Mary’s Receptivity

Today we celebrate the Annunciation. God sends the archangel Gabriel to announce our salvation to the Virgin Mary. God promises to send us a savior, a mighty king, the Messiah, his own beloved Son. Mary gives her free and wholehearted “yes!” to God’s message. The Word becomes flesh and dwells in our midst, beginning by abiding in the womb of the Virgin Mary for nine months.

Mary models for us what it means to receive. She is an empty vessel who eagerly accepts all that God gives – without adding or subtracting or altering. Yet, far from a passive bystander, she actively engages the entire process from beginning to end. Moreover, she shares the experience in communion with many others. The joy of the gift she is receiving leaps like flames of fire into the hearts of John the Baptist and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the angels, the Magi, Simeon, and Anna.

Receiving love should be the easiest thing in the world to do. Is it not a deep desire of our human heart? Yet somehow, receiving love proves exceedingly difficult! Speaking for myself, I daily notice layers of self-protection and resistance to the free and wholehearted receptivity that Mary so joyfully exhibits. My fear and my pride repeatedly get in the way. Even when I do begin to receive, it is not usually a steady abiding. It proceeds in fits and starts, two steps forward and one step back.

Receptivity is a theme quite dear to me – one that I ponder often. In a more academic fashion, I delved deeply into this topic as I researched and wrote my doctoral thesis. If you are ever needing a sleep aid, you may find it a great help! Truly it has the worst title ever: The Ecclesiological Reality of Reception Considered as a Solution to the Debate over the Ontological Priority of the Universal Church. In fact, I had to add another hundred pages just to ensure that the title would fit on the spine of the book. Well okay, maybe not – but it’s still a terrible title, and not a book most people would enjoy reading.

Nevertheless, the core insight I received in writing the thesis was a simple and spiritual one: Receptivity is at the core of our identity in Christ. The Church is a community of reception by her very nature. To be a Christian means being received and receiving. First and foremost, that means being taken up into the one Body of Christ – a reality that always looms over us and calls us into deeper conversion. Ephesians describes God’s eternal plan of drawing all things into one in Christ. Little by little, this Body of Christ grows to full stature. One day, he will become all in all. The life of heaven will be the life of the one Body of Christ.

Our encounter with this living and breathing Body of Christ changes everything. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). Jesus did not say “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” He said, “Why are you persecuting me?” To be a disciple of Jesus is to be received into his very flesh.

However, being a Christian also means actively and freely cooperating, eagerly desiring to grow and to receive more and more of the fullness of Christ, to become who we are. Our faith in Jesus becomes active in good works, as we grow and bear fruit, building up the body in love.

Finally, to be a Christian means to be receptive of each other, just as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7). That visible communion among believers is the good fruit that emerges. Love of neighbor is a wonderful litmus test of our love of God. As the apostle John reminds us, if we do not love our fellow Christians, whom we see, we cannot claim to love the God we do not see (1 John 4:20). Saint Augustine comments on our need to love our enemies and to love the poor in our midst. If we say we love Jesus, but do not love these little ones, we are effectively giving Jesus the embrace of peace while stomping on his feet with spiked boots. Ouch.

That brings us back to the Virgin Mary, and her holy example of receptivity. She models all these virtues of reception. First and foremost, she is passive. There was no question of being “creative” in the moment of the Annunciation. The initiative was entirely on God’s side, and her deepest desire was to receive. True receptivity is perfectly passive before the divine mystery. In humility and silence and peace, we become like a mirror that reflects God’s glory.

Yet her passivity, her radical receptivity, did not mean any shutting down of her God-given faculties. She loved him with all her heart and mind and soul and strength. And so she asks the angel, “How can this be?” Actually, the Greek literally says, “How is this?” Unlike Zechariah, Mary does not doubt God’s promise. She believes that what is spoken will be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). But true faith desires understanding. True faith desires a free and active cooperation, matching God’s initiative step for step with a  free and wholehearted response, a total “yes!” – as though she were a partner in a divine dance with the Lord. She is always attuned to God’s initiative and responding to it. Luke tells us twice that Mary ponders God’s mysteries in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). Recognizing that the mystery is ever greater than she is, she keeps actively cooperating while passively surrendering.

Finally, Mary’s heart is wide open to communion with others – receiving and being received by the many members of the Body of Christ. She sets out in haste to visit Elizabeth and share what she has received. The scene of the Visitation is one of joyful recognition of the mighty deeds of the Lord. The infant John recognizes the infant Jesus, and dances for joy. Elizabeth praises the mighty things God is doing in and through Mary – a truth which Mary affirms and celebrates. Far from false humility, she sings God’s praises, and even prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. However, all praise goes to God her savior. She is merely the empty and receptive vessel who has received God’s Word and freely cooperated.

The love of Jesus truly sets us free. He is our savior. That love flows in and out of us in the person of the Holy Spirit, who is the soul, the lifeblood of this Body of Christ, whose members we are. We drink deeply of this Spirit, and share the same Spirit as we give our love to others. The gift is meant to be received and given, to flow in and out as the Heart of Jesus sustains us all in unity and peace. On this, Mary’s feast day, may she help unclog our hearts so that we may be truly receptive and abide in the love of Christ.

Burdens and Loads

In the first five verses of Galatians 6, the apostle Paul urges us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Then he abruptly offers the opposite observation: “each shall bear his own load.” Normally Paul puzzles us with his patented run-on sentences. Here, however, his words are brief, but baffling. They offer us a paradox, a seeming contradiction that conveys a deeper truth about discipleship.

What is that deeper truth? I think Paul’s teaching on burdens and loads is very similar to the teaching of Jesus regarding motes and beams: “Why do you notice the mote in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the beam in your own eye? … You hypocrite, remove the beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the mote from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

In both cases, the teaching is the same lesson that Saint Monica had to learn (if you recall last week’s post). It’s the same lesson the elder brother needed to learn as he rattled off to his father all the faults of his younger and prodigal brother (Luke 15:25-32). It’s the same lesson every codependent Christian needs to learn. It’s the exhortation to be receptive rather than restless and reactive, to recognize our own need of salvation before rushing off to save others. In the Beatitudes, Jesus challenges us to be poor in spirit, meek, vulnerable, and receptive before God. It’s so easy focus our energy and attention on helping or serving (or fixing) other people. It’s so hard to seek and receive the mercy and healing that we ourselves need.

There are many misguided Christians who have believed from a young age that being a good Christian means always putting others first. Sally hasn’t slept a full night for fifteen years, never exercises, and struggles to find time to pray. She can’t remember the last time she and her husband just went and did something fun together. She is just too busy caring for her children, volunteering at church, helping babysit the neighbor’s kids… She doesn’t want to be “selfish.” Fred fixes everyone’s cars and homes for them. This year alone he gave up five weekends and four weeknights to help people with various fix-it projects. He is particularly sensitive when his wife nags him about their own car problems, or the bathroom project that he started three years ago and still hasn’t finished. You get the idea. There are many among us who eagerly rush into other people’s problems, happily leaving behind our own mess – not just that of our home but that of our heart as well.

Remember the two greatest commandments: (1) Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength; (2) Love your neighbor as yourself.

Notice that Jesus does not say “more than yourself” but “as yourself.” There is a great medieval axiom nemo dat quod non habet which has a very technical translation: “A thing can’t give what it ain’t got.” Only if we are regularly receiving love and grace can we be capable of giving it.

“Always putting others first” is a lie against our human nature. It will suck us dry, leaving us empty, bitter, and resentful – much like the elder brother in Luke 15. We can try to hide our hurt, but it will keep oozing out.

But…But…aren’t we called to love and serve others? Of course. However, authentic love and service are an overflowing of God’s grace. They are the good fruit that emerges because we are abiding on the vine with Jesus (John 15:1-8). God fills. God blesses. God bears fruit. We receive. We cooperate. We trust and abide.

The saints have all learned this lesson. Consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She mightily served the poorest of the poor, helping them bear their burdens. Nevertheless, every single afternoon she and her fellow sisters dropped everything they were doing and went to the chapel to spend an hour with Jesus. Her congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, continue that practice today, trusting God to provide for others while they allow themselves to be filled spiritually.

Let’s return to Galatians 6. Paul urges the Galatians to have a “spirit of gentleness” when they seek to correct others or to help them bear their burdens. The Greek word for “gentleness” is also listed in the previous chapter as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are not fruits we can produce on our own. They come forth when the Holy Spirit fills us and works through us.

“Gentleness” also means “meekness” – the same Greek word used by Jesus in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the vulnerable who are willing to let their own woundedness be touched. It is a fear of vulnerability, I think, that leads so many “do-gooders” to jump in and rescue the problems of others, even at great cost to themselves. It helps them forget their own misery. It feels less painful and scary than facing their own brokenness and receiving love.

Finally, if we study the Greek words for “burdens” and “loads,” it is worth noting that the word for “load” is the same one used by Jesus when he urges us to lay down our heavy burdens and take his yoke upon us (Matthew 11:29-30). His load is light. That is saying something, since his load is the Cross! But it’s not the Cross that crushes us. It’s all the other burdens we heap upon ourselves, all the lies of “I have to…or else…” that we agree to strap upon our shoulders. We can be unburdened of the crushing weights we have heaped upon ourselves. They are not ours to bear. We can allow Jesus to bless and heal us, and gently place his Cross upon our shoulders. His load is light.

Joining Jesus in the Desert

We begin another Lent. Once more we enter the desert, joining Jesus as he prays and fasts for 40 days. Jesus is the new Adam who overturns the disobedience of our first parents by conquering victoriously over the temptations of the devil. Christ is now our head; we are members of his Body. We can now share in his victory, freely participating in our own small way.

Jesus urges us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37). And he shows us how. He conquers Satan decisively. There is no wavering in his “yes!” to his Father’s will, nor in his “no!” to Satan’s whisperings.

The human story is often otherwise. Remember Eve in the garden. Rather than a firm “no!” she dialogues with the devil. Little by little, he twists the truth and lures her into disobedience. Adam, meanwhile, does not even put up resistance! He cowers away from the confrontation with evil.

We are true children of Adam and Eve. If we do not swiftly call upon Jesus and fight temptation, it only increases. We’ve all seen the “devil on the shoulder” shtick. The poor angel on the opposite shoulder never seems to have a chance. That is why it is so important not to waver in our “no!” The devil has no power over human freedom authentically exercised. If we firmly resist, he will flee (James 4:7). Joining with Jesus,  we rediscover the powerful depths of our human freedom.

In manifold ways we struggle to say “no!” with full freedom – “no” to the food we do not need, “no” to the snooze button, “no” to spending money we don’t have, “no” to letting our eyes and our heart wander in lust, or “no” to gossip and fault-finding.

If you’re like me, you have been waging some of those wars for years with seemingly no progress. Like the apostle Paul, the good that I desire I do not do, and the evil that I hate I do (Romans 7:19).

Praise God, I’ve had some breakthroughs in recent years. Some battles that once felt impossible have become manageable and even winnable – with the assistance of God and others. As I continue my journey down the path of  conversion, I am discovering that “yes” and “no” extend far deeper than the mere moment of temptation.

I have found quite helpful the book entitled Boundaries (by Henry Cloud and John Townsend). They explore this theme of “yes” and “no” at many levels. For example, it was eye-opening for me to see how easy it is to feel responsible for other people’s burdens, other people’s reactions, and other people’s emotions. It’s challenging enough to be responsible for my own! I don’t need to add a weight that is not mine to carry.

In theory, we are totally free to say “no” gently and firmly, without becoming apologetic or defensive, without battling through guilt. Sometimes we feel guilty when we are doing the right thing! We often need others to remind us and encourage us to hold firm and be truly free in our “no.” Without fraternal support, we can easily become susceptible to blaming and shaming. Whether in words (How could you…?) or in glowering glances of disapproval, the disappointment of others can feel utterly impossible to bear. In our instinct to survive, our brain tells us that we need to do something about these negative reactions, or else…or else what? The truth tells us otherwise. We are free to say “no.”

The Lord has also convicted me about my lack of freedom in saying “yes!” Like many of you, sometimes my “yes” was more about avoiding false guilt and shame – rather than fulfilling a deep desire for goodness and justice. Then enters the resentment or bitterness or anger at being manipulated, the moments of feeling trapped or overwhelmed, the pity parties – all the fun stuff.

In contrast to our stunted  and stumbling assent, the “yes!” of Jesus is free and wholehearted. He boldly declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). There is no “I have to…,” no avoidance of conflict, no people pleasing. He freely says “yes!” and freely says “no!” He does so in human flesh and with a human will. He thereby opens up the possibility of our doing the same.

Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, where he helps us to engage the age-old disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Effective fasting can come in many forms: giving up drinking, talking less, eating simpler foods, cutting out social media, etc. Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Self-denial is a wonderful way to exercise our “no” muscles. If we learn to say “no” freely and habitually in smaller matters, we can learn to do it in the more challenging and complex situations that I have been describing.

Almsgiving can also take on many forms. It includes works of mercy such as visiting the sick or  imprisoned, working in a food pantry, doing chores for an elderly neighbor, volunteering in our parish, etc. If done well, these works of charity help us exercise our “yes” muscles freely and wholeheartedly in love.

Prayer, when authentically pursued, builds us up in communion. In healthy relationship with God and with each other, the old lies of our heart can be cast out. The truth of Jesus can set us free. God’s grace is a gift from on high to be received, not by isolated individuals, but by members of one body. That is the beauty of Lent. Individuals engage in penance, yes, but overall we do so together as one Body of Christ, as one faith community. By sharing in his desert vigil and by sharing in his passion and death, we also come to share in the glorious freedom of his resurrection.

Untying Knots with Mary

Over the last two weeks, I have reflected on the need to unlearn what we have learned and to be disentangled from unholy agreements. Today I would like to reflect on the assistance we can find by turning to our blessed mother Mary as we seek full freedom in Christ.

Mary is sometimes referred to as the “Undoer of Knots” – a devotion popularized by Jorge Mario Bergoglio (better known as Pope Francis). In 1986, Bergoglio spent a few months in Germany. He never finished his doctoral thesis, but he found himself captivated by  an image of Mary in the church of Saint Peter in Augsburg. The painting is the work of Johann Georg Schmidtner (completed around 1700).  It depicts one angel feeding a knot-laden ribbon into Mary’s capable hands. Beneath her calm and persistent gaze, we see the other end of the ribbon passing back down, knot free, into the hands of another angel. Bergoglio took his newfound devotion back to Argentina. With his papacy, it has spread throughout the world.

Its popularity is not a surprise. The image speaks so readily and so deeply to the human heart. Children instinctively bring their tangles and knots to their mother, often in frustration and exasperation. Under her calming and soothing gaze, what had seemed overwhelming and impossible becomes livable and manageable. They find that she has eased their agitation and restored their hope.

This childlike need for soothing and calming does not go away when we enter adulthood. We get just as tired and just as agitated. We have our “meltdowns” and frustrations and tantrums. We are merely much better at hiding and pretending and denying our need for help. If anything, the tangles and knots we experience in adult life are far more complex and scary!

The idea of Mary as one who unties knots is actually an ancient one. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about A.D. 180,  describes Mary as the New Eve who unties the knot wrought by our first mother: “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Just as Eve became the mother of all the living, so is Mary now the mother of all those who are alive in Christ as members of His Body.

Jesus knew our lifelong need for a spiritual mother, and so He gave Mary to each of us when He died on the Cross: “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). If you read John’s Gospel carefully, you will note that the name “John” is never given. Rather, he uses “beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom he loved.” This allows each of us to put ourselves into that identity as a beloved disciple. When Jesus gives Mary as a mother, he is not creating a mother-son relationship between Mary and John only, meant to last merely a couple of decades. In that case, why bother to record the conversation? If ever there was a dying man whose last words are charged with meaning and intentionality, it is the eternal Son of God who died on the Cross for us! He wills us to receive and be received by Mary as our mother. We need her motherly care as we grow into our identity in Christ.

Although Schmidtner’s painting is beautiful, I chose instead to share this less-known icon written by Alfred Rebhan. It speaks powerfully to my heart. Living now by faith in Christ Jesus, we are one with him. The life we live now is not our own (Galatians 2:20); we literally become Christ. His Father is now Our Father. His mother Mary is now our mother. When we need a soothing and calming mother who can aid us, she is there, just like the Virgin in this icon, placing her gentle and encouraging hand on our shoulder as we (one with Christ) find the freedom to face our knots and untie them.

That has certainly been my story – especially during the last couple of years of my life, which have been truly transformational. Devotion to Mary has been at the center of that conversion. I sought her aid in my desire to untie one or two frustrating knots. Little did I realize that I would need to face a massive tangle of interconnected knots, long ago buried and forgotten in the basement of my heart: including lies, unholy agreements, unhealed wounds, and much more. Little by little, I have been learning to be open and receptive like the Christ Child – who emptied himself completely and let himself depend upon His heavenly Father and upon Mary His mother. Apart from Christ (and apart from his blessed mother) I am powerless to disentangle these knots. But one with Him, close to His blessed mother and close to other members of His Body, I am finding the freedom and peace I need to proceed and persevere.

Holy vs. Unholy Agreements

In moments of heartache, we humans are prone to make poor decisions by entering into unholy agreements. Jesus teaches us that the devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He does not abide in truth, and strives to keep us from doing so. In times of trauma he sows many lies, hoping that even a few will sprout. They often do.

That is why Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges us to be discerning about when and how we make decisions in life. Entering into an agreement is serious business, and should only be done under favorable circumstances.

In my last post I described my need to unlearn what I had learned in order to be more receptive to the love of God and others. I am convinced that all of us have much “unlearning” to do as we seek to abide in love and truth.

We learn many lessons in our life. Not all of them are good or true or beautiful. Some of them are lies about ourselves or God, unholy agreements that get ratified and renewed as we proceed through life’s more overwhelming moments.

By “agreement” I mean that we somehow give our consent to a false core belief or an ungodly vow that gets presented to us amidst a difficult situation in life. For example, if a child or a spouse is repeatedly called “stupid” or “fat” or “ugly” or “bad,” all too often she internalizes that identity; she begins believing at her core that it is actually true. Later in life, when others tell her she’s good or beautiful or a blessing, she doesn’t believe it! They’re just saying that because they don’t really know her. Many of you know all too well how difficult it can be to break out of these identity lies – even with all the divine helps at our disposal.

I have made unholy agreements in my life. Part of me really believed lies of shame – that something was wrong with me, that I was not lovable for who I was, that I could only be loved if I achieved or performed well enough, and so forth. Part of me believed lies of abandonment – that no one would ever really understand me, that others could not be trusted and would ultimately let me down or leave me alone to face the most difficult moments of life.

I have also entered into agreements in the form of unholy vows. Around the age of 11, I vowed that I would never be like my stepfather. True, my desire not to imitate his abusive behaviors was praiseworthy. But making that vow wounded me deeply. It distanced me not merely from my stepfather, but from my heavenly Father and from my own healthy masculinity. I began striving to perform and be strong on my own, rather than abiding in the Father’s love. I have since called on Jesus to deliver me from that vow and have received much healing and peace. I find myself more and more free to relate to God as a loving Father and to be his beloved son.

In my last post, I mentioned another inner vow, one of self-protection. Even as an infant I began believing that it was better to face life independently, figuring it out myself rather than crying out unheard. We are made by God to be interdependent, receiving and giving love in a community of faith. The unholy agreement that I made so long ago (and renewed often enough when I felt like others had let me down) has restricted my freedom to receive love. The end result has been a fruitless attempt to live against the full truth of my human nature. We are made by God for  communion and  vulnerable receptivity. Instead, there I was, striving to be in control and independent. It would never work in any lasting way. Thankfully God has been leading me in a new and better direction.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises (nn. 175-177), describes three moments in which we can rightly enter into holy agreements. The first is when God attracts our will in an almost irresistible way. Think of Jesus calling the apostles, and the way they left their nets behind and followed him. When God inflames our holy desire in that way, we have no doubt of his goodness and truth and beauty, and say “yes” quite eagerly and easily.

Secondly, there is the experience of “consolation” and “desolation,” and the discernment that follows. This was how Ignatius discovered his own conversion and his new calling. Once a vain and proud man, this wounded soldier spent months in a hospital with only a Bible and lives of the Saints to read. Even though he found these stories to be dry and dull (unlike the spirited tales of knightly escapades that he was hoping to read), they left a deep and lasting impact. He began to notice a difference. Even though the fantasy thinking of his knightly tales would get him excited in the short term, it left him empty and distracted and distressed. By contrast, the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints would inflame holy desires in his heart that would abide for long periods of time. They continued bearing fruit days afterward. This growing awareness of a difference led Ignatius to accept the fruitfulness of his new calling and to reject the empty and fruitless fantasy of his old ways.

Thirdly, there is the use of our natural faculties of reason and deliberation to make the best decision possible – but only in a time of inner quiet. Ignatius repeats, “I said time of quiet, when the soul is not acted on by various spirits, and uses its natural powers freely and tranquilly.”

Notice the contrast with false core beliefs and unholy agreements, with which the devil is so eager to ensnare us! In times of trauma and heartbreak, he enters in, preying upon our fear and confusion, our sadness and loneliness, our powerlesness and hopelessness. He tempts us to give our consent and enter into an unholy agreement with his lies.

May we, like Ignatius, be set free from all unholy agreements that impede us. May we discern and embrace the full truth of our calling in Christ, and say “yes” freely and wholeheartedly.

Lessons from Master Yoda

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” These days I find myself pondering those words of Master Yoda. For the sake of the unfortunate uninitiated souls somehow still unfamiliar with the Star Wars universe (I suppose there are still one or two left), I can remind everyone of the plot of The Empire Strikes Back. After a dull childhood on a desert planet, Luke Skywalker has found himself swept up into great space adventures, joining the rebellion against the evil galactic empire. He begins to discover his true destiny as one of the Jedi, the ancient noble protectors of the galaxy, who are able to tap into “the Force” to do things that normally would seem impossible (e.g.,glimpsing the future or moving objects through telekinesis).

Much of the movie depicts Luke’s training with Yoda, the legendary Jedi Master. After Luke crash lands his spacecraft into a swamp, he encounters an odd creature. He does not realize it is Yoda, whom he seeks, because he is expecting a massive and mighty warrior. Instead, he encounters a diminutive 900-year-old Muppet.

Yoda proceeds to train Luke with all the methodology of a Zen master. Again and again, Luke discovers that his preconceived expectations do not match the deeper reality. The training stretches him physically and mentally and emotionally, often resulting in childish pouting and fits. At one point, Yoda asks the impossible – for Luke to use the Force to lift up his spacecraft that has sunk into the marsh. Yoda assures him that the task is no different than moving a small rock. It is only different in one’s mind. It is at that point that Yoda utters two of his famous taglines: “You must unlearn what you have learned” and “Do or do not; there is no try.” Luke “tries” and does not. Yoda then stuns Luke by doing the impossible and lifting the ship.

Eventually, Luke grows and matures. He needed more time to unlearn what he had learned. His transformation was slow and gradual, sometimes painful and frustrating, but also featuring moments of  breakthrough and liberation.

I can definitely relate. As you probably know by now, during these past couple of years, I have been on a journey of personal healing and freedom. To summarize the experience, I can turn to the words of another Luke, namely, the Gospel writer. Mine has been the experience described by Simeon during the Presentation in the Temple. As the Virgin Mary brings the baby Jesus, Simeon speaks a cryptic prophecy over her: “A sword will pierce through your own soul, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). These past couple of years, I have experienced an ever deeper relationship with Jesus’ mother Mary. Staying close to her sorrowful heart, I have found my own heart being laid bare, layer by layer.

Like Luke Skywalker, I have found some steps of the journey to be exhilarating. He discovers hidden abilities and begins doing things that he never would have imagined possible. I have definitely discovered new joy and freedom, hidden blessings and gifts. Many of you have marveled at the way I slowly but surely lost weight (over 70 pounds!). That has been more a side effect of healthier living than a direct goal. The journey into my heart showed up in my body. What had previously been impossible suddenly began happening.

At other times, like Luke in his training, I have found myself pushing against invisible barriers – the diabolical lies and unholy agreements forged long ago in my heart. God has been delivering me from lies of shame, fear, rejection, and abandonment.

Lately God has been uncovering layers of self-protection, going back even to my earliest years of life. I have been learning to see my whole life as a big and beautiful story, guided by God and, yes, sharing at times in Christ’s suffering. Obviously, I do not explicitly remember my infancy, but I am beginning to understand how profoundly painful it was. My father was recently returned from the Vietnam War, in which he had navigated bombing missions. He felt personally responsible for those deaths. As I was born, he was plunged into addictions and significant mental health challenges. My mother, overwhelmed, moved back to Wisconsin for support, seeking to reconnect with the Church and with extended family. But in the meantime, with both parents traumatized, there were inevitably times in which I as an infant found myself feeling alone and unnoticed, uncared for and unloved. At times during my prayer, I have experienced fragmented and very painful emotional memories – along with deep consolation and healing. God has been showing to me that, even before conscious thinking, I made a vow that it would be much safer and much less painful to be “independent” and look after myself. I repeatedly ratified that vow over the course of my childhood amidst painful family situations. I used my imagination to forge an enormous inner world, one to which I could safely escape, and in which I could avoid the awful pain of feeling unwanted or unloved or rejected.

That inner world was beautiful, but lonely. I suppose that I needed some level of self-protection, and continued to need it for a while. The problem is that I don’t need self-protection anymore – yet still find myself engaging in it – even against God himself. I daily call on the name of Jesus to break the chains that I forged when I made that unholy vow, all those years ago. With help from God and others I am unlearning what I have learned. I am learning to be loved and to love.

I suspect that most of you, like Luke and like me, have many lies to unlearn as we all seek to abide in love and truth.