You understand You’re second best. You won’t answer no matter what I say. There used to be someone who would answer.
My childhood bedroom was in the front of our little ranch house. My windows looked up the hill, where I could see the house far across the street. I could see the light that was left on all night next to the driveway.
It was very soon after we had moved to that house. I was four years old.
I woke up in the night to feel someone gently stroking my hand. Profound peace enveloped me. I half dozed in a state of deep comfort until I woke again, this time feeling that my hand had been let go, and my skin was cool where the warm hand had been.
I had not hear my companion move. No one had stood up or walked out of the room. Whoever it was had to still be with me.
I called out, but there was no answer.
I tried to see who was there, but the dark of the room was impenetrable.
I decided to wait. Surely they would move, or speak, or take my hand again.
I lay absolutely still, gazing out the window at the distant lightpost. The light wavered and seemed to dance. I waited and waited. I wondered if I had been absently holding my own hand, and I tried to reposition my hands as they might have been, but I couldn’t figure it out. Nothing felt right.
Daylight slowly crept over the hill. The window panes lightened up, while the wooden strips that divided them remained pitch black and distinct. The inside of my room began to separate into deep shades of grey, and then lighter, and then I could see all around me, and then I could clearly seen that I was alone. Had always been alone. I had to have been holding my own hand.
That’s You, the Holy One who is not there, and that’s me, holding on and doing my best to create comfort.
The file where I store my drafts for this blog is full of the most downhearted things imaginable. I am sparing you topics called “Running on Empty” and “Asunder” and “Barriers.” Do they sound uplifting or what.
No! It’s dark by 6:30 and the weather is getting cold. You need some cheer and so do I.
It’s 1965. I’m 8 years old. My brother, 11, has an evening paper route, which he has to finish every day by 6 p.m. at the latest. He walks it in good weather and bad, and my mother never drives him, unlike some rumored newspaper-boy mothers.
One foul winter night he comes back well past six — so late that we have finished our dinner – and he is crying because his boots are soaked with ice water, his feet are so cold he can’t keep going, and he’s distraught because he’s missed his 6:00 deadline.
Mom hugs him. She kisses him. She pulls off his coat and hat, exclaiming over the ice pellets that fall from them; she has him sit and take off his boots. She brings a pan of lukewarm water and encourages him as his feet gradually, painfully, warm up. She puts his coat in the dryer; the metal zipper clatters against the drum as it turns.
She brings him to the table and sets out his dinner, which she has kept warm. While he eats, she has an inspiration and puts the hose of her hairdryer into his boots, drying them from the inside out. She rustles up some dry gloves and a different hat.
Then, while the storm still pelts down, she sends him back out to finish his route.
What I remember is his happiness, and the happiness of all of us. Because she cared for him so kindly, imaginatively, and intelligently, his spirits lifted right up. When he went out again, he knew he could come back and have the same care all over again if he needed it. But I think he finished the rest of the route, by 7:30 or 8:00, in one go.
This isn’t an October story, it’s more a December or January story, but the cold and dark that have descended so swiftly seem to merit it anyway.
My Mom was loving and imaginative and capable. What joy she gave us. When depression overpowered her a few years later, life changed; how it changed.
Yesterday I had a hard deadline and was able to focus all day. I met that goal and today I can barely keep my head from floating away.
Our software engineers are in India, where life is nine and a half hours ahead of life in Massachusetts, and eleven and a half hours ahead of life in Denver, where my manager lives. We have project meetings at 7:00 a.m. sharp Eastern Standard Time, which means our Indian team members are starting to slow down at least a little as they move into late afternoon, while I am sucking down coffee and brushing my hair, and my manager is somehow propping her eyelids open a couple hours before sunrise. Because she comes to those meetings, and she also works into the evenings, her time.
I get emails from India that were sent at 11 PM, their time. On Tuesday I worked until 11 PM, my time, because I felt that I had wasted the day and had to make a better showing. I had wasted it, lost in imaginary conversations with people I can’t talk to any more, about situations that have changed until they are no longer recognizable. I prefer that world. The one that’s gone. I can’t concentrate on this one; at least, I can’t until shame and, better yet, a tight deadline, calm me. Yes, they calm me.
The reality is, I am missing someone terribly. A human being. I am mourning for a life that is over.
So I imagine Jesus sitting with me.
That’s what You are: an imagining, a compensation.
Have I mentioned that my remaining cat has come into her own? Since I had my 15-year-old cat euthanized in the summer, my 9-year-old cat has blossomed. She came to me from the shelter at 6 months of age. For the next 8.5 years, she remained timid, anxious, and only occasionally affectionate, always on her terms. She might let me hold her for, say, 10 seconds, before tensing and jumping away. I always let her go. But she cuddled with my older cat and they seemed to have a good life together, so I thought she was simply as she was meant to be.
But since the death of her companion, she has become a bolder, bigger version of herself. Overnight she became vocal, scolding me into the kitchen, scolding me as I measure out her breakfast, and scolding me after breakfast has been inhaled. Not only does she allow me to pick her up, she lays her head on my shoulder and purrs loudly enough to set me vibrating. She now climbs up on the upholstered chair and patrols behind me, head-bumping me repeatedly. She is big, and calm, and serene.
I give thanks, I give thanks, I give thanks.
I imagine someone sitting near me.
My cat is real; You’re not. Explain to me, how are You better than a cat? You and all Your fine words give me less comfort than this vulnerable, innocent animal, who will leave me one day.
The use of the emphatic pronoun αυτοϛ is as if a 65-year-old man met his 38-year-old daughter in a neighborhood of Leominster, Masssachusetts, and stood on the sidewalk with her, considering a house.
“Very nice,” he said, “Very pleasant-looking house. Fresh coat of paint. Yes, very nice. I see why you like it.” He seemed to hesitate. Then he pointed toward the upper story.
“See that part of the wall that’s right beneath the overhang?”
“It looks uneven. That’s because they’ve painted over some older paint that was flaking off. That’s what it looks like when you do that. So you have to ask yourself, why was the paint coming off? That doesn’t just happen; something pushes it off, usually water. So that’s something you’d want to investigate.”
He pointed to the roof. “Do you see those light-colored shingles?”
“Those don’t match the others, so somebody made a repair. Maybe the water problem has been solved, or maybe other parts of the roof are still leaking, or are about to give out. That’s something you’d want to look into.”
He gave her the look she had known since childhood: skeptical, challenging, wry. “You might have a number of things to look into.” He turned back to the house.
“And there, where the chimney meets the roof, do you see that black paint looks like tar? That’s supposed to seal the join and keep the water out, but that tar stuff is not very reliable. What you want is –” he turned and scanned the other houses on the street – “you see the metal at the base of that chimney? That’s flashing. It’s much more sturdy, much more reliable. That’s what you want.”
He looked some more, pointed out a couple more trouble spots, and found nearby examples of the same things done right. Each time, he said, “That’s what you want.”
He wasn’t lecturing. He was showing; he was offering.
That’s the good thing.
Learn about it.
Recognize it when you see it.
Could that be the emotional tone, the purpose of αυτοι, they, in the Beatitudes? Not exclusion, but revelation and invitation.
Yes, they are hurting, in rage and frustration, or grief. Yes, they are risking everything, or they are simple, or they are touched in the head. Yes, they most likely are different from you, and maybe they scare you. But look. Look again. There are gifts built right into their tough, or unbalanced, or suffering state. Look again, and be less afraid.
Bill Mounce says that the emphatic third person pronoun in the Beatitudes, αυτος (pronounced ow-toce) means they alone.
The nuance of αυτος is that they alone will receive the blessing… Jesus is not saying that those who mourn, among others, are comforted. He is saying that they and they alone will be comforted. The merciful, and they alone, will receive mercy… The meaning of the αυτος is nuanced, but it is there, and its force is devastating to much of modern theology and its easy believism.
I don’t know how Bill Mounce would define that term, but I think it might involve reading the New Testament as a collection of soothing stories about a God who is endlessly supportive, who exists mostly to dispense comfort and approval. There’s certainly plenty of that in the air. I call it There, There religion, and sermons of that ilk There, There sermons.
Is Mounce’s reading of that pronoun a corrective? What happens if you read the Beatitudes his way?
5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs alone is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they alone will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they alone will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they alone will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they alone will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they alone will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they alone will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs alone is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward, yours alone, is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As I read those words, I immediately lose the sense that God’s love is unconditional. God has put performance standards on my life after all. I have to qualify for God’s loving response.
Well then, I think, I’d darned well better be poor in spirit, whatever that is, otherwise God is not going to let me in after all. Assuming I can figure out what that means and how to pull it off, what else do I have to do?
Mourning. OK, that one I have covered. Next? Gee, there’s a lot.
I know, how about a handy table.
Poorness in spirit
Kingdom of heaven
Desire for righteousness
Purity of heart
A title of honor
Being persecuted for righteousness
Kingdom of heaven
Being persecuted for God’s sake
Reward in heaven
It seems horrible, doesn’t it, what I’m doing with that table, as if I can’t be serious. Aren’t I being hopelessly crass and literal? But if I’ve been missing the boat, I’m in big trouble and it’s late in the game given my grey hair. I can’t afford to be coy. If I’ve been too easy-believin’ all along, and these are the rules of the game, I’d better get cracking.
As I said, I’m good for Mourning. Can I get, say, 10 points for Mourning, assuming that we’re working with a 10-point scale? Top marks!
But, you know, mourning is kind of forced on you, unlike being persecuted for God’s sake, which is something people choose, or at least accept, when they usually could weasel their way out of it and continue living a peaceful life. Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer returning to Germany when he could have stayed in New York. Suffering for God’s sake is usually voluntary, and that’s noble. Maybe Mourning should get a lesser weight, how about 8 points, while suffering for God, a 12, right over the top!
Next up: Desire for righteousness. Does it do me any good that I used to be furious at the injustices of the world? If I’d been hit by a bus at the age of 25, or 35, or even 45, I would have gotten at least a 10. But I’ve lived too long and now I’m tired and discouraged, a 7 at best. But wait — about that youthful 10: Does it matter that I was never sacrificially involved, not like the heart-stoppingly brave people who used to do things like protest outside the School of the Americas? Let’s knock that score down to an 8. Maybe even a 6.
This meta-criticism pertains to every virtue, though, because every virtue has an element of fearful desire to be good enough to earn God’s favor and reward. (At least, it does if you interpret αυτος in this fashion.) It is impossible for us to wish to be virtuous solely for virtue’s sake. Knowing this, how do I rank even my most positive qualities? In other words, what’s my chickenshit factor? Should I give myself a rough score for each category and then deduct a flat 25% for each? Yes — at the very least! My chickenshit factor is generously sized, I know from experience.
One of the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal order, had a dream at the time of the first vows, or maybe life profession, of another man. He wrote about his dream in Cowley, the magazine that used to arrive in my mailbox.
(If you find the article, you can ascertain just how lousy my memory is; also, if you find either of the articles I vaguely reference below, you can make the same assessment.)
The dreamer saw the postulant sitting at a table, in the classic pose with cards in hand: a high-stakes gambler.
I read an article about a Roman Catholic nun who had been raised in an extreme form of Protestantism. She said, “I remember all my family’s warnings about the Roman Catholic church, and I understand them. The life I live makes sense or not depending on whether you think Jesus is present in the cracker we eat at Communion. If he’s there, it is worth my life. If he’s not, the cracker is worthless. I choose to live in the belief that he’s in the cracker.” That was her word, too: cracker, not wafer or Host. Either God is in a cracker, or He’s not.
I read an article about the Society of St. Margaret, an Episcopal order. The writer said that, far from rendering the sisters anonymous, the habit emphasized their individuality. It took me half a second to recognize how true this is. When I make a retreat at a convent, I sit toward the back of the chapel, and watch the sisters walk down the aisle to the choir. I see only their backs. By their height, gait, posture, and probably a dozen other cues, I recognize them one by one, even though they are wearing identical grey habits.
I have a Lutheran friend who uses the word monastic to mean inward-looking, self-indulgent, comfortable. Is the Lutheran reaction against monasticism always that strong? I’m kind of surprised by the intensity of his rejection; he is someone who certainly can understand how hard life in community would be. I think that, for him, ultimately there is something small about it. I don’t see it that way. Do you?
Balky software. A vendor that doesn’t accept the only credit card I have. An incomprehensible website that controls access to work I must perform. I want to throw something.
So. How are you doing?
If I lived in community, the fact that I am electric with frustration would not go unremarked. My irritation would affect everyone around me; shouting, which I do alone in my house, would not be permissible. Am I better off because I can sound off as much as I want? Or, if I had lived in community for years now, would I have learned better ways to manage my anger?
Do you know Gerard Manley Hopkins’ simplistic, sentimental poem “Heaven-Haven”?
A nun takes the veil
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
What is he talking about? Nothing protects nuns from controversies, such as the modernizing of liturgy and of the habit, the ordination of women, and other changes and struggles in the life of the church. Like all other human beings, they face work difficulties, personal problems, and spiritual challenges. Sisters also face the diminishing of their communities and the accompanying grief and loss.
They also have to contend with contempt.
A remark by the Roman Catholic Fulton Sheen, who passed to his eternal reward in 1979, is still quoted and considered hilarious by some:
“Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”
Oh those trivial religious women!
Thinking of this – I heard it years ago, it infuriated me, and I have never forgotten it — I want to throw several more things. I want to hear something smash. When I think of Sheen’s ridicule, and the approving smirks of the people who quote him to this day, I recognize again that the ordination of women is foundational to the health of the church. It is the pushback against the mental sickness that pervades our tradition. Without it, I would have left church for good. I’d still be dealing with You, but I’d be doing it on my own.
I want young women who feel drawn to monastic life to know that there is an alternative to Roman Catholic monasticism. Episcopal sisters are sometimes themselves ordained. They are both nuns and priests. Their lives have nothing to do with living in sequestered inlets protected from the storms of life. They are fully involved and fully vital.
If, in your bones, you believe in God — always have because it’s wired into you, always will for the same reason — then you’re in relationship with God, whether you want to be or not. If you and God relate to the same cosmos, then you and God are in relationship.
I said, I believe in You in my bones.
You and I are in relationship, we have to be, because without You was nothing made that was made, even if You have abandoned it. At the very least, I live in relation to Your handiwork, even if You are disporting Yourself elsewhere.
Young women sometimes want to think about God a lot. They want more time and freedom to pursue their knowledge of God.
I said, I wanted to be with You.
And then, maybe they have a love of prayer, singing, quietude, and simplicity, and they want to find work that is responsible and loving. They want the company of other people who love those things. They want to worship.
They want to pursue these things all day, every day, and not jam them into randomly occurring voids mixed into a career or even family life.
I wanted those things, and my fellow live-in was the same, exactly the same, but in the terms of her life. We talked about what called to us – everything, not just the thought of monastic life. We both vibrated like open strings during that long week.
We asked the novice mistress what she thought happened to the lives of women who refused a calling that they really did have to monastic life. She replied that she couldn’t know for sure, but it might be that they never fully connected to the source of encouragement, and power, and focus, that was intended for them.
We asked if she was happy. “Happy?” she asked. She was a fire cracker; her grin lit up the room. “Wellllll, I’m not sure happy is the right word. The goal of this life is not to be perpetually happy, and we have our share of struggles. But this is the right context for my life, where I have the focus, and community, and meaning that ground me.”
I never thought marriage and family were for me, although I sometimes wondered if I might be surprised, as isolates sometimes are. That did not happen. Good thing I have always been hung up on You. Good thing I have never felt the pain of passionately wanting marriage and children and not being able to have them. I’ve felt lonely, but I haven’t struggled with that kind of grief.
The other live-in and I were well matched: both in our mid-twenties, both single, both intent on God. As the week progressed, we spent time apart, and we spent time together, often taking long walks and talking. We were both in a state of heightened intensity that suffused everything. Sometimes tears would seep from our eyes as we talked. Really. Seeped. Not flowed, that’s too strong a term. They would simply slip out, without our really noticing.
What did we do during that week?
For one, we attended Bible Study with two young sisters who had made their first profession. It was a very gentle study. No reference books were involved, nor was there deep theological analysis. There was a light review of the story, almost a recounting of it. Very little more. And yet, a language was being spoken that I didn’t know very well. Over the course of one session, one sister said to the other, “Sister, your collar is crooked.” She said it nicely. Helpfully. But in a tone that expected to see a correction. The other smiled and straightened her collar. A little while later, the first said, “Sister, your sleeve is dragging in your water glass.” Still later, “Sister, your veil is slipping.” Each time, the sister so addressed smiled and corrected the problem.
I asked her later if it bothered her to be corrected so much. She gave her reply with a smile of genuine sweetness: “Oh, I just think to myself, ‘You must really love me to want to help me with these things.’”
I hope her mood of generous acceptance persisted. I could imagine having such a reaction, briefly, after making a life-altering commitment to community life. But my mood of forbearance could not have lasted. Sooner or later those corrections would have grated on my nerves, and I wouldn’t have been able to conceal it.
In the seemingly trivial interactions between those two young nuns is one of the immovable realities of life in community: you must be able to get along. Someone is going to behave, innocently, in a way that will drive you around the bend. Can you manage your emotions? You can’t ever go home to get away from the person who annoys you: you already are at home. You can’t switch jobs: this is your job. There are no mountains to climb, no impressive titles, no awards or bonuses to impress or distract anyone else, or you. This dailiness, in community, without cease: This is it. There is nowhere else to go.
Not only must you struggle with your emotions, you also must live with the knowledge that everyone around you is aware of your struggle. Because everyone is. An intentional community resonates with mutual awareness. You must allow yourself to be known in your smallness, fragility, and pettiness as well as in your best qualities. Can your ego take it?
I can’t imagine a more emotionally demanding way of life. I thought then, and think now, that I was not up to it. Profound humility, self-knowledge, and mutual compassion are required. I have the greatest admiration for the people who can live together like that.