faith


Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion #Book Review

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

I visited and ate at the delicious Homegirl Cafe when on my “pilgrimage” with my brother in LA back in February and was immediately intrigued and impressed. I finally had the chance to read Fr. Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, a couple months ago.

I had no idea how much I would get out of this book and was blown away by his profound reflections on God, Love, and the Greatest Commandment:

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus (John 13:34)

Fr. Gregory J. Boyle, S.J. is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, a rehabilitation program for gang members.  You can read more of Fr. Boyle’s history here.  Long-story short, this guy knows everything there is to know about gangs – or at least he knows the important inside-out side of things better than anyone, aside from maybe the gang members themselves.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book. I would say it was nothing like I expected yet so much of what I yearn for.  Like Fr. Boyle explains in the book, it’s not exactly a memoir, nor a history of Homeboy Industries per say, it’s a…song…a dance!…a beautiful piece of art hanging on the wall expressing all the ugliness and all the good  that makes our world so immensely and paradoxically beautiful. 

For many people, hearing about or seeing the terrible tragedy of gang violence is enough to send anyone running, hiding, or shaking their heads and think, “What a shame,” and then move on to whatever they were doing in the comfort and safety of their own lives.

I, admittedly, know very little of the history of the gang violence in LA and throughout our country but, from what I got from the book, it’s been bad. Real bad.  And Fr. Boyle was “stationed” right in the very heart of it all.

He thought he was sent there to bring Christ’s love to the people there but ended up learning about the true deep-down essence of Love not in spite of the gang members but because of them.

You know, most people, when they think of gang members or criminals, they easily cast them off as only that – criminals and “no good” people of society. The world doesn’t even see them as humans anymore – only monsters who have lost their souls without any chance for redemption. Once a gang member, always a gang member.

And I’m no better. I’ll admit if I found myself in the heart of LA’s “gang district”, I’d feel terrified.  I’ve been taught to “love everyone”, but it would be hard to look into a gang member’s eyes and look past the tattoos and threatening demeanor and not immediately assume the worst of that person or what he or she might do to me.

It’s so hard to see past the thick wall of our natural inclinations of self-preservation and prejudices.

I truly want to…I just don’t want to put my life,  or my family’s, in danger because of it.

But that’s exactly what Fr. Boyle did.

With Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Boyle invites us to turn and look. Look beyond the scary. Look beyond the actions or “records”. Look beyond the outsides of people and see. See the person for WHO that person is. Not what they’ve done, not how they act, talk, or what they wear, who they associate with, their gender, age, demographics or ethnic appearance and really and truly look at who that person is, to his or her very core. 

And then, love that person.

You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.

That said, this book isn’t only about how to take Jesus’ Great Commandment to “love one another” to the ghetto or prisons. It’s a profound theology of love: God explains Love and Love explains God. 

[Leon Dufour said], “I have written so many books on God, but after all that, what do I really know? I think, in the end, God is the person you’re talking to, the one right in front of you.”

Reading this book came to me in a time of my spiritual life where I often feel like I have never desired God with such an intensity as I do now while, at the same time, with such a frustrating inability to reach Him and feel Him.

Tattoos on the Heart showed me the intimate  and subtle ways God works on the hearts of the wounded and showed me I need to allow myself to “marinate” in the Love of God, in His Mercy, in His quiet and healing presence. 

Tattoos on the heart page excerpt

Other quotes I jotted down from the book worthy of “marinating” in for a while:

Thomas Merton – “We discover our true selves in love.”

Thomas Merton –  “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there…We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”

Thich Nhatt Hahn, “our true home is the present moment…”

“[Bill Cain said] – ‘Living within the withinness of God.’ This is the intimate union and full promise of kinship that is being offered to us every second.

Breathe it in, breathe it out. The Lord is everything I want. A yes that means yes… Isaiah has God say: ‘Be glad forever and rejoice in what I create… for I create my people to be a delight.’… delighting is what occupies God, and God’s hope is that we join in. That God’s joy may be in us and this joy may be complete. We just happen to be God’s joy. That takes some getting used to.

Chew on that for a while:

YOU are God’s Joy!


Remembering All Souls with a Joyful Sorrow 2

When we stop running from God's invitation to open our hearts ever wider to the magnificent chasm of His love and mercy, we will discover peace infiltrating our entire being.

This week the Church celebratedAll Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day – “Dia de los Muertos” – the day of the dead – and dedicates the whole month of November to remembering and praying for all souls who have gone passed from this life to the next.

If I were an anthropologist  (maybe in another life) I’d present an essay on the all similarities found among cultures throughout human history when it comes to how people deal with death. While the beliefs and traditions vary widely, humans have consistently participated in some form of remembrance and ritual to honor those who have died. No matter what, death always affects us, in one way or another.

Growing up, I always liked All Saints’ Day better than All Souls. Celebrating those who are already enjoying peace and ultimate happiness in heaven is much happier and exciting than thinking of the ones who may still be suffering in purgatory. Plus, the Catholic schools always had All Saints’ Day off school but not All Souls.

Yet, life has a way of changing our perspectives and now, as I’ve grown older and lost more close family and friends over the recent years, and especially after my dad’s in December last year, I have a greater appreciation for All Souls’ Day now.

A good friend sent me a message letting me know she, who has also lost someone very close, was thinking of me and my family today and praying for us and my dad’s soul along with her loved one’s. She knows days like this are hard as it causes us to remember that we now have someone close to miss – a soul – who is no longer with us here but may not be fully united with Christ yet either.

And that’s the beauty and wisdom of the Church. She gives us days like this for us to remember and pray for the souls of those gone but also to provide grace, strength, and support to those of us who are grieving as we miss them.

I appreciated how my friend reached out so much, it truly lifted my own heavy soul and I was aware that God had sent me His Grace through this friend. I admitted that, yes, days like this are hard but there is also much grace that comes from this day also.

The kids had the day off from school for All Saints’ Day and so we were able to join my mom at the cemetery where my Dad’s remains are.  We joined her in praying the first day of a special Novena (nine-day prayer) for Holy Souls in Purgatory.  We prayed for his soul and other family and friends of ours who have passed on and the kids liked looking at the names engraved on the niches and praying for them too.

After the novena prayer that was about all the kids could handle inside – and me too – so we decided to take a little walk to see how the new mausoleum is coming along.  It was a lovely autumn day –  70’s with very little breeze, whispy clouds dancing like angels in the clear blue sky above, crisp leaves crunching under the kids’ feet, a late-morning sun casting slanty shadows on the green grass.

I inhaled deeply, feeling the fresh oxygen fill my lungs and a mixture of emotions bubble up in my heart, then I slowly let it out...releasing.  

The kids gleefully ran along the path, innocently oblivious to the fact that they were running around in a cemetery not just a park.  Their zeal for life and endless energy vividly contrasted with the absolute lack of life below the ground they ran by (but not on!).

We all sat down on the nice benches set up around the mausoleum and I handed out the Halloween candy we’d brought with us to eat together in honor of their Grandpa since he missed out on the trick-or-treating with us this year and sneaking his fingers into the kids’ candy bags. Kit Kats will now forever make me happysad.

Happysad: when you feel both happy and yet sad all at the same time. One of my 4th grade son’s classmates said this the other day when I was there for a Dia de los Muertos art project and we talked about those who have died and purgatory and heaven and all that “light” stuff. 😉  She said when she hears about someone who has died, she “feels sad…but also happy because I know they are probably happier now but I’m still sad because I miss them. So I’m happysad.”

Yes, Happysad, indeed.

Halloween last year was one of our last “happy” memories with my dad before, a couple weeks later, we first got the news of his cancer diagnosis. The seasons are changing and, just like a mother reflects back on the events surrounding the time before her baby was born, I find myself doing the same about the memories from last year – only for a different reason.

It’s hard, the memories. They are always lurking, always following me everywhere. I’ve tried ignoring them, tried to just “go on with my life”, hiding my face from them, shutting my eyes tightly so I can’t see them. I want to remember, don’t ever want to forget him. And really, I am thankful for so many memories I have of him. But sometimes it just hurts too much.

But the memories remain and they are stronger than me. And I’m starting to see, through prayer, that maybe God is trying to get me to look at them for a reason. Maybe he wants to show me something I wasn’t able to see before.

I read something the other day that gave me such a great pause I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it:

Joyful Sorrow.

Did you know there could be such a thing?

Well, I think this is the phrase God wants me to ponder on, he wants to show me that even in sorrow – there can be joy. But I have to accept the sorrow first before I can see the joy.

I have to slowly release, loosen my tight grip, and slowly open my eyes and look – so that He can show me what I didn’t see before, what I couldn’t: the Joy.

Like my friend, Jeannie Ewing, says so well in her book, From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph

When we stop running from God’s invitation to open our hearts ever wider to the magnificent chasm of His love and mercy, we will discover peace infiltrating our entire being. – Jeannie Ewing, From Grief to Grace

Pray for me as I go through this process, this new “stage” of grief I must go to as part of the healing process.

For the souls of all the departed,

May Christ grant them eternal peace.

For the souls grieving,

May Christ send his grace and strength to sustain them.


Imperfect Sanctity

sanctity consists josemaria escriva

Today the Church celebrated All Saints’ Day,and tomorrow All Souls’ Day, beginning the month of November dedicated to remembering and praying for all souls who have gone passed from this life to the next.

A friend of mine and I were talking recently about Saints and how, the more we read or learn about their intimate lives, we realize they really were not as “perfect” as maybe we were led to believe as children. It’s been said that some of the authors who have written saint biographies deserve a certain amount of time in purgatory for only focusing on the saints’ best or ultra-human features and leaving out the parts that made them ordinary humans – relatable to the rest of us simpletons.

The truth is, the more time I spend getting to know those the Church has canonized as “Saints”, the more I realize they really weren’t “perfect”.  They weren’t born with halos or superhuman powers. They all had their struggles – many of them had to overcome severe psychological challenges and mental anguish before they could fully abandon themselves to Christ.  In fact, it was quite common for others around them to question their sanity before admitting their sanctity. It’s always easier to explain the unexplained first by accusing someone of insanity or calling them “delusional” rather than admit Jesus or Mary or anything supernatural could really occur.

On the flip side, I’ve been slightly perturbed as I look at some of the “Saints” through the Church’s history that supposedly led “holy lives” but in reality they probably really were crazy after all.

It’s interesting how our understanding of sanctity and sanity has developed and evolved over the years. Where in one age it was considered holy to “beat the hell out of yourself” quite literally through self-mutilation, we now see this as a heretical and disordered Albigensian mindset about the human body. (that the spirit must be freed from the “evil” body.)

As an adult, I’ve also been shocked and dismayed to learn that many of the stories I learned about Saints as a child were pieced together with patches of hearsay that maybe started with some facts but spun into cultural folklore and legends over the centuries.  There is so much we really do not know about these men and women we revere as Saints.

For some, these discrepancies are probably enough to sway a doubting soul into partial or even complete disbelief in the Saints, the Church, and God all together. However, for me, even when the curtains pull up, revealing unusual and even scandalizing behind-the-scene information about some Saints, it now has the opposite effect on me.

I’m someone who struggles with scruples. (No, really?! I bet you didn’t know that.) In other words, I struggle with a low spiritual-self esteem. It’s easy to get down on myself and feel like I’m not good enough in the eyes of Christ or the Church, especially when I compare myself to all the great Saints of the past.

But then I’ll read about a Saint who admits she detests praying the rosary –

It’s a terrible thing to admit, but saying the Rosary takes it out of me more than any [scratchy and rough] hair shirt  … Try as I will, I cannot meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary. I just cannot fix my mind on them” —St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul

Or others who have cried out to God, begging them to remove their pain and suffering instead of just accepting it with a holy smile on their face. Or all the great Saints who truly suffered from mental delusions yet continued trusting in God and clinging to Him faithfully, or the many mothers who fought impatience or “anger-management problems” daily yet they continued caring for their children out of love for them and the Lord who gave them to her, or those Saints who felt nothing, only darkness – no happy fuzzies after receiving the Eucharist, no warm glows of light when they prayed and, still, they continued serving Christ – serving His people selflessly. 

I read these stories, even if parts of them may be less than 100% true, and they keep me going.

The Saints show me that being a “saint”, isn’t about being perfect or always saying, “Yes, Lord!” to everything He asks or permits to happen to me with a huge happy smile on my face the whole time.

Being a Saint is is about acceptance – even when we’d honestly rather not.

It’s about saying,

God, I really have no idea why you’re letting this happen to me, I really, really hate this. But I believe You do know why. And so, I’ll follow you. I’ll trust you. Lead me. Where I do not want to go, I will go as long as you lead the way and stay with me. 

Like the quote I shared from Josemarie Escriva, “Sanctity consists in struggling…” In knowing we aren’t perfect, in seeing our weaknesses but instead of falling into despair or self-loathing, we allow God to use our weaknesses for His Glory and for the redemption of not only our own souls but all souls.

And so I’m thankful today for all the Saints the Church has given us as examples to lead and light us on our own unique paths. They are there, cheering us on, showing us that yes, it can be done. “If we did it – even with our terrible imperfections and delusional tendencies – surely you can too.”


Running on Grief 6

Running on Grief

I’d like to try and start sharing a few other thoughts here about running and exercise and faith and grief that I’ve “kept in my heart” and pondered over, even though it’s almost impossible to try and put these feelings into the right words.

Sometimes while I’m running, I suddenly feel a little self-conscious as I think about what I’m doing and how silly it must look. Not just because of how I run (which I’m sure looks silly enough by itself), but I think about the why? Why would I run unless I was late (which happens often) or unless a hungry tiger was chasing me? (That happens less frequently.)

I’ve been a runner – meaning I’ve freely chosen to go out and run for “fun” – off and on for many years since about the time I was in 5th grade and track season was starting up. To many people, and even to me at times in the middle of a hard race or practice, I’ve wondered –

Why? Why in the world am I doing this?!

Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s always a deeper meaning and reason to running beyond pumping your legs as fast as you can and trying not to die in the process. 

For me, that reason has varied during different seasons of my life but it’s always provided a great space and time to process my thoughts and pray.

Around this time last year, I decided I wanted to make exercise a daily habit instead of something I did every now and then when I felt like it. A friend invited me to join her in an online “Challenge Group” – basically an online fitness accountability group.

Together with that and another friend’s advice to try the Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred programs and the BeFit videos and acquiring a treadmill from another friend (I have great friends!), I was doing very well with developing a good routine and starting to feel pretty good too.

Then mid-November came, when my Dad’s doctors found cancer on his lungs, and then early December, when they confirmed it was non-smoker’s stage IV lung cancer (but with a very positive “years not months” prognosis”), and then, just a few weeks later, his incredibly unexpected and shocking death right before Christmas.

 

Needless to really have to say, I had a hard time exercising during that time – it’s hard to run or do much of anything when you have a big huge emotional knot in your stomach.

In the weeks and months after that, it was still too hard to think about exercising – it was hard enough just getting out of bed and trying to continue life “as normal” since it was anything but normal anymore.

By March, I decided I needed to do something to get myself moving again but knew it would be too hard to do it on my own at home. I needed a place to plug in until I could get moving on my own again. So I joined the Y, knowing that by paying money per month I’d have to go and make the money well spent.  I made a daily schedule for myself based on the group exercise schedule and asked a few friends to help me stay committed by inviting me to come with them when they went.  I thank God for the many good friends he has blessed me with.

Most people say exercising helps them feel better when dealing with anxieties. At first, for me, it made me feel worse.

I honestly didn’t really feel like doing it and I mostly hated it while I was there. I struggled a lot with thoughts and questions like, “if we’re all going to die one day and the eternal life is all that really matters why waste my time on the things of this world by exercising?” I didn’t feel like dying (though I wished I could at least take a peek and see where my dad was), yet I didn’t know how to continue living, I honestly didn’t really know what I was supposed to do.  I was stuck in a room with no obvious way out.

I wanted a place to escape my grief and instead found myself confronted with it – it followed me and even intensified the harder I worked out. 

The faster I ran or the harder I pushed, I’d get flashbacks of our 24-hour ordeal in the hospital, re-living the trauma of those moments.  Images of my Dad in the hospital and weeks preceding it flashed in my mind with every surge of adrenaline. I missed him so, so, so much. I couldn’t get away from it.

I was lifting weights with my arms while hauling around the deadweight of grief in my heart. 

Yet, since I didn’t know what else to do, I just shrugged my shoulders and forced myself to keep going.

I remember one evening – or maybe it was morning, I can’t remember that time very well – I couldn’t stand it anymore. My spirit was drowning in grief and I could hardly breathe anymore, frustrated, annoyed, desperate and confused about life, death, God, everything. 

I angrily went downstairs, grabbed the treadmill key, turned it on and, like Forest, I just started running, and I ran, and ran, and ran. (Though I didn’t run till I grew a beard or reached every ocean in the US.)

I ran and it felt as if my heart opened while I ran and all the waves of emotions of sadness and confusion flowed out of me and pumped through my veins, powering me along. My legs and arms pumped and my heart sobbed and sobbed and prayed and cursed and grunted and screamed.

When I finally stopped – I have no idea how long I ran and didn’t care – a strange feeling came over me. Peace, maybe? Relief? Whatever it was, I knew it was good.

My body ran and my soul began thawing – healing.

Ten months later, I’m still running, still exercising regularly, and even ran my first 5K in my life! Slowly, I’ve started enjoying running and exercising again instead of just forcing myself to do it without any satisfaction.

I used to see people’s pictures they’d post of themselves captioning their exercise or running accomplishments and feel almost jealous of their outward “perfection” and happiness. Now I wonder if that’s what others think when they see me at the gym or hear about my running/exercise accomplishments. Maybe others think “she’s got it all together”. But really I’m still healing.

I think everyone finds different ways to process grief or anxiety or other challenges in life. For me, running and exercise (and writing about it) have become an important tool and aid in my own healing process.

Running and exercise have always provided an analogous way for me to better understand life and my faith. I’m still pondering how the finite and temporal act of exercising fits in with the whole eternal life thing. More on that to come…


Mary Mother & Queen of all Joy and Strife

Mary gothic statue from Pexels

“COME TO MAMA, MY CHILDREN”

We celebrated the Assumption of Mary on August 15 and her Queenship yesterday (August 22) and I’ve been “pondering these things in my heart” about Mary and why she is so important to me and all for the whole world.

One main thought I’ve had rolling around my head is this:

Mary has the full knowledge of ALL of the sufferings and ALL of the joys in the whole history of humanity.

She knows both the strife and the joyful triumph of life.

She has experienced pain personally but she is also in full knowledge of the meaning of her pain and of the whole world’s suffering.

This is what makes her the best Mother ever.

We can run to her with our skinned knees and our bruised and bleeding hearts and she will happily embrace us and comfort us. She will not wave us away or admonish us to “quit your whining and just trust in Jesus!”. She knows our pain is real. 

I used to be confused about Mary – if she was “without sin” how could her heart also be “pierced” by suffering? I was confused because I couldn’t understand if someone was “sinless”, why would they suffer? And why, if she truly “knew” God in such an intimate and pure way, why would she feel suffering and anguish? I guess, in a way like my Jewish ancestors of old, I thought only sinners experienced suffering.

But Jesus suffered too.

What I’ve come to understand better is that suffering, on its own, is not a sin. 

If you struggle, if life is hard, if you don’t always feel all happy and good inside – it does not make you a sinner.

It simply makes you human, living in the reality of this incomplete and broken world.

But this is why Mary is so important for us. She is a human, like any of the rest of us, conceived and born of human parents. The only difference is that God spared her the “stain” of sin. He didn’t just hide her from sin though.

Through Mary’s Immaculate Conception, God opened Himself to this one woman amongst all women and revealed Himself to her in His FULL “Be-ing” and Glory – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Like when Eve suddenly “knew” of the good and the evil too when she ate of the forbidden fruit, now Mary knew of ALL the GOOD in all its fullness.  God not only gave her a hint to how the story ends, He showed her the whole ending in a way that makes the “current” time not only make absolute sense but shows how our suffering is an integral part of the ending.

Because of this, Mary is fully aware of the suffering of the world but she also knows that our suffering has a greater meaning and purpose. Like a gentle and wise Queen, she shows us, by her perfect example, how we can embrace our current reality and not only “get through it” but how we can unite our lives completely with Christ so that we become part of the Great Story.

In Jeff Young’s (aka The Catholic Foodie) August 22 reflection in The Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion (that I’m so excited to be a part of!), he encourages us to come to Mary with our pains and struggles and allow her to comfort us and then encourage us to get back on our feet and continue on this road because what we will find at the end will make it all worth it!

Mama Mary, you know what it is like to suffer with God. Please help me to accept my life as it is and to trust that Jesus is right here with me. – Jeff Young

 

 

 

(My personal Amazon affiliate links included in this post)

 

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