Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers

The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”

I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.

We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.

This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.

Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.

In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.

It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.

That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”

In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly.  That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.

Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.

We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn to abide in love and truth.

Fish with Fins

In my last post, I described a rather unique homily of Pope Gregory the Great, in which he compares the virtue of compunction to a smelly bucket of dung that we can use to fertilize a robust spiritual growth. By humbly and truthfully acknowledging our sins and through eager repentance, we can receive God’s grace and bear fruit in good works.

Gregory proceeds to consider the woman who has an evil spirit that causes her to be stooped over for eighteen years. As with the fruitless fig tree, he suggests that she is an image for fallen human nature.

He contrasts homo incurvatus with homo erectus. God made us in his own image and likeness: upright, erect, and good. We are destined for heavenly glory, and have those eternal desires in our heart. But earthly desires have bent us over: wealth, honor, power, and fleshly delights. We have stooped low in our sins, and can no longer stand erect. Like the woman, we must cry out to Jesus, so that he can cast his light on our sins and help us to stand once again.

Luke describes the woman as beyond crippled, as “having a spirit of infirmity.” Even in Jesus’ time, not all cripples were seen as oppressed or possessed. Some ailments are explained by natural causes; others suggest a superadded torment inflicted by demons.

This distinction does not escape Gregory’s notice. He describes all sin as hunching us over, causing us to be “stooped and deeply bowed” (Psalm 38:7). But then there evil spirits who prowl like lions looking for the opportunity to torment us. They are enemies of our human nature and envious of our true human destiny to become like God. So Gregory calls to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, who describes the plight of God’s people in their sins: I will put it into the hands of your tormentors, those who said to you, “Bow down, that we may walk over you.” So you offered your back like the ground, like the street for them to walk on (Isaiah 51:23).

Who on earth would willingly bow down and give their backs to evil spirits to walk on? Well, many of us. Fewer more truthful words can be found than those of Paul: “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Many of us Catholics find ourselves confessing the same sins over and over again –even sins that we hate intensely. Often it is the lies of fear and shame that oppress us, binding us up. In our false belief that we are not really lovable, we can become mired in habitual sin, face down in the muck. In our darkest moments we think, “Why bother? What does it matter? I’m already ___(fill in the blank)___.”

Deceived by those diabolical lies, it can definitely happen that we bow down and give our backs to evil spirits, allowing them to trample on us. When that happens we find ourselves, like the stooped woman, unable to stand erect even when we really want to. Thankfully Jesus is our Lord and Savior who can bind up the evil one and reclaim our freedom and dignity (cf. Mark 3:27).

Gregory specifically mentions desire for “illicit pleasure” (voluptas illicita) as bowing us over in a crippling way and becoming an entry point for diabolical activity. I think any number of the addictions that are on the rise today (pornography, sexual deviancies, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) can be entry points. Don’t we often talk about “battling our demons”? As Paul tells us, our battle is not just against flesh and blood, but against powerful spiritual beings (Ephesians 6:12).

Jesus is the one who can deliver us from oppression at enemy hands. He is the one who can help us stand erect. He is the one who inflames our hearts with a holy desire for heaven.

To illustrate this point, Gregory turns to the image of fish. The law of Leviticus forbade the Jews from eating fish without fins or scales. Fish with fins are able to leap from the waters, striving heavenward. Fish without scales and fins (in Gregory’s understanding of biology) were bottom feeders, even detritivores, engaging in coprophagia. But for the grace of God, so go all of us. Once the diabolical lies of shame get a grip on us, we can habitually do the things we hate, like the dog that returns to its own vomit (Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22).

That is where holy desires come in. Gregory preaches so beautifully about them, here and elsewhere. Holy desires are like the fins on the fish. They propel us to soar heavenward. True, until this fleshly existence is fully transformed, we will always come back earthward, like the fish re-entering the water.

But, returning to the fig tree, holy desires are meant to grow and bear fruit. The greater our desire, the greater our capacity to receive. So often people pray for many years to overcome a certain sin in their life. They imagine it is just a matter of willing the sin away. But God wants to go down to the roots of the tree, to see the whole truth (sometimes painfully), to heal and deliver us. The combination of compunction and heavenly desire will ultimately set us free – thought not always in the way we imagined. Delivered and restored, we can learn to look upward habitually, and so receive ongoing healing and peace.

Learning to Sit with Sadness

The apostle Paul exhorts us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Doing so enriches the human experience and makes the love of Christ visibly present.

Unfortunately, heeding Paul’s advice is not so simple as it sounds. Rather than rejoicing, we are sometimes saddened at the successes of others. Rather than weeping, we sometimes avoid accompanying others in their misery. Sure, we’ll send them a sympathy card or drop off some food. We’ll say some pleasant-sounding words like “Everything happens for a reason” or “He’s in a better place.” But one or two or twelve month later, when the anguish is even worse, they find few friends still willing to be with them in their grief.

Sitting with others in their sadness can be one of the most unsettling things to do – especially when we are powerless to do anything about it. It is so much easier to throw a cliché at the unpleasant emotions, as though uttering an incantation that will magically make us all live happily ever after. The truth is that we are unsettled and are trying to protect ourselves from the mess of the other person’s experience.

I have written before on the importance of healthy grieving, and our human tendency to avoid it. Whatever our pain or loss may be, our human misery will be too much to bear if we try to do it alone. God made us for communion with himself and with each other. It is within healthy community that healing happens.

Unfortunately, healthy community can be hard to find. All too often, when it comes to grieving well, we encounter dysfunction in our families and even in our Christian churches. The more challenging emotions like anger or guilt or grief are unwelcome and avoided. They are seen as an evil to be eliminated, rather than a healthy part of the human experience. This extermination of unwelcome emotions can be done in a more abusive way (“Stop crying, or I’ll give you a reason to cry!”) or a more subtle way (“There are other people have it much worse…”). The unspoken message is “you shouldn’t feel that way.” But sometimes we do. It’s just a fact.

If we want to understand what it truly means to be human, we look to Jesus (the New Adam) and to Mary (the New Eve). They model so many virtues for us, including a refusal to shortcut the hardest human experiences like sadness.

“Jesus wept” (John 11:33). It’s the shortest verse of the Bible, and one of the most meaningful: Even though he is the resurrection and the life, even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb, Jesus wept. He wept over his dead friend. He wept with those who were weeping. He didn’t avoid or minimize the healthy human experience of grieving.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus became “sorrowful even to death” (Matthew 26:38). This was not a dismay at his own immanent death. Rather, he was freely taking upon himself the full depths of human suffering and misery – drinking it to the dregs. He felt in his heart every agony, every sorrow, every wound, every tragedy – the greatest of which is sin. He entered into our sadness and freely offered our human condition to his Father, crying out from the Cross the plea of every agonizing human heart: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Jesus’ empathy with human sorrow led him to the point of loud sobs and tears (Hebrews 5:7). Is that not what is popularly described today as an “ugly cry”? You know, the kind of uncontrollable sobbing that we suppress or avoid or feel deeply embarrassed about? Apparently, Jesus wasn’t worried about sobbing uncontrollably or oozing a little snot. Most of us are much more cautious and self-protective. As the poet T.S. Eliot used to say, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

The problem with painful emotions is that, well, they’re painful. We’d rather avoid the experience of powerlessness in the face of others’ suffering. It’s easier to flee or to fix. We “flee” by avoiding those around us who are suffering in an unbearable way, like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan story. Our withdrawing causes their experience of abandonment and isolation to become like that of the suffering servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, like one from whom people turn their face…” (Isaiah 53:3).

“Fixing” is no better than fleeing. Many Christian families and faith communities, in their avoidance of “ugly” emotions, try to make it all better with a pious saying or an invitation into busyness and distraction. Fixing is not grieving, and it doesn’t actually comfort anyone. When Job was in agony, he didn’t need fixing; he needed someone to sit on the dung pile and be sad with him.

On Good Friday, Jesus drank the chalice of human suffering to the full. He refused to numb his pain with the gall offered him. Likewise, his mother Mary stood at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). She suffered together with him, refusing to avoid or escape.

On Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, and Mary continued watching and waiting in sorrowful hope. Perhaps she had some inkling of the resurrection to come – but surely not of when or how. Hope is hard. We know that God is faithful, but during the darkest moments we have no idea how long the suffering will last, or how our prayers will be answered. We are tempted to take a shortcut and avoid the full experience of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The joy of Easter Sunday indeed comes as promised – but often in ways that catch us by surprise. Intense sorrow is no obstacle to intense joy – quite the opposite. It is only when we learn to stop hardening our hearts and protecting ourselves that we become capable, not only of embracing the “ugly” human experiences that we’d rather avoid, but also of experiencing the boundless joy of the resurrection. May Jesus open our hearts and help us to empathize with each other as we watch and wait in hope.

Hope is Born from the Tomb

I remember April 12, 2009 – ten years ago today. It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem, and I was at the tomb of Jesus, filled with wonder and awe. I had spent the entire night there in prayer, and had just become the very first pilgrim to enter that Easter morning. It was an intense and transformative experience that I will never forget, an experience almost too real to remember.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher houses both the location of Christ’s death on Calvary and his tomb, made forever holy by his resurrection. My friends and I joined in the Catholic liturgy at those sites for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

It was odd to celebrate those ceremonies in the morning rather than at night. But Jerusalem is an odd place. Because these holy sites are shared with the Orthodox, the Armenians, and the Copts, there is an age-old “Status Quo” agreement that determines who has access when. The Catholic time is 8 a.m., regardless of the occasion.

A few of us returned to the basilica that Holy Saturday night to observe a personal prayer vigil at the Lord’s tomb. I’m ashamed to admit that it is the one and only all-night prayer vigil of my life. Back in the day, I certainly pulled two or three academic all-nighters. Several times I stayed up through the night as part of the world’s largest trivia contest in Stevens Point, WI. Ironically, that contest begins today as well, kicking off its 50th year.

Staying up for fun or for approaching deadlines is one thing. For some reason, when it comes to the Lord, that level of sacrifice and generosity is elusive. Too bad, because the Lord is never outdone in generosity! On that Easter night ten years ago he was generous indeed.

Knowing that I would be there all night, I was in no rush to “get my prayers done” or to feel like I had to be doing something at any given time. This turned it into a timeless experience. For the first few hours I simply sat back and absorbed the stream of pilgrims that were coming to the church to try to get into the tomb. Occasionally I read some Scripture passages. I began praying for the many people whom I knew needed my prayers. I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of sorrow over so many suffering souls and so many problems in the world – not to mention my own problems.

Then something happened that (for me) only happens about once every 10 years. I began to get the inklings of a poem arising within me. For the moment I put it aside. After all, I thought, I am not a poet!

About 12:30 the friars poured in to pray the Office of Vigils – a series of psalms and readings. Afterwards, I tried to return to some Scripture and prayer, but found myself distracted. In the end, I thought, “Well, maybe the Lord wants me to write that poem after all.” So I did. Once every 10 years, right? It went something like this:

O Tomb of Christ, this Easter Night
I bring to you man’s lonely plight:
toil, trial, sickness, woe,
unceasing wounds left by our foe,
anger, hatred, factions, fights,
fear-filled days and tear-filled nights,
heartache,heartbreak, darkness, death,
and growing pain with every breath –
but hope, hope-filled sadness
to you, the source of gladness.
O tomb that could not hold the Son
Who on this night the victory won,
I bury all my sadness here
and that of those I hold most dear,
that we may rise to second birth
here at the center of the earth.

I was just finishing as the Orthodox began their 2 a.m. Palm Sunday Mass (their Easter was still a week away). Their somber and sorrowful chanting was beautifully haunting, and resonated with my heart. The time flew by. I began to write on that sheet of paper the names of any and every person I could think of who needed my prayer, as well as some personal intentions. The ink couldn’t run onto the page fast enough. I finished about the time the Orthodox were clearing out.

Ironically, my watch battery had gone dead on Good Friday, so the night was truly timeless. It must have been around 4 a.m. that I attempted to enter the tomb, like Mary Magdalene, “early in the morning, while it was still dark” (John 20:1). An Armenian priest was setting up for their liturgy, and it seemed quite unlikely I would be allowed in. I began to pray beads of my Rosary, reflecting on the first glorious mystery – the resurrection of Jesus – and hoping against hope. For some reason a few of the servers were late. He must have seen the longing in my face. He waved me in.

I approached, finishing the final Hail Mary’s, and then entered the inner door on my knees. The moment I reached the threshold I broke down and wept as I had not for a very long time. The experience is still too profound for words. The best word I can use is GLORY. I experienced the “Glory of the Father” by which “Christ was raised from the dead” (Rom 6:4), and this Glory filled me with Hope. It was not as though my sadness or the sadness of others magically went away or was minimized. But this Hope permeated my soul with an overwhelming and liberating confidence summed up in the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

I sobbed and prayed for a few moments more before heading back out, not wanting to linger in the tomb as pilgrims sometimes selfishly do. With many tears still in my eyes, I nodded my thanks to the priest for his kindness, and returned to the side of the tomb where I had been praying the past few hours. I wedged that sheet of paper and all those intentions into the side of the tomb and continued to weep for several minutes more. Then I resumed my prayer, turning to Romans 6 and feeling the words come alive in my heart. The resurrection suddenly felt so real!

As the first streaks of dawn were just appearing, I pulled out my Liturgy of the Hours book to pray Morning Prayer. My heart was filled with praise, and so I chanted the prayers. How surreal it was to stand at the entrance near the church, chanting the antiphon, “Very early on the morning after the Sabbath, when the sun had just risen, they came to the tomb, Alleluia” – at the very moment that hundreds of pilgrims were rushing in to see the tomb.

As I look back ten years later, I am stunned at what came out of my heart that night. Only during the last couple of years have I found the courage to plunge into the sad and lonely places of my heart – old places of old pain that I didn’t even realize existed. But those cries were there, and they prayed to the Lord that Easter night in the poem that came out of me. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, and heals the broken hearted.

Ten years later, God keeps drawing my heart back to that experience. There is a dying and a rising at work in me. Part of me resists and avoids the dying, tempted instead to return to my old ways of fear and insecurity, panicking and grasping for control. I am determined not to harden my heart and return to old ways. I want to be well! The tomb is also a womb, giving birth to the newness of the resurrection. That new birth is what my heart longs for.

It should be easy to welcome the Glory of the resurrection. But it’s so hard because it’s so much more real. It can only be received as a gift – or rather, it is a much larger reality that we must be received into. It is not something we can control or manage. Again and again I surrender my heart. I pray for deeper trust and faith. Who knows? Maybe I will even surrender enough to allow another poem to come out of me. It’s been 10 years after all…

In the days of Holy Week that lie ahead, we celebrate the Paschal Mystery once again. May we all die and rise with Jesus. May the newness of his risen Glory be born in our hearts. May we be gloriously transformed and filled with Hope!

Getting to the Roots

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Those words of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, written in 1854, still speak wisdom today. He was addressing social evils such as slavery, but the image applies equally well to marital strife and personal struggles with morality and spirituality. It’s an apt image in every case. Remove the evil fruit, and more will take its place, again and again.  Cut off the branch, and it will eventually grow back – along with the fruit it bears. If we are serious about change, we will need to go down to the roots.

Digging down to the roots of a tree is hard work enough. Doing so with the human heart takes enormous courage and vulnerability. We will never be able to do it alone. The prophet Jeremiah describes it well: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, explore the mind and test the heart, giving to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Our own hearts are a mystery to us. Only in communion with God and others can we discover the full truth about ourselves.

I’ve shared before the insights of Mark and Debbie Laaser. They wrote a book for married couples entitled Seven Desires, in which they identify certain universal human desires: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. They often tell couples, “The problem is not the problem,” using the image of an iceberg. What we think of as “the problem,” what we focus so much of our energy and attention on, is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, silent and massive, lurks a strong force in motion that warrants much greater attention.

For example, Fred may be an alcoholic. At first glance, his drinking is the main problem in their marriage. After all, his acting out with alcohol has damaged his health, his career, and his relationships. But his drinking is not the primary problem. Lurking beneath are painful places of his heart that he does not want to enter: sad places, lonely places, feelings of unworthiness and shame, as well as distorted beliefs about himself and about God. He is afraid to go down there because of the pain. Little does he realize that, even deeper in his heart is the full and glorious truth about himself – that he is a beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. In the depths of his good heart he still feels very deep and very good human desires: to be loved and accepted unconditionally, to feel safe and secure, and so forth. With the right kind of encouragement, he can reconnect with those deeper desires. Whether in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous or some other support network, he can find the encouragement and consistency needed to journey into the labyrinth of his heart – and discover God’s image there. Meanwhile, Fred’s wife Sally needs to discover that her deepest pain is not from Fred’s acting out with alcohol. She has an unexplored iceberg of her own, including deep desires and painful problems that existed long before she met Fred. She, too, will need enormous support to begin believing that her heart is good and worth fighting for.

Let’s return to Thoreau’s image of the roots of a tree. Bob Schuchts offers a similar image of the human heart in his book Be Healed. He contrasts the Tree of Life (an image for our life in Christ) with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (an image for our life of sin).  Drawing from Ephesians, he describes a process of security / maturity / purity as we grow from the roots to the trunk to the fruits. By contrast, our life of sin sprouts up from the roots of insecurity, grows in immaturity, and bears the rotten fruits of impurity. The unhealthy growth comes in the form of one or more of the seven deadly sins. The rotten fruit that emerges are the sins we priests typically hear people confessing –over and over and over again. Perhaps it’s gossip and jealousy, perhaps fault-finding and outbursts of anger, perhaps pornography and masturbation, perhaps overindulging in food and drink.

Those poor penitents sincerely desire to stop their sins. And without a doubt, they are forgiven every time. But they are likely to keep repeating the same sins until they can go down to the roots. There Bob describes the “seven deadly wounds” of abandonment, fear, powerlessness, hopelessness, confusion, rejection, and shame. We experience these wounds during the most painful moments of our life. It is within those deep human wounds that the evil one eagerly attempts to sow his lies: you are all alone, you will never figure it out, you will always mess it up, no one would ever want to love you… We can carry these lies within our hearts for many, many years.

Healing at the roots of our sins includes allowing Jesus to enter in and cast out the lies about ourselves and about God. Even more important than renouncing the lies, it means positively allowing the love and truth of Jesus to be proclaimed and embraced and integrated. It is one thing to believe a truth intellectually, but another for it to sprout and grow and bear fruit.

As we approach another Easter, may we all take courage in the fact that Jesus has borne our pain. By his wounds we are healed. He knows the depths of our hearts and desires to meet us there with his love and truth. May we all have the courage to go down to the roots.

The Conversion of St. Monica

Monica is an immensely popular saint, particularly among those who fret about the sins and sufferings of their adult children.  Many a mother has fantasized, “If only I could be like Monica…If only I could pray hard enough and shed enough tears to convert my children as she converted Augustine…” In our age of addictions, no wonder she is so popular!

But perhaps she is popular for the wrong reasons. I am convinced that, if we knew her whole story, we would discover a major conversion of her own. Her son Augustine wrote his Confessions, in which he tells one of the most stunning conversion stories of all time. He periodically alludes to his childhood and his parents. Knowing what we know today about sexual addiction and addictions in general, it’s not hard to start connecting the dots. I think Monica’s greatest victory was not the deathbed conversion of her pagan husband Patricius, nor even the tear-filled conversion of her son Augustine. No, her greatest victory was her own recovery from codependency.

Consider the legendary words of the bishop St. Ambrose, when she entreated him with tears about the sins of her son Augustine: “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.” Wow. I can relate. It is not uncommon for a priest to hear something like this: “Father, you need to help me to fix my children!” Well okay, they don’t usually put it that bluntly. But many mothers and fathers feel like their personal self-worth is on the line. If their children sin or fail, they themselves are failures. That’s a lie.

It is one thing to grieve over the sins of our loved ones. Destructive behaviors are sad indeed. It is another thing to feel personally responsible. The apostle Paul reminds us that each disciple must carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). We cannot fix other people’s problems or manage their lives.

Trying to do so leads to an array of unhealthy and destructive behaviors: perfectionism, judgmental or self-righteous attitudes, bitterness, resentment, depression, hopelessness, avoidance of conflict, self-loathing, self-punishment, manipulative comments, shaming or blaming postures, trying to “fix” others, unsolicited advice, and the like. All the while one ignores the pain and grief of one’s own heart.

These “codependent” attitudes easily thrive in homes where addictions dominate. Monica was married to an addicted husband and reared an addicted son. It is not a stretch to imagine her battling with codependency on her path to sainthood.

In our pornographic culture, I have had conversations now with hundreds of men who have a wound of sexual addiction, whose behaviors are very much like those of Augustine and his father Patricius. Some of those men, like Augustine, have found liberation and peace as they walk the path of recovery. As they heal, they get in touch with their father wounds. Often, their fathers were like Patricius – unfaithful to their mothers, verbally or physically abusive, alcoholic, absent, etc. Recovering addicts begin to realize that their unwanted behaviors are not the real problem; they are only the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath are old and unhealed wounds. As prevalent as father wounds are, I am finding it a nearly universal truth that where there is a sexual addiction, there is an unhealed mother wound. I definitely see mother wounds in Augustine’s story.

Let’s tread carefully here. Acknowledging these wounds is not about casting blame on father or mother for the sins of their children. No one gets into an addiction without himself choosing or agreeing at some point along the way. The great Jimmy Buffet teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for our own sins. Additionally, sometimes children are blocked from receiving what they really need for reasons that are not the fault of the parents.

In Monica’s case, it’s not hard to imagine her playing the victim card, casting herself as a silent (or not-so-silent) martyr, subtly manipulating or shaming as she tries to guilt her husband and her son into doing the right thing. As I hear of the deathbed conversion of Patricius, I wonder just how much joy and liberation he felt in his baptism, versus a reluctant agreement mainly to appease Monica. God knows the truth.

Filling in the blanks, I think Monica’s conversion story goes something like this:

Monica is mired in misery, abused and betrayed by her husband and repeatedly wounded by the wanderings of her son. Probably the abuse and mistreatment began with her own father, and she learned how to cope from her own codependent mother. Like so many in her shoes, she fantasizes about how blessed her life would be if only her husband or her son would change. She is hyper-aware of their behaviors and constantly tries to manage the damage. Eventually, she learns to stop lecturing or shaming or manipulating. She heeds the godly advice of Ambrose and talks more to God about Augustine. She talks to God more and more often. Augustine doesn’t seem to change. She harbors a good deal of bitterness against the men in her life, yes, even against God. She won’t admit that, because good Christian women don’t get angry, certainly not at God! Still, she meditates often on the sufferings of Christ and of his mother Mary. She is often moved to tears – sometimes without knowing why. Finally, like the weeping women of Jerusalem, she learns that Jesus wants her to weep for herself (Luke 23:28). She realizes that, when Jesus weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem, he is weeping also for the ruins of Monica’s heart, so often trampled down by others, so often neglected and ignored by herself. She starts learning that God is big enough to handle Augustine’s problems – far better than she can. She learns to surrender and to live in the present moment. Little by little, her heart, numb for decades, begins to thaw. She trembles and gasps and sobs as she feels God attuning her to the swirling anger and torrential sadness of her own heart. But she finally believes that her heart matters and that those who mourn are truly blessed. She lets it happen. Like King David in the Psalms, she pours out her heart to God – all of it. She surrenders all in faith. She begins discovering an unfettered joy and peace, even as she sheds more tears than ever. She is finally free.

It could have happened that way. God knows the truth.