What have I accomplished with my life? When I measure with the values of our culture, not much.
As a child, I was told that I would accomplish big things in the world. I could do or be anything I wanted. I thought I would be a chemist and devote my life to science. I took in the high expectations people had for me, and excelled in school in high school and college. But then, as faith became more important to me, I found myself making choices that led more to experiences of vulnerability, and sometimes insecurity rather than accomplishment as I saw it. Parenting, taking in foster teenagers, working as a spiritual director or therapist, took me to the edges of what I knew; and some decisions, like pursuing what felt like an inner call to priesthood by attending seminary, took me to dead ends. When my husband retired from his twenty-five years at the University of St. Thomas, and received many accolades about his accomplishments, I compared myself, and felt seriously wanting. Where is the fruit of my life?
Then I started getting feedback that things I have thought particularly unremarkable, even just a routine part of life, had made a difference. One son wrote and recorded a song for my husband and I one Christmas entitled “God Breathes,” about his memories of growing up. I would have thought his main memories would have been how we fought in high school because he was skipping academic classes to work on his video and audio editing projects. We thought this bright son would not graduate from high school. But, amidst lots of other fun memories, he remembered our ritual of singing a blessing with hands on his head each night. I had forgotten we did that. As I listened to my not-particularly-religious son sing this chorus–“God breathes in your hands, Sweet dreams from your hands, God breathes in your hands”–I cried. He knew he was loved. Another son shared a paper he wrote in college about the bedtime ritual also, confessing to getting up to get a drink of water so we would put him back to bed again. Our other two adult children have also communicated in other ways that they felt loved as children. And with my clients, I have been amazed that simply listening to people often is so healing, or that the thing I have said to them, that I have no memory of saying, was so important.
After a particularly moving Easter Triduum, a fellow parishioner and I were savoring the experience of our liturgies. She said, “I come to church to remember who I am.” I wholeheartedly agreed.
It is when I remember I am (we are) God’s Beloved, I know my worth comes from God. Then life, for me, is about being a channel of God’s love and creativity. When I forget that, I am tempted to judge my worth and fruitfulness in terms of our cultural values of achievement, affluence, and appearance, and make comparisons with other people. Perhaps the fruitfulness God desires is that we most fully express the person and community he has created us to be.
A fig tree is expected to bear figs, not oranges. Sometimes that may lead to remarkable things, like Moses leading his people out of slavery. But, sometimes, we may be a small part of helping God bring others from bondage to freedom by the ordinary things we do day after day, with gifts that we don’t think are particularly remarkable. For some of us, the conversion called for this Lent is to let God liberate us from a false identity. We need to remember who we are so we can joyfully express and give thanks for the gifts we have been given.
Barbara Keffer has been helping others listen contemplatively to the sacred dimension of their life experience for over twenty-five years. Trained in Spiritual Direction by the Cenacle Sisters, the Catholic tradition and Ignatian Spirituality form her own horizon for meaning-making. As a psychologist, she has also reflected with seekers in the language of transpersonal psychology. She is especially intrigued by how the spirit works in times of transition, when life as we know it seems to fall apart. Barbara is married, with four adult children and five grandchildren.