Gratitude, Grace, & Grief

Close up of tableset with colorful plate for Thanksgiving party.

Thanksgiving.

Soon Davis will be here celebrating the holiday with me. I don’t have to be told how fortunate I am.

At the same time, I’m also aware that many will be missing a loved one at their Thanksgiving table this year.

Those who are still seeking news of a family member among the 700 or more missing in the California fires. Those whose loved ones were among the dozens of victims of mass shootings in the past several months, from a bar in Thousand Oaks to a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Sometimes it all feels like too much. We turn away. We turn off the TV. We find something else to occupy our minds.

Thanksgiving. Grieving. The two don’t quite go together.

Or do they?

Although we don’t have any control over when tragic, painful circumstances will strike our lives, our world, what I’ve discovered is what I do have control over – how I respond.

And, inadvertently, how grieving and gratitude can occupy the same space.

viktor_e_frankl_quote

I remember reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl years ago. One of the many things that struck me was a scene in which this man in the concentration camp is out working on the rock pile in the gray, predawn hours, concerned about his wife, and he turns to see the glory of the sun beginning to light up the sky as it rises in the distance. Even in what seems like a hopeless situation, he recognizes this as a moment of grace.

Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life – her diaries written during WWII – wrote: “I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life.”

Etty found herself in the midst of a frightening era of unspeakable atrocities. She also found herself on her knees, giving thanks for unspeakable beauty and grace-filled moments.

It seems when I, too, am brought to the edge of raw grief, I go to my knees. In surrender. In vulnerability and humility. Calling upon my Higher Self, the Holy dwelling within.

And then I discover the grace in my situation.

The grace that was there all along but I didn’t have the eyes to see. Until that moment.

Gratitude, grace, and grief can indeed occupy the same space.

I’ve learned this. And I am still learning it.

Learning it from my spiritual teachers, in Pathwork, the CAC Living School, Insight Meditation, and others, who continue to remind me that whenever life’s “disturbances” pull me down, I can pause and choose what to focus on.

And I’m learning it from our “guests” at the Loretto Nazareth hospitality center. Even after the kind of suffering they’ve experienced, they are still filled with gratitude for small kindnesses.

And every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of a parent and child on their knees before the crucifix displayed in our common area. In prayers of thanksgiving for their safe journey. And for their long journey ahead.

Something beautiful alongside the sorrow.

There is room for all of it.

And, in every moment, something to be grateful for.

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Fidelity

John Nava communion of saints
A section of John Nava’s Communion of Saints tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Los Angeles

Fidelity.

The dictionary defines it as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.”

I looked it up because, honestly, sometimes I wonder about my fidelity.

It’s true, I am committed to volunteering at the Loretto-Nazareth hospitality center two and now three days a week since the increase of refugee families arriving. It’s true, I am faithful to accompanying those in need and speaking out against anti-immigrant rhetoric whenever I can.

But I wonder…

How am I faithful when I fail so often?

Many times in one week, for instance.

faithfulness

It’s so hectic at Nazareth that, at times, I’m brisk with the people, shooing them out of our office, putting up a hand and telling them in a sharp voice to wait as I try to answer the phone’s incessant ringing or respond to another sick child’s need for Motrin or prepare a travel care package for the next family going out the door. I sense my irritation, the shortness in my response.

I am not proud of that.

It’s easy for me to feel irritated when I am pulled in so many directions and have difficulty completing even one task in a reasonable amount of time.

Then there are times when I have questions and doubts about what I am doing. The sensibility of caring for this steady stream of people – most of whom will be sent back to their country. Some will try again. Others won’t get the chance.

I find myself wondering how El Paso can keep this up. How it will all end – this seemingly endless mass of suffering people coming to our door. And the thousands railing against them rather than attempting to consider the possibility that intelligent, thoughtful solutions could help relieve some of this suffering rather than adding to it.

I know that a huge part of me wants to make things be different. Less pain. Less suffering.

And I also know that I am not perfect. I don’t have all the answers. And who am I to know or understand how God will use the pain and suffering we are experiencing now?

With yesterday being the Feast of All Saints, and today the Feast of All Souls in the Catholic tradition and el Dia de Los Muertos in the Mexican culture, I thought about the faithfulness of all those who have passed from this life. Family, loved ones, saintly ones.

A litany of them. Most were just ordinary people who did extraordinary things. With fidelity to a heart laid bare to the suffering of the world.

As my teacher Jim Finley explains, this is what fidelity is – laying your heart bare to the suffering and responding to it from this place of vulnerability, allowing God to work through you from that place. A place where love bears the suffering and doesn’t flinch, doesn’t turn away from it, doesn’t minimalize or deny it.

Sooner or later, we begin to see how our whole life has been an ongoing fidelity to the deepening of the love to which we’ve been awakened. But there is no awakening to this love without also a dimension of suffering involved.

Jim Finley_Quotefancy-

So, how am I faithful?

Every time my heart is laid bare to the suffering around me, including my own, and I don’t pull back but remain with it.

Every time I am willing to let go of my own agenda and don’t require or expect things to be different than they are.

Every time I pause and realize that I am not operating alone, I am not doing this “work” alone, for I would never have the means, the energy, the stamina, the fulfillment, the courage, and the joy I am experiencing if I were.

I find solace in remembering that the saints were ordinary people, too. That they couldn’t necessarily see the bigger picture either. That they, too, probably got on their own case when they slipped and failed for the second and third and fourth times.

The difference is they remained faithful to this extraordinary love. No matter the challenges.

All I am asked is to do the same – respond with love and fidelity to the need that’s right in front of me.

It’s that simple.  And it’s not that easy.

But I can count on my connection with God, with the Holy within me. And I can recall what it felt like when fidelity to the suffering in front of me expanded my heart.

The wonderful thing about saints
is that they were human.
They lost their tempers,
scolded God, were egotistical
or testy or impatient in their turns.
Made mistakes and regretted them.
Still they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven.

Phyllis Mc Ginley (1915-19780) American writer

Communion of Saints