So Then What Happened?

The Prodigal Son – Luke 15: 11-32

“So then what happened?” I was always a total bookworm as a kid and this was always my favorite question. I loved to read but hated coming to the end of a book because I was always left wondering what happened after the happy ending. Okay, I admit this is still my favorite question. Probably even more so now that I have enough life experience to know that “happily ever after” doesn’t necessarily mean “happy all the time ever after”. That leads to another question – “Why don’t I ask that question of the scriptures?”

Returning yet again to one of my favorite parables, The Prodigal Son, I have never questioned what happened after the big welcome home party. In earlier posts, I have explored his lengthy journey home, his brother’s judgmental attitudes, and his father’s unfailing love. But what about the son’s life after that? Did he settle down and take his place on his father’s estate? Did he make peace with big brother? Did he swear off his wild ways forever and completely? What do these questions mean for me on my journey?

I always pictured the prodigal son returning home, putting his disgrace behind him and becoming a model son. Reality tells me that this is highly unlikely. I know I struggle with the same things in my spiritual life over and over. I come back to the one line in the Act of Contrition that I can always remember and I beat myself up for not being able to “go forth and sin no more”. How unfair! How unrealistic! The Sacrament of Reconciliation was never meant to be a one-shot deal. There’s a reason it’s offered every week. As a flawed human being I will always have things that I struggle with and God knows that, which is why His mercy and forgiveness are always there for us.

So the prodigal son most likely had his moments, too. He probably got enough of his older brother’s condescension or his father’s too-high expectations. He probably took his weekly wages into town on more than one occasion and partied like a rock star, only to come crawling home again broke and disgusted with himself. Only now instead of staying away from the estate starving and slopping hogs, he knew he could come home and brush off the dirt. He knew he was still worthy to sit at his father’s table. No matter whether big brother ever accepted him or not, his father loved him. He knew he would always be welcomed home with open arms. It’s a lesson I’ve always struggled to accept.

But I’m slowly learning it’s time to lighten up on myself a bit. I will always be welcomed at God’s table, even when I’m struggling and don’t have it all together. Being a perfectionist can be exhausting emotionally and spiritually. Somehow I’m starting to think that seeking perfection will always be my greatest flaw. But only God is truly perfect. He must laugh at my silly journey from imperfection to imperfection, knowing I’ll need Him to forgive each inevitable flaw that marks my earthly path. I’m glad God has a sense of humor.

The Ides Of March

Pink Lady’s Slipper

For much of my life, March has been a difficult time of year. Dad passed away March 28, 1987, on my 14th birthday. His funeral was March 31st, my sister Kitty’s 32nd birthday. Kitty passed away very suddenly 11 years later. The reminder of those losses is tough to get away from and, yet, at the same time March has always been my favorite time of year. This past week, I’ve watched the crocuses start to appear as the last of the snow melted away. I’ve seen birds return to brighten the still dormant trees with colors and their songs.

Dad loved nature. He saw beauty everywhere and in everything around him. He was famous for his long hikes into the woods to photograph and catalog wildflowers. One spring he dragged all six of my older siblings with him to hike up a long hill to the same spot week after week, just to capture the budding and blooming of a single Lady’s Slipper. Dad saw much of the world that way. He could capture a single fleeting moment in time with his camera lens and he could also do it with his mind. He would remember the tiniest details most people would never have noticed. He taught me to be an observer of life and the world around me. I’ve never forgotten that and I never will.

Maybe due in part to that observer’s perspective, I’ve often felt like an outsider. I’m the youngest of seven children, five girls and two boys, but there’s 10 years between me and the next youngest. I might as well be an only child. I moved twice in grade school from New Jersey to Kansas to Connecticut, each time I had to learn to deal with being “the new kid”. Then I married and had my children at a younger age than many of my friends. As I’ve become more involved in their school and in our parish, I am often the youngest one by at least a decade.

As a writer, I’ve learned to embrace that “outsider” feeling as a designated observer status, a sort of press pass for life. I tend to look at life differently than most people. I notice little but important details that can change my whole perspective. I’ve learned to capture those unique fleeting moments in time with the tip of my pen. God has blessed me by surrounding me with all the world’s tiny details and giving me the eyes to see them and the words to record them for others.

I’ve often written about my struggles with my faith, my shortcomings, and the battle with the gremlin that lives in my head. These last few weeks in March remind me of my Dad and all the wonderful things I learned from him. Losing Dad at such a young age from a terrible and agonizing disease was devastating. Yet I’ve cherished all that he taught me so much more because it’s all I have left of him.

As my children have grown old enough to pay attention, I take the time to point out to them the beauty in the world around them. I show them the flowers, the birds, and the constellations. I teach them all the names of the natural world that Dad taught me. I beat myself up too often for being impatient with them for just acting like typical little boys. As if to remind me to lighten up on myself, six-year-old Eugene looked up at the stars coming home the other night, stopped on the driveway with his head tipped all the way back and picked out Orion in the night sky. “That’s what I’m named after!” he cried out. He’s right. Eugene was Dad’s middle name and Orion is the first constellation that Dad taught me to find. It was one of those precious “good Mommy” moments when I knew for certain that I’d given him something special to cherish.

Deacon Ron’s favorite question for me is always “Where’s God in all this?” Dad gave me the answer when I was still a little girl. He’s everywhere and in everything all around me. This time of year, as the frozen winter fades away and spring’s gentle warmth returns, I see God’s face in every new flower and hear His voice in every bird’s song. I love having designated observer status.

Spiritual Homework

When I saw Deacon Ron last month, he gave me his customary spiritual homework, asking me to go back through my writings, public and private, to pick out the recurring themes. “That’s easy,” I told him, “The road. There’s always a road, a destination, a search for direction, traveling too fast, a million speed bumps, my own recklessness, then ending up wrecked and hurt.” Now after almost two years, I should know better than to say something so simplistic. Deacon Ron isn’t about to let that type of response slide by unanswered. So he added to my homework. Besides searching out any other possible themes, I was told to focus my time on the road.

How was I traveling? What model car was I driving? Was I alone or was there someone with me? Who? How fast was I going? When I crashed, did I get blindsided or did I see it coming and couldn’t stop? Then what? Did I get back into the same old beat up car and race off with the bumpers dragging or did I start fresh in a shiny new car?

Deacon Ron certainly knows how to appeal to my creative imagination. Which leads to a major theme I’ve noticed in my writings. God has always, without fail, surrounded me with people I needed to get me through the various stages of my life.

My mother, who opened her home to me, my two young boys and our dog, complains every month that I’m insane to have chosen a spiritual director who is over an hour away on the opposite side of the state. I wasn’t looking for a spiritual director. Like most of my spiritual life, I sort of stumbled into spiritual direction. I attended a week of guided prayer and was randomly assigned to Deacon Ron. We just clicked and by the end of the week I knew I would be calling him again to talk. A few months later I was driving to his office and have been every month since. At the time, my futile attempts at marriage counseling were winding down and my guilt over the increasing possibility of divorce was at an all-time high. Deacon Ron not only helped work me through the guilt but also strongly encouraged me to seek out a therapist for myself to help me through the process. He specifically told me to ask Fr Tom for a name. So I did. Fr Tom sent me to Michael, and I would never have made it through without Michael’s help. Yet another of God’s “random” people in my life.

God had sent Fr Tom into my life only months after Dad died. Fr Tom has been like a father to me. All through school, he knew about my teachers, my grades, and my boyfriends. Later he performed my wedding, baptized my children, counseled us in our crumbling marriage and has helped me to start the annulment process. Throughout he’s been a constant reality check for me. He’ll call me out when he knows I’ve screwed up and yet he’s the best confessor I’ve ever had because he knows me so well. There’s no ducking responsibility with Fr Tom. He forces me to keep my relationship with God very, very real.

This list of people God sent me could go on and on but there were some other important themes I found as well. Fear, trust or lack of it, acting like a spoiled brat with God, seeking direction and answers to questions I’m afraid to ask, moving too fast to see or hear God my life, having difficulty accepting myself as is, and seeking honesty in my relationship with God. I have focused a great deal of time and ink to all of the above and yet they all come down to one thing – a struggle. I have viewed much of my life as a struggle. I’ve struggled to get past grief, past the hard times — even past the past. While writing this, I’m asking myself “When did I live? When was I not struggling just to survive life?” Those are hard questions for me to face. I have faced hard times, this is true, but my life is easy compared to what many people face in their lives.

It’s not just with God that I need to be honest but it’s also with me. I don’t allow myself to just let go emotionally. This day it may be because I’m recovering from a horrible 24-hour stomach bug that drained off seven pounds and I’m still delirious, but I’m allowing the emotions to surface tonight. I’m grateful for that. God has given me so much more than I would have ever thought to ask for or even guessed that I would need. The friendships alone in my life are all God-given gifts.

As for the other recurring themes, on the rare occasions when I’ve let God guide me and accepted that He knew what He was doing even if I thought He’d lost His mind, I was always blessed in ways I could never have imagined. He doesn’t want me to struggle so much. He wants me to let go and trust that He’ll be there to guide me, to comfort me, to support me, and most of all to love me.

And yes I know I haven’t addressed any of Deacon Ron’s road test questions. I’m still struggling with that added assignment. Maybe it’s time to ask my Divine Co-pilot for some road rules.

Stained Reflections

Lent has arrived with its quiet dusting of ashes and with the hushed call to repent. I’ve learned to love the season of Lent for its somber silences. Deacon Ron has asked me to expand beyond my prescribed 30 minutes a day silently spent in the church. Some days I can sit quietly but many days I wander the Stations of the Cross or meander through the little shrines. On one of my restless days, I took this photo. Outside was a clear, sunny day and the sunlight was streaming through the windows painting the dim church with brilliant colors. But it was this reflection on the floor that caught and held my attention. The bright colors of the window appear on the marble floor but there they are muted and flecked by the patterns of the stone. God handed me a beautiful metaphor. I love it when He does that. It’s one of the ways I’ve learned to recognize that He shows His love for me in ways I could never imagine.

Like the reflection on the floor, Lent is a time for me to reflect on my spiritual flecks, my imperfections, each having their regrettable and hard-to-forget patterns. That’s a lot of reflecting to do. What I’ve found over time is that there are some areas of my heart that I don’t like to think about. I push these thoughts aside and go on improving what doesn’t need improving. God just waits patiently, knowing sooner or later, something will trip up my denial and I’ll be face-to-face with those pieces of myself that I’ve worked so hard to cover up, much the way I used to try to hide adolescent blemishes with every make-up trick known to women. And just like the make-up, my spiritual cover-ups don’t hide much either. What do I do now? Cry usually. Then rant, rave, write madly in my journals, go back to God and tell Him its all His fault because, damn it, He made me this way.

When I’m finally ready to be honest with myself and with God, I admit that I’ve struggled for years with my Irish temper and my lack of patience. I’m honest with myself about my judgmental tendencies both toward others and toward me (see the Prodigal Daughter and the Gremlin posts). What I’m not so quick to admit is that I am a spiritual spoiled brat. It goes way beyond spiritual naiveté. I’m still looking for a Daddy-like God who will make it all better, make all the bad stuff go away, and make it all nice for me. Now I’m grown up enough to know better and I’ll accept that God doesn’t work that way, but I’m still going to whine about it first.

I’ve worked very hard to at least become mindful of my temper and impatience. I have returned to the Sacrament of Reconciliation because I know I need that reassurance of the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy. I know that He can heal my wounded heart, which often exacerbates my unloving actions. I also know that He can heal those that I have hurt by my actions or inactions, and that relieves me of my guilt.

But no matter how polished my stony heart becomes, there will always be imperfections because like everyone else in Creation, I’m a flawed human being. But that’s just it. God created me to be a human being, not a human doing. He doesn’t hand me a quarterly performance review with an improvement plan attached to it. He asks only that I have an open, honest, loving relationship with Him. When I do, I reflect His love outward towards others. That reflection is muted and flecked by my imperfections but the beauty of His love shines on me anyway and the stains become less noticeable. No cover up required.