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.


From a narrow vantage

I sit, watching her brown feet

hammer across hot sand

like an upright crab dancing across shells.

I think she is a sweet date with no wrinkles,

her saggy swimsuit a mere adult artifact she graciously dons —

its ruffles and hearts nothing more than the coded language of the times.


It’s not long after that I’m seated beside a small boy,

telling me that soon the plane will go fast

as he offers me a piece of his gum.

He double checks that his penguin and myself are buckled

because he still loves everyone.

He wants to tell me many things, touches my hand without thinking,

but is scolded for bothering strangers too much.

I try to undo the wall, but my eyes can’t seem to express

how much I love the light of his wonder, the magic bridge he makes

from one world to another.

“Do you love me?”

Beside my bed, there is a rendition of the Christ Pantocrator icon — Christ looking ahead at the viewer with an expression of complete knowledge. Each morning, due to its proximity, the Christ Pantocrator is the first clear, complete image that greets me; a fact that is furthered by my terrible eyesight — and the reality that most other objects remain blurry until I put my contacts in for the day.

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His permanent expression, much like His love, is unchanging, available, and patient. Each day, those eyes ask the same question: Do you love me? Of course, my hope is to say “yes” each day — and like most, my response often falls short or comes with a set of caveats. Yes, I do love You! But I’m not ready for the pain that is coming. I love You, but…just give me some more time. I love You, I’m just not ready for the point-of-no-return. If I say I love You, can you promise it won’t hurt? Then the day happens: I’m checking emails, brushing my teeth, hastily pouring coffee in a portable mug, and racing out the door.

In times of confusion, anxiety, or hardship, we’re often pushed spiritually to look Christ in the eye and respond. I venture to say that, many times, we know the answer(s) to our biggest problems, deep down. We know that the right thing is probably the hard thing, the truth that we can’t ignore is a painful one, and the decision-making we’ve been avoiding isn’t going to be fun. At every turn, there He is, asking: But do you love me? On paper, we know: if we could simply offer Him our unrelenting love, no caveats, everything will work out. It is true! Yet, we resist again and again as our human status continues to fail us, falling prey to fear, comfort, habit, whatever makes us feel less alone.

Perhaps we can’t even accept the invitation directly from Christ’s hand and we need an instrument – Christ in another form. I remember a difficult conversation I had with a close friend last year. As I shared my deepest fears, everything that was holding me back from a difficult decision, my friend listened intently on the phone as I started to cry. Like many women, my tears were quickly followed with an apology: “I’m so sorry for crying!” But my friend responded gracefully with a chuckle that was brimming with compassion, saying, “Claire, don’t be sorry. I cried earlier this morning while watching a television show!” Somehow, in that deeply sincere chuckle, I felt the presence of God. There was something unique in it that I can’t put my finger on; something at once knowing, comforting, even paternal. It reminded me of a reflection I have often employed in times of struggle: the image of myself resting in God’s outstretched palm. Entirely cared for and lovingly watched over by a far greater, larger being. A child’s trust is present in that image.

And that’s what it has taken me so long to learn: that without a deep, perhaps childlike trust in our God, we will always reply to His question with a caveat. Our trust allows us to be easier on ourselves, too: there’s no need to fully understand our love for Christ in each response; we only need to continue to reply yes, our childlike trust leading the way, and the rest will follow.

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. 


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.

An Imagination for God

The function of imagination is not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders. – G.K. Chesterton

Now, perhaps more than ever before, I long for closeness with God. I want to see the face of God, I want to rest in His security, I want to feel the strength of His presence. I want to be in love with God. But how can closeness with a silent, faceless, invisible being come to exist?

I have a tendency lately to create bad patterns where I think of one thing that causes me pain by default. To deal with this, I’ve set up a process through which I picture Jesus interacting with me anytime I begin to let the evil thoughts in. I imagine Christ with an expression of amusement, as though He is saying, “Why are you doing this again, little one?”

I have another image, of God the Father’s hand, large enough that I fit inside His palm, as though my physical body is a trinket inside a dish. I turn to this in times of weakness, stress, or loneliness.

The former image reminds me that I want friendship with Christ. I yearn for His companionship as I sort through my journey in the Shadowlands.

The latter image reminds me that even though I may feel overly capable in my human self at times, I have a natural need for God. This image reflects a father/child relationship and a type of security that only God could ever provide. No human person could create that sense of impenetrable safety and tenderness.

Closeness with God is something I constantly long for; a type of greed that I feel on a daily basis. A dear friend reminded me this week that this type of “rapture love” with God is a gift from Him, not an outcome of our own human work. Anytime I feel a poignant closeness with Him, it is a gift given out of His love that only He can provide. I possess no ability to control when I receive this gift. The only option is to approach love as a verb: keep working, keep praying, keep showing up, keep listening. Through this love in action, the gift of closeness with Him will be revealed, just as the greatest human love is received by giving of oneself.