Honesty and Grace

I’ve been writing a book.  There, I’ve said it.  I haven’t made it common knowledge mainly out of fear of not being able to finish what I’ve started and then having to explain to everyone who asked how things were going that I failed.  Also, it’s going by at a snail’s pace.  I don’t get to write until all the kids are tucked into bed each night, and by that time I’m mentally exhausted.  It’s a pretty good night if I’ve produced a couple of paragraphs with some semblance of cohesive thought by the time I stumble into my own bed.  At this rate I’ll be lucky to complete the book by the time my children are in college.

At least that’s what I was thinking the other day until talking with a group of women about Facebook.  Oh, Facebook…We were discussing how most people only ever present the very best versions of themselves on FB—their perfect homes, perfect families, perfect vacations…perfect food (I still don’t get why people post pics of the food they’re eating.  I’m sorry.  I just don’t.)—and how we often walk away feeling so inadequate, covetous, and ungrateful for the things we do have.

It all got me thinking about honesty and about how I present myself to the world; how it’s so much easier and safer to present the neat version of myself instead of the messy, self-doubting, or cynical version of me that I often fear will be rejected.

Safer…I’ve been wrestling a lot with the idea that so much of modern, Christian art and literature is safe—safe, sterile, and innocuous.  It doesn’t make anyone feel anything but cozy.  It’s not dangerous enough.

All of this is to say that I’ve scrapped the whole damn book.  I’ve put a big, fat red X through the words and tossed them aside, which is hard to do because these are words that I’ve written and somehow they are an extension of me!  But it needed to happen.  Most of what I’d written was innocuous.

Instead, I’ve started writing about the truly dark night of my own soul, about being in the clutches of severe depression and about contemplating death.  Only on a technicality can I say that I wasn’t suicidal.  I was much too afraid of God’s wrath to ever pull a trigger or throw myself from a cliff.  But I wanted an end, and begged God for one every chance I got.  He, it seemed, was always there wagging His finger or rolling His eyes.  I hated existence—both God’s and mine—and every waking moment for me was sheer torture.  But somehow God drew me out of all of this, and I began to learn what it means to be the child of God, to be loved and to find true healing.  I began to hope.  And hope, when entertained, begets courage.  Courage begets faith.  And faith, well, faith can move mountains.  I am not at all the person I once was.

Pelagianism—perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to write about the real me than it is to write about the neatly fabricated me (though I will say the neat version of me is a heck of a lot funnier and smarter than I really am).  Who knows, maybe I’ll finish the whole thing before the kids head off to high school.

And for those of you wondering (and asking) when I’m going to write something funny again I promise it’s coming.  I’m planning an entire post just for you and I think I’ll entitle it “As You Like It.”  And, yes, that’s a reference to Shakespeare.

On Merton

Those closest to me know that I have a deep and tremendous love for Thomas Merton.   In fact, there is no Catholic writer who has had a more profound impact on my life than he.  I was reading New Seeds of Contemplation when I entered seminary.  His words were like water on parched ground.  They drew me out of my self-absorbed, navel-gazing spirituality and awakened inside of me a desire to contemplate God in a new way and to make myself vulnerable to Him.  I had read in his book that God “answers Himself in us and this answer is divine life, divine creativity, making all things new.  We ourselves become His echo and His answer.  It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation He answered the question, so that the contemplation is at the same time, question and answer.”  I wanted to become God’s echo and His answer.

It was while reading the Seven Story Mountain that I actually began considering Catholicism as a real option for my life.  I had been wrestling with the idea of transubstantiation and just decided something along the lines of Flannery O’Connor’s sentiment that “if it’s a symbol, then to hell with it” when I came across a passage in Merton’s book where he described his intense longing for the Eucharist.  I felt it too, and I felt so much of what he described in his own journey of faith.  He has always put into words just what I am feeling. Or perhaps I should say his words make sense out of what I am feeling and have always made me want to draw closer to Christ.  And he, unlike so many others, can speak of reason and mysticism in the same breath without insisting that one necessarily negates the other.  And I’ve always wanted so very much for them to belong together even if at times no one around me thought they could.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read anything by Merton.  In truth, I haven’t read much of anything theological recently.  I suppose I needed a break.  But someone mentioned his name the other day and I found myself that next day picking up his book Thoughts in Solitude and it was once again like water on parched ground.  I’m sure there are writers for you all who have done just as much for you as Merton (and I’d add C.S. Lewis) has done for me.  I’d love to hear who they are.

In the World’s Eyes

Here’s a quirky confession: from time to time I sign my checks and credit card receipts with names like Agatha Christie, Madeleine L’Engle and Dorothy Sayers—I’ve even signed them as Jane Marple and G.K. Chesterton—all in protest over the fact that too often our identity in this world can be boiled down to a set of numbers (social security numbers, account numbers, etc).  I got the idea from Madeleine L’Engle’s memoir A Circle of Quiet.  She used to sign her checks as Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the checks would always be cashed just as mine are every single time.  My name is insignificant.  Only the numbers matter.

While I was walking out of the grocery store today a man called out, “Will you buy me a sandwich?”  I’m typically so rushed that I wouldn’t have even noticed the man in rags hovered by the door even if he called out to me.  But I was alone and walking, quite uncharacteristically, leisurely out the door.  I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure.  I’ll be right back.”  I went to the deli department and asked for a foot long sandwich, grabbed a bag of chips and a bottle of lemonade, and headed to the cashier.  I was waiting for my turn to check out when it occurred to me that it’s not a full meal without a dessert, and so I picked up a candy bar to throw in the bag.  I will never forget the look on the man’s face when I handed him that meal.  It was so gentle and delighted.  He was no longer a homeless man as I would have typically labeled him in my mind, but a person with real pain and also real pleasure.

I wondered what his name was.  I wish I’d asked him.  I wish I had sat down with him while he ate and talked with him a bit about where he was from and where he was going.  I wish I knew more about his family.  I wonder when was the last time someone asked him about his family.  I bet he has a good story, and I do love a good story.

This afternoon I came across a quote from Henri Nouwen that seems fitting. “Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity and power is a false identity—an illusion!  Loudly and clearly he says: ‘You are not what the world makes of you; but you are children of God.”  We are all more than what the world has made of us whether it is a set of numbers or a label of any kind.  We are children of God.

Happy Anniversary!

Today Dan and I celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary!  In honor of this I thought I’d re-post this piece I wrote about my wonderful husband a while back (you can find the original post with comments here).  I really am a very lucky woman!

For Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day looming, the director of our preschool opened a board meeting this week by reading an excerpt from an old Erma Bombeck article called Living with Gusto .  What our preschool director doesn’t know is that she and I share a deep love and admiration for Erma Bombeck.  In fact, while other girls in high school were pouring over TeenBop! Magazine and learning how to apply makeup I was reading Erma Bombeck (yes, I realize the image that this paints of me and I’m okay with it now).  The first book I read of hers was one she wrote about young children and teens surviving cancer entitled,  I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise.  It made an indelible mark upon me and since that time I have been one of Mrs. Bombeck’s biggest fans.

In the article, Living with Gusto,  Bombeck includes illustrations of simple ways in which a husband, who is not typically given to sentimental and overly romantic gestures, shows his wife that he loves her.  In light of this, I thought it would be a good exercise for me to reflect upon the simple ways in which Dan shows that he loves me.  I’m not saying that he is not romantic.  I just thought it would be a fruitful exercise of gratitude.  So, here it is.  This is how I know that my husband, Dan, loves me…

  • If he is watching TV in the living room while I’m lying in bed reading and I call him on his cell phone to ask if he would come in and turn out the bedroom lights, he does it.
  • He never says anything about the fact that I have been on at least 30 diets within our 9 years of marriage and never questions my request to order meaty pizzas on a Friday night.
  • When I decide to master the art of cooking a certain gourmet cuisine-whether it be bouef bourguignon, spaghetti boulegnese, beef stew, stir-fry, or chili-and prepare it a minimum of once a week for 12 weeks (or until I figure it out) he eats it without complaining. Heck, I could serve the man hamburger helper and canned green beans and he’d consider it a delicacy.
  • When I decided to take an art class, and bought a closet full of fancy, not to mention expensive, art supplies, he came home from work early just to make sure I could attend and arrive there on time.  And when he realized that after only 2 lessons I was no longer attending art classes but was (after loading all the fancy art supplies into the car) sneaking off to a coffee shop to write he said nothing about it and still came home early for me to go to “art class”.
  • He brings wine home when I’ve had a bad day and champagne home when I’ve had a good one.
  • He  goes along with all of my hair-brained ideas even though he knows they are utterly inane.  For instance, I once asked him to catch a juvenile barred owl that was stranded in our driveway out in the rain, put the owl in a cardboard box and drive us all out to the animal rescue center.  The children and I watched from the safety of the car-with the doors locked, of course- as he put on his rain coat and a pair of oven gloves, grabbed the owl, and put him into the cardboard box.  He actually did it!  It wasn’t until we were a few miles down the highway that I realized how dangerous it was to have a wild bird of prey in a cardboard box sitting next to Jack in the back of the mini-van.  In hindsight I would not do this one again.  But while we’re on the topic, here are a couple of pictures of the owl family that once lived in our backyard.

I will not comment on the recurring accusations in our family that there are more pictures of this owl family during the brief time I watched them than there are of our children, and I will neither confirm nor deny hanging out of a 2nd story window by an arm and leg with my camera just to take these shots!  Anyway, back to the list…

  • He folds all the laundry while he sits and watches college football.
  • He once attended a breastfeeding class with me-though for the record, when the teacher pulled out extra baby dolls and declared, “Oh, goody!  We have enough for all the dads to practice nursing, too, I was the only wife in the group that leaned over and said, “It’s okay if you want to go.  I’ll call you when I’m done.”  You can imagine the looks of sheer hatred on all the other men’s faces as Dan bolted out the door.

It’s the simple actions that Dan makes on a daily basis that show me that he loves me.  Without these, a dozen roses and a box of chocolates would be a hollow gesture.  I encourage you to make a similar list for your spouse or significant other.  Who knows.  As Erma says, it may just save your marriage another 15 minutes or so.

Buckets of Chicken…Er, I mean, Shame

I’ve often thought that writing is an awful lot like putting together a puzzle.  There are all these things you want to say and the trick is to find a way to piece them together so that when you take a step back you find that they’ve created one beautiful picture.  My father is a master at this.  He can fit just about anything together and somehow produce something so poignant that it makes you want to be a better person, a better Christian.

He’s so good at this that when we were younger my brother, sister, and I would try to come up with the most random things we could think of—like rubber chickens or Tonya Harding—and dare him to work it into Sunday’s sermon (my father is a United Methodist minister if you didn’t know).  We’d then sit in the pews giddy as little children waiting for Christmas morning wondering if he’d do it.  And he did!  Every single time he would fit the most absurd ideas into his sermon so seamlessly that you were convinced it had always belonged there.  I’m quite certain this is a God-given talent and one that, after this weekend, I am forced to admit I simply did not inherit.

All weekend I’ve wanted to write about the fact that on Friday morning my sister stepped out onto the deck and hollered back, “What’s with all the feathers in yard?” And I knew, much in same way you know to panic when there’s silence of any kind while children are in the house, that our dog, Murphy, had killed the neighbor’s chicken (It was really only a matter of time before this happened).  Since then I’ve tried to work out a way to use this story as a launching pad for some great theological truth, but I’ve got nothing.  I thought for a bit that I might be able to work in something about confession, seeing as how I tried at first to pretend nothing had happened and even considered hiding all of the evidence (which is impossible because there are feathers everywhere) and avoiding all eye-contact when coming to and from the house but eventually found myself riddled with guilt and knocking on the neighbor’s door, confessing all that had been done after which I felt so much better.

I then thought of writing about the love and humility of a sister who, armed only with two trash bags, voluntarily went into the backyard and cleaned up what was left of the poor bird and how this one action shattered all my pride in being a strong Texas woman (because let’s face it, there was no way I was going in the backyard as long as that headless and mangled chicken was there).  Though for what it’s worth, I will say that I once drank warm milk straight from a cow while I was in Africa, and I think that should stand for something (other than just stupidity).  But really that’s all I’ve got, except that is for a bunch of jokes about KFC and buckets of chicken from some of my more insensitive friends—you know who you are…and you should all be ashamed of yourselves!

Some thoughts after a long hiatus…

Aside

I’ve recently run into a few people who told me (in no uncertain terms) that I need to get back to blogging.  I argued that it hadn’t been all that long since I last posted, but then I sat down to check things out.  And I realized-once I reacquainted myself with the whole admin/blogger relationship thing-that I haven’t posted anything since MARCH! So sorry!  But perhaps we can be like old friends and pick up where we left off.

Truth be told, I haven’t done much writing at all recently.  I’ve just been trying to enjoy the summer with my kids.  Although, I did have this piece on the Integrated Catholic Life a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been working on a bit of fiction.  I’ll let you know if something comes of it.

I have done a lot of thinking, though, and most of it started with a momentary desire  to have a more profound love for the Eucharist.  All too often I come to the end of Mass with little recognition of the fact that I have been in the very presence of Christ. I’ve spent some time praying about it, and it seems to me that my love for the Eucharist will only grow as my love for Christ deepens.  This might seem obvious, but it comes with the realization that I have not loved Christ as I should; as I could.  And that necessarily leads to an examination of conscience and then allowing myself to be vulnerable to His love which must change me.  So, maybe that’s why I haven’t been writing much.  I’ve just had a lot on my mind.  But it’s good to be back, and I hope you’ve all been well! I’d love to hear from you!!

Lenten Penance?

On Saturday morning Jack bounced into our bedroom and proudly announced that he’d been wearing the same pair of socks since Ash Wednesday.

As soon as the words left his mouth a distinct rage began to pulse through my veins as I thought about all the time I’d wasted each morning frantically digging around in laundry baskets looking for clean socks.  “I give you a clean pair of socks every morning!”  I shrieked.  “And you’re not wearing them?”

“Nope!”

“But you take a shower every night.  Are you telling me, that you put the same pair of socks back on after you’ve showered?”

“Yep!  I even wear ‘em to bed!”

I wrinkled my nose in revulsion, “That’s disgusting!”

*I actually think in some bizarre 8-year old boy sort-of way this accusation only made him more pleased with himself*

Then Dan, who’d been completely silent up to his point, mumbled from beneath the blankets, “Is this some weird form of Lenten penance?”

If it is, then whose penance is it supposed to be?   Jack’s or mine?

It has made me think about Lenten penance, though.  Have you ever wondered where the whole giving something up for Lent came from? I often do, especially since I am notoriously bad at keeping these types of Lenten fasts and am always looking for some sort of loophole or easy way out (I’m not proud of this and you can read about last year’s Lenten fasting here).

Anyway, here’s a great article I read the other day about giving things up for Lent .  Hope you find it as intriguing as I did!  I also hope that you’ve found a more suitable fast or form of penance than some of the ones listed in the article (and obviously something better than what Jack has chosen)!

Repentance

Readings for Sunday, March 3: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; Ps 103; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

I picked up my copy of the Magnificat today (if you don’t yet receive this publication, I can’t recommend it enough) and flipped to the reflection for this upcoming Sunday’s readings.  It is, of course, so much more eloquently said than I could ever manage; so I thought I’d pass it along to you all.

“If you do not repent”

The third portico is repentance for sin, deep and true.  It is turning away in all sincerity from everything that is not God, or that does not come from God.  The very marrow of true contrition consists in this—that a sinner returns absolutely to God with all that he is inwardly and outwardly.  That a man is wholly absorbed in trustfulness of God’s goodness, that he ardently longs to possess him and him only, that he is resolutely determined to cleave to him forever in all love, that he has the purpose clear and distinct to do God’s will alone to the utmost of his power:  my dear children, this is what repentance essentially is.  Whosoever has it in that spirit, his sins are without any doubt forgiven him wholly, and the deeper the intensity of his earnestness, so much the more perfectly is he cleansed.”   Father John Tauler, O.P.

It is clear from these Scripture readings that things will not go well for those of us who refuse to repent of our sins, but it is also clear (from the pairings of the New Testament and Old Testament passages) that God longs to be merciful to us and to forgive all of our sins.  As the Psalmist says, “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.  For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.”  Ps. 103:8.

I don’t think that there is any coincidence in the fact that Saturday’s Gospel reading is the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Old Testament reading comes from Micah.

“Who is there like you, the god who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance; Who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency, and will again have compassion on us, treading underfoot our guilt?  You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins; you will show faithfulness to Jacob, and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.” Micah 7:18-20.

Make no mistake, God insists that we all must repent of our sins, but only so that we might be the recipients of His surpassing kindness and compassion and healing from all our ills.

The Transfiguration of Christ

Readings for Sunday, February 24th: Gn 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps 27:1,7-9,13-14; Phil 3:17-4:1, Lk 9:28-36

When I read these passages I was struck by God’s obvious desire to be in a personal relationship with each of us.  How he longs to reveal Himself to us.  How He wants to enter into covenants with us.  How He wants to help us; to rescue us; to be our refuge; and to bless us abundantly.  I was also struck by how very easily distracted we are by “earthly things” and miss just what it is that God, out of his immense love,  is trying to do for us.  I am particularly guilty of this.

Surely, something specific should also be said about the Transfiguration.  I’m just not sure what, except that each time I read the story of the Transfiguration I wonder what it means that one day we too will share in Christ’s glory.  There’s no easy answer to be sure.  But I’d love to hear your thoughts.  And I think we’d all be grateful if anyone had a good article/book to share.  Blessings!

Litany of Humility

On Fridays I typically write a short reflection on the liturgical readings for the upcoming Sunday, but today I feel compelled to write something about yesterday’s readings instead—in particular the Gospel reading (Luke 9:22-25).  This is mainly because when I read it yesterday I couldn’t help but be reminded of a prayer I discovered while praying in the Adoration Chapel this past Sunday entitled a Litany of Humility.  The moment I read it I knew that I was meant to begin praying it daily and seeking to live it out as best as I could, despite how difficult it might be (and no doubt I will fail miserably at it).

Litany of Humility

O Jesus! Meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

 

~Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930)

I went home from the Adoration Chapel and showed the prayer to Dan whose response was, “That’s a really frightening prayer.” And he’s right.  It goes against everything this world teaches us.  But it really is the only way forward on the road to humility.

I’ve been praying for months that Christ would teach me humility.  But I keep finding the more I focus on trying to be humble, the more my pride rears its ugly head.  It’s very much like when I was learning to ride a bike.  No matter how hard I focused on not hitting the thorny bushes in front of our house I’d always land right in the middle of them.  The secret was in focusing on something beyond the bushes—beyond my problems.

It is the same with humility.  We cannot grow in humility as long as we’re constantly taking our own spiritual temperature.  We must completely lose ourselves for the sake of Christ, for the sake of His creation.  There’s no other way around it.  We must take up our cross and follow Him; no matter how frightening and vulnerable the road ahead may be, trusting that “no one who believes in Him will be put to shame”. (Romans 10:8-13).