A letter to myself and fellow Stutterers:
Stuttering is a very individualized experience. Its impact on me and fellow stutterers cannot adequately be measured over a lifetime. Nor can it be universalized by causation, severity, age of onset, duration, or best strategies to mitigate the negative effects of our stuttering and movement towards confident communication skills and maximum fluency.
As such, it could be a very lonely and debilitating handicap in life if not handled with care, commitment, and dedication. Despite it feeling this way, stutterers are indeed not alone – 70 million people worldwide are with us. They share our histories of pain, disappointments, shame, fears, and failures. More importantly, they share our transformation stories of healing, hope, strength, perseverance, self-acceptance, and compassion (no matter how we speak), speech therapy skill sets, self-help fellowships, and success stories, large and small.
This piece is on recovery and living with stuttering from my experience. I will not focus on the early years of avoidance, shame, and willful self-defiance to force my way through painful experiences and situations. As fellow stutterers, we know what they are and how devastating they can be. This piece is about finding peace with myself while still working hard to improve my communication skills.
Three pillars of “Know thyself”
Pillar One: I had to come to understand the exact nature of my stutter, its physiological expression, emotional toll, frequency, and most common circumstances of appearance. I had to become aware of secondary features I had adapted for survival like word substitution, avoiding speaking situations, silence, or other speech nuances that infiltrated my speech patterns. After labeling and defining these quirks and consequences of my speech, I had to go one step further before anything else was to be accomplished. Stuttering is not my identity. It is not my essence. I needed to define and believe myself to be worthy of being present in any situation regardless of how I speak. I had to develop a healthy sense of self and who I am. Stuttering may be a small part of that – but it will not and may not be an outsized definition of my identity. A bad speaking event is just that – not a condemnation of me or you as a worthy human being. Finding PWSs (People Who Stutter) is an excellent place to explore and share your healthy identity. Some of us may even need professional mental health counseling, but studies show we will not need professional help any more than the rest of the non-stuttering world. Resource: National Stuttering Association to find PWS like you for fellowship.
Pillar Two: I had to take ownership of stuttering. This Pillar will be very confusing as it consists of two opposing textures in one spiral column, ever evolving. I had to accept my stutter may appear at any given time and that I do and may stutter the rest of my life. This acceptance is not giving up efforts to be a better communicator. It is an acceptance that I do not know the degree or upper limits of my potential to be a great communicator and preferably free of any form of stuttering. Self-acceptance is one texture of the column’s swirl. The second is, yes you have guessed it, am I willing to go to any lengths to improve my communication skills – shy of self-self-flagellation and martyrdom!
Pursuing improved communication skills can be a life long journey that should be enjoyed and celebrated. It is the pursuit of perfection, the same as an athlete or artist pursues their crafts. This involves researching and making commitments to self-improvement to learn skills to improve speech with an SLP Speech-Language Pathologist) and perhaps other self-improvement strategies (ancillary self-care strategies that improve overall health and reduce anxiety and stress). What lengths am I willing to go to in my effort to address speech dysfluencies. I cannot count the times I have said to myself if only I did not stutter I would or could or should have done this or that activity or goal. I hate to say it, but in hindsight most of the time it was a cop out – not all the time as sometimes it was prudent to not put my stutter on display.
Pillar Three: Having reviewed the first two pillars we have a sense of our identifies as a valued human being, a keen of understanding of stuttering and its impact in our life, and what if anything we are willing to do about it. Pillar three is about our character. Do you have the courage to commit to action and persevere in your actions, including a healthy dose of humility as it will involve asking and using others for help? This may not just be finding an SLP. It may be finding a self-help group or asking family members or friends to be of help for you to practice specific speech goals.
Perhaps contact knowledgeable people to find a stuttering intensive program and immerse yourself in foundational skills related to your speech patterns and vocal apparatus. It may involve significant monies dependent on your treatment targets. Improving speech is about identifying barriers – large and small, and removing them one by one to obtain your goal. Note when I say it is about character – it is not about successfully being free of stuttering – it is about pursuing improving our communication skills to our fullest potential by taking actions steps, by trial and error, and keeping what works and moving on, ever growing and contributing to the art of actualizing our fullest communication potential in every circumstance. You get to be the hero in your own story no matter the result as our effort will stand tall and our identities intact.
Hard Skills: Programs and Techniques
In hindsight, I tend to minimize today the efforts I have put into speaking fluently. That is a disservice to you if I do not provide a brief view of my journey. Here are some of the things I have tried over 20 to 30 years:
Types of Programs:
- Three-week intensive speech therapy program. Everyone slowed speech down to a really slow rate of speech and slowly over three weeks raised the rate of speech while learning specific skills to work with consonants, vowels, sentence structure, breath, and total awareness of the body. Specific teaching on vocal cords, vibration, articulators, etc. I did not get help until my young adulthood. The sooner, the better in my book. (Rating: must do at least once in a lifetime if you have a significant stutter.)
- One-week refresher program with an SLP and once a week after that: built on skills learned above.
- Attended self-help groups National Stuttering Association and Stuttering Foundation of America. NSA closer to my core beliefs than Stuttering Foundation. Attend at least one NSA function if you stutter.
- McGuire Program or some variant in D.C. (don’t remember and not impressed), not knocking it as I don’t even remember its name! My memory is the exposure aspect, and principles were similar to McGuire. It is listed here as this has worked for some and not for me. I had to check it out – it may have been worth the time, you never know.
- Individual SLP follow up many years later – slipping into bad speech form without realizing it and added stress.
- Apps: Speech for good app S4G (play with delayed feedback – can use with smartphone and wireless earplugs). There are many cheap apps that can be fun to play with and practice. Do get something that you can record and listen to your speech and share with SLP.
- Speak-easy devises – very costly. My impression is if you don’t have to get this, it would be better to learn skills without this device dollar for dollar.
- Toastmasters: I did Toastmasters when speaking to groups was a greater demand in my life. It is not aimed at stutterers. Get some confidence under your belt before trying this group.
- Psychotherapy: An awesome counselor who helped me work with my outlook on life integration of a healthy self despite my discomfort with stuttering and the nature of anxiety and depression as it relates to stuttering including generalized fear and anxiety. I have learned in life to use experts when I can – it just makes everything easier.
- Experimentation: There is so much out there in public presenting and singing world that you can play with your voice and experiment with to just have fun. I have used many different apps to just vary my speech practice and keep it interesting.
As you can see from the above, I tried many things and avenues over the years, and I also have had to date a successful career with many promotions in a field that is totally dependent on oral communication. That is not to say I have not had dysfluencies and still do to this day. In truth, I recently re-engaged an SLP to refresh my “in the moment awareness” of my speech and to brush up on skills due to a pending promotion.
Here are techniques labeled hard-skills (HT) and soft-skills (SS). Hard skills are direct speech applications and soft-skills adaptations to the environment, self-care, or other strategies. Some may seem silly. Of course, working with an SLP is ideal. Like golf, ideally you want to learn base skills correctly the first time, so a qualified SLP can model and provide resources. You can also find videos on the web of specific skills mentioned.
- Find a role model (SS): James Earl Jones is my role model and sometimes reach for my James Earl Jones voice which for me means abdominal breathing, deep voice, very clear enunciations, and good posture. You can hear him breathing and preparing his entrance into new phrases when he narrates the bible (audiobook on Audible). What makes him a great voice on TV is his vocal clarity and focus on each syllable and deep voice.
- Easy On-set (HT): I can hit vowel sounds at the beginning of words with too much force in my vocal cords causing a “hard attack,” and the vocal cords lock up. Practicing utilizing an h sound before the onset of the vowel, at first exaggerated and then less so, gives you the muscle memory to avoid hard attacks with vowels when you see or feel them coming you can use this skill (long or very short h sound). https://www.sltinfo.com/easy-onset/
- Soft-contact (HT): Mostly used when encountering consonants (sometimes called plosives such as /b/, /d/ and /g/ – an SLP will coach and model light articular contact to soften and be gentler with the word being pronounced. https://www.sltinfo.com/fluency-shaping/
- Pro-longed speech and slow speech (HT): Both of these fluency shaping techniques I learned in the emotionally hard three-week intensive way back when. To this day, my rate of speech and breath management can affect my communication clarity. When I rely on these today, it is not apparent that I am using prolonged speech or slow speech – though I purposefully am focusing on the slightly exaggerated enunciation of every syllable, slightly slower rate of speech, and overall better breath management. For me, speaking to quickly is a negative habit trying to get in all I have to say in one stream (why risk starting and stopping!). Biologically and psychologically it is an anxiety ticking bomb that alerts the body to danger (lack of air) and is setting up a psychological fear paradox: speaking too fast to avoid dysfluency creates an increase in tension as my oxygen is depleted. Not to mention the thought processes of trying to stay on target with the content of my thoughts. The goal here for me is not to be super monotone or dragged out – it is to speak within the range that my body can support with diaphragmatic breathing and great vocal clarity. Yes, sometimes it is just easier to speak without good vocal hygiene – the question is, can I afford to do that as a person whose stutter can vacillate greatly?
- Diaphragmatic breathing (HT): There is plenty of evidence to support that most of us breathe the wrong way! Practicing diaphragmatic breathing first and then adding sound formulation on the exhale can be an awesome way to prepare to always speak with proper support from your full vocal apparatus. http://tedxmanhattanbeach.com/speakers-2016/belisa-vranich/, https://www.sltinfo.com/ssv-breathing-exercises/ Having a speech-language pathologist model and observe your practice this would be helpful. My error is shallow breathing and over-utilization and tension in the chest and neck area. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9445-diaphragmatic-breathing
- Meditation (SS): I am a fan of relaxing the whole body. If you can do this and incorporate diaphragmatic breathing as well – awesome. Like it or not, anxiety and tension can amplify stuttering and hurt performance (speech or otherwise). This skill cannot be used only in a crisis – it is a way of life. I recommend mindfulness-based meditations and guided meditations. This is not only good for your speech but for your general health and well-being. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DTmGtznab4: This is a 30-minute meditation that may be too hard to do initially without sleeping from John Kabat Zinn. I use an app called headspace for shorter meditation, and my apple watch has a one minute “breathe” exercise.
- One-item practice (HT): This is a little annoying – but practice one skill at a time at designated speaking opportunities. Develop the confidence that you can call on these techniques on demand.
- Exercise, nutrition, hydration, and sleep (SS): Like anything else, if you are tired, weak, sick, beat up, and otherwise not at your peak your performance may suffer at your most vulnerable point. For stutterers, that is utilizing your maximized voice. Each of these offers you an opportunity to network and speak with non-stutterers while pursuing great health. You could even throw in a hobby here – anything that gets you out and lessens stress.
- Cancellations or pull outs (HT): As I become aware of repeated words or sounds, I can choose to stop and recognize what is going on, take a cleansing breath, and then continue with the work correctly.
- I have not mentioned MHP yet (Everything technique): It is my higher power. For me, it is spiritual. I give to my God what is his to handle, and I do everything I can to handle what is my responsibility. There are things and events that we do not control – some of which may throw our speech for a loop. That is okay – my identity, and my reality is not defined solely by my speech (Second Pillar). If you do not have a higher power get one (Only kidding, sort of). Seriously if you have a faith use your faith it to support your journey – if you don’t ignore this paragraph! If you do not consider a mantra to re-enforce your daily positive approach to every speaking engagement.
- Good posture! This one almost slipped past me. It not only allows you to sue your full diaphragmatic breathing skills; it can also boost confidence. I was never a fan of “fake it to you make it,” but let me give you this resource: Your body may shape who you are Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare&fbclid=IwAR19SHAZIYknBKx2FmwkKwOyiRMvyD4oQwKoLRJuRFqXJAnvUVpcRwmzzBs
- I might also add here that stuttering can be very traumatic and train our bodies to act neurologically, making fluent speech very challenging. We expect progress, not perfection! This loops back again to self-acceptance.
Check out these coping tips for people who have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome). I firmly believe they apply to cope with a history of stuttering and future speaking engagements:
- Self-regulate your nervous system
No matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it’s important to know that you can change your arousal system and calm yourself. Not only will it help relieve the anxiety associated with trauma, but it will also engender a greater sense of control.
Mindful breathing. If you are feeling disoriented, confused, or upset, practicing mindful breathing is a quick way to calm yourself. Simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each ‘out’ breath.
Sensory input. Does a specific sight, smell or taste quickly make you feel calm? Or maybe petting an animal or listening to music works to quickly soothe you? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment with different quick stress relief techniques to find what works best for you.
Staying grounded. To feel in the present and more grounded, sit on a chair. Feel your feet on the ground and your back against the chair. Look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue in them. Notice how your breathing gets deeper and calmer.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it. Acknowledge your feelings about the trauma as they arise and accept them. HelpGuide’s Emotional Intelligence Toolkit can help.
A recent article sent me down the Rabbit hole of the intersection of politics, psychiatry, and spirituality. It has laid bare for me the difficulty of how to share the spiritual path in a secular society as well as how to live the spiritual path oneself. Here is the journey:
The Martial Personality (MP) archetype was recently explored in the Psychiatric Times by Ronald W. Pies, MD.[i] Ronald’s opening statement may resonate with our shared readers:
“The great challenge of our moment is the crisis of isolation and fragmentation, the need to rebind the fabric of a society that has been torn by selfishness, cynicism, distrust, and autonomy. At some point there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored anthropology, emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust.”1
Dr. Pies estimates this is a causal factor of societal disintegration in the US has only worsened in the past three years. He sees the MP archetype’s growing prominence—and, in some circles, acceptance as a significant driver. He even provides us a mythical creature for reference: the “Aresian Personality”—named for Ares, the Greek god of war!
Ares aside, Psychiatric diagnosis and clinical presentations often cut across several diagnostic categories that can muddy the waters of MP: “Despite substantial overlap with several conditions or disorders, I believe that a distinguishing feature of the MP is the individual’s sheer delight in causing harm, discomfort, or chaos: something akin to schadenfreude (from the German, Schaden (“damage, misfortune”) + Freude (“joy”). Though this term is usually defined as “malicious joy in the misfortunes of others,” psychologists Shensheng Wang, Scott O. Lilienfeld and Philippe Rochat have argued that “The process of dehumanization may lie at the core of Schadenfreude.”9 Indeed, I would argue that schadenfreude turns one’s fellow human beings into objects whose sole purpose is to feed one’s twisted need for pleasure, power, and control. Think, “School yard bully meets Machiavelli.” This is not a bad conceptualization of Ares, and of the MP.”
These are powerful words that loom large in both our historical consciousness and current day threats to world peace and individual suffering. Who can you identify today in your social circles, workplace, or the political stage today that exhibits these Machiavellian behaviors? Whatever we call this personality type it is definitely antithetically opposed to a healthy social contract or a spiritually lived life.
Dr. Pies wrote this article from his field of expertise and was very careful to insert language into his piece to say this is not an attack piece on Donald Trump – but a societal issue. This logic follows as we see this behavior increasing in every sphere, and its acceptance by people allows it to flourish. What this means is it does not let Donald Trump, Republicans, Democrats, you or I off the hook for supporting people who dehumanize life.
Dr. Pies though turns to Anthropology though for answers. The field of anthropology itself has a strong propensity to be hostile to religion and spirituality in all its forms despite many of its experts being “Christians hiding in plain sight.” The article does not mention spirituality’s demise and modernism’s rise at all as a potential key to an Anthropological solution despite calling for “emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness.”
As a biased Catholic I here Pope Francis (modern day) and biblical references providing us the solution to today’s inhumanity to man:
- “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…” Galatians 5:22
- “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” John 13:34
- “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
- “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:36 to 40
In the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science had an article called “The Crisis On Modern Day Spirituality” from a Muslim perspective:
“Humans would be more humane if spirituality is always included in intact personality, they do not separate between the world and hereafter, the material and spiritual, and the existence of equilibrium so humans could bring this world into a civilization that is humanizing a man.”[iii]
The modern-day atheist or secularist will invariably point out that both Christianity and Muslim religions are responsible for the world’s greatest divisions. At their extremes, they become vehicles of hate and persecution of non-believers. There is ample evidence to support this assertion if you do a little digging.
Let me make a distinction here that I believe anthropologist will support as well. Belief in a spiritual reality existential to our human understanding can be vastly beneficial for individuals and society. Religion run riot can definitively be a harmful tool when in the wrong human hands and distinctly non-spiritual. The test of one’s true ownership of spirituality (and organized religion) is in the thoughts and action of the believer judged against discerned and authentic higher spiritual principles.
Alcoholics Anonymous comes to mind as a small-scale test of this idea. Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) uses the phrase “Self-Will Run Riot” to describe the mindset of an alcoholic that his needs dictate everything without consideration for others. This could easily fit into the Martial Personality! A.A. is a grounded example of a spiritual program that is a self-help group grounded in spiritual steps. They go to great lengths to use the phrase like God of your understanding, Higher Power, or Power Greater than ourselves to ensure the program is free of religious affiliation and available to all who are suffering from alcoholism. And yet their program is distinctly a spiritual program. The members that truly take the deep dive into the 12 steps in thought and action are most likely to recover and lead happier, and richer lives filled with purpose and meaning.
Let us return here though to the macro problem faced in our westernized secular society today. Most Americans recognize a decline in basic human values and in anger are pointing rage at others for societies major issues. A neighbor of mine from Cuba, in accented English, once lamented they need to build a church on every corner, not for me, not for me, but for these kids these days! He may have had a few expletives as well. In other words, his lament was kids these days lack a moral compass. Nowhere in our conversation was our moral failings or what our spiritual response should have been to the miscreants who spray painted my fence twenty years ago! At that time, I was in a good spiritual place and had l kept a can of paint in case of repeat and was calmly painting the fence. I believe this calm response angered my neighbor even more! We were entitled to our rage and retribution!
A spray-painted fence is unimportant. Job security, access to health care, slander, violence, hatred, meanness, greed, and countless other vices (think seven deadly sins) grip our families and society today despite or perhaps even contributed by our nation’s wealth of resources and desire to maintain or add to our perceived elevated status globally.
Our current president thrives on “Make American Great Again” with a form of nationalism that is fueled by hate, fear, and division. Many of his followers staunchly support his views with a religiosity that leaves no room for objective discussion. It is difficult to engage healing the rift as most Americans are so entrenched in their political identity (red or blue) that genuine reflection and authentic soul searching is beyond their grasp – top threatening their very existence. Our nation has been at war with some nation or nations 93% of the time that our nation has been in existence.
There must come the point where we have to reconcile as a nation our spiritual fabric versus our internal and external relations. How can we as a nation support “emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness” to each other and to the world community? How can we use our leadership position in the world to change the way the world is supporting dehumanization today?
If we have Martial Personalities in power, it is because we support what that means as a nation. We must face the hypocrisy of our nations dialectical positions when they are presented to us and demand realignment both domestically and internationally.
An article on societal disintegration that omits any reference to spirituality is a glaring sign of how far we are from spirituality as a society. Our original monetary proclamation “Out of Many One” and its successor “In God We trust” affirms our nation was born a spiritual nation. Eisenhower said the slogan on the dollar affirms “the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”
Our society needs spiritual warriors now more than ever. Not the preaching type with the megaphone. No, spiritual warriors in every stratum of society that live and model spiritual principles in every walk of life – educators, janitors, senators, lawyers, plumbers, artisans, nurses, bus drivers, sportsmen, clergy, accountants, bankers, policymakers, media, farmers, traders, retailers, CEOs, and all the other fields of labor. Pontification is not the answer. Living and seeking spiritual perfection is our ultimate calling as individuals and as a nation.
The rubber hits the road when sacrifices are called for to address global issues of poverty, global warming, immigration, violence, and growing scarcity of resources. Our nation’s elite and our people, in general, do not want to cede the economic advantages that we hold today globally. We fear our high moral road will place us at a severe disadvantage to other world powers that will not follow the same spiritual path.
Our politicians are acutely aware that voters support ideas but not necessarily sacrifices to achieve these ideas. They need to see that in their communities, in their inbox, and at the ballot box to give them the courage to promote real change. As long as we are wedded to money (and what it buys) and political ideology before principles, we will be adrift in misery and turmoil.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 6:24
Oddly many readers and friends will agree with me on these spiritual points and the meaning of life. Actualizing and living up to these standards is a daunting task moment to moment. Who is your master today? What motivates your behavior every day? Are you on autopilot or do you consciously consider your thoughts and actions as they relate to a higher spiritual principle than your self-gratification?
For example, would I pay 3.99 for a coffee from a brand that only pays living wages throughout its distribution chain including the labors on the front line or chooses the 2.99-dollar coffee brand whose profit margin is driven by cheap labor and exploitation of children and underdeveloped nations? Can I even afford to buy fair labor products if I supported only fair wage products? Probably not. I would probably have to purchase less and pay more if I truly support fair wages and truly do not support child exploitation and world poverty. At least in the short term. In the long term if everyone shopped this way supply and demand chains would force policymakers and corporations to adjust their economic models that put profit over people.
Our products and markets count on lack of transparency. If you knew the shirt you were buying for $27 was capitalizing on child labor or paying its workers below poverty wages would you still support that brand? I am afraid we do this every day. In fact, in our business circles, there is great pride in widening the profit margin by deflating wages, increasing working hours, suppressing benefits, and even increasing risk of negative outcomes (think health and safety in health care, environmental contamination, or food chain safety).
Unless we demand products and services that are built on and produced by ethical companies that support human dignity, we are individually and collectively partly responsible for dehumanizing conditions all over the world including in our very own backyard. Here are some examples of initiatives to support this idea:
Imagine trying to sell these points in a political campaign – the masses eyes will glaze, and your opponents will marginalize your ideas as socialist, naively idealistic, and perhaps even anti-American and evil. And rightly so. It is not a message that can be sold – it must be lived by many through devotion and practice of genuine spiritual principles on an individual level to inform macro level economics and political ideologies. What is your 401 K had a fund that invested in only labor-friendly stocks and provided a return of 9% but a sister fund making the same widgets returned 12% without fair labor practices – which fund would you pick? Do you even know what your investments support worldwide?
What do you choose today: “to feed one’s twisted need for pleasure, power, and control” or to feed a society based on “emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness?”
I argue we do not have a Trump problem or even a Martial Personality Disorder problem – but a societal problem of spiritual poverty (not necessarily religious orientation). This poverty makes us vulnerable to permit passively behaviors and actions that we would not be able to stand for if we were intimately connected with our innate spiritual cores known by many different names. Anthropologically, philosophically, psychiatrically or sociologically you do not have to look far to see that our nation is suffering from a deficit of morality and spiritual groundedness – with the latter including many people with firm religious affiliations. Religious affiliation does not assure spiritual groundedness.
Spiritual transcendence takes patience, faith, love, and action. And even then we have not assured anything – and yet I say this is the path to pursue true happiness and peace. I myself am high maintenance and struggle with this pursuit daily. I envy those believers who seem to just float on a cloud of belief, at least externally. Even my envy is counter to my spiritual desire of acceptance of divine providence.
My faith challenges me to accept my own faults and the faults of others while not becoming complacent with what is and to seek what should be individually and collectively with my fellow man within my sphere of influence. Clearly, most of us cannot individually change our nations political climate, leaders, or worldwide positions. Nor can we individually change other people’s actions, especially those on the MP continuum! We can however collectively moment by moment change our immediate environments and relationships with everyone we meet – which in turn can cascade into changes that appear outside of our sphere of influence.
I am up before others this a.m. preparing for the day. Morning prayer has greeted me and light reading provided some insight and perspective from which to view the day. The sun is shining, my cat is snoring, and the birds in the backyard are singing, I kid you not, this is not just a cliche. The birds are truly singing.
My daily ritual includes gratitude for the gifts I have been granted. On this Father’s day, I am blessed to have three wonderful children, each of whom I am equally proud of their uniqueness, and individual accomplishments. Each child has had their own share of adversity and each is truly paving their own path. Of course, they have been blessed with being raised by a literal “Mother Theresa” for a role model, my wife. The gifts that I have been given in addition to my priceless family are too numerous and dare I say onerous to write down here. They include the magnificent and impossible, promises unnamed here, adversities and pain, and the mundane everyday gifts that life presents. Yes, adversity and pain are gifts, and perhaps the greatest gift of them all minus one.
Tielhard de Chardin reminded me of the greatest gift this morning, despite his having passed decades ago:
“In the life which wells up in me and in the manner which sustains me, I find much more than Your gifts. It is you Yourself whom I find, You which makes me participate in Your being. You who molds me. Truly in the ruling and in the first disciplining of my living strength, in the continuous play of secondary causes, I touch as near as possible , the two faces of Your creative action, and I encounter, and kiss, Your two marvelous hands–the one that holds us so firmly that it is merged, in us, with the sources of life, and the other whose embrace is so wide that, at its slightest pressure, all the springs of the universe respond harmoniously together.” Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, 1881-1955
I have needed much-disciplining in my life, much sustaining, and on-going molding – may God’s creative actions continue to be prominent in all of our lives.
Happy Fathers day and may we all strive to be like the original creator, the original father, in all our thoughts, actions, and deeds.
I am up too late tonight. I am somewhat in the valley of my mood range despite having no outward claim to be disgruntled, angry with my creator, or otherwise disenfranchised. To the contrary, I have many gifts to be grateful for, including among them adversities that have ensured I am well grounded in humility and empathy for my fellow man and sometimes even for myself! These adversities have also demanded I have it out with my conception of religion, of people of faith, of spiritual seeking people, and ultimately of God.
At pivotal points in my life, psychic pain and suffering pitted against belief in a merciful and personal God have come into sharp contrast and confrontation. I like to think “I” have come through these events stronger and better prepared for suffering, yet I know that alone I would not last a second in some of the valleys I have traversed or may have to face down the road apiece.
What if I chose not to face those valleys? What if life was so unforgiving and so merciless in my perception, in my reality for me, that it became unworthy living? Most would not judge me well. On the outside, I have all the “trappings of normalcy” sprinkled with my unique madness that makes everyone a little different, a little more mysterious. Would you be in any position to judge me? Can we ever really know the sufferer beneath the smile of the ones we love or the stranger next door?
Intellectually I can hold court with rational support for both sides of this debate. I have no interest in doing so. We would have to prioritize the issue on several levels: societal values, individual rights, medical cost, impacted loved ones, moral and spiritual weights, philosophical underpinnings, and perhaps basic ethics.
There is a higher measure here — deep sorrow. Noa Pothaven died young and incited a Euthanasia debate that she did not want. Her story and suffering will be a book a film no doubt – but will we learn and change anything?
Noa suffered repeated trauma at the hands of others. The stories referenced below do not focus on justice for Noah or efforts to prevent future traumatic events to girls and women. Our professionals were not able to provide “trauma-informed care” to save this woman from the demons of her past experiences and the presence of deep psychic pain today. Two major systemic failures leap out here in criminal justice and mental health fields. Timely and effective prevention of sexual exploitation and violence and swift justice for acts of same is not an accepted or supported norm in our societies. The mental health systems are not built to provide surround care and nurturing when these horrible acts transpire in a manner that truly embraces recovery. Of course, this is an overgeneralization.
There are a wonderful therapist and crisis counselors doing awesome work and interventions out there. They are just not armed with the resources to provide the system of care required to insulate and care for victims of horrendous crimes care. We will never know where Noa would be if either of these two systems were fully and appropriately able to combat sexual violence and treat victims promptly and for as long as necessary with comprehensive care in a culture that does not allow for victim blaming and shaming. Even in the absence of assault, we have to be responsive to people with mental health conditions that lead to self-harming behaviors. Our observations cannot grasp the reality and suffering present within the mind of the person contemplating self-harm or suicide. Eating disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, addictions, alcoholism, and countless other maladies defy common understanding unless you experience it or are clairvoyant. Help and provide hope rather than judge and run away.
I cannot type a word against Noa or even the “End of Life Clinic” pictured below. They have a team of nurses and doctors that help people legally take their own life. I wonder what they charge – rather callously, this post deserves no humor.
The article above details their work. To do the work they do I imagine they are a deeply caring lot that faces pain, controversy, and death every day. Taking on that duty of trying to reasonably provide an option to people living with unbearable pain while ensuring full faculty of mind is a terrible endeavor, not to mention morally confounding.
If we were doing our work well, they would not have a lot of business. We are failing our youth in areas of education, nutrition, poverty, safety, civility, spirituality, and overall universally, global respect for all people (women, men, children, of every race, of every nationality, of every sexual orientation). It is not just a Netherlands problem or an American problem, but a universal moral and spiritual failure.
Hats off to our hospice and palliative care specialist as well that help people make informed choices, access treatments and define advanced directives that speak for them when they can no longer speak for themselves. I owe this field an apology of sorts as I often make jokes about their grim reaper role, underneath it all they give care when it is most needed and most complex. They are not at all “End of Life Clinics” despite many people they see are heading towards death’s door with dignity and respect.
Euthanasia is a serious question, but can we first treat people with dignity and respect before they reach death’s door or before they reach such immense suffering that they are asking to kick the door in? Hopefully, they are not by this act kicking in the Gates of Hell as Catholic doctrine teaches voluntary suicide is contrary to church law. Again can we work with what we know to be true and attempt to create heaven on earth by acts within our ability here and now on earth.
Can we start with praying for Noa and her family and then go out and act on the greater good in each of our communities? Prayer if well informed, can lead to noble and honorable action here and now supported by the grace of God. The photo is of Rodan’s Gates of Hell. I do not believe suicidal gestures and actions doom one to enter these gates. I do believe we have to wrestle more earnestly with issues of human dignity, come to understand human suffering and expand our access to the mystery of the divine nature within all of us.
Euthanasia is happening here in America legally, illegally, and in-between the two with a nod and an extra push on the morphine button. Are we much different than the Netherlands?
“Death by euthanasia is 4% of all deaths in the Netherlands. Is that a slippery slope? I don’t think so,” said Pleiter. Much of the demand was coming from the baby-boomer generation, he added. “They are thinking differently about the way life ends. God and religion are less dominant in their lives. They want more autonomy. But every case is unique.” In 2017, some 6,585 people chose euthanasia to end their own lives in the Netherlands, about 4.4 percent of the total number of more than 150,000 registered deaths in the country, according to the Regional Euthanasia Review Committee which strictly monitors all cases.
In the U.S., suicide is the tenth leading cause of death. This number, representing only about 1.3 percent of all deaths, does not accurately account for deaths due to underreporting, intentional deaths by overdose, alcohol-related deaths, and suspicious deaths (with hidden motive and intentions). Legal or not, we have too many people successfully taking their own lives.
Additional Facts About Suicide in the US
- The age-adjusted suicide rate in 2017 was 14.0 per 100,000 individuals.
- The rate of suicide is highest in middle-age white men in particular.
- In 2017, men died by suicide 3.54x more often than women.
- On average, there are 129 suicides per day.
- White males accounted for 69.67% of suicide deaths in 2017.
- In 2017, firearms accounted for 50.57% of all suicide deaths.
Anyone want to join me on vacation to the Netherlands? Pack light we can save on baggage fees and return airfare. Okay, maybe the post needs a little dark humor.
It is quiet now. Three-twenty a.m. in the morning. It is the most trying time for people who are struggling with mental health – no one to call and silence and quiet all around. Spiritually it is a great time to pray and can be an equally challenging experience in times of desolation. Woe is the person who faces both at the same time (sickness and desolation), yet they often come hand in hand. Find solace in prayer and if nothing else works wake everyone the hell up – people love a little drama in the middle of the night!
I began a four hundred and fifty-mile drive on Thursday morning from Dover, De to Lake Erie, PA with a van full of people. In the past, I drove straight to PA and then headed west. In my head, I thought I will change drivers as soon as we hit Delaware. It was a rather selfish thought. PA border is only about 50 minutes into the trip not counting our pickups of other passengers. We had 11 altogether but only one co-pilot. About ten minutes shy of PA mapquest takes me south into Maryland and around PA.
I had my co-pilot check the map three times. I could not believe this route was accurate – but it was the quickest way. I drove more than my fair share before we hit PA and than some. I told my co-pilot my evil plan and God’s fix. Does God ever play tricks on us? Do we recognize them as they happen?
Friday was uneventful without any sign of foul play comes to mind. On Saturday though, I decided to leave the group for a while and told them as I left I was going for a long walk. On the way to the dorm room where we had accommodations, I stopped off at a beautiful church on the grounds of Mercy Hurst College. I found myself alone in the church. I prayed for the deceased, for family, and for many in need. I took some time in silence and then leafing through the missal I fell on the stations of the cross.
This church had beautiful tile mosaic depictions of the 14 stations of the Cross that capture Jesus Christ journey to his death – “The Via Dolorosa” or the Way of Suffering. In a darkened church, I read and prayed at each of these stations unperturbed and walked around the interior of the church as I took in the details of each mosaic and each station of the cross. I sat down after that and the Church bells rang for the second time while I was there. It dawned on me that only an hour and a half ago or so I told a group of people I was going on a “long walk.” The “Long Walk” came to be, but not as I had imagined it. The “Way of Suffering” is quite something alone in a darkened church and led by contemplative prayer. Was this another play on my own words?
We can get so busy sometimes in our lives that we can miss small or even very big signs as we rush about in our worldly concerns. My wife returned to our room and said don’t forget your cross is over here on the desk. Just a few minutes earlier I saw the silver chain and cross on the desk and did not recognize it as my own. There was something to this moment, but it wasn’t revealed to me at that time.
Sunday arrived and mass was held at 11 a.m. in the same darkened chapel, but this time with lights on! You can look up the readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter for context (2019), but here is a small segment of the reading:
“I have told you this while I am with you.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (Jn 14: 25-29)
The priest delivered the homily by walking down the aisle so he was practically horizontal to me as he seemed to direct his words to the believers that occupied the last two rows of the chapel. There seemed to be a gulf between the front rows and the rear that he would not deter him! Nonetheless, his voice and inflections were booming.
The personal revelation came to me. Others will call it coincidental or post-event reinterpretation favoring one’s special status or place. Believe me, I have no such status among men and if anything, just need to to be hit over the head a few times more than others to accept what is plain as day to everyone else.
Sundays Gospel pointed out the power of the Holy Spirit as well as how dumbstruck and fearful the apostles were with their newfound responsibilities to preach the word of God without Jesus Christ here in their midst. The early church struggled to form a semblance of narrative to describe the gift they have received. It was totally unexpected that the Messiah would leave them with an intangible mystery guide. “God’s love for perishing humanity initiated salvation history and his action of sending his only son.” They were it. They would have to face hostility and persecution. They would have to live and preach the word of God. They would have to pray, seek, and listen to the advocate. They would have to live by faith in the absence of Christ in the flesh. They surely did not understand it at the time. And even after Christ passing, the apostles and even the church today struggle to define the “advocate” without retreating to mystical nature of the Holy Trinity: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. Only one has truly been visible to mankind. Yet, the Catholic church has detailed the gifts and gruit of the Holy Spirit in the Catechism:
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David.109 They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.
What does this have to do with me? I started my trip on Thursday not necessarily looking for signs of the Holy Spirit. I would like to believe that I was open and ready to be led should I be granted any consolations however undeserved.
Honestly, life has been wearing me thin and this break away with family and my daughters dance studio to a regional Dance event for aspiring dancers was a welcome break. My only real duties were driving and occasional chaperone errands – must of which were covered by Dance Moms.
From the get-go – a conversation started. My plan to only drive a short-time was ridiculed rather quickly and gave me a reminder and reverence for God’s plans. My selfish desire and humorous plotting were sabotaged without a word being said – and in my heart, I felt it was a cosmic joke upon my selfish thought. Was this the Holy Spirit? I cannot convince you even though it is not the first time I have had a spiritual experience while driving. Do not take shortcuts or take the easier road, bear what is yours to carry seemed to be my message for the trip.
Be careful what you say and be mindful things may not be as they seem. The long walk was indeed longer than I had ever planned despite being very short in actual distance. God’s idea of a long walk was very different than mine. Was this the Holy Spirit? I cannot convince you even though I assure you I had no intention of symbolically and prayerfully walking the “Way of Suffering.” Praying and symbolically walking the stations of the cross on Saturday ignited awareness of true suffering.
And now for the tricky revelation. The lost cross (misplaced on my desk) and its place in this story. Midway through the homily, the words that came out of my mouth the day before, “I did not recognize it as my own,” came to me from Saturday. The meaning that hit me was to own my suffering without complaint, to trust in God, to give up a false sense of entitlement, and to accept unfair hostilities and slander. On the latter note, it does not mean to let these things go unchallenged, but to not let them grab my ego, my pride, and my sense of justice.
Through pray and self-reflection a reasonable response mixed with patience, action, and faith is called for at this time. I found myself praying for my perceived oppressors. All seven of the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be found in this short trip to Erie Pa.
That little cross on the desk is my very own. My little sufferings and tribulations are my own. My advocate is there if only I have eyes to see and ears to hear. The hostilities I face unfairly, the judgments against me, and my perceptions of stress are out of whack with the reality of God’s love for me and you.
If we look for it, if we pray and find time to be silent with God, we can encounter the Trinity and perhaps even be guided by the Holy Spirit. If we experience this we have experienced God’s love. I have much to be grateful for in this world. I, however, must not become too attached to these gifts as they all are temporal and of this world.
The present moment is real and what we have to work with today. Yesterday and tomorrow are out of our reach. We can learn from the former and prepare for the latter – but not to seriously as to exaggerate our own omnipotence.
Nine hundred miles and twenty-five dance performances later I hope I am a little wiser and a little closer to God. Yet I know the gulf between God and myself is beyond my mastery, like the priest yelling to the back of the church, the gulf is real and only passable by God’s love and mercy. In the meantime, paying attention and looking for the Holy Spirit within us and around us, is the gift Jesus Christ left us:
“An encounter with divine love is an encounter with God’s own self, and the Advocate is this a personification of that divine love.” (May 03, 2019: Jesuit Review, M. Simone)
A drive, a long walk, and a Crucifix. Finding God in our daily lives is a personal calling. Without God, each of these events is just a meaningless circumstance, a figment of my fertile imagination or lack thereof!
I have read about the lives of many saints and am sometimes jealous of their consolations received and spiritual strength. Then I pause and think of their hardships and trials and take a pass! Sometimes the mundane is all we can manage!
I still cannot bring myself to ask for more suffering like Catherine of Sienna. I justify it in my head saying it is not good to test God to save me from more suffering by giving me the strength and courage to carry a bigger cross. And yet, if you can read this, you share with me our greatest challenge that lay ahead – our eventual mortality. I can only say, “God’s will, not mine, be done.”
Fetus’s or the unborn are once again being shamefully used to raise or sink political campaigns. All of a sudden voters who never walked a picket line for either side of this social issue are passionately pro life or pro choice. The moral peril of surface ideology has never been so apparent. Christianity is not an a la carte deal. In for a penny, in for a pound. What does that mean?
“She passes through this Word, enduring with true gentle patience every pain and trouble that I permit her for her own good. She accepts it courageously, choosing my way over her own. And she suffers not only patiently, but gladly.” Pg. 163
At first glance, my human instinct is to repel this idea with many objections:
- What word?
- Gentle patience with every pain?
- Someone permits the pain for her own good?
- She accepts it courageously?
- And gladly?
And it only gets worse. The someone who allows these tragedies to unfold for this women is God the Father, and the word is his words as revealed to her. My child, you are going to suffer significantly, I could alleviate your pain this very moment, but I will not. You will come to understand and be glad that I have given you such troubles.
Most of us do not have such direct revelations as this women. But if we did would we not protest grievously? Do we not protest today our major sufferings much less our mild nuisances in life? Do we ask for more suffering gladly? Should we ask for more suffering? I dare say not! And her suffering was extreme.
This quote is from The Dialogue, Catherine of Siena, in the chapter called Tears. The concept of accepting suffering, meaningless, accidental, or purposefully inflicted suffering by another, is not new for Christian contemplatives. Our role model and Savior Jesus Christ taught us with the ultimate sacrifice. Yet I struggle with the concept to ask for more. Despite how little suffering I have carried relative to others and the vast potential to suffer greater indignities and pain, I do not dare to ask for more. Much less to be happy to receive more pain – and not to glorify me but to it praise God! A silent sacrifice devoid of any intent of self-promotion or seeking selfish spiritual consolations. Yes, send me more?
These two sentences almost passed me by as an absurdity for anyone but the saints. And then a wave of the confrontations I have experienced in life with misery, pain, and suffering overtook me. My childhood adversity score is quite high (google ACE study and test yourself). My adulthood included a few self-inflicted wounds as well as externally inflicted losses. By all accounts, I have pretty good reason to question the existence of an all-powerful and personal God. Accepting one also necessitates reconciling that God “allows” my misery and much worse atrocities to exist. And still, I believe.
In retrospect, human free will, and their decisions contributed to my pain. Other pains are built into our lives by genetics, nature, accidental causes, and human mortality. Amid these life events a combination of personal resiliency and many supportive people, I have been able to experience the highs and lows of a volatile life and catch glimpses of angels in our midst at work. I have also in retrospect seen my evolution transformed many times over, and I say this with minimal ego, in fact, as sometimes I am rowing the other way as the forces of good carry me onwards.
How has pain and suffering shattered or nourished your faith? I have experienced both in my journey. It is sad to admit, but my sense of faith has been most robust under two conditions:
- When I am in the midst of personal failure, loss, or witnessing unfathomable suffering, and
- When I am in the presence of holy people, in meaningful pray, or reading the saintly works.
I would like to believe my faith grew in leaps and bounds by my own works and by my sincere gratitude of the favors granted me in life. They have provided me with the strength and resources to practice compassion, empathy, and love for others. While these things do strengthen my faith – they have not jettisoned me into serious contemplation and soul-searching as the first two conditions have nurtured.
The first two conditions have given me a base of humility that transcends human definitions. My ability to handle misery and pain in the face of adversity is undoubtedly wanting. Any received praise and platitudes, individual achievements, or other standard measures of the worthiness of a man fail me when held in comparison to the lives of the genuinely saintly or the gold standard of holiness.
All is not lost though. The tears that we experience can be transformed. Have you ever had tears silently and sadly flow gently as you experienced a melancholy understanding of both crushing loss and joyous peace? I have learned through suffering more than I have learned through successes.
I am still unable to ask God for more. In my prayers, I do express, “Your will, not mine, be done.” Sometimes I add I trust in you to give me what I can handle, but God I myself am incapable of handling anymore. I am keenly aware of being careful what I ask for from God.
To accept my lot with patience, courage, and a happy disposition calls for significant growth! And I have been working at this for a very long time. As I reread this passage, it is no longer foreign to me. You and I have lived it whether we recognize it or not. This is like one of those films that never closes the chapter, only ignites the mystery and leaves you wanting the sequel, yet you know only you can write the ending.
“The picture above represents a most unusual apparition in which Our Lady of La Salette was seen by two children Melanie Mathieu and Maxim Giraud, in the small French village of La Sallette, located near Grenoble, on September 19, 1846. She first appeared emerging from a globe of light, weeping over our sins.”
My God is the most exceptional partner. My God, Jesus, Mary, Saints, and Spiritual writers are my bedrock of sanity. From the unimaginable to the tangible written word I have spiritual guidance and solace. While they are within me and outside me, I still must actively seek union between my corporal body and thoughts and my soul’s wisdom and guidance. The tools for me include daily prayer, Ignatian Examin, spiritual direction, and the sacraments of the church. I was not called to be a hermit, yet I have been invited to live a holy life.
My meditation practices are for my peace. Meditation is required of me to tame my anxious mind and unforgiving nature towards myself. Without it, I tend to become overly enmeshed in human desires, fear-based thinking, pain avoidance, and the utter hopelessness of the human condition. I place my actions in overdrive and even when in a state of non-activity remain hypervigilant to maximize achieving my ideas and pursuit of coveted ends and control of my destiny. A mind on overdrive leaves little room for any partners of the spiritual or human variety.
You can find many ancient proverbs and biblical writing on “self-mastery” before attempting any external endeavors. Whether you turn to the philosophical world or spiritual for reference, the aim is the same. Here is a modern day writer and blogger that I have never read, but whose quote seems to capture the balance of integration of action and restraint:
“As a rule, we must not be the slaves of passion; rather, we must be the possessors of great passions. Through passion commences power, but passions should not direct our paths; rather, passions should be our bridled horses, with us commanding whence and to they be directed. Our passions must not take their own courses; but they must be directed by us into which course they ought to take. Modern day people blindly follow the notion that to be slaves to their passions is to be free! But for one to be the Master of one’s passions is to be not only free— but powerful.” ― C. JoyBell C.
My body deserves its due. It is the only vehicle I have, and it comes with no warranties. I am fortunate enough to have access to healthy food, clean water, a gym, and subject matter experts on both nutrition and exercise. I have no excuse to not treat my body like a temple that hosts my soul and carries out my spiritual and meditation practices.
My human partners are where the rubber hits the road. My spiritual metal, mindful practices, and overall physical health will be severely tested and nourished by the relationships I keep as well as the relationships imposed upon me by happenstance. The vastness of this partnership network is too exhaustive to nail down here, but each requires nurturance and respect commensurate with demands, sometimes reciprocal and sometimes vastly unequal. Involvement with family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers, church groups, spiritual director, fraternal organizations, self-help groups, charities, clubs, political groups, and anyone you come into contact must be treated with dignity and respect regardless of circumstance.
An imbalance or neglect of any of these four partners (Spiritual soul, mindful awareness, physical health, and human relationships) collapses the whole. Sometimes a fifth partner is needed as well.
Professional help is also a potential partner. For some of us, we need additional partners that although considered of the human variety, take on an unnatural essence as their services must be sought out and provided compensation for their expertise. Physical or psychological conditions have overwhelmed our capacity to resolve the presenting issue. Regardless of origin, these conditions have caused sufficient damage that requires rehabilitative interventions and support of the professional type. While these professionals are of the human variety, the relationship is not reciprocal. They are there for a price to meet your needs when they exceed your resources. They have dedicated their lives to being prepared for helping people that fall into suffering and need help accepting or alleviating said conditions.
I write this for myself as I embark on another chapter in my life, not disconnected from the previous episodes or discontinuous, but an extension and expansion of purpose. It is time to take stock and realign my actions and intentions with my beliefs and mission. Some call it a personal inventory or taking stock of where you are today as opposed to where you want to be. Perhaps call it the State of the Union of the four partners. The fifth partner if you have any, will graciously be considered a part of the human partners! They often demonstrate a higher possession of humanity and humility than the average person by their exposure to immense suffering in the people they help. I have some work to do! How about you?
The majority of readers of this post will stumble under the assumption that their “State of the Union” is strong. It is my opinion that this cannot be. The evidence is all around us. We witness heinous acts of violence, abuse of power, incessant gossip, lies, greed, power mongering, and other senseless and selfish actions every day. If we look closely, we may be the ones committing the acts or by our silence contributing to a culture that supports an unprincipled and unholy life. By relativity standards, I could make the case that the state of my union is strong. But if I hold the state of my union up against the full human capacity to live a holy and disciplined life, conscious and aware in my every action, I am far from being strong. What is the state of your union? Is it in any of the four partnerships lacking? Do you need a fifth partner?
Others will fail by being overwhelmed by the immensity of feeling, emotions, and responsibility that emerges by taking stock. Procrastination and avoidance to preserve a sense or actual comfortableness with our adequacy or even inadequacy. Unifying all the partners requires specific effort and discipline. They are frequently co-existing in contradiction. It takes effort to live in opposition, yet we do it all the time. We are at the end of the day human and incapable of perfecting harmony of the four partners and unified self.
And finally, a lack of knowledge and specific action plan to pursue greater integration and unification of the whole will defeat many to relying on autopilot in a state of status quo. A self-justifying rationalization will support leaving some areas of the partnership underdeveloped. Through neglect, we neglect to maximize living our lives to the full potential. Excessive activities will create enough fog and chaos to keep any uncomfortable reflections recessed and buried under the clutter of our very sense of self-importance and necessary goal-driven actions. Who has the time for contemplation and self-care?
Without proper self-care, I believe the integration of mind, body, spirit and human relationships is unnecessarily hampered and ruinous to living our ideal selves. While my perfect person spiritually may differ from yours (Christianity), the bulk of ancient philosophical treaties, eastern and western thoughts, and significant religions will converge on the principals of integration of mind, body, spirit and direct application to every human relationship we encounter.
Where are you today in your practice of self-care:
- Spirituality (of any faith) and nurturance
- The consciousness of your thoughts and mindful decisions (fully informed and not auto-pilot)
- Nutrition and Excercise (and perhaps add appropriate sleep!)
- Healthiness in relationships (and any negative relationships that need to be restored or healed)
- Do you need professional help (from often great humanitarians!) for any spiritual, psychological, or physical conditions that are impeding you from living to your full potential?
You deserve to be the best you can be and if that is not enough for you, the people around you deserve and need the best You! This is a life long process, never-ending and always unfolding new and deeper wisdom. Never too late to start or restart wherever you left off and never time to stop until you are no more. Seeking to perfect our selves is an infinite process within an infinity of life that we cannot ever fully comprehend.
You know you can name a few people that come to mind. Wickedness or evil by another name is alive and well. We can name it, identify it, codify it in our laws and social norms, and perhaps even struggle intimately with our very own wicked thoughts and actions. Also if we are free of the latter are we not prone to judge the former? Today I invite you to contemplate our relationship with others and yourself in the context of the existence of wickedness and evil:
“The wicked in this life serve the promotion of virtue in my servants, just as the devils in hell serve as my executioners and promoters.” (The Dialogue, Catherine of Siena, pg. 150).
Initially deconstructing this sentence in my head was difficult as my heart had an immediate aversion to its implications. I leaped to an insinuation that all wickedness and evil was explainable and to be accepted as somehow part of a higher divine test. Alas, after sitting with this a bit, I pulled back to a more exact deconstruction of this sentence. Wicked people allow us to deepen our faith and our virtue just as Christ expressed the greatest sacrifice for our sins at the hands of his executioners.
The greatest mystery of our faith would not have been possible without a plethora of evil acts that prepared for and ultimately led to an authority sanctioned crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The execution was not a single act of evil. It was a campaign of evil and wicked plotting carried out by many and eventually supported by enough people to allow for both the Jewish and Roman authorities to let the travesty proceed. The attacks were perpetrated with lies, slander, gossip, calculated test, and traps set all throughout Jesus’s ministry. And then the ultimate betrayal by Judas of Iscariot for 30 shekels of silver.
It is worthy of taking a divergence here on Judas’s role in history. We despise traitors in American culture. Loyalty and commitment are expected as a form of our patriotism, in our religious institutions, social circles, and even allegiance to sports teams. Yet we see traitors and departures at every level of our society. Minor defections often occur with sports fans as their team takes a significant dive or they relocate to a new area. To some this is not a small issue – it makes you unworthy of being a sports fan at all! Nationally we have had some very famous defections (Alrdick Ames, the Rosenbergs, Robert Hansen, and Benedict Arnold). Spiritually how often do we defect from our cause by our actions or by failing to stand up against the social injustices of today? Judas did not defect without reason.
It was not just greed for 30 shekels of silver. Perhaps his faith was never really authentically sealed to sustain him for the sacrifices pending if he had remained loyal to his apostleship. Maybe he saw that Jesus and the apostles were losing the campaign to win the hearts of the Jewish people. He saw the end was near as forces coalesced. Judas recognized the inevitable and could not see any other path except Jesus’ demise. They would find Jesus whether he participated or not. He would have nothing left after his sacrifice of following and supporting Jesus, only to be crushed by his own people. Thirty shekels does not sound like much but in real dollars today could equal to about four months of wages!
Now let’s apply the Judas principle today in a less dramatic fashion. The Lord’s church (Ekklesia) remains as the apostleship of Christ to preach the good word and the faith to all people and all nations. Its enemies are numerous in nature.
There are well-intentioned secularist, agnostics, and competing religious denominations countering Catholicism’s theology and role in society with reasoned and principled arguments. Catholics have provided this group with legitimate concerns as our actions collectively have presented a pervasive practice of moral evils (clergy sex abuse crisis), consent by our silence on multiple social justice issues (poverty, capital punishment, equality, extreme nationalism, immigration, and war), and dwindling church pews in developed nations. These issues challenge any legitimacy our church claims on religious and spiritual grounds.
And then there are the not so well-intentioned critics that attack the church by any means necessary to promote or preserve their own interest. American politicians, dictatorships, extreme capitalism proponents protecting their individual wealth, authors and media outlets feeding on controversy, and individuals who live and practice with wicked intentions and actions for personal satisfaction. Members in this group may alternately support the church when it pleases their cause and attacks it convenient. This is evident today with the multiple attacks on Pope Francis by faithful that do not appreciate Catholicisms role to love the poor.
And then there is you. Every day your loyalty to the church is tested when confronted with poverty (homeless in your streets), politics (think immigration and death penalty), individual decisions (consider gossip, greed, intentions), and overall alliance and commitment to God in your every action. What if I offered you 30,000 dollars to write a negative opinion op-ed piece on how your parish and church has disappointed you? Could you see some Catholics accepting this offer, perhaps even justifying it by rationalizing everything they have to say is already known and will only help raise awareness and promote the church reform? Afterall we do have a responsibility to stand up to evil whether it is within our own congregation or not! The latter is actually noble and if done without the intention of personal gain may even be saintly. Don’t forget Jesus Christ himself was the original rebel standing up against rigid Judaism.
I say to you that even Judas is worthy of our forgiveness and that we are unqualified to judge Judas or any other sinners and evil ones amongst us. I say to you evil or wicked actions committed against us provide us the opportunity to deepen our faith and our good works. I go a step further and advocate that even accidental harms or natural demise (diseases) present us with an opportunity as well to deepen our faith.
First, we can turn to Matthew ‘s gospel (7: 1-5) on judging others:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Living with these unnecessary transgressions against us or with human suffering experienced at the hands of diseases, nature, or other accidental situations is not for the faint of heart. Where do we turn for help? Perhaps Matthew 7: 7-12:
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
This little entry from Christ teaching not only teaches us to ask for help but at the same time calls us to “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Here we are presented with another challenge. The evil and wicked amongst us are sometimes living by a standard of doing to others what they believe you would do unto them if afforded the opportunity. Many a vile and evil person has had many evils perpetrated against them. They may lack the moral conscience from which to even contemplate making an ethical decision when choosing to commit wicked or evil actions. It is reduced to purely a primal act of survival or self-serving effort to further their individual interest. It is neither right nor wrong. Just necessary. This is scary as hell, no pun intended. It is literally hell on earth.
When our social conscience as a society or our individual conscience is alienated from our inner calling to God (by any name) the propensity for evil and wickedness is magnificent. You may be averse to the use of adjective magnificent here. But I assure you that individuals achieving personal success or collective success by evil or wicked actions can often be seen boasting of their great feats of obtaining immense wealth or power by dubious or in their minds brilliant means. In there lives the means justify the ends. We participate in this as well when we allow, for example, our political leaders and parties to outright lie and shade the truth to achieve political power and influence. In essence, we may justify supporting a candidate because they will win anyway and cast our vote as they have some policies that will benefit us. We may be silent when they lie and manipulate or even when their policies hurt us as our social identity will suffer if we admit any wrongdoing. In this case, we would be loyal to a party and disloyal to our spiritual values. We may even benefit a few shekels in our weekly paycheck.
Hopefully, if you are reading this blog, you indeed have an active conscience. I fear that many of us have an active conscience that is on autopilot. We are generally good people. Raised on sound values and adopted most social norms. On the surface, we are mostly in alignment with the ten commandments. I believe we are at risk here of failing to subject our conscience to daily spiritual examination to ensure our intentions and actions are aligned with God as opposed to purely human social norms or even religious institutionalized spirituality.
An Alethia and WordPress Blogger, John Burger, did a piece on John Henry Newman’s definition of the conscience. He blogged the following two paragraphs that I chose to include in its entirety verbatim as I cannot summarize it any better!
“Newman described conscience as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ.” What he meant is that it is through our conscience that we first hear the voice of God speaking to us. Building off this point, Newman was insistent that we are compelled to follow our conscience at all times. Doing otherwise would undercut the ability to live a coherent moral life. The Church, Newman argued, would be foolish to attack the importance of the following conscience. In doing so, the magisterium would be in effect sawing off the very branch that it sits upon because it is precisely through heeding conscience that persons can recognize the truthfulness of Catholic moral theology and follow the path to sanctity.
All that being said, Newman also warned against a false understanding of conscience, which understands conscience as “the right of self-will”—the prerogative to define right and wrong for oneself. In this light, it’s not enough to talk about the primacy of conscience without addressing the importance of having our consciences properly formed. Those who pit conscience against Church teaching fail to see how God has providentially ordained the Church as a trustworthy guide in the moral life. Conscience and Church authority exist in a reciprocal, not competitive relationship.”
To live and co-exist with wicked among us while also experiencing accidental suffering we are called by God to listen to our conscience. Forgive our oppressors (evil and wicked people), ask for God’s help (Ask, See Knock), and “in everything we do” love others as we would like ourselves to be loved. This includes the wicked who serve as antagonists to deepen our faith. Oh, I forgot, when the chips are low don’t be like Judas!
How do we avoid the errors of Judas, dramatically or in minor actions? Pray.
A two-dollar book bargain from a flea market vendor in Florida provided me with an exploratory look at “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” by Jean-Yves Leloup originally published in 2002. You have not heard of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene? Surely you have heard of Mary Magdalene though?
Leloup makes a convincing case that Mary Magdalene was indeed a major player in the early church and the discovery of the Gnostic Gospel of Mary in Cairo in the year 1896 unveils a new perception on just how powerful Mary of Magdalene’s role was both during Christ life and at the time of his death.
US Catholic has an article entitled “Who Framed Mary Magdalene” and validates many of the central points that Leloup articulates
“Now that scripture scholars have debunked the myth that she and the infamous repentant sinner who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears are one and the same woman, word is trickling down that Mary Magdalene’s penitent prostitute label was a misnomer. Instead, her true biblical portrait is being resurrected, and this “apostle to the apostles” is finally taking her rightful place in history as a beloved disciple of Jesus and a prominent early church leader.”
Pope Francis agrees. “Pope Francis took the biggest step yet to rehabilitate Mary Magdalene’s image by declaring a major feast day in her honor, June 22. His 2016 decree put the woman who first proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection on par with the liturgical celebrations of the male apostles.”
Leloup takes a deep dive into the actual fragment of writing found that are attributed to Mary of Magdalene and then expounds on them both for their originality and complimentary agreement with the accepted canon Gospels, but only after giving you the actual text without commentary. You can read the entire fragments of the gospel here: http://gnosis.org/library/marygosp.htm.
Leloups style is very interesting and promising. He does not attack the canonical gospels and they by far are our most complete and most historically accepted documents.
Instead, he accepts the ambiguity of authenticity and controversies and leaves that for you the reader to explore. He leaps off with the words of Mary of Magdalene and places them in context with a codex of the cannon Gospels. He then expounds on what it means for us today in light of the revelations of not only this document – but others as well. He does a deep dive into the metaphysical realities of spirituality that we often find missing or stifled by religious instruction. The Gospel of Mary he portrays as a Gospel of teaching that ignites the spiritual imagination to be able to live the faith after Jesus in the flesh has left us.
And it was she who was first to see Jesus post-resurrection. There is not much left of this fragment of writing, but it is enough to ignite your spiritual imagination. It also may you leave you wondering if the church is ready to admit and act on the falsity of our male-dominated institution.
Deeper than that though, how about Pope Francis’s reflection that “Her tears at Christ’s empty tomb are a reminder that “sometimes in our lives, tears are the lenses we need to see Jesus.”
“Archbishop Roche explained that in giving St Mary Magdalene the honor of being the first person to see the empty tomb and the first to listen to the truth of the resurrection, “Jesus has a special consideration and mercy for this woman, who manifests her love for him, looking for him in the garden with anguish and suffering.”
Drawing a comparison between Eve, who “spread death where there was life,” and St Mary Magdalene, who “proclaimed life from the tomb, a place of death,” the archbishop said her feast day is a lesson for all Christians to trust in Christ who is “alive and risen.”
“It is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman has the same level of feast given to the celebration of the apostles in the general Roman calendar and highlights the special mission of this woman who is an example and model for every woman in the Church.”