On Retirement

I recently closed my 40+ years practice of psychological counseling. As I approached that landmark, I found that I had to apply to myself advice I’d offered to many others over the years: “Don’t just think about what you are moving away from. Think about what you are moving towards.” Easier said than done.

Like many people in my age group, work was a major part of my identity. I grew up in a culture in which work was a part of life. Thus, I had my first job when I was 14. I worked for several summers as a mailman. I worked summers in factories. In my family there was never pressure to work. It was just part of the progression of life.

That work mentality gave rise to a tendency to judge myself if I felt I wasn’t being productive. The Buddhists say that, when one meditates, one eventually confronts one’s compulsion. Thus, when I would attempt traditional meditation, I would invariably be faced by thoughts such as “You should be doing something more productive. Get back to work!”

I did not have to retire. I am blessed with good health and have most of my mental marbles. That in many ways was a factor in my decision. I wanted to walk away from my work on my terms. I recalled an episode from MASH in which Colonel Potter fears that he has lost his ability as a surgeon and should retire. Sidney the psychiatrist advises him to not base such a decision on fear. I didn’t want to wait until I felt I could no longer do the work.

Retirement also opened the door on a number of activities that had been limited by work. These included my writing as well as my regular participation in a 12-Step support group. However, the compulsion to be productive has not simply vanished.

Spiritually, too, there has been a challenge. My work has a therapist may at times have been stressful but it also offered a steady stream of activity that had great meaning for me. That need to find meaning in my life is still strong.

Similarly, my work facilitated whatever social contact I needed. Retirement presented me with a challenge to meet social needs in other ways. Given that my reputation in the El Paso professional community was, in part, that I am reclusive, the easy path, not a healthy one, would be total withdrawal.

The other major spiritual challenge presented by retirement is fear. I certainly struggle with a fear of losing financial security. I fear the possibility of deteriorating health or failing mental abilities. I fear becoming dependent on loved ones. I fear becoming depressed as my father did after his retirement. The best that I can do in facing those fears is to focus on that over which I have control.

I have also come to see that my retirement has been an adjustment for my wife and children. Thankfully I am blessed with a solid marital relationship but, for over 40 years, my wife would go about her business each day with she and I reconnecting when I cam home usually after 7 PM. My children, too, have understood the importance of work in my life and so, from a distance, are watching as we adjust.

I have had to take a hard look at myself. I knew I would need some structure to my days, in large part because that was what I was used to. As a recovering addict, I had to remind myself how dangerous boredom can be. I have had to face the likelihood that I did not manage the stress of my work as well as I thought I had been. That has been humbling.

I have known too many people who found themselves bored and lonely in retirement. As one retired executive told me, “I feel like I’m just sitting around waiting to die.”

The challenge for me and for all who retire willingly or unwillingly is summed up by Gandalf:

Reflection: If you are retired, what learnings can you share from that journey.

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Heroes: Henry Aaron

Baseball season is in full force and my Red Sox are struggling. But I continue to embrace baseball with the enthusiasm that I learned to nurture early in recovery. From my love of baseball, I have also acquired a number of heroes — men whom for various reasons I deeply admire. They have ranged from Red Schoendienst to Cool Papa Bell. The example of each of these men taught me valuable life lessons. Perhaps the best known of the men of baseball who have impacted my life is Henry Aaron.

Henry Aaron rose up from poverty in Mobile Alabama to become one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. He also endured incredible racism. The racism he experienced early in his career was unfortunately common. As one writer noted after he received an MVP award for his season with the Jacksonville Braves: “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”. Aaron had many painful memories form his early career. He recalled, for example, eating in a restaurant in Washington DC then hearing kitchen staff smash the plates after he and his fellow ballplayers had eaten.

But the worst experience of racism came later in his career. It became apparent in 1973 that Henry Aaron had a shot at breaking one of the most sacred of baseball records — Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714. As Aaron closed in on the record, he received much support but also received ugly racist taunts. Many included threats to his life and that of his family. The 1973 season ended with Aaron one homerun short of tying Ruth’s record.

Babe Ruth was perhaps the most popular baseball payer ever. And he was white. Aaron was not the first ballplayer to have the potential to surpass a beloved Ruth record. In 1961, Yankee Roger Maris approached breaking Ruth’s record of 60 homeruns in a season. Maris too received threats but not with the racist undertones faced by Aaron.

Yet Aaron conducted himself with quiet dignity and did not complain or expect special treatment. In the early 1974 season, he tied Ruth’s record. Then on April 8, he faced Al Downing of the Dodgers and broke Ruth’s record. The great sportscaster Vin Scully spoke to the significance of the moment:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”

I saw that moment on television and treasure the image of Henry Aaron circling the bases, shaking off two fans whom he feared might be attacking him. I also saw Henry Aaron in person years later when attending a ballgame of the Milwaukee Brewers, the team where Aaron finished his career. Robin Yount was being honored but in attendance was Henry Aaron!

Aaron reflected further class and dignity when Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s own career record. Aaron graciously congratulated Bonds without mention of the steroid issue that has clouded Bonds’ career and homerun record.

Henry Aaron stands as a towering example not only of tremendous athletic gifts but of dignity and courage in the face of ugly racism.

And, yes, I consider Henry Aaron to be the TRUE all-time homerun king! Enjoy the moment.

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Conspiracy Theories: A Spiritual Problem

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. People have long embraced conspiracy theories, most often in an effort to make sense of catastrophic events. Earlier in my lifetime, there were two prominent conspiracy theories, both of which are still around today. Those theories had to do with UFOs and with the assassination of President Kennedy. A major component of each theory had to do with our government withholding information.

Conspiracy theories often gain ground when some aspect is affirmed. Thus we now know that the government did indeed withhold information regarding UFOs. While suspicions about Area 51, for example, have been around since the days of Roswell, the governments’ acknowledgement of this top-secret site did not come about until the early 1990s. “See!” say the conspiracy theorists. Similarly the Watergate scandal affirmed that the government does indeed keep secrets. When, for example, J. Edgar Hoover’s secret list of “enemies” was made public, the conspiracy theorists said “See! What did I tell you?”

In the late 80s/early 90s, a prominent conspiracy theory involved Satanists using children in sexual ways. Amazingly, that theory has resurfaced and been given new force via the QAnon conspiracy theory which suggests that there is a pedophile sex ring of Satanists, many of whom are well-placed Democrats. Even more amazing is the Public Policy Polling result that 12 million Americans believe that our political leaders are actually alien lizards. 12 million!

Most of us usually dismiss conspiracy theories, finding them at times amusing, at times disturbing. Nowadays, however, conspiracy theories have taken a dark turn such that some proponents of QAnon have been elected to Congress and a former President has given conspiracy theories considerable traction.

Conspiracy theories evolve from the human need to make sense of things, to be able to answer the age-old question of “Why?” This spiritual question is one with which religions also struggle. For many, the typical answer of “It’s a mystery” is unsatisfactory. Similarly, the common religious response of “It must be God’s will” is not a comfort. Thus, many people seek out other explanations.

Clearly many spiritual principles such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” are at odds with the tenets of modern conspiracy theories, which especially these days foster an “Us vs. them” attitude. Again there is nothing really new about that were it not for the fact that conspiracy theorists are taking roles in our government.

Our churches and religions have little to say about conspiracy theories even though my own Catholic Church has been guilty of a conspiracy of silence in the past. Our church leaders may believe there is nothing to say about theories such as QAnon. But there is something to say about treating our fellow men and women with suspicion and judgment. There is something to be said about the absence of intelligent dialogue around divisive issues such as abortion and immigration. And there definitely is something to be said about consistency between my religious and my political beliefs. The Bible may have nothing to say about Lizard People but it has plenty to say about not judging those who believe differently.

Guidance in terms of a Christian political response needs to come from our religious leaders and needs to be followed up in the pulpit. Our priests’ sermons need to speak more to the toxic political environment in which we live and how to negotiate it. Most especially, the link between conspiracy theories and the “Why?” question needs to be explored more openly. And, yes, so-called Christians espousing conspiracy theories such as QAnon need to be confronted.

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The Star Thrower

Some years ago, I was reading a book by the great naturalist Loren Eiseley and came upon a chapter titled “The Star Thrower”. In it Eiseley shared an encounter he’d had on the coast of Costabel. In the distance, framed by a rainbow, he saw a man squatting staring at the sand. As Eiseley drew closer, he saw that the man staring at a star fish in the sand. Eiseley noted that the star fish was still alive. “Yes” the man said. “Then with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea…’It may live’ he said ‘if the offshore pull is strong enough'”

The image haunted me. It still does.

Once I set out for a morning run along a beach above Dublin. As I ran, I noticed the beach was awash with starfish. And so I bent, picked one up and joyfully tossed it as far as I could throw. Then I threw another. And another. And another. Then I realized the beach was filled with star fish. I couldn’t throw them all back.

Later that day, I walked along the same beach and saw many dead starfish as well as people collecting them. I thought myself a failure as a Star Thrower. But as I watched the ocean, as always I was mesmerized by its rhythm. I realized that the flow of life and death was timeless. That starfish would wash up onto countless beaches to die. That one man could not undo the ocean’s divine rhtyhm of life and death.

And yet the actions of the Star Thrower still mattered to me. Was I drawn to some type of naive idealism? If so, that had been challenged on the beach above Dublin. No matter how much time I spent throwing starfish back into the ocean, most would continue to wash up on beaches to die.

Was the Star Thrower exhibiting some form of protest that I was drawn to? Perhaps not, because he went about his task noticed only by Eiseley. Yet there might have been a slight pushing back against the laws of nature. Perhaps he thought “I know I cannot save all the star fish but perhaps it matters that I can save a few.”

As a therapist, I had long ago faced the frustration that there was far more pain and problems in the world than I could manage to address. As a finite being, I had and have limits as to how much I could and can do to help. It was tempting to give up and follow another path. Anyone involved in dealing with human suffering knows or should know that what they do matters only to those they try to help and sometimes not even then.

Yet I believe it does matter, just as the Star Thrower’s efforts mattered.

What Eiseley also noticed about the Star Thrower’s efforts was that it was an expression of love, not individual love but a love of life. The Star Thrower’s efforts affirmed life and took a stand for life. And in affirming life, he affirmed compassion for ALL of life. Picking up a star fish and throwing it back into the sea. Perhaps it matters after all.

So there it is. No, I could not save all the starfish on that Irish beach. But the ones I threw I did so with love and compassion. Perhaps that is what makes us human.

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Is My Church Still Dying?

Roughly 23 years ago I wrote a piece published in America that was titled “My Church is Dying?” At a later point, I was interviewed for a television piece on the pedophile crisis in the Church and again said “My Church is dying?” Neither was well-received in the Church’s halls of power, at least in El Paso.

Recently I came across the U.S. Religious Landscape survey by the Pew Research Center. This survey found, among other things, that one in three who stated they were raised Catholic no longer identified as Catholic. One in three! The survey also noted the overall attrition in Church attendance among young people. This certainly sounds like an organization that is in trouble.

Over the years, I have talked with many people who have left the Church. Most do not have issues with believing in God but rather have problems with rules of the Church or the structure of the Church. Others were so outraged by the Church’s handling of the pedophile crisis that they could no longer be a part of such an organization.

The research is clear, however, that in other parts of the world the Church is thriving. Areas such as Africa and South America show growth in membership, not attrition. It is also reported that, even in the presence of an oppressive political environment in China, the Catholic Church there is thriving. So is it mainly the Catholic Church in the United States and Europe that is in trouble?

Peter Steinfels wrote a thought-provoking book titled A People Adrift. His analysis was thorough as was his intelligent, non-reactive analysis of the sex abuse scandal. That book was written 20 years ago. Has the situation improved since then?

Within the Church, there are pockets of Christian activism. Here in El Paso, we experienced a crisis of great proportion last December with a heavy influx of immigrants. The streets of downtown El Paso were filled with migrants seeking shelter from the cold. In the midst of the political posturing of local and national officials, it was a Catholic priest, Fr. Raphael Garcia SJ, who became the face and voice of a truly Christian response.

Writers such as Fr. Richard Rohr have become popular in their efforts to forge a thoughtful approach to spirituality that incorporates knowledge gleaned from psychology. He has drawn many followers in his effort to encourage a more contemplative approach to spirituality. Clearly there is a need for thoughtful guidance in spiritual growth, a guidance that is not limited by rules.

Yet the number of priests and nuns continues to dwindle. The Church is also facing a crisis of manpower and womanpower.

As with the political scene in America, there appears to be an absence of intelligent dialogue. Many of the laity have gone their own way in terms of beliefs about issues ranging from birth control to gay marriage yet continue to attend Church and take Communion. Dialogue is needed there between laity and clergy. How is the individual American practicing Catholic evolving?

Efforts at outreach to so-called “fallen away” Catholics tends to focus on getting them back “into the fold”. Perhaps the effort needs to shift to one of listening. “What happened? What made you leave? What have you found instead?”

There is a similar need for dialogue with young people regarding their spiritual needs as they face an increasingly confusing world where social media is replacing face-to-face interaction.

Clearly, if any such pattern of dialogue can be formulated, the laity will need to be at the forefront. We know that Bishops are overwhelmed not only with increasing demands in the areas of social justice. We know too that they are stressed by the financial crises set off by lawsuits related to Clergy sexual abuse. We know that our priest are exhausted meeting the ongoing needs of confessions and Masses and funerals and baptisms to name a few.

Some of us laity are sarcastically labelled as “cafeteria Catholics” because we choose what we believe and don’t accept without questioning. Perhaps we are the Catholics who need to take up the challenge to help our Church heal and renew.

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Challenge of the Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I have these words above my desk, mainly so that I am reminded on a regular basis. Captured in these few words is the essence of the spiritual journey and spiritual challenges for most of us.

Accept the things I cannot change. These few words bring into focus three spiritual challenges: powerlessness, fear, and the need to be in control.

I had an exercise in powerlessness over the weekend. I was flying from Oakland to El Paso through Las Vegas. Flight delays raised the possibility that I would be stranded in Las Vegas for the night. I felt powerless. I certainly tried to repeat over and over the 12 Step mantra “Let go and let God” but did not find any peaceful serenity. I kept worrying “What if…what if…” Granted this is not the worst experience of powerlessness I have ever faced. Addiction. Cancer in a loved one. Financial crisis These were certainly more serious and involved their own struggles with powerlessness.

The emotion that accompanies the sense of powerlessness is fear, usually in the form of “What ifs”. Second only to love, fear is the emotion most often addressed by Jesus who often told those around Him “Don’t be afraid. Trust in me.” It is fear that fuels our catastrophic thinking when we feel powerless.

Fear typically gives rise to a desire to control, often accompanied by anger. I could see that at the airport — stressed people angry that the situation couldn’t get fixed. I remember years ago counseling a young woman who, after some hard work, was discharged from the hospital, a huge transition for her. One day after her discharge she burst into my office yelling “Do something!” She was coping with a lot of fear and wanted it fixed. NOW!

Sitting in the Oakland airport, I knew I had no control. I knew that I was called to accept the situation as beyond my control. Did I find serenity? No but at least I knew what I had to do — keep repeating “Let go and let God.

Change the things that I can. I remember sitting in a support group meeting when a man announced that he was upset with his boss so he quit his job and was turning it over to God. I had the thought “Wow. I don’t think God runs an employment agency.” I also recalled the words of a good friend: “You can pray all day for potatoes but you still have to go out and hoe the garden.” The challenge to change the things I can applies to at least two situations: 1. changing myself and 2. speaking out in protest.

It is often said that the only thing I can really change in life is myself –my thoughts, my reactions, my expectations. This is the notion that is at the heart of psychotherapy or spiritual direction. There we can explore our fears, our irrational thoughts. We can decide how we want to face something such as illness over which we have no control. This was a key taught to me by several patients dying of cancer or AIDS-related illness. The disease would be fatal but they could explore how they wanted to face it. Some chose to be bitter. Others chose to find as much peace as they could or to otherwise enrich their lives in whatever ways possible. One man chose to reconcile with his daughter. Another shared the joy he felt in raising songbirds. Another woman focused on the time she had with her infant son.

But the spiritual path is not simply passive acceptance. Jesus protested and got killed as a result. If I am in a situation where I can speak out or take action, the Serenity Prayer would call me to take action. Perhaps I need to confront a loved one. Perhaps I need to say “no” when asked to take a course of action I know is wrong. If I am in a position to do so, perhaps I need to take a public stance that I know will be rejected by some, hoping only that this stance will result in some good.

Wisdom to know the difference. How can I tell when to act or when to act? There is no easy step-by-step guide. I wish there was. Wisdom may be found through a process of discernment, a going in quietly perhaps in prayer seeking for some guidance. It is important to understand that none of us get it right all the time. You may experience accepting something only to realize latter that action of your part would have made a difference. You may take some form of action only to see that the action was futile and it would have been better to accept. Being aware of what the Serenity Prayer calls us to doesn’t mean we will be on the mark every time. It is important not to judge oneself when we miss the mark.

I believe that we all tend to err in one direction or another when trying to live the Serenity Prayer. I undoubtedly err in the direction of trying to change that which I cannot. Others may err by being too passive. Still others may act impulsively without taking the time to discern.

This simple prayer then is rich with spiritual guidance and challenges all of which I need to attend to on a daily basis. Amen to that!

And, yes, I did make the connecting flight to El Paso!

Reflection: What have been your experiences with the themes of serenity, courage, and wisdom as seen in the Serenity Prayer?

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Songs Along the Way

Elsewhere I have written about the power and importance of sacred music on one’s spiritual journey. I have paid particular attention to “Amazing Grace”, a beautiful hymn that has special meaning for those of us recovering from addiction. However, I’ve realized that there are other songs that have been important to me and inspired me on my own journey. By songs I don’t mean hymns. Some are folk songs. Others are from Broadway musicals. And one piece is classical.

An early song that had great meaning to me was “The Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha. This song inspired the idealism of my youth. Life being what it is, that idealism has become somewhat jaded over time but it still gives me pause.

The song “Try to Remember” from the musical The Fantastiks speaks to me of the fading of youth and yet the power of memories of the romanticism of that youth. It is also a song I sang to my future wife on an early date. And, yes, that is Jerry Orbach from Law and Order. He performed the song in the original production

Those of us who grew up in the 60s were greatly influenced and inspired by folks music. Songs such as “The Times They are A-changing” spoke to our unrest, our questions. My personal favorite is “Blowin’ In the Wind” by Peter, Paul and Mary.

When I headed back East to spend time with my dying mother, one evening I put on some music for comfort. What I heard was “Jupiter” from Holsts’ The Planets, somehow the magnificence of that piece captured the power of the loss of one’s mother. It still does.

In the same vein, the song “Leader of the Band” gave me words to speak at my father’s funeral: “Papa, I don’t think I said I love you near enough”.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYFVEB4j6zI

Music is also a big part of my Irish heritage which I have embraced more and more. The song “The Parting Glass” celebrates that heritage for me and gives me a viewpoint as I age. And, yes, I don’t drink alcohol anymore so my parting glass won’t have ale in it!

Finally there is a John Denver song which summarizes my spiritual journey better than any other song I know.

Reflection: Are there songs that capture your spiritual journey?

NOTE: If the link doesn’t work, all pieces can be found on YouTube

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Cain and Abel: A Story of Sibling Rivalry

     Do you have a brother or sister? Have you always gotten along? Sadly, it is quite common for there to be rancor between siblings. In the case of Cain and Abel, that rancor erupted in a most horrifying manner.

     Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain being the older brother. Cain became a farmer and Abel a shepherd. They both prepared a sacrifice to God but God accepted only Abel’s. Cain was furious and eventually in a jealous fit murdered his brother. When God comes around seeking out Abel, Cain utters those well-known words “Am I my brother’s keeper?” At this point, God uncovers the truth and banishes Cain. He places a mark of Cain to ensure that Cain will endure no other suffering beyond banishment. Cain leaves, marries (Where did Mrs. Cain come from?) and starts his own ancestral line.

      Let’s look more closely at each brother. Cain is the first-born so he had a position of specialness. That is until Abel came along. Then Cain wasn’t so special anymore and some attention got shifted to little brother. Further, there were likely demands made to Cain such as “Keep an eye on your little brother”. Beyond that, it would appear that eventually Little Brother began to outshine Big Brother. Perhaps shepherding came easily to Abel whereas Cain, presumably working in the arid Middle East, had to struggle to bring in a bountiful crop. Resentment may have started to set in. That resentment is solidified when father praises Abel’s work but not Cain’s.

     Can I relate to Cain’s resentment? Sadly, yes. My older brother had many issues growing up whereas I was self-sufficient. As such, I was often more or less on my own, especially as I got older.

      But let’s also look more closely at poor Abel. “Poor Abel” indeed. A first victim. But was Abel so innocent? I wonder what happened right after it became clear that Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s wasn’t? Might there have been a “Nyah! Nyah!” on Abel’s part? Let’s entertain the possibility that successful Abel made it clear to his older brother that “God likes me best!”

     Following this interpretation, I find something of Abel in myself. I did well in school. Won scholarships. Played basketball. Won speech tournaments. Things my brother was unable to do. To his credit, he never expressed resentment but having me as a brother cannot have been easy for him.

     Jealousy and resentment. These are at the heart of the Cain and Abel story. Take a moment then and make an honest inventory first of all of persons of whom you are jealous and also of what you are jealous. The other person’s success? Their charming personality? Their good looks? Their money and possessions? How have you dealt with this jealousy? Rejection? Judgment?

     Examining jealousy also demands that we examine fear for fear is often at the root of jealousy. Fear that I am not good enough by some set of standards. I see such jealousy often among couples. A jealousy tinged with accusations of infidelity. At the root of such jealousy is fear. Fear that I am not a good enough provider, lover, etc. As with Cain, such jealousy can erupt into violence.

  Resentments are the spiritual equivalent of cancer. Left unattended, they spread and grow, consuming more and more spiritual health along the way

 Have I ever lost my temper? Allowed myself to be provoked? Have I ever erupted in violence? These are questions that this reading of Cain and Abel in the field might generate.

     For many of us, it is painful and unsettling to face our potential violence. You may decry violence and describe yourself as non-violent yet still feel within you a violent impulse. If so, don’t make the same mistake I did.

     In 1968 the draft still was in place and we young men were faced with decisions regarding the military. I had some friends who courageously declared themselves conscientious objectors. I considered that path but rejected it. You see, I had been in many fights as a youth and felt that, because of my penchant for violence, I could not in good conscience declare myself non-violent. So I instead began a path that eventually took me into service with the Army.

     I now see that that tendency toward violence was the very reason for me to declare non-violence. I was and am a potentially violent man choosing as much as possible a non-violent path.

     This issue of violence also introduces us to the very important concept of the Shadow. This idea comes to us from Carl Jung. The Shadow represents every potential within us that we abhor. For some their Shadow has a lot of lust. For others, a lot of violence. For still others, their Shadow contains all their racist/sexist biases. Here’s a quick exercise to help you get in touch with your Shadow. First make a list of those qualities you like others to see in you. Here’s my list: kind, laid-back, flexible, unconventional. Now make a list of those qualities that are the opposite. In my case, cruel, up-tight, rigid, conforming. Look at your list and shake hands with your Shadow.

     The point is not to be depressed by your Shadow but to transform it. Shadow qualities have something to offer to you. It can become the stuff of growth. The inner violence, for example, can be transformed into healthy assertiveness. The lust can be transformed into a capacity to celebrate sensation.

     I worked for many years counseling parents found guilty of child abuse. The vast majority of those parents loved their children and, up until the incidents, denied that they could ever be violent toward their children. That denial fueled their Shadow violence until it erupted.

     Cain most likely did not see himself as capable of violence. That denial fueled by the favor shown to his brother caused that violence to erupt with tragic results.

     What does Cain challenge us to face?

  1. Our resentments. They become dangerous of not faced.
  2. Our jealousy and its underlying fear.
  3. Our Shadow side to include our potential for violence.
  4. The damage it can cause to see oneself as “not good enough”.

     What does Abel challenge us to face?

  1. Our arrogance in the face of good fortune
  2. The importance and value of humble gratitude
  3. The possibility that, even though we see ourselves as good people, we can still hurt our loved ones.

     We all carry the Mark of Cain. Perhaps, rather than being ashamed, we can accept that Mark and learn from it.

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Saints Along the Way

I have been thinking lately about saints — individuals whom the Catholic Church has designated as people of great spirituality who are held up to us as role models. When I was young, I viewed them as perfect and, knowing that I was not, believed that sainthood was beyond my reach. Nonetheless, certain saints were of help and inspiration. Dismas the Good Thief reassures me that, even when I am at my lowest, Jesus can be there for me. Thomas the Apostle helps me accept my doubts. John XXIII reassures me that it is OK to throw open the windows of my faith and let in fresh air. There are others of great spiritual power who should be designated as saints and whom I particularly embrace because of their humanness. Dorothy Day and Henri Nouwen come to mind. Ironically, though, their very humanness may work against them being designated as saints.

But suppose there are saints around us. People of extraordinary spiritual strength whose life journeys can inspire us and give us hope. Upon my retirement from clinical practice, I have been thinking about various folks who shared their journeys with me. Some of them were saints.

I think of two men I knew, both of whom died of AIDS. When I asked one man how he wanted to face death, he said simply “I want to look forward to stepping into the light.” He never gave in to anger or despair and instead maintained a faith perspective to the end. Another man wrote beautifully of how, in the next life, he knew what he was doing. He would be singing! He then encouraged us to find our own song

I think of a young woman dying of cancer who had the courage to meet with a priest for confession years after stopping church attendance and fearful of judgment for the abortion she had undergone. Yet she went and received some beautiful healing.

I think of another young woman dying of cancer who courageously allowed anger with God when a bone marrow transplant had failed.

I think of a man facing Gehrig’s disease, confident that God would watch over his family after he was gone.

I think of a veteran struggling to heal from the traumas of war who, when I expressed concern, said simply “As long as I have my Bible and a friend to listen to me, I’ll be OK”.

I think of a woman who had the courage and faith to greet her ex-husband and his new wife and to pronounce a blessing over their newborn child.

I think of a priest who had been a missionary and had also worked with coal miners in Kentucky, helping them to unionize.

Theses and many others drew upon their faith to endure life’s challenges and tragedies. None of these people saw themselves as saints. Quite the opposite. They would judge themselves as failing because of various bits of humanness in their lives. I am very grateful that their paths crossed mine.

Reflection: Have you met any saints on your journey?

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God’s Grace in Surprising Ways

I used to make fun of televangelists. I saw them as hucksters and con artists and doubted very much that they provide doorways to salvation. That all changed some years ago when I heard a woman’s story of an encounter with a televangelist.

I went to a retreat up in Pecos NM hosted by the Benedictine monastery and highlighting Morton Kelsey and John Sanford, two therapist/writers who had both a great impact on my journey. I was thrilled to hear and meet them in person.

When I arrived, I headed for my room. I had requested a single room and was intent on reflection and journaling. But as soon as I got to my room and was confronted with silence, my old addiction raised its head. I wanted to drink, the old escape from facing myself. I drew on lessons in recovery and got through it.

A night or two later, I had a dream where I could not find my AA book. I realized that I really wanted to connect with other 12-Steppers who might be at the conference so I asked one of the organizers if a 12-Step meeting was possible. He set up a time and place and then announced to one and all that there would be “a 12-Step meeting led by Richard Patterson” So much for anonymity!

The meeting was one of the best I’d ever attended to that point with people sharing all sorts of journeys through addiction and recovery. But one story stood out.

An older woman shared how one night she was dead drunk and was watching a televangelist who intoned “If you want to be saved, lay your hand on the television set!”. Just the sort of comment I would typically mock. This woman tried to stand up, fell on the floor, crawled over to her TV set, put her hand on the TV and passed out. It was the last day she drank.

Her story continues to humble me. God reaches us in whatever way gets our attention. In my case, a Star Wars movie played a key role! Those of us who’ve walked the path of addiction sometimes require different taps on our shoulders for God to get our attention. For me it was “Return of the Jedi”. For this woman, it was a televangelist.

My sobriety is the strongest evidence I have in my life of the reality of God’s grace. But what that woman’s testimony reminds me of is that God’s grace can come to us in surprising unexpected ways. We are asked only to say “Here I am Lord!” I said “Here I am” in response to a movie. That woman said “Here I am” as she crawled across the floor to lay her hand on her TV. We both were blessed.

Reflection: Whether you are religious or not, can you think of unexpected ways you were blessed?

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