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Sunday, May 5, 2019

All I know is the dark (thoughts on Psalm 88)

Sunday, 5 May 2019

All I know is the dark

“…all that I know is the dark.”
Psalm 88:18

This psalm haunts me with its hopelessness.  The psalmist feels utterly rejected, decrying that God has “deprived me of my friends…” (8), “plunged me to the bottom of the grave…” (6); filled with misery and cut off from hope, he feels “like the slaughtered lying in the grave,” (5) forgotten even by God.  But unlike so many psalms of sorrow and suffering, this ends not with an affirmation of trust or hope (a verse about God’s faithfulness, His saving mercy or love), but instead with a final inescapable resignation, “all I know is the dark.”

It is a supremely powerful expression of our utter helplessness and isolation. One senses no hope in this prayer, not even a plea for hope. It is simply a statement of God’s unconcern, God’s hard justice, God’s pitiless wrath.
“I am finished! / Your anger
has overwhelmed me…” (15b-16)

What are we to do with such feelings of hopelessness? The psalmist offers no comfort, only complaint, only witness to the truth of it.  One wonders that such words, such a prayer, would have ended up in the canon of scripture.  What were the rabbis and scribes thinking? What made them feel this was appropriate as part of God’s Holy Word?

And yet I can attest to the truth of it.  In a house riddled with depression and feelings of isolation and loneliness, my prayer too often echoes it.  I am overwhelmed by the needs of others, unable to find comfort in prayer, or rest, or even a bowl of onion dip, I feel “finished.” Opening my Bible, in search of solace or inspiration, I feel lost; sometimes I’m so exhausted I find it hard even to just focus on the words on the page.  My vision blurs, my head throbs. I close the Book or close my eyes and all I know is darkness.   

I sit down to write, and nothing comes.  Even these reflections; nothing. My efforts to read at least a chapter of the Bible a day and write something (in my journal) about it every day has fallen by the wayside.  Initially I was set to blame the Psalms themselves.  I tell myself they are less interesting to reflect on because they already are themselves a reflection (of a kind) and so when I sit to write (to reflect on them) my words feel like little more than a pathetic restatement of their own themes.

Yet, with the year we have had thus far, I would think spending more time in prayer and reflection would be my only hope.  There has been anxiety about work, one daughter in the hospital, one daughter moving to Minnesota, a leaking roof, cracks in the shower tiles, broken dishwasher, broken dryer, repairman visits, car troubles, struggles just to get to mass (let alone on time and with a smile), all while worrying about one daughter aging off our insurance, worrying about hospital bills for another, and occasionally trying to figure out how to make time for a date night with my wife. Not to mention wondering if we will ever be able to afford to retire (and if so how big of a cardboard box we will need to comfortably live in under the freeway overpass).   This is clearly a time for prayer!  But, during this strange season of anxiety and over eating, this time of near constant therapy visits, when I should be turning to God for comfort, instead I turn to a carton of onion dip and a bag of chips.  Of course, this isn’t healthy and can lead to trouble even with my closet full of “comfort waist” khakis.  Between September and January, I put on close to 15 pounds; one of my daughters sweetly referred to my little “Santa Claus belly.” 

Aargh!  I truly felt “finished!”  Not only was I having trouble praying, but suddenly I needed to exercise and avoid the chip aisle at HEB as well.  I needed to stop eating so much, needed to exercise and needed to find comfort in something other than chips, dip and Shiner Bock.  But how? 

As a writer, I was feeling lost. I was constantly trying to make time for writing, but each time I did –I felt dread and anxiety welling up within me.  Felt overwhelmed by the very thought of putting a word on the page; almost disgusted by the very idea of it.  Though I would write something each time (even if it was only a few words or a few sentences) I always felt sour when I was done. There was no comfort in the act of writing.  And though I’d recently sold 2 poems and had another published in an anthology, instead of feeling affirmed in my creative efforts, I felt even more worthless; my achievements belittled by the critical voices in my head. Nothing I did was good enough; my efforts felt pathetic; worthless; instead of pride at being published, I felt shame and regret.  I not only wanted to hide my achievements, but I wanted to hide from them. I began to isolate myself, to hide not only from my family, and friends, but from myself (and in the end from God). Like the psalmist, I knew only the dark, and in a sense, began to find my only comfort there.

Yet, in the middle of all this I was invited to read a poem and say a few words about poetry to a group of middle schoolers at a Diocesan Poetry Festival (over at St. Francis de Salles).  Feeling so overwhelmed by life, the last thing I wanted to do was face a bunch of pre-teeners and 13 year olds and see my own true worth reflected (and confirmed) in their bored eyes.  The invitation actually filled me with panic!  But the event was being organized by a friend of mine (Maria) and I had bowed out last year (and the year before that) and the fact that she still asked me again made me feel guilty about saying no, again!  I could feel the rising of one more failure looming before me –a failure that seemed somehow worse than boring a group of middle-school poets and their parents—it was the failure to say yes to a friend when she asked for help.  So, instead of making an excuse or finding a way to bow out, I said, yes. Though I secretly hoped something would come up at school to keep me from being able to go.  Though I said yes, I guess I was still secretly hoping for “no.”

But in the end, I went.  I got lost on the way. Parked near the church instead of the school, then headed in the wrong direction when I tried to walk to the school (mistaking the nearby public school’s playground for that of the church school),  but in the end I found my way to the festivities and when I arrived I was greeted with great joy and given a seat of honor (near the winning poets).  And when it was time I was introduced and got up and spoke (for 3-4 minutes) and read my poem and as I finished I could feel the weight of the silence –palpable-- and the gaze of those young and old eyes so intense; they weren’t bored. They had listened. They had cared.  They had needed to hear a message about the importance of what they (or their child) was doing –the making of poems—and they had needed to hear the poem I had given them, had needed the comfort of those words.  What had happened in that auditorium qua cafeteria had not been about me (or for me)—it was for them!  And by saying yes to Maria’s request I had (for a moment) stopped thinking about myself and my weight and my failures and my ego and my loneliness, and I had thought about Maria and her efforts to create a Poetry Fest for these young writers.  A chance for them to shine, to realize the importance of words, of art, of poetry.  Of truth.  The importance of standing as a witness to the truth. To stand up and say: This is true. This is what it feels like to be 13 and in love for the first time.  This is what it feels like to discover life, the world, a buttercup (or a butterfly) for the first time; this is the truth of being 13 or 12 or 11 and feeling amazed by the stars or the clouds or the birds in flight! And this is how it feels to be 13 or 12 or 11 and alone and unloved. This is how it feels when all you know is the dark.

To be a witness, to be a presence, to be a voice in God’s great song, we don’t have to be amazing, we don’t even have to be good, or joyful even, and (as Mother Teresa said) we don’t even have to be successful. But we do have to show up. We have to be willing to say yes, even when the whole world is busy saying no.

That was the lesson I learned that day. And even though walking back to my car I got lost again and wandered half way round the church before finding it, I felt a whole lot better. In fact, I even felt a little lighter. Quite possibly even a little radiant. Of course, my life is still full of stress, and my house still needs repairs, and there are still bills to pay and my pants are still a little tight, but I said yes to a friend in need and none of that other stuff matters quite as much now… In fact even the burdens feel a little lighter now.   

Anyway, part of what I want to say is this: When all you know is the dark, don’t be afraid to say it.  Someone might need to hear your words to let them know they aren’t alone.  But also this, always remember that even when you are in the dark, if someone reaches out to you and asks for help, don’t be afraid to say yes. It is quite possible God put you there for a reason. And (oddly enough) that reason may have nothing to do with you.   

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Meditation for Holy Saturday 2019 (the empty sanctuary and the empty tomb)

“Until I went into the sanctuaries of the gods
and understood what was to become of them.”
--Psalm 73:17

Where are the sanctuaries of my gods?  In this psalm, one of the themes the psalmist sings of is the fate of false gods and those who follow them. And it isn’t until he ventures into the sanctuaries of these “gods,” that he realizes what becomes of them.  It isn’t until we look into the sanctuaries of our gods that we realize what will be come of them, what will become of us.

What are the sanctuaries of my gods? The little sacred places that I have made for my own personal gods: sex and pleasure, fame and honor, praise and success.  My “gods” are held high in sanctuaries of loneliness, emptiness and desire; gilded sanctuaries of longing and self-pity; but what will become of them?  What will become of my gods?

In this Easter time, I must realize that they –even my sanctuaries—will be shattered, broken in two, their sacred veils torn from top to bottom, the very rock of their foundation will crumble and disappear like dust.  And there is nothing to be done about it. From dust they came, and to dust they will return. There is nothing to be done but go to the tomb (the real sanctuary of all such gods) and find it empty –and be glad. Our personal gods are empty vessels. The tomb is where such emptiness belongs.

Put away your childish things, your personal gods, your brokenness, your emptiness, and turn away from the tomb; the true sanctuary of all such gods.  Turn away the tomb and see the true God standing there waiting for you.

Be not afraid.

He has risen.  He has risen indeed.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Going to Confession (early and often)

“Back they come at nightfall,
snarling like curs,
prowling through the town…”
Psalm 59:14

I went to confession last weekend.  Hadn’t been for a few weeks and felt a need for it.  And like usual, I was a bit nervous.  If I have my way, I like to go to confession to a priest who doesn’t speak English. At least not very well.  I am content if they don’t fully understand; in my state, I just need the absolution.  Desperately.  Because when I get too tired, feeling overwhelmed, sin seems to come prowling in search of me –like a snarling cur.  And like the psalmist, I am often caught in its snarling jaws. 

I wonder if it is a kind of pridefulness, my fear of confession; is it pridefulness that makes me want a priest who won’t fully understand what I’m saying?  Or is it simply cowardice? Probably a mix of both and certainly there is an element of shame involved as well. Regardless, I go, and I confess and to the best of my ability I let it all out –including my hopes and fears, my intentions and my failings. Oh, how I pity the poor priest!

Anyway, this time something odd happened that (I think) reveals something about the glory and grace of God.  Here’s the story:  First, things were crazy at home, and just getting out of the house to go to confession was hard.  But I needed it and promised the family I’d be first in line and so I’d get back very soon. Heading out the door, I had my rosary. My notebook. My Bible. I think I even had an old granola bar in my coat pocket. Heck, I was ready for Black Friday! And headed for some time alone with God!  But, when I walked into the church there was already a line of people waiting.  Maybe 9 or 10 people, already!  Walking up, they all gave me the traditional confession line nod.  The one that says: Yeah, we expected you.  I looked at the line and for a moment thought of turning right around and going home.  But didn’t. Instead I took my place and opened my Bible and started to read. And pray.  And wait.  And wait. And wait.

So, two things about confession and me.  I came late in life to the sacrament. I didn’t make my first confession until I was in my thirties. Somehow in post Vatican II life at St. Jerome’s we didn’t even have to go to confession before our first communion. So, almost 60 now I still feel a bit like an amateur. But, from an amateur point of view, not only do I prefer priests who don’t necessarily understand English that well[1], but I also like priests who are gentle with their admonitions and easy on the penances.  At this particular church (to remain nameless, though it is actually St. Cecilia) there are a couple of priests who hear confession and one of them kind of scares me.  No matter how many bad jokes he opens his homilies with, he still comes across as stiff and stern and somewhat superior; definitely not a people person.  Not an “act of contrition and 3 Hail Marys” sort. So, standing in line I was feeling a little anxious, part of my prayer even (if I am honest) was that Fr. Superior not be the priest hearing confession today.  At least not mine.  Please, Lord. Dear Heavenly Father, please give me the other priest who always seems half asleep!  Please!

It was almost 3:30 when the women in front of me turned and spoke to me in Spanish.  I smiled and nodded and thought: Uh, Oh. Am I going to have to confess that? Did I just lie to her by pretending to understand Spanish?  She turned and spoke again gesturing to the people behind us and laughing gently.  I turned to look. There were almost 30 people in line behind us.  I smiled and nodded again, but at this point, not needing any more sin on my head, I admitted I didn’t habla espanol.  And she laughed again. Then, in English she said explained that the lines hadn’t been this long for the Reconciliation Night they had the week before.  I raised my eyebrows and nodded and silently thanked God that I wasn’t alone.  As she was about to speak again, Father Narcolepsy pushed through the door and into the sacristy.  Quickly coming back out with vestments on, he went into the confessional and the little light by the door came on and the line lurched forward by one as the first of us walked nervously in.

The line moved slowly.  I began to get concerned for all those people behind us.  How could so many people possibly get their confession heard in an hour.  And I was grateful that I had gotten there early. I put my Bible away and reached into my coat for my rosary. And there was that granola bar.  I hadn’t eaten lunch.  Would it be inappropriate to just open it up quietly and take a bite?  I looked around.  Thought about my second grade teacher, Mrs. Flannagan who looked a lot like Marlo Thomas in That Girl and used to wear Go-Go boots to school. Catching us with candy or gum, she would always ask: Did you bring enough to share?  I checked my other pocket. No.  Just the none. So I left it alone and brought out my rosary and wondered if I needed to confess thinking about Mrs. Flannagan and her Go-Go boots and that wonderful tight fitting wool sweater she sometimes wore…  Oh well.  I was already in line; wouldn’t hurt to just mention it.

By almost four I was second in line. The light clicked on and the lady ahead of me smiled and headed toward it.  There is a shared sense of our own frailty and weakness among the people in line at confession, and a shared sense of the weirdness of what is happening, what we are doing; how strange and amazing it is.  There is a weird radiance in that embarrassed smile: a glow, almost; reflecting something inexpressible, possibly it is touched by the glint of grace.  Anyway, she smiled and went in. And I sighed. I was next. The sins that I would confess rose in my chest and my heart began to race. What the psalmist says is so very true.  And though I am an old man (almost 60), I am still afraid. Afraid of my guilt, afraid of my weakness, afraid of speaking it, afraid of owning it. But it would be over soon, and I thanked God that I had someone easy to confess to today.

And it was exactly then that it happened. Through a side door, in stepped Fr. Superior briskly and unsmiling. Not even going to the sacristy, he went straight into the other confessional and before I could pretend to have a coughing fit and need to step away for a moment the light clicked on and it was time.  I think I looked around at the people behind me desperate for someone to offer to take my place. I must have looked like a prisoner about to be offered a blindfold and a last cigarette.  I had only asked God for one thing: let me have the easy priest!  That’s all.
And that was exactly what he didn’t give me.  Because God doesn’t give us what we ask for.  He gives us what we need.  Through His love and His grac, He gives us exactly what and who we need. 

This priest that I was scared of (Fr. Not-really-so-superior-actually-very-insightful) somehow had the exact words I needed to hear, that afternoon.  As if God had given them to him.  After I had finished my confession, he said:  It doesn’t sound to me like you are despairing.  It sounds like you are overwhelmed.  For my penance, he asked me to meditate on the Stations of the Cross, and look at the example Christ gives us in His suffering.  And then asked me for my act of petition.  It was quick and painless. And beautiful.  I don’t remember what else he said, but his words were only of mercy and love, consolation and healing. Words that, if they had come from another priest might have seemed a little too soft, a little too easy. But coming from someone I had been afraid of even their gentleness had weight, and authority.  And I think that says something profound about how God works. 

Yes, at nightfall sins come prowling like a snarling cur snapping at us in our weakness, but there is a dawn coming and we don’t need to be afraid. We aren’t stuck in the darkness. God knows our weakness, and He knows that it is in our weakness that we most need healing. And no matter how hard we try, He refuses to let us hide.  Instead, He too comes looking for us opening every door and turning on every light and inviting us to come in out of the dark.    

[1] The Polish priest at Our Lady of Czestochowa is perfect; he can’t understand my sins and I can’t understand his penance. And he offers confession every morning, and usually there is no line! There used to be a sweet older lady in a wheelchair that was there every time I went.  What she had to confess so often I still can’t imagine… or don’t want to. Where is Alfred Hitchcock when we need him? Hmmm.