Death in the Little Monastery

Last week we lost our pet hamster, Everest.  She was our youngest daughter’s friend, and she’s passed on to the big hamster wheel in the sky, so to speak.

We found her dead in her cage while our daughter Miss Bouncy was finishing up with bath time, so I made a coffin out of half of a toothpaste box, filled it with pretty gift tissue paper, and wrapped it with white paper.  After bath-time Miss Bouncy came out and we had to explain to her that Everest had died and that she needed to say her goodbye.  So, she drew a nice picture of her and Everest on the coffin, and the other children wrote their names on the base of it, and we let her hold Everest’s body for a little while and then placed Everest in her resting place and closed the lid.  Miss Bouncy didn’t want to bury her just yet, so we let her sleep with Everest next to her bed and then buried her the next day next to our Japanese Maple tree, at the Easter edge of our property.  Everyone agreed it was a good spot.  So, I said a couple of words, Miss Bouncy said a couple of words, and then we placed Everest in the hole and covered her up and that was that.

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Rich Mullins, d. September 19th, 1997

Rich-Mullins-scars

Today is the 20th anniversary of Rich Mullins untimely death.  I never got to see Rich perform, but I’ve listened to enough of his music and read enough of his writings to feel like I knew him, at least a little bit.

To this day I struggle with the darkness, I struggle to find peace.  I don’t know how to think about the idea of God loving me.  I don’t know what that experience looks like.  But in Rich I have someone who did, so I try to learn from him as I learn what God’s love is.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God

He is one of my Patron Ragamuffins, and he is sorely missed.

The Difficulty of Belief

Faith has never been easy for me.  Even as a child, I seemed to have more doubts and questions as is normal for a snot-nosed little sprite.

Growing up in a reformed baptist church, though, I was required to attempt to develop a rock-solid certainty in the veracity and infallibility of Scripture, in the complete sovereignty of God, in the five-fold Doctrines of Grace, as well as a host of other and sundry doctrines, dogmas, and certitudes.

Finally, when I left the church it was in the midst of a true “Crisis of Faith”.  I had begun to see through the veneer of the serious, forced facade to the devilish interior of the people and the system I grew up in and as I did I was faced with a series of three seemingly simple choices:

1.) There is no god

2.) What I was taught about God was completely true

3.) What I was taught about God was in some sense partially or completely false

As for the first choice, its quite possible that there is no god, but its never been something that I’ve been able to every put any kind of moral or cognitive weight behind.  One way or the other, it seems to me that there must be SOMETHING out there, beyond us, and beyond the realm of the material.  The concept and idea of the “Spiritual” has always carried clout with me.  It seems quite plausible to me that there are multiple gods, or else a god who’s different from the Christian God, but I don’t know that I can ever be an atheist.

As an aside, I feel that I must say something about this.  As a younger man I thought that Atheists and Agnostics were engaged in the worst sort of intellectual and spiritual laziness, to the point where it was hard for me to even Hear them.  Now though?  I get it.  I understand why someone would ditch the faith and conclude that not only is God a colossal motherfucker, but that he doesn’t exist, nor do any other number of gods in any number of collective pantheons throughout the course of human history.  I cannot conclude that myself, but I do understand.

Secondly the thought that what I was taught is completely true is something that I seriously considered, but in the negative.  In other words, if what I was taught was completely true, then God could go fuck himself, which meant that I was subsequently done with Him.  Even if it meant my soul.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I couldn’t serve a god like that.  Whatever part of my mind that had housed those families of concepts was burnt up in the fire and the land had been salted and made dead.  As I said elsewhere, “If there’s a god who seeks to sling some holy-fucking wrath, he’s dead to me“.

So, I couldn’t NOT believe in God, or at least a concept of God (an agnostic possibility), and I couldn’t believe in a God that was as intent on wrath and hatred as the god I was taught.  So, that left me with finding a way to believe in God (or to put in more generically, The Divine) in a way that I could live with.

And although this might be a topic for a different post, I have decided that some of the concepts/tenets of Christianity (an attempt at explaining the reality of evil in the world and in man, the notion of Grace, and the person of Jesus) is compelling enough for me to retain the “title” (while groaning inwardly at the word) of Christian.

Still.  I believe, but am so very full of unbelief.  Belief has never come easy to me.  Certainty is an illusion that I cannot help but seek, but which is foreign to me and forever beyond my grasp.  I say the Creed every week in Morning Prayer, but often have a hard time claiming it for myself.  I pray the prayers, but my heart is most often not in it.  I persist in claiming faith for myself, when I live in the land of darkness and doubts.

I feel myself to be a laughing stock, an unbelieving believer, or perhaps a believing unbeliever.  I don’t really know.  I hope, I suppose; and I hope that that’s enough.

(featured image: “Doubt” by Alicechan on DeviantArt)

My Mind, My Friend, My Enemy

I’ve always been an intelligent person.  Growing up I always noticed the patterns of things, in shapes and forms, and later in ideas and concepts.  Though homeschooled, I did well and ended up making a high of 1350 on the SAT, 31 on the ACT and then gained a final GPA of 3.69 earning my Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington.  I’ve never not had an agile and competent mind.

my mind always been a source of pride for me

In fact, as might be readily apparent, my mind always been a source of pride for me.  I have always lived in my mind, and I, as do many intelligent introverts, prefer the company of my inner demons and angels than the company of similar beings around and external to me.

I’ve relied on my mind in my career and in my hobbies and in my relationships, utilizing it to make friends and succeed and enjoy the small nuances of life.

But then, about 5 years ago, agitated by a very painful experience leaving the church I grew up in, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder reared it’s tenacious head and what was my favorite gift became my special curse.  My mind – my friend – became my enemy.

Where once I could listen to the internal dialogue with pleasure, now that dialogue became a flood, a torrent of anxiety-inducing madness.  Where once the waters of my mind were fairly tranquil and fair, now I drowned in a shit storm, choked by anxieties and compulsions, depressions and inanities.

Such is the life of someone with OCD.  I do not expect to be healed of it.

Now, 5 years removed, two of which have been spent in therapy and on medication, my mind has become my frenemy: neither/both friend nor enemy, that weird uncle that you have to be related to, but which you really don’t want to be seen with.  It’s a humbling existence: having to rely on something that might very well decide to betray you at the drop of the proverbial hat.  You never know when your day will be roses or thorns (often its both).  Clarity-of-mind and the mind-fog have become close bosom-buddies, and both like to fuck with you and your fears.

Such is the life of someone with OCD.  I do not expect to be healed of it.  In some ways, these days, I don’t know that I want to.  I just want to learn how to live with it.  To exist with it.

Because maybe that weird uncle is me.

(featured image source)

My Many Me’s

I am Four.  Within me swirl four selves, organized chronologically and thus seasonally.  They symbolize for me seasons, elements, and binaries.  I hate and I love them, as seems appropriate.  I am they and they are me – my Little Me, Middle Me, Aging Me and Elder Me.

Little me is me in the Spring of my life and therefore the most unknowable.  He is new and fresh, open to change and possibilities.  He’s also terrified.  I remember being a child, but I can’t really remember being a KID.  I don’t remember the joys of play, nor even the fears of the dark.  I don’t remember what he says, or why he says it.  I don’t know what he looks like or sounds like or what makes him tick.   Little Me seems to be locked in some secret garden, walled off from sight and sound.  Sometimes I think I hear him crying in the dark, but I can never be sure.

I walled him off, ostensibly for protection, but I can never remember what exactly precipitated the incarceration.  An event?  A series of abuses?  A mistake?  I am unable to trust him and his ability to handle an often-times shitty world and I don’t know why.  Where is he and why is he hidden?

I am currently my Middle Me.  He is (unfortunately) the most accessible and relate-able.  And he has lately been ruling my roost.  An angry little bastard, he rages at the world and all its many slights, real and imagined.  He is a boy-man of summer, with all of summer’s brightness and heat, intelligence and passion.  He always starts out brightly, but he inevitably burns out as surely as any Texas summer.  He leaves charred husks and dusted black clay in his wake.  I do not like this Me.  I hate his bitterness and anger and lust.  He disgusts me, but I am he.

When I become burnt out by my Middle Me I tend to assume the form of Aging Me, a sad  and pathetic little fucker.  He’s the Autumn of myself, but not the good, Northeast kind of Autumn.  Rather, he’s the charlatan southern Indian summer masquerading as a fountain of autumnal wisdom and peace.  He’s a piece of shit, is Aging Me.  He thinks he’s something, but he’s nothing.  He acts like he’s at the prime of my life, riding the crest of those mythical glory years, at the perceived pinnacle of masculine achievement and success, but its all just a noxious game of smoke and mirrors.  Deep down he chokes on the rank fumes of my pervasive insecurities, dying in life, wasting away on the dregs of quiet desperation.  I am Aging Me far too often, and I hate him (me?).

Finally, there sits Elder Me.  He is who I’ve always felt I should be, or perhaps wish to be, or perhaps have been all along.  He’s almost as elusive as Little Me, although I’ve more hope that he’s attainable and knowable.  And he seems to me to be intimately related to Little Me.  Almost as if he and Little Me have met up at each ends of the line of my life, the beginning and end of some eternal little circle.   He’s my winter self.  Silent, simple; dark and cold, yet oddly contented.  He retains the trust and faith of extreme youth, but without the simplicity of mind and experience.  He’s seen the hells of the world, and its heavens – it’s glories and its grotesqueries.   He is sane, on the other side of my insanity and I trust him, my Elder Me, as I wish I could trust my Little Me.  Sometimes I hear my Elder Me encouraging me to trust my Little Me.  Perhaps they are the same.  As is life and death, light and dark, male and female.  For, as with an infant, so with the aged, life is both stripped of mystery and infused with it.  Gender is blurred and Truth coalesces into the Great Beyond; for Little Me and Elder Me are both on the cusp of eternity.  Both are near the earth (Little Me rising from it, Elder Me crashing back down) and thus both are as high as the heavens, swimming amidst the stars.

Right now though?  Elder Me is as inaccessible as my imprisoned Little Me.  I am condemned to just fleeting glimpses of the glory of night, and must now dwell in the scorching heat of the light of day, a bloated corpse swelling in my glaring death.

(featured image source)

The Company of Jesus

I have recently submitted my application to The Company of Jesus.  Applying to a Third-Order Benedictine and Franciscan group is not something I would have anticipated even a couple of years ago.  But so does life bounce along its merry ways, in all its peaks and valleys.

As part of the applications process, I was asked to submit a cover letter, and I’m publishing it here, in a modified form.

I suppose it all started with Advent.

I was in an increasingly dark place, coming to the end of my time at the cultish church I grew up in, about to be thrust into a darker wilderness of sadness, silence, depression and mental illness.

Those were dark days, when I wasn’t accustomed to darkness.  When I didn’t accept and embrace it, as I do now.  Hot rage filled me.  Deep anxiety froze me.  Depression levelled me.

Like a small toddler, I didn’t have my Words, all I could do was weep with no tears and yell with no voice.  I was an ocean of doubt in a desert of certainty.

If anything, it got worse after we left the church.

A boy thinks he knows the people he grew up with.  He hopes that maybe he was loved, or accepted.  But he never was.  The quintessential outsider, he didn’t fit in in a group of people who were already on the fringe of fringe groups.  He wanted to make that his armor, but he was too beat up, too bloodied.  He had no armor left, naked and alone in that desert dust.  No one said goodbye, no one noticed.  No one cared.  He’s nothing but bleached bones beneath the Texas sun. 

The depressive episodes surged.  I started experiencing what I cheekily called “Shit Swims”, a strange, evil love-child of Depression and Anxiety’s unholy union.  A more clinical word would be emotional flashbacks, caused by a form of complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ostensibly brought on by 30 years of spiritual abuse.  The fuck I know.

What’s a man to do when one moment everything is hunky-dory and the next moment there is no hope left in the world?  When his head is literally bowed beneath the weight of hopelessness and despair?  When not even the joy of his children’s laughter, or the caresses of his wife’s sweet touch is enough to wake him up?

We searched for a new church home for a couple of years, starting in the quasi-reformed, quasi-charismatic baptistic tradition, flirting with a liturgical Baptist church and finally settling into a Presbyterian congregation.  We felt safe there, which is what we needed.  We were able to heal, somewhat.  We made lasting friendships.  But over our time there we never really felt at home.

Meanwhile, I had started attending a weekly Anglican Holy Communion service.  I dipped my toes into the liturgical well gingerly, consistently taking communion there, but never going much further.  Like a small faun in the headlights, I was very leery and entirely weary, but over time the fear abated enough for us to join an Anglican congregation.  My wife and I are even involved in the Children’s Chapel (I am a rotating Chaplain, and she is a rotating musician for the service).  We’re still somewhat tentative in our involvement, having been burned before by Christian churches, but we’re hopeful.

A man agrees with Mr. Chesterton when he said that “We have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we” and mourns the childhood he never really had.  There is great pleasure found in the joy, wonder and chaos of children.  They’ve not yet grown old, and in their eyes and way of living a man sees God most clearly.

My interest in the Benedictine tradition coincides with my growing interest in various liturgical traditions.  Over the last few years I’ve gone through a couple of sets of Anglican Prayer beads, using a handwritten prayer book that I’ve been compiling.  I’ve been working on a book that I’m tentatively calling “The Book of Family Prayer” that takes elements of the different traditions I’ve studied (mostly Anglican and Celtic) and puts it into a growing collection of prayers and works that I intend for our family’s use.  I’m a “Friend” of the Northumbrian Community (using their Celtic Daily Prayer book) and I’m fascinated with Celtic flavors of Christian liturgy.

A boy’s always felt himself to be an old soul without a home.  A melodramatic description perhaps, but no less lonely.  And while he suspects that those feelings of loneliness and wandering will never really leave him (at least this side of death), he also hopes that “not all those who wander are lost”, and that in the gentler liturgical tradition he has found an expression of the Way that is not so odious as he’s always seen.  That perhaps he’s been found by God again.

Rich Mullins, the late Christian musician, is one of my “Patron Ragamuffins” (those broken men and women who’ve left this life and whom I greatly esteem).  Through him I came to know Francis, and in particular I admire Francis’ love for the poor, for the natural world and for the birds and animals.  But I tend to think that my bent, or “calling” would be for the Benediction Monastic tradition.  I admire the tradition’s longevity, its balance, and its steadfastness.  For an anxious mind such as mine, the simplicity of the hours is a welcome balm.

A young man is faced with a self-realization: “If what I was taught growing up was Truly Christianity, then I can’t be a Christian anymore”.  This Realization necessitates a Question:  “Do I reject the sheepshit Christianity I was taught, cart-blanche, or is it possible to find a form of Christianty that is less… odious?”  He now understands the child who is raised in the Church and who rejects it all.  He understands, and he doesn’t blame.  He knows the pain and fear and judgment.  He understands, but he cannot join his fellow casualties in their rejection of the Faith.  Once again, he’s an Outsider to his tribe, but such is the bed he’s made. 

I suppose that this is why I’ve applied to the Company of Jesus.  Perhaps it is here where I can find the God (or be found by the God) I seek: listening amidst the prayers and balance of the Hours, suffering among the denizens of the hurting and poor, flying through the air and woods with the birds, and playing in the glorious chaos of children.

It started with Advent, and I suspect it will end with Advent, at least on this gloomy side of death.  Still we live and still we die and still we wait and wonder at this crazy life.  We wander through the hazy hills of Terra’s broken dreams, adrift within the sea of rotten, swollen expectations, hopeful that we’re not yet lost in this, our only life.