Lessons from the Monastery (When you are Bitter)

Do you ever have those days when “the shoulds “clamor but truth prevails?

I should have done the dishes piled up from last night’s dinner which are railing against me and what I believe—that one should always clean up after a meal. 

I should have gone through piles of papers collected, hauntingly reminding me of bills due and deadlines I’ve likely forgotten.

I should have made an appointment to fix my daughter’s knee, which has hurt on and off for months.  She will ask when she gets home:  did you make the appointment Mama?  Did you? When will you? Why didn’t you?

Rather, all I can think about is my bitter heart.

I am bursting with the awareness, the stinging tang of understanding.

Of how I have lived with it for so long – like Naomi in the book of Ruth in the Old Testament – bitter.

The awareness tastes sharp and severe on my tongue.

I sat in Taizé prayer today at the monastery — soaking in the echoing songs, the verse, the smells and comportment of the faithful gray-haired women sitting around me.  For the first time I was hearing the story of the founding of the Taizé  Community in France; learning of this tradition of repetition, listening and meditating, as we waited for the Lord.

But then, we were given time to pray. It was remarkable. I don’t know about you but I don’t pray – not much.  At least not well.  I am certainly no “warrior” of prayer.   Martin Luther King Jr. said “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”  Okay, it’s not so much that I don’t pray I suppose, but that I have so many doubts.  My conscience won’t allow me to simply tell God what I want or need.

My limited theological understanding and lack of faith simply don’t impress it upon me to pray – not much.

(I realized recently I don’t think I even know what I think about corporate prayer. But that is for another day…)

We were given space, within the service today to pray.   So I did.

And so, I let go of my control on my mind and heart.  And go it did, racing – Airborne, soaring like so many spirits.

I began collecting my worries like a slightly frantic, manic creature.

I began to set my worries down — like weighty, heavy stones.

I place them there, one after another.

… For a friend, who lives with chronic illness.  I want to see her more. I have many regrets.

… For my children and specific things I worry about for each of them, faith, academics, relationships, health, and futures.

… For my 74-year-old mother’s future and all that is involved in her long-term care.

… For my future, for my past, for my days – it’s been two weeks since I really let myself stop, slow, truly listen.

… For my days, yes I worry so about my days.  I worry about being wasteful.  I worry about being useless. I worry about not helping others enough.  I worry that my life is a waste.

And there it was.  The awareness. 

I have puzzled out what the book of Ruth means.  Which character in the tiny book that I relate to, Naomi – bitter, Boaz – faithful, Ruth – Bold.  Oh, there it is so crystal clear.

I am bitterness. Sure, I’ve come a long way.  I have had some healing.

God has loved me through my addiction and through my fear of failure and through my bitterness.

I have believed {I am so bitter that} God has forgotten me and there is no longer any purpose for my life.  I have tried to do the things in front of me – certainly the obvious one  motherhood, the creative work of writing and photography, but deep, deep down I have felt abandoned by God.

There it is.

Aching, reaching, grasping for some deeper purpose to my life and surely knowing all the while, that this time of dearth, of learning was and is important.  Just like Naomi, who said “call me Mara (which means bitter),” I have been bitter.

I sit with the weighty knowledge, almost crushed, but not.  Still wondering what God intends to do.  Jeremiah 29:11 says; “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

I do believe that. I do even as I taste bitter.  As I sit and wonder and pray.


This is part of a Lent Series, Lessons from the Monastery.

Lesson One.

I learned today this type of listening is called kenotic listening.  It is characterized by reverencing what is sacred in someone else. So often, when interacting with each other, we dwell on all their faults.   Their failings, their annoying bits and pieces, even how they disappoint us or let us down.  A kenotic listener affirms the good in others.

Lesson Two.

I don’t find it hard to confess that dissatisfaction comes easily to me, along with the admission that my life has disappointed me. Disillusionment too, as my life is not what I thought it would be. I can admit this is true. Well, that’s not exactly right – I had no plan.  No grand scheme.  I didn’t have any idea what I would do with my life as a youngster.  One thing I knew. From that moment when I was swiftly rescued, “healed” in an only God could have done it miraculous sort of way.

This was lesson three.

Lessons from the Monastery: Part Two (Sixty Year Old Memories of Sensible Shoes)

Part Two in a series: Lessons from the Monastery.

I don’t find it hard to confess that dissatisfaction comes easily to me, along with the admission that my life has disappointed me. Disillusionment too, as my life is not what I thought it would be. I can admit this is true.

Well, that’s not exactly right – I had no plan.  No grand scheme.  I didn’t have any idea what I would do with my life as a youngster.

One thing I knew.

From that moment when I was swiftly rescued, “healed” in an only God could have done it miraculous sort of way.  As I grew up, I was told the stories over and over.

I was “the peanut baby.”  The miracle was something of God, everyone said so. And for whatever reason I began to believe that God had something special planned for me – for my life.  Eighteen months old I was choking on a peanut. I should have died. I will have to get my mother to retell the story because even as I ponder it now, there is much I cannot remember.  I don’t want to lose the details.

I have no memory of it.  In fact I have very few memories of childhood at all.

They are all gone, stuffed somewhere safe.  I haven’t in all these years of healing been able to find the key to unlock that precious girl’s life.

My life. My memories.

I’ve been going to the monastery with my mother.  Being with my mother is startling and even as I learn to trust her, I am afraid.  She’s a blurter.  And she has for memory everything, and more, that I don’t.  Her brain is iron clad; she is a beast of remembering.  And her stories come out at the oddest, least opportune moments; like the shock of ice-cold water.

So much so, that sometimes I cannot bear to be with her, sometimes.  I am learning to not be so afraid.

But today her memories were of her childhood.  A controlling father “much like your father” she said.  “Only mine was around less often, which was perhaps less damaging …” her thoughts trailing off.  In my mind, I too found I was wandering back to my dad’s controlling ways.  She’s remembering that her dad made her wear ugly shoes, because she was “hard on shoes.” Even though her sisters got any kind they wanted.

Those are sixty year old memories about sensible shoes.  Her father long dead and yet still, she remembers it today. 

God save me from bitter memories I say, not to her but inside to myself and to the ghosts.  Perhaps that’s why I keep them all locked up safe, because I don’t want to be bitter.

Today the speaker at the monastery spoke of stability and the descent into darkness as a way of becoming comfortable with uncertainty; a willingness to explore our pain.  Moving down into it and facing it.

No way!  I thought immediately.  This is simply nuts.

Then I remembered…

all the ways I learned to numb my pain, to forget.  And in that moment saw my progress – over time, over years.  A decade flashed.

I used to work hard at my job, to do really well and I received tons of praise and it was never enough.  I was never happy about it.  I was always afraid – of being unmasked, shown for the farce that I was.

The speaker spoke of learning to live deeply in the monotony of life, as do the Benedictines, monks, others – shall l I just say it?  The stay-at-home mom’s life was the epitome of mundane to me.

I see now that is was because I was running.

I couldn’t run fast enough from my internal demons.  Michael Casey, the Cistercian monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia, says that distraction seeks to avoid and that we need to accept life as it is given to us. 

Ten years.  More than a decade of running.  Looking back I can see progress.  My heart was full of self-deception.  I couldn’t feel my feelings for many years and I numbed my feelings with alcohol, work, shopping, obsessive busyness, Christian service, action and movement of every kind.

And now I attempt to live in this moment — to see what’s in front of my nose. 

The speaker asked: Where do you find sources of stability in direct opposition to the running?  What does life look like when you need some stability? How do you know when you’re running? What prompts our perpetual running? What stops it, for you?

I was able to see, today that I have come a long way.   There are still moments of grievous disappointment in myself, but I lay that aside knowing that life is a long, long path for which I am only partway there.  It felt good, even divine, to gaze backward seeing the timeline of the years to appreciate that I am altered – different  – shifting and less flustered and more resolved.

I am able now to go unhurried into the future.  And I can now appreciate the dailies of life. I look forward to remembering, when it comes.

The deep monotony is good, in order to simply be.


Inspired by Stability and Balance in Relationships and Prayer led by Carole Kretschman at the Holy Wisdom Monastery, March 7, 2012