Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Willingness to Look, and Not Turn Away

Richard Rohr has posted recently about taking a bit of an illness to help in curing it, sort of like a vaccination. There is biblical precedent for this in the book of Numbers (Chapter 21:4-9). If you would like to know more about the history of this symbol, there are articles about it on Wikipedia.

"How can gazing upon the crucified God transform us?
"This deep gazing upon the mystery of divine and human suffering is found in the prophet Zechariah in a very telling text that became a prophecy for the transformative power of the victims of history, and for those who identify with them.
"He calls Israel to 'Look upon the pierced one and to mourn over him as for an only son,' and 'weep for him as for a firstborn child,' and then 'from that mourning' (five times repeated) will flow 'a spirit of kindness and prayer' (Zechariah 12:10) and 'a fountain of water' (Zechariah 13:1; 14:8).

"I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward God, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.

"Today we experience it in grief. Grief, like few other things, allows us to open our hearts to the pain of others, and even to our own deep pain. Almost like nothing else. Grief is often God’s medicine for people who are otherwise closed down."
-Richard Rohr, adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 192

It's amazing to me to think about how far I have traveled, away from the "denial" culture of Christian Science. There are two illustrations that stand out, for me. The first was during the illness of a beloved mentor, Marie Poulsen. Marie was a mother and a Christian Science practitioner who helped me on my spiritual path after David was born by Ceasarian section. To a devout Christian Scientist, having a surgical delivery was a BIG failure of faith. That's one reason why I didn't give in to the idea of surgery during my 36 hours of labor, until David showed signs of distress in the womb. THEN, I allowed them to deliver him via surgery. But  I felt a huge burden of guilt, as if I had been totally unfaithful to God - literally guilty, as if I had had an affair.
After Marie helped me to sift through all of those toxic emotions, she prayed with me daily while I was pregnant with Katie, and through Katie's delivery. She was a huge comfort. She was also helping to care for one of her daughters, who was suffering through cancer at the time. Marie's daughter died, and then Marie herself fell ill.
I visited her at her home, brought a meal, and wondered how to help a devout Christian Science practitioner who was clearly very sick. My mom and I visited Marie when she eventually moved into a Christian Science "nursing home." That visit changed my life.
I had never felt so powerless, horrified and angry at the helpless feeling of seeing the suffering of someone I loved. From my perspective, she needed much more help than she was getting. I had been in some kind of denial until I saw Marie at that care facility. Head out of the sand, Ostrich! I felt deep intuition that she was dying, and it came as a horrible shock. Lesson number one: certain choices allow suffering to go untreated. I wanted no part of that kind of life. I left Christian Science shortly after that, and began to attend Bible Study Fellowship classes, and then, a Presbyterian church. We joined the church, and David, Katie and I were baptised there.

The second experience that changed my life forever was the death of my mother-in-law's twin brother and his wife in an auto accident. This was caused by a drunk driver who had committed several other offenses. Uncle Buddy and Auntie Joyce were killed just before midnight, on the night before Father's Day. I had begun learning about the "Paschal Mystery" by that time. I learned about standing at the foot of someone else's cross, as Mary had stood at the foot of her son's cross, and not looking away in denial. It was the opposite of Christian Science.
Seeing Buddy & Joyce's adult children's grief at their double memorial service was so deeply tragic, and so hurtful that I became very ill. But it was a lesson in compassion; I knew that I needed to learn how to be with people who were in trouble, without looking away. I wanted to be a trustworthy and reliable comforter. I took six months of training in Stephen Ministry shortly afterward, and served for several years as a Stephen Minister at our church. It was a deeply rewarding and humbling experience.
Today's reading from Father Rohr reminded me of these experiences. I am thankful that I had preparation and training, before Katie's illness, to help me learn to look into painful situations and not turn away or deny them.
I am thankful that I was taught about the mystery of suffering, and was able to stay right beside Katie throughout hers, knowing that God was present in it with us, even when I couldn't always see or feel Him. Now, as the mother of a daughter who has died, I'm thankful that I can face what is, what was, and work to try to make things better here on earth. If I face into the truth, perhaps I can be part of a healing movement. I pray that I can.


Mary Potts said...

The feeling of powerlessness is both frustrating and frightening.

I too, am so grateful for the strength I found to face into the suffering Erin experienced, rather than turn away from it.

I feel I'm a richer person because of it - battered and raw at the moment, but richer.

Allegra Smith said...

One of the most rewarding things I have done in my entire life was to be a volunteer many years ago (1981) at the HIV Day Care Center. It was just opened, I was the first and only volunteer for a while and I was there two times a week, all day.

Nothing has ever given me the sense of belonging to the human race as much as my time there did. It was a project of the Ecumenical Ministries and the service was to the people who were dying of AIDS.
I was never scared, as many people asked me then, to work with AIDS patients. I comforted them and their families, I cried many tears when some of those wonderful people died, I wrote to their faraway friends since most of their families refused to do it, and all in all I learned the truth about sadness when truly shared is not as sad.

It wasn't easy but it was worth it. Walking through the fire leaves us often with a sense of impotence, but once we are on the other side, I for one wondered from where my courage came to do what I did without even thinking.
It didn't matter then and it doesn't matter now. I was the one who was richer by the experience and I will always be grateful for the chance.

karen gerstenberger said...

Mary & Allegra: Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

In 1981, to work in an AIDS care center was truly ahead of the times, Allegra. You have the heart of a lioness, and a deep intuition. What a blessing you must have been to those who were dying, to their family and friends.

Busy Bee Suz said...

I can't imagine all that you have been through in your lifetime. You write so beautifully of all the tragic events that you have encountered and you have learned from each of these. Thank you again for sharing Karen.
And really, you should be compiling all of this for your future book. You can offer so much to help others.

Angie Muresan said...

I am sorry for the suffering of your friend while in that care facility. And glad that you have found your home church.

Karen said...

You always make me cry. I know that's a good thing, because I find myself wanting to turn away from my own suffering. You help me to stay tender and open. Thanks for who you are, your depth, your sharing, (which I know takes deep thought and great effort). You really minister to my wounds.

Jennifer Stumpf said...

Wow, Karen. You inspire me so much. You are a wonderful writer. No one I know can hit the nail on the head quite the same way and get the point out there, clear and concise and with powerful emotion. Good for you, good for us.

Karla said...

It is truely amazing all the experiences one can go through and how we have different understanding of those experiences on "where we are" in our journey when they occur.

Maggie May said...

This resonates so deeply with me, to the core of what makes me and guides me. My own story is very different than yours, because the suffering I experienced was my own, and began as a small child. But it informed the way I think and believe and act= about most everything= to this day.
From childhood I had an instinctive refusal to accept anything that was not the truth, or reality, as I could see it or know it. This kept me from complete insanity as I grew, although I touched it's borders, and today, it gives me a deep empathy and connectedness to any life around me and the suffering we experience.

Thank you for a beautiful thoughtful post.

AnnDeO said...

Because of my experience when I was younger and the people closest to me choosing to pretend it never happened I remind myself when others are experiencing trauma, "Lean into it" I am afraid a lot of the time but it gives me courage to not turn away. I loved this post. Thank you.

Kay said...

This really is a beautiful piece, Karen. So much so that I kept putting off commenting. I know. I'm a ninny. But thank you so much for sharing so much with so many. You've walked in incredible journey to get where you are today. Hugs to you, friend!