Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A SENSE OF BEING FOLLOWED, OF BEING DESIRED

THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL, DETAIL
CARAVAGGIO, 1601
“Religion consists of the belief that everything that happens to us is extraordinarily important.  It can never disappear from the world for this reason.”
--Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), Italian poet and suicide

I once attended Mass where the Gospel reading was St. Paul's conversion on his way to Damascus [Acts 9:3-9]. Afterwards, the priest observed in his homily: "Well, our lives are very different from St. Paul. Our lives don’t have such drama in them."

And I instantly thought, Mine does! Mine has unbelievable drama in it every day, all day! Will I get that photo of the wisteria buds just right? Will I for once in my life "pause when agitated" in this conversation I'm about to have with the billing department of T-Mobile ....whoops!....Will my half-gallon of milk hold out for my coffee in the morning or will I have to walk down to the 99-cent store and if the latter, should I go past the liquor store and pick up the Weekly, or should I take Marathon up the hill and see whether that fig tree that hangs over the sidewalk (thus making foraging allowable) is bearing fruit yet? Will I ever mange to get this sentence, paragraph, essay, blog post, book just the way I want it?....

Everything that happens to us isn't important because we're important, but because God is. My own conversion was, and continues to be, absolutely underlain by the understanding that religion is not separate from life, or something extra we add on to life, it IS life. Religion is the meat of our experiences. We come to believe not through what someone tells to believe, not because the good people or the nice people or the holy people or, God forbid, the "together" people believe, but through what has happened to us.

iced tea in hummingbird glass
Carl Jung once observed:

Religious experience is absolute; it cannot be disputed. You can only say that you have never had such an experience, whereupon your opponent will reply: ‘Sorry, I have.’ And there your discussion will come to an end. No matter what the world thinks about the religious experience, the one who has it possesses a great treasure, a thing that has become for him a source of life, meaning, and beauty, and that has given a new splendor to the world and to mankind….No one can know what the ultimate things are. We must, therefore, take them as we experience them. And if such experience helps to make life healthier, more beautiful, more complete and more satisfactory to yourself and to those you love, you may safely say: ‘This was the grace of God.’

My primary religious experience, and the central fact of my existence--then, now, and forever, which is why I've mentioned it before and I'm sure will mention it many times again--is that I drank for twenty years and sometime during the month I spent in the fall of '86 at a Minnesota rehab, the obsession to drink was lifted.

I can't pinpoint the moment; I didn't have a falling-off-my-horse-and-being-struck-blind experience, like St. Paul (although now that I think of it, I did fly into the ST. PAUL/Minneapolis airport...) If anything, "it" probably happened when my heart was opened by listening to the stories of my fellow female alcoholics and realizing that I was not alone, I was not crazy, and I had not, as I had feared, put myself so far beyond the pale of the human circle that I could never come back.

food for the journey
Whatever the case, that the obsession was lifted, that sometime during that month I was set free from bondage, in a way told me everything I need to know and can know about God.

1: God is merciful.

2: I didn't "go up" to Him, He came down to me.

3: I had been given a stupendous gift without having done a single thing--quite the contrary--to "deserve" it.

4: The "conversion" came AFTER I'd received, and as a result of, the gift, not before.

When the Prodigal Son came home, he wasn't sincerely remorseful--not yet. He was tired and ashamed and hungry, just like I was when I finally landed in rehab. It's AFTER they lay a feast for you that the remorse comes. The joy, yes, but also the true repentance.

You keep wanting to say, Really, a feast? Yeah but don't forget I was a total whore, and God says Yeah, I know, put on this beautiful robe. And you say, Really? Because I've spent the last fifteen years on a barstool, squandering every gift you ever gave me, and God says Yeah I was there, look, just for you! These very cool jewel-studded sandals. And you say Really? Me? Because I'm hateful, judgmental, envious, slothful, prideful, fearful, a liar, a cheat and a thief, and I may not even believe in you, and God says, Well no doubt, and let me have your hand, I've been dying to give you this golden ring.

hummingbird feeder
The gift was so stupendous, in fact, that my problem since has been tending to believe that letting me get sober somehow tapped God out; that I've already gotten more than my share (which is certainly true, as anything would have been more than my "share" (though God seems not to think in terms of shares)) and that I'm now supposed to slink back to the corner with my morsel of moldy cheese. Instead, I'm coming to dare to believe that the gift of sobriety was simply on a par with the unending, inexhaustible riches He wants to shower on everybody.

When I say riches I'm not talking about money, clothes, houses, cars and sex. I'm talking about the riches of being so grateful that of course you're going to want to step up to the plate and in my case start changing pretty much everything about your entire life. I'm talking about some basic kind of peace, ability to laugh at yourself, and joy.

I'm talking about the riches of realizing that if you're human, at this very moment you're lusting after someone, pissed off at someone, jealous of someone, resentful of someone, troubled by someone, feeling abandoned by someone, afraid of someone (possibly you're feeling all those things about the same person, which is always fun). You're worried about your finances, weight, teeth, transmission, aging parents, aging self, wayward children, cancer markers, whether your husband or wife is cheating on you, whether you're going to get caught, whether you made a fool of yourself last night, the parking situation at Trader Joe's, that you're not way kinder and more compassionate than you are, and what you're going to have for lunch. Religion is not what we do after we get all that squared away. Religion is realizing that a power greater than ourselves is with us in the midst of all that.

san antonio capilla, valdez, new mexico where they say the rosary every monday at 6
in front, Blessing (the dog) and my friend Lise who made pan-roasted lobster
in chervil butter Sunday night
"Through all my daily life, in those I came in contact with, in the things I read and heard, I felt that sense of being followed, of being desired; a sense of hope and expectation," observed Dorothy Day. I think this sense of excitement, the sense that something is "afoot," is the surest possible sign that we are "on to" Christ.

In fact, the danger here is that life becomes SO interesting, SO extraordinary, that you can't contain your feelings and like Pavese, end up killing yourself. Thus--again, and as always--Christ. Only Christ can contain our our full heart, our desire, longing, aching, yearning, our hunger and thirst, our love.

All of which is by way of segueing into Br. Joseph Schmidt's insights on St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Because one of the most exciting things about my week-long retreat with Br. Joe is that he has thought through and articulated (and then brought to new heights) all kinds of half-formed hunches and ideas and echoes and whispers that I'd experienced in my own walk with Thérèse.

And one of the other exciting things is that he feels St. T. is a "bridge" figure that is going to bring together all kinds of factions who have been at odds for centuries: men and women, the right and the left, non-believers and believers, the hierarchy of the Church and the people of the Church.

So stay tuned!

14 comments:

  1. Like you, I'm fascinated by borders, such as the one between personal experience of Christ and a more indirect knowledge acquired through others. It seems like Christ likes the second way too, given how he had Mary Magdalene tell the apostles that He was risen, rather than simply appearing to them individually.

    Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio writes:

    In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person's capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to other's, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring...

    Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day...This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief...

    [The word of martyrs] inspires such confidence: from the moment they speak to us of what we perceive deep down as the truth we have sought for so long, the martyrs provide evidence of a love that has no need of lengthy arguments in order to convince. The martyrs stir in us a profound trust because they give voice to what we already feel and they declare what we would like to have the strength to express.

    Again the Book of Proverbs points in this direction when it exclaims: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov 25:2). In their respective worlds, God and the human being are set within a unique relationship.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, to quote Graham Greene...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jason, I'm re-reading The Heart of the Matter (which I seem to need to do every four or five years) as we speak!...

    And thanks, TS...Pope JPII got it exactly right, that belief does not take place in a vacuum but always has to do somehow with relationship. Paul's relationship with Christ, the Prodigal Son's relationship with his brother and father, my initial and ongoing relationship with my fellow alcoholics.

    The effect of "sin," of missing the mark, is always to isolate and the effect of conversion is always to bring us back to the human table. And that is messy and unexpected and unlikely and conforms to no timetable or formula and in fact is usually so NOT susceptible to articulation or description that it often takes us awhile to notice it!

    Just as the disciples didn't at first recognize Christ after the Resurrection, we often don't even notice that we're being very slowly converted. Maybe we are just a teeny bit less impatient. Maybe we hold our tongue (out of love) one time out of ten--but still that is better than no times out of ten..
    And then sometimes, if we are very graced, the conversion comes all in a clap, as it did with St. Paul.

    And the clap is also often violent, as only violence often seems to get our attention, as Flannery O'Connor knew so well...

    ReplyDelete
  4. What a beautiful piece, this paragraph really spoke to me:


    I'm talking about the riches of realizing that if you're human, at this very moment you're lusting after someone, pissed off at someone, jealous of someone, resentful of someone, troubled by someone, feeling abandoned by someone, afraid of someone (possibly you're feeling all those things about the same person, which is always fun). You're worried about your finances, weight, teeth, transmission, aging parents, aging self, wayward children, cancer markers, whether your husband or wife is cheating on you, whether you're going to get caught, whether you made a fool of yourself last night, the parking situation at Trader Joe's, that you're not way kinder and more compassionate than you are, and what you're going to have for lunch. Religion is not what we do after we get all that squared away. Religion is realizing that a power greater than ourselves is with us in the midst of all that.

    That's so good, I'd love to read more in that vein. Great insights!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi TS!

    "one between personal experience of Christ and a more indirect knowledge acquired through others."
    In Christianity, these two forms of knowledge come together when Christ makes himself present through a witness, just as Jesus made the Father present through his own testimony. Just as St. Paul met Jesus through St. Stephen and his testimony. So the witness is also an event that can be witnessed.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Extraordinary post, Heather.

    I look forward to hearing more about St. Therese's role as a "bridge" for the many chasms in our day.

    David

    ReplyDelete
  7. Beautiful post. I miss New Mexico so much.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ah yes Fred, another of those both/ands rather than either/or...

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love you! This sentence, "Everything that happens to us isn't important because we're important, but because God is," sounded so much like G. K. Chesterton. Keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great stuff! It reminds me of Thomas Merton's photograph titled, "the only known photograph of God."

    http://royhamric.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/thomas-mertons-photograph-of-god-3/

    ReplyDelete
  11. Dear Heather,

    I have been so enjoying being on a virtual retreat with you through these pages of yours. But when I read your post yesterday, my eyes started welling up as I read your description of the drama of your day, and then had a good cry as I continued to read what is one of the most open-hearted, glorious, joyful assertions of God's love for us.
    My favorite parts are many, but the first that caught my breath:
    "Everything that happens to us isn't important because we're important, but because God is" and then the whole paragraph about "the riches of realizing that if you're human....."

    God's love for you and how you have been transformed by that love just kind of overflows in every part of this post.
    Once I read it, I returned to it off and on over the past 24 hours, a little tongue-tied at how I could adequately respond to such love from you. And so I had the chance to pray with my heart more open to the love I find myself receiving from those nearest and dearest to me as I see how God has lavished Himself upon me.

    An unexpected treat I find on your blog is reading the comments from your other faithful readers and the links and further ponderings that so many of them share on their blogs.

    On another note, I was delighted to see that you and I share an "almost" birthday- mine is the day after yours. It just so happens that my son was born on my birthday. I had taped Christmas carols to listen to during labor and delivery (after realizing that Christmas is the one religious observance of -well- pregnancy and birth), so my baby boy came into the world with the strains of choirs rejoicing over God being made Man.

    Haha- then yesterday, with all these wonderful thoughts spinning around in my head and heart, I still had to attend to getting a plumber in to fix the NEW leaking toilet, and learning that we will be without a first floor toilet for at least a week... and having to choose between finding someone to fix the also-leaking washing machine or trying to buy a new one that should last longer than six years.... hahaha. Life goes on, but somehow, I didn't let these annoyances take up residence in me, and my sweetie and I enjoyed a little dinner at a pasta joint where we could look in each other's eyes for an hour.

    Thank you, and God bless you!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Oh wow, thanks Mary Beth and everyone else. Chip, Michael, David, Robert, Fred, Chris (only known photo of God--nice!). Mary Beth, you are so right that the many faithful readers, and their insights, observations, reflections, links and their own blogs of which I get to read way way too little are so much of what makes this little community great...

    I am up on this mountain in New Mexico but partly because of just that, have not felt lonely for hardly a second...

    ReplyDelete
  13. Heather, I envy you. However, you've paid some hard dues and the peace is probably long overdue.

    David

    ReplyDelete
  14. I found your through Conversion Diary and she's right, I love your blog. I already highlighted at least 3 paragraphs that I want to share with my kids. When I read anything I feel the need to highlight you know I'm hooked. I find your blog to be delightful, insightful and intelligent. I lately, have really needed to work on judgement and forgiveness so this post spoke volumes and inspired me. Thanks and I'll be back. Blessings, Tia

    ReplyDelete

I WELCOME your comments!!!