“I’m struggling. My name is Joe, and I’m an addict. I’ve been to drug rehabilitation twice. I actually spent my 21st birthday there. Five years later, I’m still using drugs and I’m lying to my parents about where my money is going. I’m hurting my health, I know. It’s hard because I really want to be sober, but it’s just hard to stop. I guess I’m writing to you because your letters really are therapeutic to me.”
Today I sat down to write you a response even though, I freely admit, I know nothing about the nature of addiction. I typed one sentence when something happened. My wife came bursting into my office, shouting, “Otis has gone missing!”
Otis is one of our dogs. Otis is an alleged Labrador who might as well be our oldest child. He smells like a giant armpit and has chewed approximately 39 pairs of my reading glasses. But he is loyal, and he is mine. And we love him.
This dog, however, has been known to dig beneath our fence and explore the greater Birmingham metro area. I don’t know why he escapes. He has a pretty cushy life here. We feed him Science Diet, which costs more per bag than a four-bedroom beachfront condo.
My wife and I tore into our backyard and found a big hole beneath the fence. My heart dropped.
“Otis!” we shouted.
He was gone.
Within minutes we were canvassing the neighborhood. I was barefoot, jogging on the sidewalks, hollering, “Otis! Here, boy!”
None of our neighbors had seen him.
My wife and I split up to cover more ground, cruising side streets in our respective vehicles. We were circling the neighborhood while horrific scenarios were dancing in our heads.
In a moment like this, you find yourself acting irrationally. You find yourself losing your own sanity.
“Dear Lord,” you say aloud. “Please don’t let him go toward the highway.”
So you patrol the highway. After 30 minutes of searching, you start blaming yourself. You mentally flog yourself.
You tell yourself that if ONLY you would have reinforced the fence, he wouldn’t have escaped. If ONLY you wouldn’t have let him into the backyard without supervision, this wouldn’t have happened. If ONLY you would have been a more responsible dog owner.
“I’m such an IDIOT!” you say, pounding your hands on the steering wheel.
You’re lavishly and thoroughly panicking now. Your palms are clammy. Your heart is beating like a Sousa march. Your mind is going into dim corners.
You’re envisioning the corpse of your best friend, lying on Highway 31, limp, his little ribcage crushed. You’re envisioning red stuff saturating his white fur. You’re sick now. Physically ill.
Because you’re remembering when you once had a dog escape from your backyard a couple decades ago. He got hit by an SUV but was not killed instantly. He died in your wife’s arms. You are reliving that private hell all over again.
Now it’s been two hours.
Nobody has seen your dog. Everyone keeps giving you that frowny-faced look, telling you that if they see him they’ll call you.
One of your neighbors can clearly tell you’ve been crying and she starts praying for you in her front yard. This is sweet, but she is Pentecostal so she prays longer than anyone else in Western civilization and your legs start to fall asleep.
And still you keep looking. You visit local gas stations. You visit businesses. You knock on doors. “I’m sorry,” everyone says. “Haven’t seen any dogs.”
And eventually, you go home.
Because what else can you do? It’s been half a day now, the sun is setting and you’re nauseous. You stagger into the bathroom and kneel before the toilet because you feel like puking. But nothing comes up.
Later that night, you’re sitting on your sofa, lost in a morbid daze. Your eyes are puffy, and you realize you were supposed to be writing a response letter to a kid named Joe, but you can’t do it. Because your heart has been removed with a garden shovel.
Your dog is missing. Your dog is likely dead. Your dog IS dead, and it’s all your fault.
A tiny thought occurs to you. It’s a small thought. An infinitesimal thought. A nanoscopic thought. A thought so small you almost ignore it. But you don’t.
Something makes you stand. Something makes you go outside. Something causes you to make a beeline for your backyard shed. You were in the shed earlier today, doing yard work. Could it be?
The crickets are screaming. It’s nighttime. You unlock the shed door and 80 pounds of canine muscle shoots from the door and hits you like a steel cannonball. You fall onto the ground.
You are weeping.
“OTIS!” you shout.
He licks your face.
Your mind and body are so flooded with inexpressibly potent joy hormones that, if it weren’t for the laws of biology, they would cause your entire circulatory system to explode.
And in this intense moment, you realize that you cannot recall being this happy before. Not ever. You might never be this happy again.
Because, you see, what once was lost is now found.
So often I find non-religious, totally secular descriptions of a concept to be so much more effective than the stuff published in Christian literature. I offer the following link as an example of how to “See Christ in each and every person I come in contact with.” oh, and why that can be such a good thing!
Of late I been more aware of thin places. Places or moments when the veil between the present and eternity is less opaque and even feels almost translucent. When one can feel the rocks singing, or the air shift, or hear the heartbeat of the universe. Some of these are times when you know that you need to remove your shoes because you are standing on Holy Ground.
Last night, in the midst of family Christmas celebrations amid adults talking and children laughing, Pacabel’s Canon in D (the version from Home Alone) caught my attention. A thin place for me. The Canon, that low, steady 8 note progression that opens the music and stays steady and low throughout is the heartbeat of the universe. The lines that come into play as the piece progresses dance like all of creation. Some lower and slower, some lighter and brighter. I feel the creation of the land and the sea, earth and sky. The eternal is present in the here and now.
When I pass by Mother Mary at the entrance to the Blessed Trinity Shrine Retreat (hereafter referred to as Holy Trinity), the air shifts somehow and I know that this bit of east Alabama ground, so close to Fort Benning, is Holy Ground. I’ve known it since my first visit 50 years ago as an undergrad. I’ve felt it on every trip over since that time, even the times when I myself was in a place in life where I felt isolated and miserable and unloveable.
I’m not alone in recognizing Holy Trinity as holy ground. Very likely, it was the sight of the first mass celebrated by Spanish priests exploring the area with DeSoto. It is the place where Fr. Judge lived and worked in his tiny house. Home ground for a lay missionary ground, an order of sisters and one of priests. It seeps a Presence that attracts one to come, and listen.
I’m not much of a fan of Adoration. You know, where Catholics sit in the presence of a consecrated Host. But, I begin to understand a bit if it is a thin place. Not a place where we have God trapped in the Host, but a place and time where the veil between eternal Love and the present begins to disappear snd one can rest in that love.
There are places I would love to visit in this world to see if they are thin places. I’d like to visit Stonehenge to see if the rocks might sing to me. There are places in Ireland I’d like to experience. Would I sense history as I did at Santiago de Compostela at the end of the Camino? Would I know that God is near as I used to sitting in a pew at St. Mary’s? Would I experience the wonder of the gibbous moon looking down at me at 9 am on a clear winter morning?
I’m drawn to return to thin places I already know, and to seek others and stand quietly where the veil is almost drawn back.
I have no idea who Becky Hemsly is, but she speaks to my soul
‘She sat at the back and they said she was shy,
She led from the front and they hated her pride,
They asked her advice and then questioned her guidance,
They branded her loud, then were shocked by her silence,
When she shared no ambition they said it was sad,
So she told them her dreams and they said she was mad,
They told her they'd listen, then covered their ears,
And gave her a hug while they laughed at her fears,
And she listened to all of it thinking she should,
Be the girl they told her to be best as she could,
But one day she asked what was best for herself,
Instead of trying to please everyone else,
So she walked to the forest and stood with the trees,
She heard the wind whisper and dance with the leaves,
She spoke to the willow, the elm and the pine,
And she told them what she'd been told time after time,
She told them she felt she was never enough,
She was either too little or far far too much,
Too loud or too quiet, too fierce or too weak,
Too wise or too foolish, too bold or too meek,
Then she found a small clearing surrounded by firs
,And she stopped...and she heard what the trees said to her,
And she sat there for hours not wanting to leave,
For the forest said nothing, it just let her breathe`
~ Becky Hemsley ~
I sometimes reflect on those times I have known the presence of God in an almost tangible way.
I envy those who remember childhood as a time of safety, innocence and carefree fun. I seek to remember the times I felt that way. Then those feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, fear and just general discomfort arise and run amok over me. My mother once told me she thought me very shy, despite the fact I talked a lot (got teased about it) and I think I was rather outgoing. She once asked me why I always wanted to do things that I was not really good at (mostly athletic/physical pursuits) — implying, correctly, that I seemed disinterested in things where I could excel (intellectual/academic).
In high school I reached a point where I decided that I had to choose: to actually be a Christian or to admit I didn’t believe it and walk away. I had to get off of that fence. It was a pointed picket fence, painted white, in my mind. Coming from the South and good Calvinist roots, I feared blowing off the God of the churches I knew, I didn’t want to go to hell, etc. So, I chose the all-in route. I became some form of “Jesus freak” as it were. Of course, I missed the entire point of the Gospel. I took a rather judgmental approach to life and others. I am sorry for the pain I caused during this part of my journey.
This was an essential step it seems. To decide. To step out. To take a stand. Maybe right choice, wrong reasons. What is clear to me now is that it was more fear driven than anything else. Typical me. At least I was reaching out in some way.
On my religious/faith journey I came to the [Roman] Catholic Church by a crooked path. My first experiences of church were in the Southern Baptist Church (grandparents) and the Presbyterian Church. Both of Calvinist roots. From there I wandered into non-denominational groups as well as Pentecostal churches (I remember the Assembly of God and Church of God); I tried out Bible study with a local Church of Christ. Oh, and then the Methodist Student Center in college alongside the Catholic Student Center.
Ah! 1970s Catholics: people of community and faith who also enjoyed a party, some dancing, a few beers (especially green beer on St. Patrick’s Day) all while exhibiting a deep and abiding faith and dedication to the church (and mass). A new world.
Which leads me to a second moment of decision, under a fig tree. Yeah, I know — the story of Nathaniel is not lost on me.
Sitting under the fig tree that at one time graced the backyard of St. Michael’s church (founded as Sacred Heart Church), I heard the Lord say “You are going to be Catholic.” My response was similar to Moses when he tried to convince God that he wasn’t the right person to lead the Hebrews. In Moses’ words: “Not me, take Aaron!” As a lifelong protestant Christian, this was some serious stuff. (Thoughts here: I’m not becoming some damn Papist… you’re asking me to give up my identity! This is like leaving the church.) Nevermind that I was already starting to go to daily mass, did music for Sunday mass and generally hung out primarily Catholic college students.
God calls. And, in the end, I became a part of the Roman Catholic communion. It took 2 full rounds of Inquiry classes (now morphed into RCIA), and having to convince a priest (or 2) and a couple of nuns that this was the right move. I fully understand their concerns, but I also have learned that God draws straight with crooked lines (was that Vincent de Paul who said that?).
Fast forward past college graduation, grad school, marriage and becoming a mother. Fast forward through moving back to Auburn. Much frustration and probably some depression. A sense of inner deadness.
All I can say is be careful with what you ask for. In the confessional, trying to get past the dead feeling, my ask was to “widen the parameters” — I guess that was a cry to help be open up and look closely at where I was. Be brave. It was a time where I truly felt Jesus in the room. I felt I could reach out and touch Him. And, my world went upside down, inside out — a swiftly tilting planet as it were.
I wish I could say it was the beginning of a time of smiles and joy and more. Not so much. Confronting oneself is not an easy task. It was at times quite painful. I shut down many things that I couldn’t handle. But I found someone inside that I finally liked.
Not long after, I felt the wrath of an ultra-conservative group within the parish enabled by a new priest. Another call, another step. Another process.
One Saturday evening I took myself to a new and strange [to me] parish. Small space. The original Catholic church in the county. No music beyond the priest leading singing acapella. Music has always been an important part of liturgy to me. And yet, it was right. I went up to communion. When I returned to my seat, I promise you, it seemed to me that Jesus was waiting. I sat down and it felt like an arm was around my shoulder and a voice whispered in my ear: “Welcome home.”
It took another 18 months to completely move into this new home. It took a long penance where the music I led at mass was a prayer for those who I felt persecuted me. This time it seems I lost my parish and found my church. That Church is much, much larger than a parish. But this move was one done in love, not fear.
Themes I notice: sitting (sitting on a fence, sitting under a fig tree, sitting in a confessional, sitting in a pew); loss; stepping out;