Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Sunday, December 5, 2010
In his temptation speech, the serpent promises that eating the forbidden fruit will make man like God. God knew all about good and evil; if we, too, knew about it, we would be just like Him. But evil always, always lies.
Adam and Eve immediately felt shame. Pastor Thompson said this morning that shame is what we feel when we're made painfully aware of the vast disparity between our idealized self and our actual self. The chasm between the two is so wide. Adam and Eve had been promised they would be like God Himself; I cannot imagine their horror when they realized how little like God they were. They had never been aware of their own smallness, their own weakness, the vast difference between mighty God and puny man. The shame must have been unbearable. They must have hidden out of desperation and agony. Having suddenly and all at once seen the full difference between myself and God, I would have tried to bury myself underground.
The Church has created the four weeks of Advent for the mystical body of Christ to assume the color of hope. The shame of the past year is meant to be felt in this time, but only so we can understand what occurred on the first Christmas morning. At this time it is essential that we meditate on what comes to us in the Christ Child. Our shame is lifted. We are coaxed out of hiding. And although we walk in the knowledge of our massive inferiority to the God we could never hope to resemble, Jesus bestows upon us the fullness of his own righteousness. We are not brought out from the hiding place to stand guiltily before God with our heads bowed like a disobedient child whose parent has decided his child's shame is punishment enough - we are brought out before God to look Him directly in the eye and embrace, to be celebrated, adored, cherished and loved. There is no more shame. There is no more chasm.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."
Saturday, March 20, 2010
“I suppose that making a sandwich out of a baguette will come in good time.”
I wrote this in my journal on the first day I spent in Paris when I began my year abroad on September 6, 2002. I had been told by Great Aunt Sandy to make myself a sandwich in the kitchen and disastrously failed to construct a sandwich out of the baguette I’d just purchased. I ate all of the sandwich elements separately and quickly – it’s really not readily apparent how this delicate spongey bread can be used to support a sandwich. The entry begins, “How strange it is to be here. Air Canada flight 790, destination Paris. I’m all alone, way up here, so, so far from everything I have ever known or loved. And to think – nine long months until I see it again… I expected to feel so big and grown up and independent, but if the truth were told I have never felt littler. And so it begins.”
I had nothing to do today. I got locked out of the house last night and had to camp in the yard, so I’ve been dreamy and exhausted. Lucky, perhaps; otherwise I imagine I would have tried to do something productive and instead I just loafed around and read. Turning to my altar-bookcase that surrounds the fireplace in the family room, I selected A Year in the World by Frances Mayes. I did so in anticipation of the June first end date of my job and the completely – completely – blank slate that sits (sometimes invitingly, sometimes menacingly) on the other side. Actually, I’ll choose blank canvas instead. Blank canvas that waits on the other side of June first.
That’s just what I hope to do. Turn my slate-and-chalk Executive Assistant self back into a canvas and palette of limitless oils ready to be altered in hue, tone, consistency, combination, employ.
My September 9, 2002 entry in my year-in-France journal tells the story of my first walk down the damp aisle of the marché on the Avenue de Versailles, located a few hundred yards from my cousin Susan’s apartment on the Rue Claude Lorrain in the siesieme. I wrote about the first croissant I purchased on my own, pulled with a wooden paddle from a polished oven onto a square of thick floral paper that was placed directly in my palm. There were smells of seafood in the market; flowers coyly nestled in newspaper cones in the arms of pedestrians; the antics of my colorful European cousins; my first taxi ride spinning through the tree-lined streets and, breathtakingly, along the Seine (so nonchalantly, as if this was a route really used by jaded Parisians to commute from one place to another). With the help of Frances Mayes and the unblinking stare of the impeding block of free time, I’m reflective tonight about passion. How it grows, how it fades, why it matters, what it’s for. And just how, in fact, its pursuit can be justified in place of so many other things one feels bound to do.
That week Great Aunt Sandy took me to La Musée National du Moyen Age. “After a long walk through the labyrinthine paths in the garden carpeted in sporadically descending damp autumn leaves,” I wrote, “we ourselves flitted down seemingly endless granite steps in to the belly of a beautiful, intricate, medieval fortress – complete with gargoyles.” In her bitingly crisp South Kensington English, she commented before a display of ornate reliquaries, “meant for, you know, a bone, a lock of hair, the odd eyeball, that sort of thing. Rather morbid in my personal evaluation.”
We wandered through corridor after corridor of illuminated manuscripts, suits of armor, crowns and scepters, weaponry, needlework that presented themselves to me as portals for the imagination to travel through time to places every bit as close as those dream-worlds I’d been visiting since childhood. The rooms were dimly lit and musty, the stones enclosing them cold and ancient. I lost my breath when I caught out of the corner of my eye a circular room showcasing the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries – six of them, one for each of the senses, and one entitled, “A Mon Seul Desire.” My own senses – those organs I relied on to tell me truth from fantasy – had betrayed me and shown me a reality that much more closely resembled the product of my silly childish imagination than anything heretofore considered real. I was undeniably certain that this territory was familiar, oddly. No, I had never felt more alone, more uncertain of my surroundings, or more out of place, and yet something in my heart was experiencing a homecoming. Swift flashes of memory – mostly music, books, dreams – convinced me that I had been here before. Not here, but – in essence – in this state or place. Could it be – it was certainly so that afternoon - that memory, reality, and imagination are not as distinct from one another as we might believe?
I was very far from Southern California with no tie to my personal history. That moist and cool early-autumn afternoon, I felt a chamber open up inside my soul; my careful and exceptionally well-attended upbringing formed a granite foundation, but the shutters about the windows of my selfhood we unlatched and flung wide to greet things that I had known always even as I discovered them.
That night at dinner cousins Susan and Johnny (both in their 50s) and Great Aunt Sandy (elegantly mid 80s) and I sat around a tiny table in the tiny kitchen and feasted royally on beef and wine and vegetables. The rain started and stopped outside, pattering like wings on the tall chestnut trees in the courtyard outside, their highest branches just at our feet when we stood on the sixth-floor balcony. A hush fell over the table when Susan stopped to look at me, picked up her glass, and, in lucid Italian, called into the cool autumn night to my grandfather, her Zione Umberto (Uncle Robert), “Zione, come look at your beautiful granddaughter Catherine. Aren’t you proud? Come in and laugh with us again.” She toasted in the direction of the little stone Polish church (where, six years later, Aunt Sandy’s memorial service would be held – a more somber visit for an older me) and motioned for him to come in.
Unknowingly, Susan’s invitation to the spirit of my grandfather had struck the one note whose waxing resonance in my heart’s most secret chambers had driven me to make this journey. He died suddenly of a heart attack a few months before my older brother was born, and yet his presence in our home, my heart, my dreams had – has – a power over me I cannot explain. His degrees from Cambridge and Columbia had always hung in my bedroom, along with his certificate from the Foreign Service and the United States Army. His portrait was in our living room, and I used to stare deeply into the soft black eyes so full of movement and depth and relationship.
My love for Robert was an ache that filled me simultaneously with sorrow and drive. I never knew this man, and yet I could imagine him and his world into being effortlessly – an act that directed my steps and dreams more than any other “real” thing or influence. That night in Susan and Sandy’s tiny Parisian kitchen over glasses of sherry I had discovered people who had participated in the flesh in that in which I had participated in spirit for my entire life. And yet I was certain that my acquaintance with Robert was no less real than theirs. I was breathless, and I wept that night knowing that the grandfather I laughed with in my dreams was no phantom.
Isn’t it arresting when we meet people or see things that validate our imagination? Our deep longings are the source of our dreams, and they do not come from nothing.
I am learning that this is the nature of faith. Memory, longing, imagination, and reality – these are the tools we are to combine as we search for Truth. When canvases are blank and desire and anxiety fill us with fear, we might benefit more from looking backward and inward than from the impossible task of looking ahead. Faith is forged in so many meaningful ways – prescience is not one of them.
Imagine how Jesus’ friends and followers must have felt when they saw him after his resurrection. They had longed for his promise to be true; his death, though consistent with his word, convinced them that reality – the things they saw and heard and touched – was stronger that everything they had hoped for, believed, dreamed about while Christ was alive. Then in that one instant, their senses confirmed what their hearts had hoped and believed. Ah. This phenomenon has not ceased.
To turn back to the blank canvas - it is my task not to create and accomplish as much as it is to remember and believe. To keep flinging wide the shutters and seeing what old familiar dreams can shatter my meandering, fickle reality with their weight.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
never climbed the ladder
burning in his dream. Sleep
pressed him like a stone
in the dust,
he should have risen
like a flame to join
that choir, he was sick
his eyes to the Seraphim
of the impossible distances
between their steps,
them mount the brilliant
ladder, slowly disappearing
into the scattered light
between the stars,
through it all, a stone
upon a stone pillow,
always greater than desire.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
“I think what weakens people most is fear of wasting their strength." - Etty Hillesum
I doubt that I have ever been so uncertain about what I want to “do with my life.” By this, of course, I mean choosing a career path. I oscillate between yearning to do everything and being sickeningly uninterested in anything; the pace of my current situation is bewildering, and I often reflect that I don’t even have the time or self-possession to want. The relationship between my directionless ambling and the waning opportunity for reflection and prayer is obvious.
Firstly, I’d like to address the rhetorical structure that has us expressing the means by which we cover expenses as what we “do with our lives.” Part of me hopes my job will never be so defining. There is so much to a human beyond the work he does. I resent the work that runs my life, and yet I feel in some way it glorifies me. There are essential elements that run deep; I wonder how to finesse this paradox.
The other night I heard a man talk about the divine nature of inherited work. In the creation story in Genesis, our first picture of God pictures a being moving from resting to working. The Spirit was, and then the Spirit began making. And boy, did He make. I won’t rehash the awe inspired in me by the Planet Earth series, but will note that these images (and think how much more revelatory they will become as technology advances) show me much about the character of God. The intricacies of growth and death, reproduction, relationships, predators and prey, and the seemingly pointless displays of beauty that exceed the comprehensive capacity of the eye and must be taken in by the heart. There is power and terror, and fragility and delicacy. The physical world ranges the full spectrum; just as God is simultaneously everything created and was once a microscopic speck of cellular material in Mary’s womb; just as He is a pillar of fire and the still small voice quieter than a whisper. This work of God’s is a reflection of a character, a personality, a self.
The first thing Adam was asked to do? Work. Name the animals. Exercise dominion. Build stuff. Make stuff. And Eve? Not a companion – a helper. Work gives us the opportunity to participate in the proliferation of the self of God, and it invites us to model our own (comparatively menial, yes) creations after our self. Oh – I do not want to miss out on this.
There are a few outliers in my midst whose occupations do indeed contain something essential about their being. I think of filmmakers I know, stay at home moms, those who serve the underserved, one or two of the doctors I know, maybe a horse trainer I knew once came close, a teacher. There are some whose careers are characterized by the selfhood of the worker – ah, how I long to be one of these.
This longing is paralyzing. I hate the thought of taking a step toward one option that will leave part of my selfhood behind. One path allows me to analyze but stifles the artist, another indulges creativity but abandons order, one feeds my curiosity but cuts me off from people, another overwhelms my spirit by overcrowding it with personnel and bottom lines. I refer to Etty Hillesum as listed above: “I think what weakens people most is fear of wasting their strength.” Weakens? Destroys.
This might be rooted in the mystifying human condition I’ve talked about before – a divine, eternal soul stuck inside a deteriorating flesh with only a few fatty brain cells and trembling synaptic cords to try to bring the two together. I am intimidated by my selfhood. It has a grandness so far beyond anything I can imagine, and I make myself crazy trying to invent some catchall scenario that will allow this divine selfhood that seems so distant to do a work that will reflect the worker.
I think I include this quotation in every other post: “For you have created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Thank you, St. Augustine. Tonight I use this to gain perspective on myself not just as a worker but as a work as well. I was created. Thus, the image I bear reflects that of my Creator. And this – THIS is the seal I ache to press into the soft and feeble wax statues I spend my life fussing and worrying about.
Ayn Rand chimes in, "Why do they always teach us that it's easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It's the hardest thing in the world--to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want." We really want to create with significance. To contribute. What we really want, in essence, is to be a part of the great work – to build something that bears the mark of the Creator whose face we wear in a way that does not submit our individuality to erasure but rather shines as a testimony to its magnificence.
I suppose we’re left with that old instruction: seek ye first the kingdom of God. Therein the selfhood lies. There is the work we can do that is actually “what we do with our lives.”
Etty also offers, “Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.” Sometimes I suppose that’s true.