Sunday, July 19, 2020

Weeds among the wheat

In one of my first posts on this blog, I wrote about over-aggressive weeding. I confessed to a tendency to hyper-focus on trying to pull out every single weed, even when they get so entwined with the garden plants that I do more damage than good.  That happens to be the theme of the parable in today's gospel reading (Matthew 13:24-30). Jesus cautions his followers not to be too zealous in weeding. He says, "if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest." 

Now, at the first level (OK, the 2nd level -- the first is my poor garden), I think of this as meaning that we should not rush to judgment of people, not label people as "good" or "bad," "wheat" or "weeds." Not try to exclude the people we consider "bad" from, let's say, our church. I think that's a pretty standard interpretation, actually. But as I've gotten older, and especially as I've been growing into this religious vocation, I have begun to look at it on another more personal level.

I am learning to be more patient and gentle with myself, the weeds in my own character. My  garden needs weeding, and also watering, and pruning, and staking. It needs me to put in a considerable amount of careful effort. But it also needs time, and sunlight and rain, none of which I provide. Likewise my inner garden. It requires me to work at establishing good habits and breaking bad ones, to spend time in prayer, in reading, in housework and yardwork, to get enough sleep, and a decent diet, and some exercise. But it also requires grace, that part of the formula that is out of my hands. Some weeds I have to get down on my knees and pull -- the chickweed and the stiltgrass -- and some, like the bindweed, I can only keep breaking off at the ground because its roots are 10 feet deep and I'll never get them out without plowing up or poisoning the whole garden, or both, and even then it'll probably come back. 

I once told my brother that I struggle with perfectionism, and he startled me by exclaiming, "I would hate to be perfect! How obnoxious would that be?" I assumed everyone, like me, wished to be (and even more to appear to be) perfect. But he's right, of course. Perfection is obnoxious. God Almighty inspires awe and even fear. It's God as needy infant who inspires love, and God the tortured, dying man, who inspires compassion. And it is the mirror of our weaknesses in others that inspires us either to love or hate them, in proportion to how we love our hate our own weak selves. 

So I learn. I'm a better gardener than I used to be, both with my vegetable garden and with my inner field of intermingled weeds and wheat. I spend a little time most days watering and weeding, but I am no longer so apt to damage the crop by attacking the weeds too aggressively. I am less proud, less rigorous, and more gentle with myself. I'm more willing to wait on the sun and rain, in whatever time and proportion they come, and to accept that some plants will thrive and others die off, and that it is not all in my hands. Even, sometimes, I find that what I considered a "weed" turns out to be beautiful or useful, and what I planted on purpose is a waste of space. There is another Gardener who tends me and my garden with infinitely more wisdom and skill and care than my own. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020


Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in

(Leonard Cohen, "Anthem")

This has been a tough week. It started on Monday with the feast of Saint Maria Goretti -- a little Italian girl, not quite 12 years old, who was knifed to death in 1902 while resisting rape. Worse even than that appalling event, somehow, is the text that the Church in her wisdom (yes, that's sarcasm) assigns to the Office of Readings for that day: it's an excerpt from Pope Pius XII's speech at her canonization, in 1958. "From Maria's story carefree children and young people with their zest for life can learn not to be led astray by attractive pleasures which are not only ephemeral and empty but also sinful. Instead they can fix their sights on achieving Christian moral perfection, however difficult and hazardous that course may prove."  Worse, because that almost unbelievable sermon was inflicted not by some random psychopath but by a 20th-century Pope of my Church, the Church within which I have dedicated my life to God. 

And here's the thing: I didn't have to read that this week. A, it's an optional memorial. B, I use an alternate lectionary anyway. C, if I do want to remember poor little Maria Goretti on her feast day, I have another reading that is really excellent (if long for the purpose): the chapter on "Virgin Martyrs" from Kathleen Norris's book Cloister Walk. And I did that, I read Kathleen Norris instead of Pope Pius XII ... but it didn't help. I already knew. I had read it before, and it hurt and angered me so much that just seeing her name in the calendar was enough to trigger the PTSD. 

I was raped. I was raped three times before the end of high school. I wasn't a saintly child like Maria, and I didn't fight to the death to hold onto my virginity. I was passed out drunk when I lost my virginity, at age 15. I had already been clinically depressed for 6 years by then, but this was before Prozac, and before Prozac "clinically depressed" was not understood as it is now. Neither was "date rape" or "capacity to consent." Anyway, I didn't tell my parents or any other responsible adult about it, since it was all mixed up with my own misbehavior. Which means there was no counseling, either. 

I've had some counseling since, but not much. I have always had a hard time communicating with most counselors. I never feel like they understand me, I get frustrated when they fail to follow my intuitive leaps of thinking. My spiritual director now is a monk, not a professional counselor, has no training in dealing with PTSD -- but I feel like he understands me, and we share the monastic-religious vocabulary and framework of thought, which also helps. And in the 4½ years that I've been talking with him, I have healed and healed. But I'll never be over it entirely -- it is never not going to have happened, it's never not going to be part of my history and therefore part of myself. So this week ... was rough. 

As if to drive home the message that there was some God-sent purpose, for me, in Monday's feast and its emotional impact, it was capped off by a real "act of God." A thunderstorm came through that evening, apparently with a very local microburst or small tornado. Trees and large limbs down all over my yard, and not much beyond my yard. A big limb hit my air conditioner and knocked it out of the window. A limb took down the power line between the pole and the house. I found out the next morning that another big tree had fallen and blocked the road right before my driveway, and brought down the power line there, too. After that crazy intense storm passed, wave after wave of ordinary thunderstorms came throughout the night, and I slept poorly. 

There was no damage to my house or car or chicken coop, only minor damage to the garden, and the road was cleared and the power restored by Tuesday afternoon. The landlord brought over a chainsaw and cleared up most of the fallen limbs, cutting the big pieces down to where I can manage turning them into firewood. But you know ... it all kind of piled on top of the stress from the Maria Goretti story. The depression lasted for days. Rage, grief, and a feeling of sterility in prayer, even at worst, a real aversion to prayer. I felt better yesterday -- the feast of St. Benedict, even though I still can't go to the monastery, was a pretty good diversion. I put so much attention into figuring out the music (using the old 1934 Latin Antiphonale Monasticum) that it was a good distraction, and having managed it better than I expected, it ended up being fun, too. 

And this morning I went to my parish Mass, where the saintly pastor was in fine form. He evidently doesn't much prepare his sermons, which is kind of a charming contrast from my brilliant intellectual Benedictines. He certainly reflects on the readings ahead of time, but then he just gets up and starts talking, and I suspect he doesn't always end up where he had expected to go. (Kind of how I write in this blog!) He's humble and ordinary and vulnerable, weak and flawed, and I think I would not be entirely surprised to see him start to glow, as with a halo, or find him walking a few inches above the ground. Here is a man who sees what is invisible, maybe more clearly than what is in front of his bodily eyes. He believes so passionately and surely, and as simply as a child. It was just what I needed.

And I started to think of those lines from Leonard Cohen, "there is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in." And I started to think, I am glad to have cracked this week, I want to be shaken out of my state of "recovery." I want to grow, and continue to grow, and I want to be full of life, which is never static. Not scarred and scabbed over, not safe behind emotional walls of self-sufficiency and competence and routine and, you know, tools for cheerful and peaceful living -- I mean, I don't scorn those things, I take them seriously and I'm very, very grateful for what I've learned and where I am compared to where I've been. But sometimes I have to learn how to live, and then sometimes I have to be shaken out of my strategies and reminded that God is God and I'm not the source of my own life. 

I've got to live through all the seasons: slow, green summer is followed by fruitful, decaying fall; frozen dormant winter is when the roots grow deeper underground, and all the lush exuberance of spring comes on winter's heels. The seed is ruptured by the green sprout, flowers wither and fall off when the fruit starts to form, fruit starts to rot as soon as its seeds mature, each stage in its turn, and turn again the next year. And so the seasons of life, of personal growth, of spiritual growth. There is life in death and death in life, growth and fruitfulness in shock and damage, progress in waiting. 

St. Paul talks about this thing in 2 Corinthians 12. He says he had prayed repeatedly to be freed of some unnamed weakness, but God's answer to him was, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul says that he is content to be weak, both in himself and in dealing with external hardships and persecution, because it is when he is weak that God's power really shines through. "There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in." It's when I'm knocked off my foundations that I find myself safe in God's hand. It's when my boot laces break that I realize how futilely I've been trying to lift myself up by them, and all the while I am being carried on God's wings. 

And now it's time for Compline, and I'm going to let this go and move on. Dear God, I offer You my weakness, my pain and grief and fear and anger, my insufficiency, and my false self-sufficiency. Let me breathe Your breath, and let my heart beat with the pulse of Your life, and let me walk in Your steps like a toddler standing on her daddy's feet, my hands held by Your hands. Let me be safe, not behind my own paltry, illusory defenses, but under Your divine and loving protection. I trust You, I love You, I choose You. Amen.



Friday, July 3, 2020

Twin Thomas

Today is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. The gospel reading at Mass today (John 20:24-29) is the origin of the phrase "doubting Thomas." That's not the attribute I'm here to pick on today, however. The reading starts with the words "Thomas, called Didymus." Didymus is the Greek for "twin," and Thomas seems to be the Aramaic for "twin." But it takes two to twin, doesn't it? And the Bible never gives any hint of Thomas actually being a twin, or having a twin. Is it just like nicknaming someone named John "Loo", or someone named Kelly "Green", or someone named Joe "Java"? Yeah, maybe. Or maybe he looked enough like the Teacher, Jesus, to be His twin? Or maybe he and his identical twin brother were oldest sons, and no one was ever sure which one was the firstborn and heir? 

This mysterious missing other twin made me think about duplicity, not in the sense of deceitfulness, but in the sense of being two people within oneself. Lack of integrity, or of integration, between the face we show to the world and the one we see in the mirror. Or even deeper, a split between the face we see in the mirror and the person God sees when He looks at us. Is Thomas, the untwinned twin, called "twin" because he's twice as much man as the rest of them, or because he seems to be only half of a whole? 

I am not speculating on the actual, historical, apostle Thomas. This isn't biblical scholarship. The far-out internet notwithstanding, there are no serious theories out there. It's a riddle. What does it make you think of?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Ask, and you will receive

Today at Mass we heard Matthew 8:25-34. I just love this gospel passage! Jesus comes to the region of the Gadarenes, where he encounters a couple of violent demoniacs, wandering around among the tombs and terrorizing the population, so that the people are forced to avoid that road altogether. But the demons who possess the two men recognize Jesus as the Son of God, and they know He is going to drive them out of the men. So they make a request: "if you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs." And He does that, and the demon-possessed pigs immediately rush off and drown themselves. 

Now, I'm a little thin on demonology, and I can't think why the demons asked for what they did, or why they immediately drove their new hosts to their deaths, or whether they themselves were destroyed in that death, or if not, what? I suppose, demons must work on our intelligence, and although folks say that pigs are very intelligent animals, it's still not like human intelligence. Maybe they didn't intend to drown their new hosts. 

But what I love about this episode is the fact that the demons made a request of Jesus, and He granted it. It illustrates something that I think we often tend to miss, which is that God is not in competition with the Devil. There is no great cosmic battle between Good and Evil. There is only one God, and God is good, and God is entirely sovereign, everywhere and always. We are weak and fallible, we do stupid and selfish and even cruel things to each other, but that is not because there is this great, powerful Devil, in serious competition with God. Nothing can compete with God, not at all. The Devil and all his minions are creatures, subjects of the sovereign God. The Devil may be stronger than we are, but God is infinitely stronger than the Devil.

God is always there for us, waiting for us to turn to Him. So why are we so weak, so wicked, so vicious? It all comes down to free will. God will never rape our will. We always, day after day, must choose good over evil, God over evil. We ourselves must reject the wrong and choose the right. As an essential part of that process, we have to be willing to examine our conscience rigorously, and to expose our shame and guilt to God, to ourselves, and to at least one other human being. One reason I appreciate being Catholic is because we sacramentalize that practice of confession, and ritualize absolution. On the other hand, we are weak in the follow-up of concrete atonement. It's not enough to say "I'm sorry" to the priest, if we've harmed someone else. We have to say "I'm sorry" to the one we've hurt, and we have to make amends, and we have to make a serious effort to change. 

And part of that effort to change is to reach out for God, to ask for God's grace, to ask God to help us to rise above our baser impulses. If He's willing to answer the prayers of demons, surely He will answer ours? Listen to what St. James says (Ja.4:7-8): "Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you."  God can, God will.  We will always be weak and fallible, but God will always be waiting for us to turn again towards Him. If we're ruled by the Devil, that's our own fault -- the bars are not locked, we can walk out of our dark prison into the sunlight of grace, any time we choose. God is God, and God is good, and there is no other. Amen.