Saturday, January 31, 2009
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds."
--Ps 73: 23-28
Friday, January 30, 2009
--William Carlos Williams
Thursday, January 29, 2009
I realized tonight that my life is not "incomplete." I am waiting to hear about jobs. I am waiting to meet the right person. I am waiting. But this waiting is living. It is living everyday with the tension of unconsummated experience, with the tension of unfulfilled expectation. But it is still life, living.
I am not a patient person; I want what I want now. This is a cross more than any virtue. I want the Christ to come back. I want to know my future. I want to be settled. But that might not happen anytime soon. So rather than always scanning the horizon for something that isn't here, maybe I should start looking at what's before me, at what's beautiful and unfinished. Appreciate my time, being single,embrace my writer's block and the winter, and having a body which is still healing from the accident. Consecrate my uncertainty.
Jesus said "come to me you who are burdened." Well, here I am Lord. In the words of Mickey Rourke, "an old broken down piece of meat." Not really. But still a beautiful line from The Wrestler. How about "a broken down hunk of uncertainty?" Like the little drummer boy, with no gift to bring.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard:
that you O God are strong,
and that you, O Lord, are loving.
Surely you will reward each person
according to what he has done."
--Ps 62:1-2, 11-12
At the monastery, he used to drink a tall glass of water before bed, the way the Native Americans used to do before a hunt, so he would be awoken naturally, by his body, at the time of the bell. He loved getting up early. Unfortunately that was not always enough to keep him from nodding off during Vigils. While the psalms were recited during Vigils, the release from the Great Silence came usually at Lauds, when the sign of the cross would unfetter the monks with the words: Oh Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise. At Vigils, still considered a nighttime Office, silence--besides the prayer of the Psalms--rested on the lips of every monk like an obedient child.
Pure silence in the outside world is harder to find, but at 3:30, there is not much noise to find fault with. As the man slowly rose from sleep, resting his hands on his knees, and rolling his head, he could here the flicking pitter of sleet on the roof of the house. He looked outside...a fine mist of white was shooting down gently in the light of the streetlamp outside his window. Across the way, the dance and artists' studios were quiet. He knew he could pray by the window without his shirt--despite the bitter cold outside, the air inside was drunk with warmth on account of the spastic radiators--without feeling immodest. There was no one to see him at this lonely hour. Even his roomate had not come back last night, spending the night at his girlfriend's.
Sometimes, he thought, he missed the monastery so much that he tried to bring it home with him. His room was no more than ten feet wide, and was more like a cell, a place of peace. He had a mattress on the wood floor, covered with white sheets, a crucifix on the wall, a small desk, and a bureau. That was all. It reminded him of his cell, and he smiled when he thought of it. The world, he always thought, was too crowded and loud a place. His room, his refuge, did not have to be so.
With no job to go to, no baby to comfort or wife to disturb, he had no reason to get up so early, besides having to tutor in five hours. But he was not sleeping more than six or seven hours a night these days, and having gone to bed early, it was no surprise he should rise early. He did not want to take this time of solitude for granted, for he felt it surely would not be with him forever. The year he had taken off from working had been a respite from such ceaseless activity, but it had become like rotten fruit. If he was not spending it in prayer or writing, there was always the accompanying guilt that would come from misusing a gift. Man was given freedom to serve, not to be served, and he would be wise to remember that.
He slowly dropped to his knees and rested his hands on the window sill. He stared out the window for a long time. He was empty, but made himself an empty gift to God. He learned long ago that he was nothing in the sight of God, but that he meant everything to Him. He had nothing else to give besides his words and his heart, bruised like a reed. He rested his chin on his chest. He was wide awake.
Rising from the darkness, illuminated by the fresh cake of white on the street and the roof of the house, he went into the kitchen barefoot to make tea. He put on kettle and sat down in the darkness at the kitchen table, also illuminated in the light of the snow and dim streetlamp. His roommate's girlfriend had brought over a strange bouquet of blackberries and lilacs, and a kind of cattail that looked like a stuffed bird without a head. It was always nice to have flowers on the table, though, especially in the winter.
He took his bible off the shelf and sat down with it to do morning Lectio. He remembered fondly when the Abbot Martin taught the five candidates who were staying at Mt. Saviour for five weeks one summer, in classes on monastic history, after breakfast. They learned how to read Scripture as if it were alive and speaking as real as any person might speak. The Word was alive, and this he knew to be true. He had had too many experiences to suggest otherwise.
He thought back to those days, listening to the Abbot relate a story about children playing on top of a mountain to illustrate the importance of the Rule. "When there is no fence," the Abbot would say, "the children huddle together for fear of not knowing where the edge is, and falling off. But, if someone builds a fence around them, they have no more fear, and play freely." The Rule of St. Benedict was only meant to limit freedom in an outward way. The goal was true freedom, and it was to this that the Rule led.
He sipped his tea, and thought, as he sat alone, that he was a lousy fence maker. Not that he was required to be one. But it was a constant struggle to simply live by a Rule when you are alone, unsupported by a community, and one easily climbs over the fence when there is no one to stop him, especially when the fence is not "overly burdensome," as Benedict had created it to be.
He recalled in the last novel that he had read, about the Jesuit missionaries, and the martyrs, living and dying in the 17th century Japan where Christianity was being planted "like a sapling in a swamp." He recalled the apostate, the coward Kichijiro, and the words he yelled to the priest in shame. "Father! Forgive me! I was born weak. I was not born strong." Is a man born a coward, or does he become one? It is a frightening prospect. To die for the faith was a coveted gift in his mind; to live for it in the world was so much harder. But to renounce under persecution what one holds so strongly when not persecuted. He shudders. After the rise of Constantine, and the doing away with Christian persecution in the 4th century, fervent Christians had to find another way to die. Hence, the flight to the desert.
I was born weak. I was not born strong. The words haunted him. Was he a Peter wanting to be Paul? Perhaps. He knew his heart was with Peter, and with David, a "man after God's own heart." But his flesh...how could one survive in this world without discipline? And how could one live a life of discipline without the support of his brothers? He was no Antony. He had tried to live the life of a hermit, and was ashamed at his need for other people. He saw it as a weakness, though his friends and family assured him it was not so. He knew it was too harsh a judgment as well. After all, YHWH said "It is not good for man to be alone." But he was alone.
He remembered that night, in the crypt, before the statue of the Virgin holding the Christ and surrounded by candles, when he knew he had to leave...that the life of a monk for him was like an expensive and beautiful shirt that was just a little too short in the sleeves, and a little too tight around the chest. He wanted to wear it so badly, to make it fit. But if something does not fit, it does not fit, unless you shrink yourself to accommodate it. And that is not good for a human person of dignity to do, like Japanese women thwarting the growth of their feet.
He fell apart before her, and wept. The prior, the kind Fr. James, who was like an uncle to him, saw him crying, and put his arm around him, and comforted him. He felt like he had let someone down, though he let no one down, and no one was judging him but himself. He was a harsh judge. In two days, he would leave, and wonder what to do.
The next day, he walked to the workshop to where he was building furniture. He looked around. Br. Bruno was in the barn working on the tractors. Br. John was in the orchard. Br. Pierre was with the sheep. Br. Luke, the oldest, was hobbling around with a wide lucid smile, while the other monks worked in the guesthouse, or the gift shop, or cleaning, or doing laundry. He loved the life, and was sad to leave it. But he knew in his heart of hearts, and against everything that he wanted to admit, and despite that it was all he wanted from life, to serve God, that the life of a monk may not be for him.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
I could endure it;
if a foe were raising himself against me,
I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man like myself
my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
as we walked with the throng at the
house of God."
Monday, January 26, 2009
I forget to eat my food.
Because of my loud groaning
I am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof."
--Ps 102: 4-7
Sunday, January 25, 2009
-I...I'm sorry. I am numb. The air...it is so cold out here.
-I will reinvent my self. I will abandon autonomy. As for you...
-Babies cry when their mothers leave the room, since in the baby's mind, the mother has ceased to exist. I have struggled to develop...to come to terms with...you. You were here. Now you are not. You no longer exist. You are dead to me.
-Ow! My side. My fucking RIB!
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Jesus said, "he who is forgiven little, loves little." David had much to be forgiven. First, he commits adultery with another man's wife. Then, when he finds out she is pregnant, he tries to cover it up. Then he orders her husband be killed. This is not how a man acts, at least not a noble man.
But David is great, even in his sin. When he realizes what he has done (thanks to Nathan the prophet), his repentance is sincere. There is no doubt David had a lapse in judgment. But God is merciful, and he who is forgiven little, loves little. There is a moving humility in David, an openness before God. He is brazen, because he trusts God. He eats the showbread. He dances almost stark naked before the Ark of the Covenant. He takes down a giant with a sling. He expresses himself unabashedly before the Lord, as recorded in the Psalms.
Paul was also a great man, but in a different way. He was not weak, but strong. He deplored immorality. He was a zealot. He also suffered from pride, the "thorn in his flesh." He expected everyone to be strong like him, though he made concessions for human weakness, (i.e., marriage?!). He was a serious man. He did not dance half-naked before the Ark. He did not dance at all. There was no time for dancing when the Second Coming was at hand.
I am proud to share a name with this man. But I do not feel I am like him. My heart is closer to Peter, the Rock who denied Christ three times, who abandoned Jesus at the cross, who "wept bitterly" at his own cowardice. To think that God made a great adulterer and murderer into a great king, and an apostatizer the foundation of the Church, says something about our weakness as human beings. There is no room for pride, nothing to boast about. Our weakness plays a part in our salvation; "My grace is sufficient for thee." When the heart pines for God, the foundation has already been laid, and it is on this that God builds his kingdom within.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Endo descended into the grove of bamboo, yellow and gold slashes on the white landscape, as he followed the marks in the snow. They seemed to appear at the brook, with no point of origin. He thought it very strange. The way the finch looked at him...was he a buddha? Hijo taught the monks never to shun the lessons of sentient beings, in whatever form. Of course he believed in reincarnation, and so the idea that a being had returned (albeit in animal form) to earth to teach humanity what it could not teach itself was perfectly acceptable, though he did not understand it. Who could understand such things?
He passed small piles of scat, splintered shoots...he even surprised a small squirrel napping. Endo smiled. He recalled the days when he and Kichijiro would sneak off to the meadows during work detail to nap in midday, always returning in turn for zazen. They would share secret smiles during lecture. How happy he was to be a monk, and how he loved his brothers.
At the bottom of the grove, the bamboo thinned, and led out into a meadow. Endo could see the red clay roof of the monastery far in the distance, the light of midday illuminating the shoji walls. The sky was radiant, and clouds lazily drifted across the blue abyss. As he looked down, the tracks he was following appeared to have stopped. When he looked up, he saw suddenly the swan, the woman of his dreams. She wore the same white silk kimono, and her arms were extended, as if they were wings. He could not believe his eyes. In fact, he was convinced he was still dreaming, that he had never woken up. The woman was consumed by light.
She spoke no words, nor did she move. But Endo entered into her in the same way he had in his dream...her eyes collected him. There was no burning desire. In fact, he felt as if he had no body with which to desire at all. As the gaze of the woman intensified, he felt himself being lifted up; yes, as if he were flying. Never did his eyes wander from hers. And then, as she closed her eyes, Endo felt himself floating, then falling, cloaked in darkness. He felt the edge of an abyss, the empty air, and knew he was not far from annihilation.
Endo opened the door of the hut and stepped outside. There were only a few inches of snow on the ground. He decided to leave his socks in the hut and wear only his sandals for kinhin. He knew the snow would be like needles to his feet, but it would be good training. He would be more connected to the earth.
On retreat, the monks were free to practice whatever form of meditation they wished. The important thing was mindfulness. Endo stepped slowly forward, feeling the snow crunch underneath his feet. He made his way through a grove of snow-covered juhyo trees. They were like great white monsters rising up before him. He watched them calmly. Green needles were scattered underneath them like blades of grass.
As Endo slowly made his way along the brook, under ginkos quaking gently in the wind, his mind wandered back to the woman in his dream. A Japanese saying came to him:
the heart descends
when there is nowhere
To assuage this unpleasant feeling, he returned to his mind, to the act of walking. The numbness in his toes from the cold snow was mildly distracting while he was thinking, but now it had grown into a warm throbbing. He centered his mind on this pain, and entered into the discomfort. With each step, the pain began to lose its edge, and as his mind entered more deeply into the source of his pain, his whole body began to feel warm, as if it were absorbing it. It was not long before he was walking with a scomplete awareness of everything around him. And not only around him, but inside him--his body, his thoughts, his breath. Cold does not long to be warm; warmth does not long to be cold. Cold is cold, warm is warm, and even that was a completely subjective assignment of value. In isolating the pain of "cold," he had entered into it, turned it inside out, and rendered it completely impotent.
It was an amazing feeling, walking in such a way. He stopped to remove his sandals, so he could feel more closely the crystals of snow melting beneath his feet. The feeling, like the word--"cold"--had become completely devoid of meaning. He marveled at this world of illusion, of things representing realities that were, in fact, empty vessels. He thought of a large basket, the kind pesants would use to carry their vegetables to the village marketplace. He imagined it on the ground, and himself stepping inside it. I am inside the basket, he thought. Then, he stepped out. I am outside the basket. Was one state--of being inside our outside--better than the other? How absurd to say, "it is better for one to be inside a basket than outside it," or even vice versa. Being both inside or outside, one remains in this world. The longing to be what we are not, to have what we have not...how crafty a monkey desire is! How cunning is Mara, Mother of Illusion! Will her appetite be ever sated?
Endo felt as if he was everywhere, and yet as a finite man, he was in fact confined to a single point in space. He was everywhere and somewhere...and nowhere. He crossed the brook, bending down to drink the water. How sweet it tasted! He sat on the bank and watched his breath leave his body, and disappear. He watched a band of finches hop and peck in the snow. One stopped to look at him, riveted. Endo sat motionless, eyes locked upon the birds beak. And suddenly, he was reminded of the swan, the woman in his dream. He glanced towards the birds. What were these? Small footprints pressed lightly in the snow, bigger than that of any animal, leading through a grove of bamboo. He felt a strange warmth, and got up to follow them.
Such was the last thing Endo remembered before waking. Rather than gazing into the eyes of a woman, he found himself staring at the thatch roof above him. It took a few moments for his mind to catch up with his new surroundings. It was as if a curtain had been dropped, and a new act in a play which he was in was beginning. Time to get up, he thought, and face this world of form.
He arose slowly, still wearing his black koromo. It was his only possession, but even this did not belong to him, but to the monastery. It was all he was permitted to bring to the hermitage for his one-week solo retreat. There were over one hundred monks at the monastery, and the younger ones such as himself were sent here to spend time alone, away from the community, in order to strengthen their individual meditation practice. Unlike at the monastery, their days were not formally structured, and they were not under the watch of the abbot. The idea was that the young monks would take responsibility for their practice and continue to live as if they were under the watchful eye of their master. The day that Endo was to leave, his presence would be replaced by another monk beginning his retreat.
The hut had everything he needed. It was cold inside, and so Endo lit a small fire in the pit in the dirt floor. He placed a small iron tea pot on a rack above the glowing coals for tea. He had cooked rice the night before, and formed rice balls. He ate the cold rice on his bed, and listened to the birds. He was incredibly content, and happy as a monk.
A peculiar thing often happened shortly after he arose. For three days he had been here, and on each day, a voice had come to him, telling him that it was time for kenhin, walking meditation. At first he thought it was the voice of his deceased master Zenkai, but he did not recognize the voice. It was nondescript, unidetifiable, the voice of a stranger, but one who spoke familiarly to him. Endo poured tea into a small iron cup, and sipped it slowly while chewing on his rice. Then he got up.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
As the silhouette turned towards Endo, time seemed to stop. Everything fell away. The world of dreams, of conscious thought...all became one. There was no separation. Never had he been so aware, so focused on one thing, as he was at that moment.
After what seemed to be an endless time, the shadow arose. Endo heard the soft padding of feet on wood, as the silhouette grew and grew in size, bleeding out to the corners of the paper screen. And then, the slow, crisp, sliding of wood. As he watched, the shoji glided to the left, and light spilled out. No longer was Endo regarding a silohette; he was staring into the eyes of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Endo knew only the life of a celibate. It was not permitted for a monk to ever touch a woman...not that many women came to the monastery. To Endo, the sight before him was like one of a complete alien. He was frozen with indecision. For so long he had been visited by longing for one thing, though he did not know what that one thing was. Could this be it? Was it here, in the arms of a woman, that fulfillment lay? Despite all his years as a monk, years spent training the mind through meditation and self-discipline, he felt enlightenment to be a state as alien as the figure before him. Perhaps they were one in the same.
"Won't you come in?" The woman's voice was soft, and tender, and she wore a white silk kimono. Her hair was still wet from bathing. "Come around the side." It took all of Endo's might to pull himself out of the trance he was in, even in this his dream. He skirted the side of the house like a dog, and heard the shoji door slide open. He stepped inside.
"You are a monk?" The woman asked, then laughed. "I guess that is obvious, judging by your robes." The monk nodded dumbly. His mind was an absolute blank; he could not even think. He was completely in the hands of the one before him, disarmed by a desire so deep that it had no concrete form. It flowed like a black river beneath the earth.
And then, much to his confusion, the woman did not move. She stared into the eyes of the monk as if she were a statue. But she was still very much alive and breathing. Endo had never been under such an intense stare, not even by that of his master. She did not move. He did not move. And slowly, his desire began to melt.
The grafts of morning pierced the walls of the dark hut, illuminating it with light of the December sun. Outside, a pair of sparrows hopped and fluttered through the white grass, picking apart small red berries and nipping at the insides. A slight wind shook the thin walls, and a few flakes of snow drifted down from the roof and settled on the the ledge outside the window. Endo opened his eyes, slowly, and took in the world, one breath at a time.
It had not been an especially restful sleep. In his village, it was said that the makings of dreams come from fragments of the day, the scraps of unmeditated experience that settle on the mind at night like snowflakes on a warm bath. Endo did not recall an especially blizzard-like day of thought and stimulation that would cause such restless dreams. Nonetheless, he spent much of the night in an acute state of longing, as if he were breathing through a straw, aching for air.
How strange it is, he thought, that we live as if we were not breathing, until our breath is taken from us like a thief. Then it becomes more valuable than gold. He recalled a haiku that his friend Kichijiro had shared with him at the monastery during the summer, when they would go for long walks after evening meditation, chewing thin shoots of bamboo:
a maimed existence.
In his dream, in the light of the Autumn moon, Endo saw the silouette of a girl standing behind a window. The illuminated rice paper was like a canvas on which her form had been spilled from thick India ink: the blotting of her hair collected in a ball on top of her head, the swan-like neck, the gentle curves shaping her kimono. He could see that she was bathing. She let down her hair, a great splash of black, and drew a sponge over her shoulders, and down her slender arms. Endo became aware that the longer he stared at her, the more he became aware of the fact that he was gently fighting for air that did not come in full. His eyes were like great dark lakes, open and vast, and never ending. He heard the voice of Hijo, his master, saying that the world of form is like smoke curling from a stick of incense; only a fool would try to capture it in a bottle and expect it to still be there in the morning. But Endo knew that while the smoke may have leaked out and made its way back into nothingness, the sweet, heavy smell remained like a poignent resin.
In his dream, Endo waded through rice paddies, trying to make his way to the house. Never did he take his eyes off of this bathing swan. He was aware of every step, the warm mud oozing between his toes, the water buffalo moving slowly nearby, his heart beating rapidly. He recalled that Hijo and some of the other senior monks would often go into the forest to meditate amidst the wild boars. "Fear is a tool," Hijo told the monks. "One would be wise to use it to build the seat of enlightenment." Endo was filled with such longing for this young swan that he was gripped with fear. He was afraid that she would disappear before he could actualize her presence. In all his life as a monk, he had never touched a woman. It was all he could do to keep from running with abandon.
Slowly, slowly, Endo approached the window. The blood beat in his head, and his hand was trembling. He was sure that at the moment he touched the screen, the house would vanish, or he would wake from his dream, though at this point, he was not aware he was dreaming. As his fingernail brushed a fiber from the screen, he felt as if the world would crush him any moment.
But the world did not crush him. He placed the ball of his finger lightly on the shoji. It was like skin. He felt the light from the candle inside sway gently as he held his hand up. The air was thin, silent, and quick to betray. The shadow of the swan turned gently, and Endo felt his breath leave him for what felt like an eternity.
Monday, January 19, 2009
and continue to trust you
when lack of identity leaves me a faceless pilgrim;
when lack of love brands its searing mark;
when lack of certainty holds me in nauseous tension;
My time will come soon enough,
and I will leave everything behind.
Until then I will grit my teeth
and spit and shed tears
and trust you still;
you will not abandon me to the Void.
My time will come.
My time will come...
Thursday, January 15, 2009
After Mass a guy next to me (I know you know this already) asked me if I wanted to come to his house to hang out with some people. I did. You handed me an oar, and told me to paddle. I did.
It was great, to connect with other people through a random meeting. They were real, too, genuine, and like me...struggling to live good lives, falling, getting up. They were Christians. I left, feeling better, the cold ride home made less bitter.
You told me to paddle some more, and so I got out of my self and worked up some nerve, and met a great girl. We are getting together Sunday. I really like her, Lord; she is sweet, nice, pretty, Catholic...and real.
I am working at Kate's store this weekend. That was nice of you to prompt her to call me as well. I could use the money, and it keeps me busy.
Thank you for turning your ear to my prayer. I am doing my part to get out and live my life, and I just wanted to thank you for your help in doing that.
--Conor Cruise O'Brien, "Why the Swedes Are Sad," Commonweal, Jan 2009
Friday, January 9, 2009
Zen Question and Response
The students of Tibetan Buddhist Kalu Rimpoche and those of Providence Zen Center founder Seung Sahn arranged for the two Zen masters to meet and engage in dialogue.
When Seung Sahn arrived, he picked up an orange, held it in front of Kalu Rimpoche, and asked, "What is this?" The students awaited an insightful reply, illuminating the nature of reality, but Kalu Rimpoche looked stumped.
Seung Sahn repeated his question with greater emphasis, but Kalu Rimpoche had no answer. Seung Sahn put forth the question a third time.
Finally Kalu Rimpoche responded, "It seems that Seung Sahn has never seen an orange before."
I was thinking about this story for a while. It kind of bothered me. I found all kinds of ways to understand the story based on how I read the text. Was Kalu Rimpoche being sarcastic? Was he giving his "rival" master (which makes no sense in the context of a Zen construct) a put-down for testing him in such a clever way?
Was Seung Sahn trying to "show off" his greater wisdom and strength by taking the offense? And was he nicely put in his place by the wiser, gentler Kalu Rimpoche who refused to play his game? Were they both giving a lesson to their students who somehow needed them to meet in some kind of cataclysmic Zen showdown?
I finally came around to a much simpler reading of the text: Sometimes we make it harder than we have to. If I don't know what an orange is, I should ask. The person I've asked should take me at face value and answer.
I think sometimes many of us get caught up in living with this difficult, chronic illness. We read everything we can. We study all the info about the medications. We have a recovery plan. We come up with wellness tactics. We track our symptoms. We watch our early warning signals. We engage our friends as support to give us insight. We go to talk therapy, group therapy and support groups. We create a WRAP plan and an advance directive.
Sometimes, our illness rules our lives. We watch every nuance and consider how best to respond. For example: I'm tired, so I figure that means I must be cycling down. And I add another wellness tool to counteract my symptom. I carefully consider any actions in the past week that might have triggered this downward slide.
But the reality is that sometimes I'm just plain tired. Like anybody else. Because I worked too long or stayed up too late watching a favorite TV show.
I need to work my wellness, but I can also allow some space in my life to live. I need to credit normal feelings to normal activities ... not as an early warning of problems to come.
Sometimes an orange is just an orange.
I'm going to remember that when I feel out of balance ... when working my wellness starts controlling my life ... when I need to just breathe.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
"In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work. Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart."
--2 Timothy 2:15-16, 20-22
Monday, January 5, 2009
rather than great riches,,
and favor is better than silver
The rich and poor have this in
the LORD is the maker of
The clever see danger and hide;
but the simple go on, and suffer
The reward for humility and fear of
is riches and honor and life.
Thorns and snares are in the way
of the perverse;
the cautious will keep far from
Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not
The rich rules over the poor,
and the borrower is the slave of
Whoever sows injustice will reap
and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are
for they share their bread with
Drive out a scoffer, and strife
quarreling and abuse will cease.
Those who love a pure heart and
are gracious in speech
will have the king as a friend.
The eyes of the LORD keep watch
but he overthrows the words of
The lazy person says, "There is a
I shall be killed in the streets!"
The mouth of a loose woman is a
he with whom the LORD is angry
falls into it.
Folly is bound up in the heart of
but the rod of discipline drives it
Oppressing the poor in order to
and giving to the rich, will lead
only to loss.
Do not be one of those who give
Apply your mind to instruction
and your ear to words of
Do no withhold discipline from
if you beat them with a rod, they
will not die.
If you beat them with the rod,
you will save their lives from
--Prov (22:1-16, 26; 23:12-14)
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Saturday, January 3, 2009
A friend of mine was planning to move to Los Angeles with the hope of connecting with the music industry. He was a musician and songwriter, and it was time for him to follow his aspirations. Katagiri Roshi said to him, 'Well, if you've really decided to go, let's see what your attitude is.'
'Well, I'll try my best. I figure I have to give it a shot, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. I'll just accept it.'
Roshi responded, 'That's the wrong attitude. If they knock you down, you get up. If they knock you down again, get up. No matter how many times they knock you down, get up again. That is how you should do.'
The same is true in writing. For every book that makes it, there are probably thousands that don't get published. We must continue anyway. If you want to write, write. If one book doesn't get published, write another one. Each one will get better because you have all the more practice behind you.
Every month I am ready to quit writing. The inner dialogue goes something like this: "This is stupid. I am making no money, there's no career in poetry, no one cares about it, it's lonely, I hate it, it's dumb, I want a regular life." These thoughts are torture. If we give ourselves fully to something, it will be clearer when it might be appropriate to quit. It is a constant test of perseverence. Sometimes I listen to the doubting voice and get sidetracked for a while. 'I think I'll go into sales, open up a cafe so other writers can go there, sip cappuccino and write, or get married, have babies, be a homemaker and make wonderful chicken dinners.'
Don't listen to doubt. It leads no placebut to pain and negativity. It is the same with your critic who picks at you while you are trying to write. 'That's stupid. Don't say that. Who do you think you are anyway, trying to be a writer?' Don't pay attention to those voices. There is nothing helpful there. Instead, have a tenderness and determination toward your writing, a sense of humor and a deep patience that you are doing the right thing. Avoid getting caught be that small gnawing mouse of doubt. See beyond it to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice."
Friday, January 2, 2009
eats twice as much as nature requires."
The belly of a manic-depressive is never full, and as we well know, we experience from time to time and raging and dangerous appetite. This is more the case in mania, where the appetite for experiences especially rages, and we live it out by gobbling up everything put in front of us. The world is our oyster…and it is especially delicious with lots of melted butter and bottomless bottles of red wine to go with it.
The desert fathers saw gluttony as an especially dangerous sin for young monks. According to Abba Serapion in his “Eight Principal Vices” (complimentary to St. John Cassian’s Conferences), there are three kinds of gluttony.
“The first impels a monk to hasten to eat before the fixed and lawful hour. The second is pleased with a full stomach and with devouring any edibles whatsoever. And the third desires more refined and delicate foods. These three entail no small loss for a monk unless he struggles to extricate himself from all of them with equal diligence and care. For just as breaking the fast before the canonical hour is never to be dared, so likewise filling one's stomach and the preparation of costly and choice dishes must be avoided. From these three causes different and very bad states of health of the soul are produced.”
So gluttony in this way is composed of the lack of self-control in eating at a designated hour; eating with voraciousness; and having a rich palate. Thomas Aquinas expanded on this definition of gluttony to include:
* Praepropere - eating too soon;
* Laute - eating too expensively;
* Nimis - eating too much;
* Ardenter - eating too eagerly;
* Studiose - eating too daintily.
So it would seem that gluttony is less about food specifically and more about appetite in general. When Gautama Buddha lived as a prince, he was in want of nothing. But he was not in this way enlightened. As a result he set off into the world, and fell in with some wandering ascetics. He fasted to the point of emaciation, but still enlightenment did not come to him. And so after a long time sitting under the Bodhi tree, he found that neither extremes of excess or want were the way to enlightenment. Food was not the source of suffering, but desire. Eating or not eating is within our control, but the arising of desire is not. The only way to freedom is stepping out of the cycle of samsara and suffering, from the illusion that the satiation of desire will make one happy and content.
Appetite is a natural thing: when we are hungry, we desire to eat. In this way the desert fathers link gluttony to fornication, maintaining that one leads to the next. Fornication, after all, is born out of the appetite for sex, or, at least, for sexual satisfaction or release. Sexual promiscuity is often noted as one of the symptoms of mania. When some people become manic they have a raging desire for sex, and will look to satiate it anywhere and with anyone available. When I was manic, I had an overwhelming sexual energy, but sublimated it into activities—writing, projects, etc. This, of course, was a safety measure. Illicit sex with strangers is murder for the spirit, and I believe it was only through grace that I did not find myself in bed with strangers looking to satiate my appetite with a desire that was insatiable.
Gluttony is only kept in check by self-control, with self-control consisting of the coupling of grace and free will. For the Christian, we are given the power to overcome vice only through grace, which itself comes through the Spirit and belief in Jesus Christ, who conquered all temptation.
Overcoming vice itself falls to our lot. And ike all things that call for perfection, overcoming sin takes practice. Because it goes against our appetite, fasting from sin consists of painful endurance. As St, Paul writes, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” So it is with us.
Curbing appetites in mania can seem like an impossible task. The appetite for experience is like a river which swells in the springtime following the winter thaw. But mania can become our practice field. When you are manic and devouring whatever food, substance, or person is before you, mobilize your will. Slam on the emergency break, and stop yourself. You will feel searing pain and resistance. This is natural. No one grows stronger who does suffer for it; no one perfects anything except through repetition and practice. Consecrate your suffering to God as a holy offering. Know that it is temporary, but that life after death is everlasting. Scream and yell! But check your appetite, and you will find and appreciate how hard it is to fulfill the words of Jesus, “be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Practice makes perfect.
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Was Jesus religious? Yes. Jesus was a good Jew. Was he critical of religion? Very much so. I don’t know if Jesus intended Christianity to be an established religion, at least in the traditional sense. We have St. Paul to thank for that. Jesus seemed to be more concerned with the heart of things, including religion. This should be our attitude as well: religion should only have a place in our lives if it has a burning heart of mystery and acceptance.
If we think of life as a body, religion is the skeleton, as well as the skin, the organs and body parts. It provides structure and sets boundaries. Spirit is the heart, the mind, the blood, the life force. A body without spirit is a cadaver, a corpse. Conversely, a spirit without a body is not human.
Religion is the alpha spirit: heady, ritualistic, concerned with rules and what should or shouldn’t be. It is slow to change, conservative by nature. Spirituality is the beta spirit, the feminine: it is not confined to shoulds and shouldn’ts, but only what is. It is all heart, and pure mind. It is not exclusive but universal. It is spontaneous, like a child.
Yahweh said, “it is not good for man to be alone.” A man who is pure alpha is unbalanced. He is too rigid, all bone, needs feminine spirit to be whole. Likewise, a woman who is pure beta is not whole. Spirit needs flesh and bones in order to be integrated into material existence, to be actualized in the world. This is why it is said, in the story of Genesis, that woman was fashioned from the bone of man. They were once one, but have been rendered into two distinct parts. We are sexual beings because we are always yearning to be return to the state of oneness.
In this way, religion and spirituality are like husband and wife. It is no mistake that Jesus called the Church his spouse. The spirit of Christ needs a body on earth, and this is the church with a little ‘c.’ To keep things ordered, the big ‘C’ has been established…for better or for worse.
On a larger scale, the body of humanity is made up of many different and unique parts. The major religions of the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity—make up the large bones, the large organs. Other religions—Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Animism—are like the smaller parts, and no less important. It is difficult for me to say to these smaller, more esoteric religions: “I have no need of you,” just as St. Paul writes: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” Though people be of different religions, we are all brothers and sisters.
Fr. John McNamee, author of Diary of a City Priest, was an admirer of the French intellectual and political activist Simone Weil, and quotes her frequently throughout his book. Weil, who was attracted to Roman Catholicism but was never baptized, drew inspiration from many different religious traditions. She was, however, an opponent of syncretism—the attempt to analogise and create a unification of disparaged beliefs— which she felt did not do justice to the unique character of different religions. She explains her philosophy concisely and unapologetically:
“Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else...A "synthesis" of religion implies a lower quality of attention.”
When speaking of mystical ecstasies, I tend to use the terms “religious experience” and “spiritual experience,” interchangeably. I take the same approach towards my diagnosis, using the terms “manic depression” and “bi polar” without distinction. I am not a linguist, so the intricacies of differentiation in language is not a sticking point for me. I do not like to be referred to in terms of being a “religious person” or a “spiritual person.” While I recognize the variance in terminology, I consider my religion and my spirituality to be intertwined, so that it is not enough to be classified as one of the other.
It is fashionable in my generation to eschew religion in favor of spirituality. This is hard for me to come to terms with, though I know for some people it does work. While I was visiting a Trappist monastery I found a book in the guesthouse titled, Peace Pilgrim about a woman who spent her life walking back and forth across the United States to promote world peace, carrying only a comb and a few possessions in a tunic she wore with the words on the back: “25,000 miles for peace.”
Many people regarded her as a holy person and in many ways she was. Though she claimed no formal religion, she spoke of God transcendentally as love and peace, and she lived and breathed this spirituality, encouraging people to trust blindly in Love, and not fall prey to the anxieties of life. I think if Peace Pilgrim (the name she went by) confined herself to an exclusive religious tradition, she would not have drawn in as many people as she had. In this sense I would call her a spiritual person for sure, while at the same time she embodying the true heart of religion, and all that is good.
I feel religion is important, but it is unequivocally a means to an end. The true heart of religion is not always synonymous with its practice. One need not look very far to expose the dysfunctions and hypocrisy of religion (or rather, the followers of religion) throughout history. I do not try to pedal my Catholicism to others, but rather try to live out the words of St. Vincent de Paul: “Preach the Gospel always; use words, if necessary.” That being said, I never shy away from talking about all the ways in which religion has helped me live a good life. Manic-depression is an explosive disease; it resists attempts to be reigned in. But sometimes we need to be reigned in in order to live a sane life.
When I spent a month-long retreat at a Benedictine monastery for men discerning religious life, the Abbot told us a story about living under a rule (in this case, the Rule of St. Benedict). He painted the scenario of children playing on a mountain top in the fog (while failing to elucidate on why children would be playing on top of a mountain in the first place). The children huddled together for fear of not seeing the edge and falling off the mountain. But when a fence was built around them, the played freely, unafraid of falling off.
Freedom is the purpose of the monastic or religious rules. It is one of those great Christian paradoxes: the way to freedom is to make yourself a slave. Christian monastics profess a vow of obedience to their Abbot or Abbess, and they take this vow very seriously. In America, the “land of the free,” we equate freedom with being able to do what ever we want. In reality, though, “freedom is the ability to become who we are meant to be.” Sometimes freedom requires boundaries to be set in this big bad world.
As I said earlier, I am not one to pedal religion. But I personally cannot imagine my life without it. I try to take the goods and leave the bads. Religion may not work for everyone, but I don’t think people really give it enough of a chance to prove itself. We are impulsive, falling privy to shallow gratification and trembling at the idea of commitment.
I think manic depressives can benefit from the self-imposed restrictions and ordinances of religion. If anyone asked me, “Does Christianity hold anything for me?” I would answer, “of course.” After all, it is the path I have chosen, and I can speak about it because I have made it my own. I cannot speak with such authority on Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam; that is not my place, nor my desire. But, of course, all religions have deep wisdom for living to share as well. I do not say to myself, “I cannot read the Upanishads or the Dhammapadda because they are not Christian.” That is silly. Wisdom is not exclusive.
St. Augustine said, “Love, and do as you please.” Once the fences are up, we can let the animal within us run wild…something manic-depressives are especially good at.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
each one of them, in the body as he intended.”
--1 Cor. 12:18
When I was in college, I knew a woman who was a consecrated virgin, a lay person committed to living the life of a single person in the world. She was the most joy filled woman I had ever met.
At first I did not like her. In fact, in all honesty, I disliked her very much. I suppose there was an underlying jealousy at the heart of my hostile feelings towards her: I wanted the stable mood she had--she seemed always happy. It makes one think, "what is wrong with this person." Being perpetually filled with joy does not seem natural. I regarded it as a kind of superficial phoniness. How dare she be so happy when there are so many awful things happening in the world! Did she have her head in the clouds, or in a hole of some sort?
The fact is, Maria is her own person. We are one in Christ, but represent different members. I have known people who never seem to be sad, to whom depression is a foreign state. I have known people who were manic all the time (or at least hypo-manic), and never seemed to crash. I also know people who are perpetually depressed.
Manic depressives are a different sort. We have no fixed disposition. We run the spectrum from one pole of emotions to the next; some making several laps in a day, others spreading their vacillations over the course of weeks or months. I cannot say, "I am a happy person," or "I am a gloomy person." I am both, and neither exclusively.
The saints throughout history represent a microcosm of humanity as a whole. St. Francis of Assisi seemed to be a genuinely joyful man. St. Terese of Lisieux was a mercurial wildcard. St. Antony of Egypt made army generals look like lazy lollygaggers with his extreme asceticisms. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a glowing outer shell which radiated love, but inside she was barren, steeped in darkness; a walking contradiction.
All this is good. We are different. Problems arise, however, when we begin to think that we should be this or that. I think "shoulds" are of the devil; they never seem to lead to anything constructive. When we say I should be this or that, we are really saying we are not content or accepting of who we are. If I felt that I had to be happy all the time like Maria, I would go crazier than I already am. Such a disposition is probably natural for her; she may not think twice about being anything but what she is, which is a joyful person. But it is not natural for me. And that is okay!
Learning to ignore "shoulds" was a big part of the cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) I went through for a number of years early in my diagnosis. While I am not presently in therapy, CBT provided me with the tools to be discriminate when the "shoulds" sneak their way in to my thought process in my life. The first therapist I had was excellent. She gave me homework to do, and encouraged me to watch my moods carefully and to catch myself in the act of giving in to destructive and irrational thoughts. Once these thoughts were caught red handed, they were exposed to the light of cognitive reality and put to shame. When I think, "I am stupid. I have never done anything good," I am encouraged to grab them by the neck and hold them up to the light of what I really know. It's point, counter-point. I say, "What about that award you won, the compliments your friends shower you with. Are they telling of a stupid person?" When I do this, these cognitive distortions vanish like demons exposed to the light of Christ.
One of my favorite poems is by Gregory Corso, one of the great beat poets of the fifties and sixties. It is titled Marriage, and begins: "Should I get married? Should I be good?" Our lives are chock full of shoulds. When they begin to crowd out your rational sensibilities, beware of an impending mental breakdown. Throw shoulds out the window of the mind into the darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Don't ask "should I get married?" Either get married, or don't. Take yourself where you are as if you were the only person in the world with no one to compare yourself to. Do what you do, and be who you are. This is so important.
When you make sincere efforts to be good, to live a virtuous, spiritual life, you are bound to fail at some point or another. The mind of a manic depressive is a fantastic but tender thing. Do not reprimand yourself in any way or with any more force than Christ himself would do to you. You may find yourself in a wicked downward spiral, and it is there that you give the Devil a helping hand in destroying you. When I beat myself up and give myself black eyes for not being good like Maria, or St. Teresa, or Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I am not loving myself as I should; I am judging myself harshly. As a good friend who knows how hard I can be on myself would tell me, "hold yourself gently." Whatever your unique disposition, know that God made you that way. Be good. But be yourself.
In his book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon affirms the place of religion for the mentally ill. Despite being an atheist, he says that religion “provides answers to unanswerable questions.” As beneficial as this might be for those suffering from depression, he also notes that “it [religion] cannot pull people out of depression; indeed, even the most religious people find their faith thins or vanishes during the depths of depression.”
When the secret diaries of Mother Theresa were released, many people found it shocking that this holy woman should be so forsaken by God. For more than forty years, Mother Theresa lived in spiritual darkness, without the comfort or assurance of the presence of God. In Come Be My Light, she writes:
"Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?"
Why does God seem to forsake those most in need of His comfort? It is to make them strong. It is a common thing for us to miss the things we do not have, and to take for granted those things that we do have. For someone so accustomed to an intimate relationship with God, His absence can be especially painful. The absence of God can lead one either to despair or to a burning longing. In this way our faith is tested: we are called to trust in what we cannot see or feel, and to spit in the face of despair.
The fact that the Son of God would utter the words: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” is in many ways unfathomable. How could Jesus as the incarnate God be separated from Himself? It is generally accepted that in taking the sins of the world upon himself, Jesus assumed sin and all its consequences; namely, separation from God. St. Paul wrote, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
In our seemingly perpetual state of sin, we should be perpetually separated from God. But God does not abandon us, even when He draws Himself into the shadows from time to time. Like the Apostles who scattered when Jesus was arrested, it is we who abandon God. And yet God does not turn his back on us; it is we who turn our backs on God.
I do not think God withdraws Himself as some kind of punishment. Theologically speaking, God and sin cannot coexist. When we choose sin, we choose it over God, and assume the consequences. When we turn our hearts to God, despite our sin, God is there. In this way it is only to our senses that God abandons us in our darkest hour.
Depression is a kind of abandonment. As Andrew Solomon writes, it is the “flaw in love.” Where there is no love, or when love cannot shine through the thick mucus of depression, there is the feeling of being forsaken. In this sense, it is a natural feeling. That does not, however, take away from the real pain of such an absence. In the darkest depression, sometimes nothing helps. It is here we are called to sit with the tension of our pain, to ride it out like a storm. The spiritual response is to believe in the face of unbelief, trust in the face of despair, in the spirit of Pascal’s Wager. Fitting is St. Augustine’s paradoxical prayer: “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief!”
Is there anything which helps to assuage this pain that does not require running away from the darkness God deigns us to sit in? One tangible thing that does seem to help me when I am depressed is writing. In it I can spill my self onto paper and offer it to God as a humble oblation of suffering, of my very self. I pray best on paper. When I have been especially negligent, the page screams out, “Rob, Rob, why have you forsaken me?"
Writing—or whatever form of self-expression—in this way flips the feeling of abandonment on its head, just as being there for someone who is depressed while we ourselves are imprisoned by depression frees us to love, and gets us out of ourselves. This is a worthy offering in the eyes of God, since it is tried in the blazing furnace of existential pain. Knowing this pain of abandonment, we become reluctant to abandon others.
Writing is my way of personally revealing myself to God. When I refuse to open myself to God in this way, it is I who forsakes the page, not the other way around. However, we all have our own unique gifts and ways of laying before God our wretched self. In this way we are a little like God, creatively actualizing. Try writing you pain out on the page, like a child writing a letter to Santa Claus. Do not edit yourself; spill your entrails unabashed. Or try creating something. Paint. Plant seeds. Volunteer. Take the hard opportunity to go against your feelings and love and create in the face of death and despair, just as Mother Theresa did all her life. We are not Mother Theresa, but we can do little things with great love, or at least, as much love as we can muster given the circumstances. Doing so can help to loosen the debilitating grip of depression, maybe even lessen the pain. And remember: this, too, shall pass.