I Asked For It

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I’d been struggling with the fact that I no longer felt at home in the Catholic Church since June. I finally told my spiritual director three weeks ago. While a bit shocked, Deacon Ron had known something was up all along. After seven years, he knows me well enough to know when I’m holding on to something. He pointed out in July that I was seriously pissed off at God, and I was…well am…, but while I’d admit to that, I wouldn’t entertain a discussion of the reasons why. I tend to do that. Until I can find the words I need to express it clearly enough to understand it myself, I keep it locked down tight.

So for six months I’ve held one of the only people that I really trust at a ‘safe’ distance and prayed for clarity. By now I should know enough to be careful what I pray for. I suppose I suffered a momentary lapse of reason but I begged for clarity. Know what that got me? Questions. Lots of ’em. And dreams. Weird, frightening, cryptic, and ├╝ber vivid dreams that haunted me for days, even weeks later.

Over the last few months, I wrote down the dreams in my journals. They made no sense. None. Then I had one so haunting and disturbing, it makes still makes me shiver even two months later as I sit in the sunlit kitchen. It scared me enough to tell it to a friend of mine. She told me that deep down I knew what it meant and I just wasn’t ready to face it.

In the dream, I was in the shadows across from a church door. A man came to the door and finding it locked, he began to beat on the door until his hands were bloodied and broken. He had his head against the door, crying as he pounded away in vain. I could smell the blood from where I was but could only watch, trapped and terrified in the shadows. I woke up still trying to scream and unable to.

This week I had another one just as vivid but instead of waking up terrified, I was surprisingly calm. Surprising because for the first time, I actually died in my dream. After months of dreams, most which had me in mortal danger, I finally actually died. So much for that myth we were told as kids that if you die in dream, you die in real life.

In this dream, I was in an office surrounded by a dozen men. One had taken charge of the office and he was cold and demeaning towards me. Then another man came. He tall and very authoritative. The others jumped to do what he said. So I went to Authority, telling him how I’d been treated. The anger was plain on his face. He sat me down across from the cold, demeaning one who had been in charge. Authority had chrism oil which he used to anoint my lips and the man’s ears. But the man stood up in a huff and walked away, refusing to acknowledge me. As he left office, the other men followed. Authority told me to go after them. They all out went out along a cliff to the shore, climbing far out on the boulders. The biggest waves I had ever seen were crashing near them. Some tried to surf but most just watched. I had hung back since I wasn’t really welcome anyway. Suddenly a huge wave swept in and I turned to face it just as it reached me. I was swept up and up. The wave curled over me. I knew I would either be smashed on the rocks below me or drown. I tried to hold my breath but I couldn’t. As the wave started to close over me, I just let go, surrendered and prayed ‘God help me’. It wasn’t a desperate kind of thing. It was like I already knew He was there. The wave closed over, I was under the water then all went black. I passed through the black and was back in the office. No one else was there but there was a note there for me. It was from Authority. It read simply: Finally. Always.

I knew what it meant. Finally, you surrendered. Always, I’ll help you.

I woke up and I could still smell the chrism. I had to touch my face to know it wasn’t there.

Surrender?
No.
No.
No.
Can’t.
Not no way.
Not no how.

But I did. In my dream. Maybe that’s the step I needed to be able to do it in my waking hours?

And that locked door? Can I walk out of the shadows and unlock it?

Not yet. There’s still something between me and the door.

Could it be that the clarity I’d been praying for could be found in the cryptic? A week ago I would’ve said, ‘No’ but now I can’t say that. Not after that last dream. I usually joke with Deacon Ron that it would take a three-foot flashing neon sign from God to be clear enough to satisfy me. Apparently, tidal wave trumps neon.

Me Too

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It had been a crazy day to top off a crazy week. Thursday was winding down and not fast enough. All I wanted was to get to 2:30 so I could go home. I just needed my day and my work week to be over. I was tired, stressed and achy. At 2:20 my boss called. She needed us to call a client right away. My coworker was already late leaving and would already have to rush to pick up her daughter at school. I had a little time before I had to go get my son. “Go.” I told her. “I got this one.” I didn’t feel like it. I needed to get some detailed information from the client and there was no telling how long this could take.

Please, please, please let this be an answering machine, I prayed as I dialed.

“Hello?” It was the wife.

Shit! Seriously God?!? Was an answering machine too much to ask for?!

So I introduced myself and asked my questions about the husband. She explained that she needed insurance for herself as well. She said she’d be harder to help as she has a chronic illness. She sounded ready to cry.

Okay, maybe I have a few minutes.

“I understand what that’s like.” I explained, “I have rheumatoid arthritis and I know making sure your doctors and drugs are covered is so important.”

“Me too!” She suddenly brightened up and grouchy as I was, so did I.

We went on to spend the next forty minutes, long past quitting time, talking about how we were misdiagnosed for years, how we finally got the right diagnosis. We discussed the weather and the havoc it wreaks on our bodies. We talked about what it felt like to deal with the undercurrent of skepticism from people around us and the frustration of being treated as if having a flare is somehow our fault. We delved into the feelings of guilt that come with not being to do the things we used to be able to do so easily – working full time being one of those. We touched on the anger we felt towards doctors who wouldn’t listen to us or treat us as human beings with thoughts and feelings, choosing instead to see us as guinea pigs, case numbers or both. We compared treatment strategies and the fear of the misjudging the complications from the drugs we use versus the damage the disease itself can do.

When we finally hung up, she was noticeably calmer and more upbeat. So was I.

Alright. I admit it. I needed that. Thank you, Lord. Okay. Quit smirking damn it.

As the conversation replayed in my head later that night, I realized how easily I fall into the trap of hiding or outright lying about how I’m really feeling. It’s not because I think people don’t care so much as I know they can’t truly understand. If you don’t know what it’s like to feel betrayed by your own body, you can’t truly relate, no matter how much you want to. It’s easier for me to just keep quiet than to try to find the right words to explain.

Yeah. Me. A writer. Struggling for words. I hope that paints a bit of the picture.

The problem with keeping those feelings hidden from others is that, after awhile, it becomes such a habit that I start keeping them from myself too. How many times do I have to be reminded that the secrets I keep are the ones that poison me slowly? Obviously, I needed one more.

This reminded me of another conversation, one I had shortly after I had filed for divorce. After an exceptionally raw session with my therapist, he told me, “Chris, you’re trying to get somebody to completely understand the pain that you feel. It’s never going to happen. No one will EVER understand it. That pain is yours and yours alone.”

That statement knocked the wind out of me. I cried uncontrollably for two days. Then I walked into church at the end of the second day and stood before a statue of Jesus, beaten, bloodied and dressed in the red robes and crown of thorns. As I looked into His face, it suddenly hit me full force that He knew. He knew my pain. He knew ALL of it. He’d been right there with me through all of it, not watching it but feeling it with me.

I guess I needed to be reminded of that too.

It’s funny how much healing there can be in those two simple little words: me too.

A Gift Withheld

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I still don’t trust myself.
I still haven’t forgiven myself.

Ouch. That was a jolting pair of realizations. Both stemmed from a talk on forgiveness that I ran across in my social media travels, a sermon on things that forgiveness is not. As I watched it, I was blown away by it. I had come to most of the points the pastor made in his sermon the hard way, as in I was told one thing and everything inside me screamed, ‘No, that’s not true.’ I clung to what I knew deep down was true no matter what anyone else told me. I know my long-time readers may find it shocking but, yeah, I do actually listen to that good voice inside from time to time. After all this time, it was incredibly reassuring and affirming to hear what I had held on to as truth proclaimed by someone I perceived as having greater authority than I in such matters.

Whoa. Wait. Back that up. I may not always hear God as clearly as I’d like but I do recognize truth when I hear it. So why does this pastor, whom I have never seen or heard of before have an authority that I’m willing to listen to? Why would I trust what he has to say on the matter more than what I have heard within myself? Especially given that we’d reached the same conclusions? Hard answer: I don’t listen to my own hard-fought-for truths. Why? Because even after all this time, I still don’t trust myself. Why? Because I haven’t forgiven myself for all my screw-ups.

It presents an interesting point. Forgiveness and trust are two very different things. As Rick Warren has put it, ‘Forgiveness is about past actions. Trust is about future actions.’ I accepted that truth some years ago when it comes to dealing with other people. I’ve learned to forgive without trusting and I’ve learned, the hard way, to withhold trust unless or until it’s earned.

So why am I holding myself to this impossible standard of linking the two? Is it that I won’t forgive myself until I can trust myself beyond the shadow of a doubt not to screw up my life? Or is it that I won’t trust myself until I can forgive myself for the things I’ve already done?

Which leads to another set of questions: Is it that I can’t trust and/or forgive? Or is it that I won’t? Do I refuse to give myself what I have granted to people who have hurt me very deeply? Do I refuse to forgive what Jesus himself has forgiven? Do I really refuse to accept that I will never reach a point in this life where there is no shadow of doubt?

Another hard answer. Yes, I have refused that to myself. Why? Because it’s easier to close down, to punish myself in my shadows for the mistakes that I’ve made than it is to allow myself to come into the light, to be vulnerable, to be open and to grow. Easier that is, until now.

Sometimes, my inner defensive walls get taken down a brick at a time, slowly and deliberately. Sometimes, they just get blown to kingdom come, leaving me wide open, defenseless and somewhat in shock.

This time is most definitely the latter.

The Inkwell and The Author

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My younger son is commonly referred to as an old soul. Wise beyond his years and insightful, he often leaves me at a loss for words. A classic introvert, he can be exceptionally quiet when he’s around ‘outsiders’ but at home or with people he’s very comfortable with, he rarely stops talking. His mind moves so fast and in so many directions at once, making the most obscure references and tenuous connections. The other day, I questioned how he could possibly be working on his writing homework whilst he was talking nonstop. Without so much as a pause to to gather his thoughts, he replied, ‘You know how an old-fashioned quill pen needed to be dipped in an inkwell before it could write anything? Well, talking about stuff is the inkwell that I need to dip my mind in before I can write.’

I have to remind myself sometimes that he’s only eleven. But age aside, he makes an interesting point.

I have a standing breakfast date with God, or as my friend often refers to Him, the Author of Life. I’ve so fallen in love with that term. I guess it’s the writer in me. I can relate to the Author and Creator. Every morning I go to the beach near my house, even if it’s only for a few minutes between dropping the kids off at school and heading into work. I need that time away from the house, outside and away from the household racket of the phone ringing, the dog barking, and the erratic noises of the boys’ video games. I need time away from the Wi-Fi and the draw of multiple conversations on social media. But in the past ten days, our standing date has scrapped seven mornings. Snow and ice made it too dangerous to drive the five miles to the beach. Extreme cold made it too miserable and even dangerous to be there.

See it’s so much more than just the quiet time that I need. I, being a pen in His hand, have an inkwell that I need to be dipped into before I can be used to write anything. It’s the presence of the Author Himself that I need to be dipped in, soaked in and saturated by. But there are times, like these past ten days, when I get dulled from too much time away. I don’t stop to take the breaks that I need to allow Him to sharpen me and dip me again.

I was beyond thrilled this morning that it was neither brutally cold nor dangerous to drive. The beach that was crystal clear but frozen solid on Wednesday was now draped in thick fog with a stiff breeze and stormy waters. This is my perfect New England beach trifecta. I lost all track of time and despite my hands going numb, I stayed. I fed my usual band of seagulls. I stood ankle-deep in the surf, salt spray in my face and breathed in the power and grace that surrounded me. There are no words for the sense of wonder and awe that fills me in those moments. It’s then that I find myself so rapt that I let my defenses slip. For a few moments, I see a reflection of that the same power and grace within me.

And then I cringe. Why do I cringe?

Because I fear that if I let myself recognize that grace clearly within myself then He may write more into my story than I feel I’m ready or willing to accept. But today, just as that fear rose up, my entire band of seagulls took off en masse, gliding into the wind like so many little kites and I felt my defenses slip again. And in that moment I realized something else.

This story of me is still being written and what I’m afraid of today I may laugh at someday.

Will You Hear?

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It started with a blog post entitled ‘Ringing Hollow’, which in a moment of sheer brazenness, I not only tweeted the link to but also tagged the Pope himself. The tweet lead to a response from some who saw it. The response lead to a conversation. And then in that one conversation, a nun told me she was seeking new ways to engage the unchurched and unbelievers. It was worded, to my sensitive eyes, as though they were one and the same. I replied with the tweet that started some incredible new connections:

Many unchurched strongly believe in God but not in the churches. Churches have become more about moral codes than love & mercy.

Since that made it’s way around the Twitterverse, I’ve found myself in some amazing conversations with Catholic priests, sisters, deacons and lay ministers and some of other Christian denominations as well. And I keep thinking to myself, these are the ones who should be running the churches. These are the ones who don’t dismiss what they don’t understand. They ask. They listen. I mean they really listen. And while we may not always agree in the end, we have found much common ground. I walk away feeling heard. They walk away understanding some of the issues facing those abandoning the pews. I can’t tell you how much it has eased my pain just to know someone cares enough to even make the effort to try to understand.

But sadly they’re not all like that and I have a few words for those who have only harsh admonitions for ones like me. For just five minutes, for the love of God, please just hear me. After that, go ahead and argue. Call me what you will. Disregard me if you dare. But make sure you’ve actually heard me. Not because I alone matter much, but because I am the voice of many who will never dare to speak up. They will drift quietly away and leave you wondering why your churches are empty.

An Open Letter To The Church:

You speak much but listen little. How can hear me if you don’t listen?
You say we have enough commonality in Jesus. On that I agree.
But if you really believe that, why must I be a cookie cutter of you?
His house is quite big enough for all of us.
I say I feel frustrated by the inconsistency between the total acceptance and love that Jesus taught and what has been cherry-picked to be crafted into strongly enforced laws.
You tell me I don’t see the big picture.
I say divorced people need to be openly welcomed, that not all marriages are sacramental and some needed to end. To find honest sacramental love after a divorce would be an incredible blessing but it shouldn’t be a choice between church and spouse.
You tell me you storm heaven to protect the institution of marriage.
I wonder if you know Jesus unlocked the gates of heaven 2000 years ago and hears my whispers just as much as He hears your racket.
I wonder too if you have forgotten that marriage is more than an institution. It is about very real human beings, and some of them happen to be gay.
I say as a woman I feel sidelined and rejected.
You tell me to go read books written by men that explain my place.
I say women should be ordained, not to be equals to men but to bring balance to them.
You call me a heretic before I can finish my sentence.
I say I feel hurt.
You say go elsewhere.
I say I’ll go elsewhere.
You say I’m sulking.
You say things are changing.
But I no longer listen to what you say.
Did you ever stop to think that maybe I didn’t want to go? That more than anything I only wanted to be accepted, loved and heard.
So now I’ll say this, and hope that you hear me:

I no longer feel safe or nurtured in that which was home. My wounds are too deep. I need time alone with the only One who can heal them. What lays beyond that, I don’t know. Please don’t say I’ve lost my way because I didn’t take your road home. My Shepherd knows the path He’s asked me to walk. You may not recognize it. You don’t have to. I do and little by little He shows me. Truly, it’s a blessing that He shows me so little. If I saw the whole road, I’d likely run screaming back into my assigned pew, duck my head and beg Him to choose someone else.

And if you don’t care what a nobody troublemaker like me has to say, that’s okay. But maybe listen to Fr. Mark who so wisely said,
‘People get lost when love gets trumped.’

Unglitzing New Year’s

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New Year’s Eve came around last night. Again. I have a serious love/hate thing going with New Year’s. I ricochet between, ‘Now what?’ [excited that good and new things are headed my way] and ‘Now what?!’ [fed up and overwhelmed already, what further crap could be coming]

I know the latter is not exactly inspiring, is it? But it’s honest.

I had planned to be celebrating with friends but my body had other plans. Between the cold, the coming snow, the stress of the busy season at work and my insane willfulness to just keep going full tilt during Christmas, the RA finally caught up and flattened me. I came home from work at 2:30 in the afternoon. I had to double up on the pain pills. Instead of heading out, I collapsed on the couch with my woobie blanket, feeling exhausted and rather betrayed. I spent the evening migrating between reading Rumi’s poetry and scrolling through Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all while wearing compression gloves to help ease the pain in my hands. I’ve found that I read with different eyes on my down days. And from what I read on social media last night, I’m not the only out there who feels this kind of ‘oh crap now what’ trepidation as we head into 2014. But we gloss over it. We dress it up, take it out, buy it a few drinks and hope it will either change into blindingly brilliant optimism by the time the ball drops or at the very least, stop reminding us of all the things that could go catastrophically wrong in the coming year. Nobody that I’ve seen goes out on New Year’s Eve saying, ‘This year was tough and I’m afraid 2014 will just be more of the same.’ Not because we don’t feel it, but because it’s not acceptable to say it. New Year’s Eve is always the night of the happy, happy, joy, joy song and dance, insincere promises and staged optimism.

But the party is over now. The ball has dropped. Auld Lang Syne has been sung. The sun has risen on a new day, a new year. So the question still remains: Now what? The inflection and tone and the unspoken words carried behind it are up to you. As for me, it will be another quiet down day. But I managed to drag my sorry self down to the beach this morning and kneel in the sand with the sun of the new year on my face. When I stripped away all the glitzy, glossy, staged woohoo optimism, shoved away all the fears that are nagging at me, and took the time to really know the ground beneath me, I was left with one simple thing:

There are 365 dawns in a year. How many do I choose to ignore because I decide, for whatever reason, that I don’t like the way my day is headed even before it starts? I throw away a gift before it’s even unwrapped.

I could make a resolution to change but to be perfectly blunt, I suck at keeping resolutions. They’re too big for me to handle. I’ll stick to unwrapping today. I can thank God for the beauty I saw this morning…

… And for making sure no one saw me trying to stand back up after kneeling on frozen sand in 17 degree weather with knees that aren’t working right. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t graceful. But it was grace-filled and that feels like almost too much for me to accept.