Be careful what you pray for.


We’re always told to be careful what we pray for, because we will get it. I’m here to tell you that is so amazingly true that it’s terrifying.

For the last little while, I’d been running across comments and sayings from the Fathers about how we need to understand how God is not this cozy little person who is our best buddy, who is cuddly and comfortable and human sized. He’s big and he’s dangerous and we should fear him as much as we love him. And I get it, in my head: the being who can create the entire universe, who is bigger than infinity, to whom a hurricane is a slight breeze – who creates the hurricanes and the earthquakes is not a God you want to mess with. As Lewis put it: he’s not a tame lion.

But I didn’t feel it in my heart. God, for me had always been the shelter from the storm, not the storm itself. He cradled me through terrible times, reminded me of His love in the bad times, and healed me in the most amazing ways during the good times. He is patient with me, always gently leading me back to the way I should be going, pointing out where I need to focus my energies and my repentance. And I know for sure I didn’t actually, in so many words, ask to be shown the God who is bigger than the universe, but I do remember wondering how I could feel that awe and that wonder.

My writing life, for the last several years, has been a mess. Nothing I’ve written for over six years has been accepted for publication, and anything new I’ve started (other than an Akathist I’ve been struggling with for five or six years) has been blocked. For nonfiction, I can’t find the sources or a coherent voice, for fiction I just can’t put the words down, for poetry, if I haven’t got someone pushing me, it doesn’t get done. I’ve lost my focus, my sense of where I’m going with my writing, what I’m supposed to be doing with it, and even what I’m supposed to be writing. And who cared about what I wrote (other than me) anyway? My words were so trite, so banal and so shallow, was there any point to keeping on? Whatever I had to say, others had said it better, deeper, funnier and far more eloquently than I had, or could.

So when I heard about an Orthodox writer’s conference, I thought – yeah, I’ll go. Maybe I can jump start something. Or at least meet all these people I’ve known on line for years and years. But that was a lie I told myself. What I was really doing was saying goodbye. I think I’d pretty much decided to quit writing even before Mel emailed me about the conference, but I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself, so I packed the Akathist on the grounds that, hey, it was a writing conference. I could write when I wasn’t networking.

I caught a red-eye from Vancouver to Chicago, at least that’s what my ticket said, but it wasn’t long after I arrived at O’Hare that I realized I wasn’t in Ohio anymore. Or Wisconson or Kansas. Somewhere along the way, I entered the Orthodox twilight zone. First thing was meeting someone at the bus station who was also attending the conference. She had the knowledge to point me in directions that would allow me to go back to a stalled book on my name saint and her brothers, and was more than willing to share. Thank you Summer!

The first words I heard on arriving at the retreat centre in Kansasville Wisconsin were words I desperately needed to hear. And they were said by someone whose writing I have admired and learned from for a number of years. Molly Maddex Sabourin looked at me, said, “Are you Bev. Cooke?” And when I nodded, she told me how much my writing had meant to her. I heard that message a number of times through the two days we were meeting.

The retreat centre is on 137 acres of farmland. It’s got a tiny forest on one side of the property. The wooded area has trails dotted with shrines to various saints. There’s a handy map so you can plan your walk. I’m a sucker for maps, so I picked one up. I took along the Akathist I was working on. It’s to the Theotokos and it follows her life, including, of course, most of the major events of Jesus’s life as well.

Like I said, I love maps. I’m good at reading them, and I’m a good navigator. Until our GPS replaced me (for which I still haven’t forgiven it), I got us wherever we were going, efficiently and mostly trouble-free. I certainly never put us into farmer’s fields, which the GPS does on a fairly regular basis, at least according to the maps in its memory.

Yet, this time, even before I entered the trails, I got lost. I could see the beginning and ends of the trail marked on the map, but could I find them in reality? Good luck! When I finally stumbled on what I thought was the trail (but wasn’t), I was even more confused. I’m still not sure how I got lost in a soybean field in full view of the main retreat lodge, but I managed it.

I finally run across the trail, and find myself at a small square building dedicated to St. Nectarios. Aha! Here I am! So the next shrine should be St. Haralumbos. I walk toward it and run straight into the Dormition of the Theotokos, which, according to the map is on the entire other side of the forest from where I think I am. Well, okay. I’ll write a kontakion here, since the Akathist is to the Theotokos and it seems fitting. Then, at every female saint I encounter I’ll write another section. Now where am I and where am I going? Oh, Saint’s Pantelemon and Parksevi are next. Except they aren’t. It’s St Nectarios again, but it isn’t a small building, it’s a covered icon, just like the other shrines I’ve seen. Which means I’m suddenly back on the side of the woods I thought I had originally been, except that I hadn’t, I’m over there. And now I’m over here, and I didn’t see the field along the path I was supposed to be walking along, so maybe I’m over there, instead? But wait. Where’s the little lake, that’s supposed to be here? and I have no idea where I really am, except I have some suspicion that it still isn’t Wisconsin.

I give up. I will wander, ending up wherever I end up. Eventually, I’ll come out. It might or might not be on the retreat property. It might or might not be in Wisconsin. And if it is, this is rural Wisconsin, not the wild interior of British Columbia. There are, as far as I know, no bears in farmland Wisconsin. What’s the worst that can happen?

God likes metaphors, I conclude as I realize that I am as lost in these woods as I am in the forest of my writing. So I hand it all over to Him: this walk in these woods, and my ramblings in the thickets of my work. I walk and write and walk some more. I visit Saint Catherine and St. Barbara. Write under the eye of both women. The words flow as they haven’t for over six years. I walk some more and scare up a doe, which is pure joy and my heart leaps with her. I visit St. George and he and I pray for my godson, and I decide it’s time to head back to the lodge, and check the map, where I notice the shrine to St. Emelia. I can’t miss her – she is the mother of my name saint and when I enter her shrine, I feel welcomed and honoured. She’s been waiting for me, and enfolds me in a spiritual embrace. I pray to her and write a bit with her.

But now I have to head back. I’m hot and tired. The sweat is rolling into my eyes and it stings and it rolls down my arms and onto my fingers and makes the pen slippery. I’m full up with this experience and want to put the Akathist away for a while and think about what has happened here.

Next along the path, I run across a shrine to Sts. Constantine and Helen. She is a woman – but he’s not. Should I write? Or not? I look at my outline. This kontakia is about the entry to Jerusalem, when Christ was greeted as a king. Do I have a choice? I write. The next shrine is the twelve apostles. The ikos is the Last Supper. I pray, I write and I’m not sure if the drops hitting the page are sweat or tears. I am being led, and if the metaphor holds, then in my writing life, I am being led as well. I need to trust.

Enough, God, I’ve had all I can take. I want to go back to reality and talk with my friends. I follow the path, check the map, turn down the arm of the trail that leads back to the lodge. Without, as far as I can see on the map, any more shrines. I don’t want any more. I’m shaking and raw and I’m perilously close to tears.

A few more steps and I see, off the path, a painting: white lamb on a set of shoulders. No. I can’t deal with you this way. I can’t take so direct an encounter. But I have no choice, do I? I handed the control over to you, so I have to stop here. The icon is the Good Shepherd.

But it’s not the Good Shepherd I meet. It’s a storm of love – a hurricane, a tsunami of love, that envelopes me and holds me fast. I sense behind this storm even more love, more powerful than what I am already experiencing. This is a love that can create universes, and I’m only sensing the very tip and tiniest portion of how big and powerful it is, and I start to cry. There’s so much love here that if I let myself cry as I need to, I will cry myself out of myself. I’ll be stripped to my essence – opened up right to the innermost core of who I am and laid bare for all the universe to see. And I can’t. It doesn’t matter that God knows this part of me already. I can’t let myself cry like that, I’m not ready to be laid that bare. I back away after a few moments and head back to the lodge and to a reality I can deal with.

But I know that even as I run from the power and the immensity of the love that is God, I’m still running to him – he’s the good shepherd and I’m his ewe and he will be waiting, back to a size that he knows I can deal with. But my view of him is forever changed – it’s tinged with awe at the majesty he allowed me to see and sense. I know that one day, I will be able to face that love, and allow him to open me to the very core of myself, and I know too that it will be in tiny steps that won’t destroy me, and I’ll revel in every step of it. And I will not, I cannot stop writing.

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I hate you.


I’m confused and perturbed and dismayed. Over the last few months, the temperature around the topics of religion/atheism, homosexuality/gay marriage and abortion have been heating up once again. I’m not going to take a position on any of them in this post, because what’s bothering me isn’t actually about the particular issues, it’s about the dialogue around those issues. Which isn’t a dialogue at all.

We aren’t communicating with each other on those issues. What we’re doing is yelling at each other with no desire to listen, understand, empathize or hear the other’s position. Which, in every single one of these issues, are far more nuanced and complex than either side would like to believe.

 We don’t even want to admit that the other side has a position. They’re wrong and therefore they have nothing worth hearing and whatever they say is born out of intolerance, narrowmindedness, ignorance, hatred and fear. They’re not even, for some of the people commenting and monologuing on these topics, worthy of basic civil discourse, as you can see here, here, here and here.

 The viciousness, the unwillingness to be open and hear is not exclusive to one side or the other. Both are spewing vitriol and hatred and closed minded trumpeting.

The problem doesn’t just lie in the extremes – those who, as in the Telegraph article are skating close to or over the edge of racism and hate speech. It’s in the attitude of some of the moderates as well, as Andrew Coyne points out in the National Post article, and as the Huffington Post article demonstrates. Neither side is interested in debate – they are interested only in presenting their sides and in silencing the other.

It’s important, because the feelings and the public rhetoric about these issues extends further than just the issue. Bullying, in the schools, is no longer about weaker children and adolescents being victimized by the stronger, louder and bigger or by the fact that the bully one day can be the bully’s victim the next. It’s not about taking lunch money, of calling someone names because they don’t fit in or because they aren’t wearing designer clothes, because of where they come from or the fact that their parents are weird. (Or that they’re weird). It’s all about homosexuality, as if the only reason to bully someone is because they’re gay, or perceived as such. School boards have floated the idea of running (or are actually holding) classes teaching kids to extend tolerance to gays. But not to blacks, French, disabled, or geek kids who happen to end up on the wrong end of the bullying stick? Apparently not. I don’t have a problem with tolerance classes. We all need to be tolerant, respectful, and kind to each other, regardless of who we are, where we come from or what we look like, or even what secondary sexual characteristics we find exciting. A lot of us don’t learn that in our homes, from the way public discourse has been going. But to focus exclusively on bullying gays isn’t the answer. The answer is to teach people to treat EVERYONE, regardless of who they are, or what views they hold, with dignity, respect and love.  It’s to teach people to distinguish between to distinguish human beings and both the things they say and the things they do. I can hate the beatings my neighbour inflicts on his dog. I cannot hate my neighbour. I can remonstrate with my neighbour about the horror and cruelty of his actions. I need to listen when he tells my why he beats his dog. I need to give him answers and support to deal with whatever is causing him to beat his dog. I cannot beat my neighbour, either verbally or physically, no matter how much I think he deserves it, or how much I would like to or how little validity I think his views have.

What’s going on in the public arena now is bullying, pure and simple. If you don’t agree with me, I shut you out, I call you names, I insist on my beliefs being enacted in the public life with no regard for your rights, humanity or beliefs. I act as if I am superior to you because I have the right answer. Because you don’t agree with my views on this topic (whatever it is), you are obviously a piece of stupid, uneducated, rednecked/pinko, fern sniffing/beer guzzling commie/republican reactionary/revolutionary dog shit. (Every one of those insults are quotes taken from one side or the other on these topics, btw.)

Even if the discourse doesn’t get down to the level of name calling and threats, both sides carry a morally superior tone that rankles and shuts down any real conversation, because it says “I’m simply tolerating what you’re saying, but really – I have the right answer and you know jack shit.” (Once again, a paraphrase of an exchange on one of these topics.) We’re all familiar with it. I know I’ve (to my shame) used it and had it used on me. If anything, it’s more insidious than the out and out name calling. At least there, I can point to a clear, unmistakable insult. In this sort of debate, it can all be attributed to interpretation, which again, dismisses and denigrates the other side of the conversation.

We teach children more by example than we ever do by lecturing, essays, rewards or punishment. Children learn their attitudes and how to treat people by the way they see the adults around them treating people. And if we show them that the public arena is a place to call people names, ignore what they say, dismiss what they believe, and hate them because they disagree with us, then what are we teaching them? We’re teaching them intolerance, hatred, bigotry and repression. And they’ll act that way when they grow up, whether they believe in gay marriage or not. Whether they think abortion on demand is fine, or that every conceived life is sacred, or whether they believe in a just and loving and merciful God or that the universe is just what it is because it is and Nobody’s in charge of it.

Granted these are hot button issues, but the amount of dismissive rhetoric and out and out hatred is more than alarming – it’s scary, and it’s a lot worse than it ever has been. If we can’t, in two supposedly democratic, free countries talk about what separates us, and if we can’t teach our children how to talk about things that upset and alarm and hurt us, then what chance do we have of teaching them the tools to make a society in which we are all free and respected and heard? What is our society going to look like thirty, fifty or one hundred years from now?

 

 

God Alone is Enough


GOD ALONE IS ENOUGH:
A Spirited Journey with St. Teresa of Avila

CHAPTER 9: Ecstasy is not a Drug
By Claudia Mair Burney
172 pages Paraclete Press
ISBN: 978-1-55725-661-4

If I’d read this book and especially this chapter at any other time, in any other place, it wouldn’t have had the impact in me it did. But I got to chapter 9 on the ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles, on my way to a writing retreat I had looked forward to for the entire year. Last year’s retreat, my first, had been a grace filled and healing time both for my writing and for my self and soul. Since Lent, though, the retreat became more a way to crawl into a hole and pull a rock on top of me than a time to spend with God and writing. It would be an escape from the ongoing, unremitting crises that have left me shell shocked and depressed. In the last year, I’ve lost 2 good friends to cancer. My aunt, the last of her generation, died in the middle of Lent. 95 years old, and sharp as a tack to the end, but it means that she’s gone, and that leaves a hole in my life and my heart.

In this last year, as well, two friendships have blown up in my face, one of which was of 25 years close and loving duration. I lost another good friend to re-addiction and the streets, nursed a daughter through a three month illness and a son through a problematic relationship.

And those are only the worst things – all round, whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. This has been Murphy’s Year for sure.

BUCKETS TO WHEELS AND BACK

Claudia’s book, for those just joining the tour, is how to get closer to God. She paraphrases and explains the writings of Teresa of Avila, one of God’s best friends. St. Teresa talks about 4 methods of prayer, using the metaphor of a garden for our souls. God is the gardener, pulling the weeds and nurturing the flowers. St. Teresa likens the 4 methods of praying to our watering the garden – first from a bucket with well-drawn water, next by turning the crank of a water wheel, which is easier, but still a lot of work. Then we progress to irrigating the garden by using a river, which is better for both the garden and us. Chapter 9, the chapter I’m blogging on, describes the fourth method, which is, for us, the easiest of all – rain, lots and lots of abundant rain falling from heaven.

As Claudia explains, when the rain begins falling, we’d better prepare to get soaked. Once God takes over the watering, he’s not stingy, and the result, for us, is ecstasy, pure and simple. The senses are suspended; the self is enveloped by love and God’s presence and everything else just disappears.

Much of the chapter is spent trying to explain this state of being. From a writer’s point of view, what’s most interesting is that what both Claudia and Teresa are trying to describe is impossible to articulate. I not have experienced the ecstasy that both of these faithful women have, but I’ve encountered enough of God’s grace to know that you simply can’t translate it into words. It has to be experienced. And once you have, Claudia is right. It’s addicting. You can never get enough of it. But how to convey to someone who has never experienced it the overwhelming sweetness and peace and joy that infuses your entire being? You can’t. But that doesn’t stop either of them from trying, and the chapter uses some of the imagery that I’d been struggling with in my work on the last writer’s retreat. Imagery that was directly linked to the grace and healing I’d experienced last June, just before Murphy’s Year got underway.

LEAKY BUCKETS AND GRACE

That imagery and Claudia’s lively and lucid prose combined with my state of mind to bring me back to an awareness of what had been missing in my life. As the world kept socking it to me, my prayers (never one of my strengths in the first place) had dried up almost completely. The well wasn’t empty, since God fills it, but my bucket had definitely developed a number of leaks. The water I was carrying kept dribbling out the holes. I’d gone from every day formal prayers and my through the day “arrow” and “thought” prayers to just the arrow prayers to barely praying at all – and most of those consisted of variations of “When is this going to stop?” and “Can I please have a hug, God?” spoken into what felt like an echoing void. No hugs were forthcoming that I could feel.

The book, and especially this chapter, made me want Him all over again. Not in the little child curled up hurting in Daddy’s lap way that I’d been wailing about, but simply to rest in that marvelous peace and joy, the way I had last summer. I recommend reading this book, if only because it reawakened in me and I pray in you, the longing to go “further in and higher up”. But it also reminded me that I have work to do to. God’s not just going to shower that ecstasy on me because I demand it. I’m not going to be able to rest in his presence if I’m not doing my part.

I have to carry the buckets to the garden, turn the water wheel, fast, pray, confess, do all the work of building the spiritual muscles to keep the door of myself open to him. And I had been – well, except for the prayers. But it felt, as the year went on, that none of it was doing any good – if anything, I was losing ground, coming lower down and moving further away. But on the first leg of the journey to Oregon, I sat on the ferry, absorbing Claudia’s lively descriptions, her simple and humorous explanations, and yearned to return to my Beloved. Learned again that he never abandons us and is always there for us – we just have to turn to him.

Her last piece of advice in the chapter is to “Sit on that awhile.” I will, Claudia, and thanks for reminding me of what I’ve been missing by neglecting to water the garden. I think I can patch those buckets, pick them up and turn the water wheel, because I know the rain is coming.