Today’s Prayer Journal

Want to know what scares me most? What makes me fear I will fail at, spectacularly? How to selflessly love a person who hates God or professes ambivalence. People like that and I think so differently but are made of the same stuff: the imprint of human nature. We all want love. Especially when we are suffering.

I met a kid this week, a referral from another teacher, who asked me to reach out to a particularly isolated student. I gave the kid a call and found myself facing this fear even as I agreed to each week and just listen as the kiddo faced all the coming treatments for the medical particularities of his life-threatening, extremely painful condition.

I found myself praying, Dear God, let me love like this– insert the words of Michael Rennier:

“love is violence that is freely chosen and endured on behalf of another.”

The kid sounded like John B McLemore from the podcast S-Town.  When someone sounds like that, I ask if they’ve listened to the podcast and what they think. I do this out of an instinctual trust in my hero Flannery O’Connor’s belief in the place of violence on the road to change. The way to redemption is usually through the violence of the cross(roads).

In her book Mystery and Manners O’Connor shares an anecdote about St. Cyril, which I take as reasonable justification for the risk of having a John B McLemore-like person enter into John’s actual world in S-Town. I think they must pass by the dragon.

“St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”
― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

What I fear is that I’m neither perceptive of where grace may intrude in our violent physical world nor how we will respond from the center of our hardened inner lives. I don’t want want any more struggle after four years of watching my sister with cancer fight, seem to win, fight, lose faith, fight, hope, fight, die. I’ve become brittle. I feel like I might break with any more struggle. I didn’t have the cancer either. I try to tell myself there are situations so much harder than my own. “Buck up, little camper,” I self-talk.  So, what are my grounds for prescribing hard medicine for those losing faith while they struggle? I don’t know if I have the inner life, prayer or faith of Flannery O’Connor, who wrote:

“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”

I don’t trust myself even more after reading that because I’ve never had the transparency of soul to admit that to God. I am trusting in the saintliness of a person like her, who lived with and died of Lupus while writing like I think God loves and keeping her faith. I’m trusting in such wisdom as she revealed in this insight from Of Mystery and Manners,

“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 violences which precede and follow them.”

I worry that the imperctible intrusion of grace may remain when I prescribe violence to illuminate that kind of internal violence. I worry that I’m fueling the darkness that comes with suffering. But I am risking it all. I want to prod and poke at the professed hatred, disdain and general sense of despair at humanity. When I heard that kiddo talk, as I’ve heard others do, I heard him leveraging himself onto a ledge, up onto a height, whereby he thinks the whole of the human story is visible to himself. He thinks he’s the prophet, the seer, the wise one. And what he believes he sees makes him hate humanity. He doesn’t hate himself, of course. –In that way, he is like the flip side of a human coin. On the other side of such a character as him is that of the mother in Brothers Karamozov who loves all of humanity so much but hates taking care of her wheel-chair-bound daughter, who seems selfish and demanding because her handicap.

Both he and the mother are driven to zealotry. He hates the idea of religion. She loves the idea of it. They’ve chosen their beliefs, however rationale or supported. They have made a system of their ideas.

How they confirm what O’Connor says when she says,

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

The zealots of atheism and aggressive apathy, the fundamentalists of religion, and peopel like me who just doesn’t want to leave her safe zone for the foreseeable future, see by beliefs that light the way with hard, flickering shadows.

In his article about O’Connor and her faith,  Michael Rennier, “Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Way of Violence,'” writes:

We must not close our ears and lose the true meaning of the words that O’Connor writes, as Robert Giroux bemoans about the critical reviews of Wise Blood, “They all recognized her power but missed her point.” The point isn’t the circus of violence, or cleverness for the sake of drawing attention to her talent, or even to delight the reader with a gothic twist. The point is to rub mud in our eyes so we might see.

Reminder. God uses mud. spit. blood. crosses. violence. suffering. struggle. All of which I care to avoid because I prefer not suffering. It’s sad that I prescribe struggle when I want to avoid it myself.

 

My sister, Lydia, shared this song with me, since I’ve been over-digesting Jason Isbell’s new song “Anxiety” and both of these hit me right in the soul-hole. This is “Elephant” and some of the bits are just so literal compared to what Naomi’s story is.

 

 

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Lenten Prayer Journey: Four days to go

Yes. I know, my Western Christians had their shrove and ashes Tuesday and Wednesday. We Eastern believers will prostrate before members of our parish Sunday night and ask “Forgive me, a sinner?” and give back, “God forgives and I forgive.”

I need this every year. I have a few people in my life who would love love love me to confess all my offenses towards them specifically. My head and heart accuse me of others too. Social media alone affords me plenty of ways to offend. (I need to stick to my rules about remembering my friends’ pages are THEIR living rooms and not to pick fights with their guests by replying to sticky political posts. I need to remember that my beloved community is super diverse and I should not tempt.bait.ensnare with political posts. I should not write other’s heartbreaking stories without giving them love and care.) I spent last night’s therapy session letting my therapist look into the loop of self-accusation, possible accusations my beloved community could cook up about me and about the way my brain won’t shut down.

At the end, when I spoke of my longing to return to my mystical roots, of the many heart-rending burdens I carry for others, of my fears of epic failures by being a judgy, strict, demanding parent, of my never-being-good-enough fears as a clergy wife, as a lover, as a daughter, sister friend, of my longing to be a full time writer and to keep a prayer journal rather than do the Psalter Sisters this year…. After all that, my therapist said, “I know what you need to do. Do you know what you need to do?”

Keep a prayer journal.

Here I begin, a few days before Lent. I think I will read a bit about prayer from whomever “gets” it – mostly Flannery O’Connor, Saint Theresa of Calcutta, Elder Porphorios, quotes from The Plough.

Day One began hard.

The prayer below comes to mind today after “listening” to my friend Priscilla who learned this week that she has an extraordinarily rare and dangerous condition. It’s rendered her blind in one eye with limited mobility and a frightening prognosis. I have so little to bring to her. My autoimmune junk feels like cotton candy compared to her last dozen years. Two days ago, I talked to a mother with throat cancer who has a trach and feeding tube. I shared about my sister. Today, one of my colleagues asked me to call a student and when I did, I just opened it up with, “I heard things are hard and you’re facing a lot of impossible crap.” I had no idea what kind. He trusted me enough to tell me he has  Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. I googled the Mayo Clinic info on it as he talked.
Yeah, and pardon my french, but his shit is REAL.
I sought a quote to kick off tonight, besides one from Saint Theresa of Calcutta I used further on here. Here’s what came to mind, because my faith feels very worn, like it’s being sanded down. Sometimes, I wonder about it.
“Dear God, I don’t want to have invented my faith to satisfy my weakness. I don’t want to have created God to my own image as they’re so fond of saying. Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.”― Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal
When I got off the phone with my student, I sought my husband, a priest, who was out doing priestly stuff. So I just went to the kitchen and cried and practiced my dysfunctional food issues. I fixed myself a salad the side of a salad bar.
And I questioned God aloud.
“Why do you keep me sending “incurables” for whom I cannot trade one year of my life, one iota of my health, to fix? You seem to want me just to listen. They need to be heard. They need a companion through this valley of the shadow of what-the-eff-is-happening-to-me-and-where-is-God?
I was miffed at my colleague. Why ask me, of all people on our team, to call this kid? My sister just died. I’m in therapy. It’s all I can do to drag my butt out of bed every morning. Do you know the last time I needed ten hours of sleep a night and skipped morning runs? Years ago, about the time I prayed Mother (Saint) Theresa’s prayer: “God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” Be cautious about that prayer. That prayer will get answered if you mean it and it.will.eff.you.up.
I cried for a long time after I hung up the phone because of what he told me. Most of those details are his. Google the condition and sit with it, if you want to. For the most part, I’m now in too deep because I said I would call him every week and let him scream into the void. I would be the ears.  This means I have to hold the deets (details for those not into slang) secret. But there were three things he mentioned that I think he believed would keep me from talking to him again, only I’d been through those with Naomi.
1. Considering assisted suicide– he thought about “the bullet” after he found out but his friends wouldn’t let him give up. My sister did not want an undignified death. (All death is flipping undignified, even the “good” ones. Death is not what we were made for.)
2. A broken hand. He broke his hand in the shower soon after he found out last year. He punched the wall so hard it broke. I kept quiet. I had my own reasons to find this extraordinarily personal.
3. Loss of faith. More on that in a minute.
I kept quiet while talked. Good because he “doesn’t suffer fools” he said. Fools are usually me, opening my trap.
Then he asked what I thought. I said,
My sister died on my 42 birthday last November.
I buried my sister. I mean I helped wash and prepare her body. I helped lift her into the wood box. I helped removed the medical equipment from her. I filled out the death certificate. She was 33. She has a husband and two small children. Before that, I interviewed her for two years to document her life. The week after we came home, I lost my crap in the shower and just punched the wall over and over and over until my hand hurt.
I couldn’t touch that side of my fist to anything for weeks. I know what a fracture feels like. I’ve been running for over ten years and I’ve had minor and major fractures. I fractured part of my hand. It’s still tender and I’m months out.
I said I could call and listen to him. Once a week. I could text anytime it gets dark. I asked if he had other support. I thanked him for being authentic with me.
So, yeah, when I hung up it all hit home. And I cried a long enough to carry that lingering salt feeling in my eyes and soul today.
I guess this is what God calls me to. To be present inside of the dark rooms that others experience. To feel what parts of it I can, alongside the person suffering.
I said to him, “I don’t know if you are praying person, but if it’s okay, I will pray for you.”
He said he quit church a long time ago. Like Naomi, I thought. Sometimes he prayed, he said.
I said maybe he doesn’t have to pray. Maybe this is the part I do for him. I thought of Met. Anthony Bloom being told he doesn’t have to pray, that his spiritual father would do that for him. I thought I could carry that part. He said he didn’t need anyone to carry any part. He just needed to be heard. But, honestly, I think there might be a place for the despairing person to let another have faith for them.
I hold prayer dear, dearer to my soul than any other act of love and mysticism. Well, except writing, which is often confession and not prayer, but sometimes it is prayer.
The thing is, I am daring to think I’ve been pitched into a place like Saint Theresa of Calcutta, where one must bear witness and care for the wounds of the incurables and one’s faith grows dark. It’s not absence. It’s blindness  because of this finite, dark mortality.
Oh, I hold my God dear. I’ve been blessed to have visions and a deep spirit of faith all my life. But as I listened to Naomi and pushed her with my inquiries for a few years, I felt my sense of mystical expansiveness contract. I’ve become less … I’m still seeking the word for this. All I know is that, something contracted in me. It’s not faithlessness, but it’s fearful, valley of the shadow of doubt stuff.  It’s dark in this part of the world. Pitch black, wherein the whole world collapses on itself.
It’s dark in here, I told my husband when he came home some hours later. It’s about tightness in the chest of my soul, like doubt. I’m fine with doubt, but not faithlessness.
I’m fine with not knowing, but as a person with a strong trust in the Mysteries, I struggle with this brittle, taut, seemingly fragile state of things.
I look forward to Great Lent when I will keep a prayer journal and will ask God to inhabit all of my prayers, writings, and ponderings. I hope that the hurt will relax and that the rest, quiet, and silence will result in healing.
But then there’s this. I cannot leave my student to his darkness alone. So I promised to call once a week and listen. I promised to let him decide what to talk about and that we’d shoot the shit as needed. And I have a goal to keep a conversation rolling with my friend. And then there’s the daily long long long ever growing list of people I pray for.
So, my therapist thought I should just work on parts of me in the dark. But I go back to John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.