Having my phone fixed a few weeks ago, I had some spare time to walk around by myself in a shopping center I usually don't patronize. I used to really enjoy shopping -- it was a frequent pastime for me and my mom. Now, without her, the bloom is off the rose. Sometimes it's only a painful reminder that she isn't here to do these mundane things with me. I walked into a high end store that she used to enjoy poking around in; to me, it was rather distasteful. Overpriced cotton tee shirts sat in piles next to rustic looking wooden boxes and coffee mugs. Everything had a contrived shabbiness. I made a cursory examination of the racks of clothing and the tchotchkes, and then walked out, pushing the impossibly heavy door, tears burning my eyes.
After my mother's illness and death, the entire world around me changed. Suddenly everything was an assault on my senses, both the ugly and the sublime. Babies were more beautiful and miraculous, and more urgent reminders that I wanted more children. Cruelty between people was unbearable to watch, and almost drove me to accost people in public and tell them how to parent or how NOT to treat their own parents. The common thread was my new and almost completely empty identity. My grief counselor explained: once you individuate from your mother, you 're going to do and say some things that surprise you. She was right. Slowly we pried me out of the semi-comfortable shell of grief. She helped give me my wings, but cautioned me about flying too high and too far.
The temptation one faces after a great loss is to immediately fill in the hole with absolutely anything that is in arm's reach. Any old addictions might likely rear their heads. Material possessions might become more important, an easy and socially acceptable way to distract. In any event, everything disappoints, which is rightly so, because only God satisfies, and only union with Him can begin to salve a wound as open and infected as the one a grieving or damaged person has.
What we have to be tremendously cautious about is becoming obsessed with our own scars. This can manifest in perseverating on our sob stories, our addictions, our illnesses, our past sins. Even when the events are long ago gone, we crawl back into the dark chasm of memory, talking about shades and shadows and calling it catharsis, when it's really just self-referential licking of wounds. I realized in grief therapy that I was hanging on to my grief for a payoff: it was keeping my mother alive, even if it was in her most awful incarnation -- the withering cancer patient. The better way to remember her was as the nurturing and riotous woman she was for the first thirty-six years of my life, not the victim she became in the last year of hers.
I am often sorely tempted to fall into a new abyss now with my chronic illnesses -- how easy it is to sit and feel sorry for myself! To review the humiliating tests I've been subjected to, to read more and more accounts of fellow sufferers. A healthy amount of investigation and sharing is good; drowning in the culture of these diseasesis bad.
Do you do this with any of your wounds? Do you delve back into your past or dive down into the basement of your addictions and weaknesses? Do you turn these things around in your mind, looking at every angle, mourning the injuries caused or congratulating yourself smugly for surviving? Again, a healthy dialogue is a good; a constant inner monologue is bad.
The remedy to this interior wheel-spinning was and is found in a devotion to and contemplation on the wounds of Christ. When I first entered RCIA, it was a devotion I felt mildly uncomfortable with--concentrating on each wound, two in the hands, two in the feet, one in His side. . . I shrunk back from looking at them. Then I realized why. Because I inflicted them. We all did. With my sins of omission and commission, I struck the blows and drove in the nails. No small wonder that I wanted to avert my gaze. Now I feel compelled to share with anyone who will listen that this devotion, this contemplation and reflection of His wounds, can bring us closer to Jesus than we ever imagined, AND have the double benefit of cutting down our own selfish and punishing concentration on our OWN sorrows. There are many websites, books, pamphlets, and blogs that detail and educate about the wounds of our Savior. Resources are never in short supply for the Catholic who wants to dig into his or her faith! If you find any that are or have been particularly valuable to you, I would love for you to share them with me and other readers.
For me, looking at the wounds of Jesus means gazing upon His beautiful face first. Then, the crown of thorns. Then on to the five wounds themselves. Take some time to think about and pray on each one. Don't pull back if you feel uncomfortable or sad -- think about what He did for you, about the love He has for all of us, that He endured this for your soul and mine! To enable your soul to be cleansed, His flesh took the unspeakable blows that appeared to defeat Him. But there is no defeat in Christ. By His stripes, we are healed. No need to relive our past sins. No need to think in circles about the object of our addiction. No need to look upon ourselves as objects of pity or arrogantly stare at ourselves as survivors of trauma. We did none of it! Only God's grace brought us out of the pit! Don't turn around and stare back. Don't be Lot's wife. Instead, look only in to the bloody wounds of Jesus, your beloved. Yes, you will feel pain, guilt, shame, and regret. Don't stay there in those feelings too long -- turn it all into love for Jesus, gratitude to Him for the ultimate sacrifice, and a new resolve.
What is the essence of that resolve? To begin again, with sincerity and humility, with the risk of living at odds with "the world," to face each day with a determination to avoid the occasion of sin. To never take lightly or wink away a sin that He was whipped and beaten for, tortured and humiliated for. Look forward -- to what He has awaiting you in Heaven. Look up -- at the infinite love He offers you today and every day in the Eucharist. There is one and only one purpose to life: to become a saint. The saints knew how to tolerate their own wounds gracefully, how to turn solitude into praise instead of self-indulgent isolation, how to love Jesus well, and obey Him with focus and consistency. Can I go and do likewise? Am I able? No, not on my own, but with the graces obtained in the Sacraments, and with my willingness, I can stop staring into the void and start squinting out of these unaccustomed eyes to see a glimpse of what He has prepared for me.