Three Wise Men
The Three Wise Men by John Hall Thorpe


For Christians at least, the Magi—those “wise men from the East”—made the first pilgrimage, journeying to Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. They bore with them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and ever since, giving gifts has been an indelible part of the Christmas season.

I hate getting gifts.

Okay, that may be a tad melodramatic, but there have been many times in my life when I’ve felt I owe the giver something I’m not rich enough or clever enough or loving enough to repay, which, instead of making me grateful, makes me feel second-rate, resentful.

I expect my problems with receiving gifts go back to my alcohol-fumed childhood. When he’d had enough to drink, my grandfather would try to give me one of his rifles or a hunting knife. Usually, my mother would head him off at the pass, but I remember when he talked her into letting him give me a 7mm Mauser and then showed up the next week to take it back, only to give it to me again a year later.

Grampy’s ex-wife, who unfortunately never heard of Al Anon, the 12-step program for families of alcoholics (and wouldn’t have gone if she had), was apparently convinced that her grandchildren could never love her unless she brought us a gift when she visited. Sometimes, it was cheap, like the model airplane that broke the first time I flew it. Other times, she’d spend money she couldn’t afford on presents such as a Hopalong Cassidy cap pistol in a genuine leather holster. Either way—if the wing fell off the plane or Nanny couldn’t pay her phone bill—I felt I was to blame. And no matter what the gift, I could never act happy enough. “Mmph. He must not like it,” Nanny would say to Mom, as if I wasn’t standing between them. “I don’t know why I bother.”

Which probably explains why, of all the teachings of my faith, the one I struggle the hardest with is grace: that God’s gifts come to us with no strings attached. At Christmas, I’m expected to believe that God became human solely out of love, not because of anything we’ve done to earn that love. I’d rather believe “God helps those who help themselves.” I’d rather be the transformed Scrooge, buying the biggest turkey in the market to give to Tiny Tim, than I would Joseph, standing off to one side of the manger, welcoming a baby he hadn’t fathered.

Ironically, it’s been the death of my daughter that has helped me see—although as “through a glass, darkly”—how grace works. Like every parent who’s ever lost a child I suppose, I kept asking “Why?” Why did my previously healthy daughter, who didn’t drink or smoke, didn’t even eat meat for God’s sake, die from this rare cancer?

Then, maybe ten years after Laurie died, I had coffee with a woman who’d recently watched her son die in a fire. The first thing she said to me was, “How have you survived?” I thought her question was extreme, until I recalled Stan, whom I’d gotten to know a little when we were in grief counseling together (he’d also lost a daughter), who had committed suicide. Recently, I’d read about another grieving father who hung himself in his garage.

How had I survived?

I recalled all the clergy, spiritual directors, and mentors who appeared unannounced in my life just when I needed them most. The way my wife, whom I’d barely known when we decided to leave our spouses and live together, and who by all logic, should have left me years earlier, stayed by me. Why had these people appeared when they did? Why did Mary Lee remain? I had no more answers than I did for why Laurie died.

Thus, I took my first steps in trying to live, in the words of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, “without why,” which, even if we’re not mystics, is what I expect all of us who’ve lost children learn to do.

Since then I’ve been better about being open to grace. Pilgrimages have helped. I think of Paul, a young priest in Jerusalem, who gave Mary Lee and me a personal tour of the Old City the first night we arrived; of an Agape service on the island of Iona in Scotland, where we shared raisins and water while a young man standing in an alcove in the ancient abbey played “Round Midnight” on a saxophone; the large gray fox that visited us every night under a full moon at the Desert House of Prayer in Arizona.

Still, it’s hard not to want to be more active, set things right, help those I see as having less than I do. What’s even more difficult is to ask for something specific for myself. Unless I ask for the impossible, like having a healthy daughter back, or the generic, like world peace, or try to be funny by asking for broader shoulders, I feel selfish, sinful, not to mention dependent and needy.

But Jesus often asked people some form of “What is it that you want?”

How would I answer him?

The best I can do is to fall back on the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

And, I might add, the eyes to see the grace that surrounds me.




The Circular Pilgrimage

Alcyon Center Seal Cove, Maine
Alcyon Center
Seal Cove, Maine

The summer after graduating from high school, I worked for the Maine State Forest Service, wandering around wood lots looking for the gooseberry bushes that cause white pine blister rust. I can’t tell you the number of times I’d start out planning to walk in a straight line from one end of the lot to the other, only to find an hour later that I’d made some kind of lopsided circle and was back to where I’d begun.

I didn’t realize at the time (God, how many times have I said that?) that this was going to be the pattern of my life.

So many memoirs I’ve read detail the author’s linear journey from a youth mired in a swamp of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to a mountaintop of serenity, compassion, and enlightenment. Much as I’d like to see my life that way, beginning in ignorance and leading step-by-step to wisdom, my journey seems to have been more labyrinthine.

Which makes me wonder if the reason you see more and more labyrinths on church grounds or at retreat houses is that other people also see the labyrinth as a more appropriate symbol of their spiritual or psychological (Jung has a lot to say about labyrinths) journeys, too.

Labyrinths have been around since antiquity in every culture and just about every spiritual tradition. They come in a number of styles, but the one most popular today is based on the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, built around 1200, apparently as a substitute for the pilgrimages people were making to Jerusalem. If you were too poor, too infirm, too sick, or too old to journey that far, you could go to Chartres and walk the labyrinth.

While most people I know who regularly walk a labyrinth do so to meditate, pray, or find serenity, I find the experience frustrating. I get impatient with all those damn loops and turns.

Which is what the labyrinth has to teach me, I guess.

Redemptorist Center Tucson, Arizona
Redemptorist Center
Tucson, Arizona

If you’ve never walked a labyrinth, know that your goal is follow the circuitous path from the outside to the center, which, symbolically, can represent wholeness and authenticity, the so called “true self,” enlightenment, repentance, healing, whatever your interior goal might be.

What’s frustrating is that as you start out, the center is immediately in front of you. If you walked a straight line, you’d get there in seconds. Then, you swing to the left, but that’s okay, because soon you loop around and now the center is even closer to you. You walk toward it until, just before you get to the center, the path veers and you find yourself circling the center without being able to enter it. From there, it’s one goddamned loop after another, taking you further and further from where you want to be, every now and then moving towards the center again so that you think, “Ah, now I’m going to get there,” before taking you to the outer edges, as far away from your goal as possible. Until eventually, finally, and at the same time suddenly, you loop back and you’re standing at the entrance to the center.

And this has been the template of my life, whether it’s playing basketball or the banjo, writing a novel, or stumbling through grief. There’s that initial “Oh, this isn’t going to be too bad, there’s my goal right ahead of me,” followed by anger and frustration as I get further and further away from where I want to be.

After my daughter died, for example, I could see what happiness looked like—hell, most of the people I knew were happy, happier than I was anyway—but grief’s path turned away: into my den with a box of cigars and a bottle of scotch. Six months or so after Laurie died, however, my wife and I took a trip to visit some of her friends and family in Colorado. We stayed in a motel that looked out over the Rockies, and I bought a cowboy hat and a western belt buckle, drank margaritas, and pretended I was Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove.

“There. I’m over it,” I thought.

And the next few months were okay, until I went to a school band concert and saw a girl with hair the color of Laurie’s leaning forward at the piano, eyes intent on the sheet music. I recalled my daughter’s practicing scales in the living room over and over until I thought I’d scream, my nervousness as I sat in the audience at her recitals, the way my heart kicked when she hit a wrong note.

Then I saw Laurie not at the piano but in a hospital bed. No hair. Eyes deep and recessed like sunken marbles. Drugged voice: “Whazz up, Dad?” And I began the long, winding trek through grief, one that has taken years to walk.

Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, Brunswick, Maine
Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust,
Brunswick, Maine

The good news is that a labyrinth is not a maze. You can’t get lost. There is only one path to the center, and what you have to do is to trust that no matter how far away from your goal you seem to be, you’ll get there. I look back and see that no matter how lost I felt, I wasn’t. The work has been to have the faith (in myself? in God? probably some combination thereof) and the patience to believe that the path, the one C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed, said often feels like “a circular trench,” leads to the center: to wholeness, to healing.

And it has. Eventually, finally, and at the same time suddenly, I found myself less self-absorbed, laughing more easily, singing more often.

But as for walking in the woods, I still need to bring a compass.