Saturday, February 28, 2004

Longing for Home

Previously, I have emphasized the importance of remaining in the here and now. I still think that needs to be our primary orientation. I don't think this means we should disregard the impact that our memories have on us in this present moment, however.

In Passion for Pilgrimage, Alan Jones offers these words;

Holy Week is a time when I am given the opportunity to reflect on how my past infects and affects my present. There are memories that refuse to come to the surface. I catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye. I know that they are there, but I don't always know what they are about, except that the pain issuing from them pushes me more and more into editing my life so that only the "good bits" show. I fool myself into thinking that I live only in the present and that the past has no effect on my life right now.
We shove down the pain, the fear, the doubts, and put on a happy face. Dwelling in the dark recesses of our hearts, these images from our past are allowed to ferment and slowly find other ways to manifest themselves, unless they are brought into the light, examined, and then either embraced or released.

William Auden once said;

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And see our illusions die.
Self-examination can be difficult, and even frightening. It seems safer to just continue to respond to life; choosing this over that without a thought as to what drives our choices; what memories and images are stamped on our souls. But then, in the wee hours of the morning, we awaken to the feeling that something is missing, that something is not quite right. We feel that longing for the illusive "something more." We want to go home, but we have forgotten the way.

I want to tell you a story about a homecoming. About twelve years ago, I became friends with a man who worked for the Social Security Administration. One day, I mentioned that I had never met my mother. My parents were divorced just before my 2nd birthday, and my mother had disappeared. My friend told me about a letter forwarding service offered by Social Security. If I knew her name and date and place of birth, their computers might be able to forward a letter to her for me. I wrote the letter, and sent it off to some government office in Baltimore.

A few months later, I received a letter back from Social Security. It basically said, "We do not know if we can forward your letter, and we will not have further communication with you regarding this letter." It was much longer than that, but told me nothing, except that it was a long shot. About what I expected from the government. I thanked my friend for his efforts, and forgot about the whole thing.

A few more months went by. One day, as I was vesting for a weekday Eucharist, the secretary of the Cathedral where I was serving came bursting into the sacristy. This was rather unusual in and of itself. What was even more unusual, however, was that the reason for this peculiar behavior was to hand-deliver a letter. We had previously discussed my attempts to involve the government in searching for my mother. Upon seeing a personal letter arrive for me in a hand-written envelope, the secretary was compelled to deliver it immediately.

I tore open the envelope and removed a few pages of yellow legal pad paper. I read the first line; "My dearest son..." I sank into a chair and allowed a flood of emotion to wash over me. Tucking the unread letter into my prayer book, I dried my eyes, blew my nose, washed my hands, and processed in for the noon Eucharist. I don't recall the homily, or who was there that day. I do remember letting loose with such a loud "Alleluia!" following the fraction that I startled the small group of faithful gathered that day. I credit good liturgical training for refraining from further exuberant expressions of my internal state. I was floating a few feet off the ground.

The letter led to some phone calls. My mother had remarried, raised two children, and was now living in Chula Vista, California. A reunion was arranged. I was to fly out to Palo Alto, meet my maternal grandmother, and my mother would join us the following day.

My mind was filled with so many wonderful images of this reunion. Finally, that longing for the missing piece of my life, that gnawing desire for "something more" was going to be satisfied. I was going home.

As I boarded the plane, I took with me the image of my mother I had so carefully preserved since my childhood. My minimal memories of her had become fashioned into a vision of a beautiful, serene, dark haired woman with a radiant smile, kind eyes, and a gentle touch. She had come to represent all that was good and true and pure to me. For some reason, she always wore blue in my vision. And was barefoot. Kind of like the Blessed Virgin, I suppose.

My grandmother and I hit it off famously. It was as if we had known each other for years. Then the time came to meet my mother at the airport. We couldn't find her. Then finally, my grandmother exclaimed, "There she is!"

I turned, and found myself facing a woman dressed in a tight black dress, with a jaunty wide-brimmed hat tipped to one side. The heavy make-up did not hide well the fact that this was obviously a woman in her sixties attempting to pass for someone much younger. My heart sank.

We returned to the car, and she began to talk to my grandmother in a loud, raspy voice. "Great," I thought. "Not only is she overdressed and wearing way too much make-up, but she's loud and obnoxious."

I tried to listen to the conversation. My heart sank even further. "...And, she's an idiot." We arrived at my grandmother's house. As we stepped out of the car, my mother lit a cigarette. And, she smokes. She went looking for something to drink, and returned with a wine cooler. And she drinks. This was not going well.

I decided this whole idea was one big mistake. I slipped away and called the airline to find out when the next plane was leaving for Wisconsin. The earliest flight was the next afternoon. I went to bed early, pleading jet-lag.

The next morning, I took my grandmother's car to the store to shop for breakfast. When I parked it, I noticed a puddle of water forming on the ground. It only took a brief investigation to diagnose the problem. The water pump was shot.

I insisted on repairing it immediately. Before going on with the story, let me make a few tangential comments about auto mechanics and water pumps.

I learned to fix cars primarily out of necessity. Before going to seminary, while working toward my undergraduate degree at night school, I supported the family as a mechanic and a forklift driver. Never having the money for a newer car, I bought old beaters, and learned how to keep them running.

Along the way, I discovered that I enjoyed being under the hood of a car. Turning wrenches became a time when I did some of my best thinking, and my most contemplative praying. The mind was busy with problem solving. The emotions were reined in. If I got frustrated or impatient, I would inevitably round off the corners of the bolt, or snap it off. If I got angry, I might decide the best solution was to get a bigger hammer; almost always a big mistake. With the mind preoccupied, and the emotions on a short leash, the Spirit would slowly begin to whisper in my ear. Each thought and every image churning somewhere below was brought to the surface, and examined in a gentle, yet detached light.

As I began removing the old water pump, I slowly became calm. Changing a water pump is one of the more pleasant tasks in the realm of auto repair. It is a simple procedure, that can be done by almost anyone. There are a few details, however, that have to be carefully addressed. The water pump is near the radiator. Care must be taken to not bump the radiator with the tools, as this can damage the copper elements, and cause a new problem; a leaking radiator.

When we try to repair our lives, sometimes we do have to take parts of them apart, and sometimes even remove and replace those things that have ceased to work, or have even become toxic. This is well and good. But care must be taken that as we are doing this work, we don't do damage to those around us as we struggle to confront our own personal demons. All the parts are interconnected. We have to pay attention to our environment.

The first couple of water pumps I replaced took a long time, because I failed to pay attention to another detail. Between the pump and the engine block is a thin gasket. Because of the heat, this gasket sometimes becomes fused to either the pump or the block. Every little piece of gasket has to be carefully removed from the block before the new pump is installed, or it will leak, and you'll have to do the job all over again. This requires time consuming and meticulously careful scraping and smoothing. The temptation to say that it is good enough before all the old gasket is removed is strong. Experience has taught me to be patient and pay careful attention to this part of the job.

In the work of self-examination, we are often tempted to not look too deeply, and believe we have done a "good enough" job of cleaning up the rough edges of our life when the reality is we may have just scratched the surface. And then we wonder why things remain such a mess; why peace somehow continues to leak away from us. We have to be patient, and pay attention to the whispers of the Spirit. Unless careful purification is done, illumination will not occur.

As I worked on my grandmother's car, and became detached from the drama of my situation, it became clear that I had a simple choice to make. I could either return home to Wisconsin, with my image of "mother' damaged but still somewhat intact (I had made no effort to really get to know this person beyond those first impressions), or, I could let go of my image, and go into the house, and meet my real mother. I could have a relationship with an image, or a real person.

After I finished repairing the water pump (which didn't leak, btw), I returned to the house, cleaned the dirt and grease from my hands, and sat down and listened to a real person. We stayed up until 5 in the morning, telling our stories, crying and laughing, pacing and hugging. That night, I lost my vision, and regained my mother.

That is basically the end of my story, but I would be remiss if I didn't add just a bit of an epilogue. I'd like to say that my mother and I lived happily ever after from that moment on. But that's the stuff of fairy tales. The reality was that we did develop a relationship, and even grew to love one another, but we never became terribly close. Too many years had passed, and we had traveled in different circles for too long. She passed away January 1, 2000. My two sons were with me as we scattered her ashes over the Pacific Ocean. The journey continues.

One last note of caution. Self-examination can be like opening Pandora's box. When I lost my image of my mother, I lost more than a false memory. I lost a part of my self identity. Longing for the love of my mother had become the driving force behind everything I had done up to that point. This image had even become wrapped up in my image of God. The God I sought was a loving, nurturing Mother.

The last twelve years have been the most difficult years of my life, even more difficult than the homeless years.. With the illusion shattered, my life fragmented, and I stumbled around seeking some grounding, some meaning and purpose to it all. The longing for "something more" remained. I still couldn't find my way home. I went through a deep depression, a difficult divorce, and a leave of absence from the active priesthood.

With the help of some good spiritual direction, therapy, various support groups, a wonderful life companion, and the grace of God, I slowly began the process of reintegrating the shattered pieces of my life. From the ashes of my broken dreams, something new is emerging.

I want to end with a few more words from Alan Jones;

The memory that holy Week seeks to revive is one that lies deep within everyone. It is the memory of our beginnings. It is the memory that enables us to remember the painful things of our past without despair. The Great Memory is simply this; God has fallen in love with you and wants you to come home! Our first memory is God's love for us, and it is this memory that has been buried and repressed. Your first memory (if only you could get back to it) is that of being God's joy and delight. Why is it difficult to remember the joy of our beginnings in the heart of God? I wonder if it has something to do with our unwillingness to face the fact of our limited future? Memory and hope are intimately related. Perhaps we cannot recall the love that brought us into being in the first place, because we cannot imagine a love strong enough to pull us through the gates of death. I refuse to remember, because I dare not hope. I refuse to remember and I dare not hope, because I am frightened and angry because I will have to change.
As Auden said, "We would rather be ruined than changed." And, that is certainly an option. We have a choice. We can hold on to our static illusions, or we can let them quietly die, and place our hope in the new thing that God might be doing in our midst; the same God who is in love with us, and is constantly calling us home.