WHO HAVE TRESPASSED
Anna Macdonald – AS
Jeff Miller – FORGIVE
Anna Mitchell – GIVE
Eric Sammons – US
Dorian Speed – WILL
Matt Swaim – KINGDOM
Sally Thomas – LEAD
Stacy Trasancos – TEMPTATION
Brandon Vogt – ART, AS IT IS
Wellness Mama – BREAD
Kate Wicker – DAILY
Me – OUR, THY, COME, DONE, ON, DAY, OUR, TRESPASSES, THOSE, AGAINST, INTO, BUT, FROM
I hope your Advent is off to a great start!