Reach for mercy, reach for joy

(Unsplash/Lukas Bornhauser)

I was watching television and noticed that someone had placed a gigantic sign in their kitchen that said, "REACH." The word intrigued me, and I decided to study it. I found that there are many psychological, theological and spiritual connotations surrounding it, as well as clichés, such as "reach for the stars, your goals, new heights, ambition, fulfillment, holiness, the height of grace," and many more. Mother Teresa wrote, "Love is a fruit in season at all times and within reach of every hand."

The word reach means to stretch out, extend or arrive at, and it marks an evolution through the stages of life. Looking back, I thought of times when reaching was meaningful to me, or in some instances, meaningless. My life's timeline has two broken places that took a lot of inner recovery: when I lost my health and never recovered physically, and when we lost our beloved son to suicide at the age of 17 in l999. Those were grief-wracked days when I was reaching for sanity.

Eventually, I learned to live with all the new normals and to redefine my life, but of course it was never the same. I learned the value of just "being" and what it means to be reached out to through the care of others, who, as Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees describes it, dabbed mercy on my beat-up life.

Eventually, I found my voice and established a ministry for the ill and grieving through writing a collection of books and essays and developing a support website. Reaching out from a place of knowing what people were going through was tremendously healing.

The image that comes to mind when I think of those days and of the word reach is one sent to me on a prayer card by my friend St. Joseph Sr. Mary Southard, an artist. It is a painting of an angel rising from the earth in an orb of light, with the slogan, "From the arms of love, to the arms of love, love will keep us."

There is a beautiful, swirling sense of movement to the work, of God reaching down and the angel reaching up, while people below stand with arms raised, releasing balloons and letting go, which is also a form of reaching.

Spiritual masters teach that besides reaching up or out, we should also reach within. As my friend Adolfo Quezada, who has also lost a child, teaches in his book Loving Yourself for God’s Sake, we do this in order to "live from the inside out," to find rest, perspective, faith, simplicity and spiritual well-being.

To reach down deeply within, to extend compassion to oneself, is to realize one's worth through the eyes of the soul. Especially when the consequences of mistakes, overwhelming fatigue and stress or tragedy cause us to feel as if we are mired in mud, we need to repeat this mantra to ourselves: Reach out to yourself with mercy. Give hope, healing, courage, God and others a chance.

Upon occasion, I babysit for my kid's Cavalier spaniel puppy, Reese. The other day, when I went to visit and walked in the door, he barreled over to me, standing on his hind legs, pawing my slacks, tail wagging a mile a minute, reaching for me to pick him up. I was overcome with sheer delight at how happy he was to see me, reminding me of Toni Morrison’s powerful quote asking if our eyes light up when a loved one or child enters a room.

As I reached down and picked him up, whereupon he exuberantly licked my face, I thought of how he had no agenda. He just wanted to be loved and to extend love, a reminder that we should always reach for joy.

As Henri Nouwen wrote, "We need to be angels for each other, to give each other strength and consolation, because only when we fully realize that the cup of life is not only a cup of sorrow but also a cup of joy will we be able to drink it."

As I write this, I am about to reach a milestone in my life, turning 65 years old. A new era is beckoning as I mark this rite of passage. There is stillness in the reaching now, a greater understanding of Romans 8:26, which says when we feel as if we can't pray, the spirit prays for us, within us.

To me, reaching is like that as well. I experience that bonding connection reaching up, out and within when I am doing simple, ordinary tasks like slowly doing the dishes as I enjoy the warm, soapy water or watch the friendly deer just outside our kitchen door as my husband feeds them their corn. I am mindful of his dear, aging face with his smeary glasses hanging askew, and I realize poignantly that our reaching days are numbered. I think of how vitally important it is to pay attention to what our hearts reach for and to discern whether it is life-giving or not.

Like most everyone at this age, I know what it is like to have reached beyond the end of one's rope, to find the way, to take the high road and to reach for, as Southard suggests, "the unknown, the possibility and the promise."

It feels good to reach for the fruits and wisdom of old age — a joy, really — knowing that there is still much to explore and to learn about this intriguing, sacred word, reach.

[Joni Woelfel is a longtime writer for the Catholic press, including NCR, and is the author of many books, including Tall in Spirit: Meditations for the Chronically Ill.]

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