Wednesday, February 21, 2018

HARROWED: NOTES FROM AN URBAN GARDEN


I have felt kind of quiet as of late. Not moved much, in this culture of VERY LOUD voices, to speak.

That is not because I don't have opinions. Oh do I have opinions! The quietness is partly because first, who can fathom the seasons and shifts and alternate storms and calms of the human heart.

It's also partly because I figured out my "stand" toward existence, my mission on earth, the "issues" of the day, and how I want to move and have my being in the midst of all of that, many years ago. As horrible as things seem, and often are, they have more or less always been that way. Read the Psalms.

Of course I'm always called to grow. I'm always called to examine my hardness of heart, cowardice, self-righteousness and all kinds of other unsavory traits with which I'm saturated from top to bottom, and to do better.

But lately I seem to have come to grips maybe a teeny bit more with what has actually always been one of my central conflicts: the desire to be holy and my utter inability, under my own steam, to move one iota in that direction.

It's true: I have always wanted to be a saint. I don't think that's pathetic or melodramatic. I think it's a very legitimate desire. In fact, it may be the only truly sane desire, given the human condition, the battle of good against evil, and of course Christ.

I'm sure it's in one sense why I became a Catholic--because I'm drawn to extremes and the saint is an extreme practitioner of love. i think I've always known this about myself. Never have I been drawn to 'normal' life. Always, even as a child, I have felt myself to be and to some extent have been an outsider.

I heard the other day from Alma, a friend at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario. She had seen my Servant of God Adele Dirsyte piece in the March Magnificat and wanted to tell me that she'd lived for a time at  Magadan, site of one of the Russian gulag camps where Adele was imprisoned.  Adele's story is ghastly and harsh. The Communists caught her taking the Eucharist and marked her out for “slow extermination.”

To follow Christ I reflected later is, in some way, always to be marked for slow extermination. Or I guess sometimes fast. But for most of us it's slow, and constant. There are no two ways around it. Death is death. In a worldly way, there is no way to undergo a crucifixion looking like or coming off as a winner.

The other day I was at a gathering where several people around the room vented the usual virulent slurs against Catholicism. One woman who had been to Catholic school and surprise, hated and despised the nuns, had been forced to go to (said in a sing-songy, condescending baby tone) “cha-pel, or whatever they called it.”

I grieve over the fact that so many people had such a gruesome time at Catholic school.

Later that day I went to five o’clock Mass at St. Andrew. What with Lent, and Sunday afternoon existential sorrow, and the fact that no man, ever, has truly loved me or ever will, I was feeling kind of weepy anyway.

And halfway through the Creed, along to the pew in front of me comes this poor, poor burn victim guy whose face had just been decimated. Decimated. White bandage over nose hole and the rest…of course I could hardly wait for the Kiss of Peace so I could touch him. 

But the point is—again, the slow extermination. The leper. How Christ came for all that is disfigured in us and among us. At one point, the guy knelt and prayed and hid his face in his hands and tears were simply pouring down my face. This suffering, suffering man in the cha-pel. How could anyone deny him that? Thank God for churches: for many of us who are more or less unfit for family, our one, our only, true home. I wondered what his prayer might be. My brother.

(For all I know, it occurs to me now, the guy was totally in acceptance and gratitude). 

Anyway, such have been some of my thoughts. In the middle of all this--and by "this, I of course  include threats of nuclear war, the raping of the environment, an entire working class that increasingly cannot afford a decent education, basic health care, or to buy a home, and a government that resembles an especially vicious alcoholic parent--I've been working in my garden.

Hours and hours and hours, in the garden. Digging holes, weeding (TONS of), sorting stones, clipping, staking, fertilizing, grooming, speaking in hushed tones to, praying. Sitting in the faded green metal chair with a pair of binoculars. So far I have spotted a pair of band-tailed pigeons, three acorn woodpeckers, a large group of cedar waxwings, several scrub jays and goldfinches (the latter at the birdbath), Anna's hummingbirds galore, and one red-shafted flicker.   

Always, always, I feel I should be doing more. All my life I've felt I should be doing more, or other. Should be "speaking out," should be an "activist," should be committing acts of civil disobedience and going to prison. Should be feeding the poor in a soup line, should be a special ed teacher,  a hospice nurse, a mother. At the very least a wife. A girlfriend anyway... "Popular," then. A companion to all!...

No?

Should at any rate, for sure, be writing more. Working on another book, or promoting the books I have. Should be explaining why MY WORK IS IMPORTANT. MY WORK IS ESSENTIAL. MY WORK...

Underneath it all throbs my central wound, and maybe it is everyone's central wound: the inability to form a true partnership with another human being. Whether I push everyone away ultimately because of my wounds, or whether I’ve been somehow weirdly marked out for the cell, the cloister, the inner mental ward, the effect is the same. Celibacy, coupled with a prickly personality, a giant dose of narcissism, and an ocean of self-centered fear, is a lot of tension to carry--and sometimes I carry it better than other times.

Lately, though, the thought has come to me: What if I really were doing enough--even to be a saint? (Which I'm sure I read somewhere actually means "friend of Jesus"--so all right then!) I do so want to help out. But what if it were enough to write a weekly arts and culture column for my archdiocesan newspaper and a monthly column in Magnificat and to put up an occasional post that maybe a hundred people read?

What if it were enough to lift my soul to the birds and work in the garden? (Aside: Seriously, I have got to write a book about this garden and its daily adventures--for there are NEIGHBORS, wouldn't you know--that bring to the fore my worst and most weaselly character defects).

What if it were enough to pray every morning and carry my little cross and give thanks at the end of the day?

“As illness wears out the covering of the body, the soul shines forth. As this woman came to trust me, I discovered that she had not really talked to anyone in thirty years. Early on in her marriage, something had broken down irreparably between herself and her husband. She simply lost what she had with him and could not get it back. There she was inside this home, the mother and the heart of it. She learned to go through all the external motions and she became an utterly convincing domestic actress. But inside she was lost. Gradually she began to accept that there was no path outwards. Then she made the decision to live her intimate life inwardly. She undertook the journey. She went inwards as far as she could and over the years she managed to build some kind of hermit cell within her own heart. And that was really where she dwelt. When she began to talk about herself, it was clear that she spoke from a refined interiority. In a sense, she was not a mother living in a suburban house with husband and children. She was someone who had long since departed to an interior monastery that nobody had discovered. And when death began to focus more clearly around her, she was not afraid. Death was no stranger to her. Having had to build a sanctuary where no-one ever visited, she had come to know the mind of death. She was not thrown by the cold clarity of death’s stare or the unravelling force of its singular eye. Nor was there any bitterness in her. She had allowed as much transfiguration as she could. Against the hidden pathos of her life’s distance, she had no resistance. She had garnered a fragile beauty from isolation.”

--John O’Donohue, Beauty, from the chapter “The Beauty of the Flaw”






I AM GOING TO CALL IT "THE HERMIT-CELL-OF-THE-HEART GARDEN!"
COME ON OVER AND NAB A THIRD-CLASS RELIC!
NEXT UP: MY SEEDPOD AND SEASHELL MOBILES
WHICH ARE SAVING THE WORLD.

20 comments:

  1. Thanks, once again, for putting into words the human experience! This piece touched me.

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    1. Thank you Erin, and for your loyal readership...much appreciated.

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  2. Thank you for admitting your lifelong desire to be a saint. That’s what I have aspired to be, as well. My father gave me a diary for my 14th birthday. It was one of those with a lock and key. I stared at it, held it to my heart, and imagined filling its pages with all my secret and treasured thoughts, hopes, and dreams. After opening it to the first page, I wrote, “I want to be a saint.” Those were the only words I ever wrote in it! Still hoping.

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    1. ha, me too! every morning I think Maybe this is the day. And then about 2 seconds after I open my eyes, I'm judging or resenting or criticizing or moaning about something or other--and realize...maybe tomorrow then? No but seriously more and more I see the truth of Mother Teresa's "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." Of course, she DID great things...I'm sure you and I are both okay just the way we are. Thanks Ruth Ann!!

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  3. Any Bewick wrens in that there garden of yours? I always keep my eyes peeled for them in spring, since they've nested in a birdhouse on the patio over three successive years. I don't think I've ever seen a busier species of bird. Bxxx

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    1. Just looked up the Bewick wren, Bill, and if I've seen any, I have probably mistaken them for sparrows! Will keep my eyes peeled. Thanks as always for the keen eye and loyal heart--blessed Lent to you.

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  4. You sound like St. Francis and his birds. I think Sister Wendy Beckett says somewhere that we're all meant to be saints. She also lives as a sort of hermit, too.

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    1. Yes, Michael, Sister Wendy lives as a contemplative hermit I'm pretty sure--she also has a sense of humor. I've read some of her reflections and they are great. The flock of cedar waxwings were in the black walnut tree this morning! God bless you...

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  5. Thank you, Heather, for expressing exactly how I feel each day. At least you can put it into words. Since I was little and first read about how we are to be perfect like God I have actually tried to do that. It is only in the past few years (I'm 69) that I have understood I cannot do it on my own; that I must immerse myself in God's mercy and grace in order to do what he has called me to do in each season of my life. Your blog post has brought peace and comfort this morning - thank you for being obedient to what God has called you to do - write.

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    1. Ann, thank you and for reminding me of the richness of this season of life (I'll be 66 in July). I'm always amazed at St. Therese of Lisieux who "got" what you and I are just starting to get now in her late teens/early 20s! I keep thinking these days of "I am the vine, you are the branches. Without me, you can do nothing." Nothing! Well that is a relief, as the Lord knows I have tried--and sure enough, on my own steam, I can do nothing...Yes, the writing has been a true vocation, really a religious vocation I see ever more clearly...It's incredible that he picks people who are so weak...but then again, so eager!...Together in pilgrimage--

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  6. I just love you. Thank you fpr your writing. And in fact, you are girlfriend to all of us. (Says this mother of seven.) A Ukrainian priest-monk of few words once gave me one bit of advice... "cease striving." It os this intense dichotomy that defines the saint. The yoke is easy, the burden light...and then we have Karol Wojtila and Mother Teresa with those all night vigils on their faces;martyrs withstanding the most brutal torture...and us with our little tended plot of rugged beauty. Cease striving.

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    1. Ha I love that, "girlfriend to all"--damn, THAT is going to be my title from hereon in! Coming from a mother of seven, the title is all the more precious, thank you. "Cease striving"--amen. A priest friend had the same idea...he used to say our job isn't to try harder, but rather to resist less. I made a trip to the native plant nursery yesterday and am all excited as part of my Lenten journey to put in a few showy penstemon, a couple of red monkeyflowers, and a Davis Gold toyon. The birds, to whom I am also a girlfriend, are loving the whole affair! And in tending my own little "plot of rugged beauty," I join my heart to the hearts of Mother Teresa, Pope JPII, Adele Dirsyte, the man with the burned face...

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  7. Thank you for this Lenten gift and food for thought...I'm on the hunt now for the March Magnificat article, stirring patron for young adult groups.

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    1. Let me know if you found it--glad to email it to you under separate cover if not. Thanks so much.

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  8. What if your utter "honesty" and sharing it with others is enough? What if saying and admitting what so many never dare say or admit is enough? What if your great desire to just "touch" a disfigured person is enough? I believe it might be. Bless you.

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    1. Exactly, Kathleen! I do think it's a very human desire to want not just to bear fruit, but for our neighbors to see us bearing fruit. We all have our own forms of poverty that make us feel we're perhaps too small, insignificant, clumsy to bear fruit. But the questing heart is fruit in itself. Some days I know that beyond all doubt--and some days I forget. Bless you, too! And thank you--

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  9. This is the first time I've ever blogged. What brought me here is the March Magnificat - Servant of God- Adele Dirsyte. I web-searched and located Prayer Book For Girls Exiled in Siberia. Photos of original handwritten note pages accompany the text translation. This is the book of prayers I've been searching - longing for for Lent and beyond...a gift of discovery through your story. As I read this post I realized how very much we have in common. It was almost spooky. Or God's grace. I must admit and ask your forgiveness for I had purposefully chosen not to read your blog or books, yet many times considering it. I did not want my tidy life of solitude,simplicity, and contemplative prayer in silence to be challenged by yet another contemporary personal story when I was immersed in my own personal story of return to my Catholic faith and heritage, my God, my family and my home after almost forty years.The days unfold with amazing grace and I'm deeply thankful for the gifts you share in your writing and blog. Mary Save Us will become my 'liturgy of the hours'. I take joy in your garden,and remember the many critically injured and disfigured, greiving and marginalised people I could reach out and touch, whom God graciously brought into my life as a nurse.

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    1. Thank you Sylvia, and no need to beg forgiveness--I myself read very little of contemporary Catholic culture/blogs...partly because I'm careful with my time and partly because I seldom find spiritual nourishment there...part of the contemplative life is insisting upon the solitude and silence I need and on the other hand, not sequestering myself. Probably the most "moral," "spiritual" thing I can do is participate in the world and with other people, in whatever way that is given to me. Even though as an introvert, it is work to participate and I'd almost always rather be by myself. I feel that is very much how it was for Christ, who so often sought a "lonely place" to be alone with God and pray...Anyway, you have borne much fruit into the world as a nurse--thank you again for your thoughts.

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  10. Beautiful reflection, thank you for sharing. The only thing I can add is that I understand your sorrow at the thought that no man has ever loved you. I knew that sorrow for many years and looking back I hate that I let that sorrow go to waste. I was so wrapped up in my own fear, that I missed how God was calling me to learn, follow and serve Him. Just with your writing and with your garden alone, I don't think you're letting that sorrow go to waste.

    Also, as a funny side note- the first time I heard "You are called to become a saint," was on the intro to Mother Angelica's program. That thought was so foreign to me, I had never heard or known that was our mission in life.

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    1. Thanks, Cynthia, I was kind of being funny, or making a little fun of my usual melodrama, but on the other hand it's kind of true I've never had a reciprocal deeply loving relationship--coming to terms with that has been a huge part of my pilgrimage. I don't sit around longing for it any more but there is an an anguish in long-term celibacy...still, the point of the piece was essentially hope--which I hope came through...

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