Holding the cup of sorrow & joy

Henri Nouwen has a beautiful little book titled, Can You Drink the Cup? that gets to the core of human experience in a tender and true way.  His driving sentiment, that we all must aspire to hold, lift, and drink the cup of salvation that is our lives, is one that speaks so directly to the individual reader that there is nowhere left to hide upon completing the book.

At no point does he disguise the anguish of the world, and he offers no tools or tricks for working around difficulty. His words hold great promise, though: drink every last drop from your cup, and you will certainly find joy along with your sorrow. When this is done, your cup can be shared with others and can transform relationships and communities.

I have often reflected on how complicated it is to understand sorrow and emptiness at one point and sheer joy and wonder the next. But this is the way of life, and selecting an experience that skims across emotions out of fear or apathy will deprive us of a full life. I’ve had plenty of moments in which I felt sorry for myself (the most useless of emotions); why is my mother so weak? Why has she given up being a mother? How can I carry the pain of my sisters, my friends, and why do they have to bear this type of pain?  But if my cup of sorrow is, in part, to hold fragments of a family rather than a whole piece, then that is my cup. What are the joys that this cup of sorrow will bring? There are many, and more to come.

A few months ago, I visited the parents of a dear friend. We enjoyed an afternoon and evening together at their home, where they’ve raised 7 wonderful children. We shared great conversation, a delicious meal, and they generously let me stay the night. The following morning, after breakfast, the three of us walked outside to our respective cars to start the day. I was nearly to my car when I turned around to see my friend’s mom running through knee-deep snow towards me. She wanted to make sure to give me a hug before I left. I recall the image of her making her way towards me through the snow, one sleeve of her jacket not quite all the way on, kindness overflowing from her being. Somehow, in that image of her wading through snow towards me, all of her goodness is captured — her unmistakable maternal love, her strong faith, her care for others… and I continue to pull this small memory out of its box again and again.

This, to me, is part of the joy that accompanies my cup of sorrow: there are serious familial gaps that I would rather not experience, but these gaps have become spaces that have prodded and pushed me to reach my hand out to others in a deeper way. In my wavering and stumbling, God has found me more intimately through the maternal love of others. The reward has been great, and my sorrows are now intrinsically tied to joy forever. This paradox is one that can be extended to others — where I’ve been shown great love from people outside of my family, I now know the value of an outstretched hand — even if it is towards a stranger or acquaintance.

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Losing It All to Win

This past week, I attended a monthly evening class for a Jesuit leadership program that I’m a part of this year. Our cohort gathered to hear from a panel of three community leaders: one a self-employed consultant for non-profit organizations, one a medical professional in Catholic healthcare, and the third the former principal at Seattle Prep and current teacher there.

At one point, the leader from Seattle Prep shared a story where he was gathered with a number of angry parents from the school community. He recalled, in a state of regret: “There was a turning point in the evening where I realized that I started caring about winning more than anything else.” He looked back on this moment as a failure, explaining that it had prevented him from understanding and improving the situation and from serving his community. He also drove home feeling rotten.

Following the panel, our cohort broke into pairs to discuss highlights. My partner and I spent our allotted time talking about the concept of winning and how it seems to be at the core of so many issues, whether professional or personal. Looking back, in those moments where we prioritized winning in a discussion or argument above seeing the other side, everyone lost. I’ve seen this play out countless times, whether I’m guilty of the habit or I’m on the receiving end. “Eyes on the prize” is a no-win situation, particularly in personal relationships.

A common Jesuit decision-making process involves picturing your funeral and imagining the words that might be used to describe your time on earth. When I apply the exercise to this theme, I’m reminded just how futile the winning mentality is and how little it really gets us. On our death bed, won’t we regret those times that winning pushed away our loved ones? Those times when our scope became myopic at best and we were forced to retreat back to our caves alone; another so-called win on the board and no one to share it with?

While discussing this idea of losing disguised as winning, my partner and I ended up on the subject of Christ’s Crucifixion. Has there ever been a more extreme example of someone who set aside any notion of “winning”? Beyond that, He was indeed the Son of God. Has there ever been a more extreme example of someone being “right”? And despite his right-ness (more than any of us can say in the face of an argument), he still chose to humble himself. There would be no earthly win necessary to secure everlasting life.

This is the way; the earnest walk towards closeness with one another and with God. Yet, we resist and resist every day — we cannot let go of our deep need to win — and we continue to wonder why we find ourselves on the losing end: further from each other, further from God. 

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[Poetry] A tool belt for tough times

The one that I once shared dreams with

has forgotten why he ever shared dreams with me.

 

But somehow, I heard from Her today,

the one with the warmth that always spills over in the same place:

the crinkles around her eyes —

forged by way of countless smiles for you, me,

all her babies and lambs, each one.

 

She asks me, “What is that Samuel Green poem?

The one that says, ‘No one should be lost when someone else knows the way.'”

 

Then I remember: there are Saints right here,

there is no such thing as Alone,

and there is always a way out from under the rock.

 

In fact, this world has people with crinkles around their eyes,

and Someone put a lot of honey

and an extra pair of work gloves

inside each of us.

The Inconvenience of Catholicism

Examine the tradition of Catholicism and find a seemingly rigid and troublesome set of traditions and rules. Without a doubt, Catholicism employs far more “rules” and tangible traditions in its Church than other Christian churches.

The result? A highly inconvenient religion to follow. A starkly counter-culture path. Still, I like to remember these words: a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it. To invest in the orthodoxy of Catholicism is to know transformation. Unfortunately, most (myself included) don’t invest enough in the orthodoxy for the intended transformation to take place.

In the society around me, I see little but laziness and comfort, even among my Catholic and Christian friends. I hear complaints that would be laughable to many living outside the U.S., and I offer them up regularly myself. In my more specific world of college-graduated, employed, middle-class 20-somethings, this lack of discomfort is all the more apparent. Our conditions rarely force us to question our “résumé faith,” though they do quietly push us away from a deeper union with God. But what does a more multi-dimensional faith look like, one that has faced true hardship? More generally, what does it mean to truly prioritize God? To put one’s faith at the very core of one’s being in such a way that it influences everything one does?

As a living body, the Catholic church calls its members to bend themselves and their lives to God; it does not ask God to accommodate their lifestyles. God does not change to match the times. The finite times must mold to the infinite value of God.

Attending Mass weekly in lieu of a fun activity, handing over the convenience of birth control, truly understanding and living what delayed gratification entails by reserving sex for marriage, incorporating confession into one’s life regularly, observing Lent and so on… these demands can often feel like “too much” for many people (myself included).

There are plenty of religious traditions that allow you to choose when you’ll attend services, how you’ll practice your faith in your own life, and borderline expect you to opt in or out when it truly is convenient (or desperately needed). That is not Catholicism. But there is great news.

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It’s taken years for me to understand the liberating qualities within the rules of Catholicism. And it may take the majority of one’s life to see every benefit, but adhering to a set of guidelines for a life that is intended to be close to God is a deeply rewarding experience. One that I have yet to achieve, certainly, but I have seen glimpses.

Denying oneself of the temptations of life, big or small, in favor of closeness with God, can only result in reward. Those who have denied themselves of one of our most basic human desires until marriage can surely speak to the reward. The sense of true reciprocity in regards to one of life’s most mysterious gifts, and an unrivaled intimacy as a result — also creating a greater intimacy with God. This is just one area of life where the short-term demand is often passed over, and the heightened reward is therefore lost.

In smaller ways, the simple act of attending Mass weekly does in fact, over time, produce a great strength and closeness with God. In the same way, attending confession regularly keeps our hearts accountable and bound to God more closely. These are not rules for the sake of rules. These are the only rules in place that are designed to liberate – that do liberate in their very nature.

I look at my limited scope of the unraveling of history and time, and I see only movements and organizations and communities that have changed. I look at the Catholic church and I see some change, of course, but more than that I see consistency. I see a belief in Truth that is so strong it cannot be moved. I hear the voices of the dead and recognize that no other institution gives their voices this much credence. I see the pain and difficulty exhibited by those who choose to live and stay Catholic to the best of their ability. I recognize their sacrifices and I know their influence. Yet I also see their great joy and continue to chase after it.

But do not take all this from me, in the very midst of the hardship and cloudiness; hear the power of orthodoxy instead from G.K. Chesterton, a mind above the fray:

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.

It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

Looking for Catholicism in Dublin

Last Summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Dublin, Ireland on a work trip. I decided to extend my stay by a few days and do some solo exploring. A major draw was my (naive?) expectation that there would be a significant Catholic influence if I sought it out. Of course, I was met with a more modernized version of my Romantic notion of Catholic Ireland. Where I expected to find religious token shops on every corner, I encountered pubs. Great pubs, though. I laugh now as I recall my high hopes — not the hopes of the average 20-something temporary Dubliner, to say the least.

While in a cab on my way to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the driver and I started talking about religion. He pointed out that most Catholic families have seen tremendous decline in later generations. Much of this, he explained, took a severe turn after the scandals with priests in the Church were exposed on a broader scale.

Another encounter with the more dormant Catholic culture brought me to the Central Catholic Library, a beautiful — and hidden — gem in the middle of the city. As I made my way up the stairs, a bright red door and a very old man who was just leaving greeted me. “Are you looking for the pub?” he asked. I explained I was, in fact, trying to find the Catholic library. His shock at this statement still brings a smile to my face. While at the library, I spent time with the caretaker and the manager, learning about the space and its history. Interestingly, the library was founded by a Jesuit priest the same year that Ireland became a republic. The manager shared this with what appeared to be a favorite catch-phrase; “The Central Catholic Library is truly as old as Ireland herself!” For a few hours, I wrote letters, explored the expansive collection, and soaked in the old book smell and the peace offered from a rainy, busy city outside the door. I was the only one there those 2-3 hours, apart from a brief visit from a middle-aged man.

Although my “Catholic” tour felt a bit lonely much of my trip, something unexpected and beautiful took place towards the end of my stay. I briefly connected with a young man who works in the tech startup community at a function that followed one of the events my team had put together. We began talking about what I would like to see during my last days in Dublin. I told him about my interest in Irish authors and a desire to get out of the city as well. He offered up a visit to Glendalough — the countryside monastic community established by St. Kevin, as well as the James Joyce tower where the opening scenes of Ulysses were set. So it quickly followed that I had a tour guide. The next morning, we met early for coffee and set out for the countryside. The whole way, my guide offered me extensive history of what we were seeing, even reciting pieces from Ulysses while we stopped at the tower.

“Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit!” He bellowed, much to my surprise (and delight), from the top of the tower, while we looked out over a cold, misty coast.

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While on our way to Glendalough, my guide and I talked of many things, and he could sense my excitement to see the monastery remains from a religious perspective. He was mildly surprised by this, and then affirmed the notion that Catholicism was fairly stagnant in the area, particularly among younger people. It’s safe to say that I had started to feel like the only Catholic in Dublin. But I did not feel serious remorse; it just “was” and it would be silly to feel truly shocked.

But here’s the most beautiful part of my entire trip:

While I stopped in the gift shop at Glendalough to pick up souvenirs for family and speak with the owner, my guide slipped out — I presumed he was waiting near the car because I was taking too long. To my surprise, I discovered that he was in the dimly lit, small chapel attached to the shop. He was the only person inside. I waited, not wanting to interrupt, and he emerged peacefully after a few minutes. “I just prayed for the first time in a very, very long time,” he said. “You inspired me.” He went on to describe his estranged relationship with his father, who had done his fair share to damage the family over the years. His resentment towards his father had, it seemed, prevented him from spiritual freedom and peace. But on that particular morning at Glendalough, he was compelled not only to pray, but to light a candle in the chapel for his father.

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Thinking of this moment puts things into perspective for me. I often fight so hard to understand and “be” Christian, to seek out the opportunities and spiritual moments I believe I need. But the most beautiful moments, the most genuine ones, are often at unexpected and even messy times — and certainly through other people (always messy). I learned an important lesson that day about influence: it is not mine to give. Simply being who I am, flaws and gifts all at once, I can be a guide of sorts for others. The slightest action or statement, given not from a place of advice but from a mere state of being myself, can create a turning point in someone else’s life. This influence is entirely God’s influence moving through me, as it does through each person. Just “being” is enough sometimes, though this does not remove responsibility. If anything, our level of responsibility should be seen as all the more heavy — for in simply existing as we choose to exist, we are shaping those around us and either hurting or helping them along the way.

 

Just recently, many months after my Dublin trip, I caught up briefly with my Glendalough guide. I told him that it was a really neat experience for me when he went into the chapel to pray. “I realised that I had stopped praying – not out of apathy but because of the stuff that was blowing up around me,” he said. “If we give up our faith, we ain’t got nothing so thanks so much for helping me to recognise that! Our day out was a great catalyst to remind me that there is a much greater good out there!” 

Following this exchange, just this morning, he dropped me a quick note to say: “It’s so weird but, today, we may just have had a massive breakthrough with my father so thanks so much for any thoughts or prayers you may have given us through the night!”

And just like that, I am reminded of God’s influence at work. Still at work. Always at work.

 

Words from “The Cosmic Dance,” by Peter Kreeft

The stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears… yet, He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the temple and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet, He restrained something. I say it with reverence: there was, in that shattering personality, a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when he went up the mountain to pray. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth. And I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

This is the wardrobe into Narnia. This is the door out of our agonized world of spiritual darkness where ignorant armies clash by night. This is the joy the New Testament speaks of in the strangest way anyone has ever spoken of joy. It is the joy of Christ. That came in the most unlikely time and place in all of history: Calvary. It is the secret of Him who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross. Despising the shame and is seated at the right hand of God. This is the joy that conquered Hell on the cross. The joy that was the door Christ saw behind the cross; the cross-shaped door whose other side is a crown. The death-shaped mask worn by the Lord of Life.

The only adequate answer to our century of genocide, the triumph of the principalities and powers of wickedness in heavenly places, and the threat of a Brave New World and the abolition of Man… is the secret that frees us into this gesture of relaxation. That is the culmination of the great dance. The smile on the face of God.

In conclusion: optimism or pessimism about our future? About the third millennium? Will we reach the joyful cosmology, or will we not? I have no crystal ball anymore than you do, but we have clues. So my bottom line is optimism. Because, apocalyptically decadent ages elicit Saints. Suffering elicits courage, compassion, heroism, martyrdom. Evil elicits Good in response. Bad times make Good people…as mountainous pressures make diamonds or as fire tempers steel. I think we should have great hopes for our society. For if she emerges from her present crisis, she will be stronger than ever before.

In merely American terms, look at the wars we have fought and the war we are now fighting. Defeating British economic tyranny in the Revolutionary War only gave us political independence. Defeating slavery in the Civil War gave us only personal freedom for all. Defeating fascist totalitarianism in World War II gave us only a free world. But defeating moral decadence and confusion and the joyless cosmology and reductionism would give us joy and moral strength and clarity and perhaps even holiness.

For the more dangerous the enemy, the more precious the victory.

Either we will build Gothic cathedrals again from a restored faith, or we will build the Tower of Babel again from a restored apostasy. And Lewis, like all prophets, gives us the roadmap and the clear choice between the two roads of Life or Death, Joy or Misery …and the mosaic simplicity of the challenge. Choose Life. Please do. Please help save the world. Please be a Saint.”

This excerpt comes from a powerful lecture titled “The Cosmic Dance,” prepared by Peter Kreeft.