Sunday, July 31, 2011

BLIND FAITH


“Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust—not certainty.”
--Flannery O'Connor

These past three weeks in New Mexico,  my daily walk has been the mile or so the bottom of the hill and down a narrow winding country road to the Valdez capilla (chapel) where I went for six o'clock Mass last night.

On the way, bordering the road, is a pasture of soft woolly lambs and sheep, some of whom have little bells around their necks that make a soft, tinkling chime.

When you really look at sheep they are just not all that smart. They walk in circles and bump into each other and go this way and that way, and follow wherever they’re led, and bleat. And that is us, that is humans, every human, underneath.

I have stood there a couple of times and wept at these lambs.

"I know my sheep and my sheep know me."

I'm off at the crack of dawn Monday morning. A 1000-mile drive. There'll be a moment at some wind-swept gas station, surrounded by strangers milling around and eating candy, when I feel utterly utterly alone in a way that is both thrilling and lonely-unto-death.





Saturday, July 30, 2011

ONLY BELIEVE THAT EVERYTHING BELONGS

DOORMATS NEED FRIENDS, TOO

A reflection on forgiveness:

We tend to think that God’s will is out of our hands. We tend to resist abandoning ourselves completely out of fear. But to be forgiven as we forgive beautifully leaves the control in our hands. Maybe we can’t forgive. But the choice at least to pray for the willingness to forgive is ours.

Forgiveness goes so against our natural sense of justice that it often seems beyond our reach: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’” [Matthew 18: 21-22].

To forgive, however, is not to be a doormat. A doormat says, “That you hurt me is okay.” The martyr says, “I’m in agony that you hurt me, I’m in sorrow for you and the world, but I’m not going to return violence for violence.”

Just as Christ blew apart for all time the old “law” of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, he also blew apart all notion of counting the cost, hedging our bets, playing things close to the vest. To forgive is not to let someone off the hook—this time. To forgive is not to be outwardly “nice” and inside to plot vengeance. To forgive is to open our arms and heart wide, to remain woundable—as Christ did on the Cross.

What’s important, in other words, isn’t the quantity or extent to which we forgive, but the orientation of heart, the quality, the way in which we forgive. Because in remaining woundable, we don’t just get an equal return: we get more, and of an entirely different order, than we ever could have imagined.

When we stop counting the cost, the universe stops counting the cost toward us. When our hearts overflow toward others, the heart of Christ overflows toward us. The very letting go of our calculating and scheming and fear—not winning; not acting as judge, jury, and executioner—turns out to be what we’ve wanted all along.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned, forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” [Luke 6: 37-38].

In Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr writes: I believe with all my heart that the Gospel is all about the mystery of forgiveness.  When you “get” forgiveness, you get it.  We use the phrase “falling in love.”  I think forgiveness is almost the same thing.  It’s a mystery we fall into: the mystery is God.”




Friday, July 29, 2011

SEEING THROUGH THE EYES OF GOD: THÉRÈSE, PART I


Br. Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC
photo: discerninghearts.com
Last week I attended a retreat on St. Thérèse of Lisieux given by Bro. Joseph F. Schmidt. 

Br. Joe has written several books on Thérèse and gave the green light to write up and post a series of notes on the retreat.

A little background:

If you're interested, you can read up on her at one of Thérèse's many "official" sites or at wikipedia, but briefly, she lived from 1873-1897, was the youngest of four sisters originally from Alençon, France, all of whom entered a cloistered convent, led an outwardly completely unremarkable, obscure life, died at the age of twenty-four of TB, and on the way developed an inner life and a spirituality known as "The Little Way" that is at once so revolutionary and so true to and reflective of the Gospels that this essentially unschooled bourgeois French girl was canonized a mere twenty-eight years later and in 1997, made a Doctor of the Church (one of only three women to date upon whom the title has been bestowed).

She left behind poems, plays, letters and an autobiography, written under orders from her superiors at the convent, called The Story of a Soul. What I love about her is that she was humble, meek (in the true sense of the word), and mild, and she also was fierce, hard-core, and determined unto death. Because Thérèse's vocation, she discovered, was love. And authentic love is hard-core. Non-violent love is as hard-core as you can get--Christ on the Cross being the clearest possible demonstration...

One way to describe Thérèse's spirituality is INCARNATIONAL MYSTICISM, an attitude characterized by:

1. Seeing Through the Eyes of God:

Christ comes to re-vivify our spirit. Christianity is not a matter of taking on extra pain. It's a matter of taking on the pain of being who we are, and patiently bearing with ourselves and the SLOW work of God.

To be loving means that we never make ourselves or others into an adversary. To try to fix things, ourselves and others up is adversarial.  One weakness is failing to respond to God's mercy and love. God “loves us into” boundaries. Boundaries are to be made lovingly, for our good and the good of others. 

We are welcoming of the world and of our experiences. We deal with our experiences through God's point-of-view. 

2. Doing Everything with the Intention of Pleasing God:

"The great saints worked for the glory of God, but I'm only a little soul; I work simply for His pleasure," said Thérèse.

This requires an awareness of our motivations. Before we take an action, we ask ourselves: What does this look like from the standpoint of eternity? To be present to our motivations without fear requires great spiritual discipline. We don't want to get hooked into retaliation. We want to do good to those who hate us (which is often ourselves).

But the point is that we do everything with the intention of pleasing God. Not with the intention of pleasing ourselves (though if our intentions are pure, that comes along the way). Not with the intention of pleasing others if the pleasing is so that they'll approve of us or give us what we want. And definitely not with the intention of appeasing God or placating God or hoodwinking God or earning God's love. Because God already loves us. And now we simply get to please him.

3. Receiving Everything from God:

Self-love is letting God love us. Our spiritual journey is accepting our life as God's providence. It's not to become "moral" and "gain" virtue. Virtue is the capacity for non-violence. Virtue is to realize we are loved. 

Thérèse spoke often of surrender and gratitude. Surrender doesn't mean passively accepting violence. Surrender means staying with our painful memories and feelings, bringing them into God's presence.

One major way we experience God is through our feelings (an area that to date we have not much talked about in the Church). Thoughts drive us, but feelings precede thoughts chronologically, so this is a significant issue. In a former post, I set forth some of Br. Joe's insights on the subject.

Our feelings of shame and guilt are real. They come from way back, from our childhoods.  The feelings are so intense because they have a physiological basis to them. We're not crazy to have them, but as adults we don't need them. And in spite of the fact that we don't need them, they don't go away. We'll still have them on our deathbeds. But we do have a responsibility to treat the feelings so that what remains is more a tendency to have them, and/or to be triggered and then react to them with violence toward ourselves or others.

Nobody gets what they need as a kid. Even under the best of circumstances, we are left unsatisfied; fretful for the transcendent. So whose fault is it that none of us get what we need? Nobody's. And especially not yours. So don't blame yourself.

Thérèse as Joan of Arc
in the convent at Carmel
Lisieux, France, c. 1895
Thérèse's great gift was to integrate the psychological and the spiritual. Her life experiences and her teachings are integral to each other. She addressed these childhood feelings directly and in that sense (among many others) she is radical.

[In a former post—Co-dependent No More—I wrote of  Thérèse's “Christmas conversion,” in which an offhand  remark from her father catapulted her in an instant into the next level of spiritual maturity].  

We all need this contemplative spirit, this "incarnational mysticism" by which we begin to see through the eyes of God. As children, we see through the eyes of hurt, fear, and confusion. But as we work on these childhood feelings—through prayer, inventory, sharing with a trusted friend or spiritual director—we begin to develop a more mature point-of-view. We begin to heal our "original sin," in the sense of original sin as not trusting in God's goodness for us.  We begin to see that God blesses all our experiences, even the most painful.

We do not get RECOGNIZED for living in incarnational mysticism (I, personally, think this is very unfair).

No-one will even notice.

We will, however, become the saints we were meant to be.  Not the saints we wanted to be. The saints God wants us to be. 

Next up: THE LOVE OF GOD IS UTTERLY, COMPLETELY, RESOLUTELY NON-VIOLENT.

greetings from my nephew allen!
he is visiting with his uncle joe and aunt mimi in atlanta

Thursday, July 28, 2011

GOD IS GREATER THAN GOD

they finally settled on a cover for Shirt of Flame.
I hate it.
Out september 1!

To me, Christianity is never about that those of us who know how to pray or know to pray through Christ or who participate in the Eucharist are "saved" and the other poor slobs are cast into the fire. If that were the case, how could any person of conscience seriously want to become a member of the Church?

To me, if you don't follow Christ, eat his Body, drink His Blood, you do not have abundant life. You do not have full joy. You do not fully understand that your entire existence is an insane gift.

I am squarely, you could even say devoutly, Catholic. Love Mass, believe passionately in the value of Confession, pray the Office, read the Desert Fathers, the desert mystics, the saints, the scholars, the philosophers, the contemplatives. Live in some kind of marginal poverty, chastity, obedience. Make retreats, seek spiritual direction, worship, worship, worship Christ. Lately, like a reverse of the cradle Catholics who grow up with novenas and holy cards and rosaries and then discard those practices as hopelessly childish, I've started GOING to novenas. Litanies to the saints, prayers to Michael the archangel, bring it on.

But the structure of worship, the teachings of the Church, and the centuries of tradition don't constitute my faith; rather, they help form my faith. Everything I am I am because I have prayed, sought, trudged to Mass, sang the crappy post-Vatican II hymns, heard the boring homilies.

Which of course means I was also there to hear the stellar homilies, drink in the beautiful churches, sing the splendid hymns ("The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing,” “O Sanctissima”).

meister eckhart
Because I was there with love, and with total, total gratitude, I have gotten to see that whether the outside is personally and aesthetically pleasing to me doesn't much matter. I have gotten to see that everyone is doing the best they can; everyone has a shattered heart in this world.

What matters it that I participate in the Eucharist, the intersection of heaven of earth, of this realm and the realm from which we came and to which we will go when we die, of the spirit and the flesh.

What matters is that I kneel, pray, and lift my voice in song with people I have not hand-picked.

What matters is that I confess my weakness and brokenness and ask my brothers and sisters to pray for me and that I pledge to pray for them. What matters is that I open my heart and imagination to see that Christ is in the middle of all of it: all of what happens inside church, and all of what happens outside of it. 

Everything that I am I also am because of the fellowship of alcoholics and addicts who, for twenty-four years, have saved my life, given me life, shown me what abundant life is.

"God is greater than God," said 13th-c. mystic Meister Eckhart. Even if we don't recognize him, he always recognizes us. This is a God as Hans Urs von Balthasar observed, "so intensely alive that he can afford to be dead."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A SENSE OF BEING FOLLOWED, OF BEING DESIRED


san antonio capilla, valdez, new mexico where they say the rosary every monday at 6.
pictured 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.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

THE GESTALT OF CHRIST

FLANNERY O'CONNOR
WITH ONE OF HER BELOVED PEACOCKS
I had an editor once who took me to task for writing: "Christ never sat back and folded his arms and decided not to consort with anybody. He didn't let everyone into his inner circle, but he welcomed everyone, he acknowledged everyone who wanted to be acknowledged, he saw through to every person's deepest core."

The editor responded, "Best not to purport to know what went through Christ's mind."

I couldn't disagree more.  

From a talk given by Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete in May, 2001, called "What Is Essential to Our Humanity?"

This is what we look for concerning Jesus, the weight of his presence when we read Sacred Scripture, when we interpret it. He calls it a “Christocentric Hermeneutic.” This powerful way of reading, that reveals more and more of the gestalt of Christ, is what should guide us, is what he calls what creates the canon of Sacred Scripture. Jesus Christ, His power of presence, is the interpretation of Scripture. As St. John says when Jesus says, “I Am the grammar of Moses.”

And as Flannery O’Connor remarked to a monk in 1963: “I don't think the state of American Catholic fiction is going to improve until our people become Bible-readers.”

MONSIGNOR LORENZO ALBACETE

THE SUN SETTING OVER ALBUQUERQUE



Friday, July 22, 2011

INCARNATIONAL MYSTICISM

catalpa tree

I am gaining all kinds of fresh insight into St. Thérèse of Lisieux here on retreat at the Canossian Spirituality Center in Albuquerque with the good Br. Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC.  

One thing he points out is that in the newest edition of the Catechism, Thérèse's definition of prayer has supplanted--not replaced, but supplanted--the old definition--"Prayer is the lifting up of our minds and hearts to God"--in the Baltimore Catechism.

Lifting, he observes, implies effort and exertion and is an action that we perform ourselves and as such, is more or less a masculine way of looking at prayer. Whereas a surge of heart is something that takes place within us and as such is a much more feminine way of looking at prayer. Here's St.Thérèse's version:

"What is Prayer?

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart;
It is a simple look turned toward heaven,
It is a cry of recognition and lof love,
Embracing both trial and joy."

Also notable is that nowhere in the definition does the word "God" or "Christ" appear, the operative point being that everyone is invited, you don't need to have a degree in theology, and in fact you don't even have to believe in God...



ailanthus aka "tree of heaven"
mimosa tree



cottonwood leaf

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

THE BORDERS OF OURSELVES



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, and alfalfa and hay fields. Our rooms have swamp coolers. 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.

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.

We really can't love anybody else  better or more or more tenderly and healthily and unreservedly and in a non-possessive way than we can love ourselves.


trailer on the other side of the fence

Monday, July 18, 2011

PHOTO OF MY BIRTH

WHITE SANDS, NEW MEXICO
ERNST HASS, 1952


I was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 59 years ago today, but I feel this photo nicely captures the COSMIC nature of the event....

I think it was very nice of God to let me be born in my favorite month, in a hospital overlooking a beautiful estuary.

I have lived on one edge or another of the continent ever since.


THE OLD PORTSMOUTH HOSPITAL,
TO THE RIGHT
FEBRUARY
THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE RIVER

For the Anniversary of My Death
            
            Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
            When the last fires will wave to me
            And the silence will set out
            Tireless traveller
            Like the beam of a lightless star
           
            Then I will no longer
            Find myself in life as in a strange garment
            Surprised at the earth
            And the love of one woman
            And the shamelessness of men
            As today writing after three days of rain
            Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
            And bowing not knowing to what

--W.S. Merwin

Sunday, July 17, 2011

FAITH AND THE SURPRISE ENDING

CHURCH OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT,
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA,
SITE OF MY CONFIRMATION AND FIRST COMMUNION

From Exterminating Angel Press, July 12, 2008

Letter from Los Angeles
by Linda Sandoval

An Interview with Heather King as she “stumbles toward God, marginal sanity and the peace that passes all understanding.” (From the title of her book Redeemed).

It seems to me that many of us in the middle years of our lives look to make some sense out of the punishing and crazy jumble of our own personal history. As we look for what really matters to us there may be profound changes in perspective and goals. Perhaps we come to understand our limitations better. Perhaps we look to ourselves as the source of our problems and stop blaming others -- or at least learn to view those “ others” with charity and forgiveness.

I first met author Heather King at a dinner with our mutual friend Julia Gibson shortly after her first book Parched was released. I was impressed with the dark-haired woman who seemed so full of wit and watchful humility. I could tell that she had really been through something and had managed to come out the other side. And indeed Parched is the harrowing story of Heather’s escape from years of alcoholism. (Publisher’s Weekly chose Parched as a Most Memorable Memoir in 2005.) Interestingly, during that bleak period of blackouts and hangovers, Heather managed to earn a law degree, and as a sober alcoholic moved from Boston to Los Angeles, where she worked with a law firm in Beverly Hills. But the constant demand to manipulate truth in order to protect the “bottom line” proved to be as deadly and soul killing to her as alcohol addiction. With her new book, Redeemed, Heather continues her search for authentic purpose and meaning, finding herself drawn towards Catholicism and embracing her true calling as a writer.

She uses the word “redeemed” in its original meaning as being freed from bondage, ransomed and recovered. The LA Times said of Redeemed, “King’s book is as honest and raw as the model of the spiritual memoir, the ‘Confessions of St. Augustine...” Redeemed is a humorous and intelligent book that draws the reader into a highly personal spiritual journey. It is not at all an attempt to proselytize or convert. And, she pulls no punches when it comes to self-criticism and more importantly self-forgiveness.

BAPTISM OF CHRIST
PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA, c. 1448
Linda: Heather, you have traveled a painful and complex journey from alcoholism, to Beverly Hills lawyer, to cancer survivor, to being a writer, to the embrace of the Catholic Church. This last was accomplished in, of all places, Los Angeles. Is there something about your life in this city that led you this particular direction? Can you give us a description of “spiritual LA”?

Heather: The editor of the Best Spiritual Writing series once asked me, “How can you be spiritual in L.A.?” I wanted to say, “How can you not be ‘spiritual’ in L.A.?” You’re surrounded by so many people, so much traffic and noise, so many cultures, languages, ways of being, I don’t see how anyone can navigate his or way through without, for lack of a better way to put it, coming to something greater than themselves. L.A., even at its most ugly, or perhaps even because of the ugliness, can also be breathtakingly beautiful. The heaven/hell, sacred/profane paradigms are on daily display. I’ll be walking through my neighborhood and see an old broken-down sofa someone’s dumped on the sidewalk and three feet away will be a scarlet hibiscus in full, splendid bloom. Catholicism is a religion based above all on wonder and mystery. And I do think living in a city with so many paradoxes, with a sense of so many parallel, vital, but unknowable cultures and lives, has given me plenty to observe and ponder. Also, L.A. is, or can be, an incredibly lonely place to live, a city with a kind of built-in isolation. I’m a loner by temperament anyway. So I’ve been led to develop a rich inner life…

Linda: It’s interesting to me that although you moved from a law practice you despised to the life of a writer one of the strongest virtues of your writing remained the ability to put forth an argument. Do you think attempting to seek truth through law, proof, argument, gave you a foundation for seeking a greater spiritual truth?

Heather: Well, I don’t think you come to faith through reasoning. At least I didn’t. I “came to believe” first, and then I brought all my faculties, including my intelligence, to bear as I began to contemplate the “God of my understanding.” Once I believed, in other words, I put my beliefs to an intellectual test and found they held up. I enjoy making order out of seeming chaos—in a way, that’s what I do as a writer. But it’s not a mathematical order, as satisfying and useful and otherwise beautiful as mathematics and science are. God can’t be “proved” or disproved; that’s His glory. The proof of what I believe is in my heart, in my soul. The proof is that once I started to take responsibility for my shortcomings and the harm I’d done to myself and others, started to forgive, started to develop a somewhat disciplined spiritual path—all very faltering and stumbling, two steps forward, one step back, but at least moving in the right direction—I started to come awake, to be transformed. Except the transformation is nothing like I thought it would be…the transformation has been the increasing realization of how broken I am, how human. But also how loved—which in turn helps me to develop compassion and to love others.

Linda: You once quoted Mother Teresa, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” What are some examples of small, loving, gestures that you feel might propel us towards less destruction and more compassion in our lives?

Heather: Wishing people well in our hearts, especially people who have hurt us. Letting people off the hook. Saying, “ I’m sorry”, saying “That hurt”, saying “ I value your friendship”. Noticing small beautiful things like a branch or the shape of a bowl. When in doubt, saying nothing. Praying to be relieved of the desire to be the favorite, to be consulted. Not taking our anger out on the people who can’t fight back—the telemarketer, the person driving ahead of us on the freeway, the tech person we get to after an hour on hold. Setting people free to live their own lives and realizing that as soon as we get focused on someone else’s life and how we think it should be changed, we’re not fully inhabiting or living our own lives.

Linda: What is for you the balance between seeking (that is questioning) and obedience and acceptance?

Heather: I think obedience and acceptance are part of seeking, or the fruit of seeking. Acceptance doesn’t mean to submit to the “unacceptable” or to be a doormat, but it does mean to stop fighting everybody and everything, even evil. I want to be for something, not against everything. “Resist not evil,” Christ said, and I think he meant don’t waste your energy fighting; use your energy to live in love. Love is the antidote to evil. Obedience actually means to listen attentively, and that’s what I’ve tried to do as I seek. I’ve listened to other people, to our culture, to many, many books, to the Church, to my heart. And the Church, for all its faults—inevitable faults, because it consists of broken humans—is the voice that’s closest to my heart, that speaks most to my longing to be good, for connection with myself, others and God, for eternity.

Editor Tod Davies comments: That’s very like something Dorothy Day once said when asked how she could bear to be a member of a Church that had caused so much injustice over its history. She said, “You can’t have Christ without his crucifix. And the Church is his crucifix!” So I wonder if that’s how you’re thinking as a woman when you think about the Church’s attitude toward us over the last few centuries…and the reactionary attitude the present papal administration is showing about women’s position in the Church’s history, and in the Church today. Do these things bother you, and if so how do they affect you? Or do you just think of them as inevitable faults in a human system of faith?

Heather: What attitude? That the Church accords the utmost reverence, second only to the reverence it accords Christ himself, to the Virgin Mary? That over the centuries it has consistently elevated women to the status of saints? That it attempts to comprehensively protect the sanctity of motherhood, the family, sex? No, I’m not bothered in the least. I have accorded approximately zero time in my life for instance to bemoaning the fact that Catholic priests must be male. I have no doubt that women would make “good” priests but there’s also no particular or pressing reason to have women priests or that the rule needs to be changed this instant. I’m much more bothered by the fact that our prisons are overflowing, that basic health care is unaffordable, by the pride, greed, sloth, fear, lust that sometimes keep me, and everyone I know, from the friendship and intimacy we long for, from fully utilizing our talents, from reaching out, in whatever way is give to each of us, to our brothers and sisters. In 11 years, I can’t think of a single instance where I have ever remotely felt degraded, demeaned, discriminated against, condescended to, constrained, forced, or harassed by the Catholic Church. On the contrary, the Church has fostered a kind of coming into myself, not so much, or only as a woman, but as a human being. I’ve become a writer in the Catholic Church. I got divorced and had my marriage annulled in the Catholic Church. I’m exploring my oldest emotional and sexual wounds in the Catholic Church. A whole world of philosophy, mysticism, poetry, contemplative prayer, the lives of the saints has opened up to me in the Catholic Church. And I’ve been given incredible, exemplary role models of womanhood, of femininity. Chief among them is The Virgin Mary---fierce, steadfast, persevering, tender, intuitive, loving, wise. St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, Mother Teresa, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor: these are not women you’d want to mess with. These are not women who suffered fools gladly. They had huge hearts and iron wills, which they spent their lives trying to bend toward the good.

Politics of all kinds make my eyes glaze over and, I suspect that if I was participating in, or interested in participating in, the administration or politics of the Church, I’d have additional observations, views, and feelings. As it is, I look to Christ himself, who had many rich female friendships. I hope to be worthy of being Christ's friend as well.

Linda: Do you feel prayer more for celebration or comfort or are they the same thing?

Heather: I don’t think they’re the same thing, and though prayer may be either or both celebration and consolation, I think of prayer more as simply placing myself in the presence of God. Showing up and making myself available to the consolation and the banquet that are going on all the time. Probably my most basic prayer is Thank you. The second, of course, is Help! Sometimes I have a kind of conversation in which I’ll thank God for some lovely interaction I had with a friend, or a beautiful walk, or for being with me throughout the day. I’ll tell him what I’ve been noticing about my thoughts; what I’m struggling with; what I’d like to move further toward, which is usually just to be closer to him, to abandon myself more fully. My experience has been that the more time and heart I devote to this, the more I begin to feel a dynamic, give-and-take, breathing relationship. I begin to trust it, because it always leads me in the direction of sacrificial love.


Linda: Say someone looking for guidance is inspired to pick up the Bible for the first time. Where would you suggest they start?

Heather: I think if you’re really seeking, almost anything you find in the Bible, even opening it at random, is going to help. And if you’re not seeking, if you’re looking to ridicule or disprove or shoot down, nothing is going to help. When I was working as a lawyer, for some reason I brought a Bible with me to work and put it in my desk, even though at the time I barely knew the difference between the Old and New Testaments. And one day, a particularly despairing day, I opened it and the first thing I saw was a line from Isaiah: “I have called you by name; you are mine.” I’m not one of these hokey paranormal-event-believing type folks but I must say the line got my attention. I am still far, far from a Biblical scholar but I read the liturgy for the Mass each day, whether or not I go to Mass, which means at least one Gospel reading. What the Gospels basically show me is that there’s a different “world,” a different “economy,” a different system of justice, based on mercy and forgiveness, than the system of this world. I don’t mean we’re supposed to live in some abstract, fantasy world: on the contrary, our task is to fully inhabit this broken but sublime world where we already live. But we get to inhabit it with a different set of values than the worldly values of money, property, prestige. We get to forge our own hard, lonely path, and walk it to the end. We get to become our authentic selves.

Linda: Conversely there are many who have fled the Christian religion. They remember oppression, hatred of others, hypocrisy. Would you guide them back?

Heather: No, not particularly. I would just tell my story.

Tod asks: And I’m interested to know why the Catholic faith was your path in particular? Why not, for example, a Protestant sect, or Buddhism, or even Islam? What was it about Catholicism that called out to you particularly?

Heather: I can say that when I began my quest I didn’t shop around for a church where I felt “comfortable” or where the people necessarily looked or dressed like me, or where I was going to hear things that were safe or familiar or politically correct. I was seeking the truth. I was looking for a church that would tell me the truth. I was concerned about the state of my soul, which I believed to be a matter of life and death. Catholicism was the only church that addressed that, as a matter of life and death: addressed it directly, continually, truthfully, without stinting or flinching. The cross in a Catholic church has a body on it. Right up front, right above the altar, is the message that subconsciously haunts us: someday, we’re going to die. Right up front, loud and clear, is the human condition: suffering, torment, conflict.

As I say in Redeemed, the first time I went to Mass and really “saw” that body on the crucifix, I realized Christ isn’t saying that we need to suffer more; he’s acknowledging the suffering we’re already in. And I suppose on some level in that moment I “got” as much as I ever will, or as it’s possible to “get”—which is that God loves us so much he incarnated himself as man, he came down and pitched his tent among us to teach us how to come awake, to accompany us on the journey, to show what it looks like and what happens to you when you live in total integrity. Eventually, one way or another, they’ll kill you—which is why hardly anyone ever dares to live in total integrity.

But the real message of the Gospels is love, and the heart of my conversion was that I fell in love with Christ. To believe that Christ is the Savior of the world is a very very different thing than merely believing that he was a prophet, or “enlightened,” or especially selfless. The belief that God took on human flesh and entered into history, at a particular time and place, has no counterpart; no approximate similar event. To believe that the Body and Blood of Christ is the Real Presence is to believe in an entirely different order of the universe, a mystical order. Protestants share bread as a symbol of communion but the Eucharist is not a symbol. You don’t lay down your life for a piece of bread; you lay down your life for the Body and Blood of Christ, for your fellow man, or you do if you’re a saint. I don’t mean you suffer through this vale of tears for the “reward” on the other side. I mean your desire for Christ is kindled here on earth and that makes you want to be with him afterward, fully, and you begin to understand that the way to do that is basically by dying to your ego and serving others here. You start to realize the things of this earth—money, clothes, cars, expensive food—aren’t fulfilling: not because they’re not good, but because they’re a lesser good than the greatest good. 

I just read the obituary of a woman named Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who died at the age of 98, and who’d saved something like 2500 Jews, many of them children. The Nazis repeatedly tortured her, breaking her feet and legs, but she’d refused to give the names of her collaborators, or the location of the garden where she’d buried a jar containing a roll of paper with the names of the children and their parents. The Nazis finally let her go and as soon as she got out, she continued with her rescue work. 


You don’t have to be Catholic to be an Irena Sendler, but I can’t imagine anything that would encourage me more in that direction than Catholicism. Someone like Irena Sendler makes me realize how unworthy I am to call myself a follower of Christ: if I were really a follower, I’d live in a lot more courage, humility, poverty, chastity, and obedience than I do. But people like Irena Sendler give me something to strive for, to emulate. There’s something sublime about an Irena Sendler, about Catholicism, about a religion that makes saints out of sinners. Saints aren’t “good,” they’re beyond good, they’re part crazy. I read recently that faith means believing in the surprise ending. The Crucifixion was a surprise ending. You don’t expect the Savior of the world to die an apparent failure, rejected and scorned, spat upon, cut down in the prime of life and butchered—just like we don’t expect cancer, broken hearts, bankruptcy, alcoholism, war, lost children, famine, crime, and aging to cut us down like they do. So the Crucifixion was a surprise ending.

But the Resurrection—that’s the biggest surprise ending of all.


Linda: Who do you consider the important prophets of today and what do you think are the most important things they tell us?

Heather: Dorothy Day. Mother Teresa. Martin Luther King, Jr. Depth psychologists like James Hillman, James Hollis, Helen M. Luke. Poets like Jean Valentine and Franz Wright. The people who are telling us in so many words that the world is going to be saved by love but that love in practice, as Dostoevsky said, is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. We have to be brave enough to undertake a sort of mythic journey. And the journey requires a sacrifice. The further I progress in my own journey, the more I see the call is to sacrifice our whole selves, our entire old way of being. We have to allow our egos to be crucified, in order to make room for the Resurrection. We have to stop identifying with our addictions, our wounds, our attachments, our baggage in order to allow for “the new man” to be born. The new man who’s willing to lay down his life so the rebirth can perpetually continue, not just in us but in everyone…

Tod: Quite a few of the ‘important prophets’ you mention were social activists, too – particularly Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Do you feel an activist component in your faith? Do you think faith has a responsibility to act, a responsibility to a wider community?

Heather: Absolutely: the very reason to cultivate faith is to re-connect us with the rest of humanity. The proof of faith, the fruit of faith, is how we treat the least of our brothers and sisters. So we’re all called to be activist.  But I think true activism is at bottom spiritual, not political, and I also think activism can manifest in a spectrum of ways other than “socially.” A hermit in a cave can be active in the sense that he or she is offering his or her prayers up to humanity. A mother is an activist in that she’s spending her life shopping, cleaning, cooking, instructing, dropping and picking up the kids, and at the same time, at the heart of her activity, she can be a contemplative. Activism is a whole stance toward life: how we spend our time, how mindful we are of our thoughts. “I must plan my day and arrange my time for the good of my soul,” said St. Augustine—that’s the basis from which to go out and picket against the death penalty, or vigil against nuclear power, or from which to pray for the condemned criminal or for peace, or do do both. To be Catholic is to have an across-the-board stance for life. Against war, for the convicted criminal, the unborn child, the sick, the diminished, the dying. 

I’m friends with the Catholic Worker here in L.A. I’ve worked at their soup kitchen, vigilled with them, written articles for their paper, The Catholic Agitator. Last year, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I participated in an “action,” as they call it, at Vandevere Air Force Base. Right now I’m writing a review for the Agitator of the diaries of Dorothy Day, who is really a model for blending the active and contemplative lives, and interestingly, for all her social activism, who also said, “The Mass is the most important thing we do.” Most of my “activism,” if that’s the word, takes place in the context of working with other alcoholics who are trying to get and stay sober. Part of that involves going to jails, prisons, hospitals, but I consider the whole enterprise a form of activism, and not least of all on my own behalf. I think spirituality is at bottom very practical. You have to realize first of all that you’re a spiritual wreck yourself and start, and continually come back to, there. Of course writing itself is hugely “active” and to me a major act of resistance against the powers and principalities of this world.

Still, I should no doubt be more active. We should probably all go to jail at least once in our lives, for example. And I don’t suppose my night in the
Hampton, New Hampshire jail for public drunkenness when I was 17 quite fulfills that obligation.

Linda: Recently I sat for a time with someone with late stage Alzheimer’s and I remembered you once wrote that learning to just sit with someone in their own suffering is one of the greatest gifts and one of the most difficult to accomplish. It was helpful for me to realize I didn’t have to try to fix anything but that there was a purpose in just being there. Do you feel that grace lies in giving witness in that way, without any mirror for the ego?

FOUR-YEAR-OLD MARY DAVIS,
TENDING THE SICK BABY WHEN NOT WORKING
DUNBAR, LOUISIANA
photo: LEWIS HINES
Heather: Grace is a slightly overworked word that seems to mean different things to different people, but I think it requires grace, that is, the help of God, in order for our ego to “disappear” in the first place, in order for us to detach from our deep desire for results. We tend to value productivity, and to value ourselves according to how effective we are. Just sitting with someone in his or her suffering is difficult because our impulse is either to fix the person, or to be thanked, or both. If they can’t be fixed, we tend to lose interest; there’s nothing in it for us. The last thing Christ asked of his disciples was to sit with him, for his “hour” in the Garden at Gethsemane the night before he died—and of course, they couldn’t; like us, they fell asleep. It requires tremendous vulnerability, on the side of both parties, to simply sit quietly in each other’s presence. We feel we have to say something interesting or the other person will leave or get discouraged. So to get close enough to your own heart, and the heart of another, to realize, This is all I’ve ever wanted, for someone to sit with me. To love me just because I exist. To be in solidarity with my humanity and my suffering…

That’s big. I hope I make it there some day.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST


The other day I printed out the manuscript (AGAIN) of Stripped: Cancer, Culture, Conscience, and the Cloud of Unknowing: the book over which I've been toiling, on and off, for ten years about my bout with illness, the medical system, and death.

At last! I thought. I will read it straight through and it will be PERFECT!  Of course there'll be a few minor grammatical mistakes but I'll fix those right up and send the damn thing off, FINALLY, to my agent!

By the first paragraph I was moaning No! I need to change that back again!, and Chapter Two was  a complete mess. Right after that, I read Chapter Three. And right after that, my back began aching really, really, bad, like someone had just strapped a big load of cinder blocks to it.

The very next day, I opened to the daily liturgy and read:

"Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light"...[Matthew 11:28-30].

OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE CHURCH
SURROUNDED BY HOLLYHOCKS
TAOS, NEW MEXICO

We are all heavy burdened. Even little schoolchildren nowadays, you see carrying these gigantic backpacks, like burros. And I'm not even mainly talking of course about physical burdens. I myself took so many burdens upon myself as a child, that by the age of twelve, I was tired. I needed a drink. Then there were the twenty years of working like an indentured slave for booze money. Then came sobriety and the incessant inner work of keeping myself in shape so I don't pick up a drink, or a drug, or a revolver...

Anyway, notice how Jesus doesn't say "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened and I will take your burdens away."

He doesn't say, "I will carry your burdens for you."

He says I will give you rest. He says I will teach you how to carry your burdens in a new way. With my yoke, the yoke of love, not the yoke of the world that loads you up with burdens, and makes you carry them by yourself, and meanly puts potholes in your path, and lashes and spits at you, and you never get anywhere. 



"Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart." Meek doesn't mean being a doormat; meek means showing up and giving everything we have but remembering that "the Father doeth the works." [John 14:10] Meek means remembering that we have friends and that in the end, they are pretty much all that matter.

And of course, there's always music.

Are You Tired of Me, My Darling

Friday, July 15, 2011

UP TO THE CAVERNS



My main dilemma up here on Coyote Mountain outside Taos, NM, is whether to spend the blessed silence and solitude working, or to spend every minute looking at the sky, which literally changes from minute to minute.

I am off Saturday to Albuquerque from my week-long retreat on St. Thérèse of Lisieux with Bro. Joseph F. Schmidt.

(Re)-reading The Executioner's Song and watching Kurosawa's Ikiru (To Live).

Continuing to savor Iain Matthews' The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross.

The point is that love takes the person on a journey deeper into him. Deeper, but always into him. Canticle brings waves of understanding, unveiling each time what was there from the beginning. It is as if one heard a drama on the radio about children being saved from drowning; then it turns out to be a news item, not a drama; then one discovers the children are one's own children.

So, the bride's search starts off with a meditation on the mysteries of Jesus--meaning Jesus born, tempted, teaching, healing, praying sweating, dying, rising. She begins with this. As she goes further, she comes...to the mysteries of Jesus; surpassing that she reaches...the mysteries of Jesus; until finally, in the utter newness of heaven, she will be overwhelmed by the mysteries of Jesus...

And so up to the caverns,
set deep into the rock
--almost out of sight--
we'll find a way to enter,
there to taste the pomegranate wine
(Canticle stanza 32)...

Heaven will be that: a total entry into the caverns of Christ's heart, an infinite space for the Father.








Wednesday, July 13, 2011

LEANING ON THE EVERLASTING ARMS

FLAMING FLYING SAUCER?
I am settling nicely into my weeks of pilgrimage in Taos, New Mexico. It is so beautiful up here on "my" mountain that I spend lots of time simply wandering from room to room, looking out the myraid windows, studying the sky, and snacking.

Yesterday's adventures were two.

1. I ventured down off the hill, slightly, but only slightly, concerned that the chassis would be ripped from my beloved vehicle, into town.

2. A storm looked to be brewing so I dashed back after an hour or two in order to unplug the modem as it apparently does not respond well to electrical storms. So I got back, and unplugged everything, and a more or less gentle rain fell for awhile, and seemed to stop, and around six I decided to set out for a nice constitutional.

No sooner had I descended to the road (which means a good twenty-minute rather hardy climb back up) then  thunder started cracking, lightning ripped through the sky, and a torrential downpour began. I quickly became soaking, and I mean soaking wet, which I actually kind of liked

There simply wasn't anything I could do, or anywhere to seek shelter, so I kept to my brisk walk as scheduled, and just as I was heading back up the hill the rain let up, and suddenly I turned around and saw this!


And this!



Tuesday, July 12, 2011

EYES TO SEE AND EARS TO HEAR


MEXICAN HAT
COYOTE MOUNTAIN, OUTSIDE TAOS, NM

"Why do you speak to them in parables?" the disciples asked Christ. "He said to them in reply, "Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted...That is why I speak to them in parables, because they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand." [Mt. 13:11, 13].

I'm way up on a mountain outside Taos, New Mexico. I didn't see a soul all day yesterday. I wrote, read, prayed, puttered, dealt with a very alarming ant infestation, and around quarter past six lit out for my daily walk.

As I meandered along, I came upon a faded green sign saying "Post Office," by the side of a very unpromising looking, semi-abandoned narrow dirt road. I almost passed by but I thought, No I'm going to investigate, though the entire area seemed completely deserted, silence reigned, and someone like me in these parts sticks out like a sore-thumb stranger.

I walked a hundred yards in and suddenly I came upon a lovely old capilla, one of the many tiny chapels, often used only in summertime, in this part of New Mexico.  The door was open. The interior was dim. Candles flickered. And there, on a Monday evening, in this place that looked to be deserted, six or seven people, men and women, were praying the Rosary. 

I'd happened in just at the beginning of the third Glorious Mystery, The Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles. I knelt near the back and joined them.

I can't describe the sense of homecoming, of rightness, of grace.

Afterwards they said, Come anytime. They said, You are most welcome.  I said, Do you gather here every night? No, Mondays only, six o'clock 

Mondays, six o'clock. At that hour of all the hours, on Monday of all the days, I'd been led down a dirt road that looked as if there were nothing on it at all and on which instead had been everything.




"God is sufficiently revealed in the Scriptures for those who truly seek him, and they find him. God is sufficiently hidden in the Scriptures for those who do not seek him with all their heart, and they do not find him.”
--Blaise Pascal