Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Healing My Memory

Another take on the "Healing My Faith" line of thought -- and I hope that others will write their own insights and share them somehow, even if it's just in the Facebook comments. I think we all help each other because we can all relate to each other's experiences. 

I wanted to bring up another topic, which is about the way I have changed my view on the ten years spent in Regnum Christi. For the first eight or nine years that I was out, I would have told you unhesitatingly that those years were a waste. Academically, professionally, financially, even socially, they were lost years. Not only that-- the very suggestion that those years had value was irritating to me.

I'm not at the point where I would say like Nicholas, "I'd do it again 1000 times" or "I'd support my children if they wanted to sign up." I'm actually light years away from that. Actually, I'm pretty sure I will not ever reach that point. But I can -- feeling strangely heretical to myself in the process -- quietly say "thank you" for the way those years helped me grow. To be sure, there were also some scars and some atrophy. But my sense now is that in my life the benefits outshine and outlive the scars, which are fading with time.

One of the immature aspects of my faith is that I like neat narratives where the story comes full circle and ends with a satisfying conclusion, with some tidy lesson learned or some higher stage of enlightenment achieved. Don't we all? I don't like messiness and ongoing questions and unresolved issues. I want it all wrapped up in pretty paper with a bow on top. Instagrammable, even.

But I think the underlying error of that perspective is that I'm operating from the paradigm of control. Understanding everything and banishing mystery is a form of seeking control. I don't like to be a character in the story that's only halfway through unfolding; I'd rather be the author of the story who is proceeding along a plot line that jives with my sense of rightness, order, and justice, and who can be confident of reaching the denouement according to plan. Control, control, control. It seems that I have a soccer mom lurking within.

One of the big messages of Pentecost, given by an excellent priest at a nearby parish that I don't usually go to, was that this overweening desire for control is actually the legacy of original sin -- in the sense that when Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit, the deeper meaning of their action was that they were essentially saying, "No, God, I get to decide what's right and wrong, not you. I am in charge here. This is my life, and I'm going to live it the way I think best." He went on to say that when we do this -- and we all do it, probably multiple times a day in big and little ways -- what we are really doing is depriving ourselves of all the divine help and guidance that we could have if we would just abide in God and do things with him.

The priest said that the person who says, "Leave me alone, I can do it all by myself" is basically alone on a desert island, trying to kill a fish with a rock, feeling thirsty, hungry, and frustrated.

But the person who lets God lead him is like a child who gets into the car to go somewhere because... Mom said so. No control over the gas pedal or the steering wheel, and probably no idea of where Mom is taking him. But even though he has no control over the car, the child's needs are cared for and attended.

"Mom, I'm thirsty" (the ever present refrain in our car rides).
  -- "Here's a little water bottle" (because Mom is ALWAYS PREPARED for car-induced dehydration).

"Mom, I have to go potty" (direct consequence of the above).
  -- "Okay, just hold it till next exit and we'll stop."

"Mom, are we there yet?"
  -- "Not yet."

The priest's point was that we tend to box God out of our life because of this self-protective, mistrustful need to be in control all the time. In essence, the sin is one of mistrust: only I know how to run my life. Only I know what's good for me. Only I can provide for myself. Sometimes these attitudes are also caused by the bitter experience of having been let down before by people who should have taken care of us, or by people who promised much and delivered little. But sometimes it's also our own fault. We can be stubborn and willful because we enjoy being in control -- or, more accurately, having the illusion of control -- and that's on no one but us.

Anyway, he went on to say that the task of Pentecost is to receive the Holy Spirit, and that since God cannot be controlled -- he insists on being independent -- prayer is essentially a process of letting him steer the ship, trustfully giving him a chance to come in and help us out, and maybe turn our grim little island into a blooming oasis while he's at it.

A few more jewels from David G. Benner's Opening to God gave me a better sense of why I should trust God to steer the ship (or drive the car, or write the story). He writes:

God is present. But we must be prepared to allow God to arrange the encounter. The divine rendezvous must always be under God's control. The seeking, reaching out and communicating always begin with God. But we must be prepared for the fact that God will not be where we often might expect. 

Prayer is not a magic ritual that allows us to bring the divine under our control. It is much more like floating on the dark river of God's love. You may not be sure where the river is taking you, and it will require that you surrender your control over the journey and the relationship, but one thing you need never doubt -- the Lord of love has arranged the prayer rendezvous. [...]

Floating demands trust. Not only do you have to trust that the current is taking you in a direction that is ultimately one of blessing, but you also have to trust that you will stay afloat and won't bump into anything dangerous. That is why genuine openness to God must start with a deep assurance of God's love for you.

He goes on to talk about spiritual dryness, and he says that these are times when we learn that we can't control God, or turn his blessings "on and off like a water faucet." He also observes that John of the Cross said that "this frustrating independence of God is the best proof we have that God is God, not merely a figment of our imagination."

So how does all of this fit in with the healing of memory? I think for me, the return to faith is a return to that dark river, an acceptance that in spite of my well-defined plans and goals, I have no real idea of where I'll end up in the future, nor do I see how my past fits into the larger narrative of my life and its meaning, but I do trust -- or I want to trust -- that it is not meaningless or purposeless, and that God didn't let me shipwreck. On the contrary, I came safely to a new shore; my life is totally different from what it would have been if I had never taken that path, and... I actually like it. And even though I'm a work in progress and all that, I've noticed that my inner monologue is positive. I'm not filled with the same negative, self-critical inner voice that I used to have many years ago. It's more of a "You can do this, Trish!" voice. I'm generally enthusiastic about life and am generally buoyant, excluding early mornings when I am nailed to the sheets.

In light of the outcomes, I want to trust that for me those years were a strange gift that appears loathsome from some angles, lovely from others. I would like to "stop kicking against the goad," so to speak, arguing with God about why he allowed me to make such a stupid mistake, or wondering whether I am at all capable of listening to God and discerning his will when I was obviously so deluded about this notion of a vocation.

I'm still pending a good answer on that last issue. And I have no neat answer for the shocking tragedy of those "20 to 100" boys whose souls and bodies were violated. I can't understand that and I can't accept it. I can't make sense of it. This is where the neat narrative stumbles. How do you just move on when there are these casualties along the side of the road?

Does the moral arc of the universe bend toward justice? Not in the hands of man and much less in the designs of faceless "history," but it does in the hands of God, as Archbishop Chaput said somewhere. I hope those boys, now men, receive the special grace they need. I hope they get it in floods and torrents, like an ocean of mercy to heal their deepest wounds.


Getting back to the idea of controlling versus abiding, the final thing the priest said on Pentecost that helped me was that we have to actively receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which means asking him to come in, not just one and done, but every day and even quite frequently.

I very much like this idea -- and it is not new but it feels new to me now -- that God is so respectful of our freedom that he waits for us to ask. And even when we sin and fall, he lifts us up respectfully, with a love that lets us participate in our own healing and is eager to make our faults and indignities go away. I love the idea of a deeply respectful God, which is so different from the implacable, angry, yet "merciful" God of Islam who demands submission and who maintains a kind of jealous, almost scornful distance from man. The "mercy" of such a God would feel like a burdensome reproach; one would approach the smoldering volcano with fear and anxiety. Much better the Christian God who carries all our burdens with us in solidarity and wants to show us the best possible way to be free, as friends.

In this sense, abiding and not controlling means holding God's hand and saying over and over again, "I trust you to lead me because I know you love me better than anyone." It's not, "I'm not to be trusted with my own freedom because I'm an idiot, so here, take mine" but rather "I have these gifts and I offer them to you, and I know you can magnify them and bring them to full fruition. Help me to be free with you. I want to be with you on this great adventure."

Another tiny tidbit that I found touching, from the words of Mary to a saint: "Transform every moment of your day into a colloquy with Me: I want to hear your voice, my son!"

Respect and interest, love and eagerness for communion. I love this idea that the face of God is turned toward us, that he wants to hear our voice, and that all we have to do in return is to open up the secret space of freedom inside and say, "Yes. I'm coming home."

Friday, June 2, 2017

Healing My Faith

I've been going through a personal springtime of faith that reminds me of the days of my first conversion in college. It's not self-motivated. There are no plans, programs, or goals. I would describe it more as appetite, delight, and desire. I'm thirsty for God again, after years of feeling allergic to prayer. During all that time, I lamented that I wasn't praying and I could see that I probably should, but a sense of repugnance kept me away.

I felt repelled because I associated prayer with a life I had left behind -- life as a consecrated woman in Regnum Christi. The post-years were marked by phases: disillusionment, anger, then forgetfulness (truly, I forget for months at a time), and then a gradual acceptance of the past as part of my story. I think one factor that has helped that acceptance is love of my present life and a sense of many good opportunities on the horizon for me. But time also does its work.

A few years ago, I wrote a post on this blog (and deleted it a few days later) saying that in spite of being in a more peaceful place, I still had so many questions about my past, so much of a lingering sense of confusion about how it all fits together. At the time, the image that came to mind was one of a tangled, knotted ball of yarn. Shortly after, Rebecca Carpeaux posted something on Facebook about a novena to Mary, the Undoer of Knots. I never did the novena but the title stuck -- I had never heard it before, or at least had never associated it to my own internal questions and confusion about faith in the wake of the strange experience of those ten years and their aftermath. 

Fast forward a few years. I was talking to a friend who has recently lost her faith. We were talking about things in the Church that damage faith and I expressed some of those lingering questions again. She said, "It seems like you have faith scars from your time in Regnum Christi." The phrase stuck. Faith scars. Of course. (Another friend, speaking of herself, said, "I feel like my faith has been polluted.") Scars and pollution. Many of us still feel these effects.

There are open questions that remain unanswered. One could also say I have faith dislocations: some  fundamental concepts are probably out of alignment, or out of joint, and this affects the way that I pray and perceive God and myself. So those things need to be put in their proper place. 

So yes, there are scars... but now I also have more confidence that there is an answer for them, or that I will eventually reach some kind of deeper peace about them. I might not get those answers right away or all at once, but I think the pieces will fall into place in some way over time.

Several years ago, I said that my answer to the problem of faith knots was just to put it all aside and leave it on the back burner without dealing with it. I knew that I would eventually have to look at it more closely, possibly with the help of a therapist, but it didn't seem to be the right time. Now I think the right time has come. And I've already been getting little insights through reading that have been putting some things in a new light. My interior response to these insights has been one of relief, delight, and joy. I would say it's akin to the experience of having carried a headache for a long time, and then suddenly feeling it fade away. 

I'll share a couple of those insights today, and more as they come along (and as I get time to write about them) in case anyone else feels in any way identified. I know that each one had a different experience, and many people are way ahead of me in this process and already worked through their lingering issues years ago. I'm usually late to the party.

So I'm not presenting these as anything but what they are: personal insights drawn from reading or conversation that have shifted things around in my mind and given me a better perspective on my relationship with God. I'm not interested in rehashing the past; I'd rather look to the future and to what heals, rather than analyze what caused the wounds. If I briefly mention some of the errors of Regnum Christi, it's just by way of contrast, not to dwell on it too much.

The mistake of trying to control everything. 

The first one is from the introduction of To the Priests, Our Lady's Beloved Sons (yes, I know I'm not a priest). I'll just quote the passage that hit me like a lightning bolt: 

Secularism, at the intellectual level, becomes "rationalism" and, at the level of life, it becomes "naturalism." [...] Because of naturalism, there is a widespread habit today of giving great importance to one's own personal activity, to efficiency and to the organisation of programmes in the apostolic sector, forgetting the primary value of Divine Grace and that the interior life of union with Christ, that is of prayer, must be the soul of every apostolate.

I remember reading the classic book The Soul of the Apostolate and I never noticed at the time that apostolic life in Regnum Christi was actually organized around a naturalistic view of fruitfulness. Lip service was paid to prayer and union with God, but in practice the driving force of the apostolate was human action, plans, programs, projections, lists, strategies, and numbers. Always numbers. "Frutos, frutos, frutos." God's fruitfulness and action in souls was reduced to something man-driven and external. And it had to be fast. 

Going slow.

Lately I've been reading Carl Honoré's In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed and savoring its message. Honoré points out that modern life is all about speed. And speed is all about efficiency. But the "slow movement" in cuisine, parenting, work, city planning, medicine, and even sex is about finding a more human pace of life and resisting the constant acceleration of this frenetic world that is obsessed with productivity and external development, but blind to the inner development of the spirit. In education, in relationships -- and in spiritual life -- we want to microwave everything, pluck the fruit before it's ripe, diagnose an illness in 30 seconds, fast-track our children's academic formation in ways that damage them, and even medicate ourselves with quick fixes that only mask underlying issues.

In the face of all that insanity, the Slow Movement is about consciously and deliberately giving each task the time it requires to be completed well, even if it means we're out of sync with frenetic modern life. A friendship needs years to develop. A child needs time for play. A wound needs time to heal. Fruits need time to ripen. Prayer needs time to unfold. Grace needs time to seep into the mind and heart. Souls need time to open. You can't pry open a flower's petals to make it open faster; you'll only damage it. So slowness is really about respect for beings and their needs. It's not slowness for the sake of slowness; it's doing things at the proper pace as a way of living a more human life. 

We were told there is a rush to bear fruits because... souls! the Church! the urgency of the mission! And so on. No. Not like that. External fruits produced at an unnatural speed are useless, artificial, fragile, tasteless. And they rot quickly.

Being present to God.

What really matters, I'm realizing, is interior union with God (and in my case, also with Mary). And it's not a union that we can force or plan or program. (Remember those "programs of life"?) I pray my Rosary and have started with some very tentative, brief "lectio divina" prayer times. These are not a burden to me; I don't do anything that I feel reluctant about. I only do what I feel drawn to do by a sense of attraction. But setting those types of prayer to one side for the moment, I'm also realizing that there is another aspect to prayer that is more fluid and God-directed. 

A few months ago, I asked Ellen McCormick Mady for some good spiritual book recommendations and she pointed me to Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer. It has been a major perspective changer. I'm only a third of the way through it, but so far, this section caught my attention: 

The Word and silence belong together. Their rhythm is as simple and basic as breathing. We draw in. We let go in response. [...] It should be the same with the rhythm of these two core movements of prayer. First we open ourselves in faith and draw in God's Word, and then we rest in silence, allowing that Word to become life to us. 

What caught my attention in that paragraph was the gentleness of it, the slow and easy pace, the naturalness of it. Prayer is like breathing. 

He continues further on:

The kind of attention that is essential if we are to open ourselves to God is quite different from [an] effortful focusing of our thoughts and constriction of our imagination. In many ways, it is the exact opposite. Prayerful paying attention is not scrunching up our willpower and tightening our focus, but simply opening our self to what we encounter. This makes it much more an act of release than effort. 

So prayer is not so much a cognitive exercise of "trying to pray" as it is a "being present." It's a totally different type of interior movement from what I'm used to. How could it be that simple?

The author refers to the French Jew Simone Weil as a master of this type of prayer: 

Attention for Weil is not the active mental process of concentration that is involved in what we usually refer to as "paying attention." Rather, it is suspending our thoughts and allowing our awareness to develop. It is therefore more like prayerful openness than thinking. In fact, she argues, "attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer." [...] Attentiveness is prayer because attention paid to anything is a doorway to the self-transcendent. It moves us beyond our self-preoccupations and opens us to that which is beyond our self.

What strikes me most in this is the way that prayer, true prayer as contemplation, is not self-directed. It's simpler, and it gives primacy to God's grace to flood the present moment. Prayer in this sense is not me thinking things about God or even so much about conversation (although there is a place for that too) but rather listening and being open and quiet. This, I would add, requires a willingness to be slow and apparently unproductive. It's the ultimate "waste of time" -- doing nothing but waiting and listening and being present in the moment, not rushing ahead mentally to the next thing or self-evaluating or worrying about self-improvement and spiritual growth. It's not up to us. We just water the seed with attention and listening and responding... and get out of the way. 

What does that have to do with man-made fruits? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

It has everything to do with abiding in God. "Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit." But we don't have to look at the fruit or even know about it. We don't have to agonize or obsess over spiritual development. We have to learn to be present to God in slowness, peace, and silence, and let God's grace direct the unfolding of the flower, not our own effort. "Look at the flowers of the field; they neither sow nor spin. Yet not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these." I always took that to mean that we shouldn't worry about clothes. But now I think it also means that God does his own grace-spinning inside of us, in hidden ways that we can't see, and the best thing we can do is just to stop trying to control things, and let the process unfold peacefully in the way He wants.

Just some thoughts to start off -- I hope to share more later as things strike me from readings or conversations. I would also really like to get book recommendations and insights that have helped those of you who are much further along in this process than me. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

When Grief Strikes

I recently stumbled across this exquisite poem by Ruth Stone. It's called "The Wound."

The shock comes slowly
as an afterthought.

First you hear the words
and they are like all other words,

ordinary, breathing out of lips,
moving toward you in a straight line.

Later they shatter
and rearrange themselves. They spell

something else hidden in the muscles
of the face, something the throat wanted to say.

Decoded, the message etches itself in acid
so every syllable becomes a sore.

The shock blooms into a carbuncle.
The body bends to accommodate it.

A special scarf has to be worn to conceal it.
It is now the size of a head.

The next time you look,
it has grown two eyes and a mouth.

It is difficult to know which to use.
Now you are seeing everything twice.

After a while it becomes an old friend.
It reminds you every day of how it came to be. 

This little poem is a masterpiece. It's so unforgettable because it expresses something so true, something we have all experienced in different ways and degrees, but in utterly arresting language.

"Later they shatter / and rearrange themselves." Words are something that appear inert at first, but then become somehow weaponized in mid-air before homing in on their target. And isn't it true that at first, the painful words seem "like all other words" -- until they deliver their cargo of pain?

I was also struck by the line "Decoded, the message etches itself in acid/ so every syllable becomes a sore." There are indelible words on each person's soul, words that you can never forget because they caused such searing anguish, or because they marked a watershed moment in which all of your future hopes died.

But the part that also strikes me is the idea that the words come to take on a life of their own, with you as the host. At first, the intrusion fills the host with shame and confusion ("a special scarf has to be worn to conceal it") but eventually the pain becomes a familiar companion ("after a while it becomes an old friend") whose presence is a continual reminder of that first cataclysmic message.

What a mystery is grief. People who have survived a great loss say that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no linear progress toward healing, but only a constant aching sorrow, a constantly present loss that you somehow learn to bear. It never leaves you, and you never get away from it. But you learn to carry it. The grief becomes part of you, as one of the rooms in your own "mansion with many rooms." And you encase it with memory and tears, like the oyster's slow labor on a grain of sand.

And this must be part of being human as well. It cannot be otherwise.

Perhaps the Zen way would be to find a place where the pain is no longer so personal, where the agonies of the darkened heart are just a shadow play on the walls of some unenlightened cave, à la Socrates. Perfect meditation seems almost like an escape hatch from being human, a way to cheat grief of its sting, to slip through the grasp of sorrow and glide above it all in superior quietude. But I don't think that's the way I want to go.

When and if grief strikes, I will take the bitter burden. I'll let myself be brought low, watch in disbelief as my green forests are burnt down to smoking stubs. And while everything seems bleak and I feel most alone, I think I will find myself in a new kind of solidarity with all the others who have walked the same path before me. And maybe that's one of the secrets that this poem does not mention: we don't have to be alone in our griefs, as isolating as they may feel.

Everyone is carrying something. Most people keep it buried down deep. But I think we are all hungry for fellow travelers who can share that solitude for a while, who understand a bit of our experience based on their own. And why shouldn't grief, that sword that exposes our inmost heart in all its brokenness, also become a gift that helps us to see and touch each other in a new way? What is there to be afraid of? What is there to be ashamed of? Others understand. This path has been walked many times before, even though it is unique each time.

We are only human. And that humanity, in all its fragile vulnerability, in all its realness, is a gift that reveals itself most when it is shared. I hope I won't be afraid to share it when and if that time comes.