Monthly Archives: March 2012

The first few mornings in Peru, the roosters next door woke me up. There was what sounded like a field full of them next door, a whole tribe, saluting the sun hours before it would arrive. We were up at five and off to the chapel for morning prayers. Then back to bed — lucky for me, it took me a long time to realize that 5-6am was supposed to be private prayer time in our rooms, not nap time — and up again for Mass at 6.

I loved that chapel. On the apse was a fresco, all in blue and white, of Jesus ascending to the Father, the earth already too far behind to be seen; but on another wall was a crucifix, large as life and almost as bloody. When I came to Brother Pedro on Good Friday, crushed and bewildered by I-didn’t-know-what, with no words to explain even if I could have spoken the language by then, he told me to tell it to Jesus — not the Jesus in the fresco, with his clean white robes, but the other one.

After Mass, breakfast — I savored those rolls and the cheese and the overripe fruit, and Lord, the terrible instant coffee — and the Rosary, which before long I proudly learned to say in Spanish. Then an hour or two of chores before our first session of Adoration.

A lot can happen in two hours of sitting still. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to burst into tears, quiet or loud; or to suddenly blossom into a grin, goofy or beatific, lit from the inside; or to jerk up suddenly from sleep, slamming the prayer book in his lap and then looking around sheepishly. Brother Pio always fell asleep, and always snored.

Lunch, more Adoration, more chores; time for recreation, time to visit the neighbors, time to say Mass at the village down the road; time for Vespers, time for study, time for Compline, time for sleep. A week in, and I was sick with longing for anything familiar. A month in, and I never wanted to be anywhere else. Three months, and I was ready to come down from the mountaintop.

And here I am again, deep in the valley, four(!) years later. For three months after those three months in Peru I walked several inches above the ground, knowing I was changed forever.

Was I changed? Am I? Is it possible to lose what so real a God has given? Or maybe the giving, like Creation, is not a single event, but something that never stops: the memory dissolving endlessly in the abyss of my heart, spreading its colors, miles below every ripple.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A man is walking along the beach with an old friend. Suddenly he realizes two things: he’s dead, and the old friend is Jesus. And it isn’t just any beach: it’s his life. He can see his footprints from different times in his life — little baby footprints, adolescent footprints, adult footprints, old man footprints, all his.

But there’s another set beside his — even at times in his life when he was alone. He turns to Jesus and Jesus says: Yes, my child, those are my footprints. I was always walking beside you.

But he looks further ahead — at the time when his father died, when his best friend betrayed him, when he was out of work with five children to feed — and he’s troubled, because at these times, one set of footprints disappears. So he looks at Jesus again. Jesus says: My child — those are the times when I was carrying you.

The man is comforted. But then he looks further ahead, to his life’s moment of greatest crisis, the moment when he questioned everything, even his faith, even his sanity — and sees the footprints come to an abrupt halt; and instead there are two round indentations in the sand, side by side. He turns and looks at Jesus a third time.

And Jesus says, My child: that is where I dropped you on your ass.

I was going to try to write something uplifting, I really was. Well, I find this story uplifting. Best I got tonight. One hell1 of a Lent.

1 Or, I guess, Purgatory.

…from a video we watched in my support group last night:

There’s nothing you can do that will make God love you any less than He already does. But also — fellow perfectionists and Pelagians take note — there’s nothing you can do that will make God love you any more than He already does.

Not even if you give all your clothes to the poor and say a thrillion rosaries. So you will have to think of a different reason for doing those things. Or possibly just let yourself relax a little bit.

A quick excerpt, heavily paraphrased, from my phone conversation with Fr. T. the other night.

You think this is coming from yourself, but it’s not. What would you do if you were at work and someone came up to you and said, “You’re no good at your job. You’re a disaster as a web developer. Your code is crap. They ought to fire you right now.” Would you burst into tears and run home?

No, you’d fight back, because you know that’s all bullshit. So how come you believe it when the enemy tells you all kinds of lies about yourself?

So when the lies come, fight back. Take a break, go off by yourself, and reject the lies, out loud. Bind them to the foot of the Cross, where they can do no harm, out loud. And embrace the opposite truth, out loud. Don’t let them get a foothold.

See, everybody needs a Father T…but for you who don’t have one, the best I can do is pass this stuff along.

So happy Lent. Remember: we are at war.

Falling in love has got to be the most humiliating thing ever.

Call it a besetting sin, call it a weakness, or just call it the human condition — this is one of the biggest deals for me, and every time I think I’m all done, I get smacked upside the head with it. You’d think it would set off warning flags when I start to have thoughts like: “Oh yes. I used to be like that.”

Well, so it’s not the end of the world. A little heartache, I can deal with. The worst part is what it does to my sense of self: I mean, how embarrassing is it for a 28-year-old man to get all weepy because some guy didn’t talk to him at a party? To get jealous when he goes out with other friends? To start wondering if he should change the way he dresses, maybe start hitting the weights — so he can be more like him?

Just when I was starting to think I was a grownup.

I saw the danger, this time around: but I told myself I’d open up anyway, because it’s better to risk getting hurt than to keep people at arm’s length. Right?

Right. Oh, but ouch.

It helps to remember that it’s not really a question of friendship, or not wholly. I rarely fall for a guy if he and I are naturally simpatico. It’s always the ones who — poor guys, they didn’t ask for this — somehow symbolize what I’m not, the ones who don’t talk or think or dress like I do: the ones I’m always tempted to twist myself into knots for.

In a very real way, it’s not about him at all. It’s like a dream, where everybody around you is really a reflection of yourself. It’s not him, but some part of myself, that I’ve become obsessed with: the part I used to be, or the part I wish I were, or the part I never have been.

If this sounds juvenile and narcissistic, Oh Lord, is it ever. But knowing that doesn’t help a whole lot, any more than knowing you’ve got the flu brings down your body temperature.

Well. It’s not the end of the world, obviously, and one of these weeks the fire will die down, my stomach will unclench, and I’ll breathe easy again. I’ll remember that I am who God meant me to be, and be glad to be it. These things pass! They’ve passed before! And sometimes they leave real friendship in their wake — or if not that, some solid lessons in humility and self-knowledge, and a whole bunch of gifts to bring to the altar.

Just what I wanted for Lent. Lord, you shouldn’t have!

When I was young I asked my mother: How come God is the one who’s God, instead of somebody else?

I don’t remember what she said, and I still don’t know the answer, unless the answer is “That’s the wrong question.” Or: God is not the kind of being who might have been otherwise. Or: God isn’t any kind of being, He’s just Being, full stop.

I often find myself still asking the same question, but in a different form: Who is God? Not what is He — infinite Being, thought-thinking-thought, I AM — but who? The question arises when I suddenly come to myself and remember that Christianity is meant to be, at bottom, a love affair rather than a legal case.

But with whom am I in love?

If he is perfect, must he not be somehow scrubbed clean of idiosyncracies? If he is infinite, then he must somehow be all-things, and if he is all-things, what can be special about him? When we like somebody, don’t we like them for the shape of their nose, or the oddness of their voice, or their particular raucous laugh?

Then how can we like God?

Now of course liking is not loving. “Love your enemies” doesn’t imply liking them (although liking sometimes follows from loving: let the will lead, Fr. T often tells me, and the heart will follow). But wouldn’t a perfect love include liking as well? Agape is all very well, but — well, I’d be disappointed if my eternal love affair with God turned out not have any eros in it.

Two answers suggest themselves, and neither is complete.

The first is, of course, Jesus. Nobody who has read the New Testament with any real attention, engaging their imagination as well as their intellect, would call Jesus bland or featureless. His manner of speech is as peculiar and particular as the smell of cilantro or pipe tobacco. How can the Infinite have a personality? I don’t know, but there He is. And when we see Jesus in all his particularity — we are seeing the Father.

The second answer is harder to define. It involves a knowledge of God that is a kind of knowledge-by-longing. I can only say that when I hear this:

As the deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?

…then, Oh, I know who that is. Who is God? He’s the one that I want. He is the one who is wanted. He is the one for whom Wanting was made. He is — He.

A reader sent me part of this quotation from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Since it’s better than anything I’m likely to come up with tonight, I’ll pass it along. It’s been too long since I’ve read that book.

If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. “Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are “rich” in this sense to enter the Kingdom.

It is very different for the nasty people — the little, low, timid, warped, thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn, in double quick time, that they need help. It is Christ or nothing for them. It is taking up the cross and following — or else despair. They are the lost sheep; He came specially to find them. They are (in one very real and terrible sense) the “poor”: He blessed them. They are the “awful set” He goes about with — and of course the Pharisees say still, as they said from the first, “If there were anything in Christianity those people would not be Christians.”

There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person — if virtue comes easily to you — beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.

But if you are a poor creature — poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels — saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion — nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends — do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all — not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last).

So I says to the Lord at the beginning of this Lent, “Lord,” I says, “let’s keep things on the surface this year. I think I’m in a pretty good spot.”

“Yeah?” He says.

“Yeah,” I say. “I mean, I’ll give stuff up and so forth. I’m no slacker, I’ll even tackle something big. But you and I, we’re close enough already. Right? I mean, no need to dig deep. My prayer life’s pretty good as it stands.”

“Yeah?” He says.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Okay,” says the Lord. “Now here’s some heartbreak, here’s some failure, here’s a relapse or two into an emotional landscape you thought you left behind years ago. Here’s a dose of your own weakness and a hard look at your own phoniness. Here, I’m going to allow you to depend on your own resources for just a teeny second. How you feeling about that prayer life now?”

Gnrrrhhk,” I say, from where I’m sprawled on the floor, bleeding.

…Okay, I like to overdramatize things a little bit, and I know he’s the Good Shepherd, not the Abusive Spouse. Buuuuut, damn, hard week, friends, and it’s time maybe to hit the Adoration chapel a little bit harder. Rend your heart, not your garments, the Lord seems to be saying; And maybe you could use a little hand with that rending?

Feels a little like how I imagine Muay Thai conditioning to be.

In other words, a successful Lent so far. Right?

It’d be nice if we were angels, wouldn’t it? None of this back-and-forth, these mixed motives, these bodies that never work right, that have to be fed every single day, that bits keep on falling off of. Just be what you are, all in one piece (or maybe no pieces?), and that’s that.

It’s not just when our bodies go wrong that they’re a pain in the ass.1 Having a body is a liability: it means that you, your very self, that part of you that you imagine somehow to be inviolable and totally under the control of your will, is subject to everything from disease to distraction. A few grains of pollen could destroy your capacity for contemplation; a few hours of missing sleep could cripple your capacity for charity.

Speaking of sleep, I keep having to remind myself not to listen to anything I think when I’m tired. Don’t engage the tired thoughts, don’t refute them: ignore, ignore, ignore. This is important to remember when a friend tells some innocent joke and instead of laughing like I normally would, I think “That’s it, the friendship’s over. I could never be friends with such a stupid, stupid idiot. Just look at his stupid teeth when he laughs in that stupid way,” etc., etc.

That’s why, when I get sufficiently tired, the wisest thing is just to go hide (and sleep) somewhere until it blows over; otherwise I’d have no friends left.

Of course you can’t always hide, and you can’t always sleep. Those are the times when you need to duck into the nearest bathroom for a second (not unlike Superman, if Superman’s superpower was not-succumbing-to-irritability), howl if possible, and pray: Lord, you see what I’m like? See what happens to me? Can you take over, please?

And see if he won’t spare you a couple drops of his overflowing charity. Or at least maybe keep you from homicide.

1 Something wrong with that metaphor: how can a body be a pain in the ass? Shouldn’t an ass be a pain in the body? Since the [w]hole can’t be bigger than the part…boy, I crack myself up. Okay, all done now.