Spiritual Reflections

Vulnerability and Tenderness

Truthfully, we are vulnerable at every stage of life, especially during often lonely periods of significant personal losses. What a gift and a need it is to cultivate adult friends whose thoughtful presence shapes our wellbeing, and uplifts our spirits. Trusted companions keep delight in our lives and soften the hurt in our hearts.

Her tiny fingers, and pale, pink nails, were so delicate and her golden, almost transparent eyelashes, rested on her baby soft cheeks. She fit into the palm of her mother’s trembling hand. She was perfect but born too soon to survive. 

I sat silently with her parents as they wept and rocked gently, the pain of loss seeping deeply into their souls. They were a healthy-looking couple, staffers for a mid-western senator. Life in DC had fallen into place with good jobs and their first baby on the way. It was all wholesome and tidy. How could this cruel thing happen? I had no answers. Would I lead a prayer service for their baby they asked? Then they would take her ashes back home to Iowa, to the safety of their parents and families. 

The morning of the memorial prayer, staff and friends gathered–standing room only. The couple had chosen a simple Belleek shamrock container for the baby’s ashes. A poignant hush came over the room as prayer began. When the ritual finished, reverently, tenderly, the gatherers approached the parents with empathy, softly spoken words and loving gestures. A lovely, well dressed middle-aged woman approached me and said, “I had a miscarriage once but, in those days, no one acknowledged it or even blessed the child’s existence. I was devastated and I still carry a silent pain within me. I realized today that what I needed was the tenderness of a loving community surrounding me in one of the most vulnerable moments of my young life.” 

Vulnerability in a culture like ours is often viewed as weak, undignified, or even shameful. Pain, hurt, tragedy, and deep loss make us vulnerable because these experiences quietly drill deep inside and leave us depleted. They exhausts us. Often, we have learned to hoard our pain, trying to pretend that we are strong and invulnerable. Tears and fragility show weakness and are often scoffed at. As a result, we learn to buck up, hold up or numb out, and are encouraged not to cry! 

Only in the last few years have we, as a community, seriously opened our conversation to the topic of vulnerability. We learned how to spell it, and admit it; we learned how to own it ourselves and express it in honest and intimate conversation. I am so grateful! 

Life-long friends die, community members become victims of domestic violence as when two of our friends were murdered. One of them, our Sister Angela, has never been found. We fall victim to serious and debilitating illnesses. COVID claims beloved family members. Financial instabilities begin to plague us; many of our communities of Sisters move toward completion; our Haitian sisters are kidnapped! How could our safe and sheltered life have become so thoroughly threatened, even destroyed? We say, we have become like everybody else! As the shield of protection peels away, our eyes are opened. Yes, the vulnerability has touched us too. How can this be? How did we fail to understand, empathize, and reach out to those caught in such pain? How did we fail to access our own deep-seated pain and respond to others experiencing the same? Tenderness is nourished in such soil, prompting loving, gentle responses to others. An inner knowing of hurt and pain can sometimes heal another through great tenderness. 

The gift of tenderness often starts with an ability to respond to infants and children. I remember several infants who cried incessantly and the tender attempts by their families to make that vulnerable little person more comfortable. They tried walking, rocking, dancing, singing, rhythmical patting, stroking, cooing, running the vacuum, and riding around in a car to comfort the crying child. 

Children almost always crave gentle, loving tenderness to sooth the hurts and disappointments of childhood. They are softhearted and vulnerable beyond belief, and many wounds result from insensitive treatment or the dearth of tender responses to their childhood needs. Besides parents, other adults can gently shield children from the wounds of childhood vulnerabilities. Pets, too, often provide tender, emotional support with their warm, soft, licks and cuddling behavior. 

Teens, who find themselves in a confusing, sensitive and vulnerable stage of life, often require tending by patient, caring adults and significant peers who provide affirmation, affection, companionship, and unconditional listening during many teen dramas and transitions. 

Truthfully, we are vulnerable at every stage of life, especially during often lonely periods of significant personal losses. What a gift and a need it is to cultivate adult friends whose thoughtful presence shapes our wellbeing and uplifts our spirits. Trusted companions keep delight in our lives and soften the hurt in our hearts. 

Incredibly necessary is fidelity to our personal relationship with God. Habits of daily prayer, nurturing spiritual reading, and praying with a community, enrich life and take the sting out of loneliness. Believing that our loving God awaits us at the end of the day, greets us at the rising of the sun and accompanies us at every moment sustains us through our vulnerabilities 

As I age, I realize how much the tenderness of friends anchors me. Simple, sensitive words and gestures have sustained me along the way; like my dear friend piling up five blankets to warm the chills left by a major illness; my life-long friend presenting me with a hand-calligraphed book of our favorite poems; holding the hand of a dying friend surrounded by a room full of our newest members singing the Salve as she peacefully moved into paradise; midnight sharing with friends over a glass of wine; spending holidays with my brother and sister, their spouses, their children and their children’s children. Living community, committee work with sisters and associates who share my concerns for our earth; being inspired by women I met in vocation/ formation discernment, watching them make vows and live the mission with generosity and integrity; and in all of my vulnerability still feeling embraced by the tender love of God for these last 77 years. Amen, it has been so. 

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