Sunday, March 31, 2013

stumbling through disbelief

I have been thinking a lot about prayer lately.  Before Leia died, I was praying more, and in more numerous ways, than I ever had before.
I was praying the liturgy of the hours fairly regularly.
I was praying for sick children, for hurting friends, for people with achingly lonely eyes that I passed on the street.
I was encouraging my family to write or draw their prayers on the leaves and flowers of our Easter tree.
I was praying a lot for help in finding my keys.

And then Leia died. 
And then suddenly I didn't know that I believed in prayer anymore. 

I have, actually, continued to pray the hours fairly consistently, namely because my own smashed and broken heart understands the language of those ancient prayers scripted onto ancient hearts that had also been smashed and broken.

How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? 
How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day?  How long shall my enemy triumph over me?

O God, be not far from me; come quickly to help me, O my God.

You have showed me great great troubles and adversities, but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth. 

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.

Lord, have mercy on us.  Christ, have mercy on us.  Lord, have mercy on us. 

I have prayed those ancient prayers, but mostly, I have not been able to pray my own prayers.  I try to open my mouth, and no words come out.  I try to open my hands, and then I clench them again.  I try to open my heart, and then I go stone cold. 

There are not many Christian authors that I can stomach to read right now (although I am seeing, live and in person, Anne Lamott on Thursday night.  Anne Lamott.  I wish I could shrink really teeny tiny, crawl into her pocket, and go home with her).  I could read Anne Lamott right now.  I could.  But instead I picked up the first Kathleen Norris book I ever read: Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.  In Amazing Grace, Norris takes classic, often loaded, words from the Christian Lexicon and lyrically, poetically, and earnestly writes about them.  I love the book.  Last week, on a train to St. Louis, I read the chapter on prayer. 

She quotes Thomas Merton: "Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone" (58).

She talks about unanswered prayers, and as I read her words I thought about prayers of mine and other people in my life that had recently not been answered as we would have wished:
A dad who died after a rapid, cruel bout with cancer.
A friend whose custody battle is crumbling her already broken heart.
A much-loved family dog, dead way too soon.

Norris says, "But in the hardest situations, all one can do is to ask for God's mercy" (60).

Ah, I recognize that prayer: The Cry of the Church.
Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

That, I think I can do.

Honestly, I can't pray, right now, for my friend who has lost her dad, for my heart-sister who is oh-so-weary from this battle against evil for her son, for my kiddos and my husband and myself who just can't quite shake the sadness and emptiness of a world without Leia. 

I just can't. 

But for whatever reason, I can ask for mercy, I can beg for mercy, I can cry for mercy.

For Joanna and her grieving heart...
Lord, have mercy.

For M_______ and her aching heart...
Christ, have mercy.

For Matt and Jill and Amélie and Jack, and our sad hearts...
Lord, have mercy.

For you, if prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone...
Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Losing Leia, Living Lent

 A couple of Sundays ago we decided to skip church.  Jack was getting over strep.  Matt was trying to recover from some bug he has yet to get over.  Our dog, Leia, was sick.  And I was tired.  Jack envisioned a morning of video games.  Matt envisioned a nap.  I envisioned coffee and the Sunday paper. 

Amélie envisioned church at home.  She planned the service, lined up chairs in our dining room, and gave us all pieces of paper with instructions.  We took turns reading until we had finished the book of Jonah.  She read an illustrated version of the story to her five-year-old brother, and then she asked us questions about the text.  I then read the day’s selection from the book, Bringing Lent Home with Mother Teresa, and we all wrote or drew pictures on the flowers and leaves for our Easter tree.  We wrote out things we were thankful for on the flowers: thanks for snow days, for family, for our fireplace.  We wrote our prayer requests on the leaves: for more snow days, for mom to have another baby (NO!), for our dog Leia’s sick tummy. 

Then we finished up our church service by gathering around the piano and singing the old hymns “Blessed Assurance” and “Day by Day.”  It was lovely.  It was beautiful.  My heart swelled with love for my sweet family. 
We had a beautiful day, a sweet blessing tucked in the middle of trying to live out the Lenten season—to live out life—with grace and meaning.    

As that week progressed, our dog became sicker.  I took her to the vet two more times.  They finally found the problem that hadn’t shown up on the first x-ray: a bowel obstruction.  Our vet didn’t want to perform the surgery because she feared it would be too complicated.  We scheduled the surgery for the next day with a new doctor and took her home. 
I carried Leia up to bed and watched her through the night.  I was so afraid that she would die before she made it to surgery the next morning.  I counted down the hours.  I felt her for breath.  I watched for movement, even the familiar trembling that let me know she was in pain.  I cried.  I prayed.  I read from Kathleen Norris’ book Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life about her husband’s death, how he, a lapsed Catholic, loved the words from compline, “May the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect end.”  I read about waiting: “[We] know the pain of the wee hours, when the dark of night matches the state of our souls” (221).  And then: “Both physical and mental pain are often worse at night, and sometimes it is the waiting for the dawn that is worst of all” (222).  I read those words, and I felt those words, in the very core of my being.  I ached with the pain of waiting, the fear of waiting, the exhaustion of waiting. 

When it was morning, we all gathered around Leia and said goodbye.  We cried.  But I felt relief as Matt wrapped her in a blanket and carried her into his truck.  The surgery went well.  Our silly dog, who subsisted on a life of plastic (supplemented by dog food and table scraps) had somehow eaten hair(?), which had severed her intestines.  The vet repaired the holes, and all looked well.  I slept much better that night, and before I fell asleep I prayed the Petition:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.

I was comforted to believe that I was praying for Leia when I asked God to “soothe the suffering,” but I was convinced that I was not praying for her when I prayed, “bless the dying.” 
I was wrong.  The next morning Matt called me at 8:48.  Leia was crashing, and Matt was on his way to the vet.  Leia died while Matt stroked her fur and cried.   When he came home and told us the news, we all collapsed on the couch in sobbing mess.  Amélie wailed, “But she was my baby!” and “Why would God let this happen?” 

I didn’t have an answer on March 8th. 
I don’t have an answer today. 

Yes, she was just a dog.  I know that our grief over an energetic  two-year-old Jack Russell is nothing compared to the grief of losing a child, a parent, a grandparent, a friend.  But she was a Christmas present to my kids two years ago, and I can’t deny the fact that I am incredibly sad. 
It seems to me that it shouldn’t have been too hard for God to heal our dog, and I don’t understand why He didn’t. 

And then I start to think that maybe it’s been silly all of these years to pray anyway, because what good does it do, really? 
And then I think that it is probably really silly to find myself in the middle of a raging faith crisis over a dog.  It seems like such drama should be reserved for a bigger loss.  Or that my faith should be big enough to handle it. 

I know that I am being irrational and over reacting.  I know that God is not magic. 
This past Sunday, we made it back to church.  I barely heard the words coming out of my pastor’s mouth, and I believed even fewer of them. 

I am following my Lenten fast, but only because I don’t want to go back on my word. 
I’m finding it hard to pray for the lady in line behind me with the sad eyes, or for peace in my son’s monster-ravaged dreams, or even healing for our family’s grief-shredded hearts. 

The only thing I can pray right now is the morning office and, sometimes, compline.  I find comfort in the Psalms (from today’s morning office: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and will save those whose spirits are crushed”) and The Cry of the Church: “Lord, have mercy on us.  Christ, have mercy on us.  Lord, have mercy on us.”
We are living through Lent’s shadows this year in a way that perhaps I will look back on one day and understand its spiritual meaning. 

We have lost Leia.  We are living Lent.  I know we’ll be OK.  I know I will patch up my tattered faith one of these days.
...but in the meantime, we miss you, Leia Lou.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

On Distraction (and Justin Bieber, and Facebook, and the Lord's Prayer, and...)

Just now I came upstairs to the attic to write a bit.  I dragged up my laptop, a bottle of water, my journal, six books (The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton, An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, my Bible, and Dream Work  by Mary Oliver), and a bottle of wine (let it be noted that I do not necessarily make a habit out of drinking wine and writing, but the idea of writing and sipping a little wine sounded a bit romantic, which is kind of embarrassing to admit). 

I am here.  I am blessedly alone. 

I am still distracted.

I hear Jack throwing a fit downstairs.  I think he is crying because the snow is melting, which to him is the worst thing ever.

Five minutes ago when I was mumbling my way through the Lord's Prayer while reading and praying the Midday Office, I glanced up at my computer screen and noticed on the Huffington Post an article entitled, "Justin Bieber's Worst Birthday Ever." 

I almost clicked it, right there in the middle of praying, "Lead us not into temptation...."

Do I even care about Justin Bieber?

Not a whit. 

The honest truth is that I could not name for you one song that he sings.

No lie.

I do know, however, that I am the same age as his mother.

This fact, which maybe I just Googled, might make me cry a little into my wine glass (er...jar.  I have broken all of our wine glasses.  We now drink out of glasses with names like Mason, Kerr, Ball, and Smuckers).

Why, in the middle of the Lord's Prayer, did I suddenly think I needed to read about Justin Bieber's worst birthday ever?

I fear that as a Christian, as a mom, as a wife, as a friend, as a human being, I am driven to--and perhaps addicted to--distraction.

This afternoon I posted a picture on Facebook of Amélie leading the church service that she mapped out and led at home today since we are a bit under the weather.

I am not sure how many times I have checked that picture to see how many people liked it.

As of six seconds ago there are twenty-four likes. 

Why do I need to know this?

Why does it matter?

It doesn't matter.  But it does matter, because for some reason I make it matter.

Thankfully, Thomas Merton offers me some encouragement today.  He says, "If you have never had any distractions you don't know how to pray" and that "it is useless to get upset when you cannot shake off distractions" (New Seeds of Contemplation 221). 


However, lest I settle too comfortably in my distraction, he goes on to say, "The distractions that do harm are the ones that draw our will away from its profound and peaceful occupation with God and involve it in elaborations of projects that have been concerning us during our day's work.  We are confronted by issues that really attract and occupy our wills and there is considerable danger that our meditation will break down into a session of mental letter-writing or sermons or speeches or books or, worse still, plans to raise money or to take care of our health" (New Seeds of Contemplation 223). 


If Merton were writing that paragraph in 2013 rather than in the early 60's, he might add "checking Facebook likes" and "mentally composing blog posts."  I would also like to add my never-ending to-do list to his litany of harmful distractions. 

To be quite honest, I am not even sure what it means to have my mind centered on "profound and peaceful occupation with God." 

What does that look like? 

I don't know, because...
My mind wanders. 
I daydream.
I gaze out the window.
I start a new book.
I hone my to-do list.
I read old journal entries.
I flip through sixteen different books.
I meander through a book of synonyms. 
I look up the age of Justin Bieber's mom.
I check Facebook.
I check my text messages. 
I unload the dishwasher. 
I worry.
I check my bank account.
I worry some more.


But, I have hope:

"No matter how distracted you may be, pray by peaceful, even perhaps inarticulate, efforts to center your heart upon God, Who is present to you in spite of all that may be going through your mind.  His presence does not depend on your thoughts of Him.  He is unfailingly there; if He were not, you could not even exist.  The memory of His unfailing presence is the surest anchor for our minds and hearts in the storm of distraction and temptation by which we must be purified" (Merton, More Seeds of Contemplation, 224).

My efforts to pray can be inarticulate.
God is here, even when my mind is 20,000 leagues under the sea.
He anchors me even when my mind and heart are whipped about on the stormy seas of distraction.

Thank God.
Thank God for that, because otherwise...
Otherwise, I would be sunk.

(P.S.  I am up to 33 likes.)