May Grace Settle Me

Please Lord, in your loving-kindness, show me my wickedness. For even in my love, I perceive my hatred towards You. All of the wise, who have come before me, have humbled themselves before you; so why should I consider myself better than they? No, I am not humble; I hide my faults, and justify myself before You, and before men.

Please Lord, in your mercy, show me my sin and let me see my transgressions against You, so that I can understand Your justice, and know the truth of my afflictions; so that I may forestall my descent, and halt my flight away from Your presence.

In my self-satisfaction, I have devised distractions to buttress my self-image. In my folly, I have grown complacent because of entertainments, which persuade me of my virtue. I prefer any lie, that will assure me of my own righteousness, against Your truth which may reveal my corruption.

The foolish hate their Maker and go their own way. They deny His existence in their hearts and make themselves orphans. And when the day of affliction comes upon them, who can they turn to but to themselves, or to those as foolish as they are? And what help will be found in this foolishness?

Please Lord, rescue me from my foolishness and save me from myself. I am at ease every day, content and proud, but beneath this veneer I am in turmoil, there is no soundness in my soul. There is no peace in my being. I wear wit, irony, cleverness and vanity like garments to hide my inner poverty of spirit. I am like a beggar in stolen clothing.

Lord, I plead for your absolute forgiveness; help me to turn back to You. Liberate me from the chains of my smug morality, and show me Your face, that I may see my own face more clearly. Give me a true heart of tears that can wash my innermost being clean. May Your grace settle me.

I am like a wild dog, snarling and vicious, when confronted by pain. But I desire to be docile and pliable to Your will—transcending my intractable pride, so common and ugly, so human and common—to be obedient to what is greater than I; ever-ready to love others in the same manner that You have loved me.

~FS

To Penetrate the Life of Another

It was a late summer day. Warm, with a hint of autumn in the breeze. I was in Pittsburgh with some time to spare, and had found my way, accompanied by a fellow traveler, to a public square in the heart of downtown. Our flight home was later that afternoon, so we had a few hours to get a bite of lunch, enjoy a beer, and take in a few sights. We were sitting outside Primanti Brothers—a popular local sandwich shop situated against the southern edge of the square—and I was reflecting on an encounter I had had just moments earlier.

We had been standing in line outside the restaurant, waiting to be seated. The square was busy: cars lined the curbs, while others passed by us in a steady succession, groups of young adults, exuberant and lightly intoxicated before the start of their new college year, crossed the square boisterously, children played, and men sat playing chess at tables under a canopy of trees; while the wide, brick-paved sidewalks which ran the perimeter of the square allowed the attentive and well-adapted to circumnavigate without injury, but for the disoriented, danger was imminent.

New sights, new sounds and crowds of people disorient me. As I was taken up with these sensory overloads, a very large man passed by me on the sidewalk, and knocked me off my feet. I quickly apologized to him, assuming that we both had inadvertently run into each other, and as I offered my apology to him, he mumbled, “You shouldn’t make a person walk through the dirt” as he continued on his way. I looked down, and sure enough, directly where I was standing, the sidewalk narrowed to accommodate a tree planted alongside the street, and he had to trudge across the dirt, off the pavement to get around me. As I steadied myself and regained my balance, I turned and watched him continue on his way; he was hunched over, and lumbered as he walked, he wore earphones, and walked with his head down. For such a large man—he must have been well over six feet tall, even bowing down as he was, and broad shouldered—he seemed to disappear as he walked.

What a contradiction, I thought to myself, what a living paradox—a man who attempts to vanish from beneath the sun, while simultaneously staking his place on the sidewalk through violence. I understood him. Or at least, I understood my perception of him. Maybe he wasn’t a paradox at all, but rather two expressions of the same desperation: at one moment retreating from his existence in despair, and then aggressively asserting his existence the next.

After lunch, my friend and I got coffee at Nicholas Coffee Co., an old shop tucked into the northeast corner of the square. A sign over the door celebrates 100 years of serving the people of Pittsburgh. Other signage on the building façade announce their wares: freshly roasted coffee, tea and spices, imported foods, nuts and cigars. Upon entering through the front door, one is pleasurably assaulted with the sensual aromas of coffee, tea, cigars, candies, and the aging wood of the floorboards, beams, and rafters overhead. Breathing in this intoxicating mixture was like an olfactory massage, which soothed the mind and the emotions. We lingered in this place, perusing the shelves which were filled with uncovered memories from our childhoods—candies neither of us had seen in years: goo-goo clusters, banana taffy—while marinating in aromas which transported our minds to faraway places: Havana, India, Columbia, and Switzerland among others, and to journeys by sea in ancient ships, timbers creaking under the stresses of wind and wave.

As we walked together back to our rental car, after making a few purchases at the coffee shop, my friend ducked into a nearby restaurant to find a restroom, while I waited outside, standing on the pavement. The sun shone brilliantly against the yellow painted wall of the adjoining building, and it warmed the red brick pavers beneath my feet. The paving widened in this place, and I stood there alone for a moment, until suddenly a man appeared before me, about ten paces away, heading in my direction. He glanced back and forth, to his left and to his right, searching but seeing nothing. He walked slowly—with aimless steps—and appeared bewildered and desperate. He interested me and he frightened me. I am a domesticated man like most others around me, but I could see that he was different from me, he was wild—though not altogether feral—and he was wounded.

I have met others like him in my life. Others similar to him, and yet different, unique and complicated, with stories and histories both incredible and prosaic. Lives that demand something of me, and reveal something even deeper, and evoke subtle, beautiful changes in my heart if I let them, and also sometimes break me. He hadn’t yet seen me, and I felt a thrill in the face of this unknown moment, saturated with possibility and potential danger. Compelled to reach out to him, I called out and simply said, “Hi!” while staring directly and intently at him.

His eyes locked with mine and his aimlessness was instantly replaced with urgency. He lurched forward towards me, and, as if propelled by some hidden and unknown power, he shuffled up to me, gliding actually, like a boat, with sails suddenly filled, taking flight across the water. As he approached he called out to me saying, “I’m homeless now!” and I asked him, “How did that happen?”

As we stood face to face, he began his story, he described how he regularly paid his rent, four-hundred dollars per month, to a couple that he shared a house with; however, the husband decided he wanted more money this morning. They argued, and the husband grabbed him by the neck and began choking him. He showed me with his hands how this was done, grabbing at his own neck, simulating strangulation. –“I pay my bills, I save money but I can’t get it until Tuesday because of the long holiday weekend. The bank’s closed. Now I’m homeless. I need to put a stop payment on the check too.”  –“I’m so sorry that happened,” I told him.  –“I don’t want to panhandle” he continued, “I didn’t even drink yet, I only had one beer.” He says this as he leans over and points into the case of Budweiser that he was carrying, showing me that only one beer was missing. I understand the meaning of this gesture—to assure me that it wasn’t his fault—that he is merely the victim in the situation, since he hadn’t yet started drinking for the day.

“I’ll help you,” I said, “I can give you some money.” He looked at me for a moment, then said that he could pay me back; that he would certainly pay me back. But the money didn’t matter to me. His story was of interest however, and I asked for more details, if he were willing to share them with me. He was very willing, and he shared for a while all about what had happened to him. As he paused in the telling of his story, I pulled out my wallet and looked to see what I had left. There were fifteen dollars in there which I handed to him. We regarded each other closely—standing only inches apart, looking into the other’s eyes—and, I believe, that we truly saw each other for a brief moment; we saw our common humanity which is typically hidden beneath differences, our brotherhood revealed, apart from our widely varied experiences and backgrounds.

He opened his arms slowly and cocked his head to the side deferentially, and moved closer to embrace me. As we embraced I was softened by his softness. Often when embracing, particularly between strangers, one can feel the other tensing their bodies slightly, as a barrier to the closeness each desires, as a final protection against the abandonment required by true intimacy. This man disarmed me, as a true brother, with sincerity and without artifice. He buried his head against my shoulder and I felt his body convulse, as I held him. Was he crying? Yes, I think he was crying. This touched me and brought time to a standstill within me. I stood amazed and surprised, while holding him close to me, sensing that this was one of those rare moments when one human actually encounters another human in spirit and in truth. I felt gratitude for this man.

He was about ten years older than me, likely in his early sixties or late fifties. He had gray hair, curling out from under a Pittsburgh Steelers cap, and he wore a Steelers t-shirt, and faded jeans. In one hand he carried his case of beer, and in the other he held a fragment of cardboard, presumably with some request for assistance written on the side, which he held closely to his chest, as if to prevent anyone from seeing what was written there. I thought to myself, “another paradox”—a man searching for help yet not wanting to let anyone know he needs help. His nose had been broken in the past, possibly multiple times; I could tell this by the serpentine path it traced down his face. His face was covered with gray and white stubble. His dark brown eyes had calmed now, finding rest for a moment, no longer in a frenzied flight, as they settled on me.

My friend had returned from the restaurant now, and the three of us talked a bit longer together. It was clear that the homeless man regarded us as friends now, his level of comfort was evident as he cracked several jokes, and talked more freely, with less anxiety in his voice and body. Twice more he opened his arms and hugged me. Was this man teaching me gratitude, or was God? I smiled, and shared in his gratitude, feeling the presence of unspoken joy in our midst. Something he said, in passing, caught my attention, he said, “I don’t really care much about things…I want love.” I want love. That statement rung in my ears like an anthem, a refrain I had heard sung by so many others that I have met, usually sung silently, in fear, sung with longing, and even sometimes sung with violence.

He was telling the truth and I understood him. We want love. We want acceptance. We want someone to truly see us, and to prove to us that we are worthy of love, right here and right now, as we are. This kind of love can be elusive, often hiding just over the precipice, just the other side of the abyss; love that is found only in the face of our fear, only after we reach out past the darkness of our selfishness, and penetrate the life of another.

~FS

Bridled Joy

I remember simple joys,

innocent and pure.

Different from the complicated joy,

forged in a crucible of losses.

 

So very grateful for today,

yet unlike the gratitude,

of my childhood;

before I learned what,

life and death can bring.

 

I love this moment deeply,

because I know,

the next moment,

might snatch it.

 

I love you intently,

knowing that tomorrow,

you may be gone—

my newest memory.

 

Love, without loss,

Joy, without sorrow,

Gratitude, without anxiety;

would it be better…

 

to never have known these things?

 

Better to have fallen?

Or never to have known,

such heights are possible?

 

I remember paradise;

now a flaming sword,

prevents my return.

 

So I look around me…

 

How wonderful is this moment!

How excellent is this day!

 

Yes, we are infused

with death and decay,

but it could be so much worse…

 

And it is so much better—

though bitter.

 

~FS

Stockholm Syndrome

I understand enough to get me into trouble, yet not quite enough to get me out of it.

I wish I understood more, but what stands for wisdom sometimes sounds like mere, empty platitudes—and it does me no good—in the face of death, and in the face of suffering.

I have seen friends die, and family, some confined to beds for years or decades, flesh wasting away from their bones, with few, if any, coming to visit them. Forgotten.

There is no escape from this place, this life, except through death, yet those who would help us are called murderers; and those who help themselves…are considered hopelessly lost. What and where is mercy?

Who, but God, can be responsible for allowing this misery? But I must love Him anyway, I see no other hope or choice. I must love my captor, and even apologize for Him, and take His side against all evidence. No other being has power to release me, but Him. Yet we are not released.

He tortures me, but I cannot resist Him. He tortures my loved ones, but I must find a way to smile and accept it.

I dream of another life, a next world where we will all live happily with our Captor; when we will be reconciled to Him, and our roles will change. All will be forgiven and forgotten: the agony, the misery, seeing children suffering with little hope, parents who have lost their children to death—this will all just be water under the bridge. Somehow.

Maybe I can forget and forgive here and now—paradise on earth.

I’m sorry. I don’t know anything. But I know what I see. I see into the eyes of the forgotten, the unloved, the desperate, those with chronic illnesses, those who have lost everything and everyone that they love, and this disturbs me, and it distresses me to my core.

The morning brings no relief; day after day my friends are still locked away in their beds unable to walk. Some even unable to think, as we watch helplessly, as their minds turn to jelly.

It makes me angry, and it makes me sad. And then it makes me weary, and I give up. I repent, and turn again to God.

Who else is there to help us, where else is there any shred of hope?

I take up my cross, try to bring a little joy and healing to the suffering souls that are all around me, and somehow this brings a little joy and healing to my own soul.

And then in time, perhaps a few days, weeks, or months, this cycle will repeat itself. I will once again be in a frenzy of sorrow for this world, and all the cruelty and indifference I experience here.

I will cry out yet again, against the omnipotent and omnipresent God, who loves us so much that he allows us to tear each other to shreds…and then I will find a way, somehow, to smile about this, and take His side once again, against all reason.

Yet, somehow, mysteriously, by doing so this aligns me with Love; and realigns me with what is good within me; and somehow this is the only way I can find, which brings any joy to my grieving heart.

~FS

Apathy at Milepost Seven

An arid wind appears to be blowing, insipidly, across the landscape here. I would hardly notice, and certainly not care to log it in my journal now, were it not for some sense of responsibility towards science. It hasn’t rained in weeks—maybe months—I’m sure I have the exact date entered here someplace, but…rain, wind…my interest in these things is entirely without passion now, rather from a sense of duty—I suppose—and perhaps out of habit, forged from earlier times, do I maintain these observations.

It was on the seventh day that God rested, so to speak, and though I’ve been here seven days, or has it been eight now, I’ve not yet seen my messiah. The eighth day comes so slowly it seems, and I wait, and watch, and grow tired as I watch, and then…nothing. Is this my fault? Perhaps, I started from a faulty hypothesis, or my methods have been wrong; maybe I took my eyes off the mark—all my efforts, wasted. Maybe I need rest.

They say these things take time, but believe me, I’ve given it. For instance, I’ve been here in this spot, watching, for years. Well, not all in a row, but I’ve returned here again, and again, so that if I were to add up all the time I’ve come back to this place, it would add up to years. I’m certain of this. And that’s not all, what about all the other places I’ve waited? There are many others. They’ve seen their share of me as well. Tired, they must be, of seeing me over and over again. I know I’m tired—they must be too.

It’s just past mid-day, closing in on one o’clock, and I’m feeling anxious. These are uncertain times. This is a silent road I’ve walked. Those who travel this way have left the hub-bub behind to follow this silence. But the clamoring of life is always just over our shoulders, to the left, and to the right, then flashing in our faces—catching our attention and cruelly captivating us. I smile, hoping to forget that this is a dusty road we travel, and we travel it constantly through dust; dust fills our nostrils, it gets in our eyes, we swallow it—we become the dust.

I close my eyes to take that rest I’d been thinking about earlier; there is some solace, some comfort in the darkness I find now. But restful? No, this darkness isn’t restful; it only promises rest, but instead, it exposes me to many subtle disturbances. Most of these remain unrecognized until they’ve overwhelmed me—when it becomes too late—then I fail science, and science fails religion. This is a darkness that causes us to leave our posts, as we retreat in haphazard fashion, unsettled and unable to remain standing.

I open my eyes again and perceive a gentler darkness, kinder, and one that reveals light. From where does this light come; what grace is it that shines on us in our darkest hours? What power enables us to return to our post, and stand again, whereas before we couldn’t find our way? As I ponder these things, a cool breeze picks up from the east; I feel it as if it blows through me—dividing the wheat from the chaff—carrying away the dry-husks of my apathy, and leaving seeds of hope within me.

I am here, in this remote place, keeping watch, observing, and discerning what I must do; each milepost along this road, has its unique character, and its specific requirements, but they all ask this same question of us—what must we do now? Here, my answer is to wait for the rain; and I wait for the dust to settle. Tears begin to flow from my eyes, and they bring me rest. There are many ways to shed tears, some tears come from futility and flow from despair, while others are harbingers of life itself; these tears soften the earth beneath our feet, and make of us fertile ground from which new life springs forth.

I have endured apathy, and fought against indifference—powers that lead me into vanity, distractions and selfish-wanderings. Yet with hope, grace empowers us to win the struggle against these forces, moment by moment, and to stay standing when we grow weary, and to remain, when we can see no means of remaining. And when we lose interest in the wind and the rain—these very things which would inspire and encourage us to continue along this lonely, silent track—grace comes to us, reigniting our faith, so that we may simply begin to care once again.

~FS

The Blah-blah Monster

Can you tell me, if you know,

Is there really such a creature,

as the Blah-blah monster?

 

My grandniece Zoey asserts,

with fifty percent certainty,

this monster is only imaginary.

 

Which leaves room for doubt,

and further inquiry;

Is Blah-blah perhaps a reality?

 

I must admit, I’d never heard of,

this monster named double-blah;

nope, never heard of him, and never saw.

 

But Zoey’s question is worrisome,

if Blah-blah is really real,

what’s he up to, and what’s his deal?

 

If Blah-blah is real, I’m guessing,

he’s not the type to hide under our beds,

he’s more likely to lurk inside our heads.

 

Perhaps he’s a specter of the air,

hiding in plain sight everywhere,

filling the space between mouth and ear.

 

From a family renowned for its tedium,

his father was Blah, and quite boring,

and blah-blah-blah are his offspring.

 

Blah-blah the monster, might be real,

the signs all show probability,

but take this with equanimity.

 

Blah-blah is not very scary,

if this monster exists among us,

I’m seventy-five percent sure that he’s harmless.

 

~FS

July 5

What gives Christian therapy its value and purpose is that it has as its standard the health and perfection of humanity such as Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, has shown us in His Person. What gives it its strength is that is is founded entirely on the grace of salvation and the deification acquired for mankind, in accordance with the Father’s good-will, by the Incarnation and the whole salvific work of the Son: grace that each person, by being united to Him in the Church, which is His body, is able to receive from the Holy Spirit–if only he wishes, with all his being, to turn to God.

~Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses vol.3, p.261)