Beyond Blue

I’m a pilgrimage kind of gal. Throughout my life, I’ve flocked to places marked with divine fingerprints: Lourdes, France, where the muddy hole Bernadette Soubirous dug 150 years ago became a river of healing waters; Mexico City, home to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego atop Tepeyac Hill in December of 1531; Lisieux, France, the birthplace of my patron saint, Theresa of the Child Jesus; and Calcutta, India, where I prayed with Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity for a week during Christmas break in grad school.

Pope John Paul II once wrote that a pilgrimage is “an exercise of…constant vigilance over one’s own frailty, of interior preparation for a change of heart.”

That’s essentially why, in a bad depression last winter, I traveled back to my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College (in South Bend, Indiana): by looking over the St. Joe River behind Our Lady of Loretto Church and climbing the staircase of my dorm, I could literally touch the lessons I learned almost 14 years ago and see the faces who helped transform my heart.

Although South Bend is the armpit of this country (sorry guys!), it is home to all the key players–the guiding lights or sages–who accompanied me in my first mega spiritual awakening: the four years I obsessed over the question, “Who do I want to be…for real?”

From my religious studies advisor I learned the importance of words and poetry and mystics. He repeated verses over and over again, until they seeped into my unconscious mind, and imprinted messages on my soul like the one from T. S. Eliot’sFour Quartets” that begins “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope….”

From another professor I learned the importance of gray matter: that nothing is ever black and white; that a nuanced approach to life will inevitably save you from the very frustration and inconvenience you were running away from with zebra-stripe thinking; and that acknowledging life’s contradictions diminishes its disappointments.

But the person who I desperately needed to see was my first therapist–a woman who, suspecting there was more to my struggle than staying sober, introduced me to the different faces of mental illness, educated me on the physiological nature of depression, and guided me to places of healing.

I needed to hug her.

I craved a session with her in the worst way, like a ten-year-old homesick at summer camp. A letter wasn’t going to suffice. I wanted to be back in that green leather chair across from her, where I first confronted my dark side, my fear of being anything less than perfect.

As I began to explain to her what had happened to me over the last year, I sensed my fear disengage from my body–so that I could look at it and call it a jerk. She’s brilliant that way. With one seemingly innocent question, she’ll move you from a place of confusion to clarity. And by articulating ugly thoughts, you can grasp a hint of beauty on the horizon that awaits you.

That’s what good therapy does, and effective pilgrimages do. In the words of Pope John Paul II, they are “an exercise of…constant vigilance over one’s own frailty, of interior preparation for a change of heart.” By reminding you of where you’ve been, these “God places” point you to a better place. To healing waters, to an apparition’s wisdom, or to a miracle that can happen in a hug and a question.

Check out more suggestions for staying well this winter in Beliefnet’s special Winter Health Week package.

One Bible verse disturbs me more than any other.

It’s not the one telling me to sell my laptop computer and king-size bed because “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).

It’s the words the prophet Simeon used–as he took the baby Jesus into his arms on the day the Catholic Church celebrates as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord–to foretell Mary’s sorrow: “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35).

Psychologists have noted that there is no pain worse than Mary’s–grieving the death of a child. Surely a runner up is seeing a son or daughter suffer, and being incapable of stopping or lessening it in some way.

My son David inherited my genes that predispose him to all sorts of fun stuff like mood, sensory-integration, and anxiety disorders. Even before he emerged from my womb in a scary emergency C-section–where I heard a roomful of doctors and nurses yell through their green masks, “Come on, baby, don’t do this! Hang in there, Sweetheart!”–I knew I was in for a ride.

I just didn’t realize how much it would hurt.

When he was two I took David to see a behavioral specialist because I knew his tantrums weren’t normal.

“Describe them,” the doctor said.

“For well over an hour he will scream, writhe and thrash his entire body, yelling with so much intensity that I check to see if he has broken a bone. A few times, I paged his pediatrician because I feared that he swallowed coins or something else on the floor and was suffering from bowel obstruction. The books I read say to ignore it. But I’m worried he’s going to get a concussion the way he pounds his head against the wall or the kitchen tile floor.”

“If he is banging his head that hard, then the best thing to do is to hold him tightly until he calms down,” she said.

A few days later, during his next anxiety attack, I went to hold my son. He tried to squirm out of my arms, thrashing and writhing, but I held each of his limbs tightly so he couldn’t escape. Controlling the wild 30 pounds was more difficult than swimming 25 meters of a pool with a panicked football player under my right arm (part of the test I passed to get my lifeguard license back in high school).

As I hugged him, tucking his little hands into mine, not only did I feel his anxiety, I experienced my own childhood anxiety more acutely than had I been on a couch next to an expert hypnotist. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I became the scared eight-year-old shrieking with terror in the middle of the night, sitting up in my twin bed with beads of sweat dripping from my forehead as I held a plastic rosary in my hand.

You would think the Hail Marys and Our Fathers I uttered while trying to fall asleep would protect me from the anxiety induced by my recurring dream, but it didn’t. As soon as my head hit the pillow, the image was always the same: a line–of rope or thread or yarn–moving from side to side in a slow, methodical tempo like the needle of a metronome, gradually becoming entangled as the rhythm evaporated and a chaotic mess ensued. All order was lost, and the rushed madness resulted in a ball of crinkled trash.

“It was only a dream,” my mom would tell me, as I trembled and sobbed in her arms. “Dreams can’t hurt you,” she said, as she combed my thick hair with her fingers and wiped the tears from my eyes.

But I knew better. My dreams were Simeon’s prophecies…of fears that would become reality, of order that would end in chaos, of my future.

As one scared kid trying to comfort another, I rocked David in my arms.

“It’s okay,” I said, trying to calm him and control his flailing limbs. “Breathe in,” I whispered. “Breathe out.”

How badly I wanted to take away his anxiety, to throw it into my own collection of issues, to feel the fear for him so he wouldn’t have to.

But that would mean no resurrection. Because Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead–restoring us to peace and serenity–without the crucifixion: that Good Friday, where Mary stood underneath his cross bleeding from her heart, feeling as if a sword had pierced her soul.

The following passage is from one of my favorite authors, Joyce Rupp, in her book “Your Sorrow Is My Sorrow,” about the seven sorrows of Mary:

“Our Simeon messages are invitations to live each day gratefully and to enter each day fully. They can gift us with deeper awareness of how much love we have taken for granted: our good health, our job, our home, our loved ones. When bad news jars our peace and crowds out our joy, it is a wakeup call: Attend! Notice! Appreciate! Affirm! Beyond the shock of the bad news and its consequences comes the invitation to be grateful for what we simply assumed was ours for the keeping.

“If, like Mary, we live in the fullness of each day, mindfully aware and grateful for that which brings us meaning, happiness, contentment, and security, we will not be spared the devastating emotions that spring up at a time of unwanted news, but we will also not be burdened with guilt or regrets over not having recognized and appreciated what is being taken from us.”

If I counted up all the minutes I’ve spent staring into a flame, I wonder how many years of my life that would be. Certainly more than the hours I’ve spent brushing my teeth or combing my hair. It would probably even surpass the combination of bath and shower time.

For some reason (like most Catholics) I assume God hears me better if I stick my face in a hot glowing body of flame.

Is that because Jesus calls himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12)? Because Paul instructs the Ephesians to “walk as children of Light” (Ephesians 5:8)? Because Christians light the Paschal Candle on Easter as a symbol of the risen Christ?

Or is it because something about a flame on a candle soothes me in the same way that David’s ratty blankie comforts him. The scarlet blaze generates a feeling of hope, of fierce tenacity, that whispers: “you’re not off the hook yet…hang in there.”

Last year, when I wanted to die as urgently as babies want to be born, a good friend reminded me to look for the light. “No matter how black your darkness is, there is always a speck of light. Keep your eyes on that light.”

At first all I could see was the tiniest blip of brightness, like a speck on a photograph that isn’t supposed to be there. With more time and prayer and drugs and therapy, light began to trickle in, filling the shadows here and there. And then, ever so gradually, my vision was truly illuminated, so that I not only wanted to be alive, but I could perceive goodness and beauty and love in the people and things around me.

Fire and light take us back to the beginning: to a world that began as one big gas explosion (divided into seven neat days, of course). Sometimes I wonder if my body remembers that–when fire bore life–and reconnects with history in front of a flame.

In each candle I light, I pray for a tiny crumb of hope. I pray for a beginning of light, or a dawn, like the one John of the Cross described where “the mind, in sweet tranquility, is elevated above its comprehension to a divine light.” In other words, I pray to feel good and right, though I might not know why that is.

Don’t forget to check back all the suggestions for staying well this winter in Beliefnet’s special Winter Health Week package!