Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Peace that Passes All Understanding

Depart from evil, and do good; 
seek peace, and pursue it.  
--Psalms 34:14



On Sept. 11, 2001, my parents were about to leave my apartment in Los Angeles to fly home after a two-week visit with me.  My sister India called just as my stepfather Mike's hand was on the doorknob, ready to roll the luggage out to the rental car.  She said frantically "Turn on CNN.  A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.  DO NOT allow Mom and Mike to go to the airport."  Despite our reassurances to India that it was just an aircraft accident and everything was ok, we soon realized that it was a terrorist attack and that every airport on the country had been shut down.  My parents were stuck in LA for the next 2 days, and they ended up flying to Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport on the first commercial airline flight that was allowed in the air after 9/11.

Five months later, in February during the elegant solemnity of Lent, I visited the Community of St. John Baptist for the first time.  When my flight landed at Newark airport I had to resist the urge to kiss the ground and hug the heavily-armed guards at Newark when I got off the plane.  I've always been terrified of flying, and the events of Sept. 11 had confirmed my fears and made them infinitely worse. My flight had been booked before the attacks, and my visit to CSJB was part of a plan I had to visit at least 4 convents as part of my careful discernment process along the path of becoming a nun.  

As I passed the guards patrolling Newark airport, carrying machine guns, I was once again reminded that the false sense of security most Americans had felt before 2001 was gone.  We were timid and fearful, and we were all much more polite to, yet suspicious of, our fellow travelers.  

In the baggage claim area, I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the two CSJB sisters who'd been sent to pick me up - Sister Shane Margaret and Sister Julia.  The fearful part of me had wanted so much to cancel my flight and not fly into Newark airport because the world was too uncertain and full of danger, but the part of me that felt a powerful pull to join a convent was too strong to allow that to happen.  I had to go, no matter how scared I was.

My first experience at CSJB was inevitably colored by the events of Sept. 11.  As I met each sister, the conversation quickly turned to the horrific tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and I felt privileged to hear the spiritual and psychological perspectives of these brilliant, God-centered women.  Some of them had gone into Manhattan to help firefighters and policemen and had worked tirelessly to counsel, feed and heal anyone they encountered.  The rest of them had been giving spiritual direction and practical assistance to people in Mendham who'd been affected, or who'd lost their loved ones, while praying for the hundreds of requests that were flooding in.  Every time they talked about their work, I thought "This is what I should be doing."  Every time we prayed together I thought "This is what I should be doing." and every time they talked about where they were working in Manhattan I thought "That is where I should be."

During all the years when I was trying to be a "normal" person - only attending church sporadically and politely concealing my Christianity to avoid offending people and driving away eligible males - I used to drive past churches on Sunday and think "That's where I should be."  I would watch TV shows about missionaries and listen to TV preachers talk about their ministries and think "That is what I should be doing."  I tried to rationalize things by saying to myself "Well, all I can do is try to earn a living and take care of myself, while trying to be a good person." but in my heart, I knew it wasn't enough for me.  As a Christian and a feminist, I could never convince myself that movie advertising - even though it paid my rent - was ever going to feel right, or bring me happiness.  I just trudged from day to day feeling unfulfilled, with a huge hole in my heart.  I suffered from depressive episodes which incapacitated me for days at a time, and I only started to feel better when I'd had enough therapy to be confident and un-cool enough to began attending church regularly and start participating enthusiastically in various ministries.  The first time I volunteered at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on LA's Skid Row, and the first time I visited the Sisters of the Holy Nativity at their retreat house in Santa Barbara, I was consumed with such deep happiness that I cried at the thought of having to go back to my "normal" life.

When the world fell apart on Sept. 11 I was reminded that the earth is not the Garden of Eden.  It is a battleground between good and evil and in that case, evil overwhelmed the good.  My heart was pulling me towards doing something to fight evil - to join the Good Guys and fight on that team - but my fear held me back.  I had debt and bills and family obligations.  I needed to work in an industry that went against my personal ethics in order to stay alive, I thought.  I had tried many times to look for jobs in the non-profit sector and I had tried for years to find a job in the church, but nothing offered a living wage and I had no safety net.  If I couldn't afford my rent and my bills, there was nobody to bail me out.  At that time my family wasn't doing well financially and I couldn't ask for their help. I kept envisioning myself in line at the Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen on Skid Row.  

Still, the call persisted.  I answered it in small ways - bringing communion to people in nursing homes and hospitals, and to those who were housebound.  I did a lot of things at church and in my personal life in hopes that I would feel that I was doing my part but, like everyone else, I had a lot of other things to think about.  The demands of my job took up most of my time and energy, and I barely even had a moment to spend with friends and family.  When I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, the pain and constant exhaustion consumed me.  Just getting through each day was hard enough.  

When 9/11 happened I felt an overwhelming desire to jump the safety of my LA ship and fight evil. I thought a lot about what evil really was, and at first I thought that evil was something that was "over there."  It was in a person like Osama Bin Laden, or it was waiting to pounce on the people I loved in the form of addiction and alcoholism.  Evil would leap out from nowhere and consume a person, forcing them to commit a grisly murder.  It dwelled in terrorist camps and in fanatical people who shot innocent women and doctors at abortion clinics.  People are all essentially good, I believed, but evil was wandering the earth trying to infiltrate the souls of the innocent.  

After pondering the concept for many years, my view of evil has changed.  It's not "out there," waiting to possess us.  It's not "over there" in the Middle East.  It's within all of us.  The battle between good and evil isn't a remote one.  It's in our own hearts.  Evil, in my view, isn't just murderous or hateful.  It's also fearful.  The fear in my own heart that kept me from pursuing the call to religious life was something that was keeping me from doing important work to help the world.  Fear, for me, was evil because it kept me from following my heart's desire and it made me empty and depressed.  It paralyzed me and kept me silent.  

I don't condemn myself for letting fear win all those years because the fight against evil isn't easy.  It's a tremendous struggle for all of us.  Our brains are consumed with negative thoughts and our mouths speak negative things which then add fuel to the fires of negativity as they grow larger and larger with each evil thought and deed.  It's hard to add fuel to the positive fires, when we are surrounded by negative energy everywhere we go.  When negative, evil energy surrounds us we can't help but absorb it and pass it on.

I also think of evil as being anything unhealthy that we do to sabotage ourselves.  All the things that therapists fight against, to heal our minds and our souls, are evil things that might potentially destroy us.  When I speak to people about their unhappiness and their attempts to fight their addictions I always say "I want you to get help and get sober and believe me - if I thought for one second that what you're doing was actually going to bring you happiness, I would never want you to stop it but it does not bring you happiness.  It brings a momentary thrill, then deep, profound pain."  When we hurt ourselves, we are letting evil destroy us.

Fighting against evil in my own life has meant years of therapy, fighting the depression and anxiety that could have destroyed me.  It also means joining a convent and fighting on the side of the Good Guys in an organized way, without having to live in fear that I can't support myself.  I also try very hard to fight evil in all those little ways that are, as I'm sure you know, the hardest.  I fail at it a lot.  It's extremely hard for me not to gossip and say mean things about people (I am SOUTHERN after all…) and to not feel anger and hatred towards those who have done horrible things against me and others.  It's hard for me not to let jealousy and greed, and my hunger for superficial things like fame and fortune, cause me to be insensitive to people I claim to love. It is hard for me to distinguish between what is cruel, and what is a healthy boundary.   Most of all I have asked God's forgiveness for all those years of being a coward and hiding my faith in order to be cool and fit in, when I should have been living as an example to others.  Cowardice is about as evil as it gets.  

Sister Mary Lynne and Sister Jane have conquered the cowardice which holds most of us back when we see tragedies unfolding before our eyes on the nightly news.  They risk their lives every day they work at the Good Shepherd Home in Cameroon, helping the orphans in that dangerous and unstable country.  Nobody else would do it because it was too risky, but these two gentle, kind women knew they couldn't let fear win.  Fear was causing everyone to ignore the innocent children of Cameroon and let them die on the streets, and fear needed to be conquered in order to start the orphanage, defy the corrupt government officials and start the work of healing.  They knew they couldn't do it alone, so they begged God to help them fight evil, and He did.

The evil that led the terrorists to attack the US in 2001 exists in all our hearts.  It was fueled by the same kind of fanaticism, fear and anger that every one of us could succumb to if we allowed it.  Their environment, their fellow men, and the poverty and corruption in that part of the world stoked the flames of negative energy into a fireball of hatred and evil, and you better believe that it could do the same to any of us.  

I've heard so many people say "Well I can't do anything about it." or "I don't have the resources to help." when they see or hear about people in the world, God's beloved children, who are suffering.  I would give them the same advice I give myself.  "Just try.  Do something, no matter how small - even just trying to get through one day without a negative thought or action."  We need to all throw fuel on the fires of positive energy.  If we did, we could win.










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