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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.
Mother, Washing Dishes by Susan Meyers
She rarely made us do it—
we’d clear the table instead—so my sister and I teased
that some day we’d train our children right
and not end up like her, after every meal stuck
with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us: gummy plates
in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.
Or did she guard her place
at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss
of the magnolia, the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
On Holy Thursday, I kneel down on the cool hard floor of the sanctuary before a small basin of water. I take a stranger’s feet into my palms. With my small hands I tip the heavy pitcher of water, and with great care, I wash these feet. I dry them.
And every year when I am through, I look up at a warm, humble smile. And for a brief, still moment, I offer one too.
I would never want to give that up.
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.
Today the sun finally broke through the clouds in Boston. So, after finishing lunch in a cute little Italian cafe in Beacon Hill, I decided to head to the nearby Boston Public Gardens for an afternoon stroll while making a phone call to an old friend from school. I didn’t get very far.
Still a couple hundred feet from the park, I could see the flashing blue lights of the police cars that blocked the road along the permitter of the Boston Commons. I heard horns honking, voices chanting, and as I drew closer I began to recognize the “NOW” logos on the large white picket signs along the sidewalk. My studies in feminism have familiarized me with NOW, the “National Organization for Women” that headed up America’s Second Wave feminist movement. I have fantasized about marching in their protest lines at the height of their movement in the 60’s and 70’s, a time when it seems collective action was so much more energetic and visible than today.
As I drew closer, there were other familiar images. Banners with the colorful emblem of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Masses of people, their hands thrust into the air cradling rosary beads or wooden crucifixes. Women in habit, and men with starched white collars. The anger in the air shook me as I realized: I am walking straight into a feminist/Catholic standoff over abortion rights. And that’s exactly what it was.
Where do I stand? My eyes darted from one activist crowd to the other like the screams that flew back and forth between them. Where do I stand? For a moment I thought I would just continue to the park, but I couldn’t. These are my people en masse! How could I pass this up?! …But where would I stand? I kept asking myself this. Where do I stand? I didn’t fit in among the harsh juxtaposition of the protest lines. My convictions about abortion–and any other topic for that matter–aren’t relegated to one aspect of my identity (feminist) or any other (like, Catholic). My views about the world are Catholic and feminist–because I am both Catholic and feminist. In the “us” or “them” of these protest lines–and in much of the moral debate between these parties–there often isn’t a place for someone like me to stand up as I am.
I wanted to stand where I stand–between the lines and posters and the yelling–right there in the middle of it. You see, I live in the middle of it all the time. And the anger in the air shakes me.
On Thursday evening I looked over the balcony at Century Ballroom as my friends Katie and Frank danced to the final song of the night on the dance floor below. It was the last night of salsa before I head off to Boston, and the only night of the summer when the club hosts a live salsa band. (I would have liked to think the special occasion was in honor of my departure, but I know it was simply a pleasant coincidence.) Along with the best sounds the ballroom had heard all season, the live music brought out the city’s best dancers, which made for a night of both great dancing and fantastic viewing. Of all the swift spins and fast footwork displayed by the evening’s talented couples, however, the most memorable dance, in my humble opinion, was that last one danced by my friends.
The three of us have gone dancing together at least once a week all summer long. And just as I, a clumsy beginner, went from counting out every step (1-2-3—5-6-7…) to moving unthinkingly along with rhythms I instantly recognize, so too had my more experienced friends improved their dance moves. While it was unnoticeable for me when I first began dancing, I have learned that a personal dancing style accompanies this sort of progress: when one attains a certain level of familiarity with the rhythms, steps, and moves, one’s personal style—which is often a reflection of his/her personality, training, and dance community—surfaces in his/her dancing. Having danced with Katie and Frank for months now, I have gained a great affection for the idiosyncrasies of their styles. For the neat steps of Katie’s three-count turns. For the circular swing of Frank’s hands when he leads in open-position. For the expressions on their faces when they concentrate during a spin sequence, or the sympathetic grins that occasionally break when someone acknowledges a partner’s misstep.
From the ballroom balcony, I treasured every glimpse of these personal tendencies. They were small, endearing reminders that I was not simply watching salsa dancing, but Katie’s salsa and Frank’s salsa.
While watching them, it struck me that I have experienced a similar affection for friends when we celebrate Mass together. Having celebrated the liturgy for so long, we can engage it more naturally, less consciously, and our personal styles break through unthinkingly. Some of us enter the sanctuary with particular habits, or gesture in unique ways, or recite prayers with more or less words. Not unlike salsa dancing, these small stylistic differences often reflect who we are, where we come from, and the community that most often surrounds us. I love noticing these little things because it transforms Catholicism into their Catholicism, our Catholicism—Frank’s Catholicism. Katie’s Catholicism. They are reminders that, in such intimate, personal ways, Catholicism belongs to the people I love.
The basic steps are the same, but with time we all learn to dance them in our own way.