16. In our expanse and not our lessenings

some meadow magic
some meadow magic

Once upon a time, about a thousand lifetimes ago it now seems, I dabbled a bit in writing poetry. Most of it was fairly rudimentary – I was simply a beginner in need of more practice. But in one great moment of foreshadowing, I managed to craft a few lines which now seem to me to be prescient of the state in which I currently find myself:

In our expanse and not our lessenings/ In the unprotected margins/ Our industry is joy.

At the time I was not reading any theology. I knew nothing of the concepts of the pusilla anima (small soul) and magna anima (large soul.) Yet something in me understood that there was a significant key to joy in moving beyond my own narrow concerns, beyond guardedness – so much so that I chose these lines as the subtitle for my poetry blog and for my photography logo.

Of course, it is one thing to understand the need to move beyond small-heartedness. It is another thing entirely to do it. For years I have been frustrated by the limited scope of my own vision, by my capacity for pettiness, by the angry and unkind voices which found expression in my thoughts if not in my deeds. How is it possible, I would think, that a heart opened to Christ is still so divided?

In the middle of August I celebrated the second anniversary of my Consecration to Mary. In searching for a way to deepen my Consecration, I came across the Ten Evangelical Virtues of Mary and decided to dedicate each of the next ten months to studying how Mary enfleshes one of those virtues and doing my best to emulate her. (side note: a friend is doing this with me and we are discussing electronically; if you would like to join our conversation please email me at greypemaquid@gmail.com)

The first virtue is purity. While the modern world links purity with chastity (and this is certainly a component of it) I believe in the Marian sense the concept of purity is more fully expressed as a singleness of heart. Mary’s entire heart was focused on her great fiat, her yes to God. She willed what God willed. She loved God above all things.

As I prayed about this concept of purity, I realized I had the answer to my question. How is it possible that a heart opened to Christ is still so divided? Because that heart loves other things too.

So I’ve been looking with a hard and critical eye at how I spend my time. And I haven’t liked what I’ve seen. Yes, by the grace of God my schedule allows me to be a daily Mass-goer. And yes, I do ostensibly get up to pray in the morning before Mass. But how often do I get up and fritter away 45 minutes on meaningless internet surfing while I “wake up” with a cup of coffee? How often do I then rush through my prayers because by the time I get around to getting started, the time to complete them is limited? Or, if I don’t rush my prayers, then the rest of my morning prep is crunched and I’m short-tempered and frantic with my family – hardly a loving way to start the day.

And I’ve asked myself questions that almost seem silly, until I look at the answers. For example: do I really love Facebook more than Jesus? Of course not. Then why spend time with Facebook before I spend time with Him? ***crickets chirping***

I don’t know why I’ve made the choices I have made. Laziness? Just bad habits? Hard to say. But what I do know is that as I recognize them, I can choose to change them. And so I now make sure that all the morning prep is done the night before. Ironing is done. Clothes are laid out. Lunches and snacks are packed and in the fridge ready to go. I’ve done everything I can to pare down the amount of time I spend on busywork in the morning.

I’ve also gotten very strict with how I spend my time. The alarm goes off, I feed the cats and pour a cup of coffee. I do grab my phone, but I reorganized my main screen so that the only two icons on it are the LOTH app I use and the daily readings podcast I listen to while I shower. Nothing else is visible to tempt me. I might check weather and email and even Facebook later on in the morning, but that first hour after waking is reserved for God alone.

And the result?

I’m different. This conscious choice to put Christ first in my day is changing me. The well of patience upon which I draw runs deeper. My lens has widened; particularly in relationships, I find myself making decisions with the others long-term well being in mind rather than being swayed by fatigue and expediency. Also, I who have always been extremely private am finding myself sharing not only my joy with the world, but also my sorrow, and as I do so I can feel myself stepping into those margins I have so long desired to inhabit.

Somehow, by the inscrutable economy of grace, the more of me I pour into focusing on Christ, the more of me is available to love others.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

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15. Khoshāwīst

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progress on hat in the round

Beloved.

Khoshāwīst means beloved in Kurmanji Kurdish, the ethnic dialect spoken by many Syrian refugees.

Beloved.

The same word I use as an affectionate nickname for my son. The same word I believe God speaks when He looks at me. My daily prayer is this: keep my heart enclosed in Your most Sacred Heart, and thus make me a conduit of Your love. And what is one of the defining qualities of Jesus’ love? His is a compassionate love.

The Oxford Dictionaries tell us that compassion comes to us from Old French via ecclesiastical Latin, based on compati, to suffer with. This is where I must begin to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. I cannot think about policy or about the whys and hows. I can only try to grasp the desperation that made ordinary, middle class families just like mine give up everything they know and flee in hopes of a better life. I can only look and say: their children are beloved, as is mine, and try to imagine the agony with which they have made those choices.

And then with a heart opened to their suffering, the only conceivable response is, “How can I help?”

I was so moved by Pope Francis’s exhortation to European churches that each take in one refugee family. I am tired of inaction. I am done with rhetoric. I refuse to feel paralyzed any longer. Yes, I give alms but I want to do something concrete. I have a small life and it is already full, but there is always room for love. And so this is what I am doing. In all my spare minutes, when I am sitting and waiting (at baseball, at karate, at the dentist, you name it) I will be crocheting hats for Syrian refugees. I am working with a Ravelry group which does knitting and crocheting and distributes their work in the refugee camps through an organization called the Salaam Cultural Museum. Yes, my contribution is small, but it is made in love.

I think people get tied up in knots when they conflate the statement I can’t solve this problem with I can’t make a difference. It is true, I can’t solve it. But that is not what God asks. My actions will make a difference, if only to the people whose heads are warmed by the few hats I make. Matthew 25:35-40

Please consider signing a petition urging President Obama to resettle Syrian refugees in the United States.

Here’s the hat pattern I’m using.

14. A Foot in Each Camp

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A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamenting and weeping bitterly:
it is Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
                            – Jeremiah 31:15

Over the last few days my social media channels have been been deluged with the story of little Aylan Kurdi and the phenomenally disturbing photo that is changing the way Europe responds to the Syrian refugee crisis. The most shocking thing about the photo is its familiarity. Every parent knows that pose: a toddler face down, little tush raised, when too much play and fresh air has caught up with him and he’s finally surrendered to sleep. It’s a pose that warms our hearts.

Except Aylan isn’t sleeping.

The image does what photojournalism does best: it makes the abstract real. It requires a response. It removes the option for us to sit casually on the sidelines.

Our European friends have one set of choices to make as this crisis unfolds on their doorsteps. We on the North American continent have perhaps a different set of choices to make, as we are physically removed and the help we can offer is different. However, we still need to answer the question of whether or not we really believe that we belong to one another.

But after that question, assuming we decide not to just keep scrolling, there is the next issue: where do we go from here?

In my fall semester my first year of college, a professor quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

I don’t know about intelligence, but this is the next challenge. It’s Saturday morning in the US – that means fall baseball games and farmers markets and lots of shopping for Labor Day picnics. How can we do that with a clear conscience, when right at this moment stories like Aylan’s are unfolding?

And yet, if we get paralyzed by grief and helplessness, then hasn’t evil won?

And so it seems F. Scott Fitzgerald was onto something. I must at the same time hold the tragedy of Aylan’s story and the joy of my daily existence present in my heart.

And the way I can do that? By love. Abdullah Kurdi would give all the riches in the world for one more day to love his sons and his spouse. The very best way I can honor their memory is to love mine well, while I have them.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance. (Ecc 3:4)

I think in this world, the time is now, to do all of these things at once.

13. At the Dying of the Light

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sunset at baseball practice

One of the most difficult forms for poets to master is the villanelle. Sometimes referred to as villanous because of its complexity, it is a 19 line poem with two repeating lines and two refrains. Probably the most frequently cited example of an excellent villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s urge to his ailing father to fight against death, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

For years I have loved this poem rather uncritically, probably because the writing is masterful and because it is written by a Welshman and thus stirs a little bit of nationalism in my heart. But recently it crossed my path again and for the first time I thought, why?

Why rage against the dying of the light?

Death comes for all of us, that is certain. Rage though we may, we all must exit this world, and all the Botox in the universe cannot stave it off forever. So what if instead, we chose to live so that our lives and our deaths blessed those around us? So that instead of facing the end with grief, we could face it with joy, knowing that we spent our time here in exactly the way we wanted to?

It may seem strange for someone who is, by all odds, likely just past the midpoint of her life to be thinking about this. But just as I said once “if I want to be a joyful old lady someday, I had better begin now” – so the same rule applies here. If I want to come to the end of my life on earth pleased with how I have spent my time, then I need to begin thinking about my choices now.

Because this is a fact: every yes to something is a no to something else. Every time I consent to spend time, energy, or emotion on something that does not bring life to me or to those I love, I have less time, energy, and emotion to spend on things that DO build our quality of life.

And so I try to be thoughtful. Clean bathrooms: yes. Dust bunny elimination over reading together: no. Cooking a meal for someone who is sick: yes. Listening to someone complain about a third party who isn’t present: no.

And I try to think about how I can be sure that the people who matter in my life know that I care, and why. I’m a great believer in the power of the written word. Not a canned commercial thank you card, but a handwritten note or thoughtfully composed email: this is what you did and this is how it impacted me. I appreciate it. Thank you. This world is full of people who are quick to complain, especially to complain ‘over your head.’ I want to be the opposite of that. I want to be the person who always takes the time to recognize that small thing that people thought went unnoticed. 

And finally – my family. I want them always to know how much I love them. I never want a day to pass  that I haven’t told them in all three ways – in my words, in my physical interactions, and in my deeds.

And if I have done all that, then when my time arrives, I hope I’ll be able to embrace the dying of the light.

Listen to Dylan Thomas read this work – with his magnificent Welsh voice and heart for poetry, it is a real treat.

12. Let it Die in Me

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Stormy sky over Lake Erie

I remember when I first began learning about electricity. I was fascinated by the difference between capacitors and resistors and their impact on the flow of current in a circuit. Here were these two kinds of little tiny components, but one could store electrical energy in a way that could be discharged later, and the other transformed that energy into a different kind of energy (usually heat) and effectively lowered the voltage of the current. It seemed almost alchemical.

I was talking with someone today about what to do with the pain when someone hurts you. It seems to me that most of us, most of the time, are capacitors. If you hurt me, I may not lash out and respond in kind, particularly if there is an imbalance of power in our relationship. But like a capacitor, I am likely to store that hurt and then discharge it on some other unsuspecting victim. Woe to you, store clerk who is tired and short tempered! Look out, distracted driver who just cut me off in the square! And even worse, beware, beloved child who I allowed to stay up past your bedtime and who is now dragging his feet in the morning…

But I contend that every single time someone hurts us, we have a choice. We can always choose to be resistors instead of capacitors.

What do I mean by that? I mean that every time we are hurt, we can consciously choose not to pass it on. To let the hurt and pain die in us and be transformed into something else. Something beautiful.

“Not this hurt,” you may be thinking. “This one is too big. I can’t do it.”

You’re wrong.

And you’re right.

The bigger the pain, the more important the choice. Will you take a stand for love? Will you spend your life to be one bright light?

And no human could do this – not on our own. We aren’t strong enough for it. But I know, believe, and trust that it is possible because Jesus did it on the Cross. He is God – if He had chosen to, surely He could have had the nails fly out of the wood and lightning fly from His fingertips to destroy His executioners. But He submitted and I think in part because He wanted to show us how to do it.

Before I became Catholic, I didn’t understand the fascination with gruesome crucifixes. Why would anyone want to look at all that gore? I wondered.

Now I know.

It’s because this union, this choosing to be a resistor rather than a capacitor, is the most painful thing imaginable. And the only way to get through it without knuckling under and giving way to capacitance is to really see and understand the pain that Our Lord went through.

And then, because He was faithful, I can be also.

Philippians 4:13

11. For the Gift of Limited Vision

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Another day, another shooting. Another bit of evidence – as if I really needed more – of the phenomenal ways in which our world is fractured. Perhaps it seemed more poignant because the new students arrived at Gettysburg College today. What began as a day full of promise was interrupted with this harsh reminder that not all promises find fruition in this life.

I spent my lunch hour at church, praying the Divine Mercy chaplet for perpetrators of violence, as I do nearly every day. As I prayed with perhaps a heavier heart than usual, I wondered,

Does this even matter? Why am I here in this dark church on this beautiful day when everyone else is out enjoying the sunshine? I come faithfully each day and pray and it doesn’t seem to make any difference. The world still tilts on a broken axis and children go hungry and those who have, take more, and three more people are dead.

To say I felt discouraged by the stormy waters swirling around my heart would be more than a mild understatement. I begged my favorite saints to gather close and pray with me through my chaplet because I wasn’t sure I could finish it on my own. But finish it I did, and I looked up to see those familiar words painted on the walls behind the altar:

I Am the Bread of Life.
I Am the Cup of Salvation.

I look at those words nearly every day, so often that they have become part of the background, largely unnoticed. Yet for some reason today at lunch they reminded me of that great Mystery which draws me back, day after day. It is Love Himself who lives in that Tabernacle. Love is why I’m there in the dark on my knees. It doesn’t matter if I can see the efficacy of my prayers. It doesn’t matter if I can see anything at all. And that’s a very good thing, because my vision is incredibly limited.

I don’t have all the answers. On my most honest days I admit that on my own I don’t have any answers at all. Any glimpses of understanding I get are gifts to be cherished and shared. But love is not dependent on any of these things. Because I have been loved, I can choose to respond in love. That choice is always mine and I can exercise it regardless of anything else I may be experiencing. I can feel heartbroken, lost, confused, even hopeless, and still choose to love.

Love is not an emotion. That’s the greeting card industry talking. Well, maybe it encompasses emotions, but it is so much more than that. Love is just a series of choices and actions. Day after day, hour after hour, sometimes even minute after minute when the going gets hard, committing to making the choice for love again and again and again and again and again.

And so I’m thankful that my vision is limited. If anything depended on just what I can see and feel, I would be in trouble indeed. Instead, I’ll be back to pray tomorrow and the day after and then again the day after that. I’ll pray on days when it feels like prayer can conquer the world and I’ll pray on days when it doesn’t even feel like prayer can conquer my own restless heart. Thomas Merton wrote:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Amen.

10. There Is No Perfection

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Did you ever find yourself in the grip of if only?

If only I would have worked a little harder yesterday my son would have started sixth grade today with freshly baked muffins and a whole weeks worth of ironed uniforms instead of cereal and only one uniform ready (never mind that yesterday’s awful body aches from this nasty cold have mercifully eased.)

If only there hadn’t been unexpected rain last evening that made it hard for my husband to get home on time and interfered with my plans for a happy family back-to-school dinner (never mind that he DID get home safely. On his motorcycle. In the rain.)

And on a more discordant and shameful note, usually after I’ve lost my cool about something: if only the people in my life would stop making these unreasonable demands on me, like breathing air in my presence, then I would be… I don’t even know. Holy, maybe. (this is usually about the point that I start fantasizing about living in an enclosure like Julian of Norwich.)

And you know what? It’s a lie. If only is always a big, fat lie.

At best, if only is the enemy of joy. It promotes the fallacy that gratitude is situational; that we should give thanks only when things are ‘going our way.’ If only distracts us from the gifts that are truly there. Yes, we ate in shifts last night. But dinner was delicious, we lit the candles, and talked about hopes and dreams for the coming year. And my husband is safe. Yes, I have more ironing to do today (and maybe a little baking!) but we started off the first day of sixth grade laughing and singing as a family, and I don’t feel as crummy as I did yesterday.

At worst, if only is sinful. There’s no other word for it. When if only has me thinking that I know better than God the path to my sanctification; when if only has me treating other people, especially those I am most called to love, as nuisances, then I am on a seriously dangerous path and need to ask for forgiveness.

For here on earth there is no perfection, either of situation or of people. But I have learned that it is in embracing the daily imperfect that gratitude and joy are found. In higher education we speak of  ‘triggers.’  If only is a trigger for me – whenever I hear that phrase in my thoughts, it is a signal to me that I need to stop and reframe my thinking. If any of you have great ideas about how to stop if only in its tracks, I would love to hear them!

By the way, because I’ve had requests, I’ve added an email follow button under the widgets link and social media buttons to the bottom of the posts. May peace attend you always.