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Believing Thomas: First Reactions to Pope Francis

I find myself among many others who have been pleasantly surprised by the first few days of Francis’s papal ministry.  From the first moments of his balcony introduction, when he donned relatively humble attire, to his commentary on the selection of his name, Francis—after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his humble commitment to the most vulnerable of God’s creation, I’ve been experiencing feelings I have so rarely held with regard to a pope: Excitement. Gratitude. Affection. Hope.

Could it be that we find ourselves with a pope who demonstrates, in such a seemingly accessible way, the virtues of Christianity to which many of us have clung for so long?  Isn’t this the type of papal leadership that for which we’ve hope for so, so long?  With only a few days gone by, I am constantly surprised as I respond to questions like these with affirmation: Why maybe, yes, this is what we are witnessing…for now, yes, this might actually be happening…. Even as Pope Francis simply reflects the values that I have long believed to stand at the heart of Christianity—radical commitments to the weak and to a life of humility and mercy—I am still so surprised to see it in a public figurehead of the Church.

Accompanying all these good feelings and surprising affirmations has been a sense of hesitation, however. It is a lingering pause. A reluctance. These past few days have confronted me with the fact that I live as a Catholic so often expecting disappointment from the high-ranking officials of the Church.  This is a protection mechanism. It is how I protect myself from the constant scandal and failure of fellow Christians in these positions of power. Were I to give myself, wholeheartedly and without hesitation, to belief in the Spirit’s transformative power in the ministry of these leaders, to the hope that they might really participate in the actualization of the goodness and mercy that we proclaim, then I might live always with a broken heart. I might live plagued by the failings of Church leaders.

Instead, I live with a very qualified Christian hope in our leadership. “I believe that the Spirit is moving in our world, in our Church, in its leaders,” I say, “but—” Always butBut the temptation of wealth and power. But the corruption of sin. But millennia of shortcomings. “Sure,” I think, “in principle the Holy Spirit is working through the ministry of these leaders, but de facto I no longer expect to see much evidence of it among these higher ups.” If I don’t expect radical mercy and visionary witness from them, then I don’t have to live with so much disappointment, right?

My reflections about this tension—this tension of hope and hesitation—has got me thinking a lot about Thomas, the disciple beloved among doubters like me. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he told his friend upon the news that Jesus had risen and appeared to them. Despite dedicating his life to following Jesus, Thomas could not, in that moment, believe that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that had actually overcome death. And I don’t blame him. I imagine we can all relate to Thomas in some way: He was grieving the loss of his friend, and hope in Jesus’s return would be a profound risk of heart—a heart that was already hurting with such sadness and disappointment.

In many ways, Thomas’s doubt was quite reasonable. And, to be sure, there are many good reasons to qualify one’s hope in church officials such as the pope. For one, far too many people invest all their hope for the Church in these men, equating the Church with its hierarchy and overlooking the loving, awe-inspiring work of Catholics living out all sorts of vocations throughout the world. Furthermore, these guys are not God, but sinful creatures like the rest of us.  Sin is a reality that does impede our ability to actualize the Christian life to the fullest and freest degree imaginable.  We shouldn’t place an unqualified hope in anyone.

Still, Christian life is about courageous hope and love, not enduring cynicism.  I am saddened that my response to the witness of charity and humility that I see in Pope Francis is so deeply tainted by cynicism.  For, is not the goodness of creation at the heart of the Christian message? Have I not let my fear of disappointment from church leadership prevent me from anticipating the goodness of this man, and so many other Church leaders for that matter?  It seems that my doubt in the enduring work of the Holy Spirit has inhibited my ability to believe what I see right before my eyes—moments when the Christian message really comes to life.

While most of us recognize the disciple Thomas as “Doubting Thomas,” I read recently that there is also a tradition of referring to him as “Believing Thomas.”  It wasn’t until this week that I marveled so much at the belief he proclaimed after placing his hands in Jesus’s wounds. Thomas doubted—yes, for good reason—but when he recognized Jesus before him he surrendered his doubt—and so humbly.  I pray that when we are confronted with the image of Christ before us—be in a pope or stranger or a beloved friend—we too will surrender our doubt, our cynicism, our guards in order to believe in the goodness of the other.  “We have to put our hearts out,” commented Catholic blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn in her recent reflection on the Pope and her own hesitation to hope for this new papacy. “We have to take the risk. That is what faith and belief demand from us.”  That is what faith and belief demand from us—that we all may be a bit more like Believing Thomas.

I’ve been running

I’ve been running.

Had you asked me about running six months ago, I would have sighed, frowned, and said something like, “Yeah, I go for a jog occasionally…” (Grumble, grumble, grumble).  Like some of you, I imagine, running was something I did from time to time because one ought to run. One ought to for her health. One ought to, perhaps, so she can still claim some bit of lingering athletic ability during her mid-twenties.

As I ran I couldn’t escape the physical and mental confrontation of pain, however.  “This hurts,” I thought between the weight and wear of deep, heavy breaths. And then I wondered, “Why is this so painful for me? How do all these other people run so much further and faster through all this pain?!” The mental battle prompted by the pain was ultimately the bigger obstacle, the higher hurdle. Running entailed a confrontation with myself—my own vulnerability, my inability, my pain—that I wanted to run from. And running from it meant not running.

For the last couple months, though, I kept running.

Ms. Jenkins was one of my favorite high school teachers. In addition to introducing me to feminism, she taught me how to live through pain. (Perhaps this lesson pairing is no coincidence).  One day she stopped her history lesson and disclosed to us a great impending truth about our own future histories: “Some day you will love someone so much that when it ends, you will wake up in the morning, lay in bed, and you won’t want to get up because it will feel like the world has ended. You will feel like that. It will hurt that much.  But you must get out of bed,” she said. “You must get out of bed that day, and the next day, and the next day. And overtime you will notice that the pain shifts. And one day while brushing your teeth it will occur to you that the pain has shifted so much that you actually believe you will be okay. You will realize that somewhere between the end of the world and brushing your teeth, things got better.”

I’ve recited this wisdom to myself and my grieving friends about a hundred times. I’ve done that because, after a few of these personal Armageddons, I know that Ms. Jenkins was right. Even so, there has been a shift overtime in my understanding of the process that she described to us that day. I used to think this was merely a story about the inevitable dissolution of pain across time: If one just continues through life for long enough, one will eventually live without that pain. Time heals; this kind of pain disappears.  And while heartache may very well be a kind of pain that quantitatively lessens over days and months and years, I think Ms. Jenkins also disclosed something about the possibilities of relating to one’s pain: Sometimes we have the choice to run from it, to stay in bed—or to run with it, to live into it.

Like running, living into this sort of pain entails a confrontation with my own vulnerability. And it is overwhelming at times to attend to it—to live while paying attention to my own fragility. But freaking out and avoiding the reality of my pain and my vulnerability to it—the alternative—does not foster any sort of transformation, any sort of healing.  I’ve come to think that there will always be pain, to varying degrees, and I will always, always be affected by it.  But I can live well with it. Through it.

When I kept running, I learned to breathe through the pain. I learned to embrace the sense of vulnerability I feel amidst it. That pain has lessened, too, but that has not been the most transformative or reassuring result of this new habit. I have discovered, or perhaps engendered, a deep peace along the way.

A Try

I was recently listening to a Radiolab podcast that featured writer Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that one).  She spoke about inspiration, and how she has remained creative and productive as a writer.  Earlier in her career, she had learned to talk her to inspiration–as if it were outside of her. “TELL ME YOUR NAME,” she had demanded of  her book, “Eat, Pray, Love” when at the final stages of preparation before publication, the completed manuscript had no title.  After yelling at it–literally–for days, she woke up one morning and there it was: the answer, the title.  “I can feel the difference when something is produced purely from my own sweat and blood, and when something is given to me,” she said. A writer has to do the work, she confirmed, of course. But those moments of pure inspiration, those creative gifts that seem to originate from outside of oneself, those are the moments that interrupt the rest of the writing process and make it great.

Last summer while studying French, I learned that the word “essay” is an adaptation of the French verb, “essayer.”  Plainly, “essayer” means “to try.”  An essay–a try.  These linguistic connections are some of the simple pleasures of language study: with the acquisition of a single foreign word, even the most native term can take on a whole new depth of meaning.  An essay–a try.  It made so much sense to me.

And I think it resonated with me because of the creative process that Gilbert described.  When I sit down to write, I am trying–trying to write well, yes–but really, truly, I am trying to be open to that something else…that something “given” that Gilbert describes as inspiration.  In that sense, I am trying not to write at all.  The best stuff on the page doesn’t originate from within me. It hits me, smack in the head, while I’m mid-way through a sentence at my keyboard. I can feel that it arrives from a different place.  From where?

Theologian Gordon Kaufman describes God as Creativity.  I’m not sure it’s God, but I do think, whatever it is, it helps me to believe in God.  There is something deeply sacramental about this experience within the writing process: in the relationship between a writer and her words, something good and beyond interrupts.  Mystery interrupts what is otherwise mundane and laborious. Isn’t that precisely the experience of the world the compels me toward the Divine?

It is the end of finals here at Harvard–and the completion of my Master’s degree, at that. And this is the time of every semester when we find ourselves asking, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” All the pressure, all the essays, ALL the essays.  Still, I keep trying and trying and trying–because, when I ask myself “Why do I do this? WHY do I do this?” I realize I am still waiting, crazy like Elizabeth Gilbert, for the mystery to interrupt. I want to keep waiting, to keep writing. An essay–a try.

Lying Awake

Recently, I read a beautiful little novel called, “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman.  The novel chronicles the story of Sr. John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun in a community nestled in the hills surrounding contemporary Los Angeles.  Sr. John’s spiritual poetry has brought her fame in the world outside the monastery walls; this writing talent surfaced with recurring and increasingly intense mystical spells that leave her unconscious after a fit of voracious spiritual writing.   Not long after the novel begins, Sr. John is diagnosed with a form of epilepsy known to result in common symptoms not at all unlike those that have enabled her fame, including tremendous interest in religion and philosophy and rigorous fits of writing.

The good news appears to be that the epilepsy is treatable with a fairly safe surgical procedure.  Free of this illness, Sr. John’s community would be free of the burden of worrying about and caring for Sr. John when these trance-like experiences come over her.  Yet, assent to such a procedure is in no way simple for Sr. John: while the symptomatic mystical writing has brought her fame, it has also, more importantly, given her a consistent, incredibly intimate experience of God’s presence.

Amid her story, any reader is inevitably confronted by the question she faces: If I were in her position, what would I do?  Would I rid myself of these symptoms for the sake of my health and my community—but at the potential cost of losing this feeling of intimacy with God?  Or, would I accept ill health for the sake of this mystical life?

When discussing this book with friends, I have often said that I would choose mysticism.  So much of our lives are spent seeking clarity about the decisions we make, about the convictions we live by—thus, I can only imagine how liberating it would feel to experience the kind of clarity and peace that would accompany this type of mystical intimacy with God.  How could one consciously give that up after experiencing it?

However, one scene from the book made me re-think all that.  On the night when Sr. John must make up her decision, she vows to stay up all night, keeping vigil in the monastery chapel until she finds peace with her choice, one way or the other.  After a few hours in the darkness and quiet, her sisters, one by one, fill the chapel.  Saying nothing, their presence implicitly communicates that they, too, will keep vigil with her until she reaches her decision.  And in reading this, it occurred to me: It is very rare that God gives us the type of mystical clarity that Sr. John experienced for so many years. More often, I think, God gives us each other.

Surely, most of us still long for the sky to open and a divine voice to call out how to live and what to think.  But a longing for this type of clarity, for this type of conviction, can distract us from the gift of God in our midst—the God embodied in those who sit next to us, in word and in silent, as we discern all those small decisions that make up a lifetime. Would I exchange that for mysticism?  Well, maybe—I’ve never experienced the sort of thing that Sr. John did.  But, when I recall the many nights when people have kept vigil with me—around dinner tables, on long walks, over drinks at the bar—I can’t imagine trading that for anything. And I can’t imagine that God wasn’t right there, too.

Sabbath

“I haven’t written on the blog in so long,” I told my partner a few weeks ago. “I feel bad about it. But it just wasn’t coming to me–and lately, when the words come, I simply can’t get myself to sit still and write them. I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”

“No reason to feel bad about it,” he said, matter-a-factly. “Even God took a break.”  Even God took a break.

Indeed, at the conclusion of the first creation narrative in Genesis 1, God takes a break–a seventh day sabbath.  Surely, God’s break warrants my own respite from the creation process, right?  This was consoling for a time…until the guilt began to encroach upon my psyche again.  “God took a break after doing something,” I told myself. “I haven’t done any writing at all lately!  And what’s more, God didn’t just create something. God created something ‘very good‘!” This logic only brings me right back to where I began.

This swirling mess of self-justification and degradation so often frames my daily reflection on life–not just my blogging life. If I’m not bemoaning my lazy writing practice, then it’s my inability to keep up with my growing email inbox or to-do lists, or my desire to work harder or fast or better, or harder and faster and better. The more I indulge this mindset, the more I find myself trapped in a world of insatiable demands.  This cannot be the “very good” world that God created…right?

“I feel like I’m drowning,” I recently said this to someone on a particularly overwhelming day of tasks. It’s something I have said a hundred times before on a hundred other days like that one, but on that day the figurative image flashed before me: my arms flailing about, splashing water everywhere, grasping for air.  Suddenly, I said to the drowning image of me, “Don’t you know that once you stop, you will float?”

It takes great courage to float–to believe that our survival does not depend on our own capacity to sustain ourselves.  Such a risk stands in opposition  to the myth of the self-made man that dominates the “American dream.”  That is a dream of insatiable demands. But that’s not the “very good” world I want to live-into anyways.

The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The world was brought into being in the six days of creation, yet its survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.”  I’m trying to live like this–to live out the belief that my creation, my own hard work, will not alone sustain my survival. Sometimes, we all need to rest–to float–until the gentle current pulls us into another space of creativity again.

Ecstasy (and in the meantime…)

You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.
You have waltzed with great style,
My sweet, crushed angel,
To have ever neared God’s Heart at all.
Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy to hear.
So what if the music has stopped for a while.
So what
If the price of admission to the Divine
Is out of reach tonight…

…Have patience,
For He will not be able to resist your longing
For long.
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to kiss the Beautiful One.
You have actually waltzed with tremendous style,
O my sweet,
O my sweet, crushed angel.

-Hafiz

My friend Chuck and I meet once a week to study for the GRE.  We know we wouldn’t glance at a single analogy this summer without the accountability.  Even then, our plans to plow through a few more drills during our time together are inevitably amended for the sake of rousing discussion about theology and our vocations as educator-artist-theologians.

Last week we were musing about good theology–about the nature of it, the courage and creativity of it. I confessed to him how badly I crave to write something honest and beautiful like our favorite scholars and theologians.  Like Foucault, or Simone Weil.

“There are these rare moments of ecstasy when I’m playing with my band–” Chuck told me. He is a musician, and you would know it by hearing him mention a few words on the subject; you can hear it in the reverent tone of his voice. “These moments of beauty and ecstasy–I think they’re like the beauty of theology you’re talking about.” I nodded, encouraging him. “When I’m with my band I can’t force that, you know? It’s a combination of too many things–it’s the way the musicians are playing together that night, it’s the space, it’s the crowd and their chemistry with us.”

Remembering the rush of a great concert, I affirmed, “Yes, that’s what I want, and I know it is about more than just me. When I write I am working so hard, but God doesn’t always show up, ya know?  That energy and beauty doesn’t always come.”  I paused, and then confided to him, “We’ve been working on these applications to doctoral programs, Chuck, and I feel like there is so much riding on this performance. It’s like a show with an audience full of the most brilliant musicians, all of them scrutinizing you, expecting to witness greatness…”

“I’ve been at shows when the ecstasy didn’t come.  When the performance never reached that perfection,”  he told me. “But you know, I could tell how much the band wanted it. And sometimes that’s enough for a great show. It’s not the ultimate; it not ecstasy, but sometimes it’s enough for audience to just witness that hunger within you.”

Hafiz says that even when we do not dance so badly, and even when we waltz with tremendous style, God does not always appear there on the dance floor. This does not mean that God is not watching the beautiful dance, I am sure. “So what?” Hafiz says, writing so affectionately of this angel as she dances. So what? So what?  Perhaps the performance can be beautiful, even as her partner still pauses at the edge of the dance floor.

Perhaps I can create something beautiful, whether or not perfection takes me for a waltz today…

For these Eyes

When the headlines appear, the questions come in. I’m used to this. And in fact, I’m absolutely flattered by it. It means a lot to me that people take the time to ask for my thoughts about whatever Catholic controversy fills the news on any given day. Sometimes, friends ask me to sort out the esoteric religious jargon for them.  I’m capable of this only sometimes, but I am always honored that folks trust my assessment of the tradition.  Other times, these blessed friends are simply concerned about how I’m dealing with it all. “How are you feeling about this, Jessica. How are you doing?”

In recent weeks when the news spread that the Vatican is making significant strides to revise its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases–all while allegedly linking the severity of these sins to the ordination of women–the questions came in, and I started to ask myself, “How are you feeling about this, Jessica?  How are you doing?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the story my friend Katie told me the other day. During a recent weekend, she volunteered at a middle school camp for inner city youth run by the Catholic parochial school where she taught for a few years after college. On that Sunday morning, she went to Mass with the students and their teachers in the camp’s quaint wooden chapel. The presider was gracious with the kids, and a good homilist, too. “But the tabernacle there–” she told me.  That’s what got her. “The tabernacle looks just like the boy’s Catholic school down the street. Like the shape of their building.”  I began to smile as she went on.  I delighted in the fact that this friend anticipated the wonder I would share with her as she recounted this experience for me.  “This is what Catholicism is about, isn’t it? Recognizing Jesus inside an inner city school like that? Like that?  Believing that Jesus dwells with the underprivileged so much that you make a symbol of it with the most important part of your sanctuary?”

I nodded as we savored this moment that captured the best of our Church.  In that small moment, we didn’t have to convince ourselves that we are so blessed to belong to this Church.  We are blessed to have  church that views inner city schools as tabernacles, and tabernacles as inner city schools.  And blessed to be raised in a church that has given us the eyes to see the world in this way, too. “I wish I had moments like that more often,” Katie said. I think she was referring to the tabernacle at the camp, but I was thinking the same thing about the moment we had just shared–that moment of unwavering pride for our faith.

I’ve been telling a lot of people that, for many reasons, I feel sad and disappointed about the recent Vatican stirrings.  And, really, I’m feeling tired of feeling sad and disappointed. But I am also trying to tell a lot of people about my hope. I’m trying to talk about that, too. I’m trying to tell them about the eyes this tradition has afforded me–Katie and me.  Eyes that recognize miraculous transformations in places and people that much of society overlooks. Eyes that see Jesus in the sometimes harsh and unglamorous realities of our cities.  Eyes set on recognizing God’s redemption of our world in any and every place.  Even in our Church.

A Sense of Direction

Check out my latest post on From the Pews in the Back, entitled, “A Sense of Direction.” It’s a little reflection on today’s liturgical reading…

I Think God Moves in People

Sometime before midnight on New Years Eve I found myself nuzzled into the living room couch with another friend who studies theology in graduate school.  Amid the dancing, yelling, and clamoring of glasses at the party that surrounded us, she spoke one of the most simple, profound things I had heard about God in a long time.

After describing the details of a rigorous seminar course on prayer she had completed early that month, she said, “You know, I came out with a lot of doubts about whether God works in the world the way we often think God does.  But I do think that God moves in people.”

A poet friend of mine once described the different types of poems she writes.  She identified one kind by describing a visit to a museum when she found herself standing before this particular painting, staring and staring, simply captivated by it at the deepest parts of herself.  She couldn’t walk away.  She had to write a poem about this surprising moment of wonder that simply grabbed her.  She writes these poems about simple, startling moments.  I think God moves in people.

The more theology and philosophy I study, the more confused I am about the Infinite working in the finite. I’m reading Karl Barth and at the moment he is trying to convince me that in my human limitation I do not know God from within.  He says something like, human beings cannot know this wholly-Other God but through the revelation of scripture and the Church.  What to say?  I do not have convincing words for responding to this brilliant theologian at the moment.

But I have wonder:  I have these moments when God moves in me.  And in these moments the finite world may be simply what it is, but something in me is different.  The wonder persists beyond the limits of what I can explain with my rigorous reasoning right now.  I’ll keep trying to put words to it.

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Wide White Margins, And A Few Words

On the days when I particularly overwhelmed–when I am convinced that any reform in my church will require at least 10 million perfect words, when I am sure that nothing I can think or say or write will ever make any difference, when I am tempted to think that the countless number of books in Harvard’s theological library may actually make so little an imprint on the world–on these days you will probably find me cross-legged on the floor of the Harvard Bookstore.  I will be hunched over barren pages held together by thin bindings in the poetry aisle. Their words belong to people that most people do not know, people I do not know.

I don’t just come for the poems; I come for all the white space that fills these poetry books.  The white space actually comforts me more, I think, reminding me  of two things:  First, reminding me of the arduous silence–all the wordless thinking–that accompanied very worthwhile word I have ever written.  Wordlessness can be precious and productive in its own ways.  Second, reminding me that I do not need to say everything–I do not need to say everything–only a few beautiful, dangerous, honest-to-God, true things.  Poems are so captivating because they say so much with so little.

I am so little, and I want to say something worth so much.

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