Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
—that is to say, grace—
and circumstances
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.

-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

(bonus points for any of my readers with enough time on his/her hands to hunt down the original French)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hidden Valley

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being an explorer. In fact, I remember the day when I sadly realized, like the scene in The Truman Show, that everywhere had already been discovered, and there would be no secret continents hiding in a corner of the ocean. Instead of continents, my explorations would have to remain where they had always been: the 80-acre forest that surrounded my childhood home, owned by the old widow Mrs. Obadiah who refused all offers to sell family land.

Though there were lovely glens where the river (read: creek) would cascade (read: trickle) over boulders that were family favorites for woodland adventures, I preferred to find my own havens, precisely because they would be my own. I found a place where the honeysuckle vine hung as a thick blanket over overhanging branches to create a sweet-smelling hollow. I found an old trail left by loggers that made me feel like a character from The Lord of the Rings on my way through Mirkwood Forest. I found an old stump that kept more bark than tree and shaped itself like a throne, and I imagined it the throne where God would sit during his similar strolls through Mrs. Obadiah’s forest. And my crowning discovery was when I found the stumps that stood at the top of a cleared hill in the middle of the forest, giving me the sensation of standing on a mountaintop. I named it Hidden Valley.

The first time I stumbled on my private mountaintop was exhilarating enough to keep me coming back with a strangely sacramental assurance that God was really present at Hidden Valley in a more tangible way than he was on my walk there, and it became a favorite pastime for me to tote a lunch there, sharing a meal with the God I knew would join me for the simple reason that he had once before. The very contours of the ground declared the glory of God, and the sloping valley (such as it was) proclaimed the work of his hands.

Soon after my discovery of Hidden Valley, I dragged my childhood best friend out to see it on an afternoon when she was unfortunately tired, hungry, and about to go home. She didn't want to cross the long field to get there (a prairie in size, as I recall), but I described the view vividly enough to convince her to come.

"There," I said when we arrived. "Stand on this stump to get the best view."

"This is it?" she asked incredulously, her tone betraying her utter disappointment, as if I had promised wealth and delivered a penny.

"Uh..." I hesitated, noticing that my mountain seemed to shrink before her gaze, and feeling suddenly quite foolish. "Maybe not. I must forget how to get there. We can go back home." I had suddenly developed a desire to be anywhere other than Hidden Valley whose magic had become temporarily invisible, even to me, knowing that I did not possess the power to make the magic return.

"Well, we already came all the way out here," she conceded with needless graciousness. "We can look around for it if you think you can find it again."

"No," I struggled in a brief panic, forced to lose face by admitting this was the place I had described so superlatively. "This is actually it, but it looks different now. I think some trees must have fallen and blocked the view." (It probably commends me that I was such a bad liar. It evidently didn't occur to me that we would have to see fallen trees for them to be obscuring our view, not to mention that trees are more obtrusive when standing up.)

At any rate, I never took anyone else out there, and the sacramental magic of the place from that time on remained more in the memory of what it had once looked like than in my future views. It was as if God had once removed a veil to reveal the splendor of his creation that he wondrously created and even more wondrously restored, and I knew the secret afterwards even if the veil had returned.

According to GoogleEarth, there is a subdivision now in the places of my childhood explorations. I suppose that must mean Mrs. Obadiah is dead, and that I might have been the last person to experience that hill as a place of wonder where God's glory may choose to dwell for an afternoon. I like to hope at least that some family's driveway is paved over it so that some kid can get the raw exhilaration of riding down it on his bike and thereby experience a bit of the wonder I felt, if that is not a profane use of what is surely sacred ground. And two decades and 700 miles removed from my afternoons at Hidden Valley, I pray that God may lift the corners of the veil again from time to time, and that my desire to save face never allows even a friend to put it back. In the mean time, I will keep looking for him in the meadows he has strolled with me before.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Diverting Apologetics, II

I was invited again to write an article for the theological blog of a few friends of mine, this time touching on the understanding of sainthood from a Catholic perspective. Feel free to give it some feedback, whether or not you are sympathetic. Any qualms would be helpful for me to ponder because a) I am hoping to write a follow-up article about Marian theology in a few months and I want to make sure these bases are covered first, and b) I have been invited to help with a project in the relic chapel of the local basilica and multiple perspectives would be helpful for my own ponderings. I promise to listen!

Friday, September 17, 2010

While Waiting

There was a photo on the cover of the April, 2004 edition of Touchstone Magazine that depicted a girl looking wistfully toward the clouds with a pained expression on her face. Below her in the background you can make out the outer edge of the architecture of Mont Saint-Michel in northern France, and above her hangs the heading “While Waiting for Heaven.”

The girl was my little sister, who, as I recall from when I snapped the photo, was not waiting for heaven but for lunch.

When my family moved to Paris, my sister was ten years old, an age almost ideally selected to be as traumatic and disorienting as possible (admittedly not quite as ideal as when they moved back when she was thirteen). I remember the day she and my mom arrived in the city and the three other family members who had preceded them by a month showed them around the city. There was a rude juxtaposition of one of the world’s most popular tourist cities and my tortured sister whose life had just been shattered.

“Our apartment is down that street about a kilometer-and-a-half,” I pointed from the top of L’Arc de Triomphe with tourists all around. “That’s a little more than a mile, so it’d be about the same distance as the walk from our old house to Food Lion…” I realized too late my error of bringing up the home she had just been torn away less than a day earlier, and I gave her the privacy of pretending not to notice her tears.

It was a mocking irony: the girl’s agony set against the glow of Europe. Paris is a genuinely lovely city, but there was no conceivable way she could have enjoyed it that day.

In order to compound the irony, her health was a little spotty over her three years in Europe, and she always seemed to get sick whenever my family took mini vacations in the surrounding area: Belgium, Rome, the Italian Alps, Greece, Egypt, Prague. She was in a place of wonder whether she could enjoy them or not, but it is hard for anyone to appreciate an alpine ski resort or a Grecian cruise ship while throwing up.

And I wonder if I am there with her, lying on a hotel bed in Cairo with a stomach bug or dragging myself through the streets of Venice with a migraine. It is undoubtedly a world saturated with the miraculous: whether in the Sacraments of the Church or the sacramentals erupting from a world brimming with life that enters the world “trailing clouds of glory” (as Wordsworth says) and still bears hope of glory’s fulfillment, God is oozing from his creation.

Like my sister, I am incapable of appreciating the wonders that are nevertheless present around me, that I trip over just as certainly whether or not I appreciate their presence. I think part of the purpose of various disciplines in the Church, regular prayers and sacraments and fasts and celebrations whether you can engage or not, is a matter of conditioning our souls to appreciate those very mysteries. I pray that as I approach something closer to health, heath of body and heath of soul, I’ll be able to enjoy these mundane wonders a little more. I’m waiting for it, at any rate.

Monday, September 13, 2010

They shall not enter into my rest, II

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Psalm 127:2
Thursday evening I celebrated the end of an exhausting week (in which I learned that keeping up with five courses that utilize three dead languages, one of which I haven’t learned yet, might have been a bit ambitious for my first semester) by having a dear friend over for dinner. Toward the end of her visit we found ourselves in a conversation about contemplative prayer, a spiritual discipline my soul has been quite slow to learn.

Ever since I was first introduced to the Divine Office, I have become increasingly aware both of the value of contemplative prayer and of my great deficiency in it. Prayer was always something I did, whether that was journaling (by far the most natural form for me) or talking casually on the way to class or venting in a fit of angst or fasting from food or sleep or any other bodily need I could think of (asceticism was also quite natural for me). I have never learned prayer that was not an intellectual exercise or a willful discipline, prayer that was found outside myself rather than inside, prayer that involved uniting myself to something and someone else rather than exploring my own mind.

But that night in a strange intersection of my academic weariness (I had turned in two papers and took a Latin quiz that day) and my soul’s deficiency in finding communion with her maker, I realized something as if it were a novel concept:

I was tired.

I was always tired. I had lived on sleep deprivation since I discovered books as a young girl, and exhaustion became a matter of principle by college. Dualism, the heresy that separates spiritual matters from physical matter as if they are distinguishable, had been so pervasive in my thinking that rest still feels overly indulgent. But if dualism really is a heresy after all, then it may be that a neglect of my body is not only damaging to my body; it may be damaging to my soul.

At any rate, on a sudden impulse soon after my friend left, I went to bed hours before it was absolutely necessary, and I let myself sleep an hour past my alarm.

When I awoke my soul was refreshed, as if it had just spent eight hours communing with God. I began to wonder if my tired body was connected to my restless soul. I began to wonder what it would be like to wake from eight hours of sleep more often.
...for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The porch next door

I’m sure any faithful readers out there thought that either I or my blog had given up the ghost. Not so: the latter simply went into hibernation while the former went into the hyperdrive of moving across the country, settling into her first home, and fighting through the first two weeks of a PhD program. The former now hesitantly yawns awake...

Alas! The onion you are eating is someone else’s water lily.
-Presumably a Chinese proverb, taken from a fortune cookie
I fell in love with my neighborhood the first time I drove through it in late February on my way to the university recruitment day. I loved the colorful century-old houses, each its own unique design. I loved the front porch culture that reminded me of my beloved South I would be leaving behind. I loved the eclectic assortment of neighbors, from grad students to pastors to Wal-Mart employees to social workers to those whose cases they worked on. There was no doubt in my mind: if I were to accept the offer to the university, this would be the neighborhood for me.

My suspicions were confirmed three weeks ago when I finally moved into my cozy little house. My mother, sister, and I pulled in a little after sundown and prepared to move the mattresses and suitcases inside to hunker down for the night. Before I could get working, I was heralded with a “Hello, neighbor!” from the porch next door.

It was apparent right away that I would not have to work to get to know my neighbors, especially these ones whose porch was constantly occupied with a steady stream of friends and family members shouting similar greetings over the sound of their music. They keep my block a bit noisy, but they also keep it warm.

But this weekend when I had my first chance to try out my guestroom on two friends who drove up to attend the first football game of the season, I was struck by the difference in their reaction to my neighborhood.

“I was kind of worried when I drove up and saw all those people outside,” one of them said with concern. “Are they always out there?” Apparently what had been a selling-point for me was a worrisome deterrent for him.

Avoiding the temptation to make any racial or socioeconomic speculations about the reason for his doubts about my neighbors (as if I wouldn’t be caught doing the same in different circumstances, or as if initial concern is never valid), I will end with the mere observation that there was a difference. The neighborhood that had impressed me with its warmth and personality repelled him with its noise and activity (some of it, admittedly, being dubious actively).

It seems to me that the Christian story makes room for both responses, for the glorious and the terrifying sides of human potential, for my neighbors to gladden my soul for my six years in this house or to rob me out of house and home. But we are, even at our most terrifying, a twisted form of glorious, saturated with beauty and oozing with hope to return. I pray for the grace to see my neighbors through those eyes.