Monday, August 29, 2005

Interrupted discipline

I was never any good at the discipline of exercise. I am basically a quitter when things get painful or tiresome. I'd always quit working out before I came within a mile of the endorphins, so I never got the reward to encourage me to come back for more.

But I do know something about other disciplines, and any interrupted discipline is hard to get back into, once you've stopped. Blogging is no exception. For an entire week our Community was in silent retreat. No talking, no phone calls, no newspapers, no email… We essentially lived an enclosed monastic life for a week. The purpose: to eliminate any worldly distractions… to give each Sister the space to be with God in her own way. A lovely theory. However, that much silence turned all my thoughts inward, especially the dark ones. There was no outward way to express (translate: get rid of) any judgments, irritation, anger or discomfort I might be feeling about anything or nothing, so it all convened inside. It was not a pleasant experience to be hostess to a committee of irrational feelings that were ricocheting off the insides of my stomach. But the experience of going through rather than opting out had to be similar to finally feeling the endorphins. I got over it. I was peaceful toward the end of the week. Then it was time to talk again, write again. Now I had nothing to say. Absolutely nothing. I could barely participate in a coherent conversation. Was there a point?

One of these days I'm going to learn how not to swing like a pendulum. But not today.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Tunnel's End

An overwhelming job divided cannot conquer. It may try to divide us for a time, but not forever.

It is Friday night. Tomorrow the city Sisters will arrive and Long Retreat will begin with Vespers in the refurbished chapel. There are new seat cushions in every chair, the slate floor was washed at least three times, windows are clean and wood is oiled. It is a bit dark because we have no electricity, so it is not perfect, but it is holy space again and that is enough.

The old convent has been thoroughly cleaned, stripped down and rearranged: new plumbing installed, trash hauled again and again and again to the dumpster. (The dumpster people have been called a half dozen times; their promises to pick up… still unkept.) So that is not perfect either, but still… enough. St. Cuthbert's has also been cleaned and rearranged, cozy sitting areas laid out for reading, meditation or quiet contemplation. The refectory is clear of all the potatoes and garlic and seeds which were drying on the big tables. It stands waiting for delicious meals, healthy organic vegetarian meals from the burgeoning garden. Fresh cheese cools in the fridge. Freshly harvested tomatoes, squash, greens, beans, potatoes and herbs are tucked on windowsills, in the cold room, in the root cellar. All has been made tidy and beautiful.

We are tired, but it is a good tired. One of accomplishment and joy. There was always light at the end of the tunnel.
Now even I can see it.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Hit the Ground Running

Even when I anticipate something like this happening, I'm never really prepared. I got a day and a half to settle in (one spent cleaning the bathroom) and then hit the ground like a greyhound after the tin rabbit. No time to adjust to the new schedule, new Office prayers, readings: everything familiar enough to be misleading, different enough to trip me up when I assume I know what's coming next. I find myself in a state of chronic dis-ease.

Long Retreat begins at the end of this week and everything here is in upheaval. The old convent, recently vacated by two Sisters who have moved to assisted living/nursing facilities is a mammoth glory hole. Not only deep cleaning, but tedious going through, sorting out, throwing away is required, since four of the city Sisters will be staying there. We've been at it since Monday (no Sabbath this week) and empty boxes and giant black garbage bags litter the hallways. It was a good month-long job crammed into five days. The small chapel, unused except for storage of garden tools for the past two years, has been opened up and is being cleaned out… another task requiring more time than we have.

As each day counts down the pressure mounts. We are too few battling the clutter and dirt on too many fronts. Everyone is already exhausted, but nobody is (as yet) cutting corners. One Sister struggles to make cheese. It is her thing. She wants fresh cheese for the Sisters to enjoy on Long Retreat. But every sink is full, every large pot in use. There's nothing to cook supper in, no place for anyone to wash a dish or their hands. Tension is thick, nerves are frayed and tempers flare up like fatwood. We end up stepping on each other's toes and stomping on each other's feelings. Another Sister arrives on the scene in the middle of my second meltdown of the morning. "What's wrong?" she asks sympathetically. I have no energy to go into it. "I's been a bad morning!" I growl. I don't want her sympathy, I want her to change her clothes and haul garbage. She doesn't even get the day and a half.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Other People's Dirt

Whenever I move, one of the first things I do (besides unpack at least enough to make my bed) is clean the bathroom. I like metal taps to glisten, no unsightly rings in tub or toilet, baseboards free from dust, medicine cabinets free from scum. ( Possibly the result of too many Mr. Clean commercials?) The truth is it will never look like this again as long as I live here, but that is not the point. The point is: other people's dirt. My first conscious memory of doing this was when I moved into a trailer with two other girls my third year of college. Someone had moved out and I was the replacement roommate. I had only had dorm roommates before, with a bath down the hall (cleaned by a cleaning crew), so this was my first real encounter with other people's dirt. I spent the whole afternoon cleaning their bathroom. I even bought a new shower curtain. EEEuew… other people's mildew! The other roommates returned and were suitably impressed, and life went on. But I've found that folks are not always as receptive to my cleaning sprees. They can assume a kind of guilt-induced snottiness, as if I were deliberately pointing out certain flaws in their housekeeping abilities. Not true! I just like the dirt to be mine. And I realize that sharing a bathroom with other women puts me in a tough spot: the dirt is often not mine. But at least from now on some of it is mine, and that's all I need to know. Besides, cleaning it once down to the bare scum-free surfaces lets me know just how hard I have to work the next time. Not to mention all the interesting information I have gleaned from this last episode: toothpaste over time will etch glass. Now who knew that?

Friday, August 12, 2005


You hear about grace all the time in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. And, no, I'm not talking about what you say before meals. Different grace. God's grace: the unfathomable capacity of an unknowable entity to grant undeserved blessings… that kind of grace. Lots of "uns" there—simply because it's too big to comprehend.

Anyway, here's the really hard thing about grace... especially God's. You can't earn it. You can't seek it. Well, you can, but it seems that it's never where you look for it. It appears somewhere else. (I think God likes saying "Boo! Surprise!") One nice thing about grace is it keeps popping up in unexpected places, and so if you are on the lookout for it you may be able to recognize it.

Most of us don't understand the grace of God (I don't) for a couple of reasons: it isn't fair. We think we want life to be fair. We also want God to kill the other guy for us, punish him for his sins, but forgive us for ours. So when a good guy gets cancer we say "Hey! Not fair! God! You made a crummy world!" But, that same cancer could be an opportunity for extreme contact with God. What do we know? Diddly-squat.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


I was thinking about the word survival and all the unspoken baggage that word entails. In my own lifetime I have "survived" a rich assortment of ugly things: alcoholic parents, child molestation, divorce—my parents' and my own, rape, suicide attempts, (um yes, that's plural), car wrecks, abuse, betrayal, the World Trade Center attack. And these are only the things I know about… how many other near-misses have I breezed through with no indication whatsoever?

Given similar circumstances, what makes one person survive more emotionally intact than another? Why will one rise from her ashes fighting mad, another cringing in fear? Once betrayed, some never trust again, while others go on to be eternally vulnerable.

Is it the gene pool or the luck of the draw? Is it a pact we made with God before we were born to learn something as yet unexplored? I am one of the lucky ones. At this point in my life nobody's out to get me, I have people who love me, any major physical problems have been patched up with medications, and I wake up each day wanting to live. There were times when this wasn't true, sure. (which may explain those suicide attempts) But that was then, this is now.

Survivorship places unspoken responsibilities on the one surviving: if you survive trying to kill yourself you have to ask why. Was I crying for attention? Was my attempt just a major botch job? Or… was there a saving intervention from some outside source (yes, I mean God). If I answer yes to that, it only leads to more questions. Good questions. Questions that help me survive the next ugly thing to come along.

Overcoming the bad things that happen to me is one thing. I can feel pretty smug about myself. Living when someone else dies is another. Now the questions require way more thoughtful answers: Since I don't deserve the gift of time, didn't earn it, can't pay for it, what can I do to make it worthwhile? For me, big questions sometimes need small answers… one small answer at a time. Every new day gives me another chance to make good on the gift. Some days I can.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

More than much fine gold.

I was recently in touch with a dear friend from my past. We only get to talk from time to time, and he is often in a funk about his life. He worries about his spirituality mainly, but it's all related: physical, emotional, spiritual. This man survived one of those childhoods that can beat a person into the ground: erratic dysfunctional parents who used their three children as pawns in the wargames; two of the kids bounced around to foster homes, trial reconciliations, more foster homes. In between the periods of hell were brief glimpses of normality, but those were always short-lived. Still a child, he finally left home to make his own way in the world. He carried an empty toolbag for relating to that world.

His childhood was rotten. His life since has been an uphill climb. He is often depressed and feels he has nothing to show for himself. Any achievements are viewed with a cynical eye and any failures are magnified to damning proportions.

I know him to be one of the kindest men I ever met, someone who knew he had limitations but was willing to work hard to overcome them. He was honest, hardworking, loving. He had in a word: character.

Character—what does that mean today? How can we acknowledge it as a valued asset in an ordinary person when we overlook the lack of it in our superheroes? How do I communicate to this man that he is "more precious than gold… more than much fine gold"? I have no answers. Only prayers.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

walking on water

Today was my last Sunday to venture out to "parish churches" and once again a thoughtful sermon challenged (and stayed with) me. Taking the Gospel of Peter's disastrous walk/stumble/sink on water, the preacher gave a variation on the theme of imitation vs skill. She spoke of her own experience with floating vs sinking at summer camp… how she had tried hard to imitate her friend the floater, with about the same results as Peter's.

Likewise, Peter, trying to imitate Christ, was a sinker not a walker. Then she went on to examine the differences between imitation and the real thing where faith is concerned; how you can't watch someone else's faith and automatically be able to see those same results in yourself.

Somewhere towards the end I got sidetracked. I was trying to imagine a universe where imitation would work… what that would be like. Decided it would take too much brain power to imagine, so went back to listening to the sermon. So much of life requires our actually experiencing a thing to get it. Yet we do watch. We do imitate. I was once told that "fake it til you make it" was a valid way to approach something out of my comfort zone. And sometimes it worked. But it worked not so much because of the faking aspect as the believing aspect that I could and would expand that zone. It all comes back to the importance of belief. Jesus was constantly chiding his friends "why didn't you believe? Where was your faith?" and constantly reminding others that their faith was the very key to their healing. Good information. Why can't we get it?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Mystery everywhere

Every time I do something "brand new" (like this whole blogging thing) I find out more about my subterranean personality. Mostly I discover things I already knew and would rather not think about… my insufferable arrogance for one, but occasionally it's good stuff: like the delight in building a different and stronger relationship with someone who loves someone I love.

Case in point: my daughter-in-law. By reading her blog, I feel like a fly on the wall at their house, seeing a whole new dimension of her and of their lives I would never have known. Technology, in and of itself, has distanced us as a species: we isolate behind our computer screens rather than get stranded in the chaotic messy fray of life lived in each other's faces. We don't tell each other our deepest dreams and ideals because they look pretty silly next to our everyday behaviors.

Yet the same technology that allowed us to escape has found a way to connect us. There's mystery everywhere. This is just another example.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Interpretation and Nuance

It never ceases to amaze me how a Gospel reading can be interpreted in so many ways, with so many nuances. We didn't have a priest to celebrate yesterday morning, so all the Sisters went out to church at various parishes in the city. A friend of mine was preaching; in fact we had discussed his sermon earlier in the week, so I thought I knew what he was going to say. But I was wrong. (I am often wrong; at my age I'm grateful that embarrassment is not so keen as it once was.)

The Gospel reading was a familiar favorite: the feeding of the five thousand. When we first talked about the sermon, he planned to focus on ordinary people faced with a daunting task. He was going to point out that, like those disciples, some people are willing to take the first step toward an overwhelming problem, trusting that God will somehow provide the resources. Five loaves of bread and two dinky fish: over five thousand hungry mouths to feed: definitely a daunting task.

The point was also that the disciples weren't just onlookers to this miracle, but active participants. He had a specific man in mind as an example: a legend in his feeding program: an ordinary guy who cared so much about feeding the hungry that he stayed up at night inventing new ways to spread peanut butter more efficiently, to cut hotdogs in exactly one-half inch pieces. Not that this guy was anal retentive (which he may have been) but because he cared so much. This same man could be a royal pain, but that didn't alter the fact that he was in the middle of the action, participating in the miracle.

The sermon I heard mentioned most of those points, but it was not the thrust. Yesterday the focus was on Christ's commission to FEED the hungry. Our job was to keep doing this, even when the statistics pointed to an endless, thankless succession of hungry mouths. The focus shifted from inviting ordinary people to take the first step in faith, to a reminder that the church (the body of Christ) had been commissioned by The Man Himself, to keep feeding the hungry. So many interpretations, so many nuances. All variations of the same Gospel truth.