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It was 1965, Holy Thursday evening at the Motherhouse in Rome, Italy.

I pressed my back against the straight chair, one of twelve lining the fringed edge of the Oriental rug covering the marble floor, then stole glances around the great parlor, transformed into a sanctuary for this evening’s ritual. Candelabra of beeswax candles cast shadows upon twenty-foot ceilings. Across from me stood a white-draped lectern, the Mass book opened to the gospel of John. Next to it was a table with white towels, a china basin and pitchers of water. Raised platforms held cloisonné urns filled with flaming gladiolas and bridle wreath that perfumed the air.

Behind me, footfalls of nuns formed concentric rows, their Libers in hand, some clearing throats, sneezing.

All was ready, but was I?

From an opposite door emerged the Superior General of our community and her counselors. In no time were the opening prayer and reading from John’s gospel read. A long pause followed. Like Jesus that night centuries ago, the stooped Superior General girded herself with a long towel and prepared to wash my feet and those of the other probanists sitting with me. She nodded to her counselors, then approached the first “disciple.” Strains of the chant Ubi caritas carried the profundity of this event as the washing began. I shuddered.

Then, it was my turn. I lifted the hem of my black habit and extended my bare foot over the basin held by one of the counselors. Water trickled over my instep, followed by its wiping, followed by the Superior General’s kiss.

It was over, the lesson learned, my body chilled with perspiration.

Throughout my life, other washings/purifications have offered correction, encouragement, forgiveness, and courage from which I‘ve emerged with élan. Yet, my end time’s psychic washing contains more shadow stuff to process: there seems no end of it—I’ll keep surrendering to the washing.

 

 

It was taking so long, I fumed, as I stood over a flat pan filled with pieces of burning palm, from last year’s celebration of Palm Sunday. Only straggly bits of ash broke free from the snapping flames, not nearly enough for tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday Mass in the convent chapel. It was 1968, New Orleans. Little did I grasp the significance of what I was doing—just one more responsibility as sacristan.

Only as years of ashen life experiences frittered into insubstantiality did I begin to wake up to my flawed humanness—a humanness I denied, disguised, expunged from awareness. I trusted no one with my inner world, not even God to whom I paid lip service as a nun, and later as a single woman.

But my spiritless world began to lift with my 1991 admission that I was an alcoholic, in need of the 12 Steps and daily meetings in the brownstone across the street. There, others interfaced their foibles with 12 Steps practice, often drawing guffaws from around the tables. Such stories chipped away my denial until I could identify with them. No longer was my humanness to be deplored, but I had amends to make, especially to myself.

12 Steps still burn the dross from the ongoing exploration of my humanness, crippled by decades of ill-placed thoughts and behaviors. Although I appreciate the ritual of ashes that opens the forty days of Lent, I’ve learned to live among my own ashes, in union with Higher Power. In Him alone do I find wholeness.

How I resonate with Joel, the prophet of penance: Return to me with your whole heart. Joel 2:12.

 

This is what I will tell my heart, and so recover hope: the favors of Yahweh are not all passed, his kindnesses are not exhausted. They are renewed every morning. Lamentations 3:21-22

We will never know who inserted these prophetic words into the Third Lamentation, with its heart rendering images: Jerusalem’s desolation at the hands of the Chaldeans, the spoliation of the Temple, and the exile and starvation of its people that occurred in 587 B.C.E. But this shift in tone bespeaks awareness of sin, compunction of heart, a need for forgiveness, and memory of Yahweh’s former graciousness.

And later in Third Lamentation we hear, Yahweh, I called on your name from the pit… crying…You came near that day…and said, “Do not be afraid.”

Such prophetic texts like those in the Book of Lamentations still bolster flagging spirits and offer insight into the mystery of iniquity. As dastardly as it appears, its stinking offal is not what it seems: its admission restores us to the fullness of Life, even now.

Steeped in pitfalls of my humanness for long decades, I find myself like the Jews, familiar with misery…in darkness, and without any light. But such psychic bottoms break apart with grace, freely given and received, together with the invitation to give thanks for yet another deliverance through CPA’s Steps VI and VII.

So morning’s light streams into darkness: It reconfigures bones, brilliances psyches, and romps with hope into the next moment.

 

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