Failure IS an Option

FDo you ever experience a fear of failure? I know I do!

Sometimes it’s a stew of anxiety, simmering throughout the day. Other times it’s a sudden eruption of panic or peevishness amidst what had seemed a moment of calm. When I pay attention and reflect, I can see that there is a significant fear of failure. It doesn’t drive or dominate me nearly as much as it used to, but it still shows up.

I already shared with you some highlights of Fr. Jacques Philippe’s recent book Priestly Fatherhood. Perhaps his greatest insight for us all (priests and laity alike) is when he connects our fear of failure with the rift in our childlike trust in God as a fierce and tender Father. God is a Father who will unfailingly provide for our needs. He will never reject or abandon us. But in our woundedness it often doesn’t feel that way! From the very beginning of human history, the evil one has been tirelessly at work to rupture our relationships – with God the Father, with each other, and with ourselves. Shame is the devil’s single greatest weapon. Through the lies of shame, he enticed Adam and Eve to hide from God and to protect themselves from each other.

I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It’s not inherently evil (after all, the devil can’t create!). Shame actually helps us and many other mammals to survive. If they get cut off from their pack, they will die. If we humans are on the verge of a rupture of communion, shame will speak up! Unfortunately, that shame signal is so easily exploited by anyone who would manipulate (the devil being chief among them!). We are created for the purpose of sharing intimately in joyful communion. We are meant to belong and to experience that safe connection with the Father and with each other. Shame blares its alarm whenever there is a threat of rupture. It does indeed feel like a matter of life or death!

The problem is that what initially serves our survival ultimately leads us into a wasteland of isolation and ungodly self-protection. Our survival becomes exhausting! As Fr. Philippe puts it, modern man, no longer looking to God as a Father, is “condemned to success.” There is no room for failure because there is no longer a loving Father there to give us protection, freedom, encouragement, and space to keep learning and growing from our mistakes.

How do you handle it when you fail? Or when others around you fail? Are you both able to go closer to the failure and talk about it? Why or why not?

When I feel like I have failed or am about to fail, I have a tendency power up or withdraw, depending on the situation. Both are ways of distancing my shame from the other person. Both isolate rather than heal and repair.

If I listen attentively and notice in God’s presence, there are two main messages to my shame. It either warns me against being seen and exposed as a failure, or it warns me that others will flee from me and leave me alone to face it all. When both show up, it can be a challenging push-pull in relationships – inviting others to come closer, and then pushing them back away when they get too close. In both cases, it’s not so much a conscious strategy as an instinctive reaction. In both cases there is an ongoing invitation to trust God the Father and begin maturing as I abide in healthy and meaningful relationships.

Fear of failure was familiar to the twelve apostles. Just think of how they handled the Passion of Jesus. When Peter first heard of it, he swiftly forbade his Lord to speak any further of it – prompting Jesus to respond, “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Nor did Peter have it figured out during Holy Week! He, at least, stays close(ish) to Jesus – rather than running and fleeing like the others. But he denies him three times. When Jesus begins surprising each of them on Easter Sunday, they are downcast, discouraged, and afraid. They were not yet ready to handle the “failure” of the Cross.

If God is not a loving Father who is faithful and true to his promises, then the Cross is indeed both a scandal and utter foolishness. Jesus willingly faced the Cross – though not without sweating blood first and begging the Father for another option! How did he do it? Ultimately, Jesus was secure in his identity as the beloved Son of the Father. He trusted his Father’s promise of Resurrection. The “failure” of the Cross was ultimately a great victory. It was truly “Good” Friday as Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. The very moment in which the evil one grasped at his triumph was a singular moment of human love and trust. It was the moment in which Jesus invested meaning and hope into what otherwise truly would be a hopeless and miserable human existence following the Fall.

Jesus is Lord and Savior and Messiah – not in a way that erases human sin or suffering, but in a way that transforms it. He opens up a healing path for us. When he says to Peter, “Get behind me,” he is not saying “Get out of my sight!” Rather, he is inviting Peter (and us) to take up our Cross and follow him.

For us who are redeemed by his blood and in the process of being restored and sanctified, taking up our Cross and Jesus often means failing and learning, failing and growing, failing and repairing. As Winston Churchill once put it, “Success in not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Will you and I have the courage to fail? Will we allow space for failure – in ourselves, in our families, in our workplaces, and in our church communities? Will we meet failure with both tenderness and truth-telling? In the person of Jesus, we see that God is clearly drawn towards our failure and our littleness. He enters into it, neither shaming us nor excusing us. He helps us to trust and to grow. May we receive that gift and learn to do the same!

Singing a New Song

Sing a new song to the Lord!

Many of us have been praising God with these words of Psalm 149 every single morning this past Easter week in the Liturgy of the Hours.

But what does it mean to “sing a new song” to the Lord?

Often, it means that we need to move on from our “old songs” – or to allow Jesus to transform them radically with the newness that he brings in his Passover victory. Our old songs, if played out to their completion, only bring slavery and misery. Jesus desires to teach us a new song in the new and eternal covenant, sealed with his blood in his Passover victory.

As in the original Passover, singing a new song means leaving Egypt and the ways of Egypt behind as we pursue God’s promises with fellowship, praise, and a deep desire to enter into the Lord’s rest.

Most of us know how well that worked out for most of the Israelites. It didn’t take them long in the desert to start pining for the fleshpots of Egypt, wishing they were back among familiar places and faces, forgetting in their fantasizing just how awful it had been to be enslaved. They reached an ultimate low point at the very moment when God was ready to form a special covenant with them on Mount Sinai. Moses comes down from his forty-day fast, bearing tablets inscribed by the very finger of God, only to find the Israelites carousing and revling around the golden calf they have fashioned for themselves.

Such sins do not come out of nowhere. They are the culmination of singing “old songs,” the melodies of which sweep us along toward old solutions to old problems. Once we get started with a catchy song, we feel the urge to finish it. Fans of The Office may remember the hilarious elevator scene in which Andy and Pam are trying to make a cold call to a potential client. Andy annoyingly sings the names and suite numbers of all the businesses he sees listed. Pam interrupts him with the right answer and urges him to stop singing. Andy complains, “Except it was going to resolve the melody, so now my head hurts. Feels like I held in a sneeze. Mmm! I hate this feeling!” Truthfully, we all do. The farther along we are in our old song, the harder it is to stop.

It is so helpful to reflect upon our experiences – including our darkest moments of sin – with kindness and curiosity. In our shame, we tend to avoid telling the full truth of our behaviors. Sadly, in that hiding and avoidance, we also miss out on the chance to learn valuable lessons and grow.

The truth is that our unholy moments of acting out are almost always preceded by unholy rituals that function much like the melodies of an old song – often a song that we learned decades ago. If we are paying attention in those moments, we will notice that we feel a certain way; that we have certain images running through our head; and that our bodies experience certain sensations. Typically, some level of fantasizing is involved. Our deep desires get hijacked by the fantasy, and some promised pleasure begins arousing us. There is sexual arousal for some, but the arousal can be ordered towards any number of fantasies: food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, envy, achivement, anger, rage, or revenge. In each case, as the anticipatory arousal grows, so does our urge to finish the song.

As a classic example, consider the devout dating couple who keep telling themselves they don’t want to get physical with each other when they hang out – but somehow always do, only to feel ashamed. They don’t always recognize early enough that they are entering into a ritual with each other – surrounding themselves with the same environment, the same sensations, and the same behaviors. They tell themselves that the outcome will be different this time, but of course it’s only natural that they begin feeling a heightened sense of anticipation for the completion of the ritual. Even if their minds are oblivious, their bodies and emotions and imagination understand what is happening. The more measures of the song that are sung, the harder it is to decide to stop. Again, this is true of sexual arousal but also of any number of other fantasies.

For some fantasies, the ritual song and dance may take days to play itself out to its finish; for others (e.g., an outburst of anger) the whole song can play itself out within milliseconds. Even then, as Victor Frankl once said, between stimulus and response there is always a space. In that space there can be power to choose, to be free, and to grow. In other words, there is the opportunity to learn a new song.

Singing a new song means calling on the newness of Jesus as we reclaim the things the Lord has made: desire, arousal, connection, intimacy, union, and joy. Every one of us is created by God to have these experiences – yes, even those of us who have freely renounced marriage and sexuality for the sake of the Kingdom. One need only see a smattering of celibate Saints to get a glimpse at the intensity of their desire, their longing, their anticipation, their delight, or their joy.  Consider Francis of Assisi, a man known for his poverty and chastity, and how intensely he enjoyed in the beauty of God’s creation. Pseudo-desires like lust and greed actually undermine authentic desire, intimacy, union, joy, and delight. It was precisely Francis’ open hands and open heart, his renunciation of lust and greed, that opened his heart up to the deep joy and peace that come as the fruit of praising of the God who delights in giving good gifts to his beloved children.

Psalm 149 speaks to all of these experiences. Singing a new song means joining in communion with the rest of God’s assembly – no longer isolating or hiding, no longer secretly stealing pleasures when we think no one is looking. It means rejoicing in God as our King and allowing ourselves to feel deeply the delight he takes in us. It means true rest with the Lord, learning just to be, basking in his loving gaze, and praising him amidst the delight we experience his presence.

It also means binding up God’s enemies in chains and fetters of iron (Psalm 149:8). Many of us have been bound up by chains for much of our lives. The evil one attacks early and often, seducing us into unholy agreements, enticing us to believe lies about ourselves or about God. These lies become cords that bind us, not to mention “chords” that keep us trapped in the same miserable old song that brings the same miserable old outcome. I know some of my own “chords” in that regard: I must hide my true self. I must not be weak or fail. I must never ask for help. I must never depend on others. If I keep playing these chords, the song won’t end well. I need Jesus to enter in with his newness and transform the song.

Some of our chords need to be eliminated from the song entirely. If we play them, they will only lead us to an evil end. Think of the alcoholic who needs to give up going to bars and part ways with some of his buddies.

Perhaps some of the old chords served us well for a time, but the song needs a change of key. Each of us have our own self-created solutions in our attempt try to make our pain go away, or try to fill the empty places of our heart, or attempt to resolve our inner conflict. Unaided and unprotected by others, sometimes it was the only viable way to survive. Indeed, some of us have survived truly hellish situations, and the measures people resort to in survival don’t always make for glamorous stories. The saddest part about survival stories is often after the rescue comes. One of the hardest thing for survivors to do is to internalize the truth that they are now free to live a full life – they don’t have to live in their joyless survival methods anymore.

If we find ourselves clinging to old ways of surviving (even when they have long outworn their purpose), we can allow Jesus to teach us new chords in a new song – even though we may, at first, find this learning process to be unfamiliar, frustrating, overwhelming, or intimidating.

Again, Psalm 149 offers the basics of the new chords needed: Connect with others in God’s assembly in joyful communion. Receive and give love together with them as we open our hearts in praise of the living God. Receive joyfully the truth that he delights in us (no matter what we have done), he rescues us, and he desires us to rest in him and delight in him. Bind up any and all evil spirits who would dare attempt to interrupt this amazing new song that Jesus brings.

God has ordained it so. This honor is for all his faithful.

Dispelling the Shadows of Shame

I have come to realize that shame is the devil’s tactic of choice in his efforts to ruin our human existence. Certainly he entices and allures, divides and distracts. Occasionally he openly attacks, but he would much rather not. In those moments we might call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. If there’s anything the devil can’t stand, it’s being defeated yet again.

Rather than an open fight, the devil much prefers to lurk in the shadows and undermine us without our even noticing. As Kevin Spacey famously said in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The devil subtly shames us with his lies, keeping us from becoming fully ourselves. If we don’t unmask him and expose him, if we don’t even notice that he’s there, he can deceive us with ease, convincing us that we are unlovable, that we must avoid being vulnerable, and that we must hide ourselves from others and even from God.

Curt Thompson wrote a marvelous book on the subject entitled The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. He offers the image of a “shame attendant” who follows each of us around, pretending to be a loyal servant, eagerly whispering his counsel in our ear. I think immediately of Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings, who kept sapping and undermining the strength of King Theoden with his whispered distortions and lies.

Shame is all about distorting our true story. We humans are storytellers by our very nature. Even though we only know some of the facts in any given situation, we generally cannot resist filling in the gaps with assumptions about the parts of the story that we do not know. This is how rumors get started. This is why twenty different witnesses can give twenty different accounts of the same event. This is why one momentary interaction in daily life can sometimes feel like just a normal human interaction and other times can send us on a downward spiral for hours or even days.

An acquaintance walks past without stopping to talk. A co-worker asks for a status report on our project that we are behind on. A parish member asks us how our struggling child is doing in school. A friend posts social media photos of amazing family activities. A spouse offers a suggestion for how to do something differently. Any one of these innocuous experiences can cause a sudden shift. We might immediately feel the urge to withdraw or isolate or procrastinate; we might lash out at the person; we might find ourselves replaying conversations over and over in our mind, trying to find just the right response.

Behind those reactions are the whispers of our shame attendant: There you go again; you always fail at those things… You’ll never be as successful as him… You’ll never be beautiful like her… Of course she would walk away from you; why would you let someone get close to you like that?… He wouldn’t understand – no one will ever really understand you… If you make mistakes like that, no one will want to be around you anymore… You’re stuck; nothing will ever changePeople will always let you down; they’ll leave you once they really get to know you…

The devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. He sees God’s glory in us and cannot stand it. Often very early in life, he begins his carefully planned attack. He sneaks in when we are the most powerless and vulnerable, and whispers lies and half-truths into our ears. He uses a few facts to begin distorting our story. This constant whisper becomes so much a part of our life that we cease noticing it. We learn to hide and isolate, for fear of feeling vulnerable.

The hiding and isolating can come in many forms: avoidance and withdrawal, shifting the blame to others, putting on a fake persona, overachieving, or addictive behaviors. Every addiction is fueled by shame. Whereas intimate relationships run the risk of abandonment or rejection, the soothing of an addiction (sugar, alcohol, shopping, pornography, binge watching) will always be there for us, won’t make any immediate demands, and will numb the shame if only for a brief time.

Perfectionism is also fueled by shame, and often goes hand in hand with addictive behaviors. Behind every perfectionist is a shame attendant whispering why failure is not an option: I am only lovable if I am accomplished and successful; I am not lovable when I make mistakes or fail; I have to…or else… When the pressures of perfectionism become crushing and unbearable, the escape of an addiction can feel irresistible.

Shame doesn’t just infect our minds in the form of negative self-talk or accusations; it also affects our emotions and even our bodies. We are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. So we typically feel shame and even carry it in our bodies. That is why our shame reactions can be so strong and so lasting in certain day-to-day human interactions. Many of us have shame-laden memories, unresolved moments in our story that we keep hidden away – moments in which we felt totally worthless or unlovable, threatened or powerless, rejected or alone or abandoned. In those memories, our body felt certain sensations. If we ever feel those again, our brain immediately sets off its “smoke alarm” (the amygdala) and warns us that we are in grave danger – even when we are not. We react. We hide. We isolate.

The solution is so counter-intuitive. We need to be seen and known, to come to the light, to be loved and to belong. It only works if I surrender and allow all of myself to be seen and accepted and loved (including the “bad” parts I would rather lock away).  If I pull back and only project an avatar of myself, a “safe” and edited version to share with others, I will never truly be known and loved – and shame can stay in the driver’s seat, ever reminding me that there are other weaker parts of me that must be kept hidden at all costs.

To be human is to be vulnerable, whether we like it or not. The whispers of shame convince us that we must not allow ourselves to feel vulnerable. So long as we are beholden to those whispers, we are unable to be healed and integrated as a whole person. We continue to experience what Mother Teresa described as the greatest form poverty – to feel alone and unloved.

And you – what are the parts of yourself that you hide from others or from God? Are you willing to be known and seen and heard by at least a few trustworthy people, and by God? He does not pull back; he loves us for who we are and he has always loved us. He has loved us “even when…” If we ask, he will also help us find others who can play that role of loving us for who we are. Those people are there to be found – we are just afraid!

Stepping out into the experience of vulnerability can be terrifying at times (believe me, I know!). But the shadows of shame take flight the more that we allow it to happen.

From Contempt to Content: Leaving Lies Behind

I love the Desert Fathers. In the solitude of the wilderness, they were anything but alone and isolated. They learned to abide in communion with Jesus and with his Body the Church. Through their spiritual combat, they systematically eliminated from their lives all forms of hiding and escape, and discovered the joy of living in the present moment with God.

In the 500s, in the desert of Gaza, there lived a truly wise monk named Dorotheus. His writings reveal a deep understanding of the human heart. Among other things, he describes our tendency to hold others in contempt, and offers a path to becoming content. It is the path of humility and truth, a path that leads us away from our pride and our lies.

Last time I shared about our human skill of storytelling, both in its greatness and in its pitfalls.

Dorotheus describes how the devil hijacks our gift of storytelling. The devil is the father of lies. He works by division, fragmentation, and isolation. In our storytelling capacity (great as it is) he finds fertile ground for sowing lies about God, self, and others. He leads us on a path that winds its way from unease to judgment to outright contempt.

Dorotheus describes a threefold progression of the lies the devil sows in us: from our thoughts to our words to our deeds.

First, the devil sows lies in our thoughts. He lures us out of the present moment and into fantasy thinking. Then comes the “if only…” train of thought. We begin telling ourselves the story that we would be so much less miserable and so much more content if only we had this or that pleasure; if only we didn’t have to be doing this present unpleasant task; if only we weren’t locked into this present relationship; etc.

Regarding God, we can easily begin hearing the whispered story that he is a cruel taskmaster who constantly makes demands of us, a fun-sucking God who steals all our joy away, an unfaithful God whose promises won’t be enough for us.

Regarding our neighbor, we begin conjecturing, filling in the gaps to tell a story about what we do not really know. Dorotheus shares anecdotes of many monks whose insecurity or jealousy or judgment led them into this pitfall – such as the monk who noticed that a brother was absent from prayer on Good Friday and began fabricating the story that the missing monk had been in the garden eating figs instead of fasting and praying. It turned out the brother couldn’t possibly have been in the garden because he was abroad on an errand!

The evil one loves to shade the stories in our mind until, little by little, we grow into contempt of our neighbor, contempt of ourselves, contempt of God.

Then comes phase two: lies in our speech. We do not know the full facts about our neighbor, but that doesn’t stop us from telling the story anyway, filling in the gaps without even realizing we are doing it. How easy it is to spread gossip and start rumors! Did you ever notice how we tend to go down to a whisper when we tell stories about others? Does that make it any less damaging?

Dorotheus also describes the lies we tell about ourselves in our speech. We manipulate the facts or conceal the truth to avoid blame. We selectively highlight partial truths to present ourselves as better than we really are.

I think it is rare indeed that someone tells the humble and candid truth, without any shading or skewing or selective narrating. I look back on past emails or writing, in which I thought (at the time) I was being totally objective, just reporting the facts. I begin noticing moments in which I started editorializing or injecting my own interpretation. It’s a very human thing to do!

As an administrator, I have definitely learned how important it is to gather more facts or to listen carefully to all parties involved. Isn’t it interesting how there is always more to the story?

Thirdly, Dorotheus describes how the devil tempts us to lie in our deeds. The two-tongued father of lies wants us to lead a double life. He who masquerades as an angel of light wants us to pretend to be someone we are not, keeping parts of ourselves in the shadows. Think of the damage this has caused in the Church – leaders pretending to be holy and all the while secretly sinning and covering up the evil.

As I mentioned last time, the full truth of our human story is complex. Jesus was sinless; each of us stands in need of redemption. When we allow parts of ourselves to remain in shadows, we begin hiding those parts of ourselves from others and from self and from God. We then become slaves of shame, and become easy prey for the endgame of the devil: discouragement and despair.

When parts of ourselves remain unknown, they remain unloved and unredeemed. The devil can then weave his webs at will, tempting us to tell dark stories about ourselves, stories in which there is no longer any hope.

But there is always hope, especially where there is humility and a willingness to be vulnerable with God and others. If we are open to it, God will help us seek and find a safe community of friends, to whom we can bare our souls and be known in the whole of our complex story. This was definitely a step that I needed in my own life, and began taking a few years ago. It has helped me, slowly but surely, to shed my shame – and others have noticed a difference. I continue on the long journey from contempt to contentment, but God is with me as I pray to resist the devil’s wiles.

Dorotheus shares some profound wisdom. The devil is real, and the combat is real. Thanks be to God, who delivers us through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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.

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.