Bearing My Cross

Monarch

Those of you who know me well know that my favorite symbol of new life and transformation is the butterfly. I was named Emerging Butterfly when I was in seminary. After graduation, the butterfly became the symbol for my retreat and small group ministry, Emergings. That symbol and name followed me as my ministry itself emerged and evolved to include counseling and coaching. It is the symbol I utilize in my memoir, for this website, and for this blog.

In league with early Christians who shared my aversion for using a gruesome form of execution as a symbol for their faith, I have been reluctant to wear a cross. Despite the cross being associated with them, early Christians didn’t use it extensively until the fourth century. I am in the seventh decade of my life, and relate more closely to those catacomb Christians who were uncomfortable with this symbol.

cross necklas

However, as I pondered the twist my life has taken as my daughter’s illness has turned her life and mine upside down, I found these foreign and unsettling words emerging in my consciousness, “This is the cross I bear.” Sensing Spirit calling forth some new awareness within me, I turned to my Bible and revisited a passage in Luke.

“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” ~Luke 14:27

Is being my daughter’s caregiver my cross to bear? Am I being Jesus disciple in the way I bear it? I pondered these questions as the weeks progressed…moving through harsh judgments as I always do before loving kindness emerges.

Garden of Gethsemane

Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna, 1431

I revisited Jesus facing his cross in the Garden of Gethsemane. In my Harper Study Bible, Matthew’s heading for this portion of his Gospel (Matthew 26:36-46) is “Jesus agony.” He describes Jesus as troubled and depicts him saying to the disciples who accompanied him, “My soul is very sorrowful.”

Something inside me relaxed. I have permission to be sorrowful, something that has been found to be persistent for parents of children with chronic health conditions…something that has been strong and visceral within me these past few months while my daughter’s healthcare crisis signaled the progression of her disease. Sorrow has been especially intense since she moved in with me where it stares me in the face daily.

Three times Matthew and Mark depict Jesus praying that he not have to bear his cross…praying for his life to be spared.

Again, something inside me relaxed. While I don’t face the unspeakable horror he faced, I have wished away the effects of my child disease…wished I didn’t have to be a caregiver, something that doesn’t come naturally to me…wished I could return to the joy-filled life I had recently created for myself.

For the years my daughter lived independently, we both denied the reality of her disease, hoping our lives would be spared the life-sucking symptoms so many others with this disease and their caregivers experience. This was not to be.

Then Jesus prayed, “Not my will but thine be done.” Finding a way to relax into those words has been a bit more difficult. Moving beyond the retributive images often attributed to the Divine has required years of pondering the way my experience of suffering evolves.

Compassionate God

In my process, I have come to experience the Divine as coming to me with compassion and empathy, crying with me, giving space for my suffering, suffering with me. Only after I have plumbed sufferings depths with Divine Love as my faithful companion does my spirit open. In some mysterious way that can only be attributed to Divine grace, my eyes open to behold a miracle of resurrection, transformation, and new life. A gift I might not appreciate or even notice, if not for the suffering, presents itself. Only then can I relax into and embrace a more mature experience of “Not my will but thine be done.”

When Jesus entered Gethsemane, he asked Peter, James, and John, three of his disciples, to remain there and watch with him. Three times during that hour of gut-wrenching prayer, he found them sleeping.

closed eyes

I thought about the suffering these three men experienced after Jesus’ violent death. They must have known they had let him down. And now they ran in fear for their own lives. And yet, his transforming spirit remained with them in their suffering and fear until they were able to muster the strength to fulfill their calling as his disciples. These three fisherman had no idea what they were signing up for when they enthusiastically left their old life behind to follow him.

I relaxed as I contemplated how none of us really know what we are signing up for in this life…how weak our willing spirits often are. When my children were born, I wanted to be a “good mother.” I carried idealized images and cultural conditioning about what that was and was not. I had no idea what I was signing up for and despite my willing spirit, I often let them and myself down and sometimes wanted to run for my life.

But today I am here doing what doesn’t come naturally. My railings against the cross I bear are dissipating and so I seem to be entering the “Not my will but Thine be done” part of the process. Even though I am sometimes weary of the call to evolve and want to shout “Enough already,” I experience myself beginning to surrender.

surrendering

Today I accepted an invitation to have lunch with an established group of women who are new to me. They were curious about my life and respectfully sought me out. That gave me an opportunity to give them a thumbnail sketch of the outline of my memoir, A Long Awakening to Grace. They thanked me for sharing and were enthusiastic about wanting to read my book. They were compassionate in their acknowledgement of my suffering.

The woman sitting across the table from me then shared that she found my story inspiring.

Something inside me relaxed.

She went on to tell me about her life. Sharing honestly about my own suffering made it possible for her to share hers. She has an amazing story and has thought about writing her memoir.  She wondered if she was too old and asked my age. She is only one year older than I. I assured her, memoirs only get better as we gain in wisdom. I told her how writing about my life had helped me make sense of it.

Her eyes brightened, she sat up straight, and said, “You have inspired me to get serious about writing my story.”

I felt relaxed as I left that restaurant today and in awe at the outcome of the invitation I almost didn’t accept. Instead of giving in to the weakness of my willing spirit, I listened to the still, small voice of wisdom inside that told me to go. I mustered the strength to show up with my eyes wide open.

eyes open II

These women eased my suffering with their compassionate presence. And it seemed no accident that I sat across from the woman who needed just the inspiration I was able to provide. This, to me, is the gift and the miracle of “Thy will be done.”

My cross seems a little more bearable today.

An Idea That Changed My Life

For the past seven years, I have participated in a contemplative writing group. The six of us choose a topic and all write on that for our next meeting. It is amazing the different ways we all approach the same topic. For our meeting yesterday, we wrote on an idea that changed our life. They thought I should include what I wrote on my blog, so here it is:

In 1935, Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, was in Akron, Ohio on business. At the end of the day, the bar in his hotel’s lobby called to him. He was scared. He had achieved a tentative sobriety before this trip and didn’t want to fail again. He entered the phone booth located outside the bar, closed the door to the sounds of music and gaiety, and began calling clergy in town seeking the name and number of a drunk who might be willing to talk with him. His hands shook as he fumbled through the phone book and dropped coins in the slots. He was directed to Dr. Robert Smith, a surgeon who many in town had tried and failed to help stop drinking.

phone booth

Dr. Smith answered the phone through slurred speech and was greeted by a strange request. This New Yorker seemed desperate to talk with him because if he didn’t, he was sure he’d get drunk. Smith didn’t know how talking with him would help, but he agreed. He was a doctor, after all. Dr. Smith opened the door to another professional man, a fellow sufferer, who had achieved success at maintaining sobriety, something that continued to elude him.

This meeting between Bill W. and Dr. Bob, as they came to be known, proved fateful. Both men had been exposed to the Oxford Group, a largely non-alcoholic group that emphasized universal spiritual values in daily living. But what had helped Bill W., something that was news to Dr. Smith, was the idea that alcoholism was a disease—a malady of mind, emotions, and body—not a failure of morality or will power. Bill W. said the only way he had found to stop drinking was by talking to other drunks, which was the reason for his visit.

During the duration of his business trip, Bill W. stayed in the Smith’s home. He and Dr. Bob began visiting other drunks at Akron City Hospital. Dr. Bob and one of the men they visited achieved sobriety. With the experience of these three drunks undergirded by the Oxford Group’s spiritual principles, Alcoholics Anonymous was born.

~ ~ ~

That same year, 1935, my mother, the oldest of six children, was fourteen. Her youngest sibling, my uncle, was two. They were oblivious to the history being made just two hundred miles and three hours from their home in New Bremen. Their own alcoholic drama was being played out. Seven years later, in 1942, while my mother was pregnant with me, my grandmother had had enough of her husband’s violent drunken episodes and womanizing. She filed for divorce, the mind, body, and emotions of the whole family scarred.

~ ~ ~

Lois, Bill W.’s wife, had spent years trying to get her husband sober. It was her life purpose and she felt needed. Once he did achieve sobriety, she was surprised to find that she wasn’t living “happily ever after.” It was a bitter pill that his success could not be attributed to anything she had done. And she was as neglected as before. Instead of drinking, her husband went to meetings. One Sunday he asked her if she’d like to go with him. To their astonishment, she threw a shoe as hard as she could and shouted, “Damn your old meetings.”

That was a turning point for Lois. She decided to change her attitudes and behaviors by using the same spiritual principles her husband was using to stay sober. She and other wives of recovering alcoholics met independently to work on themselves. They came to view alcoholism as a family disease, an idea that changed my life. Al-Anon, the spiritual recovery program for family and friends, was born.

 ~ ~ ~

In April 1983, forty-one years after my grandmother divorced my grandfather, I was as miserable as Lois W. Despite seventeen years of trying to make my  husband over into one that would make me happy, we and our children were worse than ever. Then I attended a weekend intensive workshop with Anne Wilson Schaef. She was in the process of writing a book called, When Society Becomes an Addict.

When Society Becomes an Addict

Hearing for the first time about the effects on the family of an alcoholic’s drinking, I was led to read It Will Never Happen to Me by Claudia Black. I read it to better understand my mother. But as I read about how the family disease operates and the survival roles adopted by the children, I found not only my mother, but myself. Even when the alcoholic drinking is not present, the behaviors and attitudes get passed down to the next generation.

It Will Never Happen to Me

As oldest children, my mother and I block our emotional pain and disappointment by trying to excel. I also avoid stress by losing myself in books. In these books, and, later as an adult, in workshops and training programs, I hoped to find a better way of living and relating.

In September 1983, I began training with Schaef in Living-in-Process, a spiritual way of living compatible with twelve step programs. Trainees were expected to identify their addiction and to work a recovery program that addressed it. In late February 1984, I attended my first twelve-step meeting. I was so nervous, I had diarrhea. It took me until July to feel as though I belonged. Eventually, as I changed my focus from how my  husband and children needed to change to what I need to change about myself, I began to achieve more serenity and equanimity—the very spiritual qualities needed by a person who fits the Enneagram One (Perfectionist) and Four (Romantic) personality styles. I found in the twelve steps the practical spiritual approach I needed for guidance.

women meeting

The trials I have been given in my  adult life have born a striking resemblance to that of an active alcoholic/addict’s family, even though drinking/drugging has not been our problem. Focusing on my spiritual growth meant I needed to change my attitude and behavior in specific ways. Whatever success I obtain in…

  • turning my challenges over to a greater power;
  • living one day/one minute at a time;
  • doing the next right thing in the easiest, simplest way possible to the best of my ability focusing on progress, not perfection;
  • accepting what is;
  • asking myself how important whatever it is that is bugging me and letting go of trying to control it;
  • reminding myself that this too shall pass;
  • detaching with love;
  • putting first things first

…I owe to Bill and Lois W. and Dr. Bob, and all those who helped them find a way out of suffering, not only for themselves, but for countless generations to come. I am grateful to be one of them.

fire-hell-inferno

And as I come to the end of writing this piece, a vision of millions of suffering souls holding hands and walking together out of the pits of hell emerges in my consciousness. My heart fills with awe at this community…our common unity…and for the idea that has changed all of our lives.

friend hands

~~~

Confession: When I am under stress as I have been these past couple of months, the pain I experience carries me back to old attitudes and patterns of behavior. Thankfully, by connecting with other sufferers who understand and empathize and by continuing to utilize the principles of the twelve step program, I just don’t stay there as long.

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