Lent. Again.

Spiritual Homework

Here we go again. Lent starts on Wednesday. And am I ready for this? As usual, no – not in the slightest. One of the nuns I follow on Twitter tweeted that she’s hoping Lent will help her to recommit to her New Years resolution. Brilliant, right?  I thought so. Except my New Years resolution was to stop making resolutions. Ha ha ha –  yeah – so that’s not much help to me for Lent, now is it?

The last couple of years, Lent has been weird. Actually, anything and everything related to church has been weird for quite awhile. I don’t fit anywhere and add to that I feel like I’ve lost Lent and Advent since I went back to school. Both fall mid-semester when there are exams, papers, and projects due and instead of reflecting on life and my relationship with God, either here or in my private journals, I’m focused on objective, well-sourced papers on religion and ethics. Now here I am, with two midterm papers and an exam over the next two weeks and thinking, Damn, I really don’t want to go through another Lent on autopilot. 

What to do about that is an interesting question. My inner honor student likes interesting questions, thus I have spent more time this weekend than seems wise reading my own writing and thinking that maybe something from years past would offer direction for this coming Lent. It’s always a strange feeling to read things that I wrote more than six months ago. After awhile, I feel like I’m reading something someone else wrote. I mean I remember these things but somehow I’d forgotten how deeply they affected me at the time. And maybe that’s why they seem so strange now, because I’ve changed and grown so gradually, it’s easy to lose track of where I started. Or more precisely who I was then and who I have become.

And what did I learn? I have a few recurring themes: guilt and confession, being too hard on myself, trust issues, learning surrender, separating God and church, and finding God in little things. And in the process I remembered that this long-running New Years resolution of mine didn’t come about because I’m too lazy to make or keep a resolution. It came about so that I would stop crucifying myself for being human and so that I would stop setting difficult and/or impossible goals to be reached by arbitrary dates. Little by little, I learned to stop. And little by little, I’ve learned to see myself with kinder eyes -as I can give myself the benefit of the doubt – on most days anyway.

So maybe this year, Lent will be a time to spend time with each of those themes I found. Maybe reading through my own writings asking God to let me see what God sees would be a good start. Maybe working from there try to understand what has changed and what has not, what needs to change and what needs to simply be let go of makes more sense than plowing ahead trying to spiritually ‘get somewhere’ by trying to give up Twitter (that would require an intervention) or chocolate (that would be ugly) or trying to unravel every last one of my church dating questions between now and Easter (that just ain’t happening).

Between the nine years of blog posts and the decade plus worth of journals in the box under my bed, this should be interesting. Lent – again. God help me.

 

 

Of Life and Death

 

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Three deaths in ten days. That certainly got my attention. While none were family, each had touched a part of my life and it forced me to think about how often we impact the lives of those around us in ways we don’t always comprehend or even stop to consider. My son’s 16 year-old classmate who committed suicide, the 93 year-old priest I hadn’t seen in eighteen years, and the 57 year-old rockstar I knew only by his music, these three are the most unlikely combination and yet each touched my life in ways they never really knew.

I spent most of this semester trying to keep life and death confined to the five-page papers due in my ethics and bioethics classes. It’s not like I haven’t seen life and death up close and personal. I was raised being taught that death is merely a part of life, both are mystery and both are sacred. That makes losing someone I love an act of faith: a deeply held belief that God is good and a trust that God knows what God is doing even when it makes no sense to me. But as I listened to my much younger classmates talk about the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, I heard over and over that death is a right. And as a right, death is something that can be legislated, ruled, controlled, chosen, and even inflicted. There was no room left for faith.

“Jack Kevorkian is the Rosa Parks or Dr. King of our generation,” declared one nursing senior with reverence in her voice while several other chimed in their agreement. I heard business majors argue that terminal patients should be encouraged to commit suicide to free up beds for patients who might recover and patients diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s should also consider suicide while they were still somewhat rational rather than become a burden to their families. Death has become cheap and sadly, in the process, so has life.

But what about life? And what about a right to life? Ah, yes that Right to Life movement sounds great on paper but, in the hands of a generation that has been more instilled with knowing their rights than with a deep faith, life has become just like any other right, meaning it can be legislated, ruled, controlled, chosen, and even revoked. “Violent criminals,” one young man vehemently argued, “have given up their right to life because of their choices. So now they should die and we as a society should say how and when they die.”

There was little reverence for the mystery or sanctity of life or of death. It worries me that these are the people who will be making policy decisions in years to come. But I had papers to write and these were topics to be considered and weighed and analyzed but best left impersonal. Funny how life and death refuse to remain impersonal for very long.

In the last ten days, it was the blog of teenage girl that reminded me of the incredible darkness I have had to overcome. It was a funeral for a priest that brought home to me that it was the kindness, gentleness, and openness of someone who touched into my life for the briefest of times that gave me the hope to overcome that darkness. And it was the death of a rockstar that shook me more than I would have thought possible which forced me to see that it was his pursuit of his passion that had given me the soundtrack for much of my teenage years; music that came before the darkness fell and still evokes memories of carefree days of untainted happiness and music that came later that touched into emotions that I had no language to express.

My life right this very moment would be different if not for any one of them. That’s the thing about life, just being alive is an act of faith: a deeply held belief that God is good and a trust that God knows what God is doing even when it makes no sense to me. And that gives me cause to wonder how my actions, my words, my writings, my pursuit of my passions, how all of those aspects of me being me could influence people I may never know. That is not a right. That is mystery and that is grace.

 

For Bella, Fr. Emidio Gregori, and Prince. Requiescat in pace.

 

Atheists, Bourbon, Christianity, and Deadlines

Atheists, Bourbon, Christianity, and Deadlines

After a very crazy two weeks, I finally had a weekend that was relatively quiet.  Well quiet except for the two papers I had to write. One had to be an evaluation of a colloquium with Dr. Tina Beattie centered around the book Catholic Women Speak and the Synod on the Family being held in Rome and tying together the topic of the colloquium with the early civilization class I’m taking, which is a bit of stretch. The other is an exegesis on priestly garments in the book of Exodus. Both of these topics are precisely the kind of thing I love to sink my teeth into so I wasn’t too worried about getting them done.

bourbonDid I mention I had a quiet weekend coming up?  So of course that meant I had time to meet up with friends and have a bourbon Friday night. Of course, one bourbon turned into two. And of course, I decided to be a bit adventurous and instead of sticking with my usual neat bourbon, I had a delicious twist on an Old Fashioned that involved a fair amount of sugar. Come Saturday morning that made for a wicked hangover headache.  Okay. No big deal. Nothing a big breakfast and some time in the sunshine can’t fix. Except I made the mistake of going on Twitter. I retweeted a post from about faith and trust. Just an FYI, tweeting anything with #faith paints a laser target on your account for bored atheists. And as my longtime readers know, I never can just walk away from a good Twitter discussion.  Instead of nursing my hangover by closing my eyes and soaking up sunshine in my car at the beach, I was on Twitter defining faith.

Naturally by the time I got home on Saturday afternoon, it was nearly two o’clock and since I had two papers to write, I had stopped at the store to pick all the makings of a lasagna. Cooking and writing are inexplicably tied together in my brain. I worked out the outlines to the first paper in my head as I prepped and layered what turned out to be a fantastic lasagna. All the while I kept up with the discussion of truth, falsity, faith and judgments.

image1Why? Because I clearly need a life or a hobby or a Twitter intervention or perhaps all of the above. I also need a couple of Advil because I tend to bite my lip when I think and after a while it makes my jaw hurt which only added to my bourbon headache. But all that nonsense aside, I work stuff out as I write. Crazy as it sounds to get dragged into a discussion of faith with someone who doesn’t believe in God, knowing neither of us has any real hope of dissuading the other, it’s really not a complete waste of time. It is a lot more work to stop and consider how to answer that question in light of the questioner’s nonacceptance of religion as a whole.

It’s so easy to pretend that ours is the only belief in the world when we only spend time with people who think and believe the same things we do. We get lazy. So when someone throws down the question, “You say you don’t make a judgment of truth for other religions compared to yours. But certainly you had reasons not to choose. How did you decide the truthfulness of [other religions] was less than that of Christianity?” the easiest thing in the world would be to put the phone down and add some more cheese to the lasagna and forget to answer the question.

The time spent answering hard questions on why I believe what I do is always time well-spent. It may or may not make a difference to the one asking the questions, but it always expands my own understanding to formulate the answers.  What did I answer? To paraphrase: there is some piece of a greater truth to be found in every religion I have studied. Ultimate truth is beyond any human codification system. I found my truth in Christianity as it most closely matched my experiences of God.  And that is where it becomes faith rather than logic.

Meanwhile, I still have a headache and I still have two papers to write.

Breathing

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Why do I write?

That question popped up in a writer’s forum on Facebook recently. I never really thought about it much. If that sounds odd to you, then I must pose the question, ‘How often do you think about breathing?’ Because that, my friend, is what writing is for me.

Writing is breathing, that very basic essence of life. I can no more stop writing than I can willfully stop breathing. I know. I’ve tried. Eventually it becomes too much to hold in and will burst forth, unbidden, even unwelcome at times. My definition of writer’s cramp isn’t the pain in my hand from writing too much but rather the pain in my soul that comes from writing too little.

Writing is experiencing, again and for the first time. There is nothing that I write, not even my silly Facebook posts, that I don’t experience as I write it. I experience joy, sorrow, laughter, tears, grief, pain, wonder, awe, reverence, anything and everything. I see it, touch it, feel it, smell it, taste it and I am in it, completely, utterly and totally. I write about the snow, feel the cold and shiver. I write about fear only to have nightmares. As I write, I don’t see the words on the page. I see what I write unfolding before me as easily as I see the real world unfolding around me.

Writing is praying in ways I was never taught or sought to learn. Even in my fiction, that perpetual conversation carries on whether I’ve intended it or not. I am often shocked by what I find on the pages in my old journals and notebooks, in the essays and poems stashed away in my old water-damaged roll-top desk. Even more so here in this blog roll. I’m not in the habit of re-reading my posts, or most anything else I write for that matter. If not for Deacon Ron’s constant nagging, I probably would never look at any of it again. When I do, I catch glimpses of things I’ve kept hidden, even from myself, especially from myself. I am, after all, my own harshest critic. But I’ve poured out my soul for the one Reader who sees not only between the lines but between the blank spaces as well. The one Reader who sees what I dare not write.

Writing is creating, which is what puts me as close as I get to the Creator Himself. That’s huge for me. Close makes me twitchy if I think about. I don’t think when I write. I breathe. I pray. And then I come alive and rather than think, I forget. I forget the rules of grammar and proper sentence structure. I forget that I don’t want to be close to anyone, even to the only One who has never, could never, would never abandon or betray me. I don’t write as a ‘doing’ verb. I write as a ‘being’ verb. I am writing. I become writing. It doesn’t get any closer than that for me.

I work all first drafts longhand, which sounds crazy given the arthritis in my hands, but that nearly illegible, unedited scrawl is uniquely my own. The ink flows directly from soul to page, without thought, without judgment, without care or caution. Sometimes, often times, it ends up a tangled mess that starts out on one line then suddenly jumps to the margins, up the side, down the other, back two pages or forward three. Yes, a perfect reflection of the mess that lies inside. And that’s okay. I rather like the mess.

Why do I pour out my life on pages, paper or virtual? Because it’s who I am. And if I stopped, I’d might as well lay down and die. And I’m not done yet. I have much work still to do. Or so my Editor tells me…

Nailed

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I’ve had some messages coming in lately from my readers who are happy to see me posting more often. I remember there was a time when I posted faithfully every week. I also remember going months without posting at all. My writing isn’t always about having a choice to write or not write. Yeah, I know that sounds weird. See, it goes something like this:

A quiet little voice says, ‘write.’

I say ‘Yeah okay…gimme a little while…I’m doing something.’

An hour later:
The little voice says, ‘Write.’

I say, ‘Yeah yeah, I coming … Hold on…I’ll get to you.’

An hour after that:
The little voice says, ‘HELLO!?!?! I SAID WRITE!!!! And now I shall annoy the daylights out of you until you write!!! I’ll sing every heavy metal song song you know loudly and badly until you write!!!… GOING OFF THE RAILS ON A CRAZY TRAAAAAIINNNN….O O O OOOOOOOO SWEET CHILD OF MIIIIIIIINE….’ And yes, the voice sings the guitar solos too. Badly. It’s painful. Really painful.

‘Oh please Dear God make it STOP!’

Says God, ‘Sorry Kid, I can’t hear you over that racket. You might want to pick up a pen…’

Believe it or not, I’ll still push it off an entire day just because I don’t like taking orders.

Damn! That voice and I know a LOT of heavy metal songs. I should’ve known all those afternoons spent watching MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball would come back to haunt me someday. So eventually, I give in and write what the little voice tells me to write just to get the voice to please SHUT UP ALREADY!

And the little voice says, ‘Thank you. Enjoy the rest of your day. Love you! Catch a kiss! I’ll be in touch.’

Now honestly, I can’t always hear the voice. And that’s all cool. It’s quiet and I get other stuff done. But after about a week, two tops, I miss it. Writing is how I figure stuff out and how I keep from going crazy (crazier). I usually know I’m screwed when I realize my journal has become little more than a repetitive to-do list. And if I try to write without the voice? The mental equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Which poses a major problem when one is in the middle of writing one’s second novel and the voice gets pissy and goes on strike.

So I’ve figured out over the years that the more time I can spend alone and quiet with God, the better I can hear the voice and the more I can write. No quiet time alone? No writing voice. Over time, the voice and I have reached a rather tenuous agreement: I write what the voice says I have to write with as little attitude as possible (and this is me we’re talking about now…) and the voice will help me write the novel that I want to write without a Judas Priest serenade.

The whole craziness reminds of a old poem my father was fond of quoting about the importance of the little things:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
All of the want of a horseshoe nail.

So with the kids out of school for the summer, I’ve reclaimed my mornings. I get up earlier than usual and spend a few hours at the beach every morning, collecting ‘nails’ as it were. It’s deserted at that hour. Just me, God and the seagulls. That one little act of obedience is all it takes to set off the chain of events in the right direction. Thus, I’m posting more frequently and the voice is considering whether or not to help me figure out the scene in my novel that’s had me stuck for four months.

So do me a favor, my dear readers: If you find I start to fade away again, nail me. Just please, PLEASE don’t sing Ozzy to me.