Sometimes life is difficult. With every step we feel the weight of the world breaking us down. Can we continue to be people of hope when there seems to be none? What follows is an edited witness talk our intern, Teresa Breckler, gave last summer at a high school theology institute after two months of service work at a Benedictine Abbey. In it, she discusses hope even in being broken..
Our morning reflection for today was about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. There are two lessons for us in Christ’s actions to His disciples. Perhaps the immediate reaction for us is to consider the lesson that is obvious, Christ’s words that “you also have to wash one another’s feet”. This calling of Jesus for us to serve one another I would designate as “outwards”.
Yet there is also an “inwards” lesson, the lesson that Peter must learn. What is this inner lesson? Plain and simple, the inner lesson is for us, like Peter, to accept Christ’s love which touches our deepest brokenness and grossest dirtiness. Consider the fact that Christ is washing the disciples’ feet. Feet are also the dirtiest and the most broken parts of our bodies, which is made apparent by the fact that it is often our feet which are the most calloused. Calluses form as a defensive fight to constant tension and rupture, and thus it is seen that, as our feet are often the most calloused, they are generally the most broken part of us. The “inwards” lesson (that Peter is the guinea pig for) is that we must let Christ touch our brokenness. I don’t know about all of you but I struggle with vulnerability, if anyone tries to figure me out I retreat, knowing how to diplomatically reveal just enough that they think I have said all there is to say and will then leave me alone, imagining everything to be fine or even great. But if we are to follow Peter and be in the personal relationship with Christ we are called to, we must, I repeat, must let Christ touch our brokenness.
In order for Christ to touch us we must do three things. We must recognize, acknowledge, and submit. [During summer 2019] I went to an Abbey and worked as a farm hand. In particular I worked with the sheep and got to help shear them. For anyone that hasn’t gotten to do this before, allow me to explain. The sheep were corralled in a barn, and we had to try and corner them, catch them by the head, and drag them to the shearer. I got knocked over two or three times while doing this, which was super fun. The cool thing about sheep is that they are prey animals. So, once we got them to the shearer and they realized that they were caught, they stopped struggling, wouldn’t cry out, and went limp. Then they were sheared, their dirty wool full of bracken, manure, and bedding from the winter, and bags as big as me were filled with their wool that was good for processing and the parts that were too dirty were thrown away.
The sheep likely recognized the shearer immediately upon his arrival. Having been sheared before they knew themselves to be safe but refused to acknowledge the reality of their imminent shearing, fighting us and trying to escape in the confined quarters. Yet eventually they did acknowledge reality. They were sheep about to get sheared. The baggage they had been carrying around for months was meant to be taken away and lifted from their shoulders. The shearer was the master. In acknowledging the relationship of themselves to the shearer, the sheep let an instinct that from the outside seems stupid, but from our wiser human perspective, is beautiful and wonderful, take over. The sheep submitted.
When they submitted the shears snipped away the grump and disproportionate baggage full of manure, and rotting debris, their true forms that were delicate and beautiful were revealed. The now-useless wool that would make them hot in the summer, trap dirt, and soak up and drag them underwater is a gift to us. Amongst many things, we use it to keep warm and to make clothes and blankets. There is a quote that “man does not find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”. The sheep, in giving their wool, had their true forms revealed by the shearer. We, through giving of ourselves, find our true selves through also recognizing God, acknowledging God, and finally submitting to God. In this three-part process both the sheep and us are freed. It is the sheep’s baggage, lifted away and transformed, that is their greatest gift. It is our brokenness, lifted away and transformed, that is our greatest gift. This gift is again both for ourselves and for others, both inwards and outer.
Our brokenness is what leads to the revelation of our true form, and in the process of truly finding ourselves, we are truly healed. Yet, at least for me, I have experienced moments when I pray desperately to God for healing and try to pour all of myself into doing His will to seemingly no avail. A year before this talk I prayed for healing as I lit a candle in the grotto. Lighting a candle a year later I initially felt a bit confused. If anything, the year between the candles had been one of the hardest, and seemingly least meaningful years of my life. I was left dry, asking God why He seemed to not only be silent when I tried with all my might to love others and do His will, but to furthermore be kicking me in the teeth. Yet as I continued to light my candle, a lightbulb made it through my brain, one God has been working on for a long, long time.
The lightbulb was this-in order to be healed, one must be broken. Now I know this sounds depressing, like, ‘Come on God, when will this journey end?!’ My hardest battle last year was against this thought ‘I’m not enough God. I can’t deal with this anymore. I can’t. I’m not enough.’ But think of a Spanish knight who once had a leg heal incorrectly from a cannon ball wound. He would have been fine for the remainder of his life, limping, but still able to rise in the ranks and ride his horse into battle. Yet he chose to rebreak his leg in order that it would be authentically healed. As brutal and frightening as this sounds, consider a Japanese pottery called “kintsugi”, in which chips or breaks in a piece are mended with a glue that has gold or silver dust in it, highlighting what was once broken and making it more beautiful and valuable than it ever was before or ever would be if it remained perfect and untouched. The gold would never touch the pottery unless it was first chipped. For us as well, Christ would never fill and mold us so completely if there were not moments of breaking. The breaking is real, but “the beauty is in the breaking”, and the beauty is true and is what lasts and pours value and meaning into the apparent meaningless pain of being broken.
As real as the pain and suffering is, in whatever all of you are going through, the joy is more real because it will last while the pain will fade. Joy will come, more powerful and liberating than the burdens that we carry only to be lifted off our shoulders, transformed and given, to our joy and others. “Our woundedness is the entry point for Christ” to come inward. And receiving Him is what empowers us, freed of our baggage, to go outwards and to give, made truly whole through the sincere gift of ourselves.
In summary, there are inseparable inner and outer lessons from Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet. In order to live these lessons out, we must let Him touch our brokenness. In order to let Him touch our brokenness we must recognize, acknowledge, and submit to Christ like the sheep to the shearer; and like the golden pottery, our brokenness is our greatest and most joyful gift to both us and to others.
[Now a year after this speech was first given, all I can say is a genuine and heartfelt thank you to God, My First Love, and to St. Benedict and the Benedictine nuns, as well as my family and the University of Notre Dame program facilitators and sponsors. All of you gave and shared with me the beautiful gift and privilege of participating in the Benedictine life in a small but real way. -Teresa Breckler, summer 2020]