I am at the University of St. Thomas Gainey Center in Owatanna, where I am giving a weekend retreat for UST undergraduates. Owatanna is about 65 miles southeast of where I live in Chanhassen. Normally it takes me a little over an hour to get there.
In the aftermath of Thursday’s snowstorm, the roads between my home and Gainey yesterday were treacherous and traffic was miserable. (Re treacherous: after 15 or 16, I lost track of disabled vehicles in ditches or snowbanks.) There was one point where we just sat on the road without moving for a while, after which I think I traveled quite a distance at somewhere between one and two miles an hour. There were periodic letups in the traffic, just enough to tempt one to believe conditions would be better, but they never lasted all that long. To top it off, the road was closed two exits before the one I wanted, requiring several miles of driving on a secondary road that had less traffic, but much more snow. I arrived at Gainey just shy of three hours after I pulled out of my driveway.
There is nothing to do in such a situation except to breathe deeply, be in the present moment, and patiently accept the conditions for what they are.
Of course, there are people who try to do otherwise. One driver, annoyed at the slow conditions, decided the thing to do was to pull to the right and drive along the right shoulder. That worked for about 20 seconds, after which he found himself stuck in deep snow. Others would speed up as soon as they saw a patch or road without snow (there were a few) – I saw one truck who did that almost jackknife (a bit too close to my car for my comfort).
Traffic or otherwise, we will find ourselves in situations we can’t control, sometimes situations that are not to our liking. We can’t control the situations, but we can choose how to react to them.
I arrived at St. Benedict’s Monastery a week ago Monday, for ten days of uninterrupted work trying to finish the book I’m writing on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism. This is my sixth or seventh visit to the Monastery in the last three or so years and I always get a ton done when I’m here. The Sisters tease me about how focused I am on my writing and editing, breaking only for prayer and meals.
Thursday I woke up feeling miserable. I don’t think I had a fever, but my head was clogged, my nose was an open faucet and I felt awful. Dayquil allowed me to get some hours of work done, but I was not as focused I as would like. Friday was better than Thursday, Saturday better than Friday and yesterday I thought I had it licked.
Yesterday morning I woke up feeling worse than I had on Thursday. I’m pretty sure I had fever (the chills were my clue that might be the case) and although I got some work done, I had to stop twice for long rest breaks.
My first thought at all of this was,”This isn’t supposed to happen. I’m here to work, not be sick. I need this time.”
Except of course, that it did, and that I did is completely our of my control My only choice in this is to add mental anquish to my physical discomfort by fuming about how unfair it is that I got sick or to accept that it is what it is. I will get done as much as I can. It may not be as much as I wanted (although my husband reminded me on the phone that no matter how much I get done is it never as much as I would have wanted), but it will be all I can do.
And that is all I can do.
As anyone who knows me knows, I’m not a big fan of winter. I hate the cold and I’m not all that fond of snow either. So a forecast of more snow generally has me grumbling.
The grumbling, of course, accomplishes nothing except to put me in a negative state of mind. That really hit home with me when I read a reflection today sent by my colleague Jennifer Wright to all of the participants of our last vocation retreat weekend. (Each week one of those who were part of the weekend shares with the group a reflection and something for which we are grateful.) When I read it I smiled, realizing it offered a far better response than the one to which I naturally incline.
With her permission, here is what Jennifer wrote:
I want to give thanks for snow. For the way it appeals to all the senses. It delights the eyes, as it drifts gently down, as its crystals lie in stark beauty on your coat sleeve, as it shines and glitters in the sunlight. It rests on the evergreens, accentuating their beauty. It smooths the hills and valleys into gentle curves with blue shadows. It delights the ear, as it hushes all sound to a breathless space of mysterious expectation and awe. It pleases the smell, with a subtle, unique tang of wildness, freshness and cleanness. It enchants the taste, with the unique sharp-edged non-flavor that always yanks me back into childhood (but watch out for that yellow snow!). it rejoices the touch, with its softness, coldness, exhilarating aliveness. It provides a visual metaphor of God’s outrageous bounty as it comes down, foot after foot after foot (five feet so far this year – two or three more to come!). It makes us slow down our single-focus rush through life and experience the moment, this moment! – especially if we don’t want to wind up in a ditch. Praise be to God for snow!
So if you see some flakes coming down today, give thanks for the snow!
I recently came across a wonderful parable for surrendering to and accepting whatever God has in store for us. It is a nice follow-up to the podcast I posted yesterday about Mary’s yes and her model for us. It is a story about a majestic bamboo tree that
“stood tall and proud in his Master’s garden. Because the Master came to admire it every day, the tree felt happy and wanted. One day, the Master told the tree it was needed for a special purpose and would have to be cut down. The bamboo tree felt angry it cried for a long time. But because it knew the Master wanted to use him for another purpose, it bowed and said, ‘Take me, Master, cut me down and use me for whatever you will.’
“The master took the bamboo tree and cut it down, slashed off all its beautiful branches and leaves, cut it in half and tore out its core. Then he laid the tall tree on the ground, joining it to a clear stream. The water ran from the stream through the tree’s hollow channel onto the rice fields.
“When autumn came, the fields looked magnificent, full of beautiful yellow rice that became the nurturing grain for many people. The bamboo tree saw this and became happy again. In its health, it was beautiful and glorious; in its brokenness and humility, it became more glorious as the channel of life for many people.”
Saying yes to God involves letting go and trusting that God has a plan, which may not look very much like our plan. When we say yes to God, anything is possible.
Take me, Lord, and use me as you will.
(I found the story along with one account of its lesson here.)
I just finished reading Looking for Mary by Beverly Donofrio. In it, the author talks about the way she has been conditioned to look at life, as the “daughter of a mother who believed that the world was so untrustworthy that even the weather had it in for her” and the granddaughter of a woman who “was incapable of appreciating the good that surrounded her.” Ultimately, she begins to realize the truth of something she hears in a talk given by a priest during her pilgrimage to Medjugorje:
“All conflict begins at the same moment, when I become blind to what I have and see what I don’t. We are conditioned to believe we need more to be happy. It’s not bad to have more. It’s bad when you do not see what you have.”
It is always our choice whether to notice what we have or notice what we don’t have….whether to be grateful for the gifts we have been blessed with or unhappy because of the things that have been denied to us. To use an example Donofrio uses in the book, if I wake up in the morning and the sun is not shining and the wind is howling such that I can’t do what I planned for the day, it is my choice whether to stomp around in unhappiness or to “watch the rain dribble down my window glass and think, ‘Wonderful; I can snuggle in and read a book.'”
What will we choose to see today?
My friend Beth wrote yesterday about accepting “the face that looks back at me” when looking into a mirror. Not always the easiest thing to do, especially for those of us plagued with tendencies toward perfectionism. It is not really primarily about physical appearance (although I admit to groaning at the weight I need to take off when I look in the mirror) but about who we are (and aren’t) and what we do (and don’t do). So I look at myself in the mirror and say, “I’m not patient enough,” or “I’m not generous enough,” of “I should have done more or better there.” There are infinite variations on the theme, but, in one way or the other, they all lament, “I’m not good enough.”
I’ve written before about this tendency to think we are never good enough, that we have to do more, that we have to be perfect. We read the “be perfect as your Heavenly father is perfect” in Matthew’s Gospel to demand of us a higher level of performance than it is ever possible for us to achieve.
That is a destructive tendency. This kind of perfectionism not only robs us of peace, but, as the last line in Beth’s post suggests, it limits our ability to love others. It is awfully hard to accept and love others if we can’t accept and love ourselves.
One suggestion that has been made to me and that I have made to retreatants is to try to look at ourselves through God’s eyes rather than our own. Try sitting down to prayer and asking God, “Lord, what do you see when you look at me.” It produces a very different picture…one worth holding on to.