Three Spiritual Principles

In Narcotics Anonymous we have a saying, taken from the basic text, that says there are three fundamental spiritual principles upon which recovery is dependent: honesty, openness and willingness. As many times as I’ve read those words or heard them read aloud in groups, it always strikes me that those principles aren’t just essential for recovery from addictions, they’re indispensable for every situation in life. There are often times when we find ourselves struggling or even fighting against certain thoughts and emotions. Sometimes this is because we’re convinced that certain things must be done in a certain way or not at all.  In other words, we often struggle because we want to make circumstances and situations either black or white. Life is not at all that way, so we experience turmoil because we’re looking at things from a deceptive vantage point. When we finally figure out that we are our own worst enemy, that the struggle we’re having is with ourselves, we can make a better choice. We can turn our attention to the root in order to solve the problem, but we have to embrace honesty, openness and willingness.  Specifically, we have to be willing to look where we need to and to be willing to experience some discomfort in dealing with what we may find. Having done that initial inquiry we can then fearlessly open ourselves to understanding all the options at hand. I know for myself that it’s generally when I have a limited understanding of something that I feel like resisting.

When we are willing to look at all the possibilities, we also become willing to accept that there is room for even more than we understand right at the moment. There are probably even options we cannot even imagine, and knowing this should be liberating. We can release ourselves from the grip we had on our emotions and opinions and stop limiting ourselves. We may have been unwilling to experience feeling loss, confusion, fear, or even joy for some reason or another, but when we look at the situation from the view that  our understanding was limited, we allow some spiritual space for God’s grace to move in our lives.

Honesty, openness and willingness are absolutely necessary spiritual ingredients for living in integrity, even if it feels like we are surrendering or abandoning all we once believed. These principles are acts of power and courage and they allow us to make conscious choices about who we are and who we are becoming according to God’s plan. The past two Sundays’ Gospel readings had to do with Jesus referring to himself as the Bread of Life, thereby empowering you and me to become the Bread of Life for others. To be that kind of nourishment we have to be willing and open and honest. We have to be in a space of interior openness, where we can work with God’s plan for us and not against it.  It’s the difference between a fist clenched in frustration and a hand held open in full anticipation of being filled. When we make a step toward willingness, we open ourselves to truth, possibility, and the movement of God’s dream for the world in and through our lives.

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Without A Net

This has been, for me, the most difficult and traumatic week of my life. Almost 20 years ago I purchased a home with my partner in an historic district. We spent more than 10 years renovating inside and out, doing extensive landscaping, and ultimately getting the house on the historic register of Arts and Crafts homes. The house was an extension of the relationship: sturdy enough to weather storms, meant to last forever. Sadly, the relationship ended two years ago and just a few days ago I learned the house had been sold to someone else. I can’t even explain it logically, but this knowledge sent me into a deep, dark place.  The house obviously is symbolic of everything I’ve lost since I returned from rehab: marriage, home, property, friends, family, and a whole bunch of parishioners who didn’t want to forgive an all-too-human pastor. My house, my retirement security, the place where I was supposed to die someday, the safety net of my whole life is now gone forever. And I am left grieving the loss of everything all over again.

Following my son’s death, I had created the life of my dreams through that earlier relationship and the house that was the symbol of it. But I’ve been pushed to a crossroads where I have to make a choice: I can forever mourn the safety and comfort of everything I came to trust, or I can wipe my tears and risk facing a future that is unknown. I feel like a tightrope walker, carefully teetering along the narrow path to my future, sometimes feeling that I am doing this without benefit of a net. But I know from bounding back from other losses that although it’s helpful to have a net below, ultimately life requires me to move forward in courage. I also know that when I live my life from a place of balance and trust, God is always there, whether I feel the Presence of not.

I have a feeling we are all pretty much the same here. If we refuse to act only when we can see the safety net, we are letting the net block us from being truly free to pursue what God wants to give us right now. Change is inherent in life, so even if we are grieving right now, it will pass. The only constant is that God has a dream for each of us to live into, but to get there means setting fear and sorrow aside, and taking those first timid steps.

We attract support into our lives when we are willing to make those first tentative steps, trusting that the universe will provide exactly what we need. In that process we can decide that whatever comes from our actions is only for our highest good. We may experience a soft landing, an unexpected rescue, or even a hair-raising freefall—but there’s wisdom waiting for us at the end, no matter how we get there.  So rather than allowing our lives to be dictated by fear of the unknown, or trying to avoid the pain of falling, we might appreciate what baby birds are quick to learn, namely that in falling out of the nest we might just find our wings to fly.

Whether we believe that there is a reason for everything or if we doubt, we can still step out knowing God is always our safety net, and that together we can make the best from whatever comes next.

God bless you,

Fr. Michel

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Flipping the Label

We live in a world that uses labels as a means of understanding the people, places, ideas and actions in it. A young toddler is taught that touching the flame on a burning candle is “bad” for example. Student drivers are taught how to make proper lane changes if they want to be “good, responsible” drivers. Sometimes, though, we labor under a label that is just plain negative or has a negative connotation. That’s when labels are not only not useful, but they also can become limiting. Unless we can find a way to see the good in such a label, we may feel burdened by an idea of ourselves that is not accurate—or at the very least is not complete!  It is important to remember that almost nothing in this world is all good or all bad, and most everything is a complex mixture of gifts and challenges. Sometimes our culture prefers some qualities over others, like being thin and attractive, or like being adept in social situations.  The issue is, however, that being thin and attractive can lead to charges of being “superficial” and being shy becomes “antisocial” in that mindset. Having had a drug problem in the past does not, in some recovery circles, remove the label of “addict”—even if the person hasn’t used in a decade.!  I once asked a reovering alcoholic who had been sober for 30 years why he continued to claim that label.  His answer? “Because an alcoholic can never be anything but an alcoholic, up until the day he dies.”  How sad to believe something so negative! Any label has negative and positive sides and when we can see this simple truth we might just be able to give ourselves a break and love ourselves for who we are.

When we look into the lives of any of the great people in history, we always find that they had quirks and eccentricities that earned them less than ideal labels from the societies in which they lived. Many famous artists and musicians were considered to be isolated loners or disruptive troublemakers, yet these people altered history and contributed to the world an original vision or advances in our understanding of the universe. If we can remember this as we examine our own selves and the labels people use to describe us, we may find that there is a bright side to any characterization.

At my SMART Recovery meeting last night, several participants expressed gratitude that we don’t force attendees to claim the labels “alcoholic” or “addict.” The reason is simple: if we self-identify with the negative side of labels only, we will never grow beyond them.  Thoughts held in mind come from core beliefs and if we believe we’re irreparably damaged, we will never become who God wants us to become. The positive side of those particular labels is seen when someone introduces herself as “Sarah, a woman who overcame alcohol” or “Sam, a man who left drugs behind to find happiness.”  Those kinds of statements are more worthy and more honest.  And they’re much closer to identifying ourselves from God’s perspective.

We have all been labeled, so if we can remember to try to reword the label in a positive light, we can gain wisdom and gratitude. For example, others might say we’re “too emotional”, which then makes us feel on the verge of being out of control sometimes. The positive side of that label is that we are courageous enough and willing to share our emotions, even when the world doesn’t always encourage it. Changing the negative interpretation to a positive one can help us begin to perceive some very solid, Christ-centered attributes within ourselves. We may begin to appreciate our innate bravery or our emotional honesty or our willingness to talk about the painful parts of our histories. As we turn our labels around, the light of our true nature in Christ shines to guide us further on our way to God. So if we’ve got that little light of ours, why not let it shine??

(You can sing the song now  I know you want to !)

Blessings,

Fr. Michel

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Thin Places, Thick Graces

Whenever I return home to Wisconsin there are certain places I always make a point to revisit completely alone, without anyone with me.  There is the Trail’s End Tavern where I eat the best chili dogs I’ve ever had, and where my dad took me beginning when I was 3 years old. There is the church where I grew up and where I first heard the voice of God telling me that I was His priest when I was 8 years old. And there is the lakeshore where I learned to swim, and where I taught my own sons to swim. Throughout my life, whenever I have returned home, in happy times or in bad times, my first stop is to stand on the lakeshore.  Listening to the lapping of the waves is powerful and healing and reminds me of who I am. If I can’t actually swim in the lake I at least make a point to touch the water with my hand because there is something sacramental in the experience. In fact, the holy water I use at church is made up, at least partly, of water from Lake Winnebago. 

There are places like that for all of us, I think: they are “thin places” where heaven and earth meet and where we can experience connection and wholeness. Our first reading this morning (from Jeremiah) basically warns our leaders, the ones who are supposed to bring us security and a sense of God’s presence that they are defiling us and defiling the places we hold sacred. The ultimate sacred place is the Kingdom of our God, which is compared to a meadow where all humanity can live and thrive, a place where there is no want, and no fear. It is, in effect, the place where heaven comes to human experience, the place where divine energy overflows into all creation. 

The underlying truth in all that is that having sacred places is all well and good, but we must also be open to experiencing God in the everyday, normal and sometimes annoying moments of life. There is a real danger of thinking of God as limited to only special places and perhaps absent from others. It’s the old dichotomy of sacred and profane, a view that says these two realities never touch. In this rapidly-changing time in which more and more people declare themselves “spiritual but not religious” we have to take care not to limit our ideas of God and not restrict our faith to our sanctuaries, rather, we need to find ways to extend our sanctuary walls so that ultimately the whole world is one big sanctuary without walls.  

The reading from Ephesians affirms that in Christ, God has made peace with all peoples, insiders and outsiders alike. Although the Law of Moses is no longer binding, that original covenant with David is still in force. The only difference is that now God’s covenant with Israel has been expanded to include all humanity. The Law is no longer a dividing line, creating two classes of people: the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean.  Instead the Law’s underlying energy is changing into something that will inspire and help redefine all humanity.  Ephesians reminds us that Christ is our peace, our unity. Christ is the one who takes diverse peoples and those who previously thought one tribe was better than the others into one humongous community of acceptance and love. And what’s exceptionally cool for us Gentiles is that we are no longer “illegal aliens”, trying to sneak over the border into the arms of God’s love, we are, rather, God’s beloved.  And it’s not just us either because there are no illegal aliens anywhere anymore: everyone is included in God’s covenant of grace. Does Paul’s affirmation that we are “aliens and strangers no longer” have something to say to our American political situation? If God has no aliens, should we? I realize that this one scripture can’t entirely determine public policy, but surely we should keep this in mind when we are working out how to respond to undocumented workers and refugees on our borders. Rather than demonizing other human beings, maybe our first response should be one of compassion.  

Mark’s Gospel portrays the interplay of compassion and action in ministry and everyday life. The disciples are so busy doing good ministry that they barely have time to eat. This is an important comment Mark makes because we can get so busy in ministry that we can burn out. We can wear ourselves down by the tasks of ministry and find ourselves emotionally and spiritually drained. We can find our relationships failing due to our lack of time and attention to them.  Jesus sees the problem with these disciples and he recognizes their needs (and his own!) and he gives them some quiet time on a retreat in the wilderness to recharge their batteries. By the way, the back story at this point in Mark is that John the Baptist has just been murdered by Herod. Maybe Jesus himself needs to recuperate and regain his own spiritual centeredness in the midst of grief and the demands of ministry. The benefits of the retreat for Jesus are obvious. He returns to work with compassion and empathy. His heart goes out to those seeking his care; they are no longer just annoyances.  They are sheep without a shepherd, to be cared for and led to discover the wholeness God wants for them. 

This work of Jesus is never complete. Our participation in continuing his healing ministry will be lifelong. The challenges around us are so immense; the calls for compassion, energy, and peace-making never more critical. It seems impossible some days, and yet Jesus the healer is always with us and when we reach out to his presence, we, too, find grace and healing.  

Today’s readings invite us to awaken to God’s “covenant of wholeness.” God is not in the business of judging us or wanting us to feel bad about who we are. God wants our highest good always, so we can find that “abundant life” Jesus is always promising and then share it with others.  But we have to remember to take care of ourselves. We need to “go on retreat” ourselves. No one knows this more than I because had I been taking care of myself in 2015, I would not have found myself with a life-threatening drug problem.  

In other words, we need to practice Sabbath in some practical and real ways. If the Creator could find time to rest after creating the whole universe in 6 days, surely you and I can find a day or two once or twice a year! There is a connection between reflection and action, work and rest, doing ministry and going on retreat. It’s not just pastors who need this, it’s every one of us. 

Mark assures us that life is not going to slow down, that the demands of living are only going to continue. But we can, if we choose to remember, find rest and healing in God’s presence. And then something amazing and miraculous happens: we not only open ourselves to perceiving those sacred places, those “thin places” between our world and God’s world, but more importantly, through our living and loving and taking compassionate care of others, we become part of the “thin places” that are literally everywhere so that others can find the same healing power of God that we’ve found for ourselves.  

 

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Silence of the Heart

This past week I realized that I had to get the title and registration for the new car, so I paid a visit to the BMV, where I learned that in order to change my address, I needed two pieces of mail with the new address on it.  Easy enough to obtain, but I also had other errands to run.  Later in the day, two pieces of mail in hand, I went to a different BMV to get everything legal. While talking to the young man who was serving me, the subject of drug abuse came up.  He’d asked why I would move to Fort Wayne after living in Indianapolis, and I explained that my husband and I were certified peer addictions coaches and that we had been asked by our mentor to return to Fort Wayne due to the huge heroin and methamphetamine crisis here. The young man asked me about my SMART Recovery cap that I was wearing, so I told him a bit about that.  He started to tear up and asked if he could please have my contact information because his mother was addicted to heroin and had recently overdosed again for the third time.  I gave him my card and as we shook hands at the end of our State business, he said, “Thank you, pastor, for coming back to Fort Wayne. God bless you.”

I would say that this was an unusual kind of occurrence for me, but in fact it happens rather often. The universe, or God, or whatever you want to call the Force of Love that holds us all connected, has a way of placing people in our lives who are there to bless, challenge and teach us. And vice versa.  It occurred to me as I drove home that afternoon that we spend a lot of time attempting to put the feelings in our hearts into words, to communicate our love, passions and core beliefs to others. Often we are so busy trying to translate those deep truths into language that we miss an opportunity to embrace the inner silence—probably the most profound experience the heart has to offer. Think about it: every poem or piece of creative writing arises from this silence and returns to it. When all the songs have been sung, the soliloquies delivered, the emotions expressed, the sermons given, all that remains is silence. As each wave of feeling rises and falls back into the silence, we have an opportunity to connect with the vast, open, healing wisdom at the soundless center of our hearts. This is the Christ Consciousness.

Our hearts may seem tumultuous and fractioned so much of the time that we do not even associate them with silence. It takes a sensitive ear to tune in to the silence of the heart, but it is there in each of us– so close and so expansive that we don’t even notice it. We can begin to become aware of it in the same way we become aware of the negative space in a still life, the background of a photograph, or the open sky that contains the sun, clouds, moon, and stars. We are accustomed to tuning in to objects and sounds that are solid and three-dimensional. Seeing and hearing the apparently empty space that contains these sounds and objects takes a practice.

We can bring our awareness into our hearts by simply taking a pause to breathe deeply, focusing on only the presence of Christ within. When we do this, we sometimes notice for the first time that there are feelings of joy or sadness, resentment or tenderness. There might be a deeply seated fear we are pursued by that we’re afraid to share with anyone. The key is to enter into the silence and simply listen to what the Spirit is trying to teach us in the depths of our hearts. Like the moving of Spirit over the chaos waters in Genesis Chapter One, we, too, surround these feelings with breath, recognizing that they are completely real and necessary, bound on all sides by the silence. This is the silence of the heart, and the more we listen for it, return to it, and accept it, the more we bathe and purify ourselves in the soundless center of our being, the core of the Christ Consciousness. Solid grounding in Christ, coupled with a willingness to talk about what matters to us, allows others to connect with their deepest fears and feelings.  Cultivating a receptive heart allows other hearts to recognize us and to step out in trust with whatever their heart is dealing with. It works with family and close friends.  It works with strangers.  Even at the BMV.

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Calm in the Storm

People who maintain their sense of calm when things around them are falling apart or in a state of flux are a rare blessing to find! I’ve known one or two people like this in my life and they were always great to be around because their calm helped me find my own sense of calm. It was like I somehow forgot where my own inner controls were, but being in their presence helped me remember. My grandmother was one of those people and although she had her share of heartache and worry, her faith kept her calm. Perhaps because of this early example I’ve come to believe that when the world around me is falling, I can still choose to trust that all will be well. Life does go on, even in the midst of an emotional and psychological tornado, so embracing that core of calm helps us to act rationally. So too those times of confusion are the times that enable us to find that part of ourselves that knows how to cope, and how to be a light to others in the storm.
Here’s the deal: if we allow ourselves to be thrown off balance by every piece of disturbing news that comes our way, we are allowing our emotions to govern our thoughts and choices. As we discussed during peer addiction coach training, thoughts and emotions are closely linked and help determine our actions. In a situation where we’ve let our emotions run away with us, our thinking isn’t reliable either because thoughts will chatter endlessly in our heads playing the “what if” game into the wee hours. If our feelings and thoughts activate one another in a hectic way, then we become part of the confusion that surrounds us and there’s little chance of making any rational choices. However, if we can locate the stillness at the center of our hearts, the Temple where God dwells, we can find composure in almost any situation. And we keep what we’ve found by giving it away: we became a refuge for family and friends who are also struggling in a world of crazy.

Do we need a complete understanding of what’s happening right now to move forward?  No. Do we need to know for certain what the future will hold? No. Do we need to find our way to being at peace with whatever happens?  Yes, because we need to come to a place where we know absolutely that once the upheavals settle down, real peace is possible.  Jesus tells us again and again not to be afraid, to trust God and to trust Him. Opening our awareness to the Divine Life that burns within us happens when we choose to pursue it, and however we choose to find it: through meditation and prayer, journaling, joining a choir, even singing as we hang laundry.  (Okay, I am fully cognizant of the fact that no one but me actually hangs laundry anymore…) Regardless of what tools we use to cultivate a space of quiet peace, we will always find the inner core of peace, that inner sanctuary where Our God has been waiting for us all along.

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Women Lead the Way

In the early days of my being a Catholic priest, a lot of people who were non-Catholic came to me to go to confession.  They already knew that I would give them communion, and they were intrigued by the idea of actually going to confession and learning what it was all about firsthand. Now, understand something here: the things told a priest in confession are held in the strictest confidence and in fact, priests have over the centuries gone to their deaths rather than reveal what someone else confessed.  Kings have demanded to know if their wives had committed adultery. Political rulers have demanded to know if someone was guilty of murder or sedition.  We priests understand going into this vocation that hearing confessions is a very serious matter indeed. If asked, we can neither confirm nor deny that any specific person came to us for confession—that’s how serious the sacramental seal is.

So having affirmed that, let me give you the heads up on something I learned while hearing confessions. Abortion is an issue that the larger church has always condemned and there are still people today who want to make it illegal, like it was “in the good old days.” Speaking personally, I am not a proponent of abortion, although I do not support efforts to make it illegal. And here’s why:

Over the years, I’ve heard the confessions of several women, young and old, who have had abortions. None of them did it casually or because it was an easy choice. Some of them were impregnated by their fathers or other family members. One was raped in her own home. Some were still in high school and in a panic, knowing that society and, more importantly, their church would condemn them. So they made the only choice they felt was reasonable.  But here’s the thing.  Not one of them that I’ve met and talked to has been able to forgive herself. Not even after being molested and raped as young girls. This was and is heartbreaking for me, and I can hear very clearly the voice of Jesus calling out to these heartsick women, “Talitha cum!”

Today’s Gospel reading gives us two stories of two women, the one contained within the other. Both women are “dead” and they represent two different age groups. The younger one has died before time, at the onset of adolescence, and the cause of her death is unknown; the older woman is socially dead.  Jesus raises both to new life.

Let’s begin with the older woman, where Mark adds a detail that Matthew and Luke omit, namely, that she had suffered from a hemorrhage for 12 years, having spent all her money on treatments.  There are many implications here that derive from the Book of Leviticus chapter 15:19-33. Given her condition for 12 years, she would have been physically weak. She was religiously ostracized since she could not have participated in worship – she could not enter the synagogue or the temple.   She was socially isolated because she could not participate in any of her family’s social events. Her husband, if she had one, would not have been able to sleep with her or even come into physical contact with her. And she was broke besides.  Dead, because everything that makes her human has been taken from her.  Like the younger woman, life is over.

At the heart of raising these women to life and restoring their humanity is the humane compassion of Jesus. In both cases, there is touching involved—which means Jesus had to knowingly break the taboos written in the Law.  But in that touch, Jesus reveals his faith in the woman as much as the woman has faith in his ability to heal: “Daughter, your faith has restored you to health; go in peace and be free…” (Mk 5:34).

In the second case, Jesus breaks the taboo by touching a dead child. Touching the dead body would have rendered him unclean. He could not have participated in social interaction without having a bath following such a contact with the dead body. He might have worked the miracle by simply uttering a word, but he touches her to teach us how we, too, can restore humanity to those who have lost it.

Today, we, the believing community of Jesus, have the responsibility to be channels of that same compassion of Jesus, especially to women.  How can the Church accompany young people who are afraid of our judgment?  How can we ensure that no victim of rape of sexual abuse feels rejected? It’s not enough to accept the status quo in our society and blame the woman for getting pregnant, or condemn her for getting an abortion when none of us knows her situation and how she has come to that decision. Maybe we need to man up and break a few taboos, just to get things going.

To be sure, we are living the best of times and we are living in the worst of times.  Some of our political leaders are showing their complete disdain for women in the way they refer to them, in the ways in which they use them for their own selfish pleasure and in the way they treat them. On the other hand, there are voices of courage as well.  Pope Francis, for example, has consistently called for the whole Church to do some soul-searching. And just this past week, the whole Catholic hierarchy, including the Pope, have condemned the separation of children from their mothers at the border.

Each of us is called to bring Christ to birth in our world. Each of us is called to become the “mother of God” in our world through allowing our faith to gestate within our hearts, resulting in lives lived in worthy service of Our God. To do that, we have to come to a profound change of heart and mind when it comes to the ways we treat women.

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