Category Archives: Spiritual Matters

Monster Prayers

I realized something lately about why I am so resistant to making prayer a regular part of my life. I thought it was just that I feel awkward or stupid doing it, or that I fear being judged by people in my life and constantly having to explain why my non-religious forms of prayer are necessary for me.  No, I’m hesitant to embrace prayer because the way I pray is limiting myself and my view of the future.

I pray to get through the day without doing the self-destructive things I must avoid–but I don’t always ask for the grace of not even wanting to do them. I pray for the strength to get essential things done, but I don’t pray for them to flow smoothly or go well. I pray for the grace not to fall to self-pity, or fear, or envy– but I’m not asking for their joyous opposites.

Actually, I don’t ask for much good stuff at all. When I do ask for any, it’s usually for someone else. I’ve taken lessons of humility so much to heart that I’ve forgotten about love. I’ve forgotten that, within the confines of my God’s unknowable will, there’s room for me to ask for mercy and joy and healing. The answer might have to be no–but I’m allowed to want it, ask for it, reach for it.

I’m short-changing myself. And I’m short-changing my conception of God.

A man I once knew, who had recently taken up a religion and was experiencing the zeal of a convert, used the phrase “monster prayers” one day. He said it was his practice to try asking his God for everything he wanted, no matter how far-fetched it might seem. He, as well, knew that the answer can be no; that prayer isn’t some kind of bargain of “I’ll keep believing in you or being good if you give me what I want.” But he asked for miracles, and childish desires, and wonderful things.

I loved that phrase “monster prayers.” I pictured the clumsy, endearing, brightly colored monsters from kid’s shows next to fierce dragons and Cthulhu-esque tentacled things. I loved the idea of sending out the monsters of my wishes and desires to dance in front of my deity, entertaining it and teaching it more about me.

So what would I ask for, understanding that just asking is part of the magic?

A night of deep, refreshing sleep?
A day without any thoughts of death?
An upturn in my health?
Some windfall to ease financial problems?
Finding a psychiatrist who takes insurance?
A burst of creativity and productivity, getting more writing done?

No, not enough. Those aren’t monsters, they’re no more than small dogs on the scale we are trying for. Think impossible. Think ridiculous. Think baby crying for the moon.

Having a book published.
Solving the mystery of my daughter’s chronic pain.
Being healthy and active, without needing to sabotage myself.
Great friends among whom I actually feel comfortable.
Being free of fear, really free.
The best sex of my life.
Seeing the Louvre.
The best sex of my life, in the Louvre.

Better. Still, all of those are technically possible…how about world peace, an intact ozone layer, the ability to teleport, and a love affair with the telepathic leader of a friendly alien species?

Now we’re talking. Let the monsters go…so I’ll be less intimidated by the smaller creatures of my longings.

More Than You Can Handle

People I care about are going through the terminal illness of a family member. As we all tend to do, I grope for the right words of comfort and support, and don’t want to accept that there are no “right” words.

There may not be any words that are the right ones, but there are some I try to avoid. There are phrases that, when uttered by another person, make me wince. So, because of my personal bias, I don’t like to say them to anyone else.

High on my list of these is: “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

I understand the spirit and intention behind these words. I understand they’re meant to imply that a loving God can and will support us even through times we don’t think we can take. I don’t even have a problem with the word God, although I might use a different word for the “thing bigger than myself” I believe in.

My problem with this phrase has to do with my opinion that it’s just not true.

God/life/the universe does sometimes throw things our way that we cannot handle. Some things, or combinations of things, do break us. Don’t believe me? Walk through your jail or local psych ward. Hell, walk down some city streets. We do get broken.

Maybe I’m just quibbling over semantics. Maybe it’s the word “handle” that I just don’t like. I don’t know. I just imagine someone sitting in the psych ward, or rehab, or in a cubicle in the ER getting cuts stitched up, and thinking they’ve failed. Someone told them God would never give them anything they couldn’t handle, and they failed to handle it, so they have done something wrong. They must be worse than other people. They’ve let God down.

Some things are not handle-able. They cross a line. The location of that line is different for everyone. Outer and inner circumstances cross the line and become forces of nature, and we do not cope with them. They handle us, and when it’s over we are not the same person.

Does this mean some source of strength and love from the universe is not there for us? I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that this mysterious source won’t necessarily keep us from breaking–even if it’s right there to love us through it when we do.

So I don’t like to tell people their God won’t let them break. I don’t know if what they are currently experiencing will break them or not. I don’t know how many pieces they will shatter into if they do, or what shape those shards will have, or what type of form the bits might create when they get put together again.

When I gave birth to my daughter, I processed the pain of the first hours using breathing and moving and vocalizing. I rocked, growled and moaned, but always with some feeling of control and power. I felt proud of myself; I was being like the empowered birthing women I had read about.

Then something happened; the pain got a lot worse and I started to lose it. I began to panic. I tried every technique I had been doing, and some others. The people around me encouraged me and told me I could do it. It did not help.

Then the midwife said something that made the difference. She said “You need to stop trying to manage the pain. Let go.” I clutched her hand, afraid, but her words resonated with me. She was acknowledging that this was bigger than me. It was unmanageable, and she didn’t expect me to manage it.

For the next half an hour, I stopped coping. Technique went out the window; I writhed and flopped like a fish, as my body tried to escape the pain. I moaned and cried, no longer trying to keep my voice low and fierce. The pain managed me, and as I became its bitch I told myself that if it got any worse I would demand an epidural. Or a C-section.

My daughter was born quickly, amid much screaming, after this change in my demeanor. Later, I learned about some factors that had made my labor unusually intense. Though the experience was empowering in the end, I did not come from it unscathed. I had flashbacks, and the physical changes of pregnancy and birth altered my brain forever. I’ll always be grateful to that midwife for encouraging me to let go. By acknowledging the sheer power of what was happening to me, she helped me be at peace with having been changed by it.

I’ll continue to grope for words to comfort those who suffer–words that give some kind of support without ever implying that I, or some divine, have any expectations about the exact course and consequences of their pain.

The Books of Grace

At last, words are flowing again, and I have thought of a story I want to tell.

This is not that story.

In a day or two, I will tell it. I will write you a story about a cow and a cup of coffee and an important letter. But today, while that story was incubating, something else happened.

It was nothing dramatic; just some dawdling in the bookstore. But it was an experience of unexpected grace. Why? Because, after half an hour of wandering, I became aware that something was missing.

Somehow, I had neglected to bring my usual bookstore baggage through the doors with me. All of the things I wrote about in Bookstore Sans Filter: envy, insecurity, pessimism. Frustration at the plethora of condescending and contradictory advice in the nonfiction sections. Feelings of futility when looking at the shelves of books and thinking I have nothing to contribute. Defensiveness in response to the perceived barrage of things I should be cooking, causes I should be supporting, ways I should be parenting, et caetera ad nauseam.

It wasn’t there! I call it unlikely grace, because I did nothing to make it happen. I just noticed it, the way I might notice that I forgot my purse. Or the way I notice (if I’m paying attention to positives) that it’s a low pain level day.

It was the most enjoyable bookstore trip I’ve had for a long time. I browsed in the cooking section–a place I avoid like the plague–looking at cookbooks my daughter might like. I looked at books in the photography section, art, nature and even psychology without feeling the usual pressure. Perhaps it wasn’t completely gone, but it lay lightly upon me; a silk scarf in place of a heavy cloak.

Even when I made my traditional pilgrimage to the poetry section last, it felt like saying hello to my friends instead of being wistful and covetous. Wanting to own all of those books, or wanting to be up there with them, did not hurt.

Gratitude is vital to my sanity, yet I so often find myself trying to force it. When it’s not flowing freely, I get annoyed at the social media rhapsodies about how blessed people are feeling. I feel as if I’m failing if I’m not swimming in a sea of peace and bliss, or at least papering my misery with sayings about how my misery isn’t necessary.

What I felt today is gratitude, though. Or, at least, it’s something without which gratitude is impossible. I felt awareness of a gift; this gift of temporary freedom from my own chains.

Alice Walker said it well in The Color Purple: “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” It says we are meant to notice, but it says nothing about what we are to do with that awareness. It says nothing about making lists of blessings and putting purple on it. That’s great to do, if it helps us, but the first thing that helps is awareness.

What would I be like if my mental filter always let positive input through as smoothly as negative? If, along with real pain and dark emotions, there were a constant inflow of data about lightness and color and word–less pain, easier breath, moments of freedom, slants of light.

As I read this, I don’t think my words have truly captured what I felt among those books. That’s all right, though, because some things can’t be described in words. It’s like events in a dream, where you just know the turtle is actually your third-grade teacher but have no idea how you know this. The feeling of grace and freedom, like all of what keeps me here for one more day, is at its heart a mystery.

Green-Eyed Hellbeast

I envy you.

Why? Give me a minute; I’m sure I’ll think of something.

Maybe you don’t have to live with a mental health issue. Or you’re not an addict, so you can take painkillers when something hurts. Okay, I can understand envying that when things are hard. But it doesn’t stop there, oh no.

There’s so much material I can find. You’re younger than me, and have more time to do something with your life. Or you’re more attractive. 
You have more money. Or you made better decisions with the money you have. Or you live in a nicer place, or you keep wherever you do live nicer and don’t struggle with clutter and inertia.
You have a job you like or at least gives you some self-respect. Or you’re published. Or you have more friends. Or you work out. Or your relationship looks better. Or your kids cause you less anxiety.

Trust me, this deeply sick part of my psyche will find a way.

And the real problem with envy for me is its accompanying baggage. Pure and clean envy would just be desire and possible regret: I want that thing someone else has, and I have to either want it badly enough to work for it (if it’s attainable) or accept that I can’t have it (if it’s not). I might have to go through a grief process for the latter: No, I’m not as young as this person, and the age I am can’t be changed, and I have feelings about this.

But, for me, envy comes flanked by shame and resentment: two well-known assassins of spiritual values. I want something you have, and I experience shame because I blame myself for not having it–or I experience resentment toward you because I resent you for having it. Usually both. Why do I resent you for having it? It links right back to shame: by having this thing, you have somehow contributed to me feeling bad about myself. If you are higher on the cosmic scale of good stuff, it’s making me hyperaware of the fact that I feel lower–and, deep in a part of me I don’t enjoy acknowledging, I blame you.

If your life actually is sucking badly enough on enough levels that I have a hard time envying you, I’m awkward and insecure because I think you must be envying and resenting me.

This isn’t always a conscious tape playing, of course. I was hardly even aware of it until I began doing the kind of deep digging needed for living in recovery. I always thought I was a basically nice, well-intentioned person whose biggest faults were the inability to stop my compulsive behaviors.

Insert hollow laugh here.

The thought that I could have died that blind; still thinking that about myself–without ever having an opportunity to see and try to balance the darkness in me–makes me shudder. Envy isn’t the only thing that I’ve discovered and now carry around like a parrot on my shoulder, constantly squawking “Be conscious of me!” but its voice is one of the loudest. Envy poisons my soul more than I can describe. Envy separates me from other people in a way that breaks my heart to look at.

Green-eyed monster isn’t a good enough term for me. In the books I’ve read. monsters vary widely in character and some turn out not to be so bad. No, envy is my most foul of hellbeasts. It’s my Balrog. It’s my Cthulhu, waiting deep under the sea to rise and devour.

It’s uncomfortable to be made aware of a wound and feel it twinge with every movement. I am not enjoying this stage between the consciousness and the healing, especially since I expect the healing to occur in very slow stages. The only thing that gives me the courage to write honestly about it is the knowledge that I’m not alone. I can’t be the only one who suffers from this terrible malady of the spirit (one that, not to make excuses, is fed pretty robustly by our culture.) Someone, somewhere, might read my words and be inspired to look at how envy shapes their thoughts, or to feel less shame about envy’s known place in their psyche.

Grammar and Hope

Peace on Earth, good will to men.

That’s how the old text is translated, and how it’s quoted in English in religious texts. During the winter holidays, we tend to hear it in Christmas carols and readings.

But to a word geek like me, it comes across a little differently–and that difference is speaking to me this month. Comforting me, teaching me and giving me a much-needed dose of tough love.

You see, I encountered the Latin words many years ago when I sang my first Mass, one by Beethoven. Beethoven, like many composers of his time, composed a lot of religious works because the Church was one of the only potential providers of support to a musician.

The experience of singing the beautiful music–my first piece of this nature–forged a positive association with the Latin Mass, even though I don’t belong to this religion. The phrase about peace on Earth occurs in the second of five parts of the Mass, and the Latin text reads: et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. When, years later, I dabbled in beginning Latin, I dug into the phrase and realized something really cool.

The translation works at the beginning: pax is peace, in terra means on Earth, hominibus is the form of “humans” that implies something being given to it. So we have peace being given to mankind. But the last phrase–bonae voluntatis–is in the possessive case, attached to hominibus.

It’s not “peace on earth, good will to men.”
It’s “peace on earth to men who have good will.”

Holy shit. It changes everything.

Now, before you scholars start having heart attacks, I’m quite aware that the oldest forms of the Christian texts are not in Latin; thus I might be wrong about the most original meaning of the New Testament text. I could even be wrong about the Latin. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m only using the Latin the way I use so many things, as a personal talisman du jour.

But why? Why is it helping me?

Several reasons. In general, it helps me to understand that this idea of general good will may not be realistic and I don’t need to beat myself up about not feeling bathed in it. It helps me to be given a message of hope mixed with accountability: yes, there is peace and grace, but it doesn’t come for free and it doesn’t come to all. The aether won’t fart rainbows just because it’s a certain season of the year. It’s by having good will that we experience peace, even if the “good will” may only be strong enough to help us ask for more of it.

Peace, in an external sense, has never come for free; we know this. Bits and pieces, at best, are bought with bitter conflict and sacrifice. Peace, in an internal sense, doesn’t come for free either, and today I get to remind myself that good will is one payment I need to come up with if I want some.

Good will; good voluntatis. As in voluntary, volition, volunteer. Not only will or desire, but conscious intention and willingness. I don’t have it, or at least not enough of it, and it helps me to know that.

Saying this about myself isn’t a way of putting myself down. It’s a relief. The way we are relieved, though not necessarily happy, when we find a cause for those mysterious symptoms we’ve been having. Thinking about this phrase puts me over the line separating “I should really get this looked at” to “I’m calling today.” It just got to me: I want some feeling of peace so badly, and this is why I don’t feel it.

My spirit and soul are sick, and I have been unwilling to look into the depth of the pain they are in. The recent depression and the thoughts that come with it have left them bruised and flinching, and I need to understand how greatly they are in need of care. I have been unwilling to ask people for help with the actions I need to take, and unwilling to cry out to my God for healing. I am sick with fear, and envy, and guilt, and resentment, and the various other assassins I carry inside me. My will is not good, and there isn’t going to be any pax in my personal terra until it gets a bit better.

Ash Eliot

I also bought a teddy bear last weekend. It was a gesture of over-the-top nurturing to go along with the other extra care involved in my Discount Psych Ward. My social phobia and anxiety have made recovery group meetings and such more of an ordeal lately, and I thought having something to hold onto during the meetings might help a little. So we went to Build-a-Bear and I chose the softest one they had.

On Sunday, I took him to one of my regular meetings with me. I got some odd looks, but that was fine. I also got many smiles and a few requests to hold him. The willingness to be childlike, or even foolish, in recovery is important enough to me to have written about it before, and this was just another example.

But my new friend did more than comfort me during a meeting. He also made me think more deeply about poetry, what it means to me, how I feel about wanting to write it, and my spirituality.

How, exactly, did a little teddy bear manage this? Well, I’m sure you are dying to know.

Someone asked me what the bear’s name was. I told her I named him Ash Eliot: Eliot because my favorite poet is T.S. Eliot and Ash because my favorite poem by him is called Ash Wednesday.

“Well,” she said, “I was never into any of that intellectual stuff.” Or something like that. I didn’t know what to say. I felt awkward and ashamed, as if I’d somehow insulted her or acted superior about having some knowledge of literature. I felt other. The meeting started, and I tried to put my feeling of awkwardness and hurt behind me. But I didn’t want to let it go like that; I wanted to be understood.

Yes, and I’d also like a pony. We all want to be understood, but that doesn’t mean it is going to happen. St. Francis was right to advise praying to understand instead; it avoids any temptation to make our lives contingent on someone else’s ability to see.

But if I could, I’d like to communicate more about how my love of poetry has nothing to do with intellectualism. I’d like to be more “out of the closet” about it, and be accepted for this among my peers of all interests. In this fantasy world, everyone would realize that it’s simply one of my roads to spirituality, as necessary as water, as vital as warmth. I’d feel free to talk about poetry in a meeting that same way someone else might talk about Jesus if that’s his or her particular road to the divine.

Ash Eliot–and that fact that I chose that name in the first place, that a poet was the loving companion spirit I wanted with me–made me think about all of this. Today, in the library, I sought comfort from a book by the poet Mary Oliver, and found words of understanding there. She writes that poetry “…carries one from this green and mortal world…lifts the latch and gives a glimpse into a greater paradise.” She writes: “Poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost.”

Sounds spiritual to me. If poetry is one’s thing, then it is spiritual. Why should I question it? And why should I be ashamed? It’s just another part of me, and being honest about it is just another part of presenting myself as I am. Let it be one of my distinguishing traits, even if it is awkward sometimes. That’s the one who is dual diagnosis. That’s the one who brings a teddy bear to meetings. That’s the one who is really into poetry and writing and stuff.

If it makes me other, then I need to trust in the idea that there will be friends out there for me that are okay with, or even attracted to, this flavor of other. For this flavor, this mixed seasoning of the meat that is my self, is the only kind of nourishment that will never fail me.

Strolling With Sewage

Sometimes, out in nature, the lovely spiritual metaphor we encounter is a graceful bird soaring through the air. Or it’s a flower, blooming in response to its inborn clock. Perhaps a river, shining silver in the distance and promising change.

Sometimes not.

I was making a pilgrimage. I’d dropped my daughter off at her classes and driven my longing-to-be-virtuous self to a regional park that has a paved, hilly trail around a reservoir. I was going to walk that trail, a trail difficult enough to make me sweat and ache a bit, and I was going to be purified. I’d purge away the recent days of little exercise; scour away the depressive miasma and drop bits of my recent bout of anxieties here and there on the trail, leaving them behind me when I was done. I’d have a nice conversation with God, too, and come away feeling better and clearer.

Yes, that was my agenda–but, as often happens, my agenda did not control. First of all, my body did not appear to be on board with the plan at all. Far sooner than usual, I began to ache and be winded. So what, I told myself. The trail’s less than three miles. You can do it. Look around at the trees; smell that fresh air. Isn’t this nice?

I drew in a deep, intentional breath, and stopped abruptly as I detected a decidedly un-fresh smell. Surmounting the next rise, I heard a loud motor and discovered a sewage truck just ahead of me on the paved trail. Two men in vests were monitoring the pumping of the trail bathroom’s contents through a large hose into the truck. Waving politely, I breathed shallowly as I walked by and inhaled in relief when I got upwind. Soon I’d gained enough distance for the quiet and freshness to be restored.

I tried again to get into the groove of feeling peaceful in nature, and my mind wandered. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave me, and my mind wouldn’t stop skittering around planning the rest of the day, week and year. I asked God, out loud, to help me open up and enjoy being out here.

As if in answer, a loud rumble approached from behind me. The sewage truck was back, and I hastily retreated from the trail to let it pass. I had a sinking feeling about where it was going, and sure enough, five minutes later the smell greeted me again as I approached the next restroom being emptied. Is this how the whole walk is going to be, I grumbled, and then reproved myself for my lack of gratitude. Think about these two workers, I told myself. This is what they do all day while you get to walk in the fresh air!

Still, it was distracting, and I really wanted to achieve a certain state of mind. I got a bright idea: I’ll stop and rest for a while, and that will give them time to get far enough ahead that I won’t catch up with them. So I found a bench and settled down. Look now, look at the living gray sky and the brown brush. See the rippling water and hear the chaotic bird cries. Get out of your head. But I didn’t get out of my head. I sank deeper and deeper, burrowing into extreme detail of one of my darker genres of phantasy.

There, on that bench in the fresh air, I (as I tend to do) lost and was abandoned by those I love, became an outcast, and moved beyond the will to live. Birds called me, and I couldn’t answer, trapped in my own mental theater. At last I managed to shake myself out of it enough to talk to my God. Why do I think about these things, God? Why do I do this? I got up and started walking again. If you want me to think about these things this way, that’s okay, but if you don’t want me in that place, please help me think about what you want me to think about.

I kept walking, and kept on talking, and began to feel a creeping sense of virtue (at least I’m trying, I’m saying something, I’m making an effort to ask for divine will and that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?) when I heard the engines roaring up ahead and detected the familiar scent. I’d caught up.

Inspiration came to me. I was almost halfway around the circular trail now; why not just turn around and walk back the way I came? The sewage truck could complete its loop in peace, and I’d be able to do the contemplative walk thing. So I turned around and began. I continued my dialogue, mostly in my head now, and thought about the stress and depression I’ve been struggling with lately.

Then I heard the sound behind me. The truck was back. For some reason, it had turned around too.

That was the last straw. I started laughing. So, God, getting archetypal on me, I see. Fine. Let us contemplate the spiritual meaning of this portable vat of shit following me around.

Are you trying to tell me that I can’t outrun the shit of my life; that I must coexist/walk with it?

Are you showing me that cleansing myself is going to be less simple and more messy than I would like it to be?

Or are you in an alchemical mood, and just shoving a huge lump of prima materia at me? What do you want me to make of it?

I left with questions, but no answers. I wondered if the real message and lesson had to do with the inadvisability of having a spiritual agenda. I’m not sorry for any of it, though–it was an act of intention. Despite what they say about good intentions, I believe an act of conscious positive intention is one of the most powerful things I can do.