Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Who are you, really?

In my first blog post, I wrote about this painful thing that happens early in solitude (voluntary or pandemic-induced), when you confront your "shadow self," which contains all those parts of yourself you would prefer to pretend don't exist. These might be real weaknesses, or just aspects of your personality that don't match up with the person you wish you were. Maybe you're a quiet intellectual, but you idealize socially sparkling or charismatic people. Maybe you're a fantastic singer, but you feel like a fraud because you're not good at song-writing.

Now, I only took my first vows as a hermit a little less than a year ago, but I feel like I actually went through this radical revision of my self-concept the first time I retired, almost 13 years ago. That's when I first found out that being a "hermit" was a thing, in our time, and I knew it was for me. It didn't go well! I was so not ready. Thank God I found my way to a Benedictine monastery as a full-time cook, and there I had my formative semi-coenobitic experience (not that I lived there, it's a monastery of men, but I spent my days in their kitchen), and there, after a while, I started meeting with the Abbot for spiritual direction.

So anyway, yes, I confronted some important parts of my shadow self while running through my contract buy-out money and failing to find a way to the life of my dreams. The trouble was, that fantasy life starred a Fantasy Me. And as it turns out, Fantasy Me doesn't really have all that much in common with Real Me. For instance, Fantasy Me re-landscaped her whole half-acre suburban lot with fruit trees and vegetable gardens; but Real Me got deep into heirloom tomatoes, planted 64 different varieties of tomatoes (and nothing else but tomatoes), and then got so obsessed with trying to dig every strand of Bermuda grass out of the garden beds that (this is so embarrassing) I have been known to actually dig up the tomato plant out of the bed, fish all the grass out from among the roots, and then put the plant back in the ground. And not even finish by watering the poor shocked tomato. Seriously. That is not good gardening practice! And nor was it going to cut down on my grocery bill, still less turn into a stream of income. I think the technical term for that tendency to miss the garden for the weeds is "hyper-focus", and oh boy, has Real Me got it.

At some point, it dawned on me that I am an INFP, strong I (for Introvert) obviously, since I ended up as a hermit, but even stronger N (for iNtuitive, since "I" was already taken). The opposite of iNtuitive in the Myers-Briggs framework is Sensing, and I actually scored 0 (zero!) on that once.  What this means, for me, is that whereas Fantasy Me is both imaginative and actually capable of turning the things she imagines into things you can see and touch and taste, Real Me seems to somehow get lost between head and hands. I don't just lack hand-eye coordination, I lack mind-body coordination.

Now, I can wish all day long that I were an ISFP instead of an INFP, but wishing won't make it so. I am who I am. And here's the thing: INFP is a wonderful kind of person to be! And so is ISFP, and so are the other 14 types, with all the myriad gradations within the types. We're all wonderful, marvelous, and unique. But I had to grieve for the loss of that Fantasy Me. Facing, and eventually embracing, my shadow self meant saying good-bye to the fantasy self, and that was really painful. And it didn't happen all at once. The Myers-Briggs personality type realization was a "lightbulb" moment, but I still really had to go through stages of grieving for my lost Fantasy Me, and that took quite a while. And, of course, other self-image clashes have come since; the shadow self is not one single layer deep.

But here's the other thing: I've started a garden here at my hermitage. Accepting that I'm not Fantasy Me is no reason not to stretch myself in that direction. On the contrary, balance is an important monastic value, and an important human value in general, so I should push myself to strengthen my weaknesses. In fact, acceptance has paradoxically freed me to get closer to Fantasy Me than I thought, in the first flush of disillusionment, that I could ever really get. And this is how that works: a fantasy is a picture of an ideal state, it's where you wish you were. It has nothing to do with the process of getting from here to there, which, you know, depends on admitting that you are where you are to begin with. It's a form of that deadly disease, perfectionism. Once I accepted Real Me and learned to love her just as she is, it became OK for me to start small, to do things badly, to fail, to ask for help and advice -- in other words, to learn and to grow.

So here is my practical takeaway for those of you who might be grappling with your shadow selves in a new or newly intense way lately: try spending some time exploring the Real You. I like Myers-Briggs, some people prefer Enneagram or the Big 5. There are some frameworks that focus on a more limited area of life, but could give you really important insight, like the Five Love Languages for relationships, or What Color is Your Parachute? for career. I'm pretty sure there are online tests for all of these. If you find yourself resisting what they tell you about yourself, then really stop and think about that. Is it wrong? Does it not match Real You, or is it Fantasy You it doesn't match? Ask someone else who knows you well what they think. You might be surprised.

And again, I encourage you to start a journal (I use Penzu.com). To counteract the tendency to use your journal for unhealthy rumination when you're feeling the blues, try to end every entry (or every day) with a list of at least 3 things (the more the better) you're grateful for. If you do get into this search for Real You, you could end each session by either writing down, or looking in the mirror and telling yourself out loud, at least 3 things you LIKE about yourself. You really are a beautiful person, you know?

God bless you.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Even hermits need love

Reach out!

In my Rule of Life, I addressed the boundaries of my vow of solitude, in part by citing my spiritual forebears, the Desert Fathers & Mothers. This is how I put it in my Rule:

As the ancient desert hermits gathered together on Sundays and major feasts for liturgy and fellowship, so will I come to the monastery or to a local parish community.

I really depend on my weekly Mass and fellowship with the monks and my fellow oblates and others who worship there. It's almost all the social life I have. I am very happy living as a hermit, but I don't want my solitary life to become sterile and self-referential. Without love, there is nothing. The religious life is barren without love. God is Love, and I love God, and God loves me ... but in total isolation from other human beings, that's kind of like "loving" a rock star or movie idol, back when we were kids. Contemplative solitude immerses the hermit in the heart of God, but the heart of God also loves you, and her, and them.... Just like in human-to-human relationships, being too exclusive -- too possessive -- chokes love off.

But now we can't "gather together for liturgy and fellowship," and we're coming right up on the liturgical intensity of Holy Week and the Triduum, culminating in the greatest feast of the Christian year: Easter, the triumph of life over death, of hope over tragedy, of joy over pain and misery.

My little community has a group e-mail list, but I guess we've all been in some shock so far, and it's been pretty silent. But we're starting to pick ourselves up and think creatively about how to connect in a focused, reverent way, via social media. Some of our members are using an app called Zoom, which we are going to try out this coming Sunday for a kind of group lectio divina. I hope the monks may also live-stream the Mass, but that hasn't been worked out yet. It's all in a state of creative ferment, and I hope that some of what we try will serve us even later, after life returns to normal.

And that's what I want to offer in this blog post: pick yourself up, identify your essential community, and reach out. Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author of The Happiness Project (and several more books) and podcaster, often says that "when it comes to visiting, frequency is more important than duration." She points to a phenomenon I recognize from my own experience, which is that when you see someone frequently, there's always a lot to talk about, whereas with someone you talk to only rarely, it can be hard to think of anything to say. So reach out. Don't rely on Facebook or texting, use the phone, listen to each other's voices. Video call, even better (Honey, their beauty salon is closed, too, just flash that beautiful smile and forget about your hair). Call your mom, or your kids, or your old auntie. Call your most extraverted friend, who must be going nuts by now. And e-mail, where you can write in whole paragraphs, to catch up with the people you love. Reach out! Love is everything.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

God couldn't NOT love you if He tried

I am a Catholic lay hermitess and a Benedictine Oblate. I have taken vows of Solitude, Silence, and Simplicity. Over time, with this blog, I will explore the meaning of my vows and how I am growing into them. I took the name "Felicity" because it means "happiness." So, in this time of "social distancing", I thought I might have something to offer to the many people who are now finding themselves shut away into solitude involuntarily. I am starting this blog during the COVID-19 crisis, to offer some hope and comfort to others who might be finding the disruption and solitude challenging.

The thing that most hermits say is most awfully challenging about settling into a life of solitude is having to confront themselves, in all their squalid flaws and weaknesses, without anyone else around them to share the blame or distract them from their own imperfections. It is a most painful process! So, the first thing I want to write about is learning to accept and love yourself as you are right now, which is the necessary first step to becoming the beautiful, holy, loving, shining individual God designed you to be.

The mind-blowing breakthrough for me came at age 19, when I was deep, deep in depression and PTSD and self-loathing. I'll tell my story, over time, but for now let me just give you this, what I realized: that God couldn't NOT love me if He tried. God is omnipotent, God is limitless, infinite, of course ... but God is Love. The essence of God is Love. God cannot not love me, because God can DO anything He chooses, but God cannot BE contrary to His own nature, and the nature of God is Love. God loves me, God loves you, God loves the saint, and God loves the most heinous sinner, too. God loves the mass murderer, and the wife-beater, and the paedophile priest, and the predatory corporate CEO. He can't help it, He loves us all, deeply, passionately, compassionately.

So, what are the implications of that for you and me, who are probably none of those shocking kinds of sinners, we're just ordinary garden-variety jerks, lazy, selfish, [name your poison here].... Lots of implications, the one I want to point to is that there is no sharp and bright dividing line between those really awful sinners and the glorious saints in Heaven. We are all sinners, and we are all called to grow in holiness, we all carry within us the seeds of conversion and we all need Grace to help us to change. The way I understand what Jesus says in Matthew 5, every flare of anger equates us with the murderer, every lascivious glance at someone inappropriate equates us with the old cardinal who preyed on handsome young seminarians, every over-buying self-indulgence equates us with the rich oppressor of the poor.

So who can be saved? We're all sinners, so where's the hope? Pop quiz, chapter and verse: where does Jesus say to Peter, "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And, where does Jesus say to Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" Does it surprise you to realize that Jesus calls Peter "Satan" in Matthew 16:23, right after calling him the rock on which the Church would be built, and entrusting him with the keys to the kingdom of heaven, in Matthew 16:17-19? He rebuked him fiercely -- but He didn't take back the keys, either. He never took them back. He knew Peter would deny Him, at the end, but He never denied Peter. Peter's own heart broke with his shame, but Christ still loved him. Saint Peter was among the greatest of the saints, and he was a weak, deeply flawed man.

God doesn't choose perfect people (who don't exist, anyway). God chooses YOU and ME, and St. Peter. And St. Paul, who participated in a lynching (the stoning of Stephen) immediately before he was convicted and converted and called to be the apostle to the gentiles. And St. Benedict, who prescribed severe fasts and harsh beatings for delinquent children (chapter 30 of the Rule). And St. Augustine, who after his conversion cried "Lord, give me chastity -- but not yet!" I could go on, but I won't. The point is that wherever you see (or feel) yourself on the scale between saint and sociopath, you are LOVED, deeply, compassionately, passionately, and surely. Oh, and don't forget, you see your own weaknesses, but just as you try to hide yours from the world, everybody else has hidden weaknesses you can't see. Our sins are forgivable, we are convertible, we are intrinsically capable of change and growth. The condition is confronting and naming our own weaknesses, revealing them in humility, and surrendering to God's loving grace, letting the walls come down. The devil is stronger than we are, but God is stronger than the devil, so put yourself in God's loving hands.

Solitude and the disruption of current events can help to bring us to that excruciating, but hopeful, place. Take stock of yourself. Ask God to hold your hand through this, to support you. Start a journal. Write down your thoughts and feelings about yourself, where you're strong and good, where you're weak and ashamed of yourself. Pay attention, especially, to that one: shame. Pay attention to resentment, too, and when you find it, go beyond it: acknowledge the other person's wrong against you and then set it aside and look at yourself, what is your part in the situation, even if it's lesser: where have you been wrong? I like to use the framework of the eight principal thoughts in John Cassian's Institutes, to look at myself from all angles (start at Book V. Or read Thoughts Matter, by Sr. Mary Margaret Funk. Or look around online for an Alcoholics Anonymous 4th step guide. And, if you know how to do footnotes in blogger, please comment....). Take stock, and ask God for the grace to grow and change. The exciting thing is, although we may hate looking closely at ourselves as we really are, it is actually the most amazing opportunity to grow beyond what we ever believed ourselves capable of being. This is the necessary, painful beginning.

OK, confession (you could figure this out yourselves): one of my weaknesses is a tendency to ramble, and also a tendency to think a thing to death without ever taking action.... So I am going to stop here, and hit "publish" despite the weaknesses of this first attempt, so I can come back on another day to write more about combatting demons, as the ancients would have said. That is, dealing with the thoughts and feelings of self-disgust, confronting our flaws and weaknesses, that have a tendency to come to the surface at the beginning of a time of solitude.

May God bless you all in this crazy Lent, and remember we are all joined together as the Body of Christ, even when we are physically apart. I am yours and you are mine and we are Christ's together. Keep the faith.

P.S., pardon the ads ... I hate them myself, so I'll probably graduate to a paid blog host soon, but for now I just wanted to launch in the simplest way possible. The perfect is the enemy of the good, they say.