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Splinters from the Cross… on perfectionism

Splinters from the Cross… on perfectionism

So I missed a week of blogging due to my travels… but now I’m back.

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For the Fridays in Lent, I’ve been reflecting on the trials we have in life, and looking at them as if they are splinters from the Cross of Christ. To catch up on this theme on “splinters from the cross” you may wish read the poem that the phrase comes from by looking back on my original post on anger, and the one on worry.

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I have long struggled with perfectionism. It’s really a clinging to some kind of control in different situations, as a form of power over things or circumstances. It has been a liability that I’ve tripped over time and again… that things are not good enough, or worse, that I am not good enough. This tendency has been something God has asked me to lay down, time and again. And slowly, over the years, I’ve gotten better at spotting perfectionism sooner rather than later.  A real turning point for me came in the days leading up to a health crisis, a time of grace that God used to lavish me with his unselfish, unfathomable merciful love… reminding me that he really does have my best interest at heart, even when I face a cross.

In the summer of 1996, in the few days between the biopsy surgery for breast cancer and getting the results, I went to a conference sponsored by Franciscan University on “Mary, Mercy, and the Eucharist.” There I heard a profound talk by Fr George Kosicki, CSB, on the divine mercy message. Fr Kosicki explained several spiritual things, including the path to heaven. Paraphrasing him now, he shared this keen insight that has never left me: if we want to be saints and go to heaven, the quickest way to heaven is to die for the faith. Indeed, Christian martyrs go straight to heaven when they die. For the rest of us, he said, we have to die daily.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

– Matthew 16: 24-25 rsv –

We have to die daily. That’s another way of saying that the Cross comes to all of us in ways that are meant for our good, for our transformation. It configures us to Christ.

But let’s face it, back then when I heard Fr George’s words, I was a tad hypersensitive about that whole subject: I didn’t want to die! No, no, NO!  I was 36 and scared I was facing a disease that might pre-empt the rest of my life — the life where I would live to see my children raised and grown — the life that was supposed to be a “happily ever after” with my husband. I was afraid to die. Afraid to leave things undone, unfinished, unsaid, and, ahem, out of my control. My plan was not going according to plan.

I never knew how strong my perfectionism streak ran until I came across something like cancer, something that totally made me undone… and completely at its mercy for where it might take me. (Fortunately, six months earlier, God saw what I would need — precisely when I would need it — and prior to any threat of breast cancer, I had already sent in my application to attend the conference on Mary and Mercy.)

In the course of that weekend, I spent a lot of time on my knees experiencing the deep and wide mercy of God. I had a good, cleansing confession, and I came away from Mass with a sense of supernatural peace that came from a new and deeper trusting of Jesus than I had before.

In sounds like a cliché, but it was true: God was in control. Not me. I left that conference knowing I was in a state of grace, unlike I had ever known before. I had encountered Divine Mercy.

Meanwhile, life was going to seem quite a bit out of control very shortly thereafter. Hours after my return home from the conference, the biopsy results came in positive. And the rest, as they say, is history. Surgeries and check ups and recoveries dominated months out of my life. But I was so grateful for the palpable presence of Divine Mercy, and the Christian community that surrounded me through it all. One of the fruits of the state of grace is that we can do things that would not necessarily be within our own powers, for grace builds on nature. The weeks that followed my diagnosis were the first time that I ever knowingly, willingly, embraced the words of Jesus to pick up and embrace my cross. What’s more,  in so doing, even more graces were released. Prior to this time in my life, I had always received crosses with an attitude of disdain, of inconvenience, of “why-me?”

Divine mercy showed me the inverse: true power is picking up the hurts and struggles — the splinters– with love, a love that comes from the Crucified One, who is truly with us in our pain, our own Good Fridays.

Years later, even though I’m quite scarred in body, these little aches and pains that come both physically and emotionally from cancer continue to be an opportunity to die daily. More than that, they are an opportunity to remember Who is in control, and whose Cross lightens my own. Carrying my own cross becomes another way I can be grateful for God’s mercy on me.

To die daily is the antidote to my perfectionistic bent. The little annoying splinters from the cross that come my way are helping to heal me of the need to want to control things, to be in charge, to make things perfect. My struggles with perfectionism has not ended but they are lessened — for the goodness of grace builds on my weak nature. Thanks to grace from the sacraments over the years, I can see a change. I’m not as obtuse to perfectionism as I was, and I can “let go” of things a lot sooner than before. Perfectionism is one more thing I can offer up… to release the things that vex me… as a way of better fitting the cross to my shoulder.

 

 

Photo taken by Maria Johnson

 

Splinters from the Cross… on worry

Splinters from the Cross… on worry

I’m a worrier by nature. But I don’t have to live that way. There’s more on this below.

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What’s with the splinters from the cross? Read this post from last Friday to catch up. This is my little attempt at keeping Fridays a bit more solemn in Lent. Last week’s post dealt with anger. This week, it’s worry.

Splinter from the Cross

Little headaches, little heartaches
Little griefs of every day.
Little trials and vexations,
How they throng around our way!
One great cross, immense and heavy,
so it seems to our weak will,
Might be borne with resignation,
But these many small ones kill.
Yet all life is formed of small things,
Little leaves, make up the trees,
Many tiny drops of water
Blending, make the mighty seas.
Let us not then by impatience
Mar the beauty of the whole,
But for love of Jesus bear all
In the silence of our soul.
Asking Him for grace sufficient
To sustain us through each loss,
And to treasure each small offering
As a splinter from His Cross.

– Author Unknown –

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Everyone worries sometimes, but some of us get caught up in it more than others.

For lack of a better way to describe myself, I have a outward side and an inward one, thanks to a choleric-melancholic temperament. That probably sounds a bit fake. It’s not being two-faced, or false in front of others, as much as its about having a strong persona that is capable of carrying on in the face of challenges and adversity. That take charge thing has a tendency to take charge, and protect the meeker spirit within. It’s like the British myth of keeping a still upper lip. But when stuff on the inside is churning, I am capable of waiting until I’m alone, or with someone I hold very dear, to come apart. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, as the cliché goes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have an intensely passionate and sensitive side. I’m am all of those things all at once. Sensitive and spiritual, while dealing with a strategic pragmatism that wants to figure things out, charge ahead, and be not afraid. In social situations my choleric Pat tends to dominate my sensitive melancholic Patty. My choleric tends to have the voice. But the melancholic is the one with the words, and the strongest love. If you really get to know me, I’m a quirky combination of seriousness and silliness, but the serious side often wins out. If you read that link about this kind of temperament, you’ll see St Paul was thought to have this temperament. That’s a strange comfort to me. It’s good to know that to be a saint, God can work with the raw materials I’ve already got, just as He has before.

Looking back over decades of living with this temperamental mix, I can see the best and the worst of me. The best of my choleric qualities have worked as a fine combination in business, when things are task oriented and goal driven, but in its extremes, its not always the best when it comes to the ways of the heart and the needs of marriage and family life. That’s a been a cause of worry and grief, when my gusto far outweighed my gentleness. The melancholic tendencies I possess make my thoughts run really deep and ponderable, while at the same time they make me a deeply loyal and noble friend. The self-donation needed for marriage and family is easily offered, while in its extremes, a melancholic’s weaknesses lead to being easily hurt and resentful — always a source of worry, too, or too much self-focus.

It took me a long time to figure out how my “lion” ought to lay down with my “lamb”, to poorly paraphrase the Scripture. And that there is real beauty in both aspects to this temperament. It also took me until my forties, and many graces from the sacraments, to really understand just how my strengths and weaknesses could intersect with ministry, and the kind of work that I do now…

All of this is a long way to say I have a very vivid imagination — I’m full of ideas and zeal — yet I’m prone to worry and left to my own devices I can brood over things. It’s like my default becomes stuck and set to pessimism, to seeing the glass half full. It worries me. I don’t want to be this way. It seems antithetical to a Christian’s faith, or so my rational choleric take-charge mind tells me. But I can’t escape the still waters of melancholic worry.

So what do I do? I’ve learned there are three things that help. They all address fear in some way, which is the root of all worry.

(That’s why some of my favorite passages in the Bible are “Do not be afraid” and “Do not fear”. There are multiple references to them, so its a message God really wants us to hear and know: Fear is useless. We must trust.)

Trust for me has three elements: prayer + a big God + my knowing my dignity as a Child of God.

#1 I pray. 

Worry drives me to my knees. Precisely because I am a Christian I’ve learned that I am no end in myself. I can’t change the way I’ve been made, but thanks to grace, I can change the way I react to things. In other words, I think God made me with this temperament, precisely, to bring me to him. The things I don’t like in me, like the melancholic worry-gene, and the strong striver-take-charger, I can bring both extremes, my roughest edges, to God. Over and over again. And He doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s prefer it that way because he’d rather work through me than have me do things without him. Whenever St. Paul complains about his thorn in the flesh, I often think he had a melancholic streak that drove his choleric up a tree. A self-critical nature can bring can ruin in a soul without God. So can worry. I do both. So I need a lot of God.

Fortunately, we have a great many saints whose counsel against worry have lit a path for turning fears into faith…

“Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”

— Padre (St.) Pio —

That part about God being merciful? That really addresses the heart of my self-struggles with worry. It demands that I trust Him. And that’s a good, healthy way for my lion and lamb to coexist… they both find peace in the trust of a merciful God.

#2 I trust in a Big God.

I’ve racked up a pretty big pile of annoying self-inflicted splinters over worry that did me no good — before I learned that trials and concerns must be borne in trust of God. Jesus wants me to seek him first of all in all things. Worriers would do well to memorize his words.

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.”

John 14: 1

Now what I’ve learned is that Jesus can take a worry-wart like me, and by his grace, turn me into a powerful intercessor. There’s always a reason to pray, and now I don’t hesitate. Now I even ask other people what I can pray for on their behalf. You would think if I’m already given to worry by nature, why would I want to take on anyone elses worries? But in prayer a curious paradox takes place. By my sharing their load, and by having a few fellow intercessors take my concerns too, it, ultimately reduces my worries! It increases my faith and trust in Christ, and in his Body, the Church!

Jesus said, “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?  And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

Matthew 6: 24-34.

The Father that is mentioned by Jesus in that passage is my father, too. I often forget that. That Big God is not some impersonal omnipotent deity. He is my father.

#3 I remember whose I am.

When I can remember that God is a father, and I belong to him, it has the power to calm my racing heart. My worries find the exit. Someone else is the true grown up in the room, the  weight-carrier, the one with the world on their shoulder. I can curl up in his lap, and, as the 12-steppers say: “Let go, and let God.” This is why, when I faced the deepest worries of my life — related to my breast cancer diagnosis in  1996 — I found my deepest consolation in the wisdom of Scripture, and in the example of the saints, like St. Francis de Sales. They both teach me how to live the radical trust that is the birthright of a Child of God, given to me at baptism.

Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;

rather look to them with full hope as they arise.

 God, whose very own you are,

will lead you safely through all things;

and when you cannot stand it,

God will carry you in His arms.

Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;

the same everlasting Father who cared for you today

will take care of you then and every day.

He will either shield you from suffering,

Or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.

Be at peace

And put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

— St Francis de Sales–

Taming worry into trust has been a lifelong process for me. But I offer it up to God, again, this Lent, “asking him for grace sufficient.”


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Friday in Lent… Picking up splinters from the Cross

Friday in Lent… Picking up splinters from the Cross

For regular readers of this blog, the weekly “F.U.N. Quotient” is taking a little break for Lent. It will return in the Easter season. Fridays, being the day Christ died on the Cross, begs for my attempt at solemnity for Lent. So for the next several Fridays in Lent, I’d like to deal with the splinters of trouble, heartache, and fear, and how our sufferings really do offer a way toward redemption.

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When I was a young girl, I heard a poem about how each of our own trials were like splinters from the Cross of Christ. In the years hence, that image about the splinters stayed with me.

Here’s the poem… It’s a little schmaltzy, its not Tennyson or Byron or Keats, but it gets the job done.

Splinter from the Cross

Little headaches, little heartaches
Little griefs of every day.
Little trials and vexations,
How they throng around our way!
One great cross, immense and heavy,
so it seems to our weak will,
Might be borne with resignation,
But these many small ones kill.
Yet all life is formed of small things,
Little leaves, make up the trees,
Many tiny drops of water
Blending, make the mighty seas.
Let us not then by impatience
Mar the beauty of the whole,
But for love of Jesus bear all
In the silence of our soul.
Asking Him for grace sufficient
To sustain us through each loss,
And to treasure each small offering
As a splinter from His Cross.

– Author Unknown –

While I love the spiritual life, the truth is, the more I know, the more I don’t know. Another way to say it is, the closer I come to Christ, the more I’m stripped down to the basics more and more. The call to holiness for me often comes down to dealing with these little trials each day… little headaches, heartaches, and vexations.

Isn’t that just a lovely way of describing the things that really piss me off?

I’ve had a quick temper my whole life. And learning to not fly off the handle, forgive the archaic cliché, has been one of my biggest life lessons. If there has been one consistent area of sin for me, it has been that. Trying to tame the tongue that goes with it has also been a challenge.

What I’ve learned over the years is that I need to lower the set point for my anger. Just as we work to slowly lower the set point of weight gain, we can slowly lower the trigger points for anger. Like weight loss that comes from finding a good balance between less caloric intake and adding more exercise, reducing the anger in my life came from finding the balance between taking in less anger, or avoiding the near occasion to sin with anger, and adding more joy and laughter… such as raising the fun quotient, looking to the blessings and good things in life, and having people in my life who help me “lighten up” when my somber moods and seriousness get in high gear. I can’t change my temperament that tends toward the serious side of life, but I can change how I cope with it. That’s where the grace comes in, to help make those adjustments and course corrections. I may still be bent toward anger, but I don’t have to sin toward anger. Being tempted to anger is not the sin, only the harmful actions of anger are.

So I’ve collected quite a pile of splinters that I’ve pulled from the anger years in my life. Prayer and the sacraments are still the antidote for me.

 

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