Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Turns out the Canossian Spirituality Center, where I'm attending a retreat on St. Thérèse of Lisieux, is in Albuquerque's South Valley, which seems to be an old section of town with few zoning laws, an eclectic mix of people, and roots in farming. The old Camino Real runs through and is now called Isleta Boulevard, and even now is lined with towering cottonwoods, bait shops (I think there's a lake nearby) and alfalfa and hay fields. Our rooms have swamp coolers, the optimum functioning of which apparently calls for keeping your window open a crack, and if I had my druthers, the windows would be open completely, as the air is rich with the smell of freshly-mown hay, and chicken feed, and the good deep manure.

Cocks crow day and night and the other morning I went to the corner of the back field to pray the Office and read "Everything that lives and that breathes, give praise to the Lord," which at that moment included cawing roosters, swooping ravens, neighing horses, a fly that landed on the page of my breviary, and a couple of shirtless revelers who had apparently been up all night drinking and were strumming guitars from an old sofa they'd set up in the back yard of the house next door. I have always been drawn to the borders of things and am constantly out in the back field, walking the dirt track that lines the perimeter, and peering through the fence at the neighbors.

Here's a beautiful poem I came across by Jeff Hartzer called "On the Bus," a narrative journey through the culture, class, and color of the South Valley.

Anyway, I feel right at home here and the retreat place itself is a little oasis with a rose garden, and fountains, and the rooms are cool and comfortable, especially in the heat of the day. Brother Joseph Schmidt, who is leading the retreat, is low-key and calming and a huge devotee and student of Thérèse of Lisieux. He believes she is truly the saint of our day, and is going to help re-vivify the Church, and is a "bridge" in that she appeals to the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the right and the left, believers and unbelievers, Catholics, Buddhists, agnostics, and many others.

Her message is nothing other than the Gospel message and it is so simple that we have managed to mostly completely miss it and the message is God is love. We are loved to distraction. God doesn't need our great deeds, he needs our love. And the love of God, and therefore of Christ--this is key--is ENTIRELY DEVOID OF VIOLENCE.

A lot of what we've talked about so far is the violence we do ourselves. One, with our incessantly negative thoughts about ourselves: how we tell ourselves we don't measure up and are not enough and don't know how to love; two, the way we do violence to ourselves and others by in one way or another compromising our integrity and manipulating in an effort to get love; and three, by judging, and shutting out, and showing less than love to others.

cottonwoods on the old Camino Real
Bro. Joe says we're not crazy to have feelings of guilt and shame all out of proportion to who we actually are now or whatever infraction we might commit today, because those feelings come from a part of us that was formed in childhood. They are part of the truth of who we are, but they're not the whole truth. Those feelings are going to come up and again and again. We are never going to get rid of them, no matter how much inner work we do. We're still going to be struggling with those thoughts on our deathbeds.

BUT we can develop the spiritual discipline to treat them which is:

1) Short-term. Stop. Pause when agitated. Don't repress the feeling but simply nip it in the bud. He pointed out that on the road to Emmaus, when Christ asked (they hadn't recognized him yet) "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" the disciples "halted in distress." [Luke 24:13-35]

2) Long-term: get in the habit of asking, "What is going on that makes it reasonable for me to be having this feeling?" (As opposed to asking WHY am I having the feeling, which tends to be a subtle exercise in self-blame).

And of course all of this is underlain by prayer. One thing we've done here in prayer (we gather twice in the chapel each day to silently pray together, plus Mass of course) is to picture ourselves as children and embrace ourselves through God's love, love ourselves with God's love. Love ourselves through Him. I used to recoil from all such thought and talk--I may not act it, but I'm a grownup! I'd think. More and more, though, I see there is something very deep here.

Because we really can't love anybody else any better or more or more tenderly and healthily and unreservedly and in a non-possessive way than we can love ourselves. And I don't know about you but, not to dwell, I cannot remember one time when my mother clasped me to her breast or clucked over me or in any way gave me to believe I was the greatest thing going. I think they thought in those days you'd get spoiled so they simply let you cry but also, like all of us, I inherited generations of unworked-through baggage, in my case especially the emotional baggage of alcoholism, which is to say massive anxiety, fear, sense of abandonment, rejection and a complete inability to ask for what you need, and in the end, therefore, to give anyone else what he or she needs. You want to give people what they need, so you guess, and you tend to end up giving not what they need but what you need.

Not that you sit around feeling sorry for yourself and bemoaning your childhood, because no-one's childhood is perfect--in a sense, in fact, childhood is almost designed to leave us lacking and with the raw material that we're going to spend the rest of our lives working through--but you have to examine these feelings in order to see yourself clearly, to observe what triggers you, to examine your motives and begin to see what really drives you. And then the idea is not to try to change yourself so much as accept yourself. To surrender yourself and your weaknesses to God and he will make something beautiful and useful out of us not only in spite of but in a sense because of our weaknesses.

So this was the genius of Thérèse, that she incorporated both the psychological and the spiritual.

My mother's own childhood is shrouded in secrecy and shadow and she has (or at this point had, as she suffers from Alzheimer's and at this point barely remembers whether she ate breakfast) very few stories other than to mention in passing that her father simply up and left one day when she was a teenager, never to return, and surfaced years later with another family, so there may have been just a teensy abandonment issue there though you would never in a million years have heard Mom acknowledging such a thing. Mom's father up and left and Mom's mother, Grandma House, who was very possibly the daughter of an alcoholic, went days without saying a word (this was before the father left, and in fact obviously maybe why he left) and in later years wore an actual trail walking circles around her yellow farmhouse in Rhode Island.

I've known for a long time that I inherited Grandma House's walking-in-circles gene and that there is something soothing about walking, especially walking the same path over and over. I once stayed at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Temecula, California, and I would walk up and down the (fairly steep, maybe quarter-mile long drive) five times every day. Same walk every day for a month, up and down five times. When I lived in Koreatown, I must have taken this one walk hundreds of times, down from Hobart Boulevard down 8th Street to Windsor Park and back. It was not even a super nice walk (though, given Koreatown, it was probably the nicest walk possible) and had various stretches that had nothing in particular to recommend then, and yet I knew every inch of the sidewalk and had favorite flowers that I considered friends and I had a whole thing about how the uber-ugly intersection of Crenshaw and Olympic was lonely and had no-one to love it and so I took it upon myself to love it.

Anyway, it may have been the idea of "embracing" ourselves as children, coupled with the perimeter of this track in back of the retreat house (a third of a mile for each revolution) that I have walked innumerable times since I've been here, coupled with the fact that Thérèse lost her own mother at the age of four. But the other morning, walking around and around this field outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, I began to picture Grandma's yellow farmhouse, from rural Rhode Island, right in the middle. I pictured Grandma House walking and holding my mother, as you can be sure she never did in real life (because, really, what kind of mothering can my own mother have gotten?), and I was somehow walking with and for her, and my mother was both a baby and a grownup, walking, holding me, and then me on the outside holding and being held by both of them and I haven't gotten to my own unborn children yet but they are in there, too, inside me maybe where I couldn't give them a place at the time.

I thought of another time I went with some fellow sober drunks to the downtown jail in L.A. We weren't allowed to shake hands or hold hands with the inmates in case we tried to pass some contraband. And so when it came time for the closing prayer, the three of us who had come in from the outside held hands with each other and formed a tiny circle. And next thing we knew, the inmates had silently come together, formed a larger circle, and were holding hands around us, and together, we all said the Lord's Prayer. Outside were locked doors, guns, barbed wire, and the guards in their darkened-glass, bullet-proof pods. But inside that circle--surrounded by cross-dressers, sex offenders, perverts, junkies, whores and thieves--I've seldom felt so protected, or so safe.

We must all be saved together! Reach God together! Appear before Him together! We must return to our Father’s house together…what would He think if we arrived without the others, without the others returning, too? 
--Charles Péguy

trailer on the other side of the fence


  1. I like your post but I think I should tell you those are Cottonwood Trees, not Live Oaks.

  2. I'm sure you're right about the one on the right but isn't the one on the left a different kind of tree? Maybe I'm just stuck on the live oaks all over California...anyway, thanks and I changed the caption...

  3. I think the one on the right is an elm but the big old gnarly one on the left looks like a cottonwood. I'm just a tree nut. I like trees.
    I also like spiritual writings such as yours. God bless.

  4. I defer to the tree experts! This stuff IS important!...


  6. okay I went out there and looked and sure enough, they are both cottonwoods. With the heart-shaped leaves. Thanks, guys!

  7. Deeply moving post.

    My friend, Scott, who is battling terminal cancer, will receive later today (God willing) the sacraments of initiation (sans baptism, which he received as a Presbyterian) and become Catholic. Our parish priest is expediting the process -- obviously Scott cannot go through the RCIA program. Please pray that Scott is lucid and fully alert as he receives the sacraments and instruction in the Faith.


  8. Outstanding post, Heather.
    Loved 1 and 2.
    So familiar sounding.

    I could be a poster child somedays
    for I am not good enough, smart enough etc.
    ( I won't comment on the trees.)
    Not knowledgeable.

  9. Heather, thank you for this post! Your image of walking in the circle with your mother and children is so beautiful, so paradoxical, so full of mercy.

    I also love this line:
    "Because we really can't love anybody else any better or more or more tenderly and healthily and unreservedly and in a non-possessive way than we can love ourselves."

    It reminds me of something Mary Joyce wrote in that chapter I emailed you (did you get it?): "How true it is that the kingdom of heaven is within me! How can I say that I love God whom I do not see, when I do not love my neighbor whom I do see? But how can I love my neighbor, or even God, who I am not, if I do not love myself, who I am?"

  10. Heather, thank you for your sharing all of your reflections with us. This one is especially moving to me. Your insights about childhood and its affects on us are so true. Now if I can try to do as little damage to my own child as possible...

    I look forward to reading your new book when it comes out! I've got Redeemed and really liked it.


I WELCOME your comments!!!