“I Want to Forgive But I Still Have Pain.”

Jesus and the Money Changers in the Temple

Jesus and the Money Changers in the Temple

This phrase frequently comes up during in the course of counseling.  Many have injuries from past and even current relationships that continue to cause pain thus hindering advancement to fuller productive lives.  The desire to move on is present but former feelings of being hurt, mistreated, ignored, and/or neglected keep cropping up causing re-injury.  The desire to eliminate these sensations and memories is strong but for some reason there is an inability to move on.  Efforts to “stuff it down” and “forget about it” just don’t seem to work.  Exasperated, they conclude that they are unforgiving simply based on the remaining sensation of pain and recurring memories.  The feelings can snowball by adding layer upon layer of frustration, guilt, and anger.
Emotions are the GPS system given to us by God.
One big misconception is that all emotions are bad. But truthfully emotions are a type of natural GPS (Global Positioning System) given by God to help figure out where we are, where we have been, and what is going forward in our lives.  It can be viewed as a warning device when we are getting off course.  Emotions are meant to flow and not to be blocked.  According to Karla McLaren, the author of The Language of Emotions, every experienced emotion contains a message and we must learn how to read the message. Mistakes are made when instead of properly “reading a message” we decide to ignore it or impulsively overreact to it.  No one likes the feeling of being angry, hurt, sad, anxious, guilty, etc.  But in reality we must learn to be mindful of what we are experiencing and be able to take away from it useful information to help us have fuller lives and better relationships.
Common emotions that appear to block our ability to forgive
A common emotion associated with an inability to forgive is that of fear.  Another one is anger.  In some ways these two go hand in hand.  Fear is the most primal of emotions and is a trigger for the need for protection. Fears can be real or unfounded due to habit.  Anger is a response to the threats that cause fear.  According to McLaren, the message of anger is basically one of protection and contains two main questions that we must ask ourselves:  (1) What must be protected?  And (2) What must be restored?  Anger is the result of some type of event/stimulus that threatens one’s sense of self, standpoint, or voice. Another common emotion is that of guilt.  The message associated with guilt is the feeling that we ourselves might have violated someone or compromised a code of ethics.  Shame is very similar in that one feels lessened by being untrue to the community with which they identify or to their own personal set of core values.
To act or not to act
Validating one’s emotions is important, but on the other hand, interpreting the message in our emotions doesn’t give a license to blow one’s stack or fly into a rage.  We must understand a couple of important points.  First,even if an emotion exists, our interpretation of what it means might not always be correct.  There is a time and place for “righteous anger” and some persons/relationships in our lives might even be dangerous or pathological to continue.  Even Jesus became angry at the money changers in the Temple.  However, prudence and discernment must be used so that we are not flowing with unbridled destructive passions and become like a volcano ready to blow.  Fear is one emotion that can very often become out of control and manifest as chronic anxiety as a result of habit.  Fortunately the brain has plasticity and can unlearn such patterns.  Secondly, being able to set clear boundaries and to restore one’s sense of self without offending the dignity of ourselves, another, or others are better indications of success, particularly when dealing with forgiveness.  Without realizing it, more injury can be caused to ourselves and others by improperly reacting to an emotion.  It is important in the cycle of forgiveness to not perpetuate re-injury with others and particularly within ourselves.
How to check the reliability of the message in our emotions
The basic principle behind cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that our perception and belief of an event effects how we will feel and behave.  Checking in with ourselves is essential.  Looking for cognitive distortions and exaggerations are important.  Asking further questions such as “Have I really been violated?” ; “Am I blowing this out of proportion?”: “Have I really violated someone or some code of ethics?”; “What have I really lost?”; and “What is the worst thing that can happen?” are examples.  Challenging our own perceptions can sometimes be quite revealing if we do it with complete honesty.
Remember that past emotional wounds leave scars just like physical injuries.
A cut or a broken bone can leave a scar, so it is with emotions.  I still have a scar on my knee from when I was 6 years old when learning how to ride a bike with training wheels on it.  I also have a mark on my finger from a cut from a can of tomatoes after making stew when I was in my early 20s.  These cuts no longer cause me pain but the memory of the event is still there and I can see the scars. If they had not healed properly in the first place, they could have potentially caused me much more difficulties down the road.  If anyone has ever broken a bone, they can tell us that the place of breakage is prone to arthritis in later years.  But on the other hand, some physicians will tell you that sometimes the place of healing of a broken bone can become much stronger because of the abundance of scar tissue.
Forgiveness is an act of the will.
Sometimes when we have made the effort to forgive, the recurring emotions are remnants of earlier wounds that have not had a chance to heal or require longer time.  Forgiveness is an act of the will that occurs most often way before the feelings subside.  The emotions are the baggage that still can drag behind.  In most cases it takes patience and grace from God for the pain to go away long after the commitment to forgive has been made.  It is important to remember that it is always possible to forgive in spite of how grave and difficult the situation. This is possible only because of the example that Jesus gives us.  If we attempt with the best of our human intentions, our feelings inevitably get in the way.
Forgiving with the Heart of God
The key to forgiving is actually with God’s heart.  A look at the Gospels shows that Jesus put a lot of emphasis on forgiveness. In fact, often when healing a person physically many times Jesus also said, “Your sins are forgiven”.  The whole point of His dying on the Cross was to atone for sin.  He who was not sin became sin.  It is important to leave the door open when considering forgiveness.  That means the door to our heart.  If we approach the situation with a closed heart, we might miss out on someone’s attempt to reconcile with us.  Also when dealing with persons, often it is a matter of swallowing our pride and taking the first step to repair a relationship.  This is like being a sacrificial lamb.  If efforts are met with rejection, don’t feel defeated but rather pray for the oppressor then go in peace knowing that you have given it your best shot.  Don’t be surprised if by praying you find your heart softening.  That is a healing by-product of prayer.
Remembering without the pain
Persons challenged with post-traumatic syndrome can testify that recurring memories and flashbacks are frequent obstacles in trying to heal from a past hurt.  Fortunately there are some psychotherapeutic techniques that work well in eliminating the emotional charge from bad memories.  One can learn to remember without feeling the hurt.  EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a method that is very helpful in assisting clients to properly reprocess emotions that have become stuck in parts of the brain.  There is also help in various mindfulness techniques through meditation and prayer.  Prayer not only helps a person to solicit help from God but also teaches discipline in ways to quiet the soul and helps one to achieve greater control over unbridled emotions.
Forgiving oneself
One final note is that in order to be able to receive and give forgiveness one must be able to forgive oneself.  Just about everyone has difficulty with self-compassion.  Even the narcissist has a wounded inner sense of self.  True humility is not being a doormat but acknowledging one’s self worth in relationship to God.  It is realizing that one is created in His image and likeness and as such is loved by God unconditionally.  True self-compassion is different from self-esteem.  Self-esteem has worldly overtones of competitiveness in that one has to do things better than others in order to have value.  Self-compassion is different in that it acknowledges that everyone has shortcomings and imperfections but they still have worth.  Forgiving oneself allows one “to get over it” by realizing that it is normal to sometimes make mistakes.
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The “Little Way”of St. Therese a Cure for OCD?

St. Therese of Lisieux

St. Therese of Lisieux: “The Little Flower”

What does a Carmelite nun who lived during the late 1800s in France have to do with overcoming the obsession thoughts and/or compulsions that are symptomatic of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?  St. Therese (1873-1897), whose writings composed the beautiful autobiography “The Story of a Soul”, died of tuberculosis as a young adult, yet her message endures to this day.  She was declared a Doctor of the Catholic Church in 1997 because of her simple yet profound approach to the spiritual life.  Her concepts can even be utilized by those who struggle with the neurobiological effects of OCD with amazingly successful results according to a book by Dr. Ian Osborn a Christian Psychiatrist.

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

 OCD is a disorder of the brain and behavior that causes severe anxiety and interferes with a person’s ability to carry out the activities of daily life.  It can be described as the mind getting stuck on a thought or image that replays over and over like a broken record. The brain is biologically tricked into thinking that it is experiencing danger.  “OCD has become the 10th leading cause of disability in the developed countries”(Reichenberg, DSM-5 Essentials, 2014).  The DSM-5 (the professional guide used by mental health professionals) defines OCD as being significant for “the presence of obsessions, compulsions or both.”

Obsessions are (1) “recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or impulses that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress. (2) The individual attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action (i.e., by performing a compulsion).”

Compulsions are defined by (1) “repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.  (2) The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or distress, or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent, or are clearly excessive.”

Of additional note:  “The obsessions or compulsions are time-consuming (e.g., take more than 1 hour per day) or cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”  The symptoms are not attributable to the use of a substance, medical condition, or another mental disorder.

Traditional Forms of Treatment for OCD

Traditional forms of treatment for OCD include cognitive-behavior therapy in addition to medications such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors.  Jeffrey Schwartz in his book Brain Lock:  Free Yourself from Obsessive Compulsive Behavior (1996) suggests a 4-step approach to cognitive therapy for OCD which has been effective for some clients.  The steps include:  (1) Relabeling by recognizing that the thoughts and behaviors are the result of OCD and not from realistic worries.  (2) Reattributing it to being caused from a biochemical imbalance in the brain.  (3) Refocusing by doing a meaningful activity other than trying to stop the obsession, and finally (4) Revaluing the need to perform the obsession which in itself causes it to weaken.

Therapy of Trust

According to psychiatrist, Ian Osborn in his book, Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (2008), “in therapy of trust the emphasis is shifted.  It is not the rationality of an obsessional fear that is questioned, but rather who should take responsibility for it (p. 161).”  The responsibility is shifted to God.  His three-step method for Christian OCD sufferers includes:

  1. Recognize obsessions when they strike.  According to Osborn:  “Obsessional thoughts are
    intrusive, repetitive, completely unwanted, and recognized (at least in a moment of quiet reflection) as being inappropriate to be thinking. They possess a unique quality that psychiatrists refer to as “ego-alien”: It is as if they come from outside one’s normal sense of self.” 
    These thoughts pose themselves as having an unrealistic feel of urgency.
  2. Transfer responsibility to God.  Obsborn further states:  “…Individuals suffer from obsessions
    because of an excessive sense of responsibility for harm to self or others. The tormenting thoughts can be put to rest when the responsibility for harm is transferred to another person.”
      In this therapy responsibility is transferred to God.
  3. Prove your trust; resist compulsions.   According to Osborn:  “OCD sufferers need to make a concerted effort to lessen their performance, because they consume time, cause embarrassment, injure health, and in the long run cause obsessions to become even stronger. For religious individuals, there is yet another reason to limit compulsions: to prove their trust in God…Devout individuals with OCD must work to resist compulsions. In doing so they demonstrate or prove, both to God  and to themselves, how much they trust Him and love Him.”  OCD can actually be viewed as an opportunity for spiritual growth.  This is where the Little Way of St. Therese comes in.  As we can see that trying to “trust God” is potentially wrought with its own set of scrupulosities.

What is “The Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux?

According to the Society of the Little Flower, the Little Way by St. Therese was based on the two ideas that (1)God shows love by mercy and forgiveness; and (2) one cannot be perfect in following the Lord in this life.  Her understanding of being a disciple of Christ stems from seeking holiness in the ordinary and everyday life.  Her “Way” is one of complete trust and surrender to God like that of a little child.  It is complete abandonment to God believing that no matter what happens, God is in control.  In the Therapy of Trust for OCD, the sufferer transfers the responsibility to God.  According to Obsorn who has been challenged with OCD in his own life, this shift has been a tremendous source of healing.

Self-empowered vs. God-empowered

A lot of focus in traditional secular therapy is on self-empowerment.  The fact that one transfers responsibility outside of oneself can be a source of criticism from some in the psychological arena.  Therapists generally try to make clients more and not less self-reliant.  According to Osborn personality responsibility plays a huge role in perpetuating one’s obsessional thoughts and compulsions.  However, employing the tactic of transferring responsibility to God makes sense in the context of religious faith.

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Reflections on Over the Hill + One Year

Calendar with dates crossed out

Another date crossed out on the calendar as I approach another year of my journey. Over a half of a century is definitely in my rear view mirror. I do know that in many ways my “inside self” still feels like that young somewhat carefree girl that once played on the fields of Western New York. It is only when I look in the mirror that I am reminded by my “outside self” that I have been travelling for quite a while.

What have you learned?

When my spouse was a young boy his mother would always have devotions before school with her children.  My husband likes to tell the story of how she would often read Sacred Scripture and pray with them before the sun rose. He stated that unfortunately sometimes it was a struggle and often he would fall asleep. At the conclusion of each devotion however she would give them a quiz by asking, “What did you learn?” He recalls that in his drowsiness he could always rely on one quick answer, “Love one another.”  This was because at an early age he quickly realized that no matter what was said or read, it always somewhere and somehow contained the message, “Love one another” and in the context of “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another (John 13:34).”  Smart kid!

So likewise, even today as I encounter being “Over the Hill,” the message of “Love One Another” is still relevant and echoes with “my inside self.” Have I not thought of this before?  Have I not visited this before?  Yes, but I can honestly say, that with each encounter perhaps I go to a level deeper and even sometimes it is necessary for me to relearn it at a more superficial level what the simple yet profound  words of Jesus “Love one another” actually means. It is true that while in this life and on this earth, one cannot fully comprehend the depth and absorb the magnitude of “Love one Another.” Especially since God, Himself is Love.

Needing to learn the same old thing over and over again

I know that there have been times and it will inevitably happen that I will not be as charitable as I should be.This is why the journey continues. I am still learning what it means to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another (John 13:34).”

This year I continue to learn even more about God’s power of love through forgiveness and pray for others to learn more as well. I have encountered a quote that has been attributed to various sources (which includes everyone from saints to Confucius to Nelson Mandela) that states “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” The fact that this resounds with persons from so many diverse backgrounds, speaks to me about the vastness of God’s love and forgiveness and the human condition. Life is not so much about making mistakes but in being able to learn and grow from them.

In my work as a Licensed Professional  Counselor I encounter so many persons plagued with issues pertaining to guilt, low self-esteem, scrupulosity, and the obsession of perfectionism.  Don’t get me wrong, we are to strive to be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), but when we make a mistake, God loves us just as we are. How I pray for this message to be screamed into so many souls.

February 15 is the Feast Day of St. Claude de la Columbiere

What makes this saint particularly interesting is that he was the spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary, the founder of the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I have had the opportunity to visit Paray-le-Monial , the town in France from where these two great Saints came. This is particularly relevant to my above point.  Devotion to the Sacred Heart is precisely the message that no matter how much we have messed up in our lives, the love of Jesus can overcome. This devotion of old is for all people of our time who are afflicted by so many challenges of life.

Falling down is about being humble.

It is not that God trips us up. But life on this earth plagued with original sin will inevitably bring times where we fall down. And humility is not about being a doormat.  It is about knowing who we are in relationship to God:  “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another (John 13:34).” This often means being willing to forgive others that might disappoint us. Just like God is waiting and willing to love and forgive each one of us in spite of our shortcomings.

One last note, the older I get the more I believe that the aging process is our last opportunity to become more humble!  What can make a person more humble than losing one’s school girl figure, increasingly aching joints, and obtaining a forgetful brain?  It is all the more opportunity to join these sufferings to those of Jesus on the Cross.  So as I age and reach for another ibuprofen, hopefully I will learn to become humble once and for all.

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When There are Decisions to be Made.

Divine Mercy

Divine Mercy

Encountering a decision whether big or small can often bring about a great amount of anxiety. At times indecision can destroy inner peace and can even have a major crippling effect on one’s spiritual welfare as well as psychological progress. Procrastination is often caused by inability to make a decision for fear of failure.  Perfectionists are known to be diagnostically the worst procrastinators simply because of the fear of making a mistake. These persons are experts at catastrophizing and often imagine the worst case scenarios.  On the other hand, there are others who might be very impulsive and do things without a thought or a prayer beforehand.  Such persons could even be viewed as being ruled by their passions.

Making a decision can truly be difficult.

Must it be done alone? Does our soul sing the ballad of “I did it my way” or is there a deep desire to do things according to the will of God? Do we want to completely abandon ourselves to God’s will? Or do we want His help only when it is convenient? Or are we so clever, modern, and wise that we can handle things just fine without any help whatsoever from the Divine?  In the first step of making a decision, we might need to decide once and for all if we sincerely do want to follow God’s will. Some of us might do this unconsciously.

But most of us at some level truly do want God’s will for our lives but are afraid of what that might entail, especially if we believe it means giving up something or losing control. Giving into God’s direction for our life requires humility. Humility is not about being a doormat, but rather is about being aware of our place in relationship to God.  In fact it is a very uplifting and liberating position to be humble. This involves the realization that we are created in the image and likeness of God and are uniquely and unconditionally loved by Him. In this respect He wills the utmost best for us. It is acknowledging that God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing.

Let’s just get this straight:  God doesn’t cause the tragedies but rather He is here to help us get through them.

So then, once set on following God’s will how does one go about determining what it is?

First get in contact with God.  How can we hear and receive from Him when we are truly out of touch? Obviously spending time in prayer is important. There are different types and approaches to prayer. The most effective prayer is the one that comes from a sincere and pure heart. Prayer can be done in one’s own home, in a car, or even in a closet.  But it can also be done in a Church.  If one wants to truly pray where Jesus is physically present, find a Catholic Church that offers adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.  This is where a consecrated Host is placed in a monstrance on an altar.  One can also pray to God present in the Tabernacle in the Catholic Church.

Participate in the Sacraments of the Church.  This involves going to Mass and receiving the graces from the Sacraments such as Holy Communion. Also if one has not been to Confession in a while and is aware of any mortal sins, it is a good idea to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. These are great sources of strength for the journey and aid in the discernment process. This also frees the soul from any junk that might be obstructing the working of God’s grace.

Listen to God working in your heart and life.  In addition to speaking to God, a person must also learn to listen, and to be open to God’s voice. Most of us wish for God to flash before us a billboard with the all the answers. But most likely the answers come in more subtle ways. Sometimes the message is sent through others and in the circumstances in our lives. A person must be in touch with their intuition and any tugs of the heart. This is especially true in determining one’s vocation. However, there is a danger in following one’s unbridled passions.

One must apply virtue when making a decision.  St. Thomas of Aquinas defines virtue as the habit of doing good and that it is the “golden mean” between excess and defect. “The virtuous act is one that is neither excessive nor deficient. So for example courage is neither foolhardy nor cowardly, and temperance is neither total abstinence nor gluttony. Humility is neither arrogance nor subservience. Perseverance is neither obstinacy nor capitulation. One might understand this ‘golden mean’ as balancing our desires with reason ” (Bennett, A & L.  The Emotions that God Gave You. 2011, pg 83). Discernment must be done with prudence and measured against God’s 10 Commandments.

Make sure the decision does not violate any of the 10 CommandmentsA good way to determine if a decision is part of God’s will is to measure it against the 10 Commandments. For example if someone is contemplating moving in with a girlfriend without marriage or deciding to have an abortion, putting it up against the 10 Commandments will inevitably reveal that these things would not be according to God’s will because He would not have us violate His own laws. Also consulting with the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a great source of help.

Ask for help and respect those in authority.  Seek out spiritual direction and/or counseling. God can often speak His message through others, especially those who have been given authority or put in a role of guidance over us. Asking for the assistance of the Blessed Virgin Mary by praying a rosary and looking to the examples in the lives of the Saints can also help. The lives of the Saints provide excellent templates in how to live holy lives and how to make decisions according to the will of God. St. Faustina once said, “When I do not know what to do, I question love, for love is the best counselor!” St. Augustine is known to have said, “Love and do whatever you want.”

What do I do if I am still clueless?

It is not uncommon that we do all of the right things in trying to seek out God’s will and we are still in the dark.  For whatever reason we cannot seem to see God’s message clearly or God is simply silent.  Rather than losing our internal peace, there is a solution according to Fr. Jacques Philippe:

“But it may happen that the Lord does not respond to us. And this is completely normal. Sometimes, He simply leaves us free and sometimes, for reasons of His own, He does not manifest Himself. It is good to know this, because it often happens that people for fear of making a mistake, of not doing the will of God, seek at any price to have an answer. They increase their reflections, their prayers, they open the Bible ten times looking for a text in order to obtain a desired enlightenment. And all this is troubling and disquieting more than anything else.  When the Lord leaves us thus in incertitude, we must quietly accept it…In effect, this capacity to decide in incertitude, in doing that which seems to us best…there is an attitude of confidence and abandonment: ‘Lord, I have thought about it and prayed to know Your will. I do not see it clearly, but I am not going to trouble myself any further… I am deciding such and such a thing because , all things carefully considered, it seems to me the best thing to do.  And I leave everything in Your hands. I know that , even if I have made a mistake, You will  not be displeased with me, for I have acted with good intentions. And if I have made a mistake, I know that You are able to draw good from this error” (Searching for an Maintaining Peace, pp 72, 74).

Most of us know that sometimes the best laid plans can initially lead to some terrible disasters. But It is good to know that no matter what happens God can make something good out of even out of our worst case scenarios.

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In the Dead of Winter

A picture of a solo train leaving the station in Chicago.  (c) 2014 Natalie Eden

A picture of a solo train leaving the station in Chicago during winter. (c) 2014 Natalie Eden

This time of year always makes me think about the season.  How can I ignore it?  In Chicago the air is usually bitter cold.  I’m not talking about it being a little bit chilly.  It’s downright frigid with temperatures preferring to hover in the subzero range.  At times it is difficult to appreciate the present moment, when I find myself counting the number of months left until spring.  Navigating the highways can be quite a challenge.  Every trip out whether on foot or in a vehicle means risk to one’s body and property.  As I get older, I am getting less steady on my feet, walking like an old penguin and having to wear a coat that could double as a down sleeping bag.

Winter is a part of everyone’s life journey. We all experience it.  Accept it or not, winter will inevitably come to us.  Each journey has its own peaks and valleys.  Some might say that winter is definitely a valley experience dominated with darkness.  But others view it as being on the mountain top, especially if one takes pleasure in skiing. Some comment on the whiteness of the season and the extra use of light. Others might only see the gray concrete highways and barren trees.

Most of us agree that winter does bring storms which can alter our plans. We are usually glued to the weather forecast in this season, soon to discover that a better job of prediction is done by sticking a head out the window as opposed to sapping the knowledge out of a sophisticated modern meteorologist.  In spite of our best efforts, some storms still take us by surprise.

Life events that take us by surprise

Events in life that can take people by surprise always bring with them some sort of stress. Events such as a sudden job loss or change in employment status; a serious illness; the death of a loved one; an unexpected move or need to relocate; a natural disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, flood, or fire; the ending of a relationship; an assault such in a burglary or rape; and accidents.  In contrast to the bad, good events in life can also lead to stress: a new job; birth of a child; children leaving the home for college; or meeting someone new.

Some events happen very slowly

In contrast to the sudden storms of life, there are also events that creep up on us.  These are the things that don’t happen overnight.  No one ever wakes up in the morning to find oneself in a new life stage. (Although anyone who has ever had a teenager can swear that they grow inches overnight).  Events that happen very slowly include puberty, reaching adulthood, vocational discernment, midlife crisis, menopause, empty-nesting, retirement, and spiritual growth.  In fact, in the spiritual life, I have heard it often said that one never stands still.  One is either going forward or backward.  And in terms of psychological growth, most of us tend to jump all over the place.  What characterizes slow transitions is that they usually involve moving from something old and very familiar to something new and unfamiliar.

We have a limited perspective

The problem we all have with changes and seasons in our life is that we never quite know what is coming up next or where we are standing, hence our desire for a good weather channel or forecasting app. We don’t have a bird’s eye view of the map of our life’s journey. We struggle to find a reference point at any one moment.  We never know if we are on the mountain top or indeed in the valley.  The old saying goes, “hindsight is always 20/20.”  But talk to any older person and they will mention “the good old days.”  But often at closer inspection, those “good old days” had lots of challenges and were often in fact downright awful.

Then what is the best compass?

The best compass is God.  And through God, learning to live in the present moment.  Research any philosopher, psychiatrist, or spiritual writing and you will find that they all say the healthiest perspective is that one which focuses on living in the present moment.  So in the midst of our current snow storms there are treasures to be had.  No need to even set out searching for the gifts of the present moment; such gifts are already in our hands.  It is just a matter of having the ability to see them. No one is without exception.

I hear someone say, “I am different.  My problems are worse than anyone else.  There are no blessings seen here.”  What such a person fails to realize is that even in our struggles and darkness moments there are the opportunities for growth and sanctity.  Christians can also appreciate the redemptive value in suffering.

A psalm about the journey and how God is our compass:

Lord, You have probed me, You know me:

You know when I sit and stand;

You understand my thoughts from afar.

You sift through my travels and my rest;

With all my ways you are familiar.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

Lord, You know it all.

Behind and before You encircle me

And rest Your hand upon me.

Probe me, God, know my heart;

Try me, know my concerns.

See if my path is crooked,

Then lead me in the ancient paths. (Psalms 139:1-5;23-24).

We all go the ancient path.

 In spite of what believing that we are modern people, we all travel the ancient path that others have gone before us.  We only hope to travel it with the grace of the Saints and not get ourselves off course or do it crooked.  We all will encounter challenges, stressors, and anxieties.  These are inevitable parts of life.  We all will encounter a storm in the dead of winter.  Some of us might even encounter more especially if our journeys take us to the Northern Tundra as opposed to sunny Florida.  But whatever our life maps, we have an Eternal Guide to help us arrive where we need to go.

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On the Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary: She Shows up in the Most Surprising Places

The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that appeared in the rubble after the Moore, Oklahoma tornado on May 20, 2013

The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that appeared in the rubble after the Moore, Oklahoma tornado on May 20, 2013

Recently I came across a photo on Facebook of a Blessed Virgin Mary statue that had settled in the front yard of a property that had been ravaged by an EF5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.  On May 20, 2013, a top-of-the-scale cyclone had carved a path of destruction that was 17 miles wide leaving 24 people dead including seven children.  According to the Associated Press, the resulting acre after acre of twisted metal, mangled wood, bricks, paper, and personal belongings upon clean-up will make a pile reaching more than a mile high up into the sky.

Of the many images that have been circulating the internet, the one that struck me is that of the Blessed Virgin Mary knelt down in prayer. Trash and debris are tossed in the background around her. Some say that this was a plastic figurine from a Christmas Crèche that somehow had lost its place from someone’s storage and in the midst of the tornado got sucked up and transplanted into the remains of someone else’s front yard. Whatever the statue’s origin, it still causes me to reflect on her place in our lives.

After 9/11, I remember seeing an interview of a Catholic survivor of the World Trade Center disaster. He said that he had prayed Hail Mary’s. Not being Catholic at that time, I remember thinking, Why in the world would anyone do that?  I had no clue. I did not notice the gentleman’s name – but his simple and profound petition to the Blessed Virgin made an impression on my mind and heart of which I would meditate on for years to come. Upon seeing the plastic image of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Moore, Oklahoma, I found myself reflecting again. It is also interesting that there was another statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that remained after Hurricane Sandy on the Jersey Shore. Some say these statues are pure coincidences.  I say it doesn’t matter.  The circumstances are enough cause for reflection and can bring us to Jesus. In an age where a televised bump, knock, or mumbled EVP that sounds more like a cat crying or a toilet flushing  in a dark abandoned building can cause some ghost hunting people to believe in spirits, I think that a preserved statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that has been tossed by a storm is not too big of a leap for one’s faith.

The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary today recalls her visit to Elizabeth. Mary’s appearance causes John the Baptist to leap in the womb of her cousin Elizabeth. No one can see the baby Jesus, but by faith they know He is there. The Gospel of Luke 1:39-45 states:

“Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 

For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

What strikes me is when Elizabeth says, “And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  Mary brings Christ to Elizabeth.  And doesn’t she bring Christ to us?  Doesn’t she bring Christ to those in Moore, Oklahoma?  To those who were in Hurricane Sandy?  To those who were in the World Trade Center during 9/11?  Doesn’t she bring Christ to each one of us in our daily lives?

The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Moore Oklahoma might just be a plastic statue from someone’s storage.  But then again, Catholic Churches are made up of just bricks, wood, plastic, and mortar also. However, there is something deeper here that cannot be grasped by physical sight but rather must be approached by faith. Much like when the little host that looks like a cracker, becomes the Body of Christ when the priest pronounces the words of consecration during the Mass. These things are approached by faith which is a gift from God.

What does a plastic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary have to do with our lives?  She reminds us of Him. She brings Him to us.  As the Mother of Our Savior and the bearer of Christ, she has everything to do with our lives in bringing us to Jesus. Even if we feel we have little faith.  Especially if we have little faith.

The Memorare is a prayer that has been attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux during the 12th Century. It is a wonderful little prayer that reminds us that we have an advocate in the Mother of Our Lord.

REMEMBER, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.  Amen.

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Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes Brings a Big Announcement

Pope Benedict XVI at Easter Mass in 2012

Pope Benedict XVI at Easter Mass in 2012

Today, February 11 is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes.  The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes marks the observance of the World Day of the Sick.  This celebration is a reminder to pray for the sick and to recognize for all those who work in health care and serve as caregivers.

But today also marks a milestone in the history of our Church, the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has taken today Feb. 11, which also precedes the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, to make the announcement of his resignation :  “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.” (Context of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation).

Decision was an act of humility through the guidance of the Holy Spirit

No doubt Pope Benedict’s decision was made after much prayer and discernment of the will of God through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We might never know the complete dynamics of Pope Benedict’s decision, but nonetheless it was an act that took a lot of humility on the part of the Holy Father.

I like the quote of Sr. Mary Theresa of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist that appeared on facebook: “Pope John Paul II remained in office so that he might show us how to suffer and how to die. Pope Benedict XVI is leaving the Papal Office so that he might show us how to live in humble honesty.”

It is not by chance that the Holy Father chose February 11 which marks the World Day of the Sick and Suffering.  This is the anniversary of the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette in a little grotto in the Pyrenees Mountains of France in 1858.  At that time, no one understood how and why the Blessed Virgin Mary would appear to a 14-year-old uneducated shepherdess.  However, the Blessed Virgin Mary ended up appearing to St. Bernadette 18 times.  Thousands of people witnessed the apparitions where many healings and miracles occurred.

 At one time the Blessed Virgin Mary told St. Bernadette to bathe and drink from an unknown spring which was hidden under the ground.  At first Bernadette dug into the dirt and ended up being ridiculed as she became covered in mud.  However, eventually the water started to run clear.  Since that time the spring has been continually flowing.  On the Feast of the Annunciation, The Blessed Virgin Mary announced her name to St. Bernadette:  “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  These events led to the veneration of Mary in Lourdes which has become a place of prayer, pilgrimage, conversion, and healing.

On change and transition

Most of us don’t like change.  Transitions often involve saying goodbye to an old way of doing things and stepping into the unknown.  In spite of how much we might dislike change, it is the only way that we can progress in our journey and sometimes this involves discovery what God might have in store for us in the road ahead. It takes a great deal of humility and courage to follow the guidance of the Holy Spiril, even when such might not appear popular on the surface.

My family and I have had the opportunity to visit Lourdes, France twice.  The first was on a pilgrimage to France in 2004.  The second was before I started my studies in clinical psychology in 2008 which was the 150th anniversary of the apparitions.   We have also been able to attend Masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on two occasions.  The last was Easter Sunday Mass in 2012.  I am thankful for the opportunity to have been able to do this with my family.

Remember the sick on this feast day.  Remember our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI.  Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for each one of us and especially the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI.

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On the Tragic Loss of a Child: The Feast of the Holy Innocents

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

 “A person that loses a partner is called a widow.

A child who loses a parent is called an orphan.

But there is no word to describe a parent that loses a child,

Because the loss is like no other. ..”

(Paraphrased from “An Orphan’s Tale, by J. Neugeboren, 1976)

Parental grief

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the loss of innocent children, particularly in light of the mass shootings in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. There are no words to describe the grief that a parent experiences after the loss of any child. We cannot possibly fathom what such a person might be feeling. And often it is not only the parents, but other family members, friends, and sometimes even strangers. We have little defense in coping with the loss of an innocent child. Some say that the pain lives with them the rest of their life while here on earth. It does not matter what age the child is, whether a fetus or a full-grown adult. There is still grief. Many who have suffered a miscarriage can testify that the emotional pain is very real.

On loss

When someone experiences a loss, they go through all types of different emotions. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, popularized the five stages of grief. Her model lists them as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And not everyone goes through all of them or even in that order. In fact some might not even go through any of the stages at all. Each person’s experience of this type of suffering is unique. If this is the case, then what good is a theory? It gives us a template from which to work and somewhat of a ballpark idea of what one might be going through.

Being able to forgive the unforgivable?

Getting over a loss from a tragedy or murder is wrought with additional trials because it involves a pain that is the result of something that is perceived to have been done unjustly. It is natural to feel angry at such. However what makes the major difference and leads to the greatest healing is how one chooses to deal with that anger. Some might feel that seeking revenge or getting even brings satisfaction. However, God’s way to heal the hurt is through forgiveness. We might ask ourselves, how can one ever forgive someone who has done what seems to be the unforgivable? It might be easier to think of a perpetrator who has committed such a crime to be a horrible, nasty, evil, and even less than human. But the fact of the matter is that such a person is actually a human being. Such a person is actually someone who is wounded, hurt, weak, immature, ill, and/or spiritually blind –for whatever reason. Just like each one of us. While it is true that not every person who has imperfections is a mass murderer, we all can see clearly that someone who kills innocent children might not have their elevator connecting on all floors. They are deeply wounded.

Fr. Anthony de Mello, S. J. is quoted as saying “people who hurt are asleep. If they were to wake up they would never behave like that.” (Obtained from “How to Forgive Yourself and Others”, by Fr. Eamon Tobin) Which echoes what Jesus said when He was dying on the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:4)”.

I have heard people turn their anger towards God. Some people might conclude that God doesn’t care about them when terrible things happen. There are no easy answers to what happens to any of us while on our journey and in this life on earth. Even non-Christians would agree that this world is full of anxiety and suffering. The worse approach however is breaking our relationship with God and deliberately abandoning prayer. However, if we are Christian, we know that God the Father did not even spare the Cross from His own Son, Jesus. And whether or not we are Catholic we can cling to the redemptive value inherent in suffering. There is a lot of meaning in the saying, “offer it up.” I only wish I had realized this sooner in my own life.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

The Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents this week during the Octave of Christmas. This Feast remembers the little babies and children of Bethlehem who were slaughtered by King Herod. In the history of the early Church, these helpless little infants were the first persons to shed blood for the sake of Jesus and as such are known as martyrs. The Scripture repeats the prophesy from the Old Testament: ”Ramah is heard the sound of moaning, of bitter weeping! Rachel mourns her children, she refuses to be consoled, because her children are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15-16).

These children of Bethlehem did nothing to deserve their demise. And there are likewise so many innocent unborn and born children who die from various causes known and unknown. It can be said that there is an army of children in heaven. Knowing that these little angels have a soul in eternity can be a great source of consolation and hope.

Being able to heal from the pain is a grace from God

Being able to forgive and get over such a loss obviously takes a lot of time, patience, humility and prayer. It is not easy and to think such would be misleading. Taking the step towards forgiveness is actually an act of the will and healing of the hurt most often comes later. This is why often when someone has decided to forgive the feelings of hurt can still emerge even much later down the line. To still feel the pain doesn’t mean that one has not forgiven. One does not have to repress their anger and hurt. It is actually healthy to be able to admit that one is mad and extremely upset. The difference is when one decides to forgive regardless of the hurt. The grace of healing from the pain most of the time comes much later. It is a difficult journey and a tough Cross to carry but can be overcome by the grace of God. This is why prayer is so important throughout the process.

Know when to seek counseling

Sometimes the pain is so deep that it cannot be dealt with alone and a person might need professional help from a counselor and/or a spiritual guide. Just as someone needs help to cure a physical illness, it is wise to know when to seek out counseling. Help is warranted when someone has been unable to perform normal daily activities for an extended period of time. What is considered “normal daily activities” and “an extended period of time” can vary from person to person. But in general, a major change from one’s usual activity level can be a warning sign.

Isn’t abortion a loss too?

No one ever wants to lose a child. Or do they? According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 22% of all pregnancies end in abortion in the United States (National Vital Statistics Reports, April 6, 2010). The most common reasons cited for abortion include not feeling emotionally or financially capable of raising a child and fear that a child would drastically change one’s life (obtained from www.johnstonsarchive.net). But still thousands of women who have actually gone through with an abortion still experience loss and its effects have a negative impact on their life. There are websites such as www.silentnomoreawareness.org and www.afterabortion.org where women and men share their stories. The fetus is a life and any mother can tell you that the maternal bond is formed very early in the womb.

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Another Senseless Tragedy?

The Scream by Edward Munch (1893). (Obtained from Wikipedia).

What Kind of Society are we Becoming?

I was walking through the business lounge at my office building when I heard someone ask, “What kind of society are we becoming?  Are we no longer safe when we go to a movie theater, the mall, or to an educational institution?  Do we have to worry each and every day we and our beloved ones step outside of our homes?” Terror struck my heart as I quickly learned that approximately 20 children had been shot in addition to several adults in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The children were between the ages of 5 and 10 years old, undoubtably the most innocent and vulnerable citizens of our society. This is now being called one of the worst mass shootings tragedy in history. Within the first hours of this incident most of the information is confusing and fragmented with various rumors as to what happened and why.  But the fact of matter is that in spite of what details eventually emerge, such an occurrence is brutally senseless. 

Another senseless tragedy

Just a few days ago we heard another report of a gunman who opened fire on innocent people in a mall in Portland, Oregon, killing two persons and himself.  And back in July this year, the media had been dominated by the shocking news of a gunman in who presented himself before the theater of a midnight premier of the Batman movie, “Dark Knight Rises” and proceeded to throw canisters of gas and opened fire onto the audience. This mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado left 12 people dead and dozens injured. It took days for our Nation to await word of the missing and those in critical condition. Even presidential candidates on the campaign trail took a pause from their activities. The audience at the theater consisted of all ages. One victim died on his birthday. Another had just narrowly escaped another mass shooting Toronto, Canada. Then in August 2012 a gunman randomly killed seven people in a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

The frequency of such killings

The site of the Aurora, Colorado tragedy was just 15 miles from Columbine High School, the scene of a 1999 mass shooting where two gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher, before killing themselves. But from the reports of so many recent mass shootings, it seems that these events have occurred in many different places throughout the country.  It has happened in wealthy as well as impoverished communities. As a resident of Chicago, every day brings news of local shootings resulting in several dead and even more injured. Good weather often portends a gun battle somewhere in the city. Statistics given by Fox News state that the Newton Community in Connecticut is affluent with an average yearly family income of $400,000/year. This amount is well above the now well-known quoted $250,000 tax bracket that is being debated as the top wage earners while our country approaches the “fiscal cliff”.

According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the United States has been averaging 20 mass shootings each year, escalating since 2005.  However, it was during the 1980s, that the term “going postal’ became popular as some separate incidences of disgruntled postal workers began picking each other off.  

I don’t know if everyone sees it like I do, but it seems to me that these incidents of mass murders have been escalating. It feels like a society on the edge. It is a lot like my perception of hurricanes, although a natural phenomenon.  I’m about a half of a century old, and I don’t remember hearing much about hurricanes and shooters dressed in military combat outfits opening fire on innocent people at all.  I have heard some even say that these things take on a conspiracy theory type of hue that threatens our Constitutional right to bear arms.

What is the motive of a mass murderer?

The first question that comes to everyone’s mind is why?  Some city homicides are due to gang violence and often are tied to drug activities. But what about a lone gunman who takes an arsenal into a crowded movie theater or to a school full of innocent kindergarteners and elementary students? Many say that it is futile to try to determine the motive of such a killing.  Stephen Albrecht, head of the San Diego Association of Threat Assessment Professionals told Skynews in a telephone interview after the Aurora, Colorado shooting that people “tend to rationalise the irrational behaviour of the people around us and thus skip over signs of an individual on the verge of violence.”  Basically even if someone is a suspect, they are not sure what to do about it. 

A person who acts strange, has mental illness, or even buys a gun is not usually a mass murderer. A person cannot be locked up just because they are different or eccentric. Even most who say they “feel like hurting someone” actually never do commit acts of violence. In my past work in a clinic, we evaluated for homicidal and suicidal ideation. This was largely based on the client’s own affirmation, those of significant others, and history. Then there are those who just plainly negate any such thoughts and have no history. The science of determining those who are a danger to themselves and others is not so exact due to the fickle nature of human beings. In terms of suicide, a person must say that they want to harm themselves, have a plan, and also have a feasible means of carrying it out.

While the examination of the factors and causes of a mass murder is really too broad to address in a short blog, some brief statements can be made. The nature of the killer, type of victim, and motives vary. There are killers who attack people they know and those who assail random strangers. Two main motives identified include revenge and the need for fame and/or attention (Wikipedia). The latter is the reason why many people fear copycat acts of violence after a major event. 

Also there is the question of whether the acts of an individual are really the symptoms of a sick society in general.  In the example of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, one can question the coincidence of the type of movie premier selected by the killer which was one noted for grotesque violence.  Witnesses state that the killer dressed like the “Joker” of the Batman movie and was carrying out a scene similar to the Dark Knight. There also have been questions made as to why children and even infants were at a midnight showing of an PG13-rated movie in the first place.

But what about innocent children who are just doing their lessons in school?  Or someone who might be out shopping for their loved ones for Christmas presents?

Talking about it actually helps to bring about healing

In the face of tragedy, silence is actually one of the worst enemies.Trying to hide or sweep something under the carpet only intensifies the horror and pain. Withholding conversation does not protect anyone especially children.  It only makes them feel that others are unavailable to help them. Although we do have to be careful how we approach the topic. I overheard one local student say that when his school made a special announcement that there was a tragedy today in our country, he thought that the December 21, 2012 “End of the World” was starting to be put into motion, that our city was under attack, or that someone had been assassinated. A panic set in his mind before the speaker explained the crisis in Connecticut.

Talking it out, answering questions, and remaining active brings about healing.  Rather than retreating in fear, getting involved in healing and giving expression to our feelings can help with overcoming trauma.  This can take on many forms which include art work, sending donations to victims, writing letters, praying, as well as participation in community programs.  Giving acknowledgement and vaildation of the pain experienced after such an event is important.

Reaction to mass murderer

Figuring out a cause of such a tragedy doesn’t take away the pain and shock. In fact, we cannot know entirely what it is like to lose someone in such a senseless tragedy unless we have experienced it ourselves. But we do share in some of the elements of the shock, terror, and sorrow of such an event.  As a society we all suffer. And in a way, such events that show the worst in some people, can also bring out the best in others. These are the times that communities can come together and people start to think about turning back to God and participating in their houses of worship.

My daughter’s own high school issued a statement that included the following words today: “Tragic events such as today’s also gives us an opportunity to pray together as a family/community to remember the fact that even in terrible situations good things happen in response (courage, self-sacrifice and love), and that if we are to have peace in our homes, community and world  — it always begins with each one of us.”

Let us never forget our source of peace, the Prince of Peace, through such difficult times. That our sorrows and sufferings on this earth are not in vain but can have deep spiritual value.

Obtained from the Catholic Study Fellowship Facebook page:

“Dear brothers and sisters, I pray God may open your eyes and let you see what hidden treasures He bestows on us in the trials from which the world thinks only to flee. Shame turns into honor when we seek God’s glory. Present affliction become the source of heavenly glory. To those who suffer wounds in fighting His battles God opens His arms in loving, tender friendship. That is why He (Christ) tells us that if we want to join Him, we shall travel the way He took….”  from a letter by Saint John of Avila
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A Pilgrim by Blood and by Heart: On the Discovery of My Mayflower Roots This Thanksgiving

The grave stone of Constance Hopkins Snow, Mayflower Pilgrim, at Cove’s Burying Ground in Eastham, MA

That’s right, Mayflower roots. I could barely believe it myself. Those of you who have been following this blog know that my hobby is genealogy. Serendipitously I recently came across some information about a couple of ancestors from my Grandma Pearl Walker’s line. When I initially started my research, I did not even imagine the possibility of having direct Revolutionary War patriots in my family tree, let alone a real live (or should I say deceased) pilgrim or two.  Who would have known it?  But there they were: Stephen Hopkins (1581-1644), my 12x great grandfather and his daughter Constance Hopkins(1606-1677), my 11x great grandmother.

Stephen Hopkins, a survivor and quite the character

Stephen Hopkins was born 1581 in Hampshire England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Her successor, King James I chartered the Virginia Company to establish a colony in the new world. Stephen Hopkins, an adventurous spirit, set out to sail to Jamestown, Virginia on the supply ship named Sea Venture in 1609.  His first wife Mary and three children Elizabeth, Constance, and Giles remained in England for this endeavor and received some of his wages as a minister’s clerk and indentured servant. On his way to Jamestown he encountered a violent storm and was shipwrecked in Bermuda for 10 months. His fellow castaways included John Rolfe, who later married Pocahontas; and Sir Thomas Gates who was to serve as Jamestown’s new governor.  Stephen was in the company of Gates but complained and questioned the governor’s authority.  As a result, Stephen was charged, found guilty of mutiny, and sentenced to death.  After pleading for mercy and in tears, his sentence was dropped.  “So penitent he was, and made so much moan, alleging the ruin of his wife and children in this his trespass, as it wrought in the hearts of all the better sorts of the company.”  (Obtained from Mayflowerhistory.com).  It is said that a subplot in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was likely based on Stephen Hopkins’ character.   

Eventually in 1610 the castaways were able to construct two boats made of cedar that took them to Jamestown. Stephen reportedly worked in Jamestown from 1610 until about 1614 when news emerged that his first wife had suddenly died in England leaving his children alone and under the care of the Church. Stephen then returned to England and married Elizabeth Fisher. Upon learning about a Mayflower voyage to start a new colony in “Northern Virginia”, Stephen signed up. Not many passengers took their entire family on the Mayflower, but Stephen Hopkins decided to take his pregnant second wife, all of his known living children, and two male servants with him for what would become the infamous treacherous journey in 1620.

We come from hearty stock

102 passengers and 30 crew men were crammed into the 100 foot Mayflower in September 1620. The gale tossed ship veered off course from its destination to Virginia and ended up being docked in Cape Cod in November of that year where the Mayflower Compact was signed.  Two passengers died at sea.  There was one birth during the journey.  Stephen Hopkins’ wife gave birth to a son, Oceanus.  Upon arrival to Plymouth, winter had set in leaving no time to build adequate housing so most of the passengers lived onboard the Mayflower docked in the harbor.  Conditions were very poor on the ship that was cramped and dirty.  Half of the Pilgrims would die that first winter. The Hopkins was the only family unit to survive entirely through that ordeal.

Stephen was noted to be of great help as an explorer of the territory in his knowledge of hunting, fishing, and was considered the “expert” on the Natives from his experiences at Jamestown.  It is said that the first meeting with the Native Americans was at the Hopkins’ residence and that Samoset had stayed overnight in Stephen’s home.  Stephen was an assistant to the governor from 1633-36.  However, he soon fell out of favor with the Plymouth Colony after he set up a shop and served alcohol. He was fined for playing shuffleboard on Sunday, allowing excessive drinking in his house, selling beer at excessive prices, and a looking glass for twice its worth. He also seriously wounded John Tisdale in a fight.  Stephen died in 1644 desiring to be buried by his second wife, and leaving a will to his surviving children.

Constance Hopkins, a young teen on the Mayflower

Constance Hopkins was born in Hampshire, England in 1606.  She was only 14 years old when she came to American on the Mayflower with her father Stephen Hopkins, stepmother Elizabeth, brother Giles, and stepsister Damaris.  Constance may have been one of the first European women to step foot in New England since Freydis, the sister of Leif Ericsson in about 1002-1006 AD.  Constance’s future husband, Nicholas Snow later arrived on the ship Anne in 1623.  The couple eventually moved to Eastham, Massachusetts.  According to records written by William Bradford in 1651, Constance Hopkins Snow had 12 children with “all of them living.” She died in 1677 and is buried in Cove Burying Ground in Eastham, MA.  Constance Hopkins’ original hat made of beaver pelt is on display in the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

 Constance’s daughter, Sarah Snow (1632-1697), would marry William Walker (my 10x great grandfather) in 1655.  William Walker is a direct ancestor of my Grandmother Pearl Walker.  Former President Ulysses S. Grant also is noted to have descended from Sarah Snow.

The first Thanksgiving

Many cultures lay claim to a “First Thanksgiving.”  In fact, many faiths have feasts and occasions which observe giving thanks to God.  The term Eucharist itself means “good gift.” Although most Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, even the events that occurred at Plymouth are up to debate. History points to the Pilgrim Thanksgiving as being observed on the occasion of a bountiful harvest after a particularly difficult winter.  Those who had survived starvation and witnessed the death of 50% of the population the prior winter desired first to show their gratitude to God and to share out of their abundance.  However this feast was not observed every year.   William Bradford called a feast whenever the community experienced a time of drought or need followed by a shipment of supplies or a productive crop.

God’s gift in my own life

My own life has a special connection to Thanksgiving.  After experiencing a miscarriage from my first pregnancy, I felt uncertain if I would be able to ever have any children.  Upon discovering that I was expecting another child, it was with great joy that I learned of the due date of my son was to be on Thanksgiving Day in 1995. The name I chose was “Jonathan” meaning “God’s gift” or God is gracious”.  As it happened, he ended up being born 3 days before Thanksgiving that year!

We all are privileged

We are all privileged regardless of our ancestry. In the midst of our troubles many of us have a tendency to forget that God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in distress. (Psalms 46:2).  Whether or not we choose to acknowledge Him, all good gifts come from God, and even the challenges as well as the gift of our own lives. The early Pilgrims experienced this upon the raging seas and through times of plentiful harvest and blessings.  All of us are pilgrims on a journey to God.  Along the way we encounter periods of abundance intertwined with times of great need.  This brings to mind a famous poem that was once found on a soldier in Gettysburg:

A Christian Confederate Soldier’s Prayer

(Anon – alleged to have been found on a CSA casualty at the Devil’s Den, Gettysburg)

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve. I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things.I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy. I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.

I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.

I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

(Information for this article was gathered from various websites including pilgrimhall.org, mayflowerhistory.com, wikipedia and my family tree at ancestry.com).

My great grandfather George C Walker and his daughter my grandmother Pearl Irene Walker, both descendants of Pilgrims Stephen and Constance Hopkins. Photo taken about 1912 in Niagara Falls, NY

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