Tag Archives: faith

Dementia’s Curious Lesson

(NOTE: When I started this blog, I uploaded a number of essays all at once so that there would be content there if/when people visited the site. After checking the stats, I now see that those few early postings got quickly buried and, thus, were seen by very few people. This essay, “Dementia’s Curious Lesson,” is the second of four re-posts I’ll be making this week.)

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Loving someone stricken with dementia is a curious journey. The disease not only robs a person of precious memories, but it also can tear down some of the afflicted person’s personal boundaries.

A few months ago, I was visiting my Mom in the nursing home, and we were having a nice chat about family matters. I mentioned that her ninth great-grandchild would soon be born, and she smiled.

“Really? Who is having a baby?” she asked.

I told her that her granddaughter, Sarah, Christine’s daughter, would soon be having her first child. Her expression changed when Christine’s name was mentioned.

“She’s gone, isn’t she?” she asked.

We talked a bit about Christine’s short life and, in an attempt to console my Mom, I mentioned that she would be reunited with Chris in heaven. Then, something unexpected happened.

My Mom not only gave me the gift of life, she also passed along her strong Catholic faith. Many factors/voices have contributed to my faith formation, but I first learned of God’s great love sitting on my mother’s knee.

Even during family crises, my Mom’s faith was always an anchor. She was a daily communicant, a woman of prayer, and, for many people, an instrument of God’s mercy and love. In fact, even in her diminished capacity, she continues to minister – through tenderness and contagious joy – to her fellow residents in the nursing home today.

“Do you think it’s true?” she asked (about heaven). “You know, when you’re in your eighties…” and her voice trailed off.

I couldn’t believe it! For the first time in my life, I heard my Mom express doubt about God and God’s promises. Dementia made that possible.

Though we may be guarded in sharing our personal struggles in this area, doubt is always a part of the life of faith. In fact, I have discovered that it is precisely my doubts that draw me further along the journey, that cause me to seek answers to some of life’s – and faith’s – deepest questions.

“I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) With these brutally honest words, a desperate father cried out to Jesus on behalf of his afflicted child. His words could also be my words every day of my life. And now, I have my mentor’s (i.e., my Mom’s) example to let me know that it’s okay to voice that very human struggle. Again, dementia made that possible.

I looked at my Mom and encouraged her to hold fast to what she has treasured her whole life. Now, it is my turn to minister.

The Red Sweater

“Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30)

On the Tonight Show many years ago, comedian George Gobel jokingly posed this question to Johnny Carson: “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

People laughed, of course; however, I’d wager that more than a few hearers could personally relate to that experience of feeling different from others, about which Gobel had spoken.

I have a “brown shoes” kind of story to share, but it actually involves a different kind of apparel – namely, a favorite red sweater I had as a child. First, however, I must provide a bit of context.

I was pious little boy. Faith always seemed quite natural to me; and, obedience to God and to my parents was simply my way of life. My innocent faith, however, would soon be sorely tested.

During my teen years, my first family began a slow and agonizing process of disintegration. I need not divulge specifics, but it is necessary that I admit of a uniquely painful gulf that developed between my father and me. Eventually, I came to seriously doubt his love, which is a torturous experience for an adolescent boy.

As my parents’ marriage crept steadily toward divorce, and as I wrestled with the associated emotions that seemingly invaded every fiber of my life, I also began to question, for the first time, the goodness of God. Honestly, I felt betrayed by the One I had always trusted. My best friend seemed to have turned a deaf ear precisely when I was most desperate for God’s consolation.

Disillusioned, my heart strayed from God for quite some time. Strangely, I never stopped believing; yet, bitter experiences had numbed my faith and (seemingly) rendered it irrelevant in my life. This spiritual state of confusion persisted through my college years… until God resuscitated my soul.

In my early twenties, I met my future wife, Marianne, fell in love, finished college, and proposed marriage. There was much cause for hope, yet, when alone, I was persistently sad.

One day, I woke up feeling particularly distressed but unable to identify the cause. The malaise worsened as the day went on; so, desperate for some solitude, I decided to take a walk. In the midst, I began to feel an interior sense of longing that I could not squelch. I kept walking… and awkwardly lifted up a prayer.

At one point, I found myself standing in front of a rectory. Had I purposely come there? I don’t believe so; but, once there, I felt an overwhelming urge to ring the doorbell. I resisted for a time, unsure of what I’d say, but then I reluctantly consented. That concession to grace has made all the difference.

A young priest, Fr. Bob, welcomed me and invited me into a private room where we could talk. My mind blanks on the specifics. I remember only a rush of thoughts and words, a sympathetic listener, a reassurance of God’s love, and an invitation – for both Marianne and me – to the prayer community that met on Thursday nights in the Parish Center.

When I told Marianne of my experience and of my inclination to accept the invitation, she graciously agreed to accompany me; so, the following Thursday evening found us among a group of strangers, who would quickly become instruments of God’s healing in both of our lives. Marianne and I were married (by Fr. Bob) shortly thereafter.

At one Thursday gathering some months later, Peter, an intense yet obviously tender-hearted man, gave me a book about the Holy Spirit and said that he hoped it would bless my life as it had blessed his. I accepted his gift knowing full-well that I’d need to report back to him and, therefore, would actually have to read it.

“But, what about the red sweater?” That’s coming.

I felt strangely at home in the pages of that book. It seemed to tap into the dormant piety from my past. Again, I experienced an interior longing, but this time the longing had an object. I wanted God again.

Then, I reached a chapter in the book that stopped me cold. It was a chapter on reconciliation that was based upon these verses from the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5:23-24:

“… if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Immediately, I sensed that God wanted to be admitted into the relationship between me and my father. I felt nothing but desperation and fear. The wounds were indeed very deep.

For days, I could read no further in the book. I felt as though an obstacle was now in my path that I had no power whatsoever to overcome. Would my rediscovery of a spiritual center in my life end here?

Then, one evening, I sat on my couch trying to pray. Marianne walked into the room and could see that I was distressed. She asked what was going on and I told her about the book… about the obstacle… and about my failed attempts at prayer. She wisely asked if I had done any listening during prayer, and I admitted that I hadn’t. I’d only been pouring out my heart to God.

Marianne told me that she would give me complete privacy and advised me to sit in silence. She was God’s instrument in that moment, and I will forever be grateful for her sage counsel. After she left the room, I turned off the light and waited for God in the quiet.

What happened is quite difficult to explain; but, it literally changed my life. Please bear with me.

I did not have a vision. In fact, I can’t even be certain if my eyes were opened or closed. Neither was the experience a dream, as I was far from asleep, nor a hallucination, as I had taken no drugs.

That evening, as best I can describe it, God placed me inside a lost memory such that I actually relived the long-ago experience with all of its attendant emotions. Afterward, I remembered that this incident had really taken place, but it was so obscure, so seemingly inconsequential, I had long forgotten it.

I was perhaps six or seven and was in the schoolyard during recess. It must have been chilly that morning because my mother had dressed me in my favorite red sweater, the one with the zipper in front. She had also told me not to remove the sweater. You see, I was a rather sickly child, and she was being cautious.

By recess time, any morning chill had yielded to a hot sun. All of my schoolmates were in their shirtsleeves running and playing. But, I was obediently wearing my red sweater and sitting on the short wooden fence at the side of the schoolyard… feeling quite different and very alone.

Being “brown shoes” is especially painful for a child.

Then, I looked up and saw my father walking past the schoolyard. Instantly, I leaped off my perch and ran to him.

(Since my mother had ordered me to wear the sweater, surely my father had the authority to allow me to remove it.)

I looked up into my father’s eyes and asked him: “Dad, can I take off my sweater?”

Now, when this episode actually happened, I’m sure that the young version of me missed the most important detail. All I cared about at the time was securing permission to remove the sweater, which my father granted.

As a man in his mid-twenties, however, looking through the eyes of that little boy, I saw my father’s expression anew. He looked at me with understanding and compassion. His was a knowing look… the look of one who had, himself, been “brown shoes” to the world’s tuxedo.

His was that look of love that I had longed for my whole life!

Sitting there in my living room, I broke down and wept forcefully.

God had plucked from obscurity an event long forgotten and miraculously revealed its deeper meaning.

When I finally collected myself, the remarkable peace that I felt quickly gave way to darkness and sadness. I remembered feeling betrayed by God in my teens and realized that, just as I had needed to know the love of my father, I also needed to know myself loved by God.

I decided to sit in the darkness again with all of the interior stillness I could muster.

Rather quickly, I was drawn into the identical memory. Again, I was sitting by the edge of the schoolyard, in my red sweater, under the hot sun, feeling different and alone. I looked up and saw my father walking past the schoolyard…

But, this time, Jesus was guiding him there by the hand.

(Tears! Intense healing!)

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The moment of grace described above happened thirty-five years ago. Although daily prayer has long been a part of my life, I have never again experienced God so vividly and intimately; and, perhaps that is by design.

That moment is a touchstone for my spiritual life. I return there often when I am in distress to drink in its lessons once again.

The red sweater helps me to understand God’s interest and involvement in every detail of our lives. It makes sense of the promise that even the hairs on my head are counted.

Amen!

The Holy Search

At one time, I was arrogantly dismissive of AA’s “God of my understanding.” Now, I honestly regret that perspective; and, I realize that everyone believes in, questions the existence of, or outright rejects the “God of (that person’s) understanding.”

God is or God isn’t.

Late in his Papacy, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass at an airport in Germany. During that liturgy, he said something that I found quite remarkable. According to the Holy Father, agnostics who are genuinely seeking an answer to the question of God’s existence are “closer to the kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is routine.”

There is intrinsic value in the search!

If one sees the suffering and anguish of the world and questions the existence of a good God, that is a noble act!

If one sees pride and judgment in “the faithful” yet struggles to hope in God, that is heroic!

If one was raised with a crippling, legalistic faith and felt doomed to fail before a punitive God, and if that person walks away discouraged, that is tragic… and understandable!

If God is, then there is an objective reality of God… the great I AM.

The human mind cannot grasp the entirety of I AM, which is why the holy search remains ever fruitful and exhilarating.

I believe that one’s understanding of God is intended to evolve and deepen as he/she continues to search. And in the midst of that process, which might rightly be called “the spiritual life,” it is often necessary to let go of the false gods — or, the false images of I AM — that one has held before. Sometimes, that letting go can be frightening, especially if one’s “faith” has been fear-based.

I believe that God is.

Today, I too profess that my faith is in the God of my (ever-deepening) understanding! Continue reading

Dwelling

One special evening, many years ago, found my daughter Rachel, perhaps 4 years old at the time, in an inquisitive frame of mind. In one sense, this was not unusual. Bedtime often seemed to inspire a rash of questions from the youngest Daltons – a clever tactic intended, no doubt, to delay the inevitable; but, that night was different.

After family prayers, story-time, and our bedtime song – a nightly ritual joyfully celebrated by all – Rachel and her little brother were safely tucked into bed. I kissed them both goodnight and was quietly leaving their room when the first question was posed.

“Daddy, does God really live in my heart?”

Since this was a concept we had spoken of a number of times before, I smiled and affirmed that it was indeed true.

Rachel paused thoughtfully and then followed-up with this: “When I die will I really be with God forever?”

Recognizing that this was not a time to rush away, I walked back and knelt by the side of her bed. I looked into her wondering eyes and assured her that this too was true.

She then became quiet for a few more fruitful seconds before asking me a question I will never forget.

“Daddy, does that mean that, when I die, I will live in my own heart forever?”

Honestly, I can’t recall how I answered my daughter that night because I was so taken by her thoughts/words.

Many times since, I have asked myself what it would be like to live in my own heart forever. Would it be a well-ordered and peaceful place? Would I find genuine joy there? How about hope? Faith? Goodness? Kindness? Mercy? Forgiveness? Gentleness? Understanding? Patience? Acceptance? Love?

Hmmm.

“Sightseeing”

She was a wisp of a woman, greatly advanced in years, wrapped in a plain gray coat, and with a simple scarf covering her head.  She slipped into the building unnoticed, except by me.

I had never traveled internationally before and was spending my first full day in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Since the conference at which I was to speak would not begin until the next day, my host graciously proposed a driving tour of the magnificent city.  Along the way, we came to a Russian Orthodox Church, and our driver was instructed to stop so that I could see the beautiful icons therein.

As we entered, I was immediately captivated by the religious imagery all around me.  I walked from icon to icon drinking in the stories each piece told – familiar stories given new life by an artist’s hand.  In another part of the church, a wedding rehearsal was taking place; and, that too drew my attention as I considered the sacred covenant for which two young people were preparing.

At one point, the main door opened just enough to allow the old woman to enter.  I’m not sure why I felt drawn to watch her, but I did.  She crept along the wall purposefully, approaching a life-size icon of Jesus on the cross.  Once there, this frail woman, who had grown up amidst state-enforced atheism, who had survived Stalin’s murderous reign, who had endured the terrible blockade of her city by the Germans during World War II, and who – no doubt – dealt every day with crushing poverty, knelt and humbly kissed the feet of her Christ.  I was awestruck – and, honestly, a bit ashamed.

Since that day, I have visited many countries and seen many memorable sights.  None has ever moved me more.

“Dementia’s Curious Lesson”

Loving someone stricken with dementia is a curious journey. The disease not only robs a person of precious memories, but it also can tear down some of the afflicted person’s personal boundaries.

A few months ago, I was visiting my Mom in the nursing home, and we were having a nice chat about family matters. I mentioned that her ninth great-grandchild would soon be born, and she smiled.

“Really? Who is having a baby?” she asked.

I told her that her granddaughter, Sarah, Christine’s daughter, would soon be having her first child. Her expression changed when Christine’s name was mentioned.

“She’s gone, isn’t she?” she asked.

We talked a bit about Christine’s short life and, in an attempt to console my Mom, I mentioned that she would be reunited with Chris in heaven. Then, something unexpected happened.

My Mom not only gave me the gift of life, she also passed along her strong Catholic faith. Many factors/voices have contributed to my faith formation, but I first learned of God’s great love sitting on my mother’s knee.

Even during family crises, my Mom’s faith was always an anchor. She was a daily communicant, a woman of prayer, and, for many people, an instrument of God’s mercy and love. In fact, even in her diminished capacity, she continues to minister – through tenderness and contagious joy – to her fellow residents in the nursing home today.

“Do you think it’s true?” she asked (about heaven). “You know, when you’re in your eighties…” and her voice trailed off.

I couldn’t believe it! For the first time in my life, I heard my Mom express doubt about God and God’s promises. Dementia made that possible.

Though we may be guarded in sharing our personal struggles in this area, doubt is always a part of the life of faith. In fact, I have discovered that it is precisely my doubts that draw me further along the journey, that cause me to seek answers to some of life’s – and faith’s – deepest questions.

“I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) With these brutally honest words, a desperate father cried out to Jesus on behalf of his afflicted child. His words could also be my words every day of my life. And now, I have my mentor’s (i.e., my Mom’s) example to let me know that it’s okay to voice that very human struggle. Again, dementia made that possible.

I looked at my Mom and encouraged her to hold fast to what she has treasured her whole life. Now, it is my turn to minister.