Tag Archives: God

American Idol: A Guide for Hearing God’s Voice

 

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I love American Idol and could hardly wait until January when the fourteenth season began. I’ve watched it all through the years: those judged by Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson; those when Kara DioGuardi stepped in; the stints of Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey, and Nicki Minaj; the reigns of Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban.

This penchant isn’t easy to admit. My friends are mostly highbrows—educators, writers, and lawyers whose favorite resting pastimes are reading The New York Times or the latest Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, going to the opera or the theatre, listening to NPR or jazz, and watching PBS. I’ve never had the courage to confess to them that I’m an Idol fan.

What’s the attraction of the show? Am I a wannabe diva who needs a fix of vicarious fame? Is my life so gray and dull that I need Idol’s glitz to glam it up? Do I wish to mock the contestants who’ve been deluded in thinking they have talent? Do I need a demonstration that even the down-and-out can win?

No.

The fact is that, to me, there’s nothing more exciting than watching people discover their vocations. They glow, bringing warmth and light to everyone around them.

Vocation. It’s a concept I didn’t understand when I was young, when I chose to practice law, meeting the dictates of my father and flouting my own yearning to teach English. The upside of that choice: money and prestige. The downside: depression and tempestuousness that the upside couldn’t compensate.

Vocation. It’s a notion I first began to grasp when I chose to quit the law and become a high school teacher. The upside: elation and serenity. The downside: poor pay and status that the upside more than balanced out.

Vocation. What does it mean?

Vocation is an early Christian concept that has evolved over time and been embraced by many. The word derives from the Latin vocare, meaning to call, which in turn means to cry out for the purpose of summoning a person.

To the early Christians reading Genesis, though, to call meant something more. They noted that by calling light Day and darkness Night, God brought Day and Night into being and gave each a way to serve the world, a way that was good. And they reasoned that with humans God does likewise: when God brings people into being, he calls each person by name and summons each to a special path of service, a path that is good.

Many people use the term vocation to refer to work, job, or career, but according to Jesuit James Martin, vocation is much broader.

Work is the labor we do in order to complete a task; a job is the situation in which we do our work; a career is the long-term series of jobs we take on in a lifetime. Our vocation may include all three or none of these, but always overarches and extends beyond them to include not just doing but being. The many facets of our vocation are unique to each and every one of us, and they change over a lifetime, some lasting for years, others for an instant.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, referring to the Hindu tradition, notes there are four ashramas—stages of life—each including its own facets of vocation:

Student—when young people strive to develop the skills they’ll need for adulthood. Householder—when people marry and have children (or not), take part in community life, and work for sustenance. Forest-dweller—when people begin detaching from their social identities to devote more time to spirituality. Renunciation—when people transcend identification with family, religion, nation, and race.

During a certain period, then, your vocation may be to study music education at Boston University, to sing on Sundays at Trinity Church, to head out on August 2 to take part in Idol’s Boston auditions, and to dial 911 at 10:23 am when a skateboarder whizzes by you, falls, and breaks a leg. The next minute or day, the next month or year, your vocation will be different, in small ways and maybe big.

The question for each of us then becomes: Who is God calling me to be and what is he calling me to do? Both Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage, and Jesus gave the answer: Your vocation is to be a person who loves your neighbor as yourself.

Simply speaking, then, your calling is to love others. But if you’re like me, you’ll find this tenet too fuzzy to be helpful. You’ll want specifics for each moment of your life. And that’s where things become difficult. I’ve learned that to garner the specifics, you must listen for God’s voice.

In the Bible, there are many people who hear God’s voice: Abraham hears it directly, Moses through a burning bush, Mary through an angel, Peter from Christ.

Calls, according to modern thinkers, though, rarely come in words. Fr. James Martin says that most calls come internally, through the workings of the Holy Spirit. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes that they come through our thoughts and through signs we must learn to perceive. Preacher Oswald Chambers states that calls come in gradual dawnings. Educator Parker Palmer says we have an inner teacher that calls within our minds.

For me, though, the most useful formulation comes from the sixteenth century, when Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola proposed that God calls us through our desires. Unlike many people, who equate desires with obsessive cravings for material objects and sex, Ignatius viewed desires as manifestations of God’s voice.

This makes sense to me. At root, the wish for things is good; we need food, clothes, and shelter to survive. Likewise the urge for sex; without it we’d become extinct. If God calls us to love, he must first call us to live, and in his wisdom must have wired us to desire what we need to do both.

While many desires prompt goodness, others trigger evil and thus can’t be signs our vocation to love. Ignatius called these desires disordered, meaning that a God-given longing—a holy desire—has become perverted. If you’re a contestant on American Idol, you may have the holy desires to uplift your fans through your singing and to earn a living for your family. But if you sabotage another entrant to better your chances of prevailing, your holy desires have become warped.

When Ignatius was a young man, he happened upon a system for distinguishing holy from disordered desires. At the time, he was pulled by two strong yearnings, one to be a womanizer, the other to become a monk, and when he pondered these conflicting urges he noticed a difference in the feelings each aroused.

When Ignatius thought about philandering, at first he felt great pleasure, but this gave way to desolation—nagging feelings of depression, turmoil, and alienation. When he thought about religious life, initially he felt great fear and insecurity, but these gave way to consolation—lasting feelings of joy, tranquility, and connectedness.

Ignatius then deduced: when a longing brings us consolation, God is calling us to act on it; when conflicting desires bring us consolation, God is calling us to follow the one that brings us the most; and when a desire brings us desolation, God is warning us to snuff it out.

Ignatius, though, wasn’t suggesting that we should simply follow our bliss. He was letting us know that our bliss will endure only if it serves other people and that it will turn into grief if it simply serves our self.

Ignatius, thus, became a monk.

If you read the Bible, you’ll see that fear and insecurity often precede consolation, as they did for Ignatius. When God called Moses to rescue the Israelites in Egypt, Moses said, “Who am I to go?” and tried to weasel out. When God’s angel told the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Christ, she was troubled and asked, “How’s that possible?” When Jesus called Peter to discipleship, Peter said, “Go away. I’m no good.”

But God reassured all three people that they were worthy and capable and gave each the means to succeed in their vocations: to Moses, he gave a magic staff; to Mary, a miraculous conception; to Peter, the keys to heaven.

Christians use the word gifts to refer to the abilities God grants us to complete a call. Gifts are more than vocational tools, though. Catholic writer Sherry Weddell, social critic Os Guinness, and educator Dawna Markova all explain that gifts not only enable us to perform our vocation, but also signal what it entails.

Sixteenth century Anglican theologian William Perkins gave advice to help us identify the gifts that point to our vocation: since we’re innately biased, we should not assume we have a talent unless reliable assessors say we do.

Rabbi Heschel, Os Guinness, Sherry Weddell, and Parker Palmer add other indicators: we can presume to have a gift if using it benefits others and brings us great delight. So, if multiple choirmasters ask you to join their chorales and your singing moves others and elates you, God is likely calling you to sing.

The opposite, though, is also true: a limitation—a lack of desire, positive feedback, joy, or beneficent effects—can signal our vocation just as much as our strengths do. Thus, if you love to sing, but audiences boo you, or if you hate to sing despite the praise you reap from it, God is probably not calling you to sing, but to something else.

Yet some of us ignore our limitations or let others talk us out us of them. All throughout our lives, we’re surrounded by people—parents, teachers, religious leaders, peers, marketeers, spouses, bosses, children—whose expectations counter our vocation although their intentions may be good. Attempting to meet their expectations, we take on tasks we’re not called to do.

Even if we do this out of love, the results can be disastrous. Ignatius, Os Guinness, Parker Palmer, Sister Joan Chittister, and many other theorists have all noted the result: desolation, aka depression, that can cause us to be bitter and turn our love to hate.

This was my mistake when I chose to practice law instead of teaching: I listened to my father’s voice instead of to my Father’s voice. I wasn’t interested in law and disliked my job, even though my skills were praised, benefitted my clients, and helped support my family. By persisting in practicing law, I made myself and those around me miserable, although my motivation had been good—to please my dad.

Coveting or assuming a vocation that’s not ours isn’t only harmful, but also unwarranted. Saint Paul once explained that humankind is like a body and each person is like a body part. Eyes can’t be or spurn ears. Ears can’t be or spurn hands. Each has a unique and necessary function that together with the others makes the body healthy, efficient, and whole. Thus, teachers shouldn’t be or eschew lawyers, and painters shouldn’t be or eschew singers. Each of us has our own vocation, and the more of us honor it, the more fully we meet the world’s needs.

Discovering our vocation, though, doesn’t mean we’ll always be happy. It’s unrealistic to pretend that every task we do and every minute of our life will be exciting, fulfilling, and successful. Sometimes work is drudgery that simply must be done, and often the job market is tight, forcing us to take whatever work we get.

While some of us may find a paying job that matches our vocation, many of us will not. Instead, we may find volunteer work and hobbies that jibe with our call.

So, if you love and have the gift of singing, I hope to see you on American Idol. But win or lose, if you sing because you’re called you to, you’ll bring joy to both your listeners and yourself for as long as your voice responds to God’s.

Previously published in Good Letters.

Image by Beth, used under the Creative Commons License.

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The Iron Cross: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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I didn’t know Julia well.

The first time I saw her, she was sitting at the far end of the table around which our language class met. Although I knew the instructor, Chiara, it was my first day with this group of students who for years had gathered in Chiara’s dining room to discuss classic books in Italian.

That day I was the last one to arrive, and when I entered the room the group was already engaged in friendly pre-class conversation. As I took my seat, six pairs of eyes looked up at me, six mouths chorused “Piacere” with American twangs, and six hands reached across the table to shake mine.

But the person I noticed most was Julia, a trim woman about my age with a strawberry bob and a smile like a lamp.

Since I was new to the class, Chiara asked the veterans to introduce themselves: Filippo, Becca, Davide, Laura, Carla—all genial, interesting people who loved everything Italian.

But again, it was Julia who drew me. A psychologist with a PhD, she seemed warm, spoke Italian perfectly, listened to others with attention, as if they were the center of her world. Of all the members of the group, she was the one I hoped to make my friend.

Before turning to the novel we were reading, Elsa Morante’s La Storia, Chiara asked us students what we’d thought of our first assignment. Several confessed they had busy lives and for them the week’s reading was too lengthy—seventy pages requiring eight to twelve hours. But Julia said she’d had no problem—she’d even read ahead—having too few diversions in her life and too much time on her hands.

Really? A woman like her?

We discussed La Storia for a couple of hours. It focuses on the life of Ida, a Roman widow who carries many crosses: epilepsy, rape, single motherhood, a half-Jewish pedigree during World War Two, hunger, poverty, homelessness, the death of two young sons. Ida’s a very complex character, and Julia zealously engaged in our analysis of her. She seemed to identify with Ida, her voice becoming gentle whenever she mentioned her name.

When class ended, everyone stood up, that is, everyone but Julia, and a man I hadn’t seen before entered the room. “Ciao Roy,” the others said while packing their belongings. Tall, dark-haired, and slim, Roy nodded and smiled, then made a beeline to Julia. From her chair, Julia looked up at him, and from his height, Roy looked down at her. That’s when I first saw it: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.

“You doing okay?” Roy said as pushed her chair from the table. “Yes,” she smiled. Then he slid his arms under her thighs, and with her shoulder leaning on his chest and her head resting on his shoulder, he tenderly picked her up, carried her out of the room, through the front door, and down the porch steps.

Outside, a wheelchair had been parked and Roy settled Julia in it, making sure she was comfortable. Then he wheeled her to a waiting car and slid her into the passenger seat. After stowing the wheelchair, Roy climbed into the car and sped way.

I was shocked. How could Julia be in a wheelchair? Such a smart, sparkling person. How unjust it seemed. No wonder she identified with Ida. She too carried a cross. No wonder she welcomed distractions. She was trapped in a metal chair.

Chiara told me her story. Julia and Roy had been married more than thirty years. They had met in a dance class in their twenties and become inseparable. They’d always led an active life, doing everything together—dancing, walking, running, watching movies, traveling in Italy.

But when Julia was in her fifties, her legs began to tingle. Over time they progressively weakened, becoming paralyzed. Her doctors diagnosed a syndrome that could potentially interfere with her breathing and eventually take her life.

Her case, though, wasn’t wholly hopeless. Many people with the same syndrome survive and recover completely. Since that could take weeks, months, or years, Roy and Julia were optimistic. Maybe she would be among the lucky ones.

Still, at the moment, Julia needed full-time care and Roy provided it. He bathed her, dressed her, fed her, did all the household chores. He carried her to the toilet, onto the airplane for vacations, and into Chiara’s house for class. And each time I saw her in his arms, I was moved by their obvious affection, the way she nuzzled against him, the way he rested his chin on her head.

How I wished I could wave a magic wand and cure Julia’s illness. How I wished I could see her stand and walk hand-in-hand with Roy.

But I didn’t have a magic wand. So I resolved to say a prayer for Roy and Julia at the base of the Cruz de Ferro when I walked The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year pilgrims from all around the world walk from points throughout Europe to reach the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Some do it for sport, others for contemplation, others to pray for miracles. In September 2013 my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We began our walk in León, trekking 200 miles in twelve days.

Our first day ended in Hospital de Órbigo, a village with an arched Gothic bridge, our second took us to Astorga, a small city with a gorgeous Gaudí palace, and our third finished in Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square.

On the fourth day of our Camino, we rose before dawn and departed Rabanal. As we walked a country road beneath the moon and stars, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.

We arrived in a village called Foncebadón. There, in the eleventh century, a hermit named Gaucelmo had built a hospital, hospice, and church for the pilgrims on the Camino, but these had fallen into ruins, which we passed as we left town.

By midmorning the day was growing hot, and we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a thirty-foot, weathered, wooden mast that marks the highest point of the Camino. According to tradition, Gaucelmo had built the cross too.

The Cruz de Ferro is surrounded by a hillock of stones amassed through the years by pilgrims who perform a special ritual there. They bring a stone from their homeland, or one they’ve picked up along The Way, and add it to the hummock.

Each stone is symbol of a burden a pilgrim wants to leave behind before leaving the Cruz de Ferro and beginning life afresh. Some stones have messages written on them, others the names of towns or people. Some have paper notes or photos tied to them, others stuffed bunnies or bears.

I’d come prepared for this moment. From my backpack I sifted a pebble I’d brought from my garden at home. Holding it in one hand, I climbed the hillock of stones, which shifted and clinked beneath my feet. When I reached the base of the mast, I looked up along its length at the turquoise sky. There, high above my head, the iron cross glinted hazy in the sunlight making me squint my eyes.

I kneeled at the base of the mast, pressing my forehead on the wood. I thanked God that I had legs to walk and vowed to finish the Camino for Julia, whose legs no longer worked. I prayed for Julia’s healing, that she could soon leave behind her wheelchair, symbolized my stone. Then I placed my stone among the others, stood, and descended the mound.

There, at the bottom of the hillock, I saw a young woman and man who had just arrived. They were standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming although they were smiling, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. That’s when I saw it once again: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.

I didn’t know the couple’s story and I didn’t need to. For me, they were Julia and Roy, the way they’d been before the wheelchair, the way I’d prayed they’d be again.

I never told Julia or Roy about the Cruz de Ferro, prayer, or stone. I never tried to befriend them; the timing seemed all wrong. But I continued to go to Italian, each week more moved by their bond.

One day towards the end of class, Julia was commenting on a character when she began coughing and gasping. Her eyes protruded from their sockets, staring around at us in terror. Someone grabbed a glass of water, another took her by the shoulders and tried to calm her down, another seized a phone.

Roy arrived at that moment, and the rest of us moved to the sides. He crouched before his wife, looking straight into her eyes. He asked her to match his respiration—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale—as husbands often do with Lamaze. Soon Julia was breathing, and Roy carried her away.

They never came to class again. Julia died, her breathing having failed her, six months after my Camino.

I don’t picture death, though, when I think of Julia and Roy. Instead, I see them standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming as they smile, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. The sun shining overhead, the wheelchair now discarded, they are free from their iron cross.

 

First published in Good Letters.

Matteo’s Shoes: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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I wrapped the thick terry robe around me, refreshed by the bubble bath I’d taken scented with lavender salt. What a glorious day it had been. Puerta del Sol, The Prado, Madrid Cathedral, the rose-garden at Retiro Park. Tapas for lunch, a little shopping, then back to our multi-starred hotel.

And that was just the preamble. In two days we’d begin our Camino. We would walk the Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—a pilgrimage across Spain that began in the middle ages and remains immensely popular today. We would trek 200 miles in ten stages, beginning in León and ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela with the Pilgrim’s Mass.

ImageMy husband Mark was reading emails on the bed as I toweled off my hair. “Bad news,” he said. “The firm has let go the word processors. The whole department. What will I do without Camille?”

I tossed the towel on a chair. “Why would they fire all those people? Camille’s a single mom. How will she feed her kids if she doesn’t have a job?”

Mark typed something on his iPad. “It’s another cost-cutting measure. Camille has emailed me too. I’ll write her a recommendation. I hope she finds something soon.”

“Still, the layoff is a sin.”

Within days, though, the sin had slipped my mind. We were on stage two of our Camino, and all I could think of was my feet. The day before we had left León and trudged ten hours through a desert, sun broiling our skin, backpacks breaking our spines.

By the time we reached our first night’s destination, the town of Hospital de Órbigo, my feet had swollen to proportions I’d not imagined possible. Several toes were bruised dark purple and between them painful blisters had emerged. Thank God our B&B was lovely. Our room had a marble shower with a shelf full of soaps and lotions and a wall of pulsing body jets, so I stepped in, turned on cool water, let the jets massage my feet. Maybe with this treatment the swelling would diminish overnight.

No such luck. The next day when Mark and I awoke, my edema was no better. Thus, I had no choice: I forced my feet into my boots, left the laces untied, and hobbled out of town with Mark.

Soon we were winding through cornfields green and golden in the early morning sun. These gave way to woodlands of shady, broad, holm oaks. Here, the path began to climb. Wincing with every step, I began to fall behind. Mark turned and waited at a stream. “Are you okay?”

I shook my head. “My feet are absolutely killing me. Please, just go ahead. I don’t want to feel pressured by your pace. Just check me sporadically.”

Mark nodded and we began to walk. Within minutes I was far behind him. Then the forest opened to mown farmlands scattered with hay bales and cows.

In a field adjacent to the road, a man was sitting on a hay bale. As I approached he stood and came towards me leading dog by a leash. He bore an enormous backpack festooned with a miscellany of items: a rolled pad, blanket, and sleeping bag; a down jacket and canvas hat; a dopp kit and stuffed plastic bag; a walking stick dangling a pot. The dog, too, was bearing a burden, a pannier strapped to its back. The twosome and everything they carried was encrusted with dirt.

The man waved. “Buon giorno! Buon Cammino!”

Italian, my grandparents’ language, one I thankfully spoke.

I looked into his face. Long-haired, brown-eyed, young, he seemed in his mid-twenties, the same age as my son. I smiled. “Sei italiano?”

“Sì!”

And so I met Matteo, who’d walked all the way from Genoa. He began to plod the path beside me, his dog Greta scouting the way. Matteo talked to me nonstop:

“Signora, I see that you’re limping. Are your boots too tight? Feet swell on the Camino from the heat and strain. The trick is to wear shoes a size bigger than usual. At home, I wear 42, but today I’m wearing 43.

“You know, I didn’t plan to be on this Camino. But the Genoa phone company I worked for cut eight workers from full-time to half. Four of us were young bachelors; the others were family men. We young ones quit completely so our colleagues could keep their full-time schedules. How else could they feed their kids?”

“So here I am on the Camino. Of course, I have to do it cheaply. Since the weather’s nice, I sleep outside with Greta. The only problem is bathing. I’m filthy. How I’d love a bath! But the hostels won’t let me use their showers if I don’t pay to stay the night. Cheapskates, that’s what they are!”

Once Jesus told a rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor.” These words have long caused me consternation. Are we supposed to give away all?

How relieved I was to read that medieval writer Christina de Pisano had prayed about this question and received a clear response: God doesn’t ask us to give all. He asks us to give what we can, do good works, and refrain from flaunting wealth.

This much I’ve always handled: charitable donations, volunteer work, buying the homeless lunch.

But is it enough? Matteo had given up his job to save his colleagues. He’d also sacrificed his roof. He’d even forfeited his bath.

What had I done for Camille? If all the well-paid people at Mark’s firm had agreed to earn a little less, could we have saved her too? What would it have cost me to try? A hotel star? A scented bubble bath? Pulsing shower jets?

I’m not as brave as Matteo. I’m afraid to give everything. But I can give more than I have in the past.

The boots I’ve been wearing are too tight. It’s time to walk in Matteo’s shoes.

 

The Shroud of Turin (La Sindone)

SINDONEIf you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could speak for hours. Before I saw it in Italy one Easter, I read several books on it. So I could tell you the Shroud is a linen cloth, three feet wide and fourteen long, that’s marked with faint front and back images—like those of a sepia photo—of a man in burial pose.

Beginning at one end of the fabric and panning lengthwise towards the other, you can see the front of the man’s body: his ankles, shins, knees, and thighs; his hands shielding his groin; his stomach, chest, beard, and face; his tendriled forehead at mid-length.

From there, continuing on, you can see the man’s back: his hair gathered in a ponytail at the nape of his neck; his shoulders, buttocks, hams, and calves; his heels at the far hem.

You suspect the man’s been scourged. Blood-filled back and buttock wounds bring to mind a flagellation by a leather multi-thonged whip, lead pellets tied to tips. You deduce the man’s been crucified. Blood-crusted wrist and ankle wounds suggest an ancient crucifixion, iron nail shafts rammed though flesh and bone by pounding rough-hewn heads.

You theorize the man’s been crowned with brambles. Blood has trickled through his locks from myriad scalp and forehead punctures. You surmise the man’s been speared. Serum has puddled at his waist from a right-rib, lance-shaped wound.

So you guess, if you’ve read the Gospels, that the Shroud is Jesus’ burial cloth, the sudarium John and Peter found in their teacher’s vacant tomb. And you grasp why it’s the world’s most-guarded relic—displayed only once each twenty years—and why scholars debate its authenticity, some proclaiming it a miracle, others declaring it a fake.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could summarize its history. Some experts place it in Jerusalem in AD 33 and chronicle an almost gapless jaunt:

To Edessa in AD 34, where Christians hid it from vandals in the city’s stone surrounding walls, to Constantinople in AD 944, where the Byzantine emperor raised it banner-like in his palace church.

To Athens, Greece, in AD 1204, when Fourth Crusaders sailed into Byzantium and seized it with the empire’s Christian relics, to Lirey, France, in 1354, when a French knight took it for himself.

To Savoy, France, in 1453, when the knight’s heiress gave it to a duke in exchange for a country castle, to Chambéry in 1502, where the duke placed it in his royal chapel behind an iron grill.

There, the cloth remained, folded in a bolted, silver coffer, until a fire swept the chapel in 1532. Hell-bent to save the Shroud, two Franciscans doused the reliquary, summoned a smith to pry the hasps, unfurled and inspected the Shroud.

Melted silver had singed a folded corner. Water had seeped through the fibers. But except for a series of scorch marks burned through to holes at intervals, the image was unmarred, and Poor Clare nuns patched up the holes.

Then, in 1578, Milan’s cardinal planned a pilgrimage to the Shroud, so the cloth was moved to Turin, Italy, to spare him a hike across the Alps. Today, the Shroud remains in Turin’s Duomo, out-of-sight for decades at a time, in an airtight, bulletproof case.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could recount the scholarly debates. Despite the propositions of their colleagues, some historians dispute the Shroud’s existence before its debut in medieval France.

Radiologists endorse the naysayers—their carbon-14 studies date the cloth to the early 1300s; they claim the image and bloodstains are paint, a counterfeiter’s work. Forensic scientists support the yaysayers—they find no pigments on the fibers, just human blood and serum; they charge the radiologists with sampling a Poor Clare patch.

Textile experts back the devotees—they say the Shroud’s herringbone weave was prized in Caesar’s time and unused in the Middle Ages. Botanists agree with them—they say the Shroud is strewn with flower prints and pollen from Israeli mums extinct before medieval times.

But the nonbelievers are diehards, determined to prove the Shroud a fraud by reproducing it themselves: They’ve tried Byzantine tempera painting, medieval photography, printing bas-reliefs. They’ve attempted hot statue wrapping, line engraving, and vapography. They’ve tried fungal and bacterial methods, non-enzymatic browning, singlet oxygen techniques. They’ve undertaken fabric scorching, flash irradiation, and electrostatic fields.

Then came an aero-optics expert who thought he’d proved the Shroud authentic, settling the debate: his NASA image analyzer showed the Shroud plots a 3-D elevation of a tortured human male. But skepticism persists, although no technology we know of—no natural process, no artistic or photographic method—can make an image like the Shroud’s, one that plots 3-D.

So if you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I’d have plenty to say.

But most of it is straw.

Because there’s something that leaves me speechless, something I didn’t read in books, something that didn’t strike me till I stood in the dark cathedral among a praying crowd and stared at the backlit Shroud suspended on a wall before me, so close I could have touched its fibers, the imprint, the blood.

That something is this: Jesus was a man, a man no bigger than my son, one man among the billions who have lived or ever will. And one spring evening long ago, he pulled his hair into a ponytail to prepare bread and wine for his disciples, as my son pulls on a favorite t-shirt to set out beer and nachos for his friends.

As if it were an ordinary evening.

But it wasn’t an ordinary evening; it was the last one of his life.

And when his mother saw his broken corpse, one she hoped to never see—as I hope to never see my son’s—she tossed a few chrysanthemums upon it, covered it with the Shroud, and left the tomb with her grief.

Then, when all was quiet, a flash of light, a flutter of fabric. An image to hold onto until eternity.

Risen Words

redchasmA book was sleeping inside me. It was somewhere deep and warm, somewhere just beneath my heart. At first, the words free-floated lightly, whispering so I could barely hear them. Next they somersaulted nimbly, mesmerizing me. Then they dropkicked, demanding their release.

Days, weeks, and months went by. Still, I did not begin to write the book. A book takes years from your life. Each day you have to stand upon a cliff, take a breath, plunge into the chasm. You have to hit rock to make the words rise. You have to push friends and family to the margins, shirk the world to live in the mind.

What’s more, I’d just finished a memoir, peddled it to more than fifty agents, received rejections from all. And though I’d found a small, independent press willing to take a risk on me, I’d been warned, given our lack of celebrity, the memoir likely wouldn’t sell. How could I justify another book, waste the future after the past? Better cook dinner for my family or for the homeless downtown.

No, the book was a stupid idea.

But the words kept kicking inside.

I talked to a friend about it. She said sometimes when a project is obsessing us, it’s a sign that God is calling us to task, a signal of our vocation.

Vocation. It’s an early Christian concept that’s been secularized by many. The essence is this: God calls every one of us to love and serve our neighbors in a special way. The work involved is our calling. While a few of us may hear God call audibly, most must learn to perceive his voice in the convergence of four signs: We desire to do certain work. The effort brings us joy. The work serves a beneficent end. Unbiased sources say we’re gifted at the tasks.

To perceive signs of a calling, we must look deep within ourselves, discern how the spirit moves within us, scrutinize the world around us, analyze the effects our actions cause. When in doubt, we should pray for clearer signs.

So, one night, I climbed into bed, burrowed next to my husband, who’d already turned out the lights. Pulling blankets to chin, I closed my eyes, fixed them on my inner world. I knew I longed to keep writing, knew I delighted in the process, even when it wasn’t going smoothly, even when the words didn’t seem to come. But I wasn’t sure that I was gifted or that my work served anyone but me. To find out, I would have to turn to prayer.

In truth, I’ve never found prayer easy. Through much of my adulthood, God has been a rainbow trout to me; I grasp him for a moment, then he slips, glistening pink and silver, from my hands. How could pray when I wasn’t sure that God was real?

What’s more, my petition seemed crazy: There are seven billion people on the planet, but hey, Creator of the Universe, let’s have a chat, you and me. No, it’s not about war, disease, or famine; instead, I’d like to pitch a book.

As for the notion God was calling me to write: God could jingle Anne Lamott. Why would he bother with me?

Still, I prayed. “God, should I write this book?” Then I listened. But, all I heard was my husband breathing sleep-deep, so I curled into fetal position, felt the flush of my foolishness.

Foolish: How I felt that night, having imagined even for a moment that God would speak to me.

Foolish: How I felt three days later, when my memoir was released at 1,745,362, and falling, on Amazon’s book rank list.

Foolish: How I felt two weeks after that, when the book received a scathing one-star review.

Foolish:  How I felt, having fancied for an instant that God was calling me to write when the world was screaming, STOP!

So I stopped. I turned off my computer, smothered every word that rose. I’ll never write anther book. In fact, I’ll never write another word.

That’s when I lost myself.

Mornings when my daughter called me, I no longer blew her kisses through the phone. Instead my mind hissed at her: Pest! Don’t you know I need to work?

Afternoons when I was with my college students, I no longer assured them they could write. Instead, my brain chastised them: Dunces! You should have learned where commas go in second grade!

Over supper when my husband spoke of cycling, I no longer tracked riders or the routes. Instead I thought: No, not crankshafts and gears! What a flipping bore!

Then came the night I asked my son to wash a pan he’d just used to make an omelet. When he said, “Just a minute, Mom, relax!” I shrieked, “You can go to hell!”

At those words, I winced and caught my breath: What was happening to me?

Then I realized, I’d just received a sign.

If God calls each of us to love and serve, we must do what enables us to do so. No one questions that we must eat, get fresh air, and exercise. But we also have to do what brings us joy, makes us feel alive, opens up our hearts, whether it’s singing, painting, gardening, skiing, or any of a million things. If we don’t, we become testy and embittered, spreading hostility rather than love.

Maybe I’m not a great writer. Maybe my words will never lighten someone’s load. But I know that if I don’t write them, I’m no good to anyone at all.

So here I sit at my computer, called to let these words rise.

The Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago)

IMG_1996_2My Uncle Jimmy died last fall at the age of ninety. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to New York when young and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was the husband of my aunt for sixty-one years, the frolicsome father of my two cousins, a regular part of my life until I married and moved away.

I can still see my uncle clearly as he was in January 1994. The way his brown eyes sparkled. The way his thick hair swept back from his forehead. The way he arm-wrestled my four-year-old son to laughter, easing tears caused by my father’s death.

That was the last time I saw my Uncle Jimmy. Almost twenty years ago.

On the day my Uncle Jimmy died, I didn’t even know that he was ill. He’d lived in Florida for two decades and I in Seattle for three. Through those years our correspondence was limited, consisting only of Christmas and Easter cards with a few scribbled pleasantries. Some years, even cards were lacking.

No, on the day my uncle died, I wasn’t at his bedside hugging him. Instead, I was in a Spanish cathedral embracing a very different Jimmy, not one of flesh and bones, but of gold-plate and jewels, the bust of Saint James, apostle of Jesus, whom Spaniards call Santiago.

According to Christian tradition, after Jesus’ resurrection, James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Gospel. Upon returning to Jerusalem, he was beheaded, becoming the first Christian martyr. His acolytes carried his corpse to Palestine’s coast and placed it on an unpiloted boat that miraculously crossed the Mediterranean, passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, and landed on the shore of Spain among the fiord-like rías of Galicia.

In Galicia, the body was buried in a small shrine and the town of Santiago grew around it. By the twelfth century, an immense Romanesque cathedral had been built over James’ tomb and was attracting half a million pilgrims each year. People walked there from all over Europe, hundreds and hundreds of miles, crossing mountains, valleys, plains, and rivers, risking starvation, dehydration, injury, raids by bandits, death. For them, the pilgrimage was an enactment of the spiritual journey to God and the hardships were tests of faith.

Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually walk El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, they now come from all around the world and include believers and non-believers alike. During the last two weeks of my Uncle Jimmy’s life, my husband and I were two of them.

The Way is very much like leapfrog. Though the most travelled route is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, some pilgrims walk from farther points—Rome, Zagreb, Warsaw—others from spots nearer Santiago—Pamplona, Leon, Sarria.

All along The Way, pilgrims encounter each other, walk together for a distance, talk in spontaneous pidgins of English-Spanish-French-German-Italian. They lose each other at rest stops or to slow or quicken their pace, then rediscover each other at intervals of minutes, hours, days.  On the road, in restaurants, and in refugios, they bond through a cycle of challenges, triumphs, chow, chat.

We spied our first fellow peregrinos in an otherwise empty hotel breakfast room on the morning we set out from Leon. They were sitting at another table, a chic Spanish-speaking couple in brand new hiking gear. Finishing our pastries and coffees, the four of us stood, heaved our packs, smiled—neither my husband nor I speak Spanish—went outside and found the route. We walked neck in neck for hours. When the road split, we turned left and they turned right.

Two days later we recognized them in a restaurant in Rabanal, heard them speaking English to another couple, introduced ourselves. By the end of our conversation, we’d come to know them as Miguel and Liliana from Colombia. By Villafranca, we were dining with them, sharing insights on how to deal with blisters, manage backpacks, parent children, face midlife.

Likewise, in bits and pieces on The Way, we came to know Kyung Mi from Seoul, who clicked her walking sticks on gravel, offered me a parasol when the sun grew hot. And the group of students from the Catholic Newman Center at University of Washington, who early mornings shared the glow of headlamps and song-filled sunrise prayers. And Matteo from Genoa, who climbed a mountain pass with me, insisting I practice my Italian to distract me from my bleeding feet.

When pilgrims reach Santiago, they embrace in front of the cathedral. Strangers only weeks before, they now regard themselves as friends. Together they enter the cathedral and walk their last steps together up stairs that lead behind the altar. There they hug the gilded statue of Saint James, then descend to the Pilgrims’ Mass.

At Mass I gazed around me at hundreds of peregrinos, many now dear. People who had walked into my life, touched my heart, and would soon depart. People like so many others—my parents and grandparents, lost neighbors, colleagues, friends—who had once been marvelously present but had vanished due to distance, distractions, death.

People like my Uncle Jimmy.

I wanted to put my arms around them, all the people of my life. Those I’d known well and those I wished I’d known better. Those here and now. Those there and then. I wanted to hold them forever in a way that Facebook can’t.

Towards the end of the Pilgrim’s Mass, eight red-robed attendants launched the botafumeiro, a massive silver incense dispenser hung by a sturdy rope that swings an enormous arc across the church transept. At the first oscillation, the organ began to boom as every eye in the cathedral lifted to heaven with the fragrant smoke.

Then I understood. The Way doesn’t end in Santiago. And if we continue on it, loving those who cross our path, we can hope to be united with each other in God’s realm.

 

Photo by Vincent Samudovsky

Pondering Prayer

ponderingprayer-300x215I had a problem with prayer.  It’s not that I didn’t think of God or talk to him; I did every single day.  But I didn’t understand what made me do it, didn’t know what it accomplished, wasn’t sure what I was doing was prayer.

You see, I just can’t pray as Sister Clare taught us kids in Catechism; I don’t say formal prayers except at Mass—not the Confiteor, not the Our Father, not the Hail Mary—and even then I don’t actually say them; instead, I listen to the congregation’s voices, straining to focus on the words.

And I can’t pray like my Lutheran colleague Laura, who asks the people in our office to hold hands and spins extemporaneous prayers whenever one of us is ailing—Dear Lord, healer of the sick, we turn to you as our friend John faces knee surgery.  When she does this, I lose her thread almost from the start, so urgent is my need to drop my neighbors’ palms.

Nor can I pray like my old friend Beth, who at all times carries a binder, each page with a scripted prayer meant for a particular person, addressed to a specific saint, repeated several times each day—O glorious St. Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus Christ, to you do we raise our hearts and hands to implore your powerful intercession on behalf of Tom. Whenever she asks me to join her, my mouth iterates the words, but my mind remains unengaged and my eyes seek the bottom of the page.

And while experience had made it clear that public prayers composed by others didn’t work for me (especially while holding hands), I wasn’t any more successful praying my own words privately.  Every single night from age five to fifty, I’d turned off the lights, climbed into bed, closed my eyes, curled up like a fetus, mumbled a personal prayer—Dear God, thank you for today, for the compliment Bill gave me at work, for the avocado sandwich and companionship I shared with Dave at lunch.   But before I’d get much further I’d be ruminating some incident that had happened during the day or running through my checklist for the next one.

I often wondered why I even tried to pray:  What was the point?  While I certainly thought it proper to thank God for blessings—health, home, family, friends—and apologize for failings—envy, anger, petulance, pride—I thought it selfish to ask him for favors—a slimmer body, a better job, a bigger house.  With six billion people on a planet rife with poverty, violence, disease, who was I to ask for anything?  And then, when it came right down to it, I couldn’t believe, as Clare, Laura and Beth did, that God responded to petitions.  The Holocaust, Viet Nam, 9/11, Darfur, Katrina.  Was no one praying then?

I was a failure at prayer.

And it bothered me.

So I met with Fr. Boniface, a priest at the Catholic church I go to, to ask him what I was doing wrong.  He said:  “What you do isn’t what matters.  Think about what prayer is.  It’s a conversation with God.  It’s about entering into a relationship with him.  When we converse with people, we come to know and them, and that takes time.  It’s the same with God.  Prayer is about falling in love with God, being close to him, now and in eternity.”

What a baffling response.  Until that moment, if you’d asked me what prayer was, I’d have called it an obligation.  Something I did to be good.  Something I did to thank the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient Creator for my stint in the world.

Prayer, a relationship with God?   It was a concept I’d heard before, mostly from Protestant students at the Christian college where I teach.  When one student, Hannah, wrote of her personal relationship with Jesus, I’d pictured him in blue jeans, sitting on her shoulder, strumming a guitar, singing love songs in her ear.  How strange.  Still, while part of me thought this picture crazy, another burned with jealousy.  Jesus was right there for Hannah.  Where was God for me?

I, like most people of the Judeo-Christian tradition, had been taught that God is omnipresent.  He is everywhere.  But omnipresence is difficult to fathom.  Perhaps my problem with prayer was I couldn’t sense God’s presence when I prayed.  Presence is crucial to relationships.  Absence causes love to fade away.

So I read about Divine presence.  The transcendent view stresses the otherness of God:  He’s above the clouds, beyond the stars, not in the material world.  And I realized scripted prayers placed God out there for me—too far to sense his presence, too distant for relationship.

The immanent view sees God within all parts of Creation:  He’s in every object, element, animal, plant and person—including me.  And I realized my improvised bedtime prayers placed God within my self—so close he dissolved into my substance, too indistinct for relationship.

Yet I knew, absolutely, that I had felt God’s presence in my life.  I’d catch my breath at a tangerine sunrise and whisper, Thank you, God., then be moved to smile at everyone I passed along the street.  Or I’d be startled by an ambulance siren and think, God, please let that person live., then be prompted to write to my aunt who’d had a heart condition for years.  Or I’d shriek when my daughter burned a skillet and wince, God, why am I so testy?, then be spurred to take my daughter out to lunch.

So while I can’t sense Divine presence beyond the clouds or within me, I feel God close, and clearly, in unexpected moments like these—moments of awe, joy, fear, sorrow or contrition.  God captures my attention in these moments.  I cry in recognition, feel a surge of heart.  I respond with acts of love, often in spite of myself.  Are these exchanges conversations?  I’d like to think yes.  Thus, they’re no less prayers that the kinds I struggle with.