Monday, August 14, 2017

Steps Six and Seven in the 12 Steps

A meditation on Steps 6 and 7

"All the freedom in the world lies between stimulus and response”.  Elie Wiesel

I have been really concentrating for the past few months on steps 6 and 7 of the 12 Steps.  We have been promised a transformation, if we follow these steps.    

6.  “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

7.  “Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.” 

I understand that these shortcomings and defects of character probably are not eliminated, but simply removed over to another place for awhile, from which they often creep back to us again.  But the hope is to have them removed, and continue to ask the Higher Power to please keep on the alert for these defects of character, and please keep removing them.  
So I have two big defects of character which are common to many of us who follow the 12 Steps: resentment and self-pity.

I think it is good to  try to change self-pity to self-acceptance and then move toward compassion.
I think it is good to try to change resentment into consciousness of abundance, and then move toward gratitude.  
I read a line recently which I loved, which says “How can God correct my steps, if I am not taking any?”

Recently there was a book about the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu, talking about JOY.  They both said that  two main pillars of joy are gratitude and compassion.  I want to move myself toward gratitude, and compassion, and toward JOY.  I want to move away from self-pity and resentment, because they block my ability to feel JOY.   

So how does that look?  Changing one’s self-pity means first recognizing that our suffering exists in a sea of other people also suffering, and trying to link our suffering to them in a spirit of solidarity.  In my  childhood, we would say that we were offering up some suffering for the help of people in Purgatory.  We were trying to lighten their burden.  These small sacrifices were a way to strengthen our souls, by trying to be of use to others.   Since then we have had many wise people talking about how good it is to be engaged in a good cause, in helping someone else every day when it comes up as a possibility,  even if it is a small act of kindness.  The Dalai Lama talks about how he sees himself as just a fellow human-being, in a sea of 7 billion of us human beings.  He does not see himself as special, but as connected to the common lot of all of us.  He also sees that it is good to accept what is, not to wish for something else, but to deal with what is in front of us.  
For us, we need to realize that the way to have a nice day is not to be unrealistic about what we can do in our day;  and to appreciate all the little good things, which is being conscious of abundance and grace.  
I have friends who write a Gratitude list every day.  I usually don’t write mine down, but I wake up thinking of all the things I am thankful for, including being able to wake up slowly and appreciate the light coming into my room. I love to be able to look at the sky and the trees, and in the night, the last few nights, the milky moonlight washing everything.  I am grateful I did not have to get up in the night and go do something hard.  I used to have to do that, and now I am able to stay in my bed.  I am grateful I don’t live in a war zone, and I don’t hear bombs falling.  Also, I don’t hear heavy traffic.  I feel peaceful and safe.   And I can breathe clean air here.  Then I am glad for my morning coffee, and the quiet house, and I notice the colors of things;  the light on the deck, the trees, the flowers.  We had a red rose bloom today.  The sunset colored rose that was a bud  yesterday is a bit overblown today, but still a wonderful apricot color.   I love the blue deck, the full green leaves on the plum tree.  I love the birds singing.  
Then I think of the people in my house and my life, and I am glad everyone is relatively healthy,  and that my troubled son is alive.  I am glad for my other son that he is a happy guy,  and is functional and strong in his life.  My husband is alive and his health is stable, and he can still go up and down stairs, and he does a lot to keep our home functioning.  He has been a little better lately, in his way of dealing with me, and I am grateful.   I keep going like that, in my prayers, being grateful for whatever I can remember from yesterday that I can be grateful for.    
I have known people who have little ways to keep a list of the things and people they pray for, like the 5 fingers on your hand:  the first is to pray for myself.  The second is for the members of the family.  The third is for friends and co-workers. The fourth is for the people who have a big impact on our lives-- our teachers and policemen and firemen and doctors and nurses.  And the fifth is for the people who have the power to protect our country and our world.  I try to pray for them because I think if the Dalai Lama can still pray for the Chinese, and Desmond Tutu could pray for the hardened hearts of the white racists in South Africa, I can pray for these important people who are misusing power, that they become enlightened human beings, and that they become good stewards of creation.
I do my morning prayers starting with the “Our Father” prayer, but I expand it to the Creator of the whole star-spangled universe, and all the swirling galaxies.   I consider  how “Thy will be done” has to do with energy, and mass, and light, and gravity and the tides, and the rainfall and how earth orbits the sun, and 13 billion years of creation.  As much as I am able to consider the weather, to beg for stability, no fire, no floods, and enough rainfall, and clean oceans;  and the need for all of us for air and water and food.  I think about what it means to be asking to be forgiven for trespasses, and for getting our daily needs met.  I try to ask again for more patience and forbearance, and also to help me not eat too much today, which is a chronic personal failing, a defect of character;  and for help  to get enough exercise. I specifically ask for help to be kinder and more patient to everyone who irritated me yesterday!   I ask for help to stay away from temptation which is going to mess me up.  I also ask for deliverance from evil.  Jesus did not promise anything about whether we would be delivered from evil, but he told us to specifically pray for that.  Sometimes I go on about some “evil” that I am worried about.  But also sometimes I realize I am probably ignoring the most worrisome thing, because it is right in front of my nose, and too familiar for me to recognize the danger.  And so I ask for help to recognize what I should be afraid of, and stay away from, and the power to do it.  

After the morning prayers, I start thinking about how to be more compassionate and less judgmental.  I know I am very opinionated and judgmental, which leads to RESENTMENT, and I keep asking for help to be easier on the people around me. Sometimes I think about my husband, who says “I let you live”;  and then laughs a mischievous laugh.  It is true, he lets me live;  and much of my resentment is that he doesn’t do more to help me, but at least he is not trying to make it HARDER for me.  I see this now.   This was a big part of the resentment problem, because I thought he was TRYING to make me angry and resentful, but it is just his normal obliviousness.  This is NOT a personal thing.  And sometimes he does something very nice, really kind, unexpectedly, and I have to really thank him for it.  Like yesterday,  he brought me a prescription I really needed, and he did it to help me feel less sick.  I am trying not to ignore all the positive things he does, and focus on finding fault with what he doesn’t do.  Focusing on the positives and the things for which I am truly grateful brings me to the JOY I want to be really living and breathing.  
Next is the focusing on compassion;  the way I feel about everyone else’s suffering, how hard it is to bear, how I wish I could take it away from them, too.  I pray for all the people on my prayer list;  all the people who are fragile and sick, and vulnerable, and whose problems only God can cure.  As I have gotten older, this list has gotten longer.  I know that I myself am too little to be able to do anything for so many people, but I ask that all people be free of suffering.  I give to God what I cannot solve.  I admit my powerlessness.  This gives me serenity.  I am only doing what is mine to do.  
To live in the deep recognition of Abundance is to be really aware of the grace that is poured out on my life;  all these blessings, and good things that happen, tucked into moments of the day— like a flower, or a person who smiled at me at the market, or a perfect avocado, or the way the dog wagged her tail when she saw me open the door;   and the kindness of strangers, the little miracles all day long.  The cleaning lady, for instance, at the hospital;  what a holy saint she is, as she comforts us with the daily hard things, how good her smile is, how kind she is, in the face of all the suffering all around her.  If I have pretty much gotten myself to forgive or get over the things I was negative toward, and tried to remember all the good things I was forgetting, I move toward that sense of abundance and gratitude, and I find it more easy to have compassion, and to feel joy.  I am trying to turn from resentment toward compassion, and from self-pity toward gratitude.  I am trying to ask that my short-comings and defects of character be replaced by acceptance, courage, serenity, wisdom and joy.  
And then if a bad thing happens, I can stand it better.  I try to focus on the compassion and the acceptance and the grace, and stay in the joy.  
And if all hell is breaking loose, I still try to stay inside the prayers for help and grace and acceptance and forgiveness.  And I pray for a sense of humor, which often is the last thing for which I remember to pray.  

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Refugees from Russia, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary

I trained in NY in the 1980's.  I was in a Jewish neighborhood, in a Jewish hospital.  Many of the patients we saw were new Russian immigrants.  Glasnost had allowed them to leave Russia, because they were ethnically Jewish, but most of them had not learned anything about their faith or Jewish culture, and some were glad to be given an opportunity to study scripture with a rabbi, and learn Hebrew and cooking from an interested Jewish lay-person.  We also had a few Jewish Russian doctors, who had managed also to be allowed to emigrate.  From one of them I learned that there was no family planning in the country, there were a few IUDs in the desks of the heads of medical schools, as a curio and a teaching tool.  There was no private industry--- the entire apparatus of the state was aimed at building weapons and doing heavy industry for the military-industrial effort, and something as frivolous as birth control was not on the priority list.  So, many of the  women patients I saw were ethnically Jewish but culturally ignorant, and many of them had had 10 or more abortions, because the only family planning method available in Russia was abortion.  I had enough of a relationship with some of them to ask them what they felt about this.  Most of them had felt it was necessary because it is freezing cold in winter in Russia, and they needed to stay in the small apartments of their parents, as being newly married couples meant you got to be on a waiting list for an apartment, and the time to get it was usually around 10 years.  The cramped space in the winter, the many generations living together in these small cramped spaces in big industrial-sized apartment houses, meant that space was the biggest luxury, and even finding privacy to make love occasionally was very hard, especially in the winter.   When they got to America and could have their own apartment, they were very joyful to finally be able to carry a pregnancy and have a family.  Most of them did fine with pregnancy, there was no complication from all these abortions, in terms of fertility or childbearing, so some of the rhetoric we were told about what a "scar" the abortion might leave in you was not completely true, at least on an anecdotal level.
Recently I was given a book about the miracle of Fatima, which occurred in Portugal in 1917.  The girl Lucia lived to adulthood, while the other two children died, probably of tuberculosis.  Lucia became a nun, and was very very saintly, and had other visits from Our Lady, the mother of Jesus, in her cloistered life.  One of the most insistent messages of Our Lady of Fatima was to pray for the conversion of Russia, through her immaculate heart.  As a Catholic child in the 1950s, this message was so routinely told us that we became numb to its meaning.  The church of my childhood was a place of mothers and children on their knees at the nights of Novena, with occasional dads there also.   We knew the many names for Jesus in the chant at the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, (Blessed be the name of Jesus;  blessed be his most sacred heart;  Blessed be his most precious blood...) I have heard a priest say that the worldview of coherent meaning, or "the Cosmic Egg" cracked in the 1960s, and that one can pinpoint it to 1968.  Suddenly, the actions and fervent prayers of our childhood seemed old-fashioned and irrelevant to a great many of our classmates, and the general American culture around us.   Grappling with the meaning of "sacred heart" in the new profane secular culture, with psychedelic bands playing very loud music, and people all over the place seeming to have lost their minds as well as their faith, was a part of the cultural milieu of my high school and college years.  And there was the very difficult problem of trying to reconcile "Immaculate Heart of Mary" with people who didn't even respect Jesus, much less his mother;  and could not believe that a human could be somehow set apart from the general condition of Original Sin, (something most people did not believe in any more), in order to be the Theotokos-- the bearer of the Child of God.   But still, there was a faithful remnant, saying the rosary, decades and decades of it, to honor Mary, to supplicate for all our sufferings in "this vale of tears"; and to try to ward off evil from ourselves and our loved ones, as the evil one "wanders through the world seeking the ruin of souls".  And many of these devout prayer warriors also prayed for the conversion of Russia, because our Lady of Fatima had urged us to pray for this, as the WAY to world peace.
In gynecology and obstetrics, we tend to hear the cries of the poor;  we see the problems of moms who are overburdened with the problems of a large family with many children.  It is not a theoretical concern to such moms, that another pregnancy might happen, and bring another mouth to feed.   As the decades of my life went by, most American women started to get out of the home, be able to get a job and have a salary.  Many moms worked diligently to get their daughters through college, so that the girls would have "something to fall back on" if they ended up with a husband out of work, dead, or ill, or divorced;  many of the moms I knew had lost their own dads to illness when they were children, and had watched the hardships their moms bore with such long-suffering courage, as they were growing up.  These women understood that a stay-at-home mom was a luxury of a well-employed husband, and they were afraid to put their daughters at the risk of the vagaries of fate that can happen to change the paycheck or fortune of men.
Therefore, women like me, well-educated, and with professional status, were glad to try to assist other women to get on a firmer footing, to help the families be stable financially, and to help both boys and girls get the chance to "be all you can be".   The goal was to get educated, to be able to afford to take care of our children.
30 years later,  we see the newer social problem--- although most women are better educated, it is still hard to find a committed partner for marriage, and marriages are getting more and more delayed, as people try to get financially stable first. The cost of housing has risen, the needs of middle class families are more complex, and women are trying to "ride two horses" to get the financial means and also to maintain the family and the home, to help their own children get into the middle class and become successful at family life.  Everyone is harried and driven.  We pray and pray, for "the ability to make ends meet" emotionally, socially, financially, politically and spiritually.
So, back to the question of praying for Russia.  I started thinking about the "Heart of the Mother".  What does it mean to have an immaculate heart?  The first thing that comes to mind is courage.  Courage is what inspires us, when life is uncertain, to attempt what is not a foregone conclusion.  And what does a mother have, that another woman might not have?  The mother has the love for her own individual child.  This child is not a "member of the masses" to her.  The unique love of a person starts with the love the mother has for the child, which calls it to grow, to expand, to become the fullest human being he or she  can become.  We can see that men also have this heart, it is not just the mothers who have it;  but it especially comes to mothers, because the child is her own, the child of her body, "bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh".   If a mother has the fierce and protective love of her child, she will help protect and shelter and feed and clothe that child, to help to get the child to independent existence.  It is a biological drive.  And if we say that a heart is immaculate, is it because there is no doubt, no driving self-interest which interferes with the desire of the mother for getting her child to the stage of adulthood?  We all know fierce moms, tiger moms;  and most healthy moms are able to love each of their children with a special and full love,  so that each child is given what it most needs, existentially, to grow up.  In a healthy family, the love expands with each child, so that the love is immense, and fills the home.  But what happens when this love is stunted or blocked?  What happens when the dad doesn't get the love he needs as a husband and father?  What becomes of children who are emotionally abandoned? This is the problem I think we need to pray for.  Children whose mothers are not fiercely loving, devoted in an existential way, in a faithful, courageous way, to the children, will not be able to reach their adult potential without enormous remedial help, if at all.  We see social workers, teachers, librarians, doctors and nurses, all kinds of people, trying to help fill the holes where the mother-love was missing.  And this is where the pedophiles find their opportunity to twist and maim the souls of children.   We need to pray with dedication and fortitude and stamina, for the strength and resilience and courage of the mothers.  We need to really pray that the mothers have HOPE for their children, because the future is terrible if one is full of despair and cynicism.  Life is hard.  Things happen which are so difficult we can only carry them when we have a whole community together to hold the grief, the loss, the fatigue of failure.   We also need to do our very best to help moms get the support they need, to maintain the homes, nurture the family, and have enough economic stability to do the very very tough job of "bringing up" a family.
And what about Russia?  Russia is full of terrible corruption, and we need to pray for it to be made better, holier, more attuned to justice;  and I think that to pray for the mothers in Russia is a good way to do this.  When you are loved, your own ethical awareness is naturally higher than if you had to lie, cheat and steal to stay alive.  You have an axis which helps keep you from becoming so twisted and crooked.  When a whole community is full of love, which naturally brings with it hope, and faith and willingness to try to build community, peace and well-being, compassion and cooperation are the fruits of the spirit.  We need to pray for Russia.