A Tree is a Tree is a Tree

A few weeks back, we heard Jesus' parable about what makes a good tree. A good tree bears good fruit.

I've heard this before, many times. We lived for years surrounded by orchards. I've pruned apple trees, and picked their fruit. Farmers have to deal with fickle weather, but they also do everything they can to ensure good trees: they care for soil, test different types of trees, prune the trees.

The trees don't actually do much. They just ... are trees.

When I heard this very familiar parable this time, I heard it new. I thought: "I'm a tree. I just have to stand here. God - the farmer - will do the work. I just have to be a tree."

My life has not been easy these past few years. We lost our house, moved into two different apartments. I've lost 5 jobs. I've been so ill and in pain that getting out of bed has been a feat of strength. And I've been plenty mad at God.

What I missed is that God has been asking me to be dormant while He does His work. What I mistook for abandonment has actually been a time of pruning by God. And as painful as it's been, I see now that God has actually been carefully preparing me to bear good fruit.

Now, I don't have a clue what God is preparing me for. And that's ok. For now, I'm resting in God - laying dormant if you will. I'm not dead, although it was a close call not too long ago. No, I'm just being carefully and lovingly prepared by a Farmer who knows what He is about.

A good tree does not bear rotten fruit,
nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.
For every tree is known by its own fruit.
For people do not pick figs from thornbushes,
nor do they gather grapes from brambles.
A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good,
but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil;
for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

10 Lessons From the Psych Hospital

I recently spent a week in the hospital. Two of those days, I was in the regular ol' hospital because my blood pressure was out of whack. Five days were spent in the psych hospital.

I don't know if you have any preconceived notions about a psych hospital, but consider you might be wrong. If you think things are all "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," - not so much. There are (for the most part) no straightjackets, no Nurse Cratchets.

In fact, if you're open to it, the psych hospital might just be a place of growth, learning and yes, grace.

1.  Nurses are the best humans ever. They will hang out with you at 3 a.m. when you're in pain. They'll do everything in their power to  help you get better: an ice pack filled, a drinkable brand of tea found, a laugh over the same crazy stuff that might be happening. Nurses are the best.

2. People will help, if you ask. A lot of times, we sit comfortably miserable in our own...stuff. It can be quite isolating, and a huge burden. But most of the people around us - our friends, families, coworkers - will help us. They just aren't sure what to do. Tell them. Tell them what you need. 99% of the time, they are happy to help.

3.  You're not crazy. When we are feeling so isolated, we think NO ONE IN THE WORLD can understand. But being in a healing space, surrounded by others in the same head space, you are in the midst of people who can honestly say, "I know just what you mean." And that's your lifeline.

4.  God is here.  It seems unlikely, for folks who think the psych hospital is still all screaming inmates and thuggish techs. But it's not. It's a place of grace. Grace when the teen who prepares your plate of food says, "Enjoy your meal." Grace when that one guy who was making you a bit uncomfortable says, "I love reading psalms," and suddenly you have something in common. Grace when the psychiatrist really listens to you.

5.  Even at your lowest point, you can help someone else. You may think you're nothing, but you're not. You may think you have nothing good left, but you do. That one little thing you say, a smile, a conversation, and suddenly, you see that the other person has been boosted just a bit. And that is good.

6.  Music is salve for the soul. I'm pretty sure the balm in Gilead is music. And the nurses remind you that you can have a radio in your room, or an iPod to borrow.  Just ask.

7.  Being depressed is scary.  One of my fellow patients had recently been in prison. He told us that being depressed and suicidal was scarier than waking up in a cell day after day. If you're a survivor of depression, YOU ARE ONE TOUGH COOKIE! Bravery is necessary for getting out of this darkness.

8. You may not like eating like a grown up, but you should. Yeah, eating fruit for dessert may seem a bit like torture (really, that's how some people react!) but eating well makes you feel better. Drink water, eat salmon and enjoy the apple crisp.

9.  You can't afford to be unhealthy by choice.  Sure, you can skip the gym (again!), drink your body weight in diet cola all day, and feast on potato chips but you'll feel like crap. And those of us who battle depression and anxiety and PTSD cannot afford to slip. It's too important.

10.  Suicide is simply not an option.  Those of us on the other side of a suicide attempt or have fought through a bout of crippling depression know that suicide is no solution to what ails us. And it creates a tidal wave effect in our families. I don't want the young people in my life to ever think that suicide is an option. By being here, by beating back the darkness every day, I take the choice of suicide off the table.

No one wants to be on the psych ward. But it's a good place, a place of lessons (albeit hard ones!), a place of healing, a place of grace. I'm glad to be home, but I'm thankful for my time in the psych hospital.

Wise up!

Today is the feast of Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen - men both known for their wisdom.

"Wisdom" can be a tricky thing to pin down; we know it when we see it, but we don't see it much. So, let's explore a bit.

Merriam-Webster says "wisdom" is the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships or good sense. Um....okay. "Discerning inner qualities" makes me think of those folks who say they speak to the dead or can read your mind. And while I'm all for "good sense," I don't believe that is what "wisdom" is all about.

The Church puts much emphasis on "wisdom." There is an entire book of the Bible about wisdom. And it's not about "good sense;" otherwise, we'd be reading things like "put all your loose change in a jar and save for a rainy day!" or "Before going on a long car trip, make sure your spare tire is inflated." All very helpful, but not the characteristics that made Basil and Gregory saints.

The Church teaches us that wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit (as opposed to knowledge gained from experience.) That also means that if you're baptized, confirmed and in a state of grace, you are walking around engulfed and immersed in wisdom. Of course, it is your choice as to whether you use it or not, but it's right there for you. Further, [t]he theological virtues dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have God for their origin, their motive, and their object - God known by faith, God hoped in and loved for his own sake.

It's tough for us to "get" the role of wisdom in our lives. Watching a bunch of 8th graders getting confirmed and thinking, "Well, now they are all wise!" would likely not be the first thought that pops into one's mind. Wisdom, like all the virtues are indeed gifts for all of us, but we have to cultivate them, grow in them, seek God in each of them.

How do grow in wisdom then? If it's not something "out there," but rather something in me, a something God has placed there, how do I become more and more wise?

Thankfully, God provides pretty detailed instructions. In the Book of Sirach, for instance, wisdom is an oasis in the desert, a place of refreshment so beautiful, we want to stay:

Happy those who meditate on Wisdom, 
and fix their gaze on knowledge; 
Who ponder her ways in their heart, 
 and understand her paths; 
Who pursue her like a scout 
and watch at her entry way; 
Who peep through her windows, 
and listen at her doors; 
Who encamp near her house 
and fasten their tent pegs next to her walls; 
Who pitch their tent beside her, 
and dwell in a good place...

I love that line: "Pursue her like a scout." It makes me think of Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans. He tells the woman he loves, Alice, that despite his having to leave her, he will find her again, in the thick, nearly-impregnable land of the New World: You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you . . . 

Can you imagine what saints we would be if we pursued God and His wisdom with such single-mindedness? What changes would we see in ourselves, our homes, our world, if we pursued wisdom like a scout, dwelt in her, absorbing wisdom into our very being?

Let us begin then: today, pursue wisdom. Look for wisdom and dwell there for a bit. Listen for it. Gaze upon wisdom.

Lost But Not Forsaken

It is a well-established fact in my family that we are "directionally challenged." My mother could not read maps, and my father could not follow directions. Thus, we were lost on every vacation we ever went on. We got lost on the island of Puerto Rico, which is only 100 miles x 35 miles, so that was quite an accomplishment on my Dad's part.

I tried very hard to remove this curse from my generation. I'm an awesome co-pilot and a darn good navigator. My mother accused me once of marrying my DH simply because he ALWAYS knows what direction he's facing. (It's a bit sick, really, but...what can I do?)

DH was in the hospital for a few days (nothing too serious!) It's a large hospital, with seven different banks of elevators, a screwy parking garage (remember your level, letter and color!!) and some questionable signage.

The first night he was in, we were waiting for a test to be done, which we were told was imminent. Then the nurse came in and said he'd been moved to the back of the line due to several ER cases. I got kicked out, so that he could rest.

I took the wrong elevator down. And then I couldn't find the parking ramp, large as it is. The signs in the lobby took me so far, and then the signs for the parking ramp disappeared. Uh....?

I back tracked. Same results. I'll ask someone. That was a good plan, except that it was nearly midnight, and all the usual helpful people in the lobby were home. I sat down and nearly started crying - I couldn't figure this out, I was exhausted, and worried about DH. A lovely tech came by, walked me to the parking ramp, and wished me a good evening.

Monday night, at Mass, I gazed at the Nativity scene in front of the altar. It occurred to me that being lost is our heritage. The Jews were (sorta) lost in the desert for 40 years. I can't imagine that Joseph and Mary had a map as they hightailed it to Egypt in order to spare the Infant Jesus from death. And Jesus told us with great love that if we are lost, he'll come get us.

When you don't have a job and/or a chronic illness, being "lost" is a pretty common experience. I have spent most of the last two years asking God (ok, yelling at God): "Why am I here? I have no purpose here! Where do you want me to be? What do you want me to do here???"

(Side note: Yelling at God doesn't work. He will reveal answers in His own due time. And that's why he's God.)

He's answered a lot of my prayers. I have family that prays for me, friends who support me, a parish family that is brilliant and shimmering with faith.

I've come to realize that I have a cross-shaped hole in my heart. (Sorry, St. Augustine.) It is only when I am united with the Cross, the Crucifix, that I know I am home. The Cross becomes the compass, pointing us to Christ Himself. Once we are there, Christ graciously allows us to be a small part of His suffering.

I am lost, but never forsaken. And the act of being lost is important too. Just like I needed help to find the parking garage (and risk looking like an idiot when I asked for help.)

It seems to me that it doesn't matter how a person finds God or how God directs a person's life. What matters are these moments of grace when God reaches down and puts His light yoke upon us. No, he doesn't provide a map, but he does us one better. He reminds us first that He is with us, He will always be with us, and we are never alone.

Lost, but never forsaken. Found in Christ, our Eternal Home.

Into the Foggy Dew

If you've ever driven through a thick fog, you know what fear is. You can't see anything. You're not sure if you're still in your own lane. Your lights don't help; in fact, if you hit the high beams, the light will only reflect off the moisture in the fog, making it even harder to see.

Your hands grip the wheel. You sit up straighter. Every cell in your body is alert. You would pull off somewhere, but you truly can't see a thing.

I imagine that many of you feel that, in our present culture, we are driving through fog. Everything is muddled. Details are obscured. We can become so easily lost.

Sister Ruth Burrows, OCD, wants to help us make sense of the cultural and religious fog we seem to be trapped in. (By the way, if you are unfamiliar with the abbreviations of Catholic religious orders, OCD stands for Order of Discalced Carmelites. I know you were thinking obsessive-compulsive disorder.)

Sister Ruth writes:

We must move into the shadowy mists of detachment. Far on the horizon, see - God appears, and his coming spreads a mist over all the earth. We should want this silencing, shadowing mist, that cuts us off from unnecessary things - things that are not him for us. We cannot truly see them until he comes, so it is better to live in the mist - detachments, silence of desire - accepting the mystery. We must shroud our souls in Advent mist.

What?? I have to move into mists and fogs? How will I ever see God clearly if I do that? I can't even see my own hand in front of my face!

First, remember that God is mystery. Yes, we can know Him, but not fully, not in this life. We catch glimpses of Him in our sacraments, in Scripture, in those around us.

I think Sister's big point here is: stop relying on yourself. Stop stockpiling "stuff" in order to fill up that God-shaped hole each of us has. Everything we know, see, hear and touch in this world is distorted - we cannot see its full beauty or its full ugliness.

What we have to do, says Sister Ruth, is plop down and get very comfortable in the foggy mist. If we do so while fully trusting in God, He will not only keep us safe (and here I mean our true "us" - our souls), but He will reveal Himself at the right time.

We have to get comfortable with the fog. That means silence. Give yourself time and space to pray be shutting off the noise in your world. We must detach ourselves from all things that take our attention away from God, or worse, putting someone or something in the place where only God can be.

Even tougher: we have to trust that God has allowed this fog, and He will lift it when He knows it is the right time. Our job is to sit and prayerfully wait.

Perhaps when you were little, a parent gave you the lesson my dad gave us: if you get lost in the woods (which was a very real scenario for us), STOP MOVING AROUND. Sit and wait, Dad said, and we will find you. If you keep moving, it makes it harder and harder for you to be found.

In this Advent season, sit and wait. Be calm. Get comfortable with silence. Ponder what parts of your life you need to detach from.

Most importantly, know that God is with you in this foggy dew. You are not lost. Be patient. And God will reveal Himself. Yes, there in the mist and fog: God is there. What upon Him.

Always Faithful

We went to Mass last night, and had an older priest. In his homily, he exhorted us to "semper paratus:" Be prepared. The Gospel, of course, alluded to Christ's return, and Father wanted to  make sure our souls were ready.

I'm not sure I'm prepared.

I'm a darn good planner. I can whip up a meal for 30 people in no time. Lesson plans? Airtight. But prepared to meet God? Nope.

I try. It certainly is an idea that was pounded into my head by an Irish-Catholic mother. I just can't imagine being prepared for the End, or at least my End.

My mind drifted a bit as Father went on. I thought of the Marine Corps motto: "Semper Fidelis" (or Semper Fi"): Always faithful. Somehow that makes more sense to me.

Even though my dad had served in the Marine Corps, he was never the type to bark orders or demand that his little girls make a bed you could bounce a quarter on. He was very methodical, however, and very kind. He certainly took his wedding vows seriously, and loved Mom to pieces. She, he assured us, was the one in charge.

The church we were in last night has a gorgeous (Original! Restored!) altar, with Christ's Crucifixion at the center. Faithfully, His mother, Mary Magdalen and  St. John stand at the foot of the cross. Were they prepared? I can't imagine any mother being prepared for her child's execution. They were faithful, though.

Faithful means you show up, even if your scared. You speak up, even if your voice shakes. You grab a bottle of wine and maybe a frozen casserole to bring to a friend facing a bad diagnosis. Faithful makes that first or fifth or fortieth wedding anniversary possible, even when we are not prepared at all for the sacrifices required. I sure wasn't prepared for the gargantuan strength it took to manage five teens at home while teaching classrooms of teens at work, but I showed up.

I am not, in any way, saying that I have a solid handle of being faithful. Faith is a mystery, ultimately. And while I am not always prepared, I hope that my showing up for whatever God places in front of me counts as a just a tiny flicker of the faith it took to stand at the foot of the cross. God, of course, is always and perfectly faithful. And I'll stand in that truth any time.

Going "All In" With Jesus

One of the joys of being Catholic is that there is always new stuff to learn. And if you do run out of new stuff, there are plenty of new ways to look at the old stuff. No generation is without its woes, and no one of us escapes sin and its effects.

And one of the joys of being (ahem) middle-aged is that you forgot so much stuff! We learn all the time!

Our pastor mentioned something in his sermon yesterday. As I'm sure most of you are, I'm pretty familiar with the readings yesterday (specifically the 1st reading and the Gospel.) Most of us have heard them a time or two.

Here's the new thing I learned about these old readings: The first reading has Moses telling the people of Israel what the Word of God is: "...you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength."

Our pastor then pointed out how this is echoed in the Gospel, as Jesus answers the question about the most important commandment. He replies: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength."

Note that Jesus added: "with all your mind." I can't tell you why I've never noticed this before. I've read or heard those words countless times and never really questioned Jesus' version of it. Our pastor said this was, in fact, important.

The scribe who asked this was a scholar of sorts. His job was to copy sacred texts for the Jews, a job that required great accuracy in a pre-literate culture. While this scribe seems to be asking a genuine question, many of the scribes joined the Pharisees in looking for ways to "trip up" Jesus and His teachings.

Why "the mind"? Why did Jesus add that?

First, I think, He was speaking to the immediate audience. It is likely there were more than a few scribes there who may have sided with the Pharisees. Second, He was speaking to His disciples and the Apostles. They needed to know this in order to live and teach it! Finally, He is speaking to us, those in this life who dwell in sin and death. We also live in a highly literate society, where we are bombarded daily with information, commercials, ideas, websites, news, and on and on - all of it taking up space in our heads.

Just as God asked all that the Jewish people had to give, so Christ asks us. If we are to follow Christ, knowing He is our Lord and Savior, this is the price of admission. Your heart and soul, yes: your strength and your mind. All our frailties like depression and anxiety - we need to turn those over to Christ. Our bitter memories of long-ago hurts from family members: turn that over to Jesus. The knowledge we pride ourselves on, that is how we make a living? Yep, He wants that too.

In gambling, there is a term: "all in." You are putting all your money on this next card, or roll of the dice, or SnookiePie in the third, if you play the ponies. Christ is asking us to go "all in" here: everything that defines us.

As I've struggled with mental health these past few months, Christ's request is making more and more senses to me. Ultimately, He is asking for me to fall before Him, recognizing that He is Lord and Master of my life and a Brother who wants only good for me. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting there. At least I know enough keep trying.

A Tree is a Tree is a Tree

A few weeks back, we heard Jesus' parable about what makes a good tree . A good tree bears good fruit. I've heard this before, m...