Sunday, July 31, 2011

BLIND FAITH


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

I’ve worked very hard these three weeks in New Mexico, maybe too hard, work being one of the many places where I have a hard time distinguishing the thin line between passion and pathology. Have accomplished much and in a way have had the whole time to myself and in another have had very little time to myself and it is all prayer, all joy, and in some sense all pain. I’m not lonely the way I used to be almost all the time, though I often feel a great weight of sorrow. Sorrow that we all have to leave this earth someday, sorrow at all the ones who have already left, sorrow at the suffering and untruth and greed and evil of the world.

I mean we have a government that can’t or won't balance its budget out of nothing but greed. Stop spending money on the military. Start making your "political platform" that in a nation that claims to be based on Christ the wealthy will NATURALLY want to share. But no, and so now they are saying maybe old people won't get their Social Security checks this month. In the richest, most "powerful" country on earth! I mean is that not sad and embarrassing and emblematic of the fact that we are not only not one nation under God but not remotely cognizant of God--not the God whom Christ called the Father--at all?

“My” walk has been the mile or so the bottom of the hill and down to the narrow winding country road to the little Valdez capilla (chapel) where I went for six o'clock Mass last night. Just before the turnoff, bordering the road, is a pasture of soft woolly lambs and sheep, some of whom have little bells around their necks that make the softest gentlest tinkling chime. And I have just stood there a couple of times and wept at these lambs. "I know my sheep and my sheep know me." 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'm off at the crack of dawn Monday morning but am not going to race. It'll be two days at least back to L.A. and I may even stop over somewhere for a day to break up the approximately 1000-mile drive. There's always a moment at some wind-swept gas station, surrounded by strangers milling around and eating candy, when you feel utterly utterly alone in a way that is both kind of thrilling and kind of scary and sorrowful unto death. And when I'm reminded of my youth, and hitch-hiking up and down the Eastern seaboard, and out West with my friend Laura "looking for America."

Which sometimes I think is forever lost, if it ever existed, and sometimes I think I may, at last, have found.





Saturday, July 30, 2011

ONLY BELIEVE THAT EVERYTHING BELONGS

DOORMATS NEED FRIENDS, TOO
Hi there, folks, I'm winding down on my visit to New Mexico and will post Part II (of IV) of my St. Thérèse of Lisieux series Monday.

For today, here's a piece on forgiveness I wrote at the invite of Jennifer Fulwiler who has "researched her way into Christianity" and writes a wildly popular blog called Conversion Diary. In it, she's been examining the Lord's Prayer, word by word, via guest posters.

My word was "forgive" as in we FORGIVE those who trespass against us…

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.”


Here's something my own research turned up: a clip of the unbelievably great 50's gospel group from Richmond, Virginia, the Harmonizing Four, doing a 64th anniversary show (do NOT miss the final "be-lieve"):


Thursday, July 28, 2011

SEEING THROUGH THE EYES OF GOD: THÉRÈSE, PART I

they finally settled on a cover for Shirt of Flame,  out september 1!
The other day I wrote that you don't have to believe in God or Jesus in order to pray. If we sincerely pray with all our hearts I believe the prayer will inevitably lead to him. But we don't have to believe in him for him to shower his gifts on us. To me when Christ said, “No-one comes to the Father except through me” [John 14:6], he meant that if we don't know him, we won't KNOW he is showering us with gifts. We will not SEE they are gifts. 

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 join in? Christianity to me is that 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. And our entire job is to radiate such love and joy that people will get curious about, will feel compelled to explore, will be attracted by the 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. Sure! Litanies to the saints, prayers to Michael the archangel, bring it on.

But what this has given me is not a sense that the structure of worship, the teachings of the Church, and the centuries of tradition constitute my faith; rather, those things inexorably guide me to 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
And 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. 

Because everything that I am I also am because of my fellow alcoholics and addicts who for twenty-four years have saved my life, given me life, shown me what abundant life is. And if that is not Christ in action, I sincerely don't know what would be.

"God is greater than God," said 13th-c. mystic Meister Eckhart and I truly think this is one of the things Thérèse was saying and one of the things we need to ponder, hear, and disseminate far and wide.

Because when Christ said "No-one comes to the Father except through me" I'm thinking he also didn't mean that your kindness and generosity and compassion and suffering and joy are not wanted and don't "count" unless you're a confirmed and in good-standing (whataver that means) Catholic. I'm thinking he meant ALL true kindness and generosity and compassion and suffering and growth and forgiveness and self-examination and creativity and joy are accomplished through, pleasing to, done with and by and beside him. Even if we don't recognize him, in other words, he always recognizes us. This is a God who, truly, is greater than God. This is a God, as Hans Urs von Balthasar observed, "so intensely alive that he can afford to be dead."

So this is the backdrop with which I came to Bro. Joseph F. Schmidt's retreat last week. (For the record, I asked, and he gave the green light, to post the substance of his remarks and if I say something that is not in complete accordance therewith I hope he or a devotee will correct me post-haste). 

Br. Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC
photo: discerninghearts.com
If you're interested, you can read up on her at one of her 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 seemed to be and in fact 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.

The thing to remember here is that nobody gets what they need as a kid. Even under the best of circumstances (and most of us come from far from the best), 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 her “Christmas conversion,” in which an offhand  remark from her father catapulted her in an instant into the next level of spiritual maturity.  

So 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

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!

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 something like, "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." And the editor responded, "Best not to purport to know what went through Christ's mind."

I could not possibly disagree more. I think we are absolutely called to ponder what went on in Christ's mind, and his heart, and his soul. I think we are absolutely called to marvel at his knowledge of human nature, his sublime insight, his ability to cut to the heart of the matter, his capacity for vivid metaphor: the camel and the eye of a needle, the mustard seed, the pearl of great price. But most of all, we're called to ponder his weirdness. "Counter, original, spare, strange," Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in "Pied Beauty." That's Christ. 

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.”

When I sent the article to my buddy Andrew Matt over at Magnificat, he wrote back: "Really good food for thought, and two excerpts from it brought to mind two analogous quotes from Flannery O’Connor:

Albacete: “While European nihilists just denied God, American nihilism is something different. Our nihilism is our capacity to believe in everything and anything all at once. It's all good!”
Flannery O’Connor in 1955: “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it's the gas you breathe. If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now.”

Albacete: “Our view of how the Bible is the Word of God is a crucial symptom to look at to see what our view of the dominant culture is.”
Flannery O’Connor 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
Albacete also noted: 'For those of you who are intellectually or theologically inclined, I recommend an article in the last issue of Communio on the interpretation of the Bible according to Pope Benedict XVI.'”

The  Communio piece is entitled "Living Water: Reading Scripture in the Body of Christ with  Benedict XVI." In it, author Adrian J. Walker observes, "In his glorious freedom, Jesus shows himself to us as a one-of-a-kind original"....

I thought about this a lot on my retreat with St. Thérèse of Lisieux devotee Br. Joseph Schmidt, which I'll no doubt spend spend the coming week processing and writing about. How the heart of Christianity is to be found in the Gospels, in reading and pondering and letting the Gospels sink in and discovering and really falling in love with the utterly unique, stupendous Person of Christ. That is absolutely how I came to the Church myself. I started reading the Gospels, very eclectically, but if you are hungry and thirsty enough for the real and the true, he will reveal himself and he is so utterly original, of such utter integrity, intelligence, sensitivity, infinitely evolved love you simply KNOW he is it. He is the ground of everything.

THE SUN SETTING OVER ALBUQUERQUE
I think this is the defense, or one of them, against coming to follow one of these crackpot televangelist priests who turns out to have millions of dollars stashed away and a prostitute girlfriend. Anyone who has tasted the gestalt of Christ would see that such folks do not speak with authority, as Jesus did in the temple. Christ never spoke with hubris and he never spoke with obfuscation. He spoke in such a way that we are invited to ponder the deepest mysteries of ourselves, our daily lives, and the people around us. I mean is not Christ the original, ÜBER koan, and everything he said and did a koan? He is utterly transparent and utterly unfathomable. He revealed himself fully and he also said “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now" [John 16:12]. He was all secret and had no secrets. 

Christianity is not a set of rules: Christianity is an encounter, an invitation, a wondrous, staggering, ongoing event. Christ never said anything like, Pray seven Hail Marys on Tuesday and nine Glory Be's on Wednesday for 28.43 months in reparation for the cruel, CRUEL wounds I suffered for you. Christ never but never whined, reproached, guilt-tripped, called attention to his suffering, or displayed the remotest liking for wordy, formulaic, or superstitious prayer. He never but never encouraged us to believe that we (whoever "we" are) are "saved" and the other poos slobs (whoever they are) aren't. He never but never preached any "prosperity gospel."

More and more I see what Christ meant when he said the secrets are revealed to the simple and childlike. To be simply and childlike is not to be stupid, nor wilfully gullible, nor sentimental, nor to fail or refuse to bring every last bit of your intelligence to bear. It does mean, among other things, that Christ reveals himself to people based not on their intelligence level but on their openness of heart. It does mean that he makes himself available equally to the just and the unjust, the good and the bad, and thank God for that. In fact, he makes himself especially available to sinners, the broken, the weak, the out-of-ideas, the poor.

That he makes himself so available, that he allows us to get so close to him, is his very genius, the mark of his authenticity. Years ago, an old friend was dying of cirrhosis and I flew back to New England to say goodbye. In "real life," this guy had been restless, flighty, evasive, tormented (also, as is so often true of alcoholics, charismatic, talented, funny, and smart). He was lying in a hospital bed and I could hardly believe he was alone and the snow was falling gently and that for once I could sit quietly by his side. People who are dying lie still and are approachable in a way that live, well people almost never are. Christ allowed himself to be that poor--Flannery O'Connor entitled one of her stories "You Can't Be Any Poorer than Dead"--and in the dying he allows us to sit with him, to talk to him, to pray with him, to touch him, and of course in the end, to eat him.

Now THAT is a gestalt! THAT is a one-of-a-kind original. That is a gestalt to ponder all our lives...

A WOMAN IN THE SUN
EDWARD HOPPER 1961

Friday, July 22, 2011

INCARNATIONAL MYSTICISM

catalpa tree
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence.

The rush and pressures of modern life are a form of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,
to surrender to too many projects,
to want to help everyone in everything,
to succumb to violence...

The frenzy of the activist...destroys our own inner capacity for peace.

It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work,
because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.


--Thomas Merton

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, FSCOne 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...

Anyway I am trying to resist my own "frenzy" toward work and drink in this last full day of the retreat. I hope to report back on more of Br. Schmidt's important and EXCITING thoughts, but for now, here are some photos I took yesterday morning of the grounds as I wandered about with a giant cup of coffee...


ailanthus aka "tree of heaven"
mimosa tree



cottonwood leaf

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN: MOTHER LOVE AND ST. THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX


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

Monday, July 18, 2011

PHOTO OF MY BIRTH

WHITE SANDS, NEW MEXICO
ERNST HASS, 1952

I always knew I had a New Mexico connection. And even though I was ACTUALLY born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 59 years ago today, I feel quite sure, especially since I am IN New Mexico at the moment, that this photo very nicely captures the COSMIC nature of the event....

I also think it was very nice of God to let me be born in my favorite month, especially my favorite month in ordinarily freezing cold New England. And in a hospital that at the time overlooked a beautiful estuary, leading to the sea, and old colonial houses, and with the smell of salt air, and at the edge of a continent, and I have lived at one edge or another of the continent ever since.

THE OLD PORTSMOUTH HOSPITAL,
UP ON THE HILL TO THE RIGHT
FEBRUARY
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RVER
What can you say at this point except you're grateful you made it this far? And that there's another day of the year that will one day be special to us but we won't know till then, if at all...

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
Hi there folks, I'm on retreat in Albuquerque, NM, and have just learned that this stage of my life is supposed to be about stripping down, and becoming less results-oriented, needy, compulsive, and more accepting of the fact that none of us are ever fully healed and made perfect.

We become more ourselves! So today I am going to be more lazy (plus the internet is sketchy here, plus blogger has been balky and recalcitrant lately: is anyone else having problems?) and re-print this interview with writer Linda Sandoval, very slightly amended, that appeared in the online journal Exterminating Angel a few years ago.

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.