Saturday, November 29, 2008

Advent: Funeral Ikos

As I was driving home tonight and listening to a CD, I was captivated by the haunting quality of this music. I've heard it hundreds of times but never paid much attention when I have, as the piece is nestled within others far more familiar to me. I don't know why, but tonight it suddenly became very important to me to find the title and lyrics and context. It took quite some research, as I no longer have the CD case or insert, but eventually I came up with the title and composer ~ Funeral Ikos by John Tavener ~ and then the lyrics here, and finally some context here, as follows:

"Despite the fact that the Resurrection of Christ has displaced 'death' as the nexus of human anxieties, it still remains for us, "the" great mystery. The burial service of the Orthodox Church, despite its "assurance of things hoped for" and constant pleas for rest for the soul of the departed, gives voice to our anguish. A series of hymns (Troparia) attributed to John of Damascus (c 675- c.749 ) has been incorporated into the burial service of the Orthodox Church. The anxiety revealed is profoundly real, and engulfed in painfully human queries: Where do they (the dead) go? What do they do? Will we recognize them; and they, us? Will we speak with them? Where is their former beauty? What will become of us? Where is glory?; Where now is status? And to each set of queries, there remains only to proclaim the refrain: Alleluia ! The sequence ends with the single affirmation that, if we could but hear that there is eternal life, then our anxiety would turn to ecstasy. And with hope in Christ, we proclaim yet again: Alleluia! John Tavener (b. 1944) has always produced religious music as an important part of his output. This has accelerated since his conversion to Orthodoxy in 1977. He has explored the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church and filtered them into the mainstream of Western choral and orchestral music."

If you already know this music, then you will understand why, after months of being battered by well-meaning friends and acquaintances, eager to assure me that my beloved son is at peace, will still be present to me if I just wait with enough patience, is in the excellent company of other of the departed, I am relieved to have found a text which delineates the real and anguished questions that all those facile assurances seek to veil. And if you don't know it, give yourself ten minutes or so and listen with the lyrics in hand.

Why these bitter words of the dying, O brethren,
which they utter as they go hence?
I am parted from my brethren.
All my friends do I abandon, and go hence.
But whither I go, that understand I not,
neither what shall become of me yonder;
only God who hath summoned me knoweth.
But make commemoration of me with the song:

But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn,
but none can impart aright.
Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them
and make the song:

We go forth on the path eternal,
and as condemned, with downcast faces,
present ourselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us,
but only to say oft the psalm:

If thou hast shown mercy unto man, O man,
that same mercy shall be shown thee there;
and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,
the same shall there deliver thee from want,
If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,
the same shall give thee shelter there,
and sing the psalm:

Youth and the beauty of the body
fade at the hour of death,
and the tongue then burneth fiercely,
and the parched throat is inflamed.
The beauty of the eyes is quenched then,
the comeliness of the face all altered,
the shapeliness of the neck destroyed;
and the other parts have become numb,
nor often say:

With ecstacy are we inflamed if we but hear
that there is light eternal yonder;
that there is Paradise,
wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.
Let us all, also, Enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Twelve Weeks: Endurance

It's sinking in with a heavier weight than ever before.

The Lovely Daughter is in the air somewhere, coming home for Thanksgiving only because her oldest brother is not.

Last year, he did come home, with The Elegant Girlfriend. And for the several years before that, we joined him in Chicago.

Thanksgiving has come to mean the snow falling in front of Marshall Fields' windows, the view from the top of the Sears Tower, the narrow streets of Hyde Park, and the University of Chicago's gargoyles. It has meant hope, as our family's young adult children reunited, reconfiguring relationships and bringing new partners into the fold on the cusp of the much greater hope of Advent.

Now it means endurance.


Late this afternoon I went to the Carmelite monastery, because a Montessori mom of long ago was having the Mass said for Chicago Son. Just as the prayers began and his name was read, another Montessori mom -- and the Lovely Daughter's first and second grade teacher --tramped in from the slush. She had never been to the Carmelites' before, but today for no reason at all she chose to arrive just in time to wrap me in her arms. I had thought that I would be all right, but I wasn't. Thank God for her decision tonight.

Afterward, a few people offered what they thought were words of comfort.



I look around town and around the blogosphere and I see that, ready or not, the holidays are upon us. Thirty-eight days until January 2. Seems like a long time until this season comes to an end. I thought that maybe I would try to write my way through Advent, but now I think not. The metaphors that come to mind to describe my outlook are too raw for public consumption.

Lent cannot come soon enough for me.



And finally, for those of us for whom Advent this year will be a constant reminder of the hope that we long to find in its fullest meaning, I offer this, picked up on The Mercy Blog:

Give me your failure; he says I will make life out of it. Give me your broken, disfigured, rejected, betrayed body, like the body you see hanging on the cross, and I will make life out of it. It is the divine pattern of transformation, and it never seems to change.

We'll still be handicapped and terribly aware of our wound, but as St. Augustine says, "In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me." Our wound is our way through. Or as Julian (of Norwich) also put it, at the risk of shocking us, "God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honours… For he holds sin as a sorrow and pain to his lovers. He does not blame us for them." (Chapter 39, Showing 13, Revelations of Divine Love) We might eventually thank God for our wounds, but usually not until the second half of life.

Richard Rohr, from
Everything Belongs

No Changes in Desolation

I usually think that I understand something when I read it. Unless maybe it's Aquinas, in which case I know that there's no hope. (Actually, with respect to most philosophers - the truth is, I have no idea what they're talking about.) But in general, I read something and I get it.

Except I don't. Living through something is always so different.

"No changes in desolation," Ignatious tells us. Or, more precisely,

"In time of desolation we should never make any change but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision that guided us the day before the desolation...".

People have been dissecting the Ignatian Rules for Discernment for centuries. There's a lot of subtlety to them, which means that they are trouble for a person like me who thinks that she's understood something when she's read it.

Let's just say again: things are always harder in real life.

What it boils down to: if you've made a good decision, one that has been confirmed many times over in all sorts of ways, then you don't give up or run away or turn back or completely change your life in a time of turmoil and darkness.

Soap opera plot lines, I think, turn on violations of this rule. Their characters are always impulsively entangling themselves in situations (usually involving sex) in times of desolation, thereby offering the writers material for decades to come and endearing themselves to the rest of us, whose inclinations for self-destructive behavior parallel theirs exactly.

In real life, I am watching from the periphery as someone I know is making (yet again) a big change in a time of desolation. It seems that one of the tell-tale signs of a decision made in turmoil is oblivion to its effects on others; apparently, tunnel vision is a hallmark of desolation.

In my own life -- well, as I said, it's hard. It would be a lot easier to let my impulses carry me. To skate away on that river. I can't skate and I hate being cold, but it would still be easier.

No changes in desolation. The words, printed or spoken -- they look and sound so simple.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I wish I had a river . . . I could skate away on . . .

When she's asked about how she's been doing in the past year, she's silent for a very long time. "I guess it's always changing," she says. There's another pause. "What else can I say?" Her voice is breathy and fragile, and she takes a few gulps of air. "I just wake up each day in a slightly different place—grief is like a moving river, so that's what I mean by 'it's always changing'." She stops again. "It's a strange thing to say"—her words unravel slowly, her eyes tear up—"because I'm at heart an optimistic person, but I would say in some ways it just gets worse. It's just that the more time that passes, the more you miss someone. In some ways it gets worse. That's what I would say."

Michelle Williams on Heath Ledger, in Newsweek.

Or it could be Gannet on Chicago Son, in general.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mysteries of Language and Context

"When Schoettgen scored, the Bearcats had just eight rushing yards on seven carries. Adjustments in blocking assignment and timing helped WU enter the locker room at halftime with 121 yards on the ground, including 107 on seven carries by Horne. Leslie ended the half 7 of 12 passing for 154 yards and two touchdowns."

I don't know what the terms "rushing yard," a "carry," a "blocking assignment," or "yards on the ground" mean. Consequently, the above paragraph, from an article about The Lovely Daughter's college football team's success in its first playoff game yesterday is, like the rest of the piece, virtually unintelligible to me. (I do know what Willamette bearcats are, since we all have t-shirts depicting them. And I know that they won, because I can read the score. That's about the extent of my personal football IQ.)

It's my own fault, of course. Football has never been of much interest to me. The Quiet Husband and Gregarious Son are at a pro game as I write, but I wouldn't have wanted to go even if I hadn't been as miserably sick with some kind of virus as I am. To me, football is a bunch of (usually) guys running back and forth and back and forth in a decades-long pursuit of an odd-shaped ball with an enthusiasm that utterly mystifies me. To tell the truth, most of the time the location of the ball in play is also a (complete) mystery to me, which might explain the speed with which I relapse into stultified boredom as soon as I settle into the stands at a game. The Lovely Daughter had a lot more fun at that playoff yesterday than I would have.

And why am I writing about this? I think it's because I'm trying to figure out how to reclaim my life, and the language and context have changed. Whatever a rushing yard and a locker room might have been for me three months ago, they aren't anymore. I read the article on the game and I thought, "Oh, this is just like my life. Completely incomprehensible."

So. I'm going to go back to school in another week or so. I think it might be easier to make an adjustment in a blocking assignment.

Whatever that means.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tomorrow: Christ the King Sunday

Giotto, Christ Entering Jerusalem, 1304-1306.

My experience of the past twelve weeks has been one of unimaginable loss. And the idea of the unimaginable has become something of a theme of this blog, as some of us have tried, in posts and comments, to wander around in it, exploring and bending and stretching and pushing against it, trying to fathom that which is not, in the end, fathomable.

Those are pearls that were his eyes . . . .

I have been trying to imagine Advent under these circumstances and I can't ~ not unless it, too, means something beyond ordinary human comprehension.

It occurs to me that perhaps I am so taken with Christ the King Sunday, the last one of the liturgical year, in that it touches upon that mystery. We know the story about to unfold again; we take it for granted: strange dreams and visitations, an ordinary birth, and a child who will become a king who rides a donkey, the same beast of burden which carried his mother toward her labor in an obscure cave. He will eventually be honored around the world as a king in representations reflecting our more usual understanding of the title, but he will be the kind of king who offers himself to those who mourn, who are hungry, who are impoverished, in every sense of the word.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday Five

I had been thinking that I might do the RevGals' Friday Five today, but it's about cooking and baking and kitchen appliances, so I have virtually nothing to contribute. And I have a bad cold, so no one would want me to produce anything relative to food even if I could.

Herewith, then, five (or so) things on today's to do list in lieu of contemplation on the subject of food processors:

1. Some laundry.

2. Wash last night's dishes and clean up the kitchen.

3. Watch
Into Great Silence and 4. try to figure out way to become Carthusian monk in French Alps.

5. Go and see spiritual director.

6. Sleep a lot.

7. Send {{{{{virtual hugs}}}}}to Jennifer and others who have shared their stories of loss over the past months.

8. Find today's art: Antonia MacGregor, Stained Glass Abstract of Sea, here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Window into Grief: The Holidays, Round One

People tell me that the holidays and celebrations the second and third year are the worst. You are somewhat braced for the first round, they say. But then you look up and say, All right, I survived ~ and what do you get? Another year of celebrations, along with the knowledge that this is, indeed how it will be from here on out. He will not be back.

But we are only coming up on the first season. And I've been reading the advice to the newly bereaved: Stay out of the stores. Cut back on the decorations and other household traditions. Know that everything will remind you of everything. Go away.

The Lovely Daughter is coming home for Thanksgiving, something she did not do during her first three years of college, and we are going to the Quiet Husband's parents' home for a day or two. Gregarious Son announced that he and his sister had vetoed what he described as "a pathetic dinner at home with the four of us and a microwaved turkey." "Forget the turkey," I said. "Our point exactly," he responded."

And then comes Christmas. For awhile I was loathe to abandon our 20-plus year tradition of hosting many of our friends for a sit-down feast and conversation late into the evening, but the same son pointed out that I am only just now up to a dinner out on occasion. And then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do not want to be here at all. Christmas has long been a time of deep religious significance for me, but memories of the last 24 of them are completely intertwined with joyful memories of our children, and many of those memories are specific and individual to Chicago Son.

What to do? Where to go? Where can we flee from Christmas? Pakistan? offered the Quiet Husband. Baghdad? suggested a friend.

Of course, one cannot flee from Christmas. One cannot flee. One can run away from the commercial trappings, from the traditions, from what now register as oppressive expectations. But not from Christmas itself. The insistence of the calendar means that it will come, whether or not we are ready. And the readings at our son's Memorial Service - Psalm 139 and Romans 8 -- take on a new layer of meaning.

I don't know yet what we will do for Christmas. I don't think that it will be here, but the decision will only come after much family discussion. It may involve palm trees, or a desert, and candles at midnight in a place we've never been. I just don't know.

For myself, the lone religious voice in our household, there will need to be something more. Advent in past years has been a time of quiet reflection for me. This year I am not going to be looking for cosmic significance. This year I am going to try to look for a moment of peace in each day. Such a find would be momentous indeed. This year the hope resides in one of the readings from our Lessons and Carols service last year: Will you come into the darkness of tonight's world?


(Image: Stained Glass Window by Barbara Joyce,
here. )

First Try (Eleven Weeks)

I am writing this from, of all places, seminary. I drove over last night for a meeting; today I need to pay my six month old bookstore bill and try to see a few people.

The meeting was fine; I was fine; I was a participant; I made some great connections in the local community of spiritual directors. (Sorry, Stratoz.) If you've been reading, you know that as little as a week ago, none of that would have been possible.

Fine is a relative term, I suppose. The whole place seems surreal to me. How odd to walk around with a body, mind, and heart that have been completely shattered in a context that remains unchanged.

I still have no idea whether I can return to classes for the second quarter, which begins after Thanksgiving. Minute by minute, I guess, and eventually the minutes pile up into a day, and then another one, and another one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Page 56 (Spiritual Direction)

Well, a few intrepid souls were willing to face down that snarling dog in my previous post, but I figure it's time for something a bit lighter.

The most recent meme making the rounds: pick up the book nearest to you (no cheating; you can't replace Danielle Steel with Dostoyevski), turn to page 56, and copy down the fifth sentence.

When I read that challenge, I was in bed with the laptop and three books tossed around on my cozy red fleece blanket. From page 56 of the closest one:

"The first point to be made is an obvious one: It is not finally helpful for prayer or Christian living to base it on a delusion."

The book is
The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry and William J, Connolly; the context is their discussion of the relevance of modern scriptural scholarship to spiritual direction.

There must be many novice spiritual directors who have come to adore the work of William A. Barry, S.J., perhaps starting with
Letting God Come Close: An Approach to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I have so many page corners turned down in that one that I might as well go ahead and memorize the whole thing.

It's a lot better than memorizing Greek paradigms.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Grief as a Vicious Dog

Head of snarling Dog by Mr. Wood in Charles Darwin,
Expression of the Emotions

A Dream:

I am in Chicago, in the long and dark hallway of an old house, trying frantically to dislodge the teeth of a small black dog which has bitten into my middle finger and refuses to let go. A few people walk through the hallway, but no one knows how to separate the dog and me. They shake their heads and mutter unintelligibly to themselves and move on.

Hours go by. In a fog of pain, I doze off, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall. At some point, half-awake and half-asleep, I realize that the dog, too, has fallen asleep and that its lower jaw has slackened, its teeth slipping out of my finger. Careful not to awaken the dog, I pry his upper teeth out and put the him gently on the floor. I look curiously at my throbbing finger, now colored a deep bluish-purple and grotesquely swollen and misshapened. There is nothing to be done about it. I get up off the floor, and walk out of the house at sunset into a vast residential neighborhood I do not recognize.


Various pertinent scraps of information I've found:

If you see dogs as loyal companions and friends in real life, a dog biting you in a dream might symbolize a betrayal of love and loyalty. The middle finger may represent practicality, hard work, committment, or maybe potency and strength. (Think of it raised in a defiant or menacing gesture.)

I suppose it speaks for itself: a dream of almost complete desolation. Maybe a shred of consolation in the fact that I am able to walk out into unknown territory. Path and destination unclear, but walking.


As it happens, this dream is a few nights old, and does not reflect my feelings today. This morning, with a wintry sun forcing its way through the clouds to light the inch or so of snow on the ground, looks to be something of an up day. But I'm posting the dream anyway. Now what intrigues me is how gently I put that dog down. And I don't think that my response has anything to do with liking dogs in real life.

Perhaps the significance lies in how we respond to pain or, rather, the memory of that which has caused us pain. Accepting, honoring, absorbing ~ not resisting ~ our experience ~ that may be what propels us through unknown neighborhoods toward uncertain destinations.

It is a sign of health, of course, to try to disengage from a potentially rabid dog. But it does not necessarily follow that one should then kick it down the hallway.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


If you've been around much, you may have noticed that I've been fiddling with my blog. I can't do much of what I want within the confines of blogger templates -- not enough color and font and sizing and layout choices. I think I've conceded defeat and concluded that the best I can do is change the colors to reflect the reality of winter.

I finally got with the rest of the world and signed up for bloglines, which so far has only worked about 30% of the time. There are a lot more blogs on my account than on the spiffy list here, the one that offers hints of what folks are writing about, but there isn't room to list them all on the blog. Since bloglines is down more than up, I am still making frequent rounds. And I haven't gotten everything onto one list or the other yet, which means I am still missing some blogs I love. All in due time.

And no, I never did figure out Big Pictures. Apparently the key is a flickr account, but the last thing I need is something new to keep track of. There are some Big Pictures showing up here when I link from other sites, but I have no idea how that is happening.

Blogging has turned out to be something of a long term activity for me. I like the variety of stuff out there. I like making friends whom I would be unlikely to encounter in real life, if for no other reason than that they live in Tennessee and Oregon and Texas. I like being able to process my own life stuff with a little feedback, and I'm amazed by the commonalities some of us uncover despite different experiences, politics, theologies, and values. I'm often sorry when I read and comment on a blog for awhile with no return visits, but then it's kind of interesting to speculate (for a minute anyway) why someone whose writing and/or life I find intriguing finds mine to be of no interest whatever. On the other hand, the support extended to me in the past months, some from bloggers I've known for years and some who have just shown up, has been moving and much appreciated. I have felt surrounded here in the virtual world as well as out there in the concrete world.

I've been self-censoring a lot during this time period. There are a couple of posts coming up that veer close to reality, which tends to lurch back and forth between despair and hope. But much of what I have to say these days would melt my laptop into a little heap of smoldering metal. When I think of the word housekeeping, it seldom refers to cute little redheads wielding umbrellas against the rain. Marilynne Robinson's novel of family disintegration and survival skills is more like it - once the train plunges into the depths of that icy lake, all bets are off, and chaos and tenacity vie for supremacy in the life of the human family. Yes, that's closer.

But for today, changing the colors is the best that I can do. And the redhead is sweet. I might have been a little like that at six.

Friday, November 14, 2008

College Retreat

Jesuit Retreat Center
Guelph, Ontario
August 2007

People often ask me what spiritual direction entails. In my own Presbyterian tradition it's pretty much an unknown -- unheard of, actually -- practice, and people who have heard of it tend to associate it with spiritual disciplines and lists of "must dos," with therapy, with "some kind of wierd medieval Catholic stuff."

Spiritual direction involves helping someone with her prayer life, with her unfolding relationship with God: helping her to see God's self-communication to her in her life, and to grow and respond in that relationship. In the technical books, spiritual direction is identified to as a form or subset of pastoral care. Sounds kind of dry and mechanical. But in reality, there is nothing dry or mechanical about listening to and supporting a person who is engaged in a growing consciousness of her encounter with God. I am constantly in awe of the process, and decidedly aware of the privilege and responsibility of accompanying someone on this particular journey.

This past week, the students who signed up for the college retreat were committing themselves to some time in prayer each day, which I'm sure they managed with varying degrees of success, and to an hour a day with a spiritual director, for which I think all of them did show up. Materials had been prepared for them, and included various readings from scripture and from lives of people who have made a difference in the world, along with questions for them to consider each day. They were free to use the materials or not, to address the prescribed questions or not, and to raise their own questions about their personal challenges and dilemmas. As directors, our tasks were to listen, to help them explore the materials, to listen, to suggest other possible avenues of focus for them, to listen, to suggest ways of praying, to listen ~ all of it with the goal of helping them learn a little more about prayer, about how they themselves might look for and listen to God.

College students are just like the rest of us. They love the discovery that attentiveness to God as they walk across the campus consitutes prayer. They love the substance of prayer that emerges from a leisurely perusal of a text, stopping every few phrases or sentences to ask how what they've just read is reflected in the concrete events and activities of their own ordinary days. They love that another person is willing to listen closely to them and to take seriously the growth of their relationship with God, honoring their struggles and noticing their successes and tailoring suggestions to their needs.

I love all those things, too, especially the part where someone listens to me and takes seriously my own life of prayer. And so it seems to me to be a profound gift, this chance to share and foster, just a little bit, another individual's life with God.


Intuitive Hearts
Donna Funnell

I spent an hour each day this past week accompanying a college student through a retreat-in-daily-life experience. I am so glad that I did.

The retreat, sponsored by the university's Catholic student ministries, took place mostly in a Presbyterian church near the campus. Last night I spent a few minutes hanging out in the kitchen with two of the other spiritual directors, whom I know from other contexts. "It's hard to know," I said, "in this process of grief, when to push yourself to move forward and when not." "One day, one hour at a time," said one of the other women, confirming my experience. "Sometimes you'll be able to say 'Yes' to things, and other times you'll know to say, "No way.'"

I am truly surrounded. They are all around me, nudging me, encouraging me, telling me that the ice beneath my feet is more solid than it feels. I keep checking in, trusting that someone will say something if I extend myself too far. But so far what I am hearing, from people in my church and Presbytery, from people at seminary, from people in my spiritual direction comunity, from my family and friends, is that I am on the right path back into the world.

I have a meeting at seminary next week. I meet with my Committee on Preparation for Ministry (Presby-speak for the folks who supervise my progress toward ordination) next month. I've been a spiritual director this week. I can only do these things because other people offer me opportunities, read what I write, hear what I say, bring me soup, and circle the wagons in countless other ways. I truly am surrounded.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Calm in Process

Inshala Glass
Las Alpujarras, Grenada


May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedoom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in the world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

(The prayer is from the materals provided for those of us who are directing or making the student retreat for which I volunteered as a director this week. The retreat's theme is "Choices," certainly an important topic for college students. And for me as well, as I try to discern whether choices made in a better time still apply. The stained glass,with its focus on the colors and details of nature, seemed to fit nicely with a Franciscan prayer for growth. )

(And . . . the painting I posted on Monday? It materialized out of a search I was making for images of women in ministry, part of the same process of discernment. I think that Hildegarde is one of the best role models I coud find - a woman of great gifts and achievements, making her way with difficulty in perilous times.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ten Weeks

Mother's Love
A Stained Glass Abstract Quilt
Wendy Purves

I can only think of one time in the past twenty-four years when I went more than a week without talking with Chicago Son for at least a few minutes, regardless of where he was in the world.

But now he is not. And ten weeks is too long to go without hearing his voice.
Imagine years. Imagine always into the future.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Prayer for a Daughter

Stellar Birth ~ Young Star Clusters
RCW 108 ~ 4,000 Light Years From Earth
NASA Image of the Day 26

They are so lovely, these young women.
Made of stardust, as are we all,
they seem to have come directly from the galaxies:
Swirls of fragility, light years of strength.
Their beauty so radiant, it would seem to be the only necessity:
The soft skin, the gentle curves,
the graceful limbs and the sleek hair.
And yet you ask so much of them:
That they stumble upon death,
contend with loss,
make repairs with scotch tape and paste,
create and recreate their lives on foundations of
painfully shifting plates through which
the boiling waters of Hades bubble up.
Watch over them carefully, hold their hands gently,
wrap your arms around them passionately and protectively,
invite them into freedom, share their burdens.
Oh, please.
Offer them light, surround them with love,
Be Presence to them.

(One of my friends has asked for thoughts and prayers for her daughter who, like mine, has suffered a staggering loss in the past months. This prayer is for them, and for other young women whose optimistic ventures into adulthood have been cruelly marred by catastrophe and its aftermath.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Art and Contemplation

Hildegarde of Bingen - Visionary - At the Table
Marsha Monroe Pippinger

Art, in the form of paintings and photographs amd collages, played a big role in my CPE experience this past summer. Famous Giant Hospital has a substantial art collection, which several of us utilized on a regular basis for assistance with the labyrinthine geography of the acres and acres of campus marked by indistinguishable pathways of light gray walls. "Take the elevator across from the pool painting," or "Go down the hallway with the French landscape photos," or, "It's right next to the portrait of the scary lady."

As the summer wore on and I no longer needed to rely on the artwork as signposts to get myself from one building to another, it evolved into a form of mini-respite which I often sought during the day. I made a point of looking for my favorite pieces in the various units and patient rooms, and paid special attention to the art whenever I found myself a new section of the hospital. I don't know whether many other people even notice what's on the walls, but I often paused for a minute or two, consciously taking in the various elements of a piece, letting them serve as balm for a mind agitated by surgeries and crises and deaths. Sometimes I could practically feel my brain cells relaxing into shapes more amenable to listening than to urgent activity, restoring my capacity for hearing what my patients and their family members had to say and for noticing when they could not say it.

In the past couple of weeks, ever since returning from Oregon and Mount Angel Abbey, I've been wandering around the internet looking for art -- icons, yes, but everything else, too. It's hard to find what I imagine someone in my situation would create ~ what I would create if I could ~ so I have begun to feel like a detective obsessed with discovering clues to the mystery. What do I want? Color saturation, harsh and uneven shapes and edges, surreal interpretations of old stories. Preferably stories of people absorbing that which is impossible to absorb, and learning to live without resolution. Please do not offer me classical lines or soothing hues. I once started to cry when I saw Michaelangelo's David in Florence, but I'm not at all sure that it would move me these days. All that strength and perfection, that sense of personal destiny in an ordered cosmological hierarchy - what could it possibly communicate to me now?

All this to say -- there is some art coming up. I'm on its trail, and I will report back on what I find.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

We Grieve as We Live

One of my best friends lost her husband eight months ago, and last night hosted a cast party for 100 after her daughter starred in her high school's fall musical. We were the only of her close friends not there; 100 people is a lot for us right now. I have watched my friend go back to work and pick up activites that enable her to "keep busy" -- her MO for the 21 years I have known her. If you want your kitchen repainted or your yard's fall clean up finished off, she's your girl.

I have turned to my interior life, which has probably become apparent to many of my friends for the first time as they try to take me out to meals, for coffee, to the movies. Oh, on occasion in the past a few people have responded with surprise to the discovery that I spend an hour or so in prayer most days -- it's not publicly visible time and I am otherwise actively engaged in all kinds of pursuits in my various communities. I just tell them that that's the hour that makes the acitivity and intensity of the other 16-18 possible each day. This fall, I usually find that I need a lot more than an hour.

I'm finding crowds (meaning three or more) of people to be something for which I have a little more capacity, just as my friend is finding time alone a bit more manageable. I've volunteered some time to a college student retreat program in the coming week -- I can't teach a class or field questions from a group yet, but I think that I can spend an hour or two a day listening to others describe their time in the silence.

I mentioned some of this to another friend today, along the lines of "we grieve as we live," there being no textbook with universal applicability. "I think that we are all coming to see that," she said. These sudden losses, of a husband in his 50s, of a child in his 20s, differ considerably from the exruciating but anticipated losses of parents in their 70s and 80s and older. It does seem that the authentic core of being emerges in stark relief from the desolate landscape into which we have been deposited, and that there is no solace to be found in trying to meet the expectations or timetables of other people.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Hard to Know

I am delighted with the outcome of the Presidential election, insofar as delight remains a vocabulary word for me.

But oh, it was so hard, sitting here and watching the images of Grant Park fill the television screen for all those hours. The last time we were there was for a summer evening orchestra concert with Chicago Son.

It is so hard to know, from minute to minute, which loss to grieve. There are always more than there were a minute earlier.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008



In Which The Thing With Feathers Is Detected

We were wandering around Oregon, the four of us: The Quiet Husband, The Lovely Daughter, The Best Friend Who Also Goes to College There, and Gannet. The Best Friend said that there was supposed to be a Benedictine monastery nearby, one with a Thomas Merton collection she would like to investigate for her senior thesis on his early poetry.

"I'm up for a visit to a monastery," I said.

And so we went, east through the countryside and up a winding hillside road, to Mount Angel Abbey. I'm linking to the page with aerial photos, which are the only way of truly doing justice to what we discovered. If you poke around, you will also find images of the spectacular library.

If you were to explore the Abbey, you would be forgiven for thinking that you had landed in The Sound of Music, or in the original Benedict's Italy, as you gazed down at the surrounding fields and pastures and at Mount Hood in the distance. The quiet grounds seem to go on forever, the mustard brick buildings arranged around a spacious grassy quadrangle are meticulously cared for, and the interior of the chapel is magnificent. As I wandered alone through the chapel, with sunlight filtering across pale violet and green walls, a monk settled in to practice on the organ and music filled the space.

Icons hang at wide intervals along the walls of the chapel. I started at one end, planning to make the rounds of the walls as if I were in an art museum, as an interested observer with nothing more than a desire for a few moments of distraction.

I had not been able to pray for weeks. You look at the icon and the icon looks at you, my professor and spiritual director had often said, offering without fanfare wisdom from the ancient church gleaned from decades of experience across Christian culture. I had written his words down in a notebook, repeated them to my students when I taught high school world history, and given them little thought otherwise. You look at the icon and the icon looks at you. I found the one that looked at me. Or, perhaps, it found me.

Anyone who has grieved long and hard has known the feeling that you cannot let go of the sorrow, not without a sense of betrayal of both the one who is gone and of yourself. The transformation of that kind of torment is a lifelong task, and it begins with the most tentative of steps. Perhaps sometimes that beginning is realized only in unfamiliar places, and through unexpected gifts.

I know very little about icons, but I've learned a little about Christ Pantocrator, and this version in particular (which I eventually discovered was written by one of the monks, Brother Claude Lane), since returning home. I am told that although the icon is usually referred to in English as Christ the Ruler or Christ the Teacher, Sustainer is also a valid translation of Pantocrator. I am quite sure that Christ the Sustainer is the one who has been looking for me.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Faith and Politics

With one day to go, perhaps a post on the election is in order. Truthfully, I have paid little attention to it. But I did vote, and so did the kids, and so will the Quiet Husband, and I think that for once we are all united in our views, and it looks like our guy may actually win. Whatever the outcome, I hope that the new occupant of the White House is paying attention to Nicolas Kristof's Saturday column in The Times, urging us to "Rejoin the World," because I think that the way in which we have isolated ourselves into a corner is our most pressing foundational concern.

That said, what interested me over the week-end was what local religious leaders had to say to their congregations about the election. In my own small personal orbit:

At Mass, the priest did not mention the election once. It was All Souls' Day there and he focused on purgatory. However, during the prayer time, individuals prayed in gratitude for our right to vote, in hope that we would use it wisely, and for the safety of both candidates. And when I went out to the parking lot, I discovered that each car bore an election placard checking off John McCain as the "right" vote for those concerned with issues from what might be termed a Catholic point of view. Of course, each issue is so complex that one could, in my view, hardly identify a "Catholic position." I suppose that if I gave it some thought, I would be offended by such a partisan interruption to an experience of worship, even after the final words were said and even in the parking lot and regardless of my personal viewpoint. Whatever.

In my own Presby church, the prayers of the people also included prayers that we would exercise the gift of the vote with wisdom. And our pastor did a masterful job of weaving the matter of the election into a sermon 0n Jesus' groundedness, arguing that at the core of the agitation in our nation is a question of identity and that we have lost touch with our ground of vaues. Jesus, he pointed out, identified himself with the humiliated, the powerless, and the poor. And then he segued from Jesus' identity to our own, from the election to All Saints' Day. The core of our being, he said, is a gift of God, and our dead are beloved because they had God's breath in them.

So ~ how did it go in your place of worship this past weekend?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

From My Perspective...

My goal was to get through both Catholic and Presbyterian services this morning without having to endure either the marching-band quality of For All the Saints or the jauntiness of I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, and without breaking down as the litany of names of this year's deceased was read. It was my first attempt to return to my own church since the memorial service for our son two months ago, and I managed to achieve none of my desired ends, but the morning brought other gifts ~

An early morning email from my spiritual director ~ yes, he has some extra time for me as I begin to address the question of whether/when to return to seminary, which could be as soon as in four weeks ~

Beautiful mass readings from Wisdom, Romans, and Matthew ~

(And then: Thought I was on target until after the final hymn when, sure enough, the recessional was For All the Saints ~ Which was then the processional at my own church, where I arrived just a couple of minutes too early to avoid it ~ And was eventually followed by, again, sure enough, "I Sing a Song . . .," which actually gave me a little smile as three darling little girls crowded into the pulpit to sing the first verse, and I have wonderful memories of the time period when the Lovely Daughter would have been one of those little girls) ~

Redemption (for me) with the choir's singing of Agnus Dei from Durufle's Requiem during the offering ~

The solemn reading of names, through which I remained dry-eyed until the very last and unexpected insertion of the name of the father of the friend with whom I was seated; as I said to her, "It's always the surprises that get you" ~

The hands and arms reaching out to touch and embrace me as I walked down the center of the church toward communion, and the tears of our pastor as she served me ~

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful communion music: In the Singing and Jesus the Lord Said, 'I Am the Bread.'

So. I made it. And I feel cared for. Maybe I can do it again.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Survival Skills

It's a beautiful fall week-end. A little chilly, but clear and colorful.

My group of women friends is off at a lakeside cottage. I had planned to go this time -- spring and fall trips last year were out for me, due to illness in the fall and exams in the spring. But I'm not there. I've discovered that time spent in groups of people, even small groups of my very best friends, requires skills I have lost. Skills usually exercised without a conscious thought, apparently. But, for now at least, any ability I had to listen to and participate in a multilayered conversation with people saying and hearing and feeling different things, is just gone.

One of my friends said that she would reassure the others that I miss them, too, and that I'm not avoiding them because I don't think they can understand.

Well, yes, I do miss them. But, although they are my very best friends in the world, and have taken good care of all of my family over the past two months, it has never occurred to me that any of them can understand. I have a good imagination, but I'm not delusional. I am not staying away because people can't understand. (Although the fact that anyone might think so demonstrates the truth of the statement.) I didn't try to explain further. Sometimes even one-on-one is too much for me.

I may have lost my capacity for group interaction, but I am honing silence as a skill for negotiating the terrain of sorrow.