Monthly Archives: August 2017

What I feel

What do I feel right now? Truthfully, not much of anything.

Oh, surely there is something. Well, there’s that oddly familiar twinge of pain that occasionally shoots up the right side of my torso. Probably associated with the vaguely sick feeling in my stomach.

And I feel really tired inside my head. Perhaps mildly irritable too – why do the neighbors let their dog bark?

But mostly I feel rather flat and lifeless. Perhaps the best descriptor would be that well-worn phrase: “I don’t care.”

I see things, simple things, that need to be done – and I don’t care. I have family and friends and patients but I feel no caring within. (No offense intended to any family, friends or patients who are reading this – it is nothing personal.)

I look at my art materials or projects I’ve been wanting to do. Nope. Don’t care.

Of course, there is God in all of His goodness and the call to pray to Him. But again, there are no feelings stirring in my stony heart.

Some of you may be getting concerned by now. “Wow. She sounds really depressed. Is she alright?”

Rest assured. This is nothing new. It is called “Migraine: Day 2”.

I don’t feel like myself. I don’t even really feel like a person. I feel like someone could crumple up my body, stuff it in a trash bag, toss it in a dumpster and there would be no great loss.

But I’ve been down this road enough times that it is very familiar to me. I expect it will pass. So far, it always has.

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We know that feelings are extremely fickle. What I feel (or don’t feel) at this moment may well be gone tomorrow.

It may be replaced with something I find more comfortable. Or taking its place may be some inner state that I find even more unpleasant.

I should like to think that I have some control or at least choice over what I feel. But is this actually the case?

I’m sorry. I’m too tired to continue. I need to rest or do something different…

+++

I resume writing, though briefly since I am at work. It is a day later than when I began this post.

I do not feel much today either. My head is hurting again, though not severely. I am tired inside my head, despite sleeping well.

My brain does not feel like it belongs to me. There is a fuzzball in my head where it used to reside.

But I am here at work because I know that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much how I feel. I often think that it does – and I can spend a great deal of time pondering what I feel or how I might try to change it. But, in truth, it is a minor thing.

God can make use of me even when I am in this state. In fact, He may be able to make better use of me because I am in a state of weakness.

I know now how much I need Him. Helpless as I am, I don’t have the energy to get in the way of what He wants to accomplish through me.

As the Lord said to St. Paul in his struggle,

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

(2 Corinthians: 12:9)

I may not feel like I care about anything. But I know that I do. At any given moment, there is a much deeper reality at work than what I feel.

+++

Another day has passed (so, technically, we are on Migraine: Day 4).

I woke up this Friday morning to find that my brain is back! I am so grateful – though I haven’t totally emerged from the fog.

I had suspected last night, despite the head still hurting, that things were getting better. On the way home from work, as I was praying Evening Prayer, I heard the following excerpt from the first chapter of James:

My brothers and sisters, count it pure joy when you are involved in every sort of trial. Realize that when your faith is tested this makes for endurance. Let endurance come to its perfection so that you may be fully mature and lacking in nothing.

(James 1: 2-4)

I found myself feeling a bit encouraged. Yes – I felt something.

My Friday evening is typically “art with God night”. I fast from the Internet and God and I spend the evening together – praying, reading, making art – whatever.

I read and prayed a bit last evening but was very tired, my head still hurting.

And then it occurred to me, “Now is the time to paint my socks!” (See previous post for context). It was the perfect thing for God and I to do together because it would absorb my attention but was not at all artistically complex.

And so we did. I wasn’t ready to hear any sounds that I didn’t have to so, rather than putting on music, I just sort of hummed random tones while we chose and mixed colors of ink to splash upon my socks.

It was kind of fun. By the time we were finished, bedtime was right around the corner. Prayers were said out of my still-scrambled brain. But I suspect the real prayer had already taken place – in the time spent together as God allowed color to awaken my soul.

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Praying this morning was different than it has been for the last several days. I felt present. I felt human. I felt grateful.

Breakfast settled comfortably in my stomach, the torso pains and vague nausea having vanished overnight.

While driving to work, a fresh wave of fatigue hit me. I had been up for three hours. I have come to expect this as well – or at least not be surprised by it.

With fatigue and a slight headache appearing and disappearing throughout much of the day, I undertook the process of catching up. There are many things I didn’t do, back when the feeling of “I don’t care” reigned.

And so I must work and get back to you later…

+++

It is now Sunday and I am alive. And I feel alive.

During Liturgy this morning, I wanted to sing and dance – and I did, though I kept the movements of my feet and the swaying of my body very subtle. (I wanted God to know that I was dancing for Him but no one else need notice…)

I want to write and paint and do a few things in my garden today. In fact, I want to do more things than I will reasonably be able to do. I feel good.

But I must watch this sensation with some caution. The feeling of release from a migraine attack is sometimes so pleasant that I feel a bit euphoric.

While we all like euphoria, I have learned to be careful with it. Sometimes it is part of the prodrome of the next migraine. Does it cause the attack? Or is it simply a warning sign? I do not know – but I prefer not to test it.

In any event, I have not written here to tell the tired old tale of what my migraine attacks are like. (Anyone wanting to learn more about migraine will find an abundance of information at migraine.com.)

Rather, I am writing about feelings, those fickle, frightening, fascinating vicissitudes of my inner state that often challenge me in my emotional and spiritual journey.

I suspect my journal-like entries above address the question I posed at the onset – whether I have any control or choice in how I feel.

Apparently, quite often, I do not.

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Not too long ago, I wrote a rather lengthy post about feelings – or perhaps, more accurately, about emotions (see Strange bedfellows.)

What I write about now is not so much the emotions themselves (anger, fear, happiness, sadness, etc.) but how the absence or distortion of normal feelings may confuse us in our faith.

How do I pray, how do I relate to others, how do I live, when I find myself passing through such a desert – regardless of how or why I came to be there?

I do not know. But I return to the letter of James. I am called to endure and to allow that endurance to come to perfection.

What does it mean to endure?

On the most fundamental level, it means to survive – to stay in existence. Certainly important. However, it has a deeper meaning as well: to suffer patiently.

As I enter further into this reflection, I ask myself, “and what does that mean?”

Suffering, or experiencing discomfort in body, mind or soul, comes to us whether we want it to or not. It is a fact of our human existence – and one that we don’t like and cannot readily understand.

Certainly I didn’t ask for my migraine episode. I would have much preferred an easier path.

But for me to suffer patiently or to endure involves learning acceptance of whatever God allows to come to me. To accept it without becoming angry or fearful or despairing.

I do not banish these emotions should they arise as part of my experience. But I do not become them.

I cannot help what I feel (or don’t feel). But I can know deep within me that I belong to God, regardless of what is happening to my body or even my brain.

I may not feel Him with me. Quite probably I won’t – at least during the more severe challenges. But I know that I am His.

A dear and holy patient of mine (who has since gone home to God) told me something years ago that stuck with me. She had passed through a profound depression that lasted a very long time (months? years? I no longer remember). It was so deep that she could not work, she could not keep track of her bills or property, she could not think clearly.

Much later, when the depression had eased considerably, she told me that she hadn’t known where she was then except that it had been a place of great darkness. She didn’t remember being able to pray or feel God’s presence but, “I knew He knew where I was.”

There was link. He knew. He had not forgotten her. And so she could hold on and endure.

My little migraine episode is nothing compared to that.

But it is part of the same process – a necessary process, I believe, that God uses to purify us, to make us “fully mature”.

+++

The holy people of several spiritual traditions tell us the same thing: we are to welcome and accept equally the pleasant and unpleasant experiences of life – for they come to us carrying a message or a lesson.

While God may or may not be the one who sends the lessons, He allows them to come. He wants us to learn and grow.

Part of my daily prayer is to ask God to purify my heart for Him alone. Had I thought He would accomplish this for me pain-free?

Perhaps, naively, I had. But He is teaching me.

He teaches me that to follow Him is to walk the way of the Cross.

Not the way of the shiny cross that fashion hangs from a chain around my neck. Not the way of the painted or sculpted cross that hangs safely in our museums and churches. Not even the way of the cross observed in song or prayer.

No, to follow Him to the Cross is to walk the way of suffering.

But “why?” we might ask. Why is suffering so important? Does God love suffering?

+++

Most certainly He does not.

Yet two things have been made clear to me in this regard.

My preoccupation with “what I feel” keeps ME on center stage – and I do not let go of this easily. Indeed, for my heart to be purified, the “contaminants” that pride has sown there must be rent away. This, inevitably, is painful. (For a wonderful illustration of this, see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, where Aslan “un-dragons” Eustace.)

If I wish to pass my time on earth with God as just one small part of my life, I can do this. I can go to church now and then, say a few prayers and call myself a Christian. And little or no rending will occur.

I will not have freed myself from all suffering, of course. None of us can do that. But, without purification, I will not have walked the Way of suffering or entered the Cross of Christ.

The suffering that does come to me will have no meaning. I will be apart from Him and left with only me. Perhaps the best description of hell I can imagine.

And this leads us to the second thing made clear to me.

Lived in union with the Savior, my suffering is no longer pointless misery. When I stop clinging to the self-idolatry of “what I feel”, it is no longer about me.

My suffering is transformed into sacrifice. My life becomes part of His holy sacrifice.  

When patiently enduring my trial for the sake of the Gospel, the love of Christ Jesus is poured forth in me and through me.

And whether I am feeling good or bad or nothing at all – none of this is important – so long as I give myself back to Him in love.

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But I don’t know how to do this.

I don’t know how to patiently endure. And what trials of mine could possibly be worthy of being joined to His holy Cross?

It is here that the Gospel becomes surprisingly simple. If I return to “the little way” of my friend, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I learn that any trial may be given to Jesus as long as it is given in love.

While it may be something as major as a serious physical or mental illness, it may also be as small as routine day-to-day disappointments or annoyance. No trial is too small to offer as part of the Way of Love.

And it is true that I do not know how to patiently endure. But that is why the lessons come. How else will I learn?

I must admit that I am not a very good student. Yes, I’m good at studying books and answering questions on tests – but I am not at all good at accepting my weakness.

In the end, it is His grace that will lead me.

May I follow, no longer having a “will of my own”. A priceless thing that shall be…

Amen.

What I expect

This week, someone had occasion to remind me that I am human.

Off and on in the course of my life, people who cared about me and were trying to be of help have issued similar reminders.

I have often found this curious. I have never had any doubts about my status as part of the group called homo sapiens. Is there something that parents failed to tell me?

As best as I can discern, these loving individuals were actually trying to communicate a concern about how much I expect of myself – with the implication that my expectations were perhaps a bit high.

While I certainly cannot fault these compassionate people for making such an observation, there is something paradoxical about considering any expectation “too high” in the realm of the Spirit.

What self-expectation can be considered excessive, when the Lord Christ Himself commanded us, “…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48)?

Are the issuers of these reminders encouraging me to accept as inevitable that I can be nothing more than a half-hearted Christian?

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Of course not.

Whether they were consciously thinking of it in these terms or not, what these kind people were actually doing was gently pointing out my sinfulness and need to repent.

What they could see (and I could not) was that my expectations of myself were built on a foundation of pride.

There is something subtle enough here that it merits further discussion.

Let’s suppose that someone has dealt me an offensive blow in the course of my professional life. And let’s suppose I feel really, really angry with this person and the systems or individuals who have turned a blind eye to this injustice.

Let us further imagine (since this a hypothetical scenario) that I am versed in the Gospel and call to mind Christ’s command that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (see Matthew 5: 44).

I take seriously this clear instruction from the Lord but I am faced with a dilemma. How can I possibly love these “enemies” whom I recently discovered I have? Or even pray for them – when I cannot stop my mind from reviewing over and over how wrongly they behaved?

At first glance, it may seem that I have only two options: either I suppress my anger and rage, hiding them beneath a cloak of piety, or I give in to it, acknowledging that I cannot love this enemy, for I am “only human”.

The former course is likely to make me ill, emotionally, physically and spiritually. In fact, it has done so in the past.

The latter course seems to suggest that it is all right for me to disregard the Lord’s instructions in some circumstances because, after all, I am human. I cannot expect so much of myself.

It is, indeed, a good thing that there exists a third path.

+++

Both of the options above contain an element of truth.

In the first case, I am recognizing an essential tenet of the Faith and making an effort not to let my anger run amok.

In the second case, I am accepting that I am weak and cannot carry out the Lord’s directives on my own.

In the third option, these truths come together.

My human weakness can never be an excuse to disregard the teachings of Christ. He would not instruct us to do something that is impossible for us.

On the other hand, nowhere does Jesus say or even suggest that it will be through our own strength or virtue alone that we will be able to carry out His directives.

In fact, He tells us quite the opposite. Let us listen in as Jesus gives His final discourse to the apostles before His death.

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. (John 14: 12-18)

The Lord Jesus promised His followers then and promises us now all the support we could possibly need: the Advocate. He knows that we are neither strong enough nor wise enough to even remember His instructions, much less carry them out without the Spirit of truth among us.

For me to try to do otherwise is, quite simply, one more dimension of the pride that so often infects my soul.

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So what does this mean for me if I am to embrace both the Gospel and my humanness? What do I expect of myself lest I fall into one trap or the other?

St. Paul gives witness to what he was told by the Lord when he was faced with a similar dilemma:

Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9)

And so I expect myself to be weak.

This is not permission to sin or disregard any aspect of the Gospel. Rather, it is an expectation that I accept the truth about myself.

This is the very heart of humility. And, ironically, part of this acceptance of my weakness is the knowledge that I cannot even become humble without the intervention of God’s grace.

Yet I also know that my Savior never forces His help upon me.

So I also expect myself to be obedient and to pray for His help. (Knowing, of course, that I can be neither obedient nor prayerful without the aid of His divine mercy.)

Is there anything else I expect?

Yes. Yes, indeed, there is…

+++

I expect myself to stumble and fall. I expect myself to make mistakes. I expect myself to lose control. I even expect myself to sin.

I expect myself to fear and to question and to doubt. I expect that some days I will hear not a whisper from the heavens and my heart will feel like a heavy stone lodged in my body.

I expect that some days I will not want to pray  – or that I will forget – or that I will pray mechanically as my mind wanders to everything from troubles to trivia. And I will feel helpless as it does so.

I also expect that, at other times, I will feel hopeful and joyous and very good about myself and my life – only to discover that I have once again fallen into self-admiration rather than having truly turned my heart God-wards.

I expect myself in times of hurt or heartbreak to cry, to sob, to wail. To pound on the floor, with tears streaming down my face, as I scream “Why?” at the ceiling.

Then I expect myself to fall in a heap at the foot of the Cross and beg Him to forgive me, to be merciful, to help me.

And then I expect that He will come to me, wrapping me in His love and mercy, wiping my tears away…

And then, I expect we will repeat this process many, many times over as He purifies my heart for love alone.

+++

Knowing who and what I am, I cannot expect that He will succeed. This can never be an “expectation”.

But I can trust. I can trust that, in the end, His love will be far stronger and more powerful than any weakness or sin that I can lay before Him.

And so it shall be.

All praise to Him, Father, Son and Spirit…

What I want

For starters, I want my head to stop hurting.

I want to pit the cherries in my refrigerator, cook them into a gooey mess and then eat them with some Greek yogurt. Warm and cool in my mouth at the same time. Sweet and tart together. Mmm…

I want to paint my socks. (I don’t have time now but it’s on the list.)

I want to sleep long and deep tonight.

I want to get up tomorrow feeling refreshed and having energy.

I want just enough rain in the morning to water my garden and fill my rain barrels. Then I want the sun to come out and make everything sparkle.

I want to get my work done tomorrow. See a few patients – but not too many. I want a restful day. I want my paycheck to come in the mail so I can get my banking done.

And I want desperately to visit my dear friend who isn’t well but not yet ready for visitors.

As this post has been gestating over the past few days, I have observed quite a few of these “I want…” statements in my mind. In fact, they seem to pop up as fast as weeds in my garden when I’m not watching.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with “wanting” things. We are, after all, hardwired to want what feels pleasant and to avoid the painful.

Yet all of these “wants” can be more than a little problematic for my spiritual growth. As I listen to them forming in my mind, the most concerning part is how much the word “I” is present in my daily thoughts.

My continual reference point seems to be…well, me.

Having just written two posts on asceticism, it seems rather apparent that I am much better at writing about it than I am at living it.

But perhaps this is what the “struggle” in asceticism is all about. It is much the same with repentance.

The former is not about uprooting all enjoyment in life. The latter is not about lashing myself for my faults and weaknesses.

No, I sense they are both much more concerned with orientation, i.e. getting myself properly oriented in a universe that does not have “me” at its center.

As I become oriented, He will come into focus as my (false) self fades away. And, ironically, this will ultimately lead me away from suffering toward a joy much greater than any I can now imagine – the joy of being fully alive.

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To get properly oriented, I must turn. I am not facing the right direction if what I see most of the time is me.

At one time, I thought it rather silly that some Christians make an issue about facing east when praying. After all, God isn’t any less in the west than He is in the east. It is simply a human tradition to think this way.

I cannot say that I have really changed this opinion. I still believe God is everywhere and in all things. And He hears me, regardless of the direction I am facing when I pray.

It wasn’t my opinion that changed. It was something deeper within. Something that led me to set up icons on the east wall of my house and pray facing them first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

My icons, it might be noted, include both Catholic and Orthodox saints, as well as the Virgin and Christ Himself.

Something moved me to do this.

This movement, I sense, came both from me and from beyond me.

If I had acted alone, one might readily think, “Ah, she is just going through a phase. She’s imitating the Orthodox now. Soon it will be something else.”

There is always that danger with movement, I suppose, a danger that I am allowing myself to be re-directed by a false or evil spirit.

But I do not suspect that is the case now.

I believe there is One moving me as I most long to be moved – but in a direction I cannot find on my own.

It is much more complex than simply finding east – for it is movement away from myself and into the infinity of God.

When I am facing “me”, it would be like my life constantly looking in a mirror. At first, it would become boring. In time, it would come to be repugnant.

Facing Him, on the other hand, is like spending eternity being a mirror, knowing His light and allowing it to reflect from me wherever, whenever, however He wills.

And His will is my delight – a much greater delight than any of those I concoct for myself on a daily basis.

+++

It is now about 24 hours after the time I began this post. Let’s see what has occurred.

Interestingly, only a couple of the “wants” I listed above have been fulfilled during the interim.

I am grateful for the gift of a head that no longer hurts. Also, that I was able to see a few patients today (but not too many), making for a relatively restful day.

Those other wants? Well, they will happen at some later time – or perhaps not at all. It is not for me to know or dictate.

What is most clear is that “what I want” at any given moment is really of very little significance in the grand scheme of things. While this may be readily apparent with the wish to paint my socks, it is far from obvious with my desire to visit my ailing friend.

I have discovered that perhaps one of the most profound fasts to which one can be called is the fast from another who is loved so very much.

Seldom do we choose to fast from someone we love. Why would we? Though I imagine that we might do so if one has something important to do and the other cannot join in, this sort of fast typically has a known beginning and end date.

We are just as unlikely to choose to fast from health or security – for to do so is like fasting from our sense of control over what feels most essential to our being.

But there are times when God chooses a fast for us. He does not do this because He relishes our suffering or wishes to control us, but because He alone knows what we need to pass through in order to be completely and utterly His.

I do not know how to turn to make this happen. I cannot find the direction by myself.

And this I believe is at the heart of true asceticism: the struggle to trust – not myself – but Him. To trust that when He leads me to the brink of what appears to me to be wrong or confusing, painful or frightening, it is indeed the only way home.

For this is the Cross, the Cross that I both fear and long for, the Cross of my Savior.

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To say that I do not want the Cross would be an understatement of massive proportions. On a human level, even Christ did not “want” it at all.

Like the Lord Jesus in the garden of His agony, I fear it. And I would probably fear the Cross even more if I truly understood what it entails.

How then can I long for it?

Every one of my wants, those listed and those not, direct my being toward something transitory. Yes, even my friendship of many years is not endless, though we both hope to one day share the eternal life we have been promised.

My longing, my very deepest longing, is to be taken beyond my false self, that odd collection of wants, weaknesses and abilities that I have come to think of as “me”, and become one with Christ in eternal love.

And there is only one way this deep longing of mine can be fulfilled: I must follow Him to the Cross where I willingly and lovingly learn to surrender my very self.

With Him, I will say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” and, at that moment, my life will no longer belong to me – but to Love.

+++

All of my little wants – there is nothing wrong with them. They are not bad anymore than flowers or butterflies, peaches or puppies are bad.

They are just very small and transitory. I love them and enjoy them but I know not to cling to them because they cannot last.

I love and embrace them with open hands. They may rest in my hands for short moments or long before slipping through my fingers like water into the pool of life.

I cannot lie. I will suffer. In my humanness, there will be times when I will cry out in pain, most especially for the human loves that bless my life. Yet this too is part of the Cross, the surrender of self.

This – this is sacrifice – the very heart of eternal love: to grasp nothing and give up all, everything that I know and want, so that all of the small loves may come to the fullness of life in God.

May He name be praised forever.