Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Then Again, Everything Turned Out Right: Learning to See His Resurrected Body

"This is the paradox of what happened after Mary said yes: everything turned out wrong—and, then again, everything turned out right." (Heather King on The Annunciation, Magnificat, March 2012)

From the fall of 1976 to the spring of 1977, I was in my second year of college, at Temple University in Philadelphia. I decided at some point during that year to transfer to the University of Scranton, a Jesuit institution a couple of hours to the north. During the summer prior to that transition I participated in a Newman Center retreat at the Jersey shore.

We were gathered in a room filled with tables, chairs, and booths, listening to a speaker talk to us about something, I don't remember what, when a thought popped into my head, as clear as though someone were standing right next to me, leaning into me, and speaking it directly into my ear: "Go over to that priest and ask him to pray over you and bless you for the ministry I've called you to and on which you are about to embark."

"What?!" I silently but vehemently questioned the invisible speaker.

The voice repeated its instructions.

"I can't do that. He'll laugh at me, or scold me, or something."

Again I heard, "Go and ask to be blessed."

My heart raced and I began to feel like crying.

"OK, OK!"

I made my way over to the booth where the priest was sitting and slid in next to him. He looked at me questioningly but with a smile. I leaned toward him and whispered what I had heard, or what I thought I had heard.

I was amazed when he simply put his hand on my shoulder, bowed his head, and quietly prayed aloud for me.

"Everything turned out wrong...." I could write a long, long list of all the things that any reasonable person—whether he or she believes in annunciations or not—would easily say "turned out wrong" in the thirty-five years since that priest unquestioningly prayed that blessing in response to my questionable request. When I am alone I can easily descend into rehearsing that paralyzing list in my mind and tagging it as evidence, if not proof, that there was no annunciation and no blessing after all—or at least that I ruined any benefit intended or provided.

The most effective weapon I have found for defending myself against such deterioration has been meditating on the Mysteries of the Rosary, especially the ones that are called Joyful.

The Angel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary that her Creator wanted her to be the mother of Jesus is known as the First Joyful Mystery. "How can this be?" and "Let it be done unto me according to your word" are the responses attributed to Mary in this conversation. Her question comforts me as much as her yes. It makes sense to me that Mary, especially at the foot of the cross, could have questioned her faith in the Angel Gabriel's words to her on that ancient pivotal day. There were many, I'm sure, who told her that her son's life was a failure. Maybe some even accused her of having filled his head with crazy ideas.

"...and, then again, everything turned out right." The final set of Rosary Mysteries is called the Glorious Mysteries—the hardest ones for us to believe. The first three are the Resurrection, the Ascension of Jesus to His Father, and Pentecost. Mary reportedly was present at all these events, and if she had even a crumb of doubt in her, surely it would have been gone at her first sight of His resurrected body.

The list of what has "turned out right" in my life is much harder to conjure than the list of what has (or seems to have) gone wrong. But as Easter approaches, that's the list I'm feeling called to write—or at least to write as much of it as I am able to know. Because, I think, it is in that list that I will see the proof that Jesus is indeed who the Angel Gabriel told Mary he would be; it is in that list that I will recognize, in myself and my life, His resurrected body.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thoughts from the Bottom of a Very Deep Well

My name is Alice.

One day I was sitting and sipping tea at a local coffee shop when I was joined by a young woman-mother-writer named Sarah Mae. Somehow, as we talked, I found myself telling her how, lately, I have felt like I'm falling. It's not, I clarified, the first time in my half-a-century-plus life that I've felt that way. Not by a long shot. I added that what keeps me from despair is remembering how all those other times—sometimes in the nick of time—God caught me. "So," Sarah offered, "you're falling by faith."

It is with Sarah's blessing that I have taken her words as a gift and christened this new blog.

The morning after that conversation I woke up thinking about one of literature's most famous falls—one I am particularly fond of because I share a name with the one who fell. To refresh my memory, I found my copy of the book and read:
"Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well. Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.... she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything.

"Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! 'I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. 'I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down....' this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it....

"Down, down, down. There was nothing else to do, so Alice soon began talking again...."
As she continued to fall and talk to herself she got sleepy, and then, "suddenly, thump! thump! down she came upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over."

She hit bottom! Yikes! Not the outcome I'm looking for.

I kept reading anyway. "Alice was not a bit hurt...." OK, so, there's hope.

Alice spied the White Rabbit she had been chasing when she got herself into this mess in the first place. What, or who, was my White Rabbit, I wondered. What was—what am—I chasing?
"There was not a moment to be lost: away went Alice like the wind, and was just in time to hear it say, as it turned a corner, 'Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it's getting!' She was close behind it when she turned the corner, but the Rabbit was no longer to be seen: she found herself in a long, low hall, which was lit up by a row of lamps hanging from the roof. There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again."
This was all just getting too spooky. Feeling too much like my life. But I kept reading.

Alice tried all of the doors but they were all locked. Then she found a key on a table, hurray! But it was too small! Then she noticed a curtain she hadn't seen before, and behind it was a little door with a lock just right for the key she had found, hurray! But Alice was too big to get through the doorway!


And then:
"There seemed to be no use in waiting by the little door, so she went back to the table, half hoping she might find another key on it, or at any rate a book of rules for shutting people up like telescopes: this time she found a little bottle on it...and round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words 'DRINK ME' beautifully printed on it in large letters."
What popped into my mind at that moment was the image of a chalice, and the words, "Take this, all of you, and drink from it...." Hmmm.

After considerable consideration Alice finally drank the bottle's contents, and quickly found herself "shutting up like a telescope" until she was small enough to get through the little door behind the curtain. Hurray—no! She'd left the little key on what was now a HUGE table!

What now?! What next?!
"She could see it quite plainly through the glass, and she tried her best to climb up one of the legs of the table, but it was too slippery; and when she had tired herself out with trying, the poor little thing sat down and cried."
And then,
"her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words 'EAT ME' were beautifully marked in currants."
This time what popped into my mind was a round, flattened piece of bread and the words, "Take and eat; this is my body...." Hmmm again.

Alice ate the cake, and before she knew it she was nine feet tall. She could now pick up the key, but she was bigger than ever and fitting through that door "was more hopeless than ever: she sat down and began to cry again." She cried SO much that "there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep and reaching half down the hall."

The White Rabbit passed through the scene again, and this time left behind a pair of white kid gloves and a large fan. Alice picked them up and finally found herself shrinking again. By the time she realized what was happening, she was small enough to get through the little doorway but the door was still locked and the key that unlocked it was again far away on the table top that once more was too tall for her to reach. And that pool of tears that used to be a puddle to her was now a saltwater sea.

But in that sea she met a motley crew of other creatures who had fallen into the water—"a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures." Then, "Alice led the way, and the whole party swam to the shore."

That's as far as I got that morning. I'm still fumbling with keys, still drinking and eating, still shrinking and growing, and though I don't feel qualified to say I'm leading the way, I'm still swimming toward the shore in the most interesting company.

[All quotes are from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll]