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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.

I Poke at My Heart To Know It is Still There. I Hold on To Belief, Clutching.

1-DSC_0101I have so many things going on. The heaviest specifics, I don’t dare to write about.

These are Heavy, hard days of—if not Suffering —Pain.  But I know so many, many people going through Pain.  In that, we are not alone, but being a writer and photographer comes with a price.  I know what’s happening to us isn’t for public consumption.  Lives, hearts and souls are at play.  If I cannot write, what do I do? If I cannot Speak through images I fear I’ll drown in my grief.

I have been thinking hard about what’s useful for others. What I can pass on.

I was recently at a meeting for parents of youth, a “you rah rah” sort of meeting where a couple traipsed up on the stage as Master Parents (My words).  The pastor said: “If my children could turn out like anyone’s I would have them be like so and so’s kids.”

I thought to myself, “Damn. He did not just say that.”

This was before I went back on Effexor, when I could still cry.

I’m not a public crier. I actually try very hard to never cry in front of others, men especially because of the stereotype that women are overly emotional.  (This is one of the sexist ideas that I most loathe.)

So I ran from the room in grief and anger and disappointment (I know this pastor and I was surprised he’d say such a thing.)

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Our recent months, even the last year and a half, were difficult. I have had moments in the last while that I was certain I couldn’t go on; as doctors, and friends, and mentors, and experts, all had no idea how to proceed with some of our challenges.

We’ve wept, we’ve prayed, we’ve read, and we’ve met with experts, We have done more than everyone can imagine, turned over systems, got to the top of the chain of command, advocated beyond what everyone said was possible.  And yet, after all that, life’s not much different.  Circumstances improve incrementally and then fall apart, then settle down. We adjust and we try again to find normalcy.

The same issues continue.   With a new normal, we have a new resolve.

I ran from that room coming face to face with the audacity that we might be able to DO something more to create a certain outcome for our kids.  As I slithered to the floor, I wept uncontrollably for our situation, for our lack of hope, and for all the kids growing up in homes where parents do think there is a formula to arrive at “a great kid, a healthy kid, or a spiritually grounded kid.”

And when I had composed myself, I very nearly walked out of the building to never return to youth group, just yank my kid out, because I’m impulsive like that.

I am rash.  And that kind of haste is wrong when it comes to an unfortunate turn of phrase with someone you trust.  I say things now and again I don’t even mean.  Second chances are important and I’d want one. I returned inside.

But I haven’t felt so alone in a long, long time. I sat in the back, on the steps so I could make a run for it.  Knowing the Church isn’t cognizant of how to help families with mental illness.  One, because we’re not sure we can talk about it, sure.  But also, they just don’t know to help.

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I cannot pray.  It’s ironic and convicting as I spent the summer reading everything I could find about prayer since I was writing an essay on Praying without Ceasing, will be published next year in a book.  And today, these days, lately, I cannot pray.  I’ve always struggled with praying.

My heart feels like stone. Partly, this is the anti-depressant medication.  I know this because I’ve been on it before.  I didn’t cry for more than five years last time.  Yes, that’s a special hell.  Don’t make that decision lightly, to take antidepressants.)

I cannot feel, except a flat, emotionless, disorienting pain.  My heart feels like when they numb you before a shot; if I poke at my heart I know it’s still there but you get the idea.

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So what then?  What’s the outcome of a Most Difficult Year?

We’re being strong.  We’re hurting, but we’re cognizant of a long-suffering kind of trust in God.  Right now doesn’t feel good but over our lifetimes God has been present, faithful, supplier of hope, our healer and God has sustained us.   That doesn’t change.

But most days are like today. Sitting here feeling isolated, feeling afraid, feeling unwilling or unable to be with humans. But I know, even still, God in Jesus is present.  God waits.

I don’t feel it. I know it. I hold on to Belief, clutching.  Today, it’s all we have.