Tuesday, August 04, 2015

What to pray for when you don't know what to do next

What comes next? Photo by Niklas Friedwall, Flickr

Where do you turn when you don't know what to write your next blog post on? To a classic Ignatian prayer about discernment, of course.


Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
-- St. Ignatius of Loyola

I had never heard of this prayer before coming across it on Facebook one day, and I immediately filed it away in my "Blog Post Inspiration" folder (for yes, I do have such a folder) for future noodling.

At first reading, I interpreted it as a prayer of thanksgiving -- a saint-backed example of what you pray for when life is good. But then I did a little research about it, and I learned that it's part of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, a four-stage process designed to deepen people's experience of God in their daily lives.

In particular, the Suscipe -- which translates from Latin as "take," the opening word -- prepares the pray-er for discernment. What's discernment? Check out this article's explanation:

"The Catholic spiritual tradition calls decision making “discernment.” The word implies not coming up with a new idea completely out of our own creativity, but clarifying things so that we can see and understand something that’s already in place: what God wants us to do."

I like this explanation because it maintains how each of us has free will to choose our path, and that there is no preordained plan about what that path will be. Rather, putting ourselves in the mindset of the Suscipe achieves two seemingly contradictory goals: It liberates us from our own preconcieved options while it also deepens our responsibility to mull over any routes that maybe we ignored, feared, and didn't even recognize before.

So, while I doubt the Higher Being is overly concerned right now with the contents of my blog post, I do like to think I've taken one baby step toward venturing farther into the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises so that when the time comes for discernment beyond the scope of a blog topic, I'll be ready.

Prayer #290: Suscipe, Inverted

You took, Lord, and recieved all my demands,
my complaints, my discomfort with mystery,
my entire willful spirit,
all I grip and refuse to release.

I forget you've given all to me.
To you, Lord, I owe credit.

Everything should be yours; I'll do with that what I will.
But give me (please) your love and grace anyway,
So I learn it is enough.


Monday, July 27, 2015

An open letter to couples in the first year of their serious relationship

"Are you ready for the spin cycle, Larry?" "Nope. Are you?"
Photo by Fabrizio Lonzini, Flickr

Dear committed couples who have been together one year or less,

Congratulations! After much searching and wondering and wringing of hands, you have found someone whom you are 99.9% certain you want to spend the rest of your life with. I applaud you for this achievement; it is 50% attributable to your hope, optimism, and smashing good looks, and 50% to fortunate timing.

I can see Year One of your relationship unfolding thus: first a period of intense infatuation where everything you discover about this person is miraculous and enriching; then a period of necessary acclimation where you accommodate your daily rhythms to fit this new addition; and lastly, a period of escalated social activity where you rush to not only introduce your person to everyone you love, but also to meet all of the people your person loves.

It is this third stage I would like to warn you about today.

Perhaps "warn" is too strong a word for a time so precious and fleeting. Precious because you are watching people you'd give your life for all get to know one another and become friends in their own right. Fleeting because amid the scheduling and driving and cross-country flying, you -- the one more wrapped up in making it happen rather than the actual happening -- forget to pause and absorb what you hath so finely wrought.

Perhaps a better word would be "caution." Or "advise." Yes, let's go with advise, seeing as this entire letter is unsolicited anyway. I advise you, dear couples, as you traverse the period I like to refer to as Getting Everyone to Know Everyone as 'Now' Becomes 'Forever,' to stay mindful of three sizable demands on your time:

1. You must grow together as a couple.

You had the first few months all to yourselves -- week after week of happy daydreams and pajama snuggles and a romantic cocoon of your own devising. Prioritizing your relationship was easy because it was exciting and new. Once real life reasserts itself, however, you must put extra effort into carving out that special, undisturbed time where just the two of you can explore what you're creating together. Consider this time together sacred, because so are you to each other -- "dedicated, set apart, [and] exclusively appropriated" (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).
2. You must maintain your individual relationships as you also build new ones.

Friendship is a gift, one that nurtures and sustains you in different ways than a romantic relationship. Your friends were there with you when you were single, and they (hopefully) will continue to be with you as you add a partner to your life. But just as your romance requires investment, so do your friendships, be they old or new. Know it will not always go smoothly. You will run up against others' expectations or desires, and more often than not their reactions will be out of your control. What you can control, however, is your response. Continue to listen, acknowledge, and ask your friends to do the same for you. I promise, the new normal will emerge.
3. You must protect and foster what makes you, you.

No one can complete you. Not your partner. Not your family. Not your friends. They support and encourage and love your soul, but they do not embody it. It is up to you and you alone to tend that essential part of your being. Engage your interests, pursue your goals, deepen your connection to the world around you. Remember to be quiet occasionally, and sit by yourself. Such moments will keep you in touch with what makes your friends cherish you, what makes your lover want you, and what makes you feel exactly like you.

By now you're probably sweating and searching for Xanax beer chocolate. I don't blame you -- each of these demands requires diligent care and feeding, and there are only 24 hours in a day, much of which you must devote to sleep, food, and basic hygiene. So here is my final piece of unsolicited advice:

4. Go easy on yourself.

You are doing the best you humanly can. With that effort at the forefront, you will end up in the right place, even if there are some bumps and tears along the route. And no matter what else happens, remember that you're bound to learn much, much more about your partner, your friends, and yourself.
Godspeed, new(ish) couples. I look forward to seeing you on the flip side. But not too soon.

With love and admiration,


Prayer #289: Falling for You

God of hand-holding and hand-wringing,

Hold me in Yours as I figure out how to be present to myself as well as to those I love. Let me peek through Your fingers and spot when my people are striving to give to me as I am striving to give to them. Caress me when I am anxious; block me when I am injurious. And if You must let me go, let it be so I may continue falling in love -- with him, with her, with them -- all intoxicating reflections of You.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tell us in your own words

There’s a delightful moment in the musical “Guys and Dolls” when self-righteous missionary General Cartwright declaims in operatic tones to gangster Nicely Nicely Johnson, “Tell us in your own words.”

She's referring to the personal story of salvation he's purporting to have. And "tell us" is exactly what Nicely proceeds to do, not just with words, but with rhyme, rhythm, melody, harmony, and a full choreographed dance routine alongside a bunch of sin-riddled gamblers.

Could the character have stated his story simply, a la group therapy? Sure. But this being a Broadway musical, he was beholden by the laws of his theatrical universe to make it big. Different. Memorable. So memorable, in fact, that twenty years after I first listened to the "Guys and Dolls" cast recording in my parents’ car, I can still recite “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” by heart.

Yesterday I channeled a bit of General Cartwright when a poet friend shared how unhappy she was with her verse of late. “I want to be like Robert Frost,” she told me. “He has these perfect images, and he just drops this wisdom in … but everything I write comes out coy or arch.”

“Is that your voice, though? What if instead of fighting it, you embraced it?”

She considered that for half a second. “But I don’t like it. I want to be like Frost.”

I tried again. “But why be a second Frost when you can be a first you? I want to hear your voice. What do you have to say?”

She, however, had none of it. Which means -- to my great sorrow -- that I will have none of her for the foreseeable future. None of her wit, none of her creativity, none of her unique, specific, compelling worldview.

Talk about wasting one's most valuable asset. What do I have if not my own voice? Who else has my exact senses and sensibilities? Who else has my mix of experiences, my list of desires, my raft of dreams? No one. Only me. And for you, only you.

The man who gave us the classic lines "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference" would never in a million years want a writer to follow his well-trod path. Let's plot our own instead and explore a wilderness not yet charted.

Prayer #288: My Own Course

Rock your own boat. Plow your own field. Tilt at your own windwills, the ones that in steady thrums claim you cannot defeat them, that you are doomed to stand before them forever, disarmed.

God of voice and character, speak through the conflicted cacophony in my own mind. Endow what I have to say with confidence. Help me leave my windwills far in my past, twirling listlessly against an empty sky, while I carry my message farther than I thought possible.


Wednesday, July 08, 2015

On the Charleston shootings

Three weeks have passed since Dylann Storm Roof killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and I cannot stop placing myself in the middle of that Bible study.

Bible studies provide time and space for contemplation. They offer guided meditation, academic exercise, and community bonding, all in one construct. To think that a man, a stranger, sat in the participants' midst for an entire sixty minutes before opening fire boggles my mind. Did the environment of devotion and love move him at all? Did Mother Emanuel's community sway him, even for a second, to reconsider his actions? Did an opportunity for grace present itself to him? Or was he so rotten, so sodden with hate, rage, and pain, that not the smallest chink of light got through?

I will never know, of course, because I am not Dylann Storm Roof. I was not sitting in the church that day listening the words they were poring over. I do not know how hard God was beating against his rib cage, trying to push aside the pitch-dark fury, struggling to reach Roof's core humanity.

But what I can do instead is turn the questions on myself. Whenever the world pours forth such tragedies -- when we can longer turn a blind eye to the worst elements of our shared humanity -- I force myself to ask, "What hate am I carrying? What prejudice? What fear?"

In essence, how am I failing to love?

"Love will always win." Photo by Matt Drobnik, Flickr

Because the one rule above all is love your neighbor as yourself. And it's the #1 rule because it is the most difficult. It both draws on our natural goodness (for yes, I believe people are fundamentally good) and assaults our learned behaviors. So we end up in a constant war within ourselves, nature vs. nurture, joy vs. fear, whisper vs. shout.

Why are we not love to and for each other?

Love your neighbor, even when he is wrong.

Love your neighbor, even when she scares you.

Love your neighbor, even when you hate them.

But guns are easier. More expedient to use. More expedient to blame. When what we must really do is live out love, even if we don't yet feel it.

Prayer #287: No Words

I have no words left
none to ease the pain
none to soothe the grief
none to stop the violence
except for the hardest ones of all:
I love you
I love You
I love.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What the world needs now ... (Do you know the rest?)

Burn, baby. Photo by Mike G, Flickr.

When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace. -- Jimi Hendrix

Last week, I was walking out of the Metro listening to Fr. Paul Dressler's podcast on active, Christ-like love, and there at the escalator exit stood a melancholy man, in about his early 40s, with a container for change and a sign that read, "I have two small boys..."

I can't tell you what the rest said, though, because I ran away before I read the whole thing.

Such profound hypocrisy in my action (or lack thereof). I had just spent twenty minutes learning about Christ's call to pour out love in the hardest of places, to follow the "map of Jesus," and yet when the moment came to transform words into deeds, I choked. Again. Like always, it seems.

In trying to exert power over my surroundings -- in claiming that I don't want to take my wallet out in public, that I don't have money to spare, that I can't verify if my contribution will be used well -- I end up withholding love. Talk about a losing proposition. Even if my claims are justified, why not choose to exert power in a productive way -- say, for example, offer to buy the man food for his family, direct him to local services more equipped than I to help, or simply listen to his story?

Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved." Imagine if I had embodied love in that moment. Imagine if I did so each day. Imagine if you did so each day. What power would we have then? Infinite power. And with it, infinite peace.

Prayer #286: The Power of Love is a Curious Thing

Pure love is a pot belly stove, round and warm, wamp-wamp-wamp, radiating out to all who pass. And like that cozy stove, those who feel the heat do not take it -- they receive it. Absorb it. They are fueled. They burn in turn.

Am I willing to stoke my own flames? As logs turn to ash in service of heat, will I let You consume me, reduce me to my barest elements? Will You strike the match when I cannot? Together, will we -- can we -- burn enough?


Thursday, May 28, 2015

What comes from silence

The fog shifts to light ... Photo by Justin Kern, Flickr

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

-- Wendell Berry, New Collected Poems (via brainpickings.org)

Some more thoughts on the power of silence:

Prayer #285: "Prayers Prayed Back"

God of the interior third place --

It could be the coffee shop, the bookstore, the pub ... or none of the above. I'm searching for my place, the spot where my mumbling, inchoate pleadings can echo back, as if I were standing in an empty and ancient cathedral laid bare by time, with only enough light to outline the pews where I should be sitting.

Insight (I am slowly understanding) does not come gilded or be-bowed. It does not spring forth fully formed. It does not even arrive large enough to see -- more an accumulation of specks pushing through the fibers in the curtain of silence around me, like peckish moths picking at an overripe snack. I sense I must draw the curtain tighter. Yet not too tight -- just enough to allow the lighted dust.

God of the unpretentious revelation, I will gather the breadcrumbs as You drop them. I will guard them. Arrange them. And when the time is right, I will serve them as a feast made holier by its quiet preparation.


Friday, May 22, 2015

The genesis of art

Out of chaos ... Illustration by Patrick Hoesly, Flickr.

Step 1 of today's post: Read this passage (emphasis mine).
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." Thus evening came, and morning followed -- the first day.

Then God said, "Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other." And so it happened: God made the dome, and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it. God called the dome "the sky." Evening came, and morning followed -- the second day.

Then God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear." And so it happened: the water under the sky was gathered into its basin, and the dry land appeared. God called the dry land "the earth," and the basin of the water he called "the sea." God saw how good it was. Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it." And so it happened: the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed -- the third day.

Then God said: "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate day from night. Let them mark the fixed times, the days and the years, and serve as luminaries in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth." And so it happened: God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed -- the fourth day.

Then God said, "Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky." And so it happened: God created the great sea monsters and all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems, and all kinds of winged birds. God saw how good it was, and God blessed them, saying, "Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas; and let the birds multiply on the earth." Evening came, and morning followed -- the fifth day.

Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth all kinds of living creatures: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of all kinds." And so it happened: God made all kinds of wild animals, all kinds of cattle, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. God saw how good it was. Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground."

God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." God also said: "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food." And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed -- the sixth day.
Step 2: Let's chat.

Stars shining bright above you. Photo by Pippy, Flickr.

So. Why did I just ask you to read Genesis 1:1-31 from the New American Bible? Because if you have ever created something in your life -- wanted to create something, tried to create something, succeeded in creating something -- you have lived this story.

Let me explain. After nearly three years of study, I am in the final phase of my writing degree, the thesis project of which is to put forth a body of publication-worthy fiction. For the next six months, I will wrangle my stories into works of literary genius (read: passable prose), and those works into a collection. By the end of the process, I will graduate from the program, and then I will start submitting these works to the wider world. And on its way to becoming art, each work is living the Genesis story.

Look for a moment at the bolded statements in the passage above. By my count we have six elements that God deems good -- light; earth and sea; vegetation; stars; sea monsters, swimming creatures, and winged birds; and wild animals, cattle, and creeping things. Then God steps back, surveys what he hath wrought, and deems it all very good.

Steps in a process. Photo by Polpolux !!!, Flickr.

To my mind, each element reflects a critical piece of the act of creation -- not the Biblical version of "creation," but rather the creative births that all artists midwife on a regular basis. For example:

  • Light is the spark, the candle in the coal mine, the brief but vivid hint that something bigger, deeper, richer lies ahead if we keep walking.
  • Earth and sea form the foundations that stay firm beneath our feet and carry us in their currents. They are our envelope, the structure that gives us a cyclical, reliable, immutable space in which to play.
  • Vegetation acts as both fuel and cover. It nourishes us when our energy flags and shelters us when our eyelids droop.
  • Stars symbolize our greater compass, the fiery winks that point toward the meaning of our artistic pursuits. Why must this work live, they ask, and why are you the one to bring it forth?
  • Sea monsters, swimming creatures, and winged birds represent wild leaps, flights of fancy, the spasms of imagination that grip us and help us believe that what we're making is fantastic and beautiful.
  • Wild animals, cattle, and creeping things are whatever keeps us grounded. They are the everyday plod, the humble crawl forward, the fight-or-flight instinct that instinctively moves us -- maybe not always in the direction we want, but still, it's movement.
Then, lastly, we look on everything we have made -- our voice, our message, our art -- and we experience a dizzying moment where the steps gel and the work takes on a very good life independent of our own.

If all goes well with my thesis, my words will transform by the end of it into a new world for reader and writer alike. But unlike the humans in Genesis, I won't have dominion over what is created. Rather, I will watch my art walk off alone into a brave new land born of my mind, not ruled by my hand, and greater than the sum of the acts that formed it.

Prayer #284: On the Seventh Day

On the seventh day my work will be complete.
A nap's in order -- we must celebrate!
My work, however, cannot bear to rest.
Created, it must stretch, inhale, and flex --
a strut of strength within a universe
of countless other works. Art, listen up.
Abundance is your fruit; the fact that you
exist at all illuminates your life.
So revel mightily in your array --
your bursting seeds, slow-creeping things, white wings
that beat against your rib cage. Multiply
at will. Dominion's overrated.