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Creation arises from the chaos of our messy lives

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Patricia Livingston leads workshops, retreats and seminars throughout the country. In 1990, Livingston was given the U.S. Catholic Award by U.S. Catholic magazine, for furthering the cause of women in the Catholic church. She is author of Lessons of the Heart. Her newest book, This Blessed Mess: Finding Hope Amidst Life’s Chaos, was just published by Sorin Books. She lives with her husband, Howard Gordon, in Tampa, Fla.

NCR: Your book title says that life is a blessed mess. How do you find hope in the chaos?

Livingston: We are raised thinking that our lives are supposed to flow smoothly. When the inevitable struggles and mishaps come, we think there’s something wrong with us. I grew up thinking that my life would unfold with a certain peace and stability and nothing much would go wrong. Boy, was I mistaken! When I give talks, people are so relieved to hear out loud that life is just very messy for almost all of us.

We’re educated to think that the messiness is not supposed to be there?

Yes, and sometimes you can keep that illusion going for quite a while. But sooner or later the messes will happen. It helps especially if you are white and live in the First World.

You can escape a lot of stuff, but still the bad things happen to everyone. When something finally goes wrong and the mess knocks on the door, you just want it to go away. It seems unreal. Of course, it doesn’t go away, you have to stay with it. And gradually you discover that it has a life of its own. And it’s helpful for us to sit and be with that knowledge.

You find in the end, too, that things that matter wouldn’t happen if you didn’t have a messy life. If the failure or catastrophe is always what meets your eye, then that’s what it is. But when you start looking you will see that very often new life comes out of the broken places and that the chaos was the raw material for it. That dynamic is all through scripture, and it’s also all through life itself.

Every time I come onto a new example of this I get excited. I visited my son and his wife once just after they moved to Alabama and there I ran across a monument to the boll weevil. It seems that long ago that insect pest had come and devastated the cotton crop in the area. Farmers were desperate. How could they make a living without their cotton? But it was discovered that raising peanuts instead made a good cash crop. The weevils didn’t bother them. Peanuts were, in fact, easier to raise. A whole new way of farming came from that catastrophe. So they put up a memorial to the pest.

That is a good little parable for what you are saying.

My sister struggles mightily with mental illness. I think about how much we all savor life more when her medications are working. Every day is a gift to her. And no matter what is going on in my life, I think of the victory that every single day is for her. There is great dignity and heroism in her struggle every day. We would have never chosen these terrible struggles, but often, besides being terrible afflictions, they are also a light for us.

Even science tells us now that chaos is the raw material for new things, for creation. There’s a whole science of chaos theory that spells out how this works. Nature is just not orderly in daily experience. She loves order, but she gets there through messes. Chaos mixes everything up. There are countless books out now about chaos in organizations, and look at how new ways of living the religious life have arisen out of the chaos that came about when the old ways are dying.

You can’t just read about this; you have to experience it. You have to find the pearl of great price on your own. The whole idea of writing my book began for me when we had a season of death in my family. We had one terrible emergency after another. Both of my parents died within a few months of each other. And then, within a year of the anniversary of the death of my dad, my sons got married, my daughter had my first grandchild and I got engaged after being divorced for 20 years. I saw close-up how winter leads to spring. This stuff doesn’t just happen in nature. It is really true in life. I think that I savor my joys much better now than before because we had that long season of trouble.

That sounds suspiciously like the Beatitudes, doesn’t it?

We need each other. This is exactly what the Beatitudes are about. What is good about being poor? Nothing! But when we are poor, when we are hungry, kindness means so much to us. When we need food, then a little ham tastes wonderful. My mother used to say hunger is the best sauce.

For example, a couple of weeks ago my daughter and I were in a department store with her 3-year-old, who’s at that age when he loves to run away from you. We went up on the escalator and we lost him. We looked for 15 minutes and all we could think of was that somebody took him. We finally found him with an older woman, who had found him wandering. She was telling him a little story. Tears were just running down my face, when I exclaimed, “How could we ever thank you?” “Honey,” she said, “just seeing the look on your face is all the thanks I need.” Our vulnerability that magnified that woman’s kindness is a treasure to me.

What are some ways to move from chaos to creation?

One is remembering that God initiates. I don’t think that we were taught to think that way. We were taught that prayer is raising our minds and hearts to God, as if we always do all the work. I have learned that it is not all up to me, that God stuns me with generosity and creativity. Sometimes I think of it as a wink or a high five. It happens all the time.

Once long ago I was visiting my husband’s parents in the town where he grew up. I got up early to go to Mass, trying not to wake the baby who had been up five times in the night. I pulled up in front of the church in a heavy winter fog and sat there completely lost, disoriented and bewildered, not just from the fog but from the strains of motherhood. There were no lights on in the church. Then out of the fog came walking a figure in a black raincoat. He came right up to my car, opened the door and looked in. Then he said in a rich brogue from County Kerry, “Ah, little one, ya came for Mass and you haven’t heard that I came and changed the time. Come back at 8:30, and we’ll be ready for ya.”

From then on through many bouts with loss and bewilderment, God seems to come to me and say, “Ah, little one.” I am reminded that God is not a stone idol to be carried around, but an active presence. God is always with us, finding us in the fog. Connecting with God is not always up to me. It’s the friend calling at just the right time, or the moonlight coming through your window, or when you read a line in scripture that had never hit you before but it’s just right for the predicament you happen to be in. You know that energy did not come from you.

Another way to move from chaos to creation is in just connecting with life. Some people are gardeners. For them, God opens a window all the time. And for me these days it is certainly my little grandchildren. Little George who is just 3 was staying with me the other day and he ate two bowls of oatmeal one morning. I said, “George, you are a great eater.” And he looked back at me and said, “George is the man!” A cheerful little connection there. By surrounding ourselves with life, we open the door of our chaos to the creation around us. Life pulls us out of our isolation. It distracts us from dismal concerns. Look for the goodness. We learn to count on and remember the goodness that comes to us every day, and that came to us in the past. It doesn’t come just to special people; it comes to everybody.

My air conditioning needed servicing recently, and the service guy came and noticed I was writing a book about messes. He ended up telling me his story.

“I was an orphan at 7 in the West Virginia mountains,” he said. “My mother died when I was 5. My father died when I was 7. There were nine of us. They sent the younger kids to an orphanage in Tennessee. We thought it was the end of the world. Yet at that orphanage everyone had their own bed. There was always enough to eat. There was a basketball court and a baseball diamond. We had our own clothes. We were dressed better than most kids in school who were poor in the Smoky Mountains. There was one little girl in my homeroom class; her clothes were mostly patches. She grew up and she wrote a song about them. You may have heard of her, Dolly Parton? Have you ever heard her song about patches?

“I’ve made something of myself. My little appliance repair business is doing fine. It was a terrible thing being an orphan but it made me who I am.”

These then are the blessings in the messes: Something takes you in a direction that you would never have gone yourself, and it turns out for the better. Or something occurs inside that makes us more compassionate and tolerant. We become deeper, more capable of loving and more appreciative of kindness. And we learn that we are not really alone. We have moments in the presence of God, which I think are mostly mediated by the love of other people. The times that people feel closest are the times when they go through some kind of struggle together.

This is what I have learned, and this is what I try to share in my book: Life is filled with struggle, and struggle is filled with love.

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000