In the not-so-distant past, there was excessive Christian conjecture about the absolute necessity of having a once-and-for-all experience of being “reborn.” That kind of discourse always soured me. Even though I had been through a life-altering spiritual awakening and did, at times, feel that ethereal sense of being made new, I never considered this a “done deal,” as the kids say. My experiences of rebirth were always exceedingly brief as I took three steps forward and two back on the spiritual highway; and the deep yearning for new life seemed never-ending.

Once, during my early spiritual evolution, I met a wise woman who delightedly discussed this topic at length with me. Besides dispelling my trepidation that I was somehow “doing it wrong,” she emphasized the importance of ritual when trying to embrace the deep mysteries of life. She invited me to try something new, that is, to embody a prayer, rather than simply using words. She explained that every year, on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary (August 15) she went to the beach so that she could float in the salty ocean which she called “the amniotic fluid of Mary’s womb,” in order to feel ritually reborn. I remember being gob-smacked by this revelation. Although her statement did seem rather weird to me then, I intuitively knew she had spoken some deep truth. When we parted, I could not stop thinking about her suggestion and decided that the only reasonable response was to enter into the ritual and test its veracity for myself.

Without any specific direction, (I was no longer in touch with this fleeting mentor), I simply went to the beach alone on that first August 15th long ago. As I transfixed my gaze at the water, I thought about the connection between the resurrection and the assumption, and my great longing for the permanent body-mind-spirit rebirth promised to all of us. I asked Mary for guidance and visualized her beckoning me into the water. Slowly wading in, allowing the waves to rhythmically hit me, I felt pulled into something deeper. Soon my body was floating weightlessly around in the brine and I did indeed begin to feel like a baby again, held in the timeless womb of Mary. When I emerged from the sea, grounded in the sand, I felt a great release of tension, and like after the birthing process, felt serenely aglow with new life.

I have repeated a version of this ritual every year since, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of others, but the power of the experience always fills me wonder. On Monday morning (August 15th) about a dozen friends gathered at Doheny State Beach to share this beautiful ritual with me. We listened to music, pondered some readings, and then with intentional, contemplative silence, strolled to the water’s edge and entered into “the amniotic fluid of Mary’s womb.” Surfers were perched on their boards, kids of all ages were playing tag with the waves, and lovers strolled the beach hand-in-hand as we silently pondered, prayed, waded into the depths, and spread rose petals on the water.

Surrounded with overflowing grace, the healing water of the ocean worked its alchemy once more. All were buoyed up by beautiful simplicity and moored onto a metaphoric divine quay. Reborn by water and Spirit, we then returned to the ordinariness of life with the lightness of a child making sandcastles on the shore.

Healing Waters

One year ago, a brilliant soulmate died in the Sequoia National Park while on a hike with his daughter and two other friends. Greg Wise was a man full of life, big-hearted, creatively gifted, and deeply spiritual. Anyone who made his acquaintance knew him instantly because he “never met a stranger,” and was always authentically himself. News of his death took my breath away. I could not imagine life without Greg in the midst of it, constantly cheering me on, as he had for over thirty years. His wife, Mary Kay, (his “beloved” as he often called her), was at home when this happened. Since we have long been soul sisters, I was asked, along with another close friend, to go and break the tragic news to her. It was a horrific night of copious tears, stories, and laughter too as we sat in vigil waiting for the hikers to return home, trying valiantly to get a grip on this awful reality.

I am no stranger to grief. From my early teens, I have witnessed many tragedies and I never get used to the shock–perhaps no one ever does. However, life has taught me that it is possible to make peace with even the most egregious loss. This peace, or healing, comes gradually. The process cannot be rushed, nor does it follow a straight-line pattern. Memories swell at unexpected moments as life returns to “normal.” Right in the midst of the most quotidian task, anger, sadness, fear, and love intensely engulf the soul. But soon grace lands like a butterfly, sunlight streams through the clouds, and the feeling that it is good to be alive gently lifts the pain. We can, and do, find the strength to go on.

Ritual is a tremendous help in this healing process. To mark the year’s anniversary, Greg’s family and friends gathered at Doheny State Beach for a “paddle out” to mark both his passing and spiritual presence among us. Borrowing from the Hawaiian tradition, astride surfboards, friends paddled out to the end of the jetty, formed a circle, spoke words of love, and threw flowers and leis into the water in Greg’s memory. I do not surf but, like so many who live here, think of the ocean as a therapeutic healing place. The briny smell, the soft sand, and the sound of the waves on the shore are transformational. The salty sea, like a comforting womb, absorbs grief into its vast depths and connects us to the Divine Physician whose presence is palpable.

Many friends, neighbors, and mere acquaintances were at the gathering. I noticed that the somberness of past months had been replaced by a kind of radiance that especially shone from the faces of Mary Kay and her daughter, Mo. Love was in the air! Curiously, I learned that some only knew Greg through his weekly writings on the parish social media sites. He was an inspiring and challenging writer, sometimes criticized because of his stridency on social justice. I can still hear his emotionally choked voice telling me how much he loved and cared for the poor and how little he thought was being done to help them. I hear him punctuating conversations with his devotion to God, all the while struggling with the world’s hypocrisy that seemed to invade his soul. I also hear him laughing at life’s absurdities and telling everyone to risk all for love.

The vastness of the ocean always draws my eyes to the vanishing point that stretches miles out to sea. Fr. Ron Rolheiser teaches that if we keep our vision on what he calls the “infinite horizon,” or the “horizon of the Creator,” the disappointments and tragedies of life are all bearable. In essence, if we strive to always perceive “the bigger picture,” then even our deepest grief is mitigated. I streamed these thoughts and prayers toward the circle of surfers and looked at the beautiful flowers floating so gracefully on the water that bore witness to the cycle of life. Despite the inevitability of death, every day begs for our reverence and gratitude. Greg’s smile then came to mind because I know he knew. Then I smiled and turned my face toward the sun.

Ex Libris

No secret to anyone who knows me, I love books; not only reading them but also collecting and surrounding myself with them. While I have culled my personal library many times, the volumes that remain have been calling for attention ever since I retired last September when hundreds more were added to my overflowing shelves. “Order! We need order!” they seemed to exclaim every time I ran a dustcloth over the twelve bookcases that line every room, now doubled up. “I hear you,” I whispered, then procrastinated. Such an overwhelming task! For months I simply stared at the disarray. Plain and simple, I needed help. Two weeks ago, I asked my oldest granddaughter, home from UCLA for the summer, if she would be interested in having a little adventure with me. She could tell that I was being facetious but eagerly agreed.

Olivia’s incredulity about my obvious obsession with books made me wince a little. Did I look like a deranged hoarder to her? “Have you read all these books?” she asked, as I showed her the entirety of the project that spread over the whole house. “Well, yes, most of them,” I said, hardly believing it myself. “Ooooooh, that’s crazy! she said, but I could tell that she meant it admiringly which eased my anxiety a bit.

Our first task was to set up a spreadsheet with authors, titles, and categories. I explained to Olivia that we would catalog, re-group, and relocate my scattered books for easier access. She nodded instinctively as we camped out with my laptop in front of the first bookshelf upstairs. Laboriously, I began the process of removing each book, deciding whether or not to keep it, then dictating the pertinent information to Olivia who typed in the data. She suggested that I use sticky notes to temporarily label the stacks I was creating and alphabetizing on every available space.

Surprisingly, from the get-go, the project has taken on an adventurous quality. “Every book has a story,” I told her, as I commented, sometimes at length, on why each volume is important to me (or not). I unconsciously slip into my teacher mode as I review each writer out loud. While Olivia knew some of the more well-known authors, her knowledge of the literally hundreds of spiritual books I consider essential reading for the serious seeker, is limited. I continually repeat that she HAS to someday read this one or that one. Olivia is an attentive, albeit captive audience. At one point on the first day, she enthusiastically encouraged me to create a Tiktok account to teach young folks about these books. “You would have a million followers, Grandma!” she exclaimed. (LOL! Picture a laughing/crying emoji.)

Getting my personal library in order with Olivia at my side has been an unexpected gift, a walk down memory lane, beautiful affirmation of my dedication to lifelong learning and teaching. Moreover, circling back to my dedication to faith formation, the adventure deepens my conviction that spiritual development goes far beyond the limits of church doors and basic religious literacy. It is about the quest, the seeker, and continual questions that increase with years of imparted and experienced wisdom. The authors of these books have formed me in ways inexpressible and timeless. The many volumes, some very tattered, yellowed, and frayed, stand as enduring sentinels to what has gone before, what is present, and a legacy to be handed on to future generations.

After each session, Olivia gives me the current count. We wonder how many will be on the final list–perhaps a thousand or more? That is entirely possible. “I would love to have my own library someday,” Olivia tells me. Music to my ears, I smile and reassure her that she has already begun–for all I have is hers.

Spiritual Teachers

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I scribbled this quote by Lao Tzu in my journal when barely 21. Writing down words of wisdom to be further pondered has always been a notable past-time for me. Remembering that pivotal decade, I was exiled from college classes by circumstances beyond my control. Having just moved from Minnesota, where I was enrolled at the University in Minneapolis/St. Paul, to Southern California, I had to wait a year to establish residency in order to attend college without paying the exorbitant out-of-state fees. At first, I was full of trepidation and longing since education was the love of my life. But the words of Lao Tzu spoke hope to me and on some level, I realized that despite not being enrolled in college classes, I could attend the “school of life” if I shifted my narrow attitude and learned to see everyone and everything as a teacher.

This period of self-education was like being a child again and included close observation of my new surroundings, listening to nature, and looking for more than what was superficially present. I took random jobs that came my way–from secretary in a small company to teaching little ones at a preschool. I procured a library card and read books by the armful on a wide variety of topics, including world religions, which had always been an object of fascination. I also became interested in political nonfiction, art history, and poetry; I read novels on the side for the sheer love of stories and to escape into fantasy worlds. Through it all, teachers appeared in the unlikeliest places, from characters in beloved novels to grandmothers in my neighborhood to butterflies lingering over succulent blossoms. I began to appreciate the many ways curiosity beckons us over thresholds to new ways of knowing and being.

Eventually, I returned to college and finished both graduate and then post-graduate degrees, learning so much from a wide variety of sources as I worshipped at the altar of higher education. However, when it came to an end, I felt strangely hollow and hungry for spiritual wisdom. It seemed there was a big gap in my life’s education that needed attention. So, I returned to the religion of my roots (Catholicism) and sought spiritual enlightenment in earnest through coursework, degrees, certifications, and teaching others the ways of faith formation. Through it all, more than anything else, I pined away and was on the lookout for a wisdom elder who could teach me the depths of spiritual practice. In addition to authors on the pages of books, I needed to “put skin on God” and prayed continually for someone to walk with me. Fortunately, these cries of the heart were always heard.

Spiritual teachers came and went constantly, some with a minute amount to impart and others with vast imprints of truth. Some left quietly and obscurely, others left loudly in the wake of misconduct, a select few are still walking with me. All contributed to my spiritual formation, many in spite of themselves. I learned the hard way that authentic spiritual teachers are often hard to find, despite their degrees, collars, veils, and other outer signs of dedication to the Holy One. The “guru syndrome,” clinging to one embodied spiritual teacher, rarely has a healthy outcome. Human beings have human frailties despite giftedness in writing or speaking on enlightened topics. Yet all of them had some richness to contribute; all of them pointed to the Beauty and Truth that surrounded me, coached me in”God consciousness,” and filled my soul with new awakenings to “things seen and unseen.” For this is the essence of developing a spiritual life: to enlarge the heart, to embrace everything, everyone, as a spiritual teacher with no dualistic separation of secular and spiritual.

After decades of retreat work, teaching hundreds of seekers on many theological topics, I have come to accept that a teacher is essentially a perpetual student in the classroom of life, especially when it comes to the Divine. As long as we can breathe, the Spirit is humming and imparting wisdom in grains of sand and rays of sunlight gleaming on the water. Readiness is simply awareness and the teacher forever hidden in plain sight.

Lived Simplicity

In my utopian reveries, I dream about living a simple life focused on family, growing my own food from a ginormous garden, preparing sacramental meals for everyone around an antique table, and having time to commune with God through the natural rhythms of the earth. Deep down, I know this kind of life is a lot of work yet I tenaciously stick to my fantasies like caramel on popcorn, that is, until I travel to the Midwest and get a taste of reality.

While visiting my brother and his wife in Iowa last week, we drove the dusty roads to the Amish country, always a grounding for me about lived simplicity. Entering an Amish farm is like stepping into another world altogether: no power lines, no tractors or cars, no signs of modern civilization. Rather, black buggies are parked near the houses, horses graze nearby, and hand plows grace the fields. The women wear plain blue or black long dresses with bonnets and the men wear homespun work pants with suspenders, rolled-up shirt sleeves, and straw hats drenched in perspiration. Women tend the little “stores,” located on their properties where basic groceries, delicious homemade bakery items, honey, quilts, hand-crafts, and other goodies are for sale. They speak Pennsylvania Dutch to one another and seem to relish being stand-offish to us “English” folks. The foreignness is palpable.

I often wonder what must it be like to live Amish–an intentionally separatist, Christian communal lifestyle. When among them, all romantic notions are dispelled quickly– for sure this is not Harrison Ford in love with beautiful Kelly McGillis in the movie “Witness.” This is real-life simple, in all its complexity: hot summers without air-conditioning, cold winters without central heating, doing all chores by hand, no telephones, no technology. And if you happen to be born female, you are relegated to a quiet, submissive role of endless toil with only an eighth grade education and no choice of careers. As I pointed out to my daughter and granddaughter who accompanied me on the trip, these women have surrendered a lot more than we can ever imagine.

On each farm, I tried to onverse with the women running the little stores. Most would not maintain eye contact and gave only one-word responses to my smiles and queries, obviously signaling a desire for us to make our purchases and leave. I wanted to plead my case–that I am a mother too, a follower of Jesus who takes his teachings seriously, reads the Scriptures, shares their nonviolent values, and longs to learn how to live more simply. However, the invisible barriers between us might as well be made of brick and mortar. Sadly, without any real communication, we will forever remain strangers staring at one another with morbid curiosity and skepticism.

I find this a curious paradox during this divisive time in our history. How very sad that the Amish have chosen such an extreme, cloistered lifestyle that most meaningful dialogue with the “outside world”is not possible. But then, how different is this from our own provincial experiences? While we share the title of “American,” we tend to live out our biases as Californians and Minnesotans, Catholics and Protestants, Republicans and Democrats, visiting each other amicably for a little while, then scurrying back to our comfort zones. If we truly are disciples, can we ever love one another purely, as Jesus commanded? Or will we forever be at a distance from those who seem foreign or have different beliefs? Admittedly, love from a distance is much easier than intimacy but is this really what Christianity demands of us?

Perhaps a simple lifestyle can yield a more intentional embrace of the spiritual life and that is definitely a goal worth pursuing. However, we also must also be aware that there is a cost involved in a process that completely separates us from one another. In truth,simplicity can also yield an interior spaciousness as wide and as far as the eye can see from an Amish Midwestern farm. Expanding our vision must never be crossed off the list.

The Food of Love

“If music be the food of love, play on. . .”

William Shakespeare – Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene I

My sixteen-year-old granddaughter has been singing in the choir at her high school for the past two years and informed me recently that she “really wants to learn how to read music.” Eyebrows raised. I thought she already knew since she played the flute in her elementary school band. “No, Grandma, I just faked it.” After I got over that incredulity, I asked if she would like me to teach her this summer. We agreed to meet once a week for lessons in basic music theory and the piano keyboard.

For those of you who do not know, I come from a musical family on my mother’s side. I grew up listening to classical music, played the flute for eight years, piano lessons for six. Theatre was my first college major and I minored in music at the University of Minnesota. I sang and danced in many musical theatre productions and had early aspirations to become a stage actress. Even though that was a long time ago and I went through several career changes, my love of music has remained strong. However rusty the mind and fingers may become, one never forgets how to read notes on a staff. Passing along the basics to my granddaughter seemed like a heavenly opportunity.

As anyone who has tried knows, learning to read music is like encountering a new language. There are strange symbols that need to be deciphered, memorized, and then practiced. A simple scale of seven notes with literally thousands of variations emanates on multiple octaves that can be raised half steps (sharps) or lowered (flats). In between the notes are rests and silences, equal in beauty to the sounds echoing from creation.

As I began to explain the basics and watched Elaina’s nonverbal, I realized at once that she was a bit overwhelmed with the immensity of this undertaking. I reassured her that we would take it one note, one beat, one measure at a time, exercising determination, perseverance, and patience. Precious few are born with an outrageous musical gift (like Mozart), many understand the complexity from a mathematical aptitude, while others simply resonate creatively on a vibrational level that cannot be explained. Whatever the circumstance, proficiency comes with time and effort. For the sheer love of music, anyone can sink into the depths, collapse into the arms of God and remain there, regardless of whether or not they know music theory.

The same can be said of the spiritual life. Learning to “see God in all things, and all things in God,” as the Jesuits say, is not the same for everyone. Some identify Truth with strong intellectual certitude, some know God by experience, while others remain baffled by things “seen and unseen.” Despite our differences in perception, something or Someone reverberates throughout creation and into our consciousness.

I have often wondered, along with many others, if music is simply the voice of the Divine, speaking in a language beyond words that we all understand, moving our hearts to heightened awareness, elevating and transporting us to places we could never fathom or conjure up ourselves. Perhaps the Holy One gave us music to teach us about the sacramentality of our daily existence. Even the simplicity of a C major chord seems to say “come and eat the food of love,” everyone is welcome at this table.

Each passing day, I crave this spiritual nourishment and am never satiated. I turn the radio to my favorite classical music station every morning so I can listen all day to the great composers who continue to spread the banquet of love. Sitting together at the keyboard and playing simple scales, teaching muscle memory to another generation’s fingers fills my spirit with wonder. These summer days, I feel privileged to help my granddaughter unlock some of the mysteries of life that music holds. In doing so, her beautiful curiosity is honored and feeds a radiant hope for the future.

Clean Living

Family folklore held that if my saintly mother was in the car, we would always find the perfect parking space no matter how crowded the lot was. Moreover, you always wanted Mom around during the World Series to root for your team. If you bought a lottery ticket, her number choices were luckier. We all believed that because mom was a daily communicant and constantly in service to others, God immediately heard and answered her prayers. She also had “pull,” with the angels and saints and could ask them to do her favors. The message to us was loud and clear: those who followed the commandments, adhered to a strict moral code, and lived with integrity, were the recipients of tangible rewards both here and later.

I remember with a smile when little miraculous events or everyday blessings would grace our lives, my brother-in-law would proudly proclaim, “Clean living does it every time!” Everyone would laugh but a tacit agreement about God’s transactional nature was undeniable. This belief prevails today, even with the more “enlightened” among us. Think about it. How many times do you hear people say they are “blessed” to own a house, to earn money, to have escaped Covid, or to have “amazing children?” Granted, it is nice to feel gifted by God but where does that leave those who do contract Covid, have imperfect kids, cannot afford to buy a home, or live paycheck-to-paycheck? Are they simply “not blessed,” not “doing” Christianity right, not engaging in the correct “clean living?”

Nowhere in the gospel does Jesus promise us greater rewards for working longer or harder. Think about the parable of the vineyard, for example. There are dozens of places in the Scripture where Jesus tells us that we are more blessed being poor, marginalized, scoffed at, neglected, or hated. The powerful and the pious are not promised a thing. In fact, the “clean living” Pharisees are constantly denigrated for their perfect adherence to religion. Those who seem to be blessed with wealth, health, and possessions are warned repeatedly that it will be easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for them to get into heaven.

Mature and wise spirituality raises our awareness of how we speak, for words do shape our prejudices. (Linguistics 101) Wisdom seekers constantly need to revisit our images of God so that we do not fall into the trap of believing that health, wealth, power, and prestige are signs of God’s approval for our clean living. Frequently, the most elevated or saintly among us look just the opposite. More saints than I can count experienced dark nights and double the trials of everyone else. Well, just look at Jesus and his best friends. We need to evolve from our childish notions of reward/punishment to a more expansive definition of the divine. Everyone is blessed. Everyone has grace at their fingertips. Everyone is loved equally and unconditionally, no matter what they do. Even the mega-devout St. Paul said, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” This does not mean that we should not strive for “clean living.” Leading a moral life of integrity has its own intrinsic rewards. Deep peace, happiness and freedom are but three of them.

Now that Mom is deceased, my family has tried to foist the holiness role on me. They say they are happy to ride on my coattails, touch the hem of my garment, and bask in the hope that parking places will always be available if I am in the car. I just smile and look at all of the cars parked in prime places. Signals of transcendence are everywhere and rain falls on the good and the just equally. In the end, every one of us is simply graced in more ways than we can ever realize.

Reptilian Lessons

A desert tortoise named “Spike” has been a member of our family for almost thirty years. No, we did not purchase him or find him in the desert. One day, he simply came trudging up the sidewalk when my girls were playing out front. You can imagine their excitement when they brought him to me! Although we advertised for months around the neighborhood, no one came forward to claim him and so he stayed. Spike (so named because he liked to “spike” soccer balls) lives in our backyard from April to October and burnates (like hibernation) in our garage the other six months of the year. When he first comes out of burnation, he is sleepy and confused, much like Rip Van Winkle. But in the summer months, he becomes fully awake, is amazingly fast-paced, and chases us around, snapping at our shoes or exposed toes.

Living with a tortoise has taught me many life lessons over the years. His very “otherness” as a reptile is endlessly fascinating. Although his eyes look uncannally intelligent, his brain is downright prehistoric and he reacts to danger predictably. Provoked even in the slightest, he withdraws into his shell and will not come out until the threat has passed. However, when trust develops, Spike can be annoyingly persistent in his need to get my attention. I feel gratified when he comes running when I call him, when he follows me around while I do yardwork. I do not love it when he stealthfully sneaks up on me and wants to take a bite out of my flesh (believe me, it hurts) while I am meditating.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from living in close proximity with a tortoise is how similar we are despite our vast differences. Science has revealed that when human beings are threatened, a biochemical reaction takes place in the brain and we naturally assume a reptilian cold stance (or mind). That is, like the tortoise, we immediately withdraw to protect ourselves, escape down a trapdoor somewhere inside, and will not venture out again until the proverbial coast is clear. Unfortunately, even though this tendency can keep us from harm at times, it can also make us paranoid, an irregularity of the mind.

Interestingly, the first word in the synoptic gospels that Jesus speaks is the word “metanoia,” which turns out is the opposite of paranoia. Oftentimes we are taught that the word means “repent,” but the meaning goes far deeper than the idea of “paying back” what one has done wrong. The metanoia (meta = above; nous = mind) Jesus calls us to is a radical change of mind and heart. He tells us over and over with the actions of his life and death that we need to resist our reptilian impulses, get above our small-mindedness, and live open-heartedly in trust. This becomes problematic for most of us. In a sense, we have to consciously go against our natural self-preservation impulses to be true followers of Jesus. (Maybe that’s why many cannot really do it?) Too easily, we become hostile instead of hospitable; bitter and resentful instead of joyful and free of regrets. In the second half of life, we wrestle over and over with God, especially when something horrific like the deaths of innocent children happens.

Sometimes when faced with the darker sides of life, I feel just like Spike and want to simply withdraw until the danger passes. Unfortunately, that never happens for long on this side of the veil. More than anything, I do not want to end up a bitter old person barricaded against the world who cannot or will not face life in all its splendor. And so, I breathe deeply, pray daily, and force myself up and out of my reptilian brain. I stick my head out of its shell and follow the Light of the World, no matter the cost.

Hope Springs Eternal

There it was, hiding behind an overgrown bush, covered with needles dropped from a towering pine tree: a brown prickly pear cactus planted in an old rusty coffee can. I found it last June, right before the grotto at St. Edward the Confessor Church was demolished to make way for construction. As some know, I was busy rescuing plants and statues from the wrecking ball in the Spring of 2021. I successfully saved most of the rose bushes and other plants but not the trees. During the last days, I sat under their branches and grieved. Maybe that’s why I took the dead-looking cactus home. It was just another loss I could not bear.

After removing the cactus from the coffee can, I was a chagrined to see that there was only about an inch of very dry dirt left. Doubt crept in. Survival after such extreme lack of sustenant soil or water seemed unlikely. Several of my transplanted rose bushes had died despite vigilant care. The remains of the beautiful “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” bush I fussily transplanted is a now a lifeless tree in my backyard. Fearing the worse, I transplanted the cactus anyway, watering and feeding along with all the rest of my patio plants every month.

I waited and watched. I played classical music. I said prayers of encouragement but no sign of life appeared until one day after Spring arrived in Southern California. A small green bud suddenly erupted on the side of the seemingly wornout brown body. Within a few weeks, other shoots appeared and quickly grew into strong paddles. Like Lazarus in John’s gospel, the prickly pear had been resusitated! To me, this was a comforting affirmation of the Christ-soaked world that we are privileged to share. Who knows? Maybe I will be harvesting the prickly pear fruit at the end of summer and writing about them!

I realize that seeing a cactus come back to life is no big deal to most people. After all, I have read that they are remarkably resistant to abuse, easy to grow and propagate, especially the prickly pear. No matter. I needed that little signal of transcendence as the war in Ukraine drags on, the coronavirus mutates endlessly, and violence permeates the streets of our homeland. If the prickly pear can bounce back like that, I thought, so can we, again and again, as life demands. Nature reminds us so often that hope really does spring eternal. Even though we may appear dead, done-in or old, human resilience gracefully fuels rebirth.

True Guilt

“Catholic Guilt.” People always smirk knowingly when they hear this phrase that is equated with neurotic feelings about right and wrong. Older folks raised in parochial school, complete with sisters wearing habits armed with knuckle-cracking rulers, are amused or indignant about guilt. Younger folks see it as the detritus of the past and feel superiorly relieved that they are not held in its vice-like grip. However, mature seekers in the second half of life are often nonplussed by a reappearance of the dreaded feeling as they grow in spiritual wisdom. When a strong sense of conscience kicks into full gear, every troubling situation poses ethical questions that are difficult to understand, let alone answer.

The headlines of mass shootings this past week are a case in point. Personally, the news sent me into another tailspin of ruminations. The two men, a youth in Buffalo and a 68-year-old in Laguna Woods, could not be more different and yet their actions and motivations were similar. Fueled by rage and mental disorder, they killed the innocent, all in the name of doing what they convinced themselves was “good.” The losses are unspeakable. In the end, the survivors were robbed not only of their loved ones but also of their trust in a benevolent universe. Dark memories of a weekend in May will forever haunt their lives. Do the perpetrators feel collosol guilt and remorse for their actions? I fervently hope so but the hope does not release me from my sadness. Who is to blame for this senseless violence? For such outrageous behavior? Only two men? How will the scales of justice weigh the guilt and make us feel better?

I find it curious that whenever violence erupts in the world, complex emotions of rage, anger, sadness, grief, and yes, guilt arise strongly within me. Somehow, the responsibility on a corporate level for contributing to the evil in the world presents itself on a grand scale. The Spirit calls me to personal accountability and atonement for all my hurtful acts. I willingly respond because it is the only right thing I can do. True guilt convicts me in a good way and I am grateful that my faith has instilled this moral ground in me. But I am not neurotic about it. After seeking forgiveness, a sense of heavenly release descends slowly but never easily. I would rather take the righteous stand and blame others.

Figuring out true guilt from its neurotic counterfeit is like untangling spaghetti. Feelings, memories, experiences, and faulty theology hold many in a confusing quandary. Some people feel guilty about everything. More people refuse to feel guilty about anything, even when they have clearly done wrong. Others walk through life seemingly without a conscience at all, oblivious to what motivates them “to do good and avoid evil.” In essence, we learn these responses when we are young and spend the rest of our lives finding a way to deal with our human predicament one way or another. Although we hate to admit it, true guilt has kept us out of harm’s way more times than we know. But are we truly cognizant of that?

The only antidote to violence is nonviolence, that is, striving to live in a “do no harm” stance, no matter who or what we encounter. I really do believe that all acts of goodness help outweigh the injustices of this world. Just as evil is corporate, so is virtue but this requires us to choose language deliberately, act slowly and thoughtfully, and stick to high standards that make guilt kick into full gear when tempted. The challenge is tough and the cost is high but saving humanity from our own destructive tendencies is certainly worth it.