Birth is Death is Birth

Today my oldest son turns 8. It is also the 25th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen, hands down my favorite spiritual writer of our time.

As I contemplate the birth of my son and the death of my hero, I circle back to a truth that rarely escapes me: birth and death are inextricably connected. There’s so much more death to birth than I think we realize.

Death is part of a much greater and much deeper event, the fullness of which we cannot comprehend, but of which we know that it is a life-bringing event….What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning; what seemed to be a cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage; what seemed to be defeat proved to be a victory; and what seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope. Suddenly a wall becomes a gate, and although we are not able to say with much clarity or precision what lies beyond the gate, the tone of all that we do and say on our way to the gate changes drastically.

Henri Nouwen

Every birth I attend as a doula cements this truth in my mind. As I prepare my clients for their labors, they confide their worries, their fears, their anxieties to me.

“What if I can’t handle it?”

“What if the pain is too much?”

“What if I’m unpleasant/too loud/too demanding/not able to speak up?”

Each prenatal visit finds me steadying them, reminding them of what is true, reinforcing their purpose in this event, reminding them that this is sacred work that they do not have to do alone.

And every birth finds my clients face to face with those worries. Looking those anxieties straight in the eyes, nose to nose with the very things they fear will overcome them…and every time, they conquer.

What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning.

What seemed to be the cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage.

What seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope.

I have seen so many walls become gates, so many women die to themselves, their very identities cracking open to let in new life. I have experienced the despair of transition that signals the imminence of breakthrough, of birth.

Women and men do not walk away from their births unchanged. The person they were before that baby enters the world is not who they are when the midwives finish up and the lights go back down. Birth requires death. Death requires transformation. Transformation becomes a gate to higher levels of holiness and a new understanding of the human experience.

Today I’m pondering all this as I celebrate my newly minted 8 year old, my biggest baby and most peaceful birth. I’m pondering his birth as I think of all the ways we’ve cumulatively died over the last couple of years: so much suffering, so many disappointments, and looming monsters that have forced us all to face fears we never even verbalized.

Our labor is long and hard, fraught with complications, progress alternatively piercing us to the core and seemingly stalling out. If we only view our life experience as hardship and pain, it’s certainly tempting to medicate ourselves with whatever will numb us out. There’s plenty to try: shopping, porn, hidden stashes of cookies, crime dramas that drown out reality. endless hours of scrolling. Of course epidurals and medications aren’t inherently bad. In fact they’re a very effective tool. However, if our motivation in using them is total avoidance of the experience, they’re less of a help and ultimately disappoint. A good epidural takes the edge off while allowing the patient to actively participate in her labor. I fear that many of us would rather feel nothing at all than engage in the dirty work of living. I fear that of myself, most especially.

If we neglect to view our labor through the lens of eternity, we hug up against the wall without ever allowing it to become a gate. The temptation is always there to focus on the hard stuff without letting it transform us. Yes it feels unrelenting, but each contraction brings change, each pain brings progress, each ache is an opportunity to allow ourselves to gradually open up and birth new life into the world.

I don’t know what God is calling you to bring into being. I’m not sure if you’re living in the expectancy of a growing baby, a growing dream, or a growing desire to commit yourself to hard work worth doing. Perhaps you’re living in the static of just honestly not knowing. I don’t know what your fears are, but I’d guess they have something to do with not being good enough for this thing you’re being asked to do. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll fail. I hope you do. I hope you fail and fail well. Maybe you’re afraid of change. Transition is definitely the hardest part of life and of labor. It’s that point of no return when we find ourselves just done with the job at hand, but too far in to turn back now. I’m sure there are nagging doubts and imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. There are for me. That’s why I write as infrequently as I do, even though I know this is the hard holy work I’ve been tasked to do.

There’s no way for me to know where the gate leads for any of us. I can’t predict what horizons lie on the other side. But in all the haziness, I can remind us of what I know is true. I can remind you of what I know without a doubt. You were chosen for this purpose. You are the only one who can birth this child, this idea, this dream, this product into the world. You are necessary to this specific labor. This will be incredibly hard, but it will not overcome you because it comes from you, from a place deep inside you that is fed by the Holy Spirit and sustained by the communion of Saints. If you approach this birth through the eyes of eternity, you’ll see that you will never labor in vain. If you allow yourself to be transformed, the Lord will use you as co-creator, you will be a channel through which newness enters the earth.

Birth is death is birth. One requires the other. One begets the next. Each is heartbreaking, good, and beautiful. Both will wreck and ruin us in all the best ways.

So my prayer today is one of humility and obedience.

Lord, let me do this work not for what I will gain from it, but because it is what you have called me to. Help me to be faithful when strength is failing and humble in my pursuit of holiness. Let me submit myself to suffering, use it all to transform me into the person you created me to be. Use me as an instrument of your grace and help me to truly desire all these things I pray for. Let each and every death bear forth a birth more spectacular than the last. Grant me eyes to see it and the courage to run tirelessly towards every dead end that leads to you. Amen.

On Giving, On Receiving

We’re almost there, gang. It’s Christmas Eve Eve (historically noted as the longest day ever in the history of long days, especially if you are a child or the parent of small children). We’re *this* close to the culmination of all of our Advent waiting and there’s much hustle and bustle to finish up last-minute preparations.

All of that looks different this year, of course. Added to the anticipation of the holiday is some extra heartache and anxiety…you know, just to keep things spicy. It’s always easy to get caught up and swept away by this time of year and to lose focus of the bigger picture but this year has added stress in places most of us haven’t previously navigated. The shadow of the pandemic has created an environment of panicked searching of tracking numbers and shipping notifications. Many of us won’t be seeing our family and friends this holiday, so more emphasis is placed on exchanging gifts in a different way, more stress is put on the fear that things won’t make it in time, or there are too many gifts for one kid and not enough for the other one so now we have to take our lives into our hands and go back to Target, and why are we even doing a secret Santa this year anyway, and what’s even the point, and on and on and on.

To which I say, “Woah Nelly.”

Be still. Take a breath.

Let’s take a minute to break it down together and consider our relationship to giving and receiving in general.

Here’s what my pal, Henri, has to say.

A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other’s capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other’s capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is given to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love.

Henri Nouwen

Okay, so why are we giving gifts? The obvious answer is that gift giving is a way to communicate love to one another. Taking the time to curate and research a lovely gift for someone is tangible proof of our thoughtfulness and consideration for them. Gosh that’s beautiful. It is such a good and valuable thing.

And yet.

As with many good and valuable things in our world, giving and receiving can so easily be twisted. Somehow what was initially a physical act of love toward our father-in-law becomes a competition with our spouse’s siblings. What was a way to show our boss how much we appreciate her becomes an opportunity to advance our career. What was meant to be a helpful gift becomes a physical manifestation of the way we think someone ought to be living their life. Worse, we often give out of obligation not real generosity, a motive that is easily communicated to the recipient.

The same goes with receiving. What was meant as a helpful gift from our parents is received as commentary on our lifestyle. That gift that is not equivalent to the one we offered is a physical manifestation of our value in the eyes of the giver. Perhaps we receive an extravagant gift and feel somehow less than, unworthy, or worse exploited. Did they really want to give me that huge present or are they using me to show off?

What was meant to be a good and beautiful thing for the other becomes about us: If he likes this gift enough, I’ll know that he’s really into me. If their gift is better than mine, my gift was not enough. I am not enough. If I give them this cleaning system, maybe they’ll actually take care of their home the right way. If the kids love these toys, they’ll love me. If they gave me this huge gift it means I will owe them something. I can’t accept that expensive thing because I don’t deserve it.

Deep breath.

Remember what’s true.

No amount of gifts or any signs of generosity can define us the way Christ does. Gifts do not serve to be trophies or monuments that prove our belovedness. They are, rather, tools to communicate that we see and love others right where they are.

Receiving an extravagant gift has nothing to do with our inherent value. It is not a commentary on our financial or social status. It shouldn’t challenge our view of our own worthiness. It is, perhaps, an opportunity to receive and by receiving, bless the giver. Allowing others to love us in the way that they are able is a gift in and of itself.

When we don’t feel worthy to receive a gift or don’t feel deserving of extravagance from loved ones, we must consider what “deserving” even means. None of us is getting what we deserve…at least I pray that we aren’t! We are all sinners, all fall short of the glory of God. Christ never gives us what we actually deserve, praise God. The entire point of Christmas is that we are given exactly what we do not deserve, the ultimate extravagant gift: salvation. So “deserving” shouldn’t really play into receiving gifts. It can be a humbling thing to receive a gift that we don’t feel worthy of. Let’s use it as an opportunity to embrace humility, remembering our Savior who offers us His precious body and blood specifically because we are not deserving.

The reaction of the recipient to our gift is not about us. We should give, not out of an expectation of approval from the person to whom we are giving, but purely to bless them and love them no strings attached. It sounds silly, but we need to give to one another with open hands. We need to give without expectation. Generosity doesn’t follow up two months later to see if they’re using that new Roomba properly or scan their social media posts to see if they’re sporting that new scarf. Generosity is giving with open hands, trusting that our identity and value does not rest in whether or not someone appreciates what we have to offer.

Whatever the next few days look like for you, I pray that you will take Truth deep into your core and settle into it. Giving and receiving are not about you. No pile of presents, no number of lost packages, late arrivals, or any offering that doesn’t quite hit the mark can touch the truth of who you are in the eyes of the Creator. You are good. Full stop. You are lovely and loved. Period. You are valuable and worthy just as you are, just where you are. So are the people you’re giving to this Christmas. The gift of yourself in all your imperfect humanity is the most beautiful offering you can give. Receiving the ugly, imperfect, confusing, frustrating humans in your life and loving them despite all that is receiving Christ’s call to us all.

I pray that we’ll all be able to give and receive with open hands this Christmas. My prayer as we round out this year is that we’ll find Him. In the absences at the table and the disappointments and the anxious fears about being good enough or making the right choice to travel or anger over how that uncle voted or worry that these people we’re related to don’t actually really know us, I pray that we will feel His presence.

He’s there. He really is. In the piles of wrapping paper and the beat up boxes that arrive three days late. In the sibling arguments and the absolutely awful presents, He’s there. He’s waiting for us. The baby will be born and laid in a manger and He’s waiting. He will grow up to be beaten, bruised, mangled, and murdered for us. He’s here in the midst of the hurt and the mess, in the giving and receiving of gifts, deeply present in these presents we’ve chosen that try to hijack our worthiness. He’s there quietly repeating the foundational truth of our belovedness: He came specifically for us. He chose this. He chose us.


Merriest Christmas, my beautiful friends. You are so, incredibly loved.

Mary Susan

True Connection: Hiddenness, Solitude, Truth and You

In a world that predisposes us to yearn for social connection, hidden seems horrible. We’re surrounded by promptings to share our lives, compulsions to photograph our food, document our days. Pinging phones remind us that people are waiting, posting, moving, doing and if we don’t check in, we’re missing out. 

Now obviously there is so much merit to the community found on social media. Now more than ever, the ability to socialize via the internet can 100% be a lifeline for those weathering tough seasons of life. We’re in a unique time when many of us are literally unable to socialize in any way other than social media. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. These are all the connecting threads binding us together in a bizarre time when we need each other. And that’s good. What a gift it is to communicate and connect.

But the other side of this connection is the compulsion to share, to be relevant, to create content. We’ve seen it before when tumultuous headlines light up our Facebook feeds: there’s also the compulsion to panic, vent, share our unfiltered opinion, comment on every post that irks us. I can only speak for myself, but I have frequently felt the urge to chime in with something in order to feel…important, valuable, noticed, preferred, validated. I want to be noticed and social media is my stage. If I get enough comments, enough validation through likes, then I’m not hidden.

But, y’all, hidden doesn’t mean forgotten. Read that again: Hidden does not mean forgotten. Hidden doesn’t mean unloved or unloveable. Hidden doesn’t mean irrelevant or unimportant.

We have been drawn into a time of hiddenness against our will. None of us has chosen this pandemic, none of us desired this time of separation. This is hard and it’s scary and it’s lonely to be hidden away like this, to suffer in this strange way.

I’ve written before that the Lord has spent the last year and a half or so leading me into solitude and silence. It has taken (and still takes) extreme focus and discipline for me to settle down into silent prayer, to be still when I’m with the Lord in Adoration, or to quiet my thoughts just to be with Him.

Henri Nouwen said the following and I think it’s so beautiful and true:

Every time we enter into solitude we withdraw from our windy, earthquaking, fiery lives and open ourselves to the great encounter. The first thing we often discover in solitude is our own restlessness, our drivenness, and compulsiveness, our urge to act quickly, to make an impact, and to have influence; and often we find it very hard to withstand the temptation to return as quickly as possible to the world of “relevance.” But when we persevere with the help of a gentle discipline, we slowly come to hear the still, small voice and to feel the gentle breeze, and so come to know the Lord of our heart, soul, and mind, the Lord who makes us see who we really are.

Henri Nouwen

We Americans are really terrible at slowing down. We value productivity, measurable achievements, checked off to-do lists, profits. We have bought into the lie that we’re only worth as much as we produce whether that be in the currency of dollars or follows. We have to make, do, create, impact, influence in certain ways in order to be “worthy.” For us to be forced to stop, for us to be isolated, unable to do is unthinkable. Our society has enslaved itself so intimately to this lie that we literally have people licking airplane toilet seats during a pandemic in order to be noticed. How deep must our addiction for notoriety and attention be if we are willing to prostitute ourselves to these ideals so easily.

Y’all, I call bullshit. I’ve spent the last year and a half learning over and over and over again that it isn’t what I produce that makes me valuable. My identity as created human being, Beloved of the Father is what makes me valuable. Period. This is such a difficult lesson to learn and I’ll keep learning it until the day I die. The lies are loud, but the Truth is deep: I will be just as valuable if no one comments on this blog post as I’ll be if it gets shared across the entirety of the internet. I will be just as valuable if I impact people with my words as I’ll be if I’m ignored.

This deep desire for acceptance, validation, recognition is what spurred me to give up social media for Lent. If I’m honest with you, every time I publish a post, I stalk it. I check back minute by minute (not exaggerating) to see if anyone liked it or commented. Because if you like my writing then you like me. If I get lots of attention from a post, then I get a dopamine hit and I feel worthy. Perhaps I’m less dramatic than the girl licking toilet seats, but I’m just as much as slave to the lie as she is.

Now is a time when we’ve all been put in an uncomfortable place and we get to choose how we respond. Will we fight and rail and scroll, scroll, scroll, starving for connection that won’t truly satisfy? Or will we use social media as a tool for connection, mindfully utilizing it to feed our hearts and minds with content that leads us closer to Truth? Will we use this time to connect with the people who have been gifted to us: our partners, parents, children, roommates, friends? If we’re alone, will we call and check in rather than letting Twitter updates do our talking for us? Regardless of our station, will we take time to do the hard work of silence and solitude, allowing it to transform us?

Solitude is hard, uncomfortable, and pushes us to a place where we’d rather not be. It’s up to us to decide if we will put ourselves at the service of the problem. My prayer for us all is that we would suffer well, that our interactions, whether online or via some other medium, would be truly connecting in meaningful and helpful ways. My prayer is that we would not be slaves to the internet, but rather let our solitude transform us and, after connection to Christ through this time set apart, that social media might serve us and be the medium through which we communicate the Belovedness of others.

Hidden is not forgotten. He will not leave us orphan. Christ is present, He is moving, He is real, and He adores you. Go be a light and walk in the truth that you are incredibly, indescribably loved just as you are, no matter where you are.

Peace and perseverance in all things,

Mary Susan

Note: Take a listen to the Abiding Together podcast to hear more about this idea of hiddenness and our identity as Beloved. They’re discussing Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen for Lent and there is so much good truth being shared there.

Seven Things:Part 6

The first week of Advent is behind us and now we’re on to week two! I seriously can’t believe that it goes by so fast. I sort of wish we had more time to linger in Advent because I love the anticipation of Christmas so much. Alas, ’tis not to be.

 

But, what ‘tis to be is our Seven Things for this week! Here goes…

 

1.) Middle Earth exploded on the Cleveland Heights Public Library and it was ah-mazing. It was also exhausting, but very, very worth it! We had 108 people go on our quest and some even wondered if the program was put on by a nationally travelling group. We ain’t yo’ mama’s librarians! Here are some pictures of the amazingness:

Isn’t that the greatest thing you’ve ever seen? And the fact that it’s also an accidental Hidden Mickey makes my Cast Member heart smile!

 

 

The Shire

 

 

I need you to know that there was a speaker hidden in that rock so that the dragon could taunt people and then let out horrible shrieks of death when pierced by arrows. Legit.

 

 

And that is why you should support your public library system! And also why you should read The Hobbit.

 

(Please note that I had nothing to do with the creation of these really amazing set pieces except to gawk at the glory that oozes from my coworkers’ hands. However I did make all of the rocks, so you can stand in awe there.)

 

2.) On a completely different note, my sweet friend, Kate, has given me one of the most thoughtful and creative Christmas gifts of all time. I have never read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (shameful, I know) and she reads it every year. This year she’s reading it aloud and recording it so that I can listen to it! Isn’t that awesome? Aaand I’m loving it. I’d really forgotten how much I enjoy Dickens!

 

3.) Continuing on the literary strand, I’m currently reading this…

 

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that he had been changed into an adorable kitten.” Yes. Yes. Yes.

 

4.) Our church has gorgeous paintings of the saints on the ceiling. Last night at mass, Mag, who had to bring her Nativity people with her, was convinced that the depiction of St. Francis of Assisi was a shepherd. She then proceeded to look for the wise men and I’m fairly certain that she settled on St. Patrick for one of them. No word on the other two, but we’ll keep you posted.

 

5.) Last night I couldn’t figure out why it was so bright in our bedroom until I realized that one of our neighbors went all Clark Griswald on their house with Christmas lights. It is pretty awesome, I’m not gonna lie…there are moving reindeer and I’m pretty sure that there’s a helicopter involved somehow. Not sure what that has to do with the holiday, but we don’t ask questions.

 

6.) Lily is sitting up by herself. Which means she’ll be crawling soon. Which means that mayhaps I should start cleaning the floor now…

Why is my baby big enough to sit up all on her own? And why is there a walkie-talkie under my couch? Mysteries that plague me daily…

 

Also, I seriously can’t get over how much she looks like her Aunt Lauren in this picture. And I love the fact that Lil always makes this face in pictures…like a boss.

 

7.) Final thought for you today, from my Advent devotional by Henri J. M. Nouwen:

“Jesus didn’t live alone. He had Peter, John, and James around him. There were the Twelve and the other disciples. They formed circles of intimacy around Jesus. We too need these circles of intimacy, but it’s a discipline. ...Where are you getting your affection? Who’s touching you? Who’s holding you? Who makes you feel alive? Who says, ‘You are a beautiful person, you are the beloved of God, don’t forget it?’ “

 

I’m daily grateful for the circle of intimacy this blog provides me. Thank you for making me feel loved! And I hope you have a wonderfully restful day today in which you feel how deeply loved and treasured you are…because you truly, truly are!