Tag Archives: grace

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.

Remembering Kindness

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I didn’t think I’d make it through that Tuesday. There I was, sitting in my car as the Fremont Bridge was opening to let a yacht pass through. This was not an occurrence I had planned on, as I’d never known the bridge to open on a winter morning in all the years I’d taught at Seattle Pacific University. And it meant I’d be late to class.

I hate being late, so much that it rarely ever happened. Still, the few times that it had, I’d been able to keep my cool. This time, though, was different. I screamed and cursed at the bridge, pummeled my fists on the steering wheel, felt like crying. I’d become a discombobulated mess.

Perhaps this is understandable. I was teaching twelve credits that quarter and was enrolled in a nighttime master’s program, burning the candle at both ends. I’d spent the weekend prepping for my teaching, grading a massive pile of papers, reading and writing.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, my son called from college to say he’d been injured playing Frisbee: “No big deal, Mom, just a hernia. It happened a few days ago—sorry I didn’t call sooner—but the doc says the procedure is routine and he scheduled the surgery for tomorrow. Can you drive up? You’re off on Mondays, right?” Right. I just teach six hours on Tuesday, have a paper due on Wednesday, and was counting on Monday to work.

A son, though, is a son.

I will spare you a detailed description of the series of fiascos that was Monday, except to say that my son’s surgery was delayed for many hours (although it went fine), the surgery center had no cafeteria, and I drove home four hours through a blizzard in the middle of night. When the Fremont Bridge went up on Tuesday morning, I’d been foodless and sleepless for a day. I was dying for a pre-class snack and coffee, which the bridge had snatched from me.

I reached my classroom several minutes late. The students’ eyes were upon me as I pulled my book from my briefcase and stripped off my coat. My stomach was growling wildly and I felt unsteady on my feet, but I’d have to make due: the class was three hours long, our goal to discuss the whole of Night.

Night is the Holocaust memoir of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who in the story is the adolescent Eliezer. Beautifully written, painful to read, replete with insight, Night was among my favorite books to teach.We dove right in, discussing each segment: Eliezer’s childhood in Transylvania, his initial deep belief in God, his family’s deportation to Auschwitz, the brutality the prisoners endured, Eliezer’s waning faith.

We came to a part of the story that was among the most moving to me. Eliezer, underfed and weak, is forced to work at a concentration camp warehouse overseen by a volatile Kapo. One day, for little reason, the Kapo jumps on Eliezer and proceeds to beat him. Eliezer crawls into a corner, bleeding and broken. Just then, Eliezer feels a cool hand wipe his brow. It belongs a forced labor deportee—an Aryan girl from France who has never spoken to him. She smiles at Eliezer, looks into his eyes, slips him some bread, and says some soothing words in German, as he doesn’t speak French.

At this point the story flashes forward. Many years later in Paris, Wiesel is reading on the Metro. He looks up and sees a woman with beautiful eyes and suddenly recognizes her—the French girl from the warehouse. The two go to a café and Wiesel confirms what he’s long suspected: the woman was really Jewish and had worked in the warehouse on forged papers. By speaking German to Eliezer, she’d risked her cover and her life.

I asked my students: “Why would Wiesel choose to break the flow of his story and jump to the Metro scene? We’re far into the book, and he’s never flashed forward before.” The students regarded me thoughtfully, then one suggested: “The scene was important to Wiesel. His book is about not forgetting the evil that people are capable of. Maybe he wanted to show that a simple kindness is a powerful thing that should also be remembered and oftentimes is.”

Yes. That’s why I loved that scene.

We moved through the remainder of the memoir. When class was over at noon, I dashed out the door. My next class would start in ten minutes, the room was far across campus, and I was more desperate than ever for a snack and coffee. I stopped in the Subway in the quad, but the line was a serpent, so I tried the Starbucks. The queue here too was long: a trio of students at the front, a couple of professors, a lone male student, and a quintet of female students right before me.

The barista wasn’t speedy and the orders were complex: a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle; a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soymilk; a triple, venti, no-foam, soy latte.

I looked at my watch as the barista processed the professors. Five minutes to go before class. At this rate I wouldn’t make it. I considered approaching the male student and offering to pay for his order as a way of bypassing the girls, but guilt struck immediately, so I gave up the idea. The boy ordered, received his drink.

I checked my watch. No choice: I’d have to bolt and starve.

Then I heard a voice. “Can I treat you to coffee?”

I turned. It was the first of the five girls before me, about to place her order.

“Excuse me?”

She smiled, looked into my eyes. “I’d like to buy you coffee.”

No, I’d not experienced a holocaust. No, the girl hadn’t risked her life. But the coffee that she offered helped me make it through the day, and I will remember her kindness for many years to come.

First published in Good Letters.

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.

Calling 2008

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The Kindle version of my memoir, Pieces of Someday, is free on Amazon through Nov. 5, 2014. Please download it by clicking the link to the right and tell your friends about it!  I’d love to give away as many copies as I can, and I hope you enjoy it.  If you do, please write an Amazon review.   

The following is the opening section:

What am I doing here this morning, sitting in a church when it’s not Christmas? Sunlit clouds, breeze tinged warm, pink clematis scent—I should be out in my garden. For twenty years I’ve driven by this place, felt the pull of its wine brick walls and copper steeple. Cornerstoned when my grandparents boarded steamships from Palermo, this Seattle landmark never called me in until this moment. Possibly its name has been the dissuasion—Blessed Sacrament— saccharine as raindrops on roses. Or maybe I still don’t understand what a blessed sacrament is.

I survey the strangers gathered in the pews—the quartet of moonfaced girls sitting to my right, their University of Washington sweatshirts nubby, needing bleach. They whisper, nod, and smile— smooth skin, glossy hair, teeth straight and white. To my left is a gray- haired woman in a hand-me-down cap. It’s crocheted, studded with buttons—S’ mores Not Wars, Hope Obama ’08. Crinkly eyes, liver- spotted cheeks, whisker-stubbled chin, she’s transfixed by something on the altar. Jesus crucified? Must be. For here, except for the icons, there’s a howling scarcity of men. Only Saints Dominic, Jude, Thomas, and Francis stand niched and polished around us. They watch in mahogany silence, this nave of waiting women, this raftered ark with its faint incense smell.

The walk from my house to this church took less time than I’d imagined, past Cowan Park, the student rentals reeking weed, Pierced Hearts Tattoo, the Wayward’s coffee cloud. Past the bungalow with the big magnolia and the homeless teen crouched in the doorway of the bar who reached his palm out to me, cut my core with steel-gray eyes. If I’d had the courage of a year ago, I would have stopped before him. I would have taken him by the hand. I would have pulled him to his feet and urged him to come along, for it’s the church’s Called and Gifted Workshop that’s drawn me. My kids are grown, away at college, last June I lost my job, and I can’t seem to find a new one, three decades of résumé be damned. Is this what middle age means? Superfluous, obsolete? Which is why I left the boy behind. The blind leading the blind.

The last time I heard about callings, I was probably twelve years old. Every Wednesday afternoon, Teresa Giordano and I left public school early to go to Catechism on a church bus. I was embarrassed by the attention this practice garnered at our mostly Jewish junior high, but also grateful that at least at Saint Christopher’s, I was counted among the flock. I remember the day Sister Agnes chalked vocation on the blackboard, her sprawling, spidery script, her rosary-crucifix-swinging habit hip. She explained that vocation was a calling, the work God created us to do. Each of us would have one, each would be unique, and God would give us the necessary talents—gifts—to do it well. Some of us would be doctors or nurses, others firemen or teachers, many husbands or wives. If we followed our callings, we’d please God by serving man. Every day of our lives, we needed to listen carefully for God’s voice so when He revealed our callings we would hear.

 ***

Gifts. A special calling. Through the years I’ve often thought about those teachings, sometimes with anger, others with longing, always with sadness. I’m old now, Sister Agnes, when will my revelation come? And how will I recognize God’s voice? Are my dreams signs of my calling? Or are they just sinister specters rising from the refuse of my childhood? After all, both the Crusaders and Al Qaeda thought they were heeding the call of God.

 ***

The light shifts in the church. Rainbowed sunbeams moving through stained glass draw my eyes to the panes above the altar. Jesus in white robes, golden crown upon his head, raises an amber chalice emitting a nimbus of flames. The Virgin Mary prays in turquoise; Saint John clasps a scarlet book. Then a host of swirling symbols— an emerald scale, a stringed harp, a silver sword. A pair of candles, a yellow star, a nodding lily. A russet heart, a rising sun, a purple fish. A pelican pierces her breast, splay-beaked fledglings at her knee.

 ***

When I was a little girl, my cousin Angela told me life’s a circle, and looking across the generations, I suppose she was right. We are born, have children—at least those who can and want to. Then we die and, theoretically, our children carry on.

But I pictured life as a vector, one leading to a place called There. To arrive, I’d have to work hard—that’s what my father said. I’d also have to be good, which I knew meant do as I was told thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Then one day I’d finally be There, in an Oz of endless sunshine, love, and reward where I could remain for all time.

Now life seems neither circle nor vector. Those shapes are too simple, one-directional. So I’ve tossed away both paradigms, and that’s just fine. I did well enough in math, but only through resolve and application. Numbers, graphs, and figures don’t come naturally to me.

Life, it now seems, is a stained glass window composed of bits of translucence and opacity—fragments of yesterday, chips of today, pieces of someday, soldered with time. Some jewel-like and whole. Some fractured by the weather. Others fallen from their leaden frames. Only fusion and repair complete the image and allow us to make out the picture. Am I a scale, a harp, a star? A candle, anchor, or heart?

And what about tomorrow?

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.

Sleeping Beauty

ImageThe following is an excerpt from Pieces of Someday: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in Lawyering Family, Italy, Church, and a Tiny Jewish High School

The classroom door blew open as I packed my briefcase to go home. A cold gust of air rushed in, blowing the papers from my desk, chasing red and gold leaves across the threshold so they swirled and settled at my feet.

Kalindah whirled in with the weather. With black-sweatshirted arms, she gave me my daily hug—nubby, slightly dank and fusty—then plopped on the top of a desk, pulling legs akimbo beneath her skirt. “Ms. Vallone, life’s so unfair. All my friends have boyfriends but me.”

Braces, Janis Joplin hair, Kalindah was a freshman when I first began teaching high school English. Another teacher had warned me about her: “Make sure you watch out for that one—she’s a time bomb waiting to explode, bipolar without her medication. You’ll see, one day she’ll draw a knife.”

During my first few weeks, Kalindah sat huddled at the back of the classroom, silent, impassive, gray-eyed. Was she sedated? Not till I scheduled a quiz did I see any sign of life. After class she came up to my desk: “I stink at tests.” Then she walked out.

Sure enough, her score was 47. When I lay the quiz on her desk, she glanced at the grade, hands stuffed in sweatshirt pouch. “Told you.” I studied the dandruff in her part. “Take it home and do it over. You can use your book and raise your grade.”

Metal smile trapping sandwich morsels. “Really? That’s awesome!”

Tests weren’t Kalindah’s only problem. For weeks I pumped and prodded: “I’m still waiting for your narrative. Are you planning to turn one in?”

Her response: a shoulder shrug. But one day she came to class early, dropped some rumpled sheets on my desk. “Ms. Vallone, I know it’s really late, but I wrote the story.”

In the story, the penguin Galápaga wants to cross a river, but she’s an orphan, so no one’s shown her how. She tries to use her wings as eagles do, but finds them too stubby for flying. She tries to hop across on river rocks, but her legs are too clumsy for leaping.

Galápaga uses a fallen tree trunk as bridge between the two banks. But the trunk is very narrow, mossy, and high above the water. Though penguins have good gripping toenails, midway across she slips.

Plummeting from her perch, Galápaga is desperate. She impromptu somersault tucks, plunges in the frigid water. Sinking to the bottom, she begins to pray: O God / Fear and trembling come upon me / Oh, that I had wings like a dove! /I would fly away and be at rest.

Then a strange thing happens. Panic-beating her wings, Galápaga rises through the water, discovering she can swim. So she breaststrokes across the river, climbs out, and waddles toward the woods.

I laughed reading Kalindah’s story, wrote A at the top, Great job! In Italian calinda means lark. So I hope you understand you can fly even though penguins can’t! Next day when she read my comments, Kalindah smiled and leaped at me, gave me the very first hug.

But what could I say about boys to a girl only sixteen? I gathered the papers from the floor, slipped them into my briefcase, sat on a desk facing Kalindah. “I know it stinks not to have a boyfriend, but someday you’ll have one, really. Remember when you thought you couldn’t write?”

“Yeah, but I’m not pretty. I wish I could be someone else!”

When I was an adolescent, I wished to be my cousin Angela, three years older than me. Angela, the Italian word for angel. Angela, who as a child wore the prettiest pinafores, dark hair thickly braided with ribbons. Angela, favored as beautiful, while I was anything but. Aunt Lina said my eyes were beady. Gramma told me I needed a perm. My father hinted I was chubby.

In high school, it was Debbie Schein I envied, a twin for Zeffirelli’s Juliet—chestnut hair tumbling to her waist, blue eyes, and dancer’s legs. If I were Debbie, every evening Michael Goldfarb would scale the lamppost on the corner. He’d peek inside my window as I braided my hair for bed, maybe even whisper to himself: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Jan is the sun.

But as long as Debbie was alive, Mike would never look at me. Nor would Gary, nor Mitchell, nor Jeff.

It’s not that I came from bad stock. My mother had curly hair, twinkling eyes, a heart-shaped face. And oh what a figure in the photo, bathing-suited at age eighteen, a Sophia Loren on a rock, sunning at Kaaterskill Falls. So it was for my Aunt Marie and my cousins Marianne and Celeste. Of all the females in my family, only I lacked the magic genes.

I remember when I was sixteen. Angela sat me on the pink counter of our grandmother’s tiny bathroom, my back towards the mirror, legs dangling. She pushed my hair behind my ears, perused my face with her kohled golden eyes. Bubbling in her Brooklyn brogue, she broke into a glossy smile, “I’ve got it!”

She unzipped her floral makeup bag with a flick of her bracelet-trimmed wrist. Out came a bottle of foundation muddying up my face. Out came a tin of eye-shadow blizzarding blue my lids. Out came a mascara spiral coating my lashes black. Out came a sparkling swivel-stick staining my lips cherry red.

When she was finished, Angela stepped back. She lifted my face with a finger, turned it right and left, called, “Gramma, come see!”

Pots clanging in the kitchen, pitter-patters up the hall. Gramma squeezed into the bathroom, squinted at my face. She nodded, “Much bedda.”

My heart bloomed a rose.

Then Angela stirred her fingers in her makeup bag, pulled out a rhinestone-trimmed mirror. “Okay—now you can see.”

She held the mirror before me. But Juliet wasn’t reflected there.

Instead, I saw a clown.

In my twenties, it was Holly Brown I longed to be. We two were medical lab techs then working at UNC. Every morning she’d sashay to her bench, flicking her Farrah Fawcett mane: “Good mornin’ y’all.”

As jasmine-gardenia perfume gusted from Holly’s curly halo, the male techs would look up from their microscopes, dropping jaws to gawk. In my corner, I’d reach for the radio, turn up the volume of Bruce Springsteen: Show a little faith there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright.

But I wasn’t all right. So I spent a few days’ salary to reinvent myself as Holly. As I sat before a salon mirror, Jean Paul pumped the swivel chair, raising the object of his art. He shampooed my hair in awapuhi—wafting ginger scent—parted it into sections, paper-wrapped each around a rod. He squeezed on glycerol monothioglycolate, plastic- capped my head. He helmeted me with a dryer and toggled on the heat.

My scalp prickled and crawled. My ears sizzled like bacon. But the dryer drone fired my fantasies as I flipped through an issue of Vogue: Maybe the lab crew will realize I’m a dove and Holly’s a crow.

Jean Paul rinsed my head to stop the process. He cut and blew dry my hair. Then he swiveled my chair towards the mirror—voilà: Christ, I have a fro.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in my thirties, my desire was to look like Princess Di—the ultra-toned body, bright smile.  The lash-brushing bangs and royal rose-petal skin. So I went to aerobics, tried Pearl Drops, scrubbed my face, cut my hair Diana-style.

But somehow I contracted the chickenpox, pox upon pox upon pox. They healed leaving scars on my chin, causing me to turn from every mirror. The marks seemed to shout from my jaw, “See how repulsive she is!”

What would Princess Di do about such horrid imperfections?

I made an appointment with Dr. Fleisch, a well-known dermatologist. He suggested dermabrasion. If I elected the surgery, he’d give me medication to relax. Then he’d cleanse my face with antiseptic, apply a spray to insta-freeze my skin. That done, he’d use a rotary tool to sand off several epidermal layers.

Post-op, the site would be raw, requiring pain relievers. My face would take three months to heal, need sun-shields for six to eight. Luckily, side effects were few—infections, fever blisters, scars, thickened skin, splotchy pigmentation.

I squirmed as Dr. Fleisch disclosed the details, asked if many patients chose the surgery.

“It’s a commoner procedure.”

So I knew that Di would never do it; I’d have to research something else.

Why should physical beauty be the object of lifelong yearning? Trigger decades of envy and grief? Prompt cosmetics, surgery, false hope? And why, even into my forties, did I still pine to be a dove among the crows?

How I fussed on a trip to Palermo, Sicily, before visiting my step-grandmother. The last time I’d seen Mimma, I was barely into my twenties. Now she was eighty-six and I a wife, the mother of two teens. Still, I slathered my wrinkles with creams, bleached my teeth, tinted my hair. I wore capris to mask my thighs, long sleeves to hide my arms.

And what did Mimma do when we showed her a Polaroid we’d taken after she’d scaled two flights like a jilly-goat to fetch her brother for lunch? After she served us a four-course meal she’d cooked and served herself? After she toured us around the apartment she still dusted, swept, and mopped? She shook her head at the photo and covered her image with her hand. “O Dio, I old.”

A short walk from Mimma’s apartment is the Convento dei Cappuccini. In 1599 the monks noticed something strange: their catacombs released mysterious vapors that mummified the dead. When the monks announced the discovery, they set off a public frenzy. People clamored to be buried there to preserve their beauty after death.

In the catacombs’ long dank corridors rest eight thousand corpses. Each is suspended by the neck like a lamb hanging at the butcher’s, each wearing Sunday’s best clothes. A monk hovers in a cassock, penance rope around his neck. A woman wafts hoop-skirted, wielding a parasol. A soldier sentries in uniform and a wide three-cornered hat.

There’s a special section for children. The last catacombed corpse was a girl who died of croup in 1920. Frocked flouncily in pink, ringlets gathered in a bow, she rests in a transparent casket.

The monks call the girl Sleeping Beauty, but there’s little beauty in the crypt. Sleeping Beauty’s skin is doll-waxy, her hair faded, dull, limp. And the flesh of the corpses around her is either mummified or gone. Many faces grimace, some mouthing Edvard Munch screams, the husks of their decaying bodies coated with decades of dust.

But I couldn’t tell Kalindah about the catacombs.

Or that Debbie went skating with her boyfriend on a lake near her college dorm and drowned falling through the ice.

Or that Angela discovered stage three cancer and lost her breasts and hair.

Or that my mother developed a neuroma that twisted and paralyzed her face.

Or that Prince Charles divorced Diana, who died in a car crash shortly after.

Or that when I thought about the women whose beauty I envied all my life, I closed my eyes and thanked God for my wrinkles.

Instead, I pulled a snapshot from my wallet—my family in the Sicilian sun. “Kalindah, you’re fine just as you are. Look, let me show you something. These are the people I love most in the world: My husband—we’ve been married twenty-three years. My daughter—she’s your age. My son, who’s two years younger. And Kalindah, when I was sixteen, I didn’t know a single one of them.”

Kalindah took the photo from my hands, studied it a moment, looked up. “Your daughter’s really pretty. She looks a lot like you.”