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The Stones I Carry and a Band of Saintly Women

“With or without our permission, with or without our understanding, eventually suffering comes. Then the only question is how to endure it, how to accept it, how to cope with it, how to turn it from dross to gleam.”  

Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year

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A saint (noun) is a virtuous person, particularly good or holy, or one who is exceptionally kind and patient in dealing with difficult people or situations.

1.

I’ve been angry. And it is passing.

I’m embarrassed about my anger being a person of faith. I’ve been wide-awake, tossing in the Dark of the Night.

It’s a level below wakeful consciousness.

Hardly daring to speak of it because mature followers of Jesus should know ahead of time that people suffer and life is hard; all the clichés rattling round in my skull late at night and in the early morning, sitting at a red light, during the stretches of waiting in my day.  I do a lot of waiting.

There are so many moments when I have tried to pray and my consciousness hits my anger hard. That is where I got stuck.

My heart’s gone stony.

Examining my heart dispassionately, I hear a gusting and desolate wind howling, see whirling tumble weed. My emotions are hard and gritty. (Antidepressant medication ironically stops almost all sensation.)

This is the state of my heart, mind, and body, until recently.

“Suffering experienced leaves us crushed in despair – content to survive and endure, to switch off from the life of the world beyond our pain, to allow darkness to fill our horizons and hide our hope – rather than continue to love our (equally hurting) friends and world in whatever ways are left to us.”

Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope

2.

My doubts tell me my spiritual path is probably not worth writing—elusive, brittle, and often overly bleak. My pain is at times far too precious. And yet I’ve been sanctified by reading Saints attentively. So perhaps the inverse could be true.

But I’ve struggled against my anger and disappointments with life to the point of spiritual torpor or inertia.

I am no saint.

To be sure, as a teen I had flashes of spiritual sincerity mostly through vigorous questions and an appetite for scripture. The “mountain top” was climbed infrequently but often enough to be certain that God was doing the stirring in my squashed shattered heart. (I’ve written about that heart ache on this blog enough times to leave it for now.)

Life is full of spiritual spaces described by Richard Rohr as “the spaces in-between forged by a stinging ache of pain.”

There is a dying inside with spiritual movement in the heart, which includes darkness every time. “Darkness and not knowing—then surely an even larger letting go is necessary to move from one spiritual stage to another…  Without great love (of someone beyond yourself) and great suffering, where there is a major defeat, major humiliation, major shock to the ego, very few people move [spiritually].”   From Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis.

3.

The shock of suffering and grief can catch one in its slow surprise.  It is a relentless beating. As frequent and steady as the rain drumming outside is mesmerizing on the senses.  That’s what it is like to watch someone you love stagger under the weight of unfair and ruthless mental illness.

That is what it is like to feel wounded by life’s sting. Your humanity departed, stones weigh you down.

For months all I could think to pray was: “This is too much.”

Not even able to whisper the usual question of how a good God would allow an innocent child to feel so much pain? That came later but didn’t last long. Accepting that  sh*t certainly happens. And those that know me, know, that I’m no optimist, generally.  I expected life to be tough; it’s been hard for me, but not for my babies.  Damn you, not my babies my heart screams.

I don’t believe that pain is FROM God.  Or that God punishes us with suffering.

I believe that with everything I am. Though I am angry, there is no one to blame. I have come to see with startling clarity that life will be hard and pain will eventually come for most everyone.  What’s most important is how we respond.

4.

When I became pregnant I hadn’t given much thought to whether my children would eventually suffer.Yes, I was that naïve. They were born healthy and I was pleased, as if I had anything to do with it. I thought if we do a good job parenting, our babies would grow up to be happy and carefree.

I hadn’t prepared my heart for the powerlessness of watching a child suffering.  And didn’t realize how much I had bought into what the world considers to be kid’s perfections or imperfections, much of it utterly out of anyone’s control.

When everything began to crumble for us nearly two years ago the first thing I did was question what’s wrong with us as parents.  Then, what’s wrong with my child?  Eventually I had the thought: how can we “fix” this?  I hadn’t seen it before but I guess I believed children could (perhaps should) be perfect.

My daughter’s health was someone’s failing.  This illness could be, must be fixed.  I was caught in this thinking. A different doctor, a different medicine, a different ANYTHING would be the answer and I would find it. I would do anything for my child!

One day seeking yet again “The Answer” we met with another specialist, a good, gracious and brilliant doctor.  He was probably the fifth or sixth doctor that had tried to help us through more than two years of hard work of therapy, hospitals, dozens of variations of medications. Not to mention all the feelings of grief, failure, desolation, loneliness, rage all processed mostly in solitude or between Tom and me.

Finally, after lots of conversation this new doctor asked the most incredible question.

“What if you could see that she’s perfect the way she is?”

I’ll be honest I laughed out loud, more like snorted, choking back my scorn. Still so caught up in grief I sputtered:  “Perfect like this? She’s broken…”  Yes, I said it out loud.  My child is broken. She had recently been discharged from the adolescent psychiatric hospital.  We were once again in crisis management after the short reprieve of hospitalization.

That’s what people convey with ideas of Tiger Mothers and Helicopter Parenting, with the ugliness of genetic testing, and the standards of a perfect GPA and natural athleticism, and in the church expecting us to raise Velcro children that are attracted to our Sticky Faith. What?  With the stigmatization of mental illness everywhere it is lound and clear: the mentally ill are broken. And in the Church, If our children no longer believe, we should feel shame and be blamed.

“Your child is perfect” he said, again.

5.

My anger wakes me in the murky, shadows of the night causing frantic, fearful anxiety.  I’ve faced my anger with the maturity of a petulant teen. I’ve tried to understand suffering standing on the edge of a cliff considering a jump.

Standing at the top of that very high cliff looking down, I hear God gently saying, “Steady on, I’ve got you.” Abysmally, I know that I will eventually believe. Still angry. A bit sulky and disappointed by it all. But I will come to a change.

6.

Today is a cold blustery and snowy winter morning. I find I can suddenly pray more than “This. Is. Too. Much!”

Somehow in some way something is different.  Then I remember. This week I reached out to a band of women from several continents and dozens of walks of life, each knowing me in different contexts and decades of my spiritual progression.  Some know me well, we’ve got flesh history.  Others I’ve met online. The relationships bound by our writing.  Some I know peripherally. It doesn’t matter to me how I know them or how long, because they are praying for me.

And into the faith of many good women, I lean.

I let it all drop. Like heavy stones I’ve been carrying stuffed into my pockets, clenched in my tired hands. I hear each one fall to the ground. Soon they are behind me.  I keep walking forward.

I looked back this morning to see the stones are smaller in the distance.  Still there, still on my spiritual path with me, but each step takes me farther from their weight.

That’s the case for my heart, mind, and body now. I am lighter.

I begin a new prayer:Lighten my load, oh my God, it is still just a few words. I find I am carried along by the faith of more than twenty saintly women of great faith and prayer.  Right now, they are far stronger than my solitary heart.

Now,

I’m still burdened if I turn around and lift those heavy stones back up: Worry. Fear. Anger. Doubt. Lack of trust. Disappointment. Grief.

I whisper the words of faith, growing within.  Finally, I have a few more words.

Give me faith, love, patience and kindness. Give me the strength to continue on.

Give me a love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.

Give me new prayers. Give me renewed hope.

Kyrie eleison.

Today I believe it. Today I’m certain.  All shall be well.

Not perfect, but well.

Living a Life Worthy of Writing. It’s Complicated

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It is Virginia Woolf who is credited with the notion that for most of history anonymous was a woman. I thought of that yesterday when a friend (who is more like a mentor) was intently praising me on my writing and expressed that I should continue. Then she said, “Perhaps you should write under a pseudonym.” 

That statement made me wonder. I think she felt that without my name or life connected, that I could write my story even more vulnerably— bravely, truthfully.  She thinks

My Story is one that many people Feel, Live, Carry.

One of the many things I like about being with her, and at the same time frustrates me, is that I often go away from conversations without Answers—pondering hard things, wondering, asking myself questions, many questions.

She’s so Open and Free—with her time, ideas, insights, her life, that it compels me and draws me in to the freedom in which she lives life.

I know that I don’t live with that sort of freedom—not yet. I live with fear of reprisal, with sheer guilt over my Life’s Narrative so far.

I live with the Fear Beast.  I live with the Guilt Monster. 

Yesterday, I read from Richard Rohr that the phrase “Do not be afraid” is present in the Bible up to 365 times.  It’s the most common one liner in the Bible.  A command of sorts, DO NOT BE AFRAID.  The imperative when the angel of the Lord told Mary, who was selected to be the mother of Jesus, Do not be afraid.

I breathe deeply, knowing. I can certainly get stuck

in the life I’ve lived so far feeling like it’s impossible to redeem it.  Stuck in Fear.  Stuck in the Shame Story, feeling nothing but Regret. For it’s a story of Redemption (for sure) which means mistakes, sin and regrets.  But that’s not the point really, My Regret.

In Being Human and facing our humanity we aren’t disqualified from the Story of God, but rather

right in the middle of God’s Grace.  I want to learn to trust Jesus’ powerful presence in My Story and believe that somehow all this serves a Greater Purpose.

I have long believed that if I could sort out how to write it down, the poems and prayers of lament in my story, then it would be Redeemed through the Telling. If I write it down. And before then, or even while that’s progressing, I want

TO BE the person Redeemed, Wholly Forgiven, compelled by Grace, driven down on my knees perpetually,

for I want to live a life worth

writing.

On Putting the Dark and the Light Together

I  find it so interesting that Moses “when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” (Hebrews 11:24 ESV)

I see that as choosing to take on the identity of  being one of God’s people, before his other human identity.   I choose that too.

It is a daily choosing.

Just as a good friend pointed out, being in the 12-steps (code-word for addiction recovery program)  involves being able to admit every day your broken state.  For me that is being an alcoholic.  It it necessary for your recovery and for survival.  Staying sober means admitting your powerlessness.   But can be a way to label yourself.  And it doesn’t create the space for allowing God to rename you, reshape you, even change and heal you, to transform and redeem.

I am rigid and ornery, prone to perfectionism.  Hard on others.  Even harder on myself.  I am a person that doesn’t like to be perceived as weak and is oh, so mean to myself!  How that fits with all of this I do not know completely except that it fits with my revisiting old pain, old narrative, old Story.  I have lived with naming my shaming for years.

But this is false, a false modesty and a false humility.

So says Richard Rohr, that incredible friar who wrote Falling Upward ( I have to admit I have not read this wonderful book, recommended by so many people I respect.  It’s on my to read list! ) But I get his emails.

I opened my inbox today and read this:

“All-or-nothing reformations and all-or-nothing revolutions are not true reformations or revolutions. Most history, however, has not known this until now. When a new insight is reached, we must not dismiss the previous era or previous century or previous church as totally wrong. It is never true! We cannot try to reform things in that way anymore.

“This is also true in terms of the psyche. When we grow and we pass over into the second half of life, we do not need to throw out the traditions, laws, boundaries, and earlier practices. That is mere rebellion and is why so many revolutions and reformations backfired and kept people in the first half of life. It is false reform, failed revolution, and non-transformation. It is still dualistic thinking, which finally turns against its own group too.

“So do not waste time hating mom and dad, hating the church, hating America, hating what has disappointed you. In fact, don’t hate anything. You become so upset with the dark side of things that you never discover how to put the dark and the light together, which is the heart of wisdom, all love, and the trademark of a second half of life person. Maybe that is why we blessed the candles on this day, right in the middle of winter.

“You become so upset with the dark side of things that you never discover how to put the dark and the light together, which is the heart of wisdom, all love, and the trademark of a second half of life person.”

Here’s to living in the Light!

On Paying Attention

At times like these.

When I am feeling so poignantly this illness depression, which is chronic and confusing and feels a lot like failure, at times like these  … I have learned to wait and pay attention.  Taste the bitter in this moment.    And see what God intends.
Henri Nouwen says of this patience:
“The word patience comes from the Latin verb patior which means “to suffer.”  Waiting patiently is suffering through the present moment, tasting it to the full, and  letting the seeds that are sown in the ground on which we stand grow into strong plants.  Waiting patiently always means paying attention to what is happening right before our eyes and seeing there the first rays of God’s glorious coming.”
I know intellectually that God wants me to let go of this grip I have on my pain.  He says “I will take it — your sadness, pain, fear, and hollow heart and make life out of it.”   This is the promise which gives us our hope.  This is everything.  Julian of Norwich says in Revelations of Divine Love:
 “God sees our wounds and sees them not as scars but as honors. . .”
It is possible to thank God for our weaknesses, our broken hearts, our frequent “failings,” even our sickness?  I think it is not only possible but necessary.

I believe He has something good he intends to come out of my heart falling over the precipice, shattered.

Yes, I’m weary of being so feeble and human.  Is it possible to thank him, yes and I am waiting expectantly as Nouwen says:

“Waiting patiently for God always includes joyful expectation.  Without expectation our waiting can get bogged down in the present.  When we wait in expectation our whole beings are open to be surprised by joy…, “Brothers and sisters … the moment is here for you to stop sleeping and wake up, because by now our salvation is nearer than when we first began to believe.  The night is nearly over, daylight is on the way; so let us throw off everything that belongs to the darkness and equip ourselves for the light” (Romans 13:11-12).

I am paying attention and I choose to be grateful nevertheless, which I wrote about over at Provoketive this week.

My cup is always half empty.  At least, without Jesus it would be.  Even with the Holy Spirit active it is an effort to be positive.   ….  Even in the midst of the hell of depression I am grateful.  God gives us this one life and we are charged to sort it out.   He guides us, truly he does, but much of life is us sifting through the good and the bad.

Life is choices.

… (more)

As we begin the season of advent it feels right amidst our clamoring to wait on Him.  In the fear, wait.  Anxious furtive thoughts, wait.

Pay attention and wait with joyful expectation.

MHH

Quotations from Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr and from Bread for the Journey by Henri J.M. Nouwen.

Life is Work, Hard Work (but there is a ray of hope)

To want–to strive–to long for more is to be human. Isn’t it?

We are all on that journey of life, which for some comes so easily and for others, I include myself here, is work, hard work.

Jesus says in John 8:32 “the truth will set you free” and that I believe.  It is what makes me a believer.  The truth will free me from my constant desiring, striving and longing for more out of life.

But in the meantime it also can make you quite miserable don’t you think?

As Richard Rohr says, “Medieval spiritual writers called it “compunction,” the necessary sadness and humiliation that comes from seeing one’s own failures and weaknesses … Without confidence in a Greater Love, none of us will have the courage to go inside, nor should we. It merely becomes silly scrupulosity and not any mature development of conscience or social awareness.”

 

Desiring. Striving. Longing. It can become a burden.  And a weight.  And before you know it you are running from the truth, any truth.

What does that have to do with my nearly ten-year wrestling with major depression?  That experience made me into a different person.  I stopped running.  I began to face the past, the present and the future and admitted how scared I was.  I began working on my life. And it was hard work.

But I have become a different person.

I am more content and able to just be than at any other time in my life.  I once was filled with the pain of needing to prove myself, heavy with the belief that I had to be significant and do incredible things with my life in order to be loved.  I thought I was unlovable.   Instead, I am different and happy for the first time in … as long as I can remember.

  • I found my way back to Belief.  I know I am Beloved.
  • I am a more empathetic, genuinely loving and generous person with my time, resources and life experiences.
  • I am able to face my addictions:  alcohol (three years in July), cigarettes, shopping, work, to name just a few.
  • I have forgiven and I have been forgiven.
  • I have learned that in telling my story others are somehow compelled to grow.  It is almost as if knowing what I have been through opens up a place in others to believe that it is possible to be healed.

I took some time this summer to write briefly about my experience and it will be published in a book titled Not Alone — It has stories of living with depression.  The book is available for pre-order.   I hope it helps and encourages others who may suffer with this confusing and difficult illness of depression.

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From the book:

Depression is a very real experience for many people. The causes can be varied. Abuse. Chemical imbalances. Divorce. Rejection. There is no one reason that a person might suffer depression. However, one common theme is that it can leave the person feeling isolated and alone. Because of the stigma that is often associated with depression, people often remain silent about it, never knowing that the person next to them is going through the same thing or has experienced it in the past. Instead, they hide away, believing that no one understands, believing that no one cares.

In this book, the authors break the silence, boldly sharing their stories of depression.  Whether sharing how they first discovered that what they were feeling was depression, telling how they sought help for their depression or giving words of hope that depression can be managed, the authors all tackle the lie that you must suffer in solitude. With courage and honesty, these stories give a glimpse into the depressed existence. While you will not find a cure for depression in these pages, you will find a sense of community. You will find words of hope. You will find that you are Not Alone.

And here are links (chronologically and a list) to other things I have written here about my experience with depression.