Silence

I have been trying to think what to write about my life right now to a five year old in Tanzania and a ten year old in Ecuador.  I have no good answers, and life lately has left me stunned and silent.  I am currently caught in the middle of a lawsuit involving a boat and a bathtub that will leave me having to move on again, slightly out-of-area, and cut off from my family for awhile.  Definitely cut off from Los Angeles.  There are advantages and disadvantages.  I have been thinking about many things.

I am on the bathtub end of the lawsuit, which will keep me driven from the house until it is fixed.  This morning I went to mass.  Fr. Arturo got an ‘A’ in homiletics in two languages (and surely an ‘A’ in choir as well).  This morning’s text was Luke 6:20-26 — the Beatitudes and their inverse.  I could not stop crying.

2013 isn’t working out, but God is on the throne and I am loved.  I’m not sure much more needs to or can be said.

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Wentworth Wigglewhiskers

I drew this for a dear friend — niece of another dear friend — a few years back.  The full picture was Eleanor and Wentworth with  a cupcake.  Wentworth is getting on, but he and his amazing family really light my life.  I am tired and wondering what is next.

Blessings — VKS

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Sorrow, dying, hope…and two butterflies

Sorrow, dying, hope…and two butterflies

For a lot of complicated reasons, my soul was in a darkly fragile place the last Friday in June, and throughout that weekend. I haven’t been able to write much, but have been working on this in quiet moments

There are some things for which Hallmark just doesn’t make a card.

There are some sorrows beyond words and beyond tears where — if there were tears — there could never be enough tissues.

There are sorrows, loves, longings, and prayers too profound to be articulated — profound on a level of a depth so deep only the Holy Spirit can work it out.

That Friday night, and throughout that weekend, I was there.

I still don’t have words, but I try to find words.

God takes the time to find me.

I’m still reading Hiking Through: One man’s journey to peace and freedom on the Appalachian Trail by Paul Stutzman.  Stutzman’s account is his journey along the Appalachian Trail under the trail name “Apostle” after the sudden death of his wife Mary from sudden and aggressive Stage-IV breast cancer. I really do love this book, it’s a pilgrim’s journey.  What will follow is an excerpt from Chapter 7 — “Butterflies” — which “found” that Friday night.  Unless otherwise credited, the butterfly photographs are of an actual Monarch butterfly I rescued from an orb weaver’s web back on 5 September 2010.  Many days lately I feel like the “before” picture of this rescued butterfly. — VKS

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Monarch caught in an orb weaver's web, 5 SEP 2010

The next morning, Friday, it turned cold and windy. Six miles brought us to a small clearing at Stecoah Gap, where several men had set up a grill and offered hikers hot dogs, candy bars, chips, and beverages. The Good Samaritan this time was a former thru-hiker. Those additional calories helped us knock off the next twelve miles quickly, and we knew we’d meet our deadline. We were less than five miles from the Fontana post office and the comforts of the Fontana Lodge when we stopped for the night just past Walker Gap.

I pitched Big Agnes in a clearing only three feet from a small stream. The little creek was so close I could almost filter water without leaving my tent. I settled in for the night, relaxing into the murmuring of the brook, the sound a balm for my tired body and spirit.

I thought I could hear the soft voice of God in the music of the brook. Apostle, did you see Me today?

“Yes, God, and thank You for springtime!” The valleys and mountains were bursting with new life. At higher elevations buds were starting to appear. In the gaps, flowers waved as I walked by. The earthy smell of spring was everywhere.

How about the butterfly? Did you see the butterfly?

“Dear God, that was awesome! It stopped me in my tracks.”

That morning, a beautiful butterfly had floated above my head, sailed ahead on the path, then circled back and fluttered around me. As I walked, it drifted along beside me for a while. I had watched it with amazement. “Yes, God, and today I remembered that other butterfly you sent my way.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Mary had loved butterflies, especially Monarchs. The Monarch is sometimes called the milkweed butterfly, because most of its life cycle takes place on milkweed plants. Every year, my wife drove out to the country, located a stand of milkweed, and searched for a caterpillar marked with bright yellow and black stripes. The chosen caterpillar would be housed in a mason jar topped with screen, and furnished with twigs and plenty of milkweed leaves. Then the waiting and watching began.

For about two weeks, the caterpillar did nothing but eat and eliminate. But then the excitement started. Mary never missed it, and she made certain we didn’t either. Her excited call would round up the family, and we’d watch that caterpillar start to spin. Hanging upside down from a twig or the bottom surface of the screen, the caterpillar spins until the exterior skeleton slips off and the chrysalis forms a jade green shell.

For the next several weeks, the chrysalis hung immobile. If we went on vacation during that time, the jar of hope traveled in the front seat with us. As the butterfly developed inside, the green sheath slowly changed color and became thin and almost transparent. When the chrysalis finally started to move gently, Mary again gathered our family to watch the drama unfold. Soon a wrinkled, deformed butterfly emerged. For several hours, this sad looking creature would hang on to its former home, slowly moving its wings up and down in an effort to dry and strengthen them.

Then came the ceremony of release. To the front porch we all went, and with Mary’s encouraging words, “Fly, little butterfly,” the now-beautiful creature was set free.

In the week before Mary left us, she spent both days and nights in her chair in the living room, enduring considerable pain, not wanting to move between the chair and bed. Finally, we convinced her to move to her bedroom. As I lifted her from the chair to a wheelchair, someone exclaimed, “Look out there!”

Outside our glass door, a tree branch curved over the balcony, and a caterpillar inched along that branch, ten feet from the ground. In seventeen years of living in that house, we had never seen a caterpillar on that tree. None have been there since that day. This little messenger crept along the branch, then onto a smaller twig, inching closer to the sliding door. I wheeled Mary over so she could get a better view.

I had no doubt God was showing us that Mary was going through her own metamorphosis. She would be set free to fly away, just like all the butterflies she had released into the sunshine.

I settled Mary in her bed, then went back to find the caterpillar. But it had disappeared. Later, I related this little story to our pastor. He did not seem surprised; he said he had often seen God reveal Himself, especially at difficult times.

* * * * * * * * * *

Following Mary’s funeral, I gave some of the flower arrangements to the local nursing home and several friends. I still had a living room full of flowers, so I decided those would go to my sisters and Mary’s friends who had been so helpful during her illness.

The day after the funeral, a friend of Mary’s brought me a twig with a chrysalis bound to it. I stuck the twig into a flower arrangement. One of my sisters had told me she had never seen a butterfly emerge, so I would give her this one to enjoy.

That evening, I fell asleep in my chair in the living room. At two in the morning, an unfamiliar sound woke me. A mysterious fluttering whisper was coming from the assortment of plants and collectibles on the shelf above the kitchen cabinets. I stood dumbfounded as a Monarch butterfly emerged from the plants and danced around me in the living room. It had abandoned its chrysalis before I could deliver it to my sister. I watched in wonderment, not quite believing what I was seeing.

Now it was my turn to grant freedom. The Monarch did not seem eager to leave, but was attracted to the light in the living room. i turned off that light, and turned on the kitchen light. Follow the light, little butterfly. It came to the kitchen. I shut off the kitchen light and flipped on the light in the foyer. The butterfly followed. I opened the front door and snapped off the foyer light while turning on the porch light. Go, little butterfly, fly away. You are free. The butterfly winged through the front door and disappeared.

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Monarch freed from the orb weaver's web, 5 SEP 2010

* * * * * * * * * *

In my tent beside the brook, I remembered the unexpected caterpillar and the night visit of the Monarch butterfly. And before I realized it, was talking aloud, talking with that voice of God in the brook. Correction, I was talking to the voice, because once I got started, I was on a roll and didn’t give much chance for reply.

“Yes, God, I understood the symbolism that night. You set Mary free. So You were there all along? I often questioned whether You cared about what was happening to us. If you care, why did she suffer, so and die?”

I didn’t want glib, churchy lines, I wanted answers.

“Is there a reason for all this sickness and death? If You are in control of everything, why is the world in such a mess?”

Was He listening? Was He there?

“I need to know if You are firmly in command. I could make a case that You do not control events and everything happens at random. But if I can convince myself that You do have a plan, then maybe I could believe Mary died for a good reason.”

If God cared but let us suffer anyway, then I was angry and would be a bit brash with Him.

“How can You know how much pain we went through? Do You know what it’s like to lose a wife or a mom? Oh yes, You lost a son once. But You were only apart for three days. Even I could bear just three days of separation.”

An answer came back, cutting through my pent-up questions and frustration.

You are missing the point, my dear Apostle.

A storm warned me of its rapid approach. Lightning crackled around the campsite and thunder rumbled and echoed through the mountains. The sound of raindrops drowned out my conversation with the brook. Another thunder clap seemed to shake the very ground under our campsite. God had apparently moved from the gentle brook to the powerful storm.

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Wildwood Park, Thousand Oaks, CA 12 SEP 2010

“Wow, God! You can talk loudly!” I said at last — when I could speak again.

You’re a funny one, aren’t you, Apostle?

“Created in Your own image, I believe. Perhaps I am missing the point, but that’s why I’m out here. Sure wish I’d always hear You this clearly. Oh, and thanks for the butterfly today. I’ll look for You tomorrow on the trail.”

* * * * * * * * * *
Right now, in this season of profound darkness, God is sometimes very hard to find or hear. And yet? A part of me still knows that God can be found in all things…somewhere.

God…I’ll look for you tomorrow on the trail. — VKS

On prayer, vocation, mission, purpose, faith, friendship, and faithfulness

On prayer, vocation, mission, purpose, faith, friendship, and faithfulness

Edited from a letter to a friend, originally written on three different days. Footnotes with explanations to give context for certain comments are indicated and referenced at the end of the letter (among them the explanation of what is keeping me stuck out of school) — VKS

…..

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I always count myself blessed to be able not only to worship our great God, but to be able to worship him in the company of those who are both dear friends and beloved saints. I am always so bewildered when people who claim to love God get “dutiful” about churchgoing such that their worship becomes unworshipful. Who is their god anyway? Worship isn’t a “got to,” it’s a “get to.” I am sometimes tired and come to God very empty, but in those dark times when I seemingly have nothing left of myself to give, that God can work beautiful and wonderful things from even the crumbs of my broken soul if I fully offer all of those crumbs to him for his glory and his use? That’s an amazing grace indeed.
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And I am praying, for so many things and for so many reasons I am praying. I usually pray lastly for myself, but I assure you that I no longer ever come to God with my laundry list. I could be classed as “terrible” at prayer because I am not eloquent at public prayer. I am beautifully eloquent in written prayer because I can wait until the words come and just turn them over meditatively before I ever write a thing. My prayers are simple, they have become simple. I have said I am praying for my own situation — and I am — but I very much hesitate to say too much about what I am praying for. I certainly am somewhat discouraged by some of the stuff people report they are praying for my sake. Actually, no, I am very discouraged. I got a detailed laundry list from one of my most frustrating friends this morning. She means well, but she often gets me so worked up drilling down on all the hypothetical details. As detail-oriented as I may be, there is great wisdom in running life like an admin. assistant’s “To Do” list. Write down everything that needs doing and when it’s due, reassess and amend throughout the day, the next day look at the previous day and create a new list based on what was done and undone the day before. It does no good to try to make a “To Do” list in great detail for weeks and months ahead, only to be mindful of the short-term vs. long-term and chip away at the long-term. I’ve honestly never found a better way.

It does no good to obsess over things beyond one’s control, but why it is that people think they need to co-opt and micro-manage my worrying because I’m not doing it enough I can’t tell you. My long-time friends aren’t breaking a sweat over this one — they know God is great and his providence is amazing. I have no idea how this will turn out, but it will work out somehow. As my best friend from college mentioned in a message this morning, I always land on my feet.

And God-be-praised, she is right.

But there are two questions no one is asking that maybe someone should:

1.) Why am I crying?

2.) What am I praying?

As for the former, certainly the toxic reality of my present living situation is certainly part of it*. The fact that I’ve lost contact with Annie and Wentworth is definitely part of it,** but I’ve never stopped knowing that I am a girl on a mission. It is not my job to save anyone, this I know, but I also know that it is my job to love (and love deeply I do!). My heart is breaking over the coming transition. Maybe I’m n supposed to worry, but even though I turn it to prayer, I can’t help a fierce love paired with a feeling of total helplessness.

I can’t save anyone, I can only pray, but in the face of spiritual poverty I feel like prayer is a completely inadequate response to the incredible need. I can’t save anyone — neither body nor soul; I can’t help beyond love and prayer. Is that enough?
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I know not to fight whatever is happening with my life, though I find it all very bewildering. Technically, I could go to school in the fall if I can fund it.*** I need my taxes to be done first so I can get all my financial aid information to figure out what the numbers are. It is a big long-shot, but I have to at least explore this. The plan is to work, but if the door opened to school, you know I would take it.

I really just don’t have enough information to know for certain where I am going or what I will be doing with my life. The part that most people don’t “get” (but I hope you can appreciate) is that I am actually generally pretty okay with not knowing all the details of what is next.

Which comes to the bit about what I am praying…

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola has this line that is both challenging and convicting:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

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That’s a hard word, but it’s also one I take very seriously. The longer I live, the more firmly I’m convinced that what this life is about is responding to the various vocations in various seasons of life, and paying attention to keeping my divine appointments (I had several transit-related ones today).

That’s really it, life isn’t really much deeper/harder than that. Now, I won’t say that is necessarily EASY by any means, but it really is just that simple. If I really believe all I say I believe and truly confess that most basic and primary creed — Jesus Christ is Lord — then it is “Lord” he must be.

I’m sure you have some idea of what a terribly hard sell that is. Francis Chan has an extended bit in Crazy Love about the profound wrongness of giving lip-service to loving God while living our lives as if he doesn’t exist. To say: “Jesus Christ is Lord” are simple enough words, but by no means is it simple to do. But I think — for the weight of the measure of what is at-stake in terms of eternity — we at least owe it to God to try and give him our best as a gratitude response.

…..
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So what am I praying for? To be sent out somewhere else where I can offer my best to bless others for God’s service where I am needed to love and bless others. And the part that my long-time friends get well — the crux of why I am totally not freaked out right now — is that God has a really big imagination and takes my assignments as seriously as I do. Someone made the cheeky sarcastic remark a few months back to the effect that it isn’t like we go out into the world telling people: “I’m on a mission from God.”

It was a general remark to no one in particular, but I got even more quiet than usual. Because, actually, that pretty much is EXACTLY what I do say. There really, actually, is no other possible explanation for my life. People believe its truth, and most somehow find something positive in it.
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Visionary leadership isn’t my deal, but nurturing leadership is. You’ll never find me at the helm of an international NGO, but if you need someone to walk you through a mess, I might be your girl. I can’t ever imagine myself as a foreign missionary, for example. Folks have been bugging me about international short-term mission trips since 2001. I don’t feel a call in that direction and never have. That said, God does like to send me places because I just GO without asking a lot of detailed questions about “Why?” or “What’s in it for me?” So instead of a laundry list of prayers wishing a bunch of stuff for myself, I’m begging God to find me a place to go where I can somehow bless others.

By the standards of just about everyone I know, this puts me on the spectrum somewhere between “odd” and “insane.” And yet “send me” and “use me” really are among some of the best prayers that can be prayed. But maybe you already know that?

…..

Cleaning, sorting, packing, and caring for my sweet baby guinea pigs (still at my sister’s) has eclipsed my life in the past week-and-a-half, but you have been much in-mind and in-prayer my friend. I’m ever mindful that giving a person room and space to be my friend as they wish is better. Maybe that’s how God sees things too — being undeniably present in our lives, but ultimately leaving it up to us how we respond to that? So often I wish I could just stop time to give those I love the ear and attention they need and deserve as my friends. Because it really is possible to die of loneliness somewhere in “How are you?”/”Fine.”
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And I know as well as you do that you are nowhere near “Fine,” but I am also mindful that re-hashing stuff can be exhausting and even harmful. Sunday mornings are my own life’s sacred space where I bring those broken crumbs of myself before God, where I gather enough strength to (almost always) make it through the next week as “Fine” enough to be able to love and serve others. There are weeks — and this one might be one of them — where I hit “done” with my life long before Sunday morning. I’m pretty much always “done” with my life these days actually, but press on to keep going because so many find strength in what is of God within me. That’s hard too. But now, maybe more than ever, I have to keep on — I’ve got a baby guinea pig in trouble: Benwick needs me.**** Lots of people need me actually.

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The incomparably adorable charmer, baby Benwick Wigglewhiskers at five days old

I wish I had an answer to your own questions of what God is doing in your life life. All I have is an ear, a thinking mind, and a loving heart. Is that enough? You have my love; you have whatever of my friendship you will accept; you have my ear to listen for whatever you wish. I love the Thomas Merton quotation from The Seven Storey Mountain:

It is a wonderful experience to discover a new saint. For God is greatly magnified marvelous in each one of His saints: differently in each individual one. There are no two saints alike: but all of them are like God, like Him in a different and special way. In-fact, if Adam had never fallen, the whole human race would have been a series of magnificently different and splendid images of God, each one of all the millions of men showing forth His glories and perfections in an astonishing new way, and each one shining with his own particular sanctity, a sanctity destined for him from all eternity as the most complete and unimaginable supernatural perfection of his human personality.

If, since the fall, this plan will never be realized in millions of souls, and millions will frustrate that glorious destiny of theirs, and hide their personality in an eternal corruption of disfigurement nevertheless, in re-forming His image in souls distorted and half destroyed by evil and disorder, God makes the work of His wisdom and love all the more strikingly beautiful by reason of the contrast with the surroundings in which He does not disdain to operate.

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Merton is right, and there is a power of truth in his wise words. You are a beautiful saint and a child of God. He who has begun a good work in you will what? (see Philippians 1:6) You are a quietly delightful person with a beautiful soul. I am wrestling right now with a life that doesn’t seem to have room for me in it, but what keeps me faithful and getting up in the morning is that – though it is very hard for me to find God’s path out in this mess of a life that no longer seems to have any room for me in it – I know that God IS in this somewhere, and he loves me and – no matter how bad things get – he is with me at all times and in all things (whether I can feel it or see it or know it or not).

That same level of faithfulness applies to you my friend.
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I wish I could fix this, all of it. Can you forgive me a little, however, for being slightly distracted from my total and uninterrupted sympathy for your situation because I am curious in wonder for what amazing new thing God may have in-store for you in your life? Because the truth about ANYTHING in this life is that if you are in alignment with God, he will be glorified through your life no matter what. As you are such an amazing person anyway, do forgive me for wondering how God will be glorified in all this.

Because he will, and he will use you to do it. In the truest and most literal sense of the word: that’s awesome.
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I wish I could give you a hug my friend. I wish I could carve a safe place of rest out for you in the world. I wish I could give you peace. I wish I could fix all that is broken in your life right now. Of that list, all I can offer is the hug, but the good news is that God can give you the rest of it. All I have to offer you is myself – my love and my friendship. It is (and always was) an offering, what you do with it is entirely up to you. I will love you no matter what though.

My heart and tears are with you my friend. I hope and pray you are well. I look forward to seeing you soon. I count myself blessed to know you dear friend. Please hang in there and take gentle care. God’s blessings to you in all things – Christ’s grace and peace be with you my dear friend.

Much love in-Christ,

Val

*A reference to post-fumigation clean-up — literally toxic — and an experience I do not recommend!

**All the guinea pigs had to be shifted to my sister’s house related to the fumigation and clean-up; they are still there.

***It’s complicated, but because I’ve spent the last eight years paying down $20K debt — and I don’t care who knows that, because I’ve worked insanely hard and sacrificed much to do the honorable thing and am down to the last partial payment of $80!!! I was living within my means, not using credit I couldn’t afford — so what happened? My credit score is amazing — or was before the accident — but is too clean; school is almost totally paid for, but I don’t qualify to take out the small bit of private student loans above and beyond the Stafford and institutional loans and grant money from the school and the government to cover my living expenses. Bottom line: unless I find a cosigner or stay out of school 3-5 more years working and building credit, I’m stuck out of school because they can’t prove I’ll honor the debt because I’ve spent the last eight years honoring my debt (even when the bank that acquired the account “lost” the original note on the repayment plan from the first bank and refused to honor the agreement…adding THREE MORE YEARS of payments and setting me back three years). Honors student, amazing transcripts, amazing ministry resume…I’ve now waited thirteen years to go back to school, and this sets me back still further. If you know anyone who might want to help, let me know. I’m a Theological Studies major working to complete undergrad to prepare for seminary to go into ministry. As Pedro Arrupe’s phrase was: “to become a…woman for others.” (the full phrase is “men and women for others,” but I am just a woman). I have to move in August anyway. All of this nightmare could go away — literally — with one signature; references available.

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At six days old a typical view of Benwick: at the milk bar.

****I was worried about little Benwick, he was socially and developmentally “behind” his siblings, and wouldn’t play with them or eat “big pig” food, but only wanted to nurse and hide under Annie 24/7. I was very disturbed on 15 May 2013 when I put him and his brothers in with Wentworth and he was too terrified to interact with any of them and just stood in the corner screaming while the other three played and tried to console him. He was doing much better on 16 May 2013.