Friday, July 07, 2006

Day 52

Still no sense to the numbering: they just comes as they will, as do I to this place. I'm not avoiding the Book, but I'm not running to it either: I come when the spirit moves me.

I first read Kathleen Norris about sixteen years ago. The title Dakota: A Spiritual Geography grabbed me, more Dakota, I think, than the other part. As with most things I read, I remember little of the details: I came away struck by the attempts of a 20th century poet and woman to reconcile herself to a tradition of faith that had once held me in its thrall, but did no longer. Norris had made the plunge: I continued to watch.

As I did through the rest of her books as they rolled out, most notably, The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. I think I even tried to read The Virgin of Bennington, scandalous retro-word flagrantly touted as only Norris would, but the book did not hold my interest. Neither did the other two books hold my interest, beyond my initial curiosity about just what was up with the Dakotan, how her journey had progressed. I was struck by how the journey had deepened, but I read these books - if I read them at all - with my head. They were curiosities to a man still searching, but searching in the esoteric metaphysical regions, nothing so provincial as Christianity. Friends continued to live there, always a curious thing, as was Norris' living out. I think now that there was a quiet part of me earnestly watching, always watching, for clues about just how this was done, this life of faith.

As I noted in my last post, both Norris and Lamott (and Donald Miller) made the recent trip with me to the beach, madcap loony Annie winning the day: she came rolling in with her wit and hardwon wisdom, just like the winds blowing strong in off the gulf. I come and go on Miller: at times his "anti-formulaic" writing seems in itself formulaic, but I don't want to overdo this critique: I've also been astonished at times by the way he turns conventional wisdom on its head; his meditation on Confession in Blue Like Jazz was quite compelling, and his meditation on Money hit very close to home. In fairness to him, I think his unbridled love of Jesus is what scares me away. It's a revelation to read a man so on fire for Jesus (and SO willing to declare it), who is also shockingly progressive in his politics (and also - refreshingly - willing to declare that, too). Granted, Annie is as progressive as Miller, if not more so, but when she launches into her political diatribes, it seems to come out of a different part of herself, the old pre-Christian imp self, while Miller's politics seem completely inseparable from his love of Christ. I'm probably being unfair (and arbitrary) with Annie on this. Lord knows, I love her sassy politics, and assuredly there are millions of Christians who could wag as boldly about living on the left AND living with Jesus, but it just seems that most of the mouthy Christians in the public eye that carry the day are (supposedly) in love with Jesus and willing to bomb the hell out of the infidels at the drop of a hat.

I suspect Kathleen's politics are similarly progressive, though she's less likely to declare them in her monastic way. But, politics isn't what brought me to Day 52, so let me get back on track.

I have been devouring Amazing Grace the past couple of days - a book I virtually shunned the first time I picked it up years ago. Skimming its surfaces with head not heart, it struck me as far too doctrinaire for my curiosities and sensibilities: it felt like the book at which we parted ways. I had, by the time I found it, pretty much abandoned the metaphysical regions and was fairly dedicated to the despair that's been my creed for most of the past seven years. Dedicated despair doesn't leave much room for the kind of hardwon affirmations Kathleen is laying out in her Vocabulary: affirmation in the face of despair is just too damn painful.

But hidden in this beautiful book, I now find a running companion to my own struggle to find a way to God. Where I struggle and worry and fret, I find that Kathleen has been there, with her own worrisome head. She, too, discovered that this journey could not be made as an intellectual one, that she first had to simply declare herself as part of the crowd, as a worshipper, for things to begin to make sense. Her intellectual journey left too many stumbling blocks along the way, promising to keep the doors barred, rather than allowing her heart to walk in freely and joyously. I do not mean that she just turned her brain off and settled for nonsense: her writing is extraordinarily intelligent: she too, like Miller, turns wisdom on its head (or perhaps rights it, where it's been topsied), and her meditations invariably open words up to a living truth, rooted in day to day experience, a living theology. It's as if, in her journey, she's rooted out so many of the places where I struggle and stumble, not least of which with Jesus himself. How refreshing her story of the monk who tells her that Jesus is the stumbling block for most people, even those long in the faith. Not that he keeps people from faith, not at all, but that we have such a difficult time figuring out just what to do with him. Like Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar: I don't know how to love him...As one who could always invoke Mary and Yemaya, I've found that now I can call out to "God," but I am still clueless about how to bring Jesus into my mess. I think the stumbling block for me is that he is THE mystery in all of this, THE mystery of mysteries: that "knowing" him is to penetrate most deeply into a life in God.

I am so hungry for support right now in my life - and SO afraid. On the surface, my fear is all about my need to find new work: I don't know if there is a greater fear of a life in God and with Jesus that is masked by this mewling little fear of finding work in a depressed economy with uninspiring possibilities: I really don't know: I would say that, yes, the fear is the mewling one, that I would welcome the other life, but that may just be innocence and ignorance speaking. At any rate, I feel such a need to feel God's strength in this struggle to find movement and faith and hope. Kathleen's Vocabulary has been such a blessing in the last few days, so many obstacles toppling with her revelations.

Prayer: what of prayer? It seems imperative that I pray these days: not as "commandment," but as an imperative need to connect, to enact a connection, yet I've always been uncomfortable about the purpose of prayer. More mewling? How pitiful and small. Two days ago I read about centering prayer and thought, now this is for me: quiet, contemplative, God praying in us. None of that small-minded, shopper's list, "privatized" (Kathleen's word) prayer. God praying in us. So, I did it, and afterward, I kept thinking, you know what, I need to talk, mewling or not, I need to say something in all this. So, the next day, I did just that: I started talking, my mewling little plea for help, guidance, five minutes of a pitiful little psychotherapy session, and then...I just naturally got quiet and let the stillness breathe in me.

I decided that I need both. Merton AND Tevye.

Two quotes from Kathleen's Vocabulary:

Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone. (Thomas Merton)

It is not a perfect prayer if one is conscious of oneself or understands one's prayer. (St. Anthony of the Desert)


Postscript: A goofy, slightly embarrassing one, but I want to confess. Yesterday, my son and I were in the car, on the way home, listening to our poor excuse for a funk station. One of my favorite guilty pleasures comes on: Patrice Rushen's little ditty "Forget Me Nots." I love this song: I do not own it, but I love it. It is always a blessing to hear it, but yesterday it felt like an even bigger one: sending you forget me nots - to help you to remember / baby, please forget me not - I want you to remember...All through the years, all through the despair, all the forget me nots. Yes, I boo-hooed. Of course I did.