The Monster In Me Must Die: On Moral Injury and Infection

My monster is roaring. I’m trying to pound it back into my gut or heart or wherever it usually sits quietly playing with or sleeping on its wealth. Later I will probably feed it booze to shut it up.

Booze works nicely. I’ve not shed the inner voice that tells me that I use booze as a crutch, that it’s one of my sinful passions. It renders  me a sinner after the second drink and that shuts up my monster.

My monster roars now because of all the BS, the lies by omission or the willfulness of others who cowboy the world. 

Some portion of the population doesn’t concern itself with moral injury, my monster is hollering. It kills with its carelessness. The parents who take their kids on vacation during the school year, when the kids are failing all their courses. The people who excuse themselves from masking or hand washing or vaccinating because they think health is entirely individual. But my monster is mad right now at the ones who believe that is their personal choice and yet like to use “life” and “abortion” to try to trump any conversation about how to vote.

My monster gives me a fever and makes my heart race. My monster needs prayer, but I tried. I tried all through church. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.  I tried praying to quiet the sense that most everyone was staring at me. Why is she masking today? Now that we don’t have to mask. I read the directive, I scream inside. I read what it said and what the priest said about the spirit of it. Mask if you are not vaccinated. I read what nurses wrote for the past year about losing their hope and goodwill as they watched their patients die, one after another, each person’s death taking a part of their own main continent, their soul, because no man or woman is an island. Death after death angry and desperate families, dementia and depression, addiction and despair chipped away at them. In this week of May 2021, the NY Times reported that almost Six hundred people are still dying each day in the USA. It’s 1400 less than a few months ago. It’s still a huge loss. There is physical death still and…

There is such a thing as soul death. Does it start with an infection from moral injury? The soldier sent to the front over and over, killing and being maimed, losing his conscience as he kills, injured as a trade for this and the only ethic is patriotic might? – Please don’t rebut with the Holocaust. We fought for that moral good once and ignored it a thousand times over in Rwanda, in our own nation’s treatment of Native Americans, with the Rohinga and the Uegers, in waiting decades to have a president say “genocide” about Armenians. 

About moral injury: I’m just being initiated into the term, which will probably be overused in short order. Yet there is such a thing as “a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society” and “damage done to the soul” (“What is Moral Injury?”) On the US Veteran’s Administration site,  Sonja B Norman and Shira Maguen outline it this way:

In traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people may perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations (1). When someone does something that goes against their beliefs this is often referred to as an act of commission and when they fail to do something in line with their beliefs that is often referred to as an act of omission. Individuals may also experience betrayal from leadership, others in positions of power or peers that can result in adverse outcomes (2). Moral injury is the distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events (3). A moral injury can occur in response to acting or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual’s values and moral beliefs.

My problem is how often I feel pulled into commission and omission as I do now, feeling betrayed and confused by the urgent need for protecting the vulnerable from illness, or at other times the urgency of feeding, housing and providing healthcare for those that Reagan-era Americans neighbors called “lazy” or said were bilking the system. Or protecting the spiritual, social and emotional identity of those who are not heterosexual or in heterosexual relationships (anyone who identifies as LGBTQ or anyone who is monastic or asexual). Why are these my moral values and ethics? That’s about training my monster, because a long time ago, my monster had a lot of anger about lazy poor people or addicts or “the gays.” I was raised that way, then I learned lessons that utterly humbled me.

When my monster howls, I am about to be eaten, inside out. And part of me will be spiritually sick. I will fight the infection in my bowels. I will fight some level of depression, sometimes crippling, sometimes manageable. I might die, or some part of me might have to change. 

I don’t know which. I cried angry grieving tears as I left church today. I shifted my anger and burden to my sister, an ICU nurse whose moral injury is first degree, whereas my is more sympathy pangs. I asked her, should I keep trying to be the example, to do the right thing? I did the work to heal and protect myself up to now. I masked, distanced, isolated, read and learned how the science changed. Now the science says I can unmask, but others are at risk. What is the message that will be for the greater good? Unmask and let the deniers deny?

My sister typed back. “You can’t control what others do. You have the vaccine. You can unmask.”

I can’t control what others do. She will go on losing patients to COVID, fighting for their lives, giving away a piece of herself week after week. I can’t control it or save her. I will that none of her should have to die like that, but I am going to have to let that hope die.

I can’t find joy in that. I’m not ready to celebrate unmasking yet.

Maguen, Shira, PhD and Sonja B. Norma, PhD. “VA.gov: Veterans Affairs.” Moral Injury, 20 Apr. 2020, www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/cooccurring/moral_injury.asp.

“What Is Moral Injury.” The Moral Injury Project What Is Moral Injury Comments, moralinjuryproject.syr.edu/about-moral-injury/.

The Cross and Flippancy

My first two years of teaching were at a Christian middle school in Indianapolis. As we wrapped up Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, one of the White 13-year old students was broken open as he realized the lynching towards the end of the book. Seeing a teachable moment, I made the mistake of showing a lynching postcard out of Without Sanctuary taken in Marion Indiana. I showed the date stamp (1930’s) and told students that it had been sold as a commemorative postcard for the picnicking witnesses proud to have witnessed the torture of Black man. To be clear, I told students they didn’t have to look at it, offering to let them leave the room. I didn’t account for the peer pressure I created. Nor did I think about how I might create either further suffering or more apathy, depending on how students grappled with what they saw. I wanted to these kids to know what a lynching looked like, that it happened here, and that like crucifixions in the Roman empire, it was a spectacle. I wasn’t being explicit about the kindredness of the Cross and a lynching tree, as theologian James Cone has written, but it had seeped into my conscience.

Aside from passion plays, loaded with bathos to evoke a feeling for what Christ sacrificed, I haven’t experienced such suffering. The Cross requires a lot of imagination for me. I sometimes have to work to feel the suffering.

April 4, 2021 was mid-point of Great Lent for Orthodox Christians and Easter for Western Christendom. The Orthodox Church has a special commemoration each Sunday and the Sunday of the Cross falls smackdab in the middle. I’ve often thought that it falls here in the middle of our desert journey of forty days as a call to gaze upon it when we may be despairing at the length of Lent. I don’t enjoy Lent. It dredges up fights I don’t want to have, like not drinking wine, the obligation to go to church constantly, and resentment about my lack of enough time. The Cross in the middle seemed to be like the staff with the snake that God told Moses to put up to save the Israelites while they sojourned for forty years in the desert. They were being bitten by poisonous snakes and dying. It prefigures the Cross because we are to gaze upon and contemplate the Cross as the image of death that turns to life. But I forget about real suffering.

I have lost loved ones, but not to torture or to hateful evil nor to willful apathy of crowds. Yet plenty of American Christians know the Cross intimately. They’ve come to the tree, to the rood, to the wood, to the cross. They stood like the Mother of God and the women, witnessing their hearts being tortured with Christ’s body. They looked upon Him, not as one they crucified, not as a picnic or a spectacle, but as their very suffering.

In my poetry unit for Lit 206, I teach motifs in Black experience- the body, the oak, strange fruit- which Black Americans have long written songs, poems, and essays about. I play Nina Simone and Billie Holiday’s renditions of “Strange Fruit” in which you can hear their throats swell with the pain. Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Oak” is told from the voice of the tree bearing that fruit. It’s nothing like the medieval “Dream of the Rood” (Caedman), flowery and hopeful. It’s like the Cross, a story of sorrow and shame foisted upon innocent people.

It’s far too easy for us to talk about the Cross as a symbol, to speak about suffering and martyrdom carelessly. Dare I say, if we don’t bear witness and come as Simon of Cyrene to help carry the Cross for those who know it, then our use of “bearing our crosses,” talk of our suffering, discussion of martyrdom is as careless and offensive as those who talk about having OCD or being bi-polar or other serious illnesses. If you’ve never washed your hands till they crack or gotten up in the middle of the night to drive back to places you’ve cleaned to check if the doors or locked, or driven over and over one spot on a road thinking you hit something, or been diagnosed with OCD, then you shouldn’t be casual about “your OCD kicking in.” So too we shouldn’t be too cavalier about bearing our crosses. The Cross is serious as death.

We can bejewel it, bear witness, and be honest. Our lenten grapplings are ours, meatless, sober, (masked up when we can see the promised land of the end of the pandemic but aren’t there yet), these are more like many of our crosses. Not the same as dying on one. What we do when we recognize the deep centuries endemic suffering of others is bring ourselves to what Anthony Barr says is “the profound solidarity of the Gospel.” First, we have to enter into that solidarity and look upon the suffering: the broken bodies of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, of migrant workers brutalized because they lack legal recourse, or the controlled bodies of Black Americans. Their bodies don’t offer the Resurrection, but with their suffering in solidarity with Christ’s, we can be reconciled.

“…the world-altering reality that when we say “body, broken for you,” we mean a literal broken body, and that this literal broken body is given for him, and you, and me. Jesus has placed his body between our bodies and the world. It is the nexus where suffering meets grace, where oppression gives way to radical self-emptying. The table at which he offers us his body is a place of egalitarianism where one’s race and social station have no weight or meaning. It is also a place of inescapable solidarity, for it is here that we are united to Christ’s cross, here that we are empowered to bear our crosses and so fill up in our own flesh the redemptive suffering of Christ, as Paul writes to the Colossians.”

The Sunday of the Cross in the middle of Lent now means more than looking up at the Cross to bear my own suffering. It is the GOOD NEWS which our bleak period of penitence and self-restraint may obscure. It’s why I can say, Christ is Risen to my Western Christians family on the middle day of Lent.

Saturday Recommendations

“Just so, the Gospel confronts us with a terrifying truth: Jesus’ life ended as it did, not because the powers of evil overcame him, still less because God forced it to happen for the sake of accomplishing a predetermined “plan,” but because ordinary human beings, including the faithful ones, could not imagine an alternative to the injustice they found themselves enacting.”

Photo Credit: Jessica Delp; unsplash

On Saturdays, I do a lot of reading, usually theological reading and listening because the Plough Cast and Macrina come through for me on those quieter days. Saturday has become the Sabbath, as it should, a day more restful in that it is unstructured, and preparatory for the 8th day, the day of Resurrection: Sunday.

I’ve been posting about Chris Green’s Lenten series on Macrina Magazine. He’s focused on transfiguration.

Here’s this week’s review and following, the full list of his pieces, as well as recommendation for this week’s Plough cast and an article on James Baldwin and Peacemaking.

Blessed Holy Saturday to the West. In Christ’s assumption of humanity, we are elevated in nature.

I love the story at the end of this, of the humility of Coptic Christians who wouldn’t cut in line for food, despite the famine. They took less care for their own lives and more for the group. This is so hard for Americans to practice. It’s in our human nature, but opposite of what our nation values. The promise of the Cross and Resurrection is not something for the vague future. Christ is not indifferent to the body, He transformed the material world. We are not just spirits in a material world.

Yesterday in confession, just thirty minutes after my second vaccine dose, two disparate topics boiled to the surface. At first, my father confessor tugged at his mask and asked how did I feel about losing the mask finally. I know that many Christians are more libertarian than me, so I took a breath before answering. I will lose the mask in stages, with CDC and local health guidance. I won’t lose the mask entirely until it is good for the group. To take it off sooner is to put emphasis on my individual comfort and safety. (A mask is an inconvenience at worst. It’s not caused wholesale SEL damage, though I am aware it’s harder for those with language and autism processing issues.) Shortly thereafter my father confessor noted that Orthodox Christian theology is communal (interpersonal, interdependent, no man is an island stuff). We recognize persons, but individuality is problematic.

That said, this passage hit me because evil is more often the product of self-protectionism that aggregates into communal apathy.

“Just so, the Gospel confronts us with a terrifying truth: Jesus’ life ended as it did, not because the powers of evil overcame him, still less because God forced it to happen for the sake of accomplishing a predetermined “plan,” but because ordinary human beings, including the faithful ones, could not imagine an alternative to the injustice they found themselves enacting.

We need to feel the weight of this truth. People condemned Jesus, and required his death, or failed even to try to save him from his sufferings, not because they despised him, but because they were so afraid of their own death or the end of their way of life that they could not see what was happening to him as anything but unavoidable.”

I can’t help but draw parallels to how people shrugged off their agency to protect one another this year with “death is unavoidable.” I still have people tell me that they are sick of masking and that masking is living in fear. The same people are also afraid of the mask. They are not afraid of the risk of death they say out of one side of their mouth, and yet they fear the vaccine. We are incongruous and inconsistent beings, aren’t we? We are individualistic yet need each other, self-protecting but if we were the last human alive, we’d despair. In this year of the polemical, where everything is all or nothing, we should note our behavior and ask we’ve capitulated to the extremes and poles.

As Chris Green writes, “kenosis is not emptying but filling and fulfilling. In St. Cyril’s words, God the Word does not empty himself of his fulness but in his fulness descends into emptiness and fills it with himself.” The binary creates a canyon of emptiness between ourselves and each other. God came to fill the whole and draw us to each other and himself.

Chris Green’s series in Macrina Magazine

Transfiguring Being

Transfiguring Repentance

Transfiguring Doubt

Transfiguring Obedience

Transfiguring Identity

Transfiguring Death

Transfiguring Silence

Plough Cast “Violence of Love” Part 3 with poet Rhina Espallait– You should listen to this for her poem on fathers and daughters , as well as her insights into Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and provocative thoughts rejecting martyrdom.

With Love We Shall Force Our Brothers by Anthony Barr– Barr responds beautifully to the appropriate anger of Ta Nehasi Coates and defends faith not as

How to Retreat

Plan to retreat. Clear your calendar. Let your parish know that you’ll be unavailable because the week after you’ll be doing two or more hours of church services daily to kick off Lent. (The uber-pious call this “Great Lent” but is a kind of wandering in a spiritual wilderness for 40 days, so “great” is not what you’d call it. You’ll being fasting intensely, leading more church services and book discussions, hearing more confessions, and low key supporting the spiritual struggles of a mid-sized parish in a mid-COVID trauma.)

Get an AirBNB for you and the wife. Ask her if this is okay, because you’ve done this for several years running. This year it intersects with her state testing (more stressful because of the ‘Rona) and the end of the grading period for her high needs students.

Cancel the AirBNB two days before the retreat because she is melting down, a la “Everyone wants a piece of me and I just can’t anymore.” Determine you’ll just be invisible by being low-key on staycation.

Night one: In a fortuitous turn, you and the wife find Shaun of the Dead to watch that night. It’s a cathartic throwback to the first weeks of the pandemic when you played the game of the same moniker with the urgency of an actual public health official and you watched a lot of funny zombie movies.

It goes too late. Your wife can’t find her phone charger and melts down. You run to the gas station to buy a new one and when you get back, you find your pop tarts for a bedtime snack. They are smashed.

Your wife’s temporary crown falls out, she cycles through a depressive episode, and you hear her banging her head against the shower wall muttering about the patriarchy. She curls into sleep while you have a late night sesh with a fellow musician. You plan a collaboration, feel good about your creative side hustle, eat your smashed pop tarts, shower, and go to bed.

At three AM your wife gets one of her 24-hour GI sicknesses. Unable to lay on the cold bathroom tile, she pulls a trashcan to the side of the bed and leans off the edge to puke into it for five hours. You get to wake up every hour or so to the smell and sound of her hurling all her food into the trash can.

Late that evening, she’s up for a hike, so you venture out for a couple mile walk. As you drive off, you both jump at a crashing. Her water bottle rolls onto the windshield, rattling you both. A prescient start.

Remember that one topic you told her you didn’t want to talk about on this retreat? She’s about to hit it head on. It starts after you say, “I don’t think I know how to retreat anymore.” To retreat, a person needs to back away from the conflict, away from the ledges of life, which in the COVID year have included the ledges-buses-walls-traumas-losses-stressors-family systems of each person in your parish. You are a parish priest. OBVs. In this year, conflicts erupted like wildfires. Also, some people disappeared like lost hikers, like innocent people in Mexico, like Vietnam vets who went off the grid and quit their families. You’ve offered up the Body and Blood of Christ for every one of them. You feel like their shepherd, a father, a friend, and every loss and every conflict begins to be your Battle of Okinawa. You are a kind of Desmond Doss in your head. You just want to carry everyone to safety.

So your wife ends up ten steps ahead of you after she starts with “I’m going to say a hard thing” after which she begins a strategic questioning/grilling about the literal one thing you said you wanted to retreat from. She asks you to inventory your time spent in services, in administrative work, in pastoral care. She and you banter about moving towards health. Two miles later you feel a little better about your ability to be adaptive, to move towards health, to acknowledge when you aren’t in health, but you still say you are as close to burn out as you’ve ever been.

That night, you kiss each other goodnight. She falls asleep. You stay up to pen a letter to a mentor with whom you are to meet late the following morning. You spend the last of your energy mixing some music and fall into restless sleep.

After coffee, breakfast, and a chat with your mentor on day three, some of the shards of your broken spirit seem to fit back into their places. This is not healed, but there’s enough put back together that you have a plan. You are able to slip into a kind of intention and rest for the next fews days to re-establish some health, some priorities, some boundaries, and to have a way forward.

So, to plan a retreat, start with great plans and high expectations, and let them get shattered. It helps to have some one help clean up the mess, even if you didn’t make a single bit of it and you were the person trying to fix it all in the first place.

Throw Open the Doors

When I consider how many Christmases have painted themselves as bright sugary memories in my mind, I really have had a charmed life. But not all Christmases sparkle. One of the ugliest is an angry green sea, with orange limbs and black heads gasping for life while I crumple thirty bucks in the first I’ve shoved in a coat pocket. It’s the day after Christmas, Dec 26, 2004. I’m standing at the front door of my brother’s home, stepping out into winter, wondering what right I have to spend it on myself. The giver intended for me to spend it as I’d intended, on a the embossed, leather-looking box set of The Two Towers.

Fifteen minutes before while I was pulling on my boots, preparing to wade through waves of dissatisfied people returning their Christmas gifts, when I caught the news. In the living room, my brother, father, husband and other men in my family reclined with their eyes glued to laptops. “Did you hear?” I asked. They confirmed the tsunami that struck Indonesia and beyond had 10,000 reported casualties. 10,000 people washed into walls of the sea, grasping for their children and their lovers.

white and brown boat on black sand during daytime
Photo credit: Unsplash, NOAA

Two and half times the casualties of 9/11. 

I clutched the bills and felt as I had when I was young, watching the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars. Somewhere far away in the universe there was a disturbance. A world obliterated. Thousands of lives silenced in seconds.

Fifteen minutes later, the walk in Walmart felt surreal. The crowd noise silenced everything. I recall listening for my own heartbeat and feeling the radical injustice of fate or nature or God or whatever. I felt a kind of disgust at myself that I would carry on with my purchase of entertainment while a whole world of Rachels were weeping in great mourning. Weeping for the children, their mothers and fathers. Because they were no more.

If we watched The Two Towers that night, I didn’t pay attention. I checked the news. The body count climbed over the weekend, over 100,000 by that night. Over 227,000 in total. My life was preserved because I was born in the United States.

“There are some years that ask questions,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston. “There are some years that answer.”

Photo credit: Maria Weir

This year, my life is fragile, because I was born in the United States. The richest country in the world, the country that published Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” I teach that story to high school students every year in American Literature. They love the vivid imagery and the macabre Red Death infiltrating a medieval soiree.

In 2014, when Ebola swept six of Africa’s fifty-four nations, I drew parallels between Ebola and the Bubonic Plague for students. That year, an acquaintance in Atlanta expressed outrage that the CDC brought Ebola infected doctors to Emory University. Surely they’d risked American lives, the social media post intimated. Surely noble doctors could risk their lives on some other soil, but how dare we risk American lives to find a cure at the best facility in the US?

This year of our Lord 2020 Poe’s story is as beloved as ever. This year I asked my students about the symbolism of Prince Prospero’s moniker and why he chose his wealthy friends to hole up in one of his “crenellated abbeys.” Do the wealthy think they can escape death? I asked

Not that our wealthy all holed up literally, but our presidential leadership team used access to any and every possible treatment at all costs to prove that Americans can buy their way out of death.

While millions in poverty struggled to work, feed, and shelter themselves, while vulnerable populations died in disproportionate numbers, while those with addiction overdosed in desperation, while kids and parents struggled to find an equilibrium of connection, emotional health, work and education, while doctors and nurses nursed themselves to precipice of exhaustion, while some churches risked the connection/community that makes them strong by going on-line, while some businesses policed personal behavior, while some demonstrators distanced but showed up, others made the decision that this pestilence would devastate only if we believed it would.

This year, the pestilence became most fatal and hideous when individual liberties, collectively practiced, created chaos. It seems that wealthy nations maddened themselves on free markets and free will. They proved that a crenellated abbey cannot keep out even Quiet Death. For this plague is no virus that makes eyes weep blood and pustules seep life. This virus is subtler.

This virus seizes the respiratory system, veins and arteries, and it squeezes the life out of them as stealthily as the flu. 

green leaf plant near brown concrete wall
Photo Credit: Anne Nygard, Unsplash

In The Masque of the Red Death, the plague or something is evil. Sorry to bring up the “e-word,” a word that umbrellas such varied applications that it’s bound to sound judgey or existential or hyperbolic, if one doesn’t subscribe to it. 

This virus, to be clear is not the “e-word.” The e-word is evil. Evil doesn’t generally look evil. While we are screaming about “evil” over there, the evil that threatens has cloaked itself, infiltrated, and run amok. It’s the threat we think we can control. It’s a force we both believe in and remain skeptical of. What do we call evil with some certainty? We call Hitler, his syncophants, and the Holocaust evil. We call Pol Pot and Khymer Rouge’s murder of Cambodians evil. Stalin’s own 14-20 million dead, that’s evil. Mosquitoes: evil. Psychopaths: evil. Serial rapists: evil. Known evils.

After that, we have lesser evils about which we disagree. This year’s pandemic demonstrated that our lesser evils are individualized and polarized.

One person’s evil is another person’s freedom. I don’t wear a mask, freedom. You don’t wear a mask, evil. I travel for mental health and can’t give up a year or I’ll regret it: freedom. You travel: evil.

I’m going to say, this pandemic polarized further what was already divided. I have relationships so strained in my life, I’m not sure they’ll ever recover. They will work, seize up, work, seize, then one of us will die. Not unlike how the virus wreaks havoc in some.

I’m not here to say whose side is freedom or whose is evil. Some of the things labeled evil no longer seem so evil to me.  Another Christian might kick me out of the abbey for that view.

Some years ask questions.

After 2004’s tsunami, my questions included: Is God the ultimate maestro? Is there a god? Or do I have to resign myself to unknowns? Can I live that way?

In 2020, my questions include, Do humans know how to make wisdom out of knowledge? Could we ever be selfless enough to save the race? Is there such a thing as good humanism? Are we really progressing? 

Some years answer. 

I don’t remember what answers I walked away with in 2004, except: I have a life long battle to live less for myself alone. I choose to believe in God and God chose to believe in humans even if we really ‘eff it up.

In 2020, the answers are as thin. I don’t think we’re progressing. I think the same global problems start within individuals. Until we work on our own salvations, we cannot can’t save the race entire. There is a God. It’s a wonder that God goes on loving bodies and souls in this condition. Not the condition of dying or being ugly or imperfect. The condition of being unable to love others as we love ourselves. 2020 may be the year we realize the narcissism within. Then again, we are pretty terrible at saving ourselves.

In Ireland, there’s a tradition at midnight to open all the doors and windows to let the old year out and the new year in. I’m part Irish. My heritage shows up in my grandmother’s nose, which I inherited. My husband is mostly Scotch-Irish. His nose is short and flat too. Our year had its griefs and blessings. He weathered COVID and contentions. We postponed a sabbatical, then a mini sabbatical. We celebrated a milestone anniversary and birthdays without much fanfare. What happened to us sickened me less than what has been happening to those people we work with in our vocations. 

Yet the doors and windows have started to open. I’m ready to throw up the sashes and bang the pots and wait. Good fortune, like salvation, is a work of patience.

A bit rundown here at the moment

I started an essay, forthcoming, on War On Drug’s song “Eyes to the Wind.” My faith is weary, not of Christ, but by fellow Christians. I’m a bit rundown here at the moment. At every turn, many fellow Christians have made a fight out of being kind to each other by masking and social distancing or of taking care of beat up fellow citizens who are BIPOC or LGBTQ.

I don’t why some Christians aren’t masking.
I don’t know why some Christians have attacked critical race theory and have a beef with wanting to care for Black lives.
I don’t understand the fear that drives some Christians to carry weapons (especially to church) but not masks. Or what makes them pledge a de facto allegiance to state capitalism while decrying socialist economics (both of these economic systems co-exist somewhere with democracy). I am flummoxed that their fear of being persecuted leads them to persecute.

I’m either falling into healthy spiritual silence or I am numb-frozen as to how to speak the truth in love. I think I’m in a state that fluctuates back and forth between the two. The former looks like the following:

A few years back, during college, my daughter had the words of Bishop Kallistos of Xelon inked on her. “Do not resent. Do not react. Keep inner stillness.”
Seems a good word to always keep before your eyes.
Speaking of ink and what to keep before your eyes.
Before the lockdown, I had the words of St. Anthony put on my left shoulder.

Always keep your eyes on God. My right shoulder has the Theotokos and Christ with “Still she persisted.”

wORKINGaRTs
Owner of wORKINGaRTs

This year I’ve been reading the works of Francois Fenelon. As I struggle with other Christians’ practices, I came across this:

“I am very sorry for the imperfections you find in human beings, but you must learn to expect but little from them; this is the only security against disappointment. We must receive from them what they are able to give us, as from trees the fruits that they yield. God bears with imperfect beings even when they resist His goodness. We ought to imitate this merciful patience and endurance. It is only imperfection that complains of what is imperfect. The more perfect we are, the more gentle and quiet we become toward the defects of others.”

Francois Fenelon

These are my spiritual thumb presses, think rock climbing.

Be still and know
that I am God. My peace
I leave with you. Not as the world gives…

___________

On a funnier note, I keep thinking of the line in Princess Bride when Westley says, “Everyone will be wearing them (masks) in the future. They’re so terribly comfortable.” Actually, masks are my beard right now. So warm. Also, a nice place to hide my RBF from strangers.

Things that are not weapons

Had a long talk with a student yesterday about why we think “white privilege” is a weapon. It’s a tool, akin to a wrench. You can either use the tool to fix a (flat?) or you can throw it at a human being. Or, if you are a skinny white girl in a tight corduroy skirt with loose lugnuts in the back of a tofu factory in an alley in Philadelphia, you can trust a person, hand over the tire iron that he gestures to take from you without getting within four feet, let him tighten your lugnuts and literally save your life. And you can’t even say thank you because he doesn’t speak English. But you now owe your life to him. Wherever he is, thank him. Our examination of privilege is just a tool. If you think someone is threatening you because they use it like a tool, as I pointed out to the student, that’s not because it’s a weapon. It’s because you felt exposed and vulnerable. It’s healthy to bear a little of that.

All Hallow’s Eve

Dear sister, I love you. I miss you.

This is for NRRB.

Ruth of the Bardo

Bardo: (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

In which Ruth speculates why converting to atheism has not spared her from limbo.

Or in which Ruth narrates her afterlife, or part of it, exploring what is unresolved.

Someone should have broken my finger, just to make sure I was dead before you nailed this box closed. 

Just kidding. I am dead. You know that. I know you know that.  It’s just darker in here than I expected. It’s night, but lucid. It’s a waking dream. I’m not nailed in here, so to speak, but I am tethered in a sense. It surprised me because the final hours of my life felt like I was flowing into nothingness. I couldn’t see. The light didn’t hurt any longer, even through my thin lids. Touches on my hand didn’t hurt. A caress up my arm did make me shiver as if someone ran a cold knife blade up my arm but didn’t cut me. A firm clasp on my hand barely registered. My nose worked only to feel an occasional prickle of very cold breeze wafting through. Sound was the last of the senses to go. When loud, dying muted the anguish caused by its  upper thresholds. When one person whispered, I could hear her clear as day. Every ebbing sensation confirmed my new belief that the only life I get was that one. 

So when my body slowed breaths to two a minute, something felt stronger than fainting. You know the whir in the ears, the thudding of the heart, the tunnel vision, blurriness and blackness of sight. All signs of fainting are like dying, but not. Dying is louder, firmer, more insistent.

Then my body quit. Nothing pushed me to suck draughts of air. My chest no longer thudded. Blood stopped doom-saying in my ears. I sensed you around me, but couldn’t channel your anguish. For the time being I rested. Breath free. Hilarious. As if. I couldn’t no longer hear my father hold his breath. I couldn’t feel the hands on my ankles and shoulders, as if a laying on of hands would anoint me for resurrection. Then I saw you all. I saw you as if I woke back up in the ether throughout the room. I had a period of multi-vision, seeing myself on the bed, seeing between your bodies as you clung to each other. I could put my fingers on your tears, but they didn’t feel wet. I put my fingers on my tongue. They lacked saltiness. I lay back down on the bed. So tired already. Welcome to eternal rest. I never expected all of that to transform into this: an afterlife. 

How did I get here? I’d given up my faith, God, Jesus, the Bible, and as we said while growing up, “You know, stuff like that.” I’d expected nothing. I wanted nothing. I’d traded the hope of nothing for streets of gold. I’d spent countless days in the dark, a fan running to block sound, trying not to smell because every sense hurt. This was effortless, painless, soul-sucking.  

Immediately, after my awareness returned, I noticed its transformation. A new consciousness. I remembered what I couldn’t put into complete thoughts about those final moments. Why didn’t hospice tell someone to rub a damp washcloth on my lips, not enough liquid to choke me but enough so my lips didn’t hurt? My lips hurt real bad. Thanks Napoleon. I guess I still have my sense of humor. I wonder if it is as dark as this crypt. I did not have that sense while I was dying. I felt like an onion. Yo, insights from the other side: It’s the dehydration, more than the hunger, that hurts. No wonder the lord thought vinegar and water from a sponge was a mercy. Plus, the gut. Slightly alcoholic vinegarized wine must have punctured the bilious gas in his gut. That sensation was a beast.  I’d have rather had a sword pierce my side too. At least my stoma burped a little, though not often enough. 

Doom and laughter competed in those last hours. Thanks for not leaving me alone. 

I heard one of you say, I hear that the last sense to go is hearing. I heard you laughing. I heard parts of Stranger Things. I heard my kids speaking much more loudly though usually not to me. I read once that each child leaves cells in his or her mother’s body. They leave bits of their stardust in mothers and younger siblings, cells that free-float. I’m second to youngest. Five of you left parts of yourself that died with me. The youngest got most of my consciousness. Is that the trade-off? We were closest spiritual kin and I left my bomb in her? Or is it like sands of the earth that float around?  That the sand in which I buried my kids on Myrtle Beach has a bit of Australia and the Sahara in it. I read that some years  the sand kicks up high and intercepts storms in the Atlantic, slowing storm systems. Amazing. 

I swear I felt my husband Brody when I could barely feel the touch of my sisters Moriah, Rebecca, Priscilla, Joanna, James, Hannah, or my friends who were all there. I sensed psyches, but Brody and my children? I felt and saw in the last remaining facility of touch and color and sound. Imagine going blind and deaf and being amputated all at once. Your body will not let you forget what mattered most acutely. Brody. King Fischer. Sparrow Mae.

This is how the body detaches. First, I was partially aware. I could still talk, still half-hear the TV. Someone laid blankets on my lap. I remembered some of the stumbling to and from the bathroom. Then I was laying in wet warm pools. Then it was cold while people lifted me gently, removed anything below my waist. Pulled up and down items that felt wet and warm, wet then cold, dry and nothing. I wanted to apologize. I was too tired to be humiliated. I wish I hadn’t put them to that trouble, but then again, they loved me, didn’t they? I felt love. It came out of them like energies. I lost all care for that thing called…. called… the word starts with a d. Darn? Damnation? Dove chocolate? Dignified.

The nicest compliment I could pay to dying is this: my children could clamor across my knees, the lights could be bright, all those siblings could gather into the room to sing, laugh and exclaim. Just a few weeks before, I’d needed blackout curtains, white noise, no pungent smells. Just pudding for every sense. 

I just want you to know, I was transformed, but not transfigured. I still am not convinced of heaven. I met a man here who says this is the bardo. What no one told me about the bardo is this: it exists. One doesn’t detangle from the body right off. It’s like being co-mingled, then handcuffed, then an uncomfortable lingering with people you don’t know at a party in your favor. If you’re fortunate, you get a few days near the corporeal self that defined your “life.” I did. I got to sleep in the same home. At night, the family left the windows open. I felt a kind of cold that had nothing to do with fingers, toes or shivering. It was just what my sister called “dispassion.” Songs trembled in me. Crying awakened desire for something unnamed. I couldn’t feel sad any longer. Laughing also created longing, but one that felt more … me. What is “me?”

What are words? 

The veil that separated us is what my Scottish brother-in-law called a “thin place.” I heard utterances. Syllables that once made sense: “L-uh-v yooo,” “goodness,” “mercy,” “shadow,” “soul,” and “sorry.” I’d sit up or wriggle a bit. After I died, for the first time in weeks you left me in natural quiet, so turbulent. I felt presences coming in and out, feeling hands on the old blanket of my body, smoothing it. Water baptizing my itchy scalp. The smell of clean. The smell of my body now that cancer could no longer rot it actively. The smell of fruit and trees, like my sister’s soap. 

“Daddy, how do you spell frankincense?” My mind kept asking for some reason. It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s spelled H-i-p-p-y-s-t-a-n-k. The word god also came to mind. 

But, you aren’t here, god. I think I was right. I haven’t crossed the river. No bedazzled Saint Pete awaits me. 

Sorry, dad. I know you were named for him. Not God. We aren’t Hispanic or that would mean you were named Hey-soos. 

Also other songs. Empty chairs and empty tables. 

Julia, sleeping sand, silent cloud, touch me/ So I sing a song of love, Julia/Hum, hum, hum, calls me.

I found when I sang to myself, I could scooch out of my lifeless body, like I’d posted bond. Oh how I set myself free from its claustrophobic confines. That might be counted as transcendent. Transform: to change forms. Transfigure: to cross into the spiritual figure of one’s material self. Imagine that spiritual otherness as a way of being, not a way of believing. But I speak of what I do not know, what I cannot understand. 

What I know is this. I heard many confessions in the next forty-eight hours. Loud and clear, I heard this of you confessing, crying, and creeping away. I willed some of you into my wake room, but you couldn’t hear. 

I am here now, tethered to my coffin, and need to ask the odd souls I sometimes see putzing around this place. Is this heaven or hell?

“Tis the bardo, sweetums,” said a raggedy man. I took courage and woohoo-ed at his emaciated form gimping about the lawn. I did not follow up.

What is the bardo? I know that the sound of nails in a wooden coffin is the closest sound to hell as anything.

There were so many pounding nails. The wood resonated and echoed. Some of the hits shook little and were quiet, but still, so annoying. Like children. Then adults joined in. I saw the sun through the slats. The nailing seems to lock me in my body for a bit, as if to remind me of my fate. Skilled hits. Straight, swift, four hits or less before moving on. And unpracticed hits, six or ten, and very light taps. 

Those nails felt cold and hard but the sounds felt uncertain, regretful, uncertain. Can sounds vibrate on an emotional level, transfigured from a material form? It was so cold outside of the nailers. Cold. Hot. Confusing, as if. As if… What did I not understand about the afterlife? What is the bardo?

A Beast In Need Of An Enlargened Heart

I’m kicking myself right now for not stopping the audio book I just finished and writing a point I took from it: to write well you have to trust the consciousness behind a text (or its agenda, at least). It’s empathy’s version of a “willing suspension of disbelief.” For most readers, not the elite or jaded type, it’s pulling from our personhood to accept a gift from the writer. If I’m to trust like that, the consciousness behind the text might extend the same, make the writing a gift.

When I read poetry, I want poems I can take home to the kids. I’ve had to unlearn how I wrote verse, full of cryptic allusions and imagery, and free it a self aggrandizing cynical persona who resorts to cheap debauchery. I have to work on wisdom and the conscience of the persona speaking.

Now that I’ve begun writing more narrative works, I’ve come to sense that I write from that same cynical point of view. I’m looking at my stories and realizing that there isn’t a heart there. I’m writing like I’m the Grinch.

I’m writing like the Grinch, because I am the Grinch. I need an enlargened heart. For instance, consider the following:

I’m coming up on my 45th birthday. The same day is the 3rd anniversary of my sister’s death. In the middle of COVID. After four years of amplifying chaos, after four years watching the explosion of chaos, niggardly ideals against poor and marginalized people — they just want a life like mine and are working for it– as well as a cult around a personality. The adoration of strongmen,. White radicalization. A subtle pushing of women back into a smallness where they can be controlled. That is my cynicism in a snapshot.

My father-confessor reminded me recently that we “champion people, not causes.”

What if I wrote that same paragraph this way?

I don’t mind turning 45. I don’t even mind that I now share a birthday with my sister’s death day. I find the sorrow achingly beautiful. I’m more able to be real and vulnerable with the people I serve. I mind that my sister’s death day utterly changed my family. I am grieving the loss of some intimacies. I value new ones built though. It’s true that death will forever change some relationships) I hate the anger that found a habitat to grow then. I hate the contempt that bloomed since, especially because we cannot see each other face to face, so we aren’t treating each other as whole humans. I grieve that the social climate had conditioned us all to be on a hair trigger. I react against the people who adore the personality that has spent the past four years feeding this divisiveness. I resent that some people justify it. I mourn that we were raised in a culture that likes strong men, that thinks cowboy-culture is noble. I’m trying to stay meek and sad, not brittle and vitriolic, but it’s hard not to self-protect. I’ve seen the best of us lose conviction and give in to worst in humanity- full of passionate intensity without conviction.

——

Goethe wrote “In every work of genius we recognize our rejected thoughts.”

Why do I reject my thoughts and then love them a second time when the writer shows them to me with sunlight on them. My seed, dormant in the cold cynicism, finds warmth ,and my heart enlargens. I read for this. I want to write stories for this reason. A well-written character does more for my character and spirituality than a thousand sermons. (Apologies to my dear husband, my spiritual father, and many clergy I know.)

If I’m to write well, I have to crack the glass and melt the metal around my heart. To write a good character, I have to develop a good character. For me, I have to deal with the anger that energizes me. I have to transform the anger, aim it towards my own proclivities, and not be blinded by them.

I read in a book just now that anger, resentfulness, and vengefulness may be dealt with by praying that prayers of the ones who offend me will be the prayers by which I am saved. (St. Dorotheas).

If I chase this idea down the most difficult, honest path, I have to ask for Trump supporters who pray to pray for my soul and imagine I will be saved because of them. I’m over here holding up my hands like “is that possible?” But then again, Flannery O’Conner (who really complicated violence, grace, and race) instructs me that, “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.” If the violence of making a cult of that sort of man (Trump) also presents hope for all of our salvation, theirs and mine, I suppose I will have to trust being prayed for by Trump supporters is a cross I must carry. I must die on it, if I hope to live.

I’m not jazzed by this angle on the work I need to do on my character. I feel a bit like the beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

Works Alluded To

Zadie Smith critiqued David Foster Wallace with some love and grace in this book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

Vernon Re-d’s lyrics in “Cult of Personality” (Living Color)

Right now I can’t stop reciting lines of Yeat’s “The Second Coming”

Mother Katherine Weston’s book Illumining Shame Anger and Forgiveness is a short, invaluable read.

Flannery O’Connor’s essay on “The Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable” is go-to on craft and the Cross

Heart Hoarder

We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed.

I have not lived with enough of my life on the line.

My name is Maria and I’m a hoarder. I hoard all my creature comforts.–My closet is overstuffed with clothes that belong to the poor. My pantry with food that belongs to poor. My book shelves, my nightly sleep, the soft full flesh of my body bespeaks what I hoard for myself.

I am not living simply. I’m not living as one who has no place to lay her head, as one who draws children with an open heart, as one draws to herself in the night to pray, as one who shows up for the outsiders. The lectionary always challenges me. Today’s was I Cor. 6:1-10. Particularly verses 3-6.

When have I born stripes? I’ve not walked in the risky demonstrations. When have I been accused of too much patience? Certainly my own parenting and my heart reveals to me that I am mostly angry, impatient, and over eager for things to turn out my way.

When have I really faced great need? One or two weeks of life with no food is nothing compared to what my friends have faced. I’ve never taken all my young children, my bills and bank statements to give an account that I need SNAP benefits. I’ve not sat, like fellow seminarian lives or the families who came to eat with us at my childhood church or at Raise and Restore, with impatient children who cannot understand why they must sit under glaring bulbs in rooms with old toys and magazines.

While stress has marked itself in my life, it’s always been bearable, not so costly that I have chemo every few weeks, have painful injections, have siblings with crippling mental illnesses.

I’ve never been imprisoned for doing the right thing. I’ve never been shot at with canisters of pepper spray or rubber bullets or endured a sound cannon.

I keep making excuses about why I’ve given up on the idea of night prayer. That must change.

I’ve been lax on my fasting because already my health demands such restricted options. Yet, I’m not starving. I look like a traditionally build American woman. (I have curves.)

I must go deeper into my faith and yet, like the good examples of saints living and dead, I must do so without giving offense.

In this day and age, when everything is outrage. Especially cheap speech, which this post may be. Aren’t many of my blog posts? There’s only one path clear to me. Write stories. Write how I’m working on living repentance when I encounter the words of the Bible like this. I must live the gospel like Dorothy Day, Saint Maria of Paris, Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr, Saint Alexander (Schmorrell), Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Fr. Moses Berry, and dozens more, both living and dying.

How are you living for resurrection? Who provides a sound example? Let’s converse? Email me your stories, so I can go deeper. What principles do you live by to go deeper and yet bring as much peace, as little offense, without compromise?