Learning from Joseph

I have to…I have to…I have to… Those words are intimately familiar to me, whether in my workaholism, my perfectionism, my aggressive driving, my people-pleasing, or my shame at “failing.”

For me, it’s not so much the words as the intense sensations in my body – the pulsing energy in my chest, the tension in my shoulders, and the drivenness that pushes forward and pushes through. Even in those many moments when I am a calm haven for others amidst the storm, if I pay attention, I am sometimes holding an enormous tension within.

Saint Joseph has shown up often this past year, teaching me a different way – a way of trust and surrender, a way of poverty and depending, a way of obedience and peace.

This January, I was back in Florida to assist as one of the chaplains at the John Paul II Healing Center for the “Holy Desire” priest retreat. Each day, Bob Schuchts and Kim Glass invited us into a human sculpting exercise. It’s an improvisational group experience in which the participants interact to embody a scene. We begin with familiar stories from Scripture, such as the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem or the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Then we shift the scene: instead of the Holy Family, we see a dysfunctional family with a strained marriage; instead of Jesus as the beloved Son of God in the waters, we see a struggling sinner buried beneath the burdens of shame and fear and confusion. The many different characters attune to their own intuition and to what the others are doing as they interact to form a human sculpture. Characters include the Father, the Holy Spirit, various humans, angels, evil spirits, Mary, and Joseph. You never know what will happen – each sculpt is unique, and it’s surprising how the Lord shows up.

Each day, Kim invited me to be Saint Joseph. Having a devotion to Joseph is one thing. Imagining being him in a living scene is another!

As typically happens in these human sculpts, we all felt a sweet connectedness when Mary and I arranged ourselves along with the Trinity and the angels at the birth of Jesus. As Joseph, I felt both a poverty and a fullness at one and the same time. In terms of skill or power or capacity. I had nothing to offer. Yet I felt how much I mattered in God’s design. I was very much a father, even though all my fatherhood was from the Father. It felt easy because it got to receive from a Father so close at hand. It seemed silly to try to make anything happen on my own, when such abundant resources were right there. I felt a warmth, a calm, and an inner peace.

We shifted to scenes later in Jesus’ life, and to the scenes involving other human characters. I became a heavenly protector, no longer living my earthly life as a carpenter, but still intimately connected with Jesus and with all who are one with Jesus. For those of you less familiar with Catholic devotion, Joseph is the patron and protector of the whole Body of Christ. Just as he was chosen by the Father to be a father and steward in Jesus’ life, he continues to play that role for the entire household of the Church, and for all God’s children in Christ.

As the scenes shifted, my inner peace remained. There was enormous agony in the room as the human characters became cut off and suffered in torment. For many, it felt like those struggling would never be free from the increasing torment by the evil spirits.

Meanwhile, I continued feeling poverty and peace simultaneously. I empathized deeply with the human suffering in front of me, and remained as close as I could, while fully honoring their freedom. The Father never barges in or coerces, and neither would I.

I felt powerlessness and power both at the same time. I was doubly powerless – from within and from without. From within, I humbly acknowledged my poverty, my radical dependence on and obedience to the good Father who was always sustaining me and ready to work through me. From without, I felt powerless so long as and to the extent that the other human characters didn’t desire God’s help.

But I felt doubly powerful, and a deep and peaceful sense that “all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” I continued feeling the strength and tenderness of God the Father, flowing in and through me as an inexhaustible supply. I felt a sense of something powerful about to happen, any moment, in the life of the child of God who was agonizing in front of Mary and me. Michael the Archangel was near at hand. In a split second, both he and I could step in with the power of God, and all would shift. With the smallest sliver of desire or the tiniest opening of receptivity, the victory would be claimed.

Joseph has many beautiful titles in Catholic devotion. My favorite has always been “Terror of Demons.” Joseph’s way of living in the present moment, trusting, receiving, and surrendering leaves nothing for the evil spirits to take hold of in a wrestling match. His willing embrace of poverty opens up space for divine strength and power.

I began feeling the meaning of that title (“Terror of Demons”) as I watched and waited – not in anxious hypervigilance but in the swelling anticipation of Advent. Any moment, I knew, the archangel Michael and I would burst onto the scene.

Bob paused our sculpt, checking in with the different characters to see what we were experiencing. As it turns out, the demons and I were experiencing the same sense of divine victory being immanent, with Joseph playing a role. The person playing the spirit of confusion was indeed terrified and declared, “Dude, I don’t wanna be anywhere near Saint Joseph right now!!” He sensed his time was short.

The whole experience was a gentle invitation for me to set down any sense of “I have to” and allow myself to wait amidst the mess with poverty and trust. Victory is already assured, and I don’t have to make it happen. I just get to rejoice in being part of it.

Joseph’s poverty is so different from the sense of scarcity that tends to terrify me. I have a deep-seated fear of abandonment and a sense that it’s all up to me to make something happen. I try so hard to be capable and powerful – often fooling others and myself. But I don’t have to do anything. I get to be loved securely by the Father, and allow his love to flow through me to others.

Becoming like Joseph requires a further repentance on my part – precisely from that idolatrous seduction into a false sense of power. Letting go of “I have to…” means letting go of the very power that helped me survive some really powerless moments in life. I learned to survive – even thrive – amidst the chaos, earning privilege and admiration – neither of which are the same as the love I actually desire.

Those who know me know that I don’t shy away from intense or chaotic situations. I’m often drawn towards them, like the paramedic who runs towards the gunshots. Being the strong and calm one amidst the storm is a familiar role in my story. And I can be a great gift in those situations. The question is, do I do it from a sense of “I have to” or from a place of freedom and peace? Do I do it alone, or in connection with others and with God, welcoming and celebrating the complementary gifts that the others bring?

I’ve been on path of healing for several years. I’m not nearly so much a slave of “I have to…” as I used to be. But that reaction still shows up, and (I imagine) will continue showing up. It’s part of my story. With Joseph as father and teacher, I’m learning that I can engage my daily labors in a much different fashion. I can notice that drivenness and then remember who the Father is and who I am. I can then welcome connection with others. I can be okay amidst the unresolved tension and wait in poverty and trust for the inevitable inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.

What is your experience of work, rest, and play? Do you have any of your own familiar roles – ways of showing up in relationships that may have served you once, but now tend to hinder your freedom? May Joseph be both a model and a mentor for you as you learn to abide In love and truth.

With-ness and Witness

Advice is overrated.

When we are suffering or struggling or stumbling, we don’t need fixing or figuring out nearly as much as we need witnesses and companions. We need fellow human beings who are with us and for us, and who are willing to stay connected to us even when the answers aren’t obvious.

Consider the Crucifixion of Jesus. Although most of his closest companions fled and abandoned him, a few faithful witnesses remained at his side: “Standing by the Cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

For almost any of us, what an agonizing and overwhelming sense of powerlessness this scene would evoke! We could not bear to watch the one we love in utter torment. We would very quickly feel like we had to fix it or make something happen. But they stood. They witnessed. They remained in a state of with-ness. They loved.

I’ve been a priest for nearly 21 years, and have found myself in the face of all sorts of human misery. As a pastor of two churches, I was one of the first to hear the shock of a cancer diagnosis, whether from the patient or from his loved ones. I preached at funerals following suicide, tending to the survivors who were stricken with guilt and shame. I had a front-row seat to family drama when it came time to seize the car keys or relocate a declining parent into memory care. I saw all the various ways people deal (or don’t deal) with the dying of a loved one. I certainly saw death – or at least the before and the after of death, since the moment itself is veiled. I met with the depressed, the suicidal, the anxious, or the scrupulous. I heard thousands of Confessions, often of people feeling shame as they found themselves returning to the same sins over and over. I met many people who were desperately striving to fix their spouses or their children (even when the “children” were older than I was). I encountered far too many burnt-out caregivers who found themselves stuck in rage or depression after months or years of trying to do it all by themselves.

How was I “with” those people? How did I witness?  I’d like to say it was with the heart of Mother Mary as she stood at the foot of the Cross, but that hasn’t always been the case.

I can think of many times, in younger years, in which I felt like I had to fix it. I had to help them feel better, or change their attitude, or help them believe the truth. I had a preconceived outcome and saw it as my job to convince them of it. I compared their situation to those of other people who had it worse. I got them to laugh. I said pious things. I bypassed their deeper heartache.

To be fair to myself, I know many people who remember with gratitude the care I provided ten or twenty years ago. I was still myself, even though less mature. I have always been curious about people and caring about their suffering. I was not always in touch with my own sadness, shame, fear, or anger. I used to minimize my pain, ignore entire sectors of my heart, and avoid looking at the full truth of my story. That kept me from a deeper “with-ness” with others.

As I look back, I actually went quite often with people into difficult or intense situations – for as long as I can remember. It’s part of my story. From a tender young age, I learned to contain my own emotions and be strong for others. If others felt shame or panic or rage, I just had to take it. So I got really good at taking it. But “taking it” is different from “being with.” I take it because I have to. I learn how to be selectively present, and feel resentful if it gets overwhelming or extreme. And as the resentment or stuck-ness sets in, I become highly susceptible to addictive behaviors once the “have to” goes away.

Jesus willingly and freely entered his Passion. He chose it. He didn’t do it because he had to or because he should. Yes, he agonized in the garden (how could he not?). But he surrendered to his Father’s will in full freedom.

No one took Jesus’ life – not the Pharisees, not the soldiers, and not his Father. Every Good Friday, we hear the story in John’s Gospel. He is very much the one in charge. At any moment he could stop it. But he doesn’t. He chooses a solidarity with our suffering, a “with-ness” that defies normal comprehension. He plunges into the depths of our human misery – all the harm others have ever done to us, all the ways we ourselves have harmed, and all the damaging effects. He freely says “yes,” willingly connecting himself to all of it.

The three Marys willingly stayed connected to him. They stood at the foot of the Cross, not because they “had to” or felt stuck, but because they wanted to be witnesses and wanted to be with.

I still have a lot of growing up to do, but I am learning to be with and be a witness. In the face of powerlessness or heartache, I still sometimes notice in my bodily sensations an urge towards cracking a joke or generalizing or spiritualizing. Those are moments in which I can be curious about why I am pulling away. More often, I choose instead to remain with. Now that I have explored far more places of heartache in my own heart, I find myself able and willing to go into deeper and darker places with others, without losing myself. That exploration often takes us beyond the presenting symptoms (addictive behaviors, relational struggles, anxiety, etc.) and down to the roots. I keep discovering that the majority of our families, though beautiful, carry far more brokenness and dysfunction than we wish to talk about.

The same holds true for our church families. So many have left our churches over the last few generations – too often because we in the Church harmed them or neglected what they really needed. Among those who remain, you will find a significant number of anxious and not-yet-converted Marthas (cf. Luke 10:38-42), or of judgy and controlling older brothers or sisters who don’t want to see that they are every bit as lost as their “fallen away” or “prodigal” siblings (cf. Luke 15:11-32).

What do hurting people experience when they come to our churches? Do they encounter loving witnesses who are ready to stand with them at the foot of their cross? If so, they will feel a sense of safety and belonging; they will discover a secure home in which they can begin to heal and mature.

Too often, both people and priests alike behave like those who don’t yet recognize our total and radical need for the Divine Physician. When we humbly and truthfully acknowledge that need, when we get serious about walking a path of ongoing healing, we will discover in ourselves a much greater capacity for with-ness and witness.

Waste Not? Want Not?

Waste not, want not. So says the eighteenth-century aphorism.

Implied is a warning against the desperation of neediness. Presupposed is a sense of scarcity and a fear that there won’t be enough. Many of our families and our church institutions have lived by this adage for multiple generations.

What does Jesus have to say about wasting or wanting?

On Palm Sunday, we listen to the story of his Passion (Mark 14:1-72), beginning at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. A woman enters with an alabaster jar full of costly nard, breaks the jar, and pours the contents over his head.

Her extravagance elicits outrage from several of the guests “Why this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than 300 denarii! The money could have been given to the poor!”

They make a fair point. One denarius was the daily wage for a laborer. Multiplied by 300, we’re talking about somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 by today’s standards.

Yet Jesus praises the woman for lavishing this gift upon him. The poor will always be with us. Jesus will not. She has anointed him for his burial, and her good deed is to be remembered throughout the generations.

In Jesus’ view, there is a time and a place to be “wasteful” – especially when it comes to showing honor and delight to those we love. If we are dominated by a fear-based frugality, then our message to others easily becomes, “Let me calculate how much you are worth,” or “I don’t think you matter that much.”

What about “wanting”? What does Jesus have to say?  Actually, quite a lot!

When the crowds gather to hear his preaching, he begins with the Beatitudes. He invites us to experience true and unshakable blessedness by embracing poverty of spirit, mourning, and meekness. He invites us to feel the ache of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. It is in the depths of our needing that we are most capable of receiving.

Jesus did not merely teach us to need and depend and receive. He modeled receptivity, as did Mary and Joseph. They went in want. They lacked basic shelter as Mary’s pregnancy came to term. They fled into Egypt as immigrants, without knowing how their necessities would be met. Jesus spent thirty of his thirty-three years in relative obscurity, engaging (it seems) in far more receptivity than sacrificial giving. Nor did he stop allowing himself to need and to receive during his brief public ministry. He willingly received kindness and care from others. Even when his “hour” came and he said a free and wholehearted “yes” to sacrificing everything, he lodged in Bethany with his good friends.

“Waste not, want not” contains a small amount of wisdom, but ultimately dehumanizes. It teaches us to be terrified of going in want, of needing, of depending, of receiving – in stark contrast to the teaching and example of Jesus.

Can we be curious about where this attitude comes from?

I see it as a survivor mentality, including an inner vow (“I will never go in want again!”). Doing what it takes to survive is great in a desperate situation. If you’re stranded on a ship for months, “waste not, want not” is an outstanding motto. But when that survivor mentality becomes enfleshed in everyday life, it becomes a burden.

I think of my childhood, and pleasant-enough visits to my great grandmother on my stepdad’s side. The house was, shall we say, “cozy.” Stuff piled everywhere. Like so many, she was a survivor of the Great Depression, determined never to go in need again. When she passed, my stepdad and his sisters spent many hours cleaning out the clutter. He joked about the piles of used paper cups from McDonald’s. You just don’t know when you might need them again. Waste not, want not.

He joked, but he lived by the same mentality. Shortly after her death, he needed to move his tools out of her garage. So, we tore down our one-stall garage and built a five-stall. He cleverly salvaged the old door, turning it into a back entrance.

The new garage was huge, but we never parked cars in it.

It was way too full of stuff. Some of the things (his tools) were quite valuable.  Much of it was, well, less valuable. When my stepdad passed in 2010, my sister and I spent a few days toiling to clear out the garage. We didn’t find any paper cups, but we sure got rid of stuff. It was a great moment of triumph when we announced to our mom that she could start parking her car there.

As we cleared out the junk, I made trip after trip to the curb. I discovered the power of another proverb, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Between trips to the curb, all had magically disappeared – into someone else’s five-stall garage, apparently?

Cluttered garages and homes can be joked about – and we’ve all seen them. They range from mildly annoying to utterly disgusting and dangerous. The deeper question here is around the survivor vow that gets taken amidst heartache: Never again!

Never what, exactly? That’s the problem with vows made out of fear. Over time, they cut us off from really great things: in this case, from the capacity to receive and give love in healthy community, to flourish, and to experience abundance together.

Survivor vows are not merely individual – they entrench themselves in the collective: families, churches, schools, entire dioceses. Many of our institutions are darkened by a cloud of fearful protectiveness – and then lament that membership is so low. In one of my previous parishes, I repeatedly turned on lights that others had shut off. I was expecting first-time guests, and (with sensitivity) expecting them to be nervous. I felt like it would be kind to have them enter a warm and inviting space, rather than snake their way around dark corners. There were some in the parish who couldn’t handle such extravagance, whispered about my wastefulness, and shut the lights back off the moment I wasn’t looking.

More recently, I heard about “Plategate.” A priest friend was hosting with pizza after Masses in his church. He had the gall to use the paper plates stored by some of the church ladies. They made a point of hiding those before the next Mass. So he purchased his own plates. They proceeded to hide those. I imagine there are hundreds of priests nationwide who have their own versions of “Plategate” as they try to invite renewal in their churches.

Fear is a normal human emotion. But when fear of that happening again takes over and hops into the driver’s seat, we stifle the capacity to receive, to grow, and to bear fruit. We wind up embodying the parable of the talents, living like the fearful servant who buries his gift in the ground (Matthew 25:14-30). We cut off all vulnerability and risk, and in the process stifle any real growth or fruitfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. That choking off affects not just us, but all of our relationships.

Our God is not a God of scarcity but of abundance. When we allow ourselves to be secure in his love, we can feel confident and creative. We can collaborate and innovate. We can go beyond the math of adding or subtracting, and discover the power of multiplication – something Jesus often talked about and did.

Our God is first and foremost a God of relationship. God is an eternal communion of persons. Jesus is eternally “from the Father.” Who he is and what he has are the fruit of receiving. He desires to share the same abundance with us. He invites us to become truly blessed precisely by learning how to desire, to want, and to need.

During Holy Week, we will ponder just how much Jesus embraced our human condition of wanting and needing. I invite each of us to be curious about the ways we resist that level of vulnerability, and how he might be inviting us to conversion.

Into the Desert

We begin another Lent. Jesus enters the desert to engage in combat with the devil. He shares in and represents our humanity. “He was tempted in every way we are, but did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He allows himself to be weak and vulnerable. He abides in his identity as a beloved Son. With humility, trust, and confidence, he conquers. He shows us that genuine human maturity is possible. We get to share more and more in the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

Sometimes I taste that freedom. Other times, I resonate with the words of the apostle Paul: “I do not do the good that I desire, but the evil that I do not desire is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15). Even though I have free will, I often fee unfree!

This is where the ancient Christian Tradition of asceticism comes in. Beginning in the 200’s, many Christian men and women flocked to the desert to engage in spiritual combat and claim more fully the peace that only Christ can give.

Many people today haven’t even heard of “asceticism” or “ascesis.” Or if they have, they are likely to misunderstand or distort what it’s really about. People tend to hate it or love it for all the wrong reasons!

The Greek word askesis literally means “exercise” or “training.” Ascetical practices, when healthy and holy, are like the best of athletic training. Healthy training is directed toward a positive goal. It may include a good deal of self-denial, not to mention rigorous practices that are uncomfortable or even painful.

There can be joy, exhilaration, freedom, and peace in discovering that I am capable of so much more – and then actually experiencing it. I think back to my high school years, and the weightlifting and football training. Through intense discipline and consistent practice, often in community with others, celebrating each milestone, I discovered new possibilities that I didn’t know were within me.

I had similar experiences during the last decade, both with exercise and with how I eat. I remember quite vividly two triumphant moments about ten years ago. One was riding my bicycle up a tall and steep hill, staying in the lowest gear and determined to “just keep peddling.” It was so exhilarating when I actually made it to the top and kept going! Likewise, after months of buildup, I finally made it through an entire rigorous exercise video, muscles burning and heart pounding. It felt amazing. Seven years ago, after conversations with my doctor, I discovered new motivation to be healthier around food and alcohol. More importantly, my work in therapy and group therapy was opening my eyes to my emotions and my needs. I noticed how many times a day I felt an urge to eat (without actually being hungry). I became curious about what was really happening. I made phone calls daily to talk about it with friends. The self-denial around food opened up an awareness of how much within me needed care and healing.

I look back and see how Spirit-led all of it was. I received an abundance of healing; I genuinely matured. I look back, and I also see some pitfalls in the process – my pride and shame. There was a certain impurity in my motives – relishing the positive attention from others, silently making comparisons or judgments, and believing lies that I was somehow more lovable because I weighed less and looked different. More subtly, there was the role (the false identity) that I had adopted in adolescence – that of the golden child, who looks and acts the part and makes the family system look good. I played that role in my family; I played it for my church family; I even played it at times during 4+ years of group therapy. I recall a moment in which the group facilitator made a comment about me being the “poster child” of the group. As has happened so many times in my life, that admiration felt amazing but ultimately left me feeling empty. As I have previously described, admiration is not the same as love; and drivenness is not the same as desire.

Two years ago, I parted ways amicably with that group, as my healing journey went in a new and deeper direction. Those who truly know me and love me describe to me many ways they have seen me continue to grow. I have also “grown” in less desirable ways – externally showing weight gain that belies some of my unhealthy habits that have crept their way back in. And then I battle with the old accusing voice of shame, calling me a hypocrite – here I am, invited in my current ministry to lead other priests into healthier living, and I find myself not living in a healthy way. But that shame is telling me lies. Now I get to seek asceticism out of desire rather than fear or shame. Moreover, I now see more clearly the toxicity that is so often present in the fitness culture, the shame and contempt towards certain bodies, and the idolatry of thinness. Being healthy and holy is not about the shape of your or my body or the number that shows up on the scale. It’s certainly not about gaining the adulation of others. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that is more interested in selling their products and services than in real human flourishing. The messages are often manipulative and shaming. As it turns out, both fitness culture and asceticism have much to offer, and both are full of pitfalls.

The desert is a dangerous place. There are fell creatures there. The devil doesn’t sleep. The combat is not easy. The victory is not a one-and-done, but an ongoing and very non-linear process. When you withdraw from the world and engage in healthy self-denial, it is then that the real combat begins. Sometimes you get your lunch handed to you. Much like the cave in The Empire Strikes Back or the woods of Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings, entering the desert uncovers what already lies within your heart – and then the real combat begins.

The lives of the saints are so often sanitized or glamorized – as though they easily and quickly achieved holiness and purity. Their lived reality was so different! As Bishop Erik Varden describes in his new book on chastity, the virtue of purity is actually exceedingly rare, because it takes many years of patient and diligent effort to mature into it. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes (nn. 2337-2445), this process of maturing into purity is a long and exacting labor that must be renewed in every stage of life. It requires lifelong apprenticeship. It is mainly about healthy relationships, emotional maturity, and our capacity to receive and give love.

Let’s not forgot how Jesus begins his combat in the desert. He is not led there out of fear or shame, nor to improve his public image, nor because he is hoping he can change and become lovable. No, he is led there at his Father’s invitation, by the Holy Spirit, immediately following his baptism. He has already been claimed as the Father’s beloved, in whom the Father delights. He is anointed by the Holy Spirit for the battle. It can be the same for us.

Secure relationship comes first. We first are loved and delighted in and belong. We first receive strength from on high. If you are like me, much of the battle will be with the multi-layered lies of shame that keep trying to tell me I can only be lovable if

Shame gets healed in communion – communion with God and healthy community with each other.

This Lent, I feel the Lord inviting me to reclaim healthy discipline, to engage in exercise (ascesis) in both bodily and spiritual ways. I am resolved to do so out of a desire to abide in love, to grow and mature, and to bear fruit. I may once again discover mixed motives; it’s still worth it. Layer by layer, the Lord will keep patiently and gently uncovering my heart. Such was the prophecy of Simeon to Jesus’ mother Mary. As her Son dies on the Cross, he gives her to me as a mother who always delights in me, shelters me, and guides me. I am already loved. I can now grow and keep growing.

Jesus conquers the devil by standing firm in his identity. I pray that you and I may remember who we are as we pray and live into the Collect prayer of Ash Wednesday:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.

As we enter the desert with Jesus, may we come to share more fully in his Paschal victory, and claim that joy and peace that no one can steal away.

Triggers and True Kindness

These days, merely uttering the word “triggered” is likely to trigger someone.

There are many who mock today’s tendency to give a “trigger alert.” I notice intense reactions of contempt among some of my fellow Christians. I have a hard time imagining Jesus showing the same scorn. He compassionately sought out those who were weak or wounded. He met them with tender love. He did not expect them to pull themselves together before he would allow them to belong or to follow him.

At the same time, Jesus did not preface his teachings with a “trigger alert.” In his parables and conversations, you can see him intentionally eliciting a reaction from his listeners. He skillfully provokes in order to uncover what needs healing, to awaken desire, to proclaim Good News, and to invite them into a covenantal relationship in which they can grow and bear fruit.

To be triggered is to experience a bigger reaction to a situation than one might normally expect. Amidst a sudden influx of images or bodily sensations, a trigger might elicit a flash of anger, a surge of sexual arousal, a pang of dread, a paralyzing anxiety, or a dissociative numbness.

And it happens so very quickly. Hence the term “trigger.” Much like a speeding bullet, our nervous system and limbic brain have the capacity to be launched into a life-or-death response.

The reaction happens first. Rational thinking may or may not follow, depending on the intensity of the reaction. The activation or the shutdown of our body begins in a fraction of a second. We are already mobilizing, fleeing, freezing, or going numb by the time our rational brain gets the memo a few seconds later – that is, if the memo even arrives. Survival is the priority when it comes to our body’s trauma responses.

Eight centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas noticed and reflected on these reactions that are common to all mammals. Deer who have memory of being hunted experience a swift reaction in the presence of humans. Our bodies and brains have a capacity to remember, to form associations, and to expect what will happen next. Without having access to the findings of neuroscience, Thomas was already observing the principle that “neurons that fire together wire together.”

In situations of threat, getting triggered is a marvelous asset. The speed and intensity of our reaction are the very thing that helps us get back to safety. In day-to-day relationships, triggers can be frustrating, as we go on hurting ourselves and the ones we love by any number of reactive behaviors: raising our voice, interrupting, berating, glaring, getting small, fawning, avoiding, withdrawing, isolating, going numb, turning to an addiction, etc.

Most of us wish we didn’t have these reactions. We wish they would just go away. Or we feel resentful at those who so insensitively trigger us. Yet every trigger is an opportunity to experience authentic connection, healing, and repair.

I began exploring my own triggers seven years ago, in my early months of healing and recovery. I remember that summer well, slowly reading Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They gave names to my behaviors and experiences. I didn’t always like it. It was painful to see how often I had been putting expectations on others and on myself, rather than acknowledging and feeling my deep and unmet needs. It was also liberating to tell the fuller truth. It opened up more and more curiosity.

Mark described triggers as an opportunity to be curious about my unmet needs, to become responsible for them, and to communicate about them – rather than expecting or demanding or resenting. Daily curiosity allowed me to notice and share with friends my various overreactions. Little by little, I grew in an awareness of what I was really feeling and needing. I noticed how present-day reactions were connected to my story.

Debbie described her preference to imagine triggers as “anointings” – meaning that we can welcome the anointing balm of the Holy Spirit any and every time we feel a strong reaction. That was such a lovely invitation, and one that I also started practicing.

There began in me a “thawing out” process. After decades of minimizing my feelings and needs, I began paying attention, allowing time and space and care. There’s a real challenge there – thawing out hurts!! Over time, I discovered new layers in my story – long years of loneliness and heartache that I had never fully felt. With the strong and tender presence of the Virgin Mary, my daily prayer became a time in which I could bring my daily triggers, allow myself to feel more of them, and welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was so painful and so consoling.

These experiences unfolded over months and eventually years. Scriptures began coming to life for me. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). That means I can allow myself to feel intense sensations in my gut, chest, or throat. I can welcome the Holy Spirit there. He can anoint me there. The very name “Christian” implies being a “christ” – being anointed as Jesus was anointed. Jesus promised that very anointing in the Beatitudes when he said “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be paracleted.” (Matthew 5:4). I use the word “paracleted” in order to highlight the anointing of the Paraclete that soothes and encourages us whenever we are willing to experience our intense heartache and receive needed care.

Case in point: Just minutes ago, I received an unexpected and totally unwelcome interruption. It abruptly brought up all kinds of intense memories for me. So what did I do? I felt resentment and anger at the text message. I devoured an unhealthy snack, feeling shame as I ate it, along with the predictable and not-nearly-enough soothing sensation. Then I noticed myself just wanting to push through and move on. Then I felt the invitation to practice what I am preaching here. I took 5 minutes to lie down, allowing myself to feel more of it. I wept and shook and gasped for air. I realized how young I was feeling (like a 1-year old?). I realized how powerless and unprotected I had been feeling, and how familiar that was to my nervous system. I allowed time to receive comfort. I feel much more peace now.

Part of me feels frustrated at this “fragility” or that I still need so much. But if I tell the truth, what today required a 5-minute break would have set me in a rut for days or weeks in the past – and without me even being aware that I was triggered. The healing steps that I have already taken now give me a window of opportunity (usually) to notice and be aware, and to decide how to respond to the trigger. It’s a slow process that requires the faith of a child.

In healthy human development, as infants or toddlers or children, we have thousands and thousands of moments like the one I just had. Initially, that care comes from others; over time, we grow in our own capacity to notice what’s happening, to be resilient and resourceful, and to respond with good care and reasonable behavior.

As I get to know thousands of people’s stories, I am discovering an unpleasant reality. Most Americans I know did not experience myriads of moments of that kind of care as a child. We were more likely to be ignored, dismissed, judged, threatened, humiliated, attacked, or used. Many of us learned at a very young age either to keep our needs and feelings to ourselves, or that we will only get care if we perform or achieve, if we are dramatic or manipulative, or if we are giving something in exchange for it. We can expect as adults that it will take many thousands of moments of getting triggered, noticing our reaction with kindness, taking time to receive, and reconnecting. The alternative is to continue through life with unhealed wounds and unmet needs – which ultimately means remaining wounded people who wound people.

What about other people’s triggers? If we look at Jesus, we see grace and truth. Kindness seeks to heal ruptures, restore communion, and grow together in love. That requires a skillful combination of empathy and truth-telling. Jesus shows a marvelous awareness of what each person needs at a given moment. He neither backs away nor barges in. He loves them first, and then playfully engages their defenses, inviting them into more love and more truth.

To be oblivious or uncaring about what is obviously triggering to someone else is unkind or even cruel. But to expect others to tiptoe around my own triggers is egoistic and even abusive. I should know! I spent much of my life tiptoeing around others’ triggers. I’m learning that I don’t have to keep doing that. It helps neither me nor them. Their triggers and their needs are their responsibility, even if I genuinely care about them.

We all need people who care about what we need and feel, and who help us make sense out of life. Jesus needed that – and he experienced that! Not from most people, but from some.

Will we become again like little children? Will we admit and acknowledge the depths of our need, and be aware that those around us have their own stories and their own needs? Will we be responsible for our own needs and not expect others to do acrobatics around our tripwires?

May the true kindness of Jesus be an open invitation to each of us, in our own human growth, and in our relationships with one another.

Welcoming Emmanuel

God is with us. God is greater.

With these two simple statements, I invite each of us to be open and receptive to the good news of salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing in ever greater measure. It’s a simple invitation, yet not an easy one!

That is because there is tension in those statements – a tension familiar to Joseph and Mary, and to true believers in every age. God was with them. He showed up in their lives, multiple times – usually in unexpected ways, even though they were looking for him. To announce the coming of Emmanuel, God sends his angel. Each of them welcomes the good news with trust and joyful obedience. But God leaves far more questions unanswered! Mary ponders all these things in her heart. She seeks to understand, without (like Zechariah) insisting on grasping it all. Joseph promptly obeys the message of each dream. He believes God is with him, and recognizes that God is infinitely greater. He obeys with trust, not having any sense of the how or the when of the fulfillment of those good promises. God was with them. God was greater. They allowed that tension to linger and play itself out. They received and kept receiving, in a way that kept expanding with each new unveiling of the mystery.

God has shown up many times in my own life – often in surprising and unexpected ways. Again and again, he reminds me that he is truly with me. When I welcome his presence, I am aware – sometimes painfully – that he is so much greater. I am consumed with a longing that is both joyful and sad – joyful because I am truly drinking in his comforting presence, sad because I sense his grandeur and my own limited capacity to receive. The gap feels insurmountable, even when he reassures me of his goodness.


I can see, over the years, how much he has stretched me, increasing my desire and so increasing my capacity to receive and give. Sometimes I joyfully cooperate and welcome the expansion and growth.  Other times, I resist.

I notice two frequent temptations. One is to “arrive” – to have it all together and all figured out. In response to this temptation, there is the cliché telling us that it’s more about the journey than the destination. That’s not entirely true. The destination matters. It’s just that the journey is so darn long – and has to be – because God is infinitely greater! In his longing to share his fullness with each and all of us, he will offer every opportunity to stretch our hearts and increase our capacity for union with him. My ache to arrive is not bad in and of itself. The Magi felt it in their search for Emmanuel. Joseph and Mary felt it in their search for shelter.

There are moments that indeed feel like “arrival” – Emmanuel moments in which God definitively shows up with a further unveiling. These moments bring immense and intense joy – as we see in the story of the Magi and the renewed movement of the star (Matthew 2:10).  Many of us are then tempted, like Peter, to build our tents and stay there at the moment, as though we’ve now arrived. If we are wise like the Magi or Joseph or Mary, we will humbly recognize that there is still far more to be unveiled, all in due time.

My second temptation is to sabotage the expansive growth God is offering. I sometimes (even often) prefer to stay small and return to my familiar little cell – even when I see signs that those surroundings are increasingly rotting and toxic. Jesus has broken open the bars of that cell and shattered my chains. I am free to step out into expansive Hope. Yet, like so many survivors of a prison camp, the bigness and freedom now available feels unfamiliar and scary. Following the star to an unknown destination includes leaving familiar contexts behind – and I resist. In those moments, I am not so much avoiding pain as avoiding the immensity of the desire and of the increasing goodness that I am entering.

Thanks be to God, my fumbling and stumbling has not for a moment stopped Jesus from remaining Emmanuel – fully present and active. He keeps surprising me and keeps alluring me to grow into the fullness of his Kingdom.

There is a third way, one that invites a holy remembrance of past blessings and an eager anticipation of unknown blessings yet to come. This is the way exemplified by Mary and Joseph. It is the way ultimately embraced every true mystic or saint. It is also what we enter into communally in liturgical seasons and observances, indeed in every Mass. We connect with each other and with God. We confess our unfaithfulness and seek reconciliation. We remember the ways God has been with us. We profess our Hope and pray eagerly for his coming. Healed and nourished, we are sent out eagerly on mission into the world with renewed Faith, Hope, and Love.

I have also learned the importance of having my own personal ways of remembering and anticipating. In my meeting spaces, my workplaces, or my places of prayer, I allow myself to have outward reminders of the ways God has truly showed up on my journey. My friends at the John Paul II Healing Center would call these the “Emmanuel Moments” in my life. My friends at the Allender Center would call my outward reminders “Ebenezers.” Emmanuel is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Ebenezer is Hebrew for “a stone of help” – as in the memorial stones sometimes erected in Old Testament stories to remind people of the ways God has showed up. I can return to these moments – not to cling to them or to stay there, but to be reminded of the twofold truth: God is with us, and God is greater.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) led thousands of believers through his Spiritual Exercises – indeed, many millions if you count five centuries of retreatants. One of his greatest points of emphasis is “repetition” – returning to experiences of divine consolation in order to soak in more of the blessing and grow into fruitfulness. Here we see a strong conviction in the truth of both statements: God is with us; God is always greater.

“Consolation” is ultimately from the Greek New Testament word that means “paracleting” – that is to say, the undeniable presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. When we know that the Spirit of God has shown up and begun working in us, there is an invitation to keep returning, keep discerning, and keep receiving. In times of desolation, remembering God’s goodness offers us endurance and Hope – resisting the temptation to become discouraged and get small. In times of consolation, returning to those moments allows us to receive even more, resisting the temptation to settle or “arrive” without further growth.

These days, this invitation is especially crucial. So many are feeling afraid or discouraged by the seeming strength of evil. And the toxic currents of our smart phone / social media culture are tirelessly stealing away our rest and sweeping us along, enticing us to keep moving and keep distracting ourselves. Now, more than ever, there is the invitation to allow God to be with us. We can remember the ways he has already shown up, be open to the surprising ways that he is showing up even now, and expect him to increase and expand his blessings upon us in the days ahead. May we all be open to the good news and the salvation that Jesus brings, and will keep bringing, until he becomes all in all.

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