Mantle of Mystery

In the years of my Midwestern, agriculture-based childhood, you would have never found me on the Field Hockey field, ballet studio or shooting baskets (the outfits worn were alone a participation deterrent).  But, the world was at my fingertips in the miracle of the written word. Books of all genre – from the magic of Tolkien to Laura Ingalls Wilder and captivated by the stories of the world from National Geographic and Walt Disney’s animation.  No search engine to find it quickly, just an imagination and a library card.
I am sitting here in the kitchen of my new community in Washington, DC with the sounds of the city all around me and the sites that magnetically entrance me with as much strength as my youthful attraction to the life of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Last night, I caught a glimpse of the PBS special, “Anne of Green Gables” that took me back to a first reading of that book in my favorite reading spot of our house in Kansas City –piled with pillows in the corner of the walk-in closet, discovering words that sparked new wanderings and wonderings.  Last night, I re-encountered this phrase from that first reading of L.M. Montgomery’s book that seems to capture this moment in time – and my return to sharing life with you — “Mantle of Mystery” — this journey into the new that gives honor to what has passed and embraces the calls in the present.
The Mantle of Mystery — and so I begin the new.  After 30 years of discovering my life as a Religious of the Sacred Heart, an educator, and a fierce defender and promoter of all things Detroit– I boarded the plane for DC and oddly felt like I was connected to my namesake who crossed the prairie from East to West in pursuit of a South Dakota dream — not to reject the Ireland of her past, but to take it forward with her.  Here I am — lover of what is possible when right action follows right judgment, and a member of a family grounded in the fertile soil tilled by hands of farm and implement.  Here I am, where veterans are honored and politics churns like the plants once did in Detroit.  It is a Mantle of Mystery.
And so, I invite you to travel with me through these months — some of you have been faithful followers of “Faith Not Fear” for some time, some of you helped to craft my soul, others of you shaped my life as an educator, and many of you have given me the courage to leave the familiar because I made a vow — a commitment — as a Religious of the Sacred Heart to answer a call to love and to serve — to live the words of theologian Frederick Beuchner in Alphabet of Grace 
“When you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, 
if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.” 
These days of Mantle of Mystery — as I am a newcomer — a “start-up-at-60” — I renew my understanding of what it means to be lost and need directions, to stand in ‘beginners mind’ all over again and remember what it means to be teach-able…this is my journey of “Faith Not Fear” into this Mantle of Mystery.
It will be my own way of home-making — some stories of the past and some of the present — some of the amazement I have of seeing the Washington Monument as “ordinary time” and being down the street from the USCCB in this time of cataclysmic challenge in our church.  There will be days of tender, of strength, of home-sick,of  heart-open, of  heart-broken, of laughter, of lost and always the measure of the number of steps where my feet take me as I watch to discover who I really am.
Thank you — for this chance to awaken with you as together we create a world as philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested, “worthy of our children”
With love from Washington, DC 

21 minutes

One of my objectives in life is to refrain from creating new material for the sacrament of reconciliation…or in the language of the 12 steps, “admitted to God, myself and another human being the exact nature of my wrongs” — in either language, it’s unpleasant. 
 I like the result — sort of like the feeling of having all the laundry done — …the interior “ducks in a row” — but I don’t like the means for getting there.  So, I work (often ineffectively) at not creating new material that needs attention, reconciliation and the grace to receive forgiveness.  Lent brings me to full attention in this process.  With more awareness comes greater connection to what needs to change.
As those closest to me know, I was born without a dimmer switch.  I have two speeds “100 miles per hour and off.”  I am allergic to things that are routine or seem pointless or repetitive in nature — which is a problem when it comes to forms, files and other detail-driven reporting devices.  Lent, accreditation requirements and audits were made for people like me — structures which demand a certain form of penance as a minimum basic standard.  During Lent, I try to clean up some of the chaos and extend the self-discipline which has been required to shape my meditation practice to other parts of my life.
And while it would be tempting (and perhaps useful to those who live and work with me) to see Lent as a way to implement the slick ideas in one of the many ‘how to organize your space and fix your life’ books that are splattered throughout my bookshelves, it is not a self-help season.  Instead, Lent takes us through the layers of self-absorption promoted in our culture and leaves us in the clarity that can be found at the bottom of the ocean.  There, through the first layers of silt, there is a stillness and a clarity that lets us know where to build a bridge of relationship.
This Lent, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I take part in an age-old cultural ritual that is nearly extinct.  I take out a piece of paper that is devoid of the Hallmark seal, a plain white envelope, a stamp and a pen.  I sit there until I know with whom it is that this Lent calls me into re-connection — perhaps an amend or a mend of the heart — perhaps a remembrance of a time that seems lost — perhaps the person who works in the office down the hall that I haven’t recognized for the heart of things.  I pick up the pen and the paper and set my phone alarm for 21 minutes and I write a note.  
The first couple of notes were easy ones — my cousin in South Dakota that I have lost contact with since my mother’s death — a person who taught me in college and shaped the educator that I am today — our local Archbishop who probably doesn’t get much mail that has no problem and no complaint.  But, with each Tuesday and each Thursday, I have started to notice that I start thinking a day or two ahead about who is next…and like the little plant — the roots go deeper and the notes are about some of that ‘sacrament of reconciliation material.’  I notice that it’s about a student from 15 years ago that I shouldn’t have suspended — or the piece of gossip that I repeated — or the regret I have that I didn’t leave the work behind and get on a plane.  And, then I notice that when I write those notes from the bottom of the well, there is more light and space in the days between.
It’s all very simple.  A pen, a piece of paper devoid of the Hallmark seal, an envelope, a stamp and 21 minutes.  It is contrary to my over-active pituitary gland.  There are no chimes, posts, tweets or benchmarks.  It doesn’t change anything — except maybe it changes everything…from the inside out.
And, for 21 minutes, I am likely to not create new material for ‘my next confession’
It’s Thursday…I invite you to join me — for 21 minutes…

Waiting for the Thaw from the Inside-Out

“See that frozen ground, Brightness. Underneath it, are all the bulbs we planted.  

The hard, frozen ground protects them so they can be the first to pop out.”

My father was definitively credible in my young eyes.  Likely more credible than most any other source of information in my life, but this confounded my trust.  The Nebraska ground was covered with inches of snow and ice and cold and the tulip bulbs that outlined the garden were a distant memory.

Decades later, I have an annual renewal of doubt that there will be a spring thaw.  In the outside world, and in the interior one.  On Ash Wednesday, I was confident that Easter conversion was just 40 days away.  Fervor, confidence and commitment showered me with trust in the process.  In the middle of the journey, it seems less clear.  Like those tulip bulbs that I doubted were being nourished below the concreted layer of rock solid soil, there is a gravitational pull to discard the resolve and yield to complacency.

Melting the frozen layer takes time – the layer that has gotten less alarmed with the daily reports of violence – the layer that expects inaction from those with the power to  make change – the layer that expects less personal connection in the midst of more digital contact – the layer that waits for God to act like the tooth fairy instead of empowering the human race to be more human – the layer that prefers to binge-watch instead of determining the next right step.

Melting the frozen layer takes time, but Lent removes the layers.  I discover the twinge of knowing that something else is required of me.  As the thaw takes shape, I see the disparity between what I value and what I do – and I know that those tulip bulbs will never pop through the soil, nourished and done with fallow time, — unless I shovel the snow.

This week, I notice the thaw of the heart and the awakening of my thinking.  For me, it is the simple act of the next right choice – and to trust what I cannot see.

Live Lent.

Retrospect on the Third Week of Lent

We had a big snow last week – not enough to invalidate the snow day calculator, but enough to delay, disturb and discourage the daffodils.  As I walked along the driveway – I was reminded of the magical feeling I had on Christmas Eve as a few brave souls and a few good friends gathered in for midnight mass in the midst of a snowstorm.  In December, it was magical – in March, it is something closer to misery.

Beautiful misery, but nonetheless – discouragement as the buds of spring are waiting to pop and the hibernation of all forms of the animal kingdom has nearly worn out its welcome.  I was pondering all this while counting my steps on a trek through the building when a fourth grader stopped me with his piercing question, “I have a good idea for Lent.”  “What’s that?”  I posed as he joined me on my walk.

“Why don’t you tell all the adults to stop all the shooting and the shouting.  For Lent.  I think it would be a good idea and I think God would be much happier” he suggested with both clarity and definitive expectation.

It stopped me in my tracks.  I wasn’t sure which topic to approach first – violence and his understanding of the world condition – or the fact that he had the misperception that I had any influence large enough to stop the war and start the healing.

I looked at him for a second before he darted off with a quick, “Thanks Sr. Bearss.  See you at lunch.”

That was it – I was left with the prophet having appeared from the fourth grade and the challenges of March Misery-Madness haven been deflated with truth.

Lent offers us truth, but demands action.  It is not enough to hear the challenges of the Gospel – they require something of me.  I may not be able to stop the violence that plagues our cities and threatens our harbors of safety, but I can do something about the wars within my own heart.  It is all about the eyes with which I see the situations that challenge me.  From magical snows of Christmas miracles to the misery of what I don’t want to see in March.  It is the eyes with which I see that creates the difference.

This week, for me, is about seeing differently – and being called to action.

Let us each be the one, like the Samaritan woman from the Sunday Gospel, who steps outside the box of conformity and expectation and dares to reach beyond convention to right action.  Each of us will have the chance this week to fill the jar of someone who stands on the “other side” of the well – the only question will be if we have eyes to see beyond the constraints of our expectations

Balancing Act

Seven days of Lent have passed and I find myself held in the balance between holding on and letting go.  In a real sense as I am in the middle of things — in the midst of transition — like the second pause between the in-breath and the out-breath, when the heart shallows and it’s before the next thing…unconsciously and involuntarily.  I am reminded of the tension between the theoretical and the actual.  ​Theoretically, I like change — I have an allergic response to “ordinary time” — but change seems better when it’s happening to someone else.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with my Father a year or two after I had entered the Society of the Sacred Heart and was waxing eloquently about the value of shared goods and the community of held resources to be shared by all.  He listened attentively, but the eye-twinkle let me know he was about to issue a quick rebuttal.  He simply replied, “that’s great, but you know you no longer qualify to be independently approved for an American Express card.” He knew that it would sear through my rhetoric as it had been a personal victory to have achieved independence as measured by American Express. It was true.  The reality collided with the theory.  
Real awakens me from the slumber of ideology without action.  So does Lent.  I stand in the balance between holding on and letting go — between really changing habits, thoughts, actions and considering doing so.  I’ve been influenced lately by a book that our management team has read and been attempting to live, “The One Thing” by Gary Keller.  Among other management tools that take old principles and innovate them with a contemporary twist, he offers a compelling challenge to the mythology of multi-tasking as a viable way of life.  The simplicity of radical change in an age-old truth — one thing at a time yields results while more than one yields compromise.  
As my wise brother says to me often, “life is all about choices” — and the choice of Lent is ours — to hold on to the old ideas, old things, old files, old patterns, old habits and old ways — or to believe that the arrival of the spring seed catalog signals the time to “till” our internal garden of that which prevents growth.  A week beyond the ashes and the first layer of ice melts — and it is time to heed the words of the prophet — it’s not enough to HEAR the good news.  As Abe Lincoln often commented, “a sermon is no good unless it calls us to act.”  
In the balance, between holding on and letting go….

The desert

​The First Week of Lent
Now, the journey begins
Like the days we prepare for a trip 
(go to the bank, fill the prescriptions, stop the mail, buy toothpaste)
And the decisions about what we take and what we leave behind 
(often too much is packed and rarely is what not taken missed)
When finally the moment comes that the unfinished work will have to wait
 (except of course what can still be done on the plane)
The destination is unclear — which is why we call it a journey
We find ourselves in the desert
So did Jesus
(at least mine)
looks different 
(although I have never been to His)
But, I know well both being cared for by angels and tempted by devils
We sit in the middle of the desert
My desert isn’t quiet and abandoned and still
There is no sand and heat and barren land
My desert has keyboards and Tweets and Posts and plans
It is chaotic and restless and is filled with endless chatter from 24 hour news cycles
My desert tempts me to despair and invites me to relinquish my small actions in lieu of the comfort of powerlessness
There is no burning bush of confirmation
Just the simple direction, 
“Just make the next right choice”
In the desert of Lent, we face ourselves
There is no post, no text, no You Tube, no Ted Talk that has the answer
The desert leads us into the whisper in the midst of the noise
Gratitude extinguishes despair
Connection heals isolation and the paralysis of inaction
The desert is where we are — 
Never alone
Listening to the whisper 
Making the Next Right Choice
No more preparing for the Lenten Journey
We are on it.
In the desert
That’s All.
Very Simple.
Very Hard to Do
Today, Just Make the Next Right Choice

Be The Light

The Lights Went Out
and I was thrust into the volcanic ash
of the terror within me
as Lent unfolded 
with kids who went 
to school
just like the ones I love
only they didn’t go home
from the Florida school
that now lives within me
and I felt my heart break open
as I listened to the wrenching news
and I could only feel the dark
Lent is not something 
that marks the calendar 
and creates a diet plan
with a spiritual bonus
is where the lights go out
and we meet the others 
who have spent time sitting in
the pit of darkness
without a single spark
Sarah, and Moses, and Mary of Magdelene
Jacob, and Matthew, and Miriam and Ruth
Martha and Isaiah, Joshua and John
and you
and me
bids us to let go 
of what has always been
and the parts of life
that no longer fit
that clutter
that keep us numb
none of it matters
if we are not willing to
stop trusting the darkness 
and to be willing to 
Not to Look for the Light
but to
Be The Light
and to be willing to be the light
When the Lights go out
and kids don’t go home
and we choose again

Lenten Lessons

It was a different time.  Television remote controls meant the youngest child turned the dial on command (at least in my family). We had a particular skill at setting the “rabbit ears” so the screen fuzz would matriculate into a picture — at least as long as the aluminum foil at the tip of the antenna held the signal.
                                                                                                                                                       The family phone line was shared by all seven of us and when the timer rang, no matter the importance of the call, someone else was in line.  There were things that were just bound to happen — like what my Dad would give up for Lent.
                                    It was a different time.  Marlboro Reds went where my Dad did.  Every shirt had a pocket on the left hand side for the box of Marlboro’s and I found the familiar hint of smoke part of the smell that made my world feel safe and right.  It meant my Dad was home.
                                    Lent was different, though. At the mark of 12 a.m. on Ash Wednesday,  he would pack up any leftover boxes and they went on the shelf in his closet.  It still amazes me that he had this amazing resilience to make the choice not to smoke during Lent, and keeping a few handy in the closet made it a choice, not a removal of the possibility.  Even when a quadruple by-pass made the decision to quit a final one, he kept a carton of Marlboro Reds — just in case he changed his mind.  (Clearly, that portion of the DNA structure got used up in my four older siblings as I prefer not to have the source of problems within my reach).
                                           Every Lent he stopped on the moment that Ash Wednesday began and started again at the moment that the chimes began to ring in Easter.  There was the annual conversation as my mother would implore him to keep up the Lenten fast after Easter Alleluia had begun and he would simply respond, “But if I stop smoking, what will I give up for Lent?  There is simply nothing else to change.”  With the emphatic blend of Irish and German wit and clarity she would quickly retort, “I would be happy to provide you a list of what else needs to change.”
                                      What I didn’t know until far into my adult years was that there was a second part to the Lenten formula.  In my Dads dresser, there was a mason jar for Lent and into that jar, even in times of financial distress, there was a daily deposit for every day of the smokeless Lent.  On Easter Sunday, every dollar saved was equally divided between their two favorite charities, half to St. Jude to whom my mother gave credit for my father’s return from the war, and half to the St. Vincent De Paul Society, a passionate work through all of my father’s life.  No fanfare or acclamation or recognition, just a check written at the end of Lent, even when the weekly food budget was stretched beyond reason.
                                        I’ve been thinking in the last few days about how my sense of Lent was shaped by watching them.  Not words, but actions.  Not lectures, but living.  Not dramatic statements of perfection, but the evidence of change.  Refraining, releasing, refusing is not really the lesson of Lent.  But it’s what happens because we make the choice.  While I thought the point of doing without the Marlboro Reds was the sacrifice of withdrawal, in fact — it was the only way that there would be something to give to others. I nearly missed the point.
Or maybe — it was the point.
                       Maybe, the real point, is to keep the outcome hidden — get our habits that keep us stuck in ourselves out of the way, so God’s light can shine through us.  Perhaps, what today means for us is to let go of that which takes up our space and time, so that we are able to give from the hidden jar of treasure that we don’t even realize we have.  We abstain from one thing so that something else is possible.  It’s not the abstinence that is the point, it’s what it makes possible.  And yet, without letting go of the Marlboro Reds, there would have been nothing to give.
                      Sometimes, the Marlboro Reds in my life are clear — but more often, I have to look for the source that blocks the giving.  More often, Lent becomes a detective novel of discovery in the interior chapters of my life to see what needs to be on the fasting list.  Then, I can discover the feasting of giving instead of needing.
                       Happy ASH Thursday — the warm-up days before the real training arrives!

happy vaLENTine’s day

​What do 2018, 1945, 1934, 1923, 1877 and 2029 have in common?
Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday
colliding on the same day, with Easter Sunday on April 1st.
(And for those of us with undying hope…the Detroit Tigers website seems to think it’s a good omen as the 1945 Tigers won the World Series and there was a traffic stopping winter storm on February 9th — that’s about the best news I’ve heard about the Tigers for a while)
Welcome to VaLENTines  Day/Ash Wednesday.
And, welcome to my Lenten journey.  ​I’m glad to have your company along the journey.
I do my best thinking, praying and being and imagining in the middle of a community of friends and family.
Some stories, some prayers, some directions Lent sends me, and some hopes I have for the life we share.
Nothing terribly earth-shattering, but actually, nothing that feels more important.
Show Up- Pay Attention-Tell the Truth-Don’t be Attached to the Results
Over these next 40 days, we will form a cobweb of connection that will catch what we need and let the cocoon that we have built over these months of fallow time unravel and fall away and reveal whatever it is that will happen.  Some of us could use some of our outer layers to melt away like snow, as the carbs and comfort of the past seem to linger while there is something new waiting to find life in us.  Others of us need to connect with those who can spark the life of hope and the possibility that underneath the frozen tundra, there is a hybrid waiting to be grafted from  opposites into the civil discourse of deciding that we can make something new happen instead of regurgitating the same old solutions that don’t work.  And still others are ready to roll back their heads in a belly laugh that cures the woes and is contagious in its promise.
It’s Lent — the kind that begins on VaLENTines  Day…with love at the center of it.
Not the soft kind of love that is sugar-coated in red boxes of satin
But the real stuff of love where truth is told and it’s feedback, not failure.
The kind of love that has room for human imperfection and lets humor find a cavity in the middle of the mess of life.
It’s Lent-love…like the year I gave up beets for Lent and my ‘beloved’ siblings neglected to remind me that whatever you gave up for Lent you got on Sunday in heaping qualities…(now, really you guys– and don’t think I’ve forgotten….)
Lent Love is the real stuff of life — the dull and the thrilling and the real-ness of living
It all starts today with a few ashes to help us remember 
that it’s all a gift and we get it one day at a time
It starts with today and putting aside what gets in our way
and picking up what works better
It begins with seeing the clutter and chaos
and then doing something about it
and then not filling up the space again
So that something new can grow there
in the  VaLENTines heart that has room
Welcome to these days and words and images we will share
the path we walk
the light that shows up when we need it
and the community we create
right now
right here
“Be The Light”
Happy VaLENTines Day
Lent it be your Path

The Light

It was all very clear at first — the unmistakable experience of Presence — the angel, the message and the path.  The obstacles were overshadowed with the Grace that made walking into the night seem like simply the price to be paid for living from the inside out. 

It’s the joy of engagement, the passion of the inspiration to give your life to defend freedom, the pursuit of peace through the Corps, the inspiration that leads to the first words of the book, the delight in the new position that is just joy shrouded with difference-making.  Such is the stuff of invitation, where we each discover the unmistakable desire that defines the decisions.  For each of our lives, like the couple who headed to Bethlehem,  there is something so definitive that we set ourselves on a journey with the courage of the indomitable and the heart of love.

The real work, though — the real decision — the one that requires a refuse to despair, a release of the desire to control and the commitment to walking a path of real joy…happens from the depth of night.  This joy, grounded in the gift given in the first days of the fervent “yes” becomes unlike the Hallmark commercial and more like the pathway of those who have walked the same pathway on the way to their own Bethlehem — confident in the promise given by God that in the manger, where your presence has been counted as one who believes, the manger holds the miracle…but it requires the first step.

The real work of Advent is not in the whimsical days of putting up the sparkling lights or rushing through the Thanksgiving dishes to see if Black Friday really holds the deal.  The real work of Advent is not in the ornaments, the gifts wrapped and ready to be ripped or the Morman Tabernacle Choir hitting the historical notes that enliven the thirst for beauty.  The real work of Advent is not checking the “Giving Tree” off the list of things to do so that our abundance can yield some relief to another’s scarcity.  No…the real work of Advent happens deep in the night — when, on the road to Bethlehem, while “not a creature is stirring, not event a mouse” — we find ourselves gripped with the doubt of our earlier certitude.

This is where Advent begins — Emmanuel “God with us” — in those gripping moments when I recall again the truth that I live, “my mind is a dangerous neightborhood that no one should go into alone…especially at night.”  When, in the middle of night — in the middle of things — when things are messy and unclear and the strategic plan objectives have not been met and the young love has greyed into an empty nest and the sparkling lights have become dulled with disillusionment.  This, is where Advent happens.  It’s the moment that you get back on the donkey because you believe — even in what you cannot see or feel.  It is to face into the unknown Bethlehem and refuse to let cynicism, fake news and fear be the stars that guide your action.  Advent happens when we turn off the phone and light those candles and dispel the darkness.  Advent happens when it’s messy — in the middle of things — when we are too far away from where we started and very far from where we are going.  Then, in the middle of the darkness, as the road winds through one more hairpin turn that you think you just can’t do — and around the bend, through the darkness that leaves you wanting to quit and forget about the whole thing…..

You see the star.  It hasn’t been there before — or has it.

Was it that you were looking down at the ground

and gripped by the black hole you refused to look up.

Was it that the clouds hid the piercing light

and so you have been gripped in the fog of your own dim hope

Was it that you refused to see that the light

has been the magnet leading you through the darkness

Or did it just appear

It’s Advent — in the middle of things

Look — your star has been waiting for you