In Love in Holy Week

As you can probably tell from my lack of posts, this Lenten season has not been a particularly devout one for me. The week before Lent was a blur after Molly’s surgery and Ash Wednesday coincided with her re-admittance to the hospital. The day made no impression on me until late that evening when a hospital chaplain stopped by and offered to pray with us and offer us ashes. Tim and I accepted gratefully, but when Molly indicated she wanted them, I almost knocked the bowl from the chaplain’s hands. Something deep inside me was repulsed by the thought of marking the body of my suffering child with a sign of her mortality. It seemed morbid and inappropriate, but I let it pass and it did Molly no harm. Still, it wasn’t an auspicious beginning to the season.

The next day, however, something my former pastor Nancy Corran preached to our community came back to me. She said, “If your life is a Lent this year, if you are suffering in a desert already – physically, mentally, emotionally, financially – whatever it is, don’t feel like you have to pile more on. Let your life be your Lent and let God Love you through it.” Those were some of the most profound and compassionate words I had ever heard a priest say, but the privilege of my life had always precluded me from taking her up on her offer. This year, however, I decided it was time. My life was Lent enough.

But Holy Week is here and Molly is back at school. She hardly needs any medication and can manage most things on her own. If you weren’t watching closely, you’d never know she was six weeks out from surgery. And so I began to wonder what I had learned during my “life as Lent” experiment. Jesus’ forty days in the desert showed us that a Lenten practice isn’t about a transaction to be completed, but a transformation to be undergone. He went in to the desert a newly baptized man, but emerged a man on a mission. What about me?

While there were no great changes of heart, my sense of mission has deepened this Lent. More than ever, Love is the ground from which I want to ”live and move and have my being.”

Last night, I read the Passion account from the Gospel of Mark and I was struck by the fact that the word “Love” is never mentioned. 1 John 16 may remind us that “God so Loved the world…” but in the eye witness accounts, Love fades away. Instead, fear, betrayal, pain, cruelty, guilt, and abandonment each take their starring turn. Love may be the motivation for Jesus’ actions, but it’s never explicitly stated and if there is one thing I have learned from all my years of study, it’s that we can’t see what we aren’t told to look for and through it all, Love is what we should be looking for. Any time I see a story about Jesus where Love is not mentioned, I know it’s not the whole story and I have to look again. God is Love and so for Jesus to be unloving, or unmotivated by Love was not possible.

Love is what sent Jesus out of the desert ready to serve humanity: Love of God, Love of self, Love of neighbor. They were all one in his heart and mind and it is that Love, that deep internal knowing of perfect relationship that allowed him to walk through the desperate time we call Holy Week. Jesus’ Love is what makes it holy, because he was wholly committed to Loving us and showing us what Divine Love looks like.

This week, it’s so easy to fall into the pattern of worshipping Jesus, for who he was and what he did. But he didn’t ask us to worship him; he asked us to follow him. He didn’t want admirers; he wanted disciples, women and men who were willing to do what he did, however imperfectly, (because that’s the only way we do can anything). Perfection is the enemy of the good and that was never something Jesus wanted to get in our way. We just have to read the post-Resurrection accounts to see that’s true.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell the painful and tragic story of Jesus’ death on the cross. I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge our own culpability in his death and ask for forgiveness. I am saying that maybe we could use this Holy Week to try to Love as Jesus did.

On Holy Thursday, how can we humble ourselves before our friends and family as a sign of our Love for them?

On Good Friday, how can we allow ourselves to not need to be right, or defend our positions and reputations?

On Holy Saturday, how can we rest and just let things be as they imperfectly are, instead of rushing to make everything all right already?

On Easter Sunday and every day after, how can we celebrate the truth that death is not the end of the story and that Love conquers all?

Today, I’ll be washing feet. Tomorrow, I’ll be shutting up. Saturday, I’ll be unproductive and Sunday, I will be smiling and singing Alleluia. I hope you’ll join me.

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Here are some of the other posts I’ve written about Lent and Holy Week in year’s past.

“So Long Sad Lent”

“Rethinking Lent”

“The Day Before the Bad Day” 

“It’s Holy Week in Belgium” 

 

Lent 2016: Forget the Fasts

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My Catholic readers know that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. For my non-Catholic readers, which is most of you, Lent is the 40 day period before Easter, the pivotal moment of our Christian faith when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. During Lent, Catholics (and some other denominations) try to focus their energy on preparing themselves to celebrate the Easter season. Technically, this is done through fasting, prayer and almsgiving, but mostly, people focus on the fasting. If you ask a Catholic, or even a non-Catholic, what Lent is about, they will probably say it’s about giving something up – a favorite food, or drink, indulgence, or bad habit. I was raised to think that way and it’s taken me a very long time to move beyond emphasizing that one practice.

Looking back at my childhood, I’m trying to remember the theology behind the fasting – why we were asked to sacrifice something. I don’t think the priests actually said this, but in my mind, I thought it was for one of two reasons.

#1 – Jesus gave up his life for me, so the least I could do is give up candy (it was always candy growing up!) for him during Lent. You know, tit for tat. Fair is fair after all.

Or #2 – You aren’t worthy for Jesus to have died for you – so your candy sacrifice is your way of becoming more worthy of Jesus’ death.

As if that were possible, as if anything we could do in a lifetime, much less forty days, could make us worthy of Jesus’ life.

I knew there was something about those theological constructs didn’t sound quite right, but I couldn’t quite move past those child-like assumptions for a really long time. But of course, as I grew and matured, my Lenten practices did as well. And so what I ‘gave up’ changed, but I was still doing it for the same reason – to somehow become more worthy of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice.

The fasting habit fell apart for me a couple years ago, which you can read about here, and it came about as most failures do, through a confluence of good intentions and misguided execution. Of course, it was my husband, who had the words to help me see the light. After suffering through a Lent that left me feeling deeply saddened and discouraged, Tim gently called me out. He reminded me that he loves me “as is,” and that God does too.

God always loves us ‘as is,’ not ‘when,’ not ‘whether,’ not ‘if,” we get our act together during Lent, or at any time. If God is the Abba that Jesus taught us about, then we are loved beyond measure already and it is knowing and experiencing that Divine Love that inspires any changes we make. It is never, “First you are worthy and then you are loved.” Contrary to most of our cultural conditioning and human reasoning, with God, you are always loved first and that Love makes you worthy. What you do with that Love is up to you, but personally, I have never once in my life been loved unconditionally and taken it for granted. True Love has never turned me against myself, or another person. Being Loved deeply has always inspired me to become a better version of myself, a truer reflection of the woman God created me to be.

Through that conversation, I finally got it: Lent is never a question of worthiness; Lent is a question of mindfulness, of bringing to our minds the Mind of Christ, which is compassionate, loving, and tender to all human beings and absolutely faithful to the Love of God, which he experienced first hand in the Trinity.

At the end of our talk, Tim reminded me of this bit of wisdom from my own teacher, Richard Rohr, who often says, “Don’t try to engineer your own death; it will be done unto you!” The scriptures are full of this imagery about the death of our ego, the part of ourselves that we keep separate from God and each other. We read over and over again that we must die to ourselves. I know the truth that unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains alone, a simple grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. But the point I had missed in my Lenten fervor was the fact that life itself will take care of death, both literally and metaphorically. Life is already full of losses – of the people we love, of seasons and situations we cherish, of dreams, hopes, plans, and health. And we don’t have to manufacture those losses on purpose; they happen as an inevitable course of our lives, but what we can do, during Lent, and every day of our lives, is prepare ourselves to face them.

And that is what I plan to focus on this Lenten season. Last year, I committed to just keep practicing my practice and that is what I plan to do this Lent as well and what I’ve tried to do almost every day in between.

I’m going to meditate and walk, read and write.

I’m going to hug my family members whenever they get within arm’s length.

I’m going to smile at friends and strangers alike.

I’m going to find Love and pass it on whenever and however I can.

Whatever I am already doing that opens me up to God’s Loving presence in the world, I’m going to keep doing. Whatever shuts me down, I’m going to forgive and move on.

I may hold a different intention, or pick up alternate readings to begin my meditation. I may find a special focus for my journal, but I will not fool myself into thinking I need to be different than I am to celebrate the new life that is constantly before me.

In my last post on “Seasons,” I wrote:

Death is inevitable, but so too is resurrection as long as we have a deep commitment to Love and Faith and Life. Only in that soil is there an invitation and a space for the Divine to work in us. Life and Love will win if we want them to and if we release our preconceived notions of what that life looks like!

We are all moving through a season. Some are observing Lent; others are experiencing the transition from winter to spring, in nature, or in their own lives. Though we are in different parts of the cycle, we are all participating in the eternal movement from death to new life. As gardeners of our own soul, the only thing we can do is prepare the soil and trust that God will do the rest.

We can aerate our egos, poking holes in the outer shells that protect us from each other. We can soften the hardness of our hearts with the holy water of tears (you too guys!). We can let the things that have died over the past year become fertilizer for the new life to come. I cannot think of a more difficult practice for Lent, or any time of year.

SmallThings750

 

 

 

Rethinking Lent

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Last week as I began to prepare for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent (which starts tomorrow by the way), I decided to review my previous posts on the topic, as well as my journals.

2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 … It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I discovered an unfortunate pattern of pain, struggle and personal humiliation. I set lofty goals, make myself miserable in the process and ultimately end up needing to apologize to Tim on Good Friday for taking him down with me.

This year, I’m doing something radically different.

I’m not changing a thing: I’m simply going to practice my practice.

I’m going to meditate and walk, read and write.

I’m going to hug my family members whenever they get within arm’s length.

I’m going to teach my students and smile at friends and strangers alike.

I’m going to look for Love and share it whenever and however I can.

Whatever I am already doing that opens me up to God’s Loving presence in the world, I’m going to keep doing. Whatever shuts me down, I’m going to forgive and move on.

When I told Tim my plans for this Lent, he let out a huge sigh of relief and possibly even sent up a silent prayer of gratitude to a God he isn’t even sure he believes in.

If I was looking for a sign I was on the right track, that would have done it, but the peace I feel in my own heart is confirmation enough.

So whether you celebrate Lent or not, maybe six weeks in to the New Year is a good time to check in with yourself. How’s it going? How do you feel? What in your life reminds you that you are enough, you do enough, you have enough? I’m not saying you should add anything to your daily routine, but I hope there is at least one moment every day where you think, “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

That, my friends, is a practice worth practicing. That, my friends, is a resurrection.

 

So Long, Sad Lent

Holy Saturday, 2014

Hello my friends!

It has been six long weeks since the Lenten season began. Five long weeks since I last wrote. Perhaps you thought I had added “writing my blog” to the list of distractions I was giving up for Lent. I didn’t, but it might as well have been.

Since I am banned from Facebook, this is what I had to say on Instagram last night.

Sayonara Lent 2014. I love the color purple but I won't miss you a bit.
Sayonara Lent 2014. I love the color purple but I won’t miss you a bit.

I will not miss Lent 2014, AT ALL. In fact, Sunday can’t come soon enough, because, for me, this Lenten season was a debacle.

I set out with high standards and even higher hopes, but I stayed put in the reality of my life.

Though I couldn’t articulate it when Lent began, I think I had a subconscious idea of what would happen over these six weeks. By stripping away so many of my “distractions,” I would open up more time and space for silence and contemplation. I would become more centered. My writing would flourish and so would my relationships. I would begin to attain the holy grail of sevens, what enneagram scholar Russ Hudson calls “sober joy;” joy created not by a circus of stimulation, but by the simplicity and beauty of the present moment, satisfied with and who and wherever you are.

There was nothing wrong with the vision, but the goals I set for myself are a life’s work, not something that can be attained on demand, or through a sheer force of will and self-discipline in a pre-set period of time. It took me a while and some help from Tim to see it however.

For the first several weeks of Lent, I had vivid nightmares. The details were varied, but they shared the same theme: bad things were happening and I had no control. I couldn’t fix anything, or affect a positive outcome. I simply had to experience the chaos in a visceral manner. I would begin my days in a cold sweat, mourning the losses I experienced the night before.

Though the dreams eventually abated, the days I thought would open up before me quickly filled with other challenges. I could explain them all here, but the bottom line is that they were just part an every day, ordinary life – the one I didn’t magically escape on my way to my desired “mountaintop” experience.

Last week, Tim and I needed to have a talk. After dinner, we drove to the beach and watched the sun go down and he told me what I already knew. I began this Lenten journey, hoping to become a different person. The problem was that I didn’t consult the person who always journeys with me. This Lent was not a picnic for him. He slept next to me while I tossed and turned at night. He woke with me in the morning and saw the fear in my eyes. He came home at night to someone whose stressful days were unrelieved by the innocent pleasures of a diet soda, two chapters of a good book, or a funny story on Facebook. He lived with a struggling, sadder version of his normally happy wife. The changes were largely of her own making, in the name of her God and ironically, they were intended to make her a more “joyful” person.

Tim reminded me that he loves me “as is,” not that I can’t grow and change, but that I don’t need to be different than I essentially am. Giving up one or two of my “go-to” distractions might be a healthy practice, the equivalent of a Weight Watchers plan for the soul. Giving them all up worked on me like a crash diet. Like an anorexic counts calories, I counted every distraction and every moment I wasn’t soberly joyful as a shortcoming. The guilt and sense of failure continued the downward spiral.

Don’t get me wrong. In every week, there were moments of joy, peace and laughter and I tried my best not to be legalistic about the process. When food poisoning laid me out for 36 hours, I read A Fault in Our Stars, one of Keara’s favorite novels. When Tim and I went out, I would join him in a beer. I looked over Keara’s shoulder a couple times so she could show me a great picture on Facebook.

On Thursday, I continued my Holy Thursday tradition of washing the feet of my family members, while they read a love letter I have written just for them. Here is a portion from the one I wrote to Tim:

“Dear Tim,

What a Lent it’s been! I am so grateful that this symbolic time of struggle, darkness and solitude is almost over, but of course, life isn’t over, so all those things will still be here on the other side of Sunday. But, we will get to remove the little extras we’ve been adding to it and I hope to turn a new page mentally. I look forward to Sunday, to singing “Alleluia,” to being reminded that we are an Easter people. Where there is death – of any kind – there is the possibility of new life and if we trust in and act out of Love, there is the surety of it.”

My Lenten experience is one I won’t soon forget. Like most failures, it was brought on by a confluence of good intentions and arrogance. I thought I could manufacture my own resurrection experience by knocking off some version of me who relied on little things to make her happy. On our sunset walk, Tim reminded me that the world could actually use a few more of those kinds of people; I shouldn’t be in such a hurry to get rid of her. Besides, it doesn’t really work that way. He quoted Richard Rohr who often says, “Don’t try to engineer your own death; it will be done unto you!” Starting tomorrow, I’m going to believe him.

A #Sign of Love I found and held in my hand on Good Friday.
A #Sign of Love I found and held in my hand on Good Friday.

Report from the Lonely Planet: Lent, Week One

We are just over a week in to Lent 2014, and I have to say, it’s been a rough week, a really, really rough week. Here is a reminder of what I am trying to do without:

  • My daily Diet Coke
  • My almost-daily alcohol intake
  • My multi-time-a-day Facebook check
  • My weekly novel
  • My bi-weekly bargain hunting at Target, Costco and other, mind-numbingly overstocked stores for little things I really don’t need

I knew I put a lot of things of things on that list, but I felt called to all of them, because they center on a common theme: distraction. Distraction is a dragon I have to face and I felt encouraged recently after watching an interview with Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art. He said that when face our dragons, our greatest fears, they go “poof.” They disappear before our very eyes and we get to the treasure on the other side.

Facing the dragon? Harder than I thought.
Facing the dragon? Harder than I thought.

Steven, you were wrong. I’m a week into facing my dragon and it hasn’t even blinked. If anything, its hot breath on my neck is starting to make me sweat.

I deleted the bookmarks for Facebook on my phone and browsers, but every time I sit down to work, I am conscious of the fact that only eight keystrokes separate me from a broken promise and the Promised Land. I think of the articles I’m missing and the information I’m having to do without, the pictures of adorable kids I don’t get to “like.” Sigh. I find myself at the market and the library (the two “stores” I’ve let myself enter), perusing each and every shelf for just the right thing, the thing I don’t need, but that would bring me joy to consume. On these unusually warm winter nights, I long for a cold glass of white wine. Finally, and perhaps funniest of all, I find myself daydreaming of Diet Coke. I have actually caught myself fantasizing about pulling through the McDonald’s drive-thru and taking my first sip through their perfectly calibrated straws.

I have felt bereft this week, mourning the loss of my first level addictions, the habits that give me the quickest highs. But I’m also saddened by how quickly and easily I’ve turned to other distractions. Instead of going deeper into my work and writing, I’ve revamped powerpoints I made for classes just weeks ago. I’ve swept and dust-bustered every room in the house.  I spent an entire evening researching a new broccoli recipe, and several hours the next day preparing it, and my family doesn’t even like broccoli. Neither do I. What am I doing?

I know exactly what I’m doing. If I want to put a positive spin on it, I’m acting on a desire to keep busy, to find something new, joyful and fun. If I want to be realistic,  I’m acting on a compulsion to get out of my own skin. Whatever you call it, it’s something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember.

My parents, who have always been seekers, found a book in the late eighties called The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert. The enneagram is an ancient tradition that introduces nine patterns of thinking and behavior that most of us, despite all our illusions of being unique, free and mysterious, actually fall into fairly neatly.

9-ways

The Nine Personality Types of the Enneagram

1. The Reformer. The principled, idealistic type. Ones 
are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right
 and wrong.  At their
 best: wise, discerning, realistic, and noble. They typically 
have problems with resentment and impatience.

2. The Helper. The caring, interpersonal type. Twos are
 empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. At their Best: unselfish 
and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with
 acknowledging their own needs.

3. The Achiever. The adaptable, success-oriented type.
 Threes are self-assured, attractive, and charming.
 At their Best: self-accepting, authentic,
 everything they seem to be. They typically have problems with workaholism and
 competitiveness.

4. The Individualist. The introspective, romantic type.
 Fours are self-aware, sensitive, and reserved. At their Best: inspired and
 highly creative, they are able to renew themselves and
 transform their experiences. They typically have problems with melancholy,
 self-indulgence, and self-pity

5. The Investigator. The perceptive, cerebral type. Fives 
are alert, insightful, and curious. At their best:
visionary pioneers, often ahead of their time, and able to 
see the world in an entirely new way. They typically have problems with
 eccentricity, nihilism, and isolation.

6. The Loyalist. The committed, security-oriented type.
 Sixes are reliable, hard-working, responsible, and
 trustworthy. At
 their best: internally stable and self-reliant, courageously championing themselves and others. They
typically have problems with self-doubt and suspicion.

7. The Enthusiast. The busy, productive type. Sevens are 
extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. At their best: they focus their talents on worthwhile goals, 
becoming appreciative, joyous, and satisfied. They typically have
 problems with impatience, impulsiveness and distraction.

8. The Challenger. The powerful, aggressive type. Eights 
are self-confident, strong, and assertive. At their best: self-
mastering, they use their strength to improve others’ lives,
 becoming heroic, magnanimous, and inspiring. Eights
 typically have problems with their tempers and with 
allowing themselves to be vulnerable.

9. The Peacemaker. The easy-going, self-effacing type. 
Nines are accepting, trusting, and stable. At 
their best: indomitable and all-embracing, they are able to 
bring people together and heal conflicts. They 
typically have problems with inertia and stubbornness.

**These descriptions were excerpted from the Sukha Wellness Center blog in Avila Beach, CA. For longer descriptions of each type, you can go to their blog by clicking on their name. 

Although the list at first glance might seem like fodder for cocktail party conversation, or a cheesy pick up line, the enneagram is actually brilliant psychology. Rohr often says in his work that, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” In other words, our vision is shaped by our own personal experiences, prejudices, and default settings. Two people can experience the same behavior, the same opportunity, or the same outcome and perceive it completely differently. Too often, we think that means the other is wrong. In contrast, the enneagram offers us a way to see the reactions of others more compassionately. It  doesn’t mean you give in to their wishes, or desires (unless you’re a two), but that you understand and acknowledge their position, which is simply the basis of good, interpersonal, communication skills.

My parents were immediately able to identify themselves in the numbers (my dad’s an eight and my mom’s a three) and became more conscious of the choices they were making. In some ways, they literally became different people, because they saw themselves for the first time, as they were, not how they had imagined themselves to be. I assume their conversations also included psychoanalysis of their four kids, but they didn’t project their ideas on us. Rather, they left the book open on their nightstand, which I took as a personal invitation to join in.

When I was seventeen, I thought I might be a nine, because I’m pretty easy-going and flexible. I wanted to be a four, because really, what teenage girl doesn’t think of herself as an artist? But when it came right down to it, I’m a seven at heart. I can turn any time into a good time. Bad things are never really that bad. If something is fun, my first question is, how can we make it funner? (If you need any proof that I am a seven, look no further than my use of that word. I’m an English professor, yet my lexicon would be incomplete with out the grammatically-incorrect adjectives, funner and funnest. Tim says you should look no further than me on the dance floor, our summer vacation plans, or the stash of candy in my car.)

Being a seven has brought me through some of the darkest days of my life, from my mother’s cancer, to my unplanned pregnancy and adoption, to the miscarriage of our first child together and even this long recession that has so decimated our small business. But in every dark night, I discover a patch of moonlight to dance in. I instinctively locate the pinprick of brightness and worm my way in. Once there, I push against the boundaries of the night that try to hem me in. I force back the darkness, sadness and pessimism, with hope and humor and joy, until the ones I love are standing in the light again.

That’s the bright side of being a seven.

The dark side is what I am facing this Lent. Sevens are easily distractible, frequently bored and hard to pin down. We don’t like to make decisions, or stay put for too long. We knew FOMO long before it became a “thing.” It’s in our DNA. (For readers over 40, FOMO is the Fear of Missing Out and it’s sweeping the nation.) If a seven isn’t careful, the consequence of their shadow side is a history littered with abandoned people and projects, a life that stays on the surface of everything, because depths always leads to darkness.

Enneagram teachers make it clear that there is a whole range of health and maturity for each person within their own number. An unhealthy, or unredeemed person of any type does a lot more damage (unconsciously and frequently with good intentions) simply by following their instincts, than someone with more self-awareness and control.

Giving up so many of my favorite things is not about self-denial, asceticism, or weird Catholic guilt. It’s about self-awareness and freedom. When I feel an overwhelming urge to do something new, I want to do it for the right reason, not because I am running away from something else.

One of the highlights of my past week was talking to my little sister.  I was telling her how I was trying to give up my distraction patterns for Lent. She laughed at me, since she doesn’t drink Diet Coke and hates to shop. She’s pregnant, so booze is not an option. She is not a seven, so my struggles are not hers. After she had finished teasing me, I asked her what she does when faced with Blaise Pascal’s realities of existence: boredom, inconstancy and anxiety.  She is an eight, like my father, so after a moment’s pause, she admitted that she picks a fight with her husband, not consciously of course, but she’ll see what he’s doing and find something to criticize. If nothing appears, she’ll bring up an oldie, but a goodie from the past. She’s not being mean, she’s quick to explain; she’s just looking for an “out,” a place to put her energies. Then it was my turn to laugh, because it would never occur to me to create conflict as a stress-reliever.

But we all do it.

In our own way and in our own time, we act on compulsions that are as natural to us as breathing and as unnatural to others as breathing under water.

Are you curious about yours? This is my best advice when trying to figure it out. Which type do you want to be? That’s for sure not you. Which one gives you a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you read about it? Bingo. You might be on to something there.

At the bottom of the blog are a couple links to websites about the enneagram if you want to learn a little more about it. I can’t recommend them highly, because I haven’t used them on my journey, but they are certainly a place to start. The names I’ve found to be helpful are Rohr, Hudson and Riso, but I am sure there are others, who have come after them. My one caveat is this: working with the enneagram isn’t a parlor trick, or something you do for a feel-good experience. As my dad likes to say, “If it doesn’t bring you to your knees, you’re not doing it right.”

The Enneagram Institute.   The 9 Types.  International Enneagram.

Distraction-Free Living

Augustine

Ash Wednesday is always a big day for me, a day of purpose and change. I feel like it’s a more natural place than New Year’s Day to reflect on our lives and the resolutions we might want to make.  To create lasting change, one must consider the alternatives, prepare and be focused. New Year’s Day, coming at the end of a consumer rush and holiday hangover, doesn’t offer ideal conditions. But this day, an ordinary Wednesday at the tail end of winter, seems like a quieter time, more conducive to thoughtfulness and resolve. And this past week, when I have given myself over to thoughtfulness, my questions about my Lenten practice for this year were resolved.

It is in my nature to stay busy, buoyant and engaged, which is good, because that’s what my life requires. (Funny how it worked out that way, isn’t it?) I like to live life “up high,” not in an altered state, but at an elevated one and I can usually achieve it without even trying, or so I thought until recently.

As I went about my business the past few days, I began to see a pattern emerge. When I was feeling low, I noticed how frequently I used certain crutches to get back to my favored high. To be honest, I have quite a collection.

In his Pensees, 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal defines the human condition with three awful words: boredom, inconstancy and anxiety, which are pretty much the antithesis of how I like to live. Previously, I might have dismissed his observations out of hand, but after watching myself this past week, I think he might be on to something.

As a result, these habits are on the chopping block this Lent.

  • My daily Diet Coke
  • My almost-daily alcohol intake
  • My multi-time-a-day Facebook check
  • My weekly novel
  • My bi-weekly bargain hunting at Target, Costco and other, mind-numbingly overstocked stores for little things I really don’t need

None of those habits are bad in and of themselves. They aren’t even bad for me, except for maybe the Diet Coke. I don’t have a drinking, or spending problem and I don’t neglect my family in favor of my fictional friends.

Rather, these are the items and actions I use to distract me. When feeling flat, they pick me up, make me smile, and ease the burden of the boredom, inconstancy and anxiety that Pascal named as the reality of our existence. In other words, they keep me from feeling what I don’t want to feel.

As someone on a spiritual journey, I want to get better at recognizing what I feel and facing it, instead of simply turning away.  Instead of changing the subject, I want to stick with it for a while and see what happens. Why am I bored in the midst of my busyness? Because writing is solitary work, because I have a routine, because the 20th paper I grade on the psychology of obedience sounds a lot like the 1st and the 5th and the 17th, because life just is a little boring sometimes. What’s making me anxious? Ukraine, health insurance, college tuition, the pain in my lower back, the little roll of stomach fat that settles around my waistband when I sit at my desk, students who don’t turn in their final papers, not knowing what the future holds. What change is on the horizon that I can’t control? Teenage drivers and a college search, future boyfriends and girlfriends and inevitable heartbreaks, a new school for me, an empty nest eventually. In short, everything. Everything changes and I don’t get to be in charge of how it turns out. As you can imagine, there are countless answers for each of the questions, so it’s no surprise that I seek relief in countless ways.

By giving up my favorite “go-to” solutions, I’m trying to skim a little off the top of my wildly successful, distraction scheme and build up my tolerance a little bit. I’m no fool however; I’ve got more tricks up my sleeve.  When I want to get out of my own skin and can’t consume something sweet, or fun, I’ll grab a broom, or clean a closet. I’ll pick up Augustine, instead of Austen.  I’ll go to the library and borrow things they won’t let me buy, just for the pleasure of walking out with something “new.”

My second tier distractions are infinitely less thrilling than my top choices. While the items on my Lenten “no-no” list pick me up and bring me higher, these other strategies just help me tread water. Their purpose is to distract me enough to make it through a tough moment, but not so much that I want to stay there. My top tier does that far too well.

I imagine that by the end of Lent 2014, my floors will be cleaner and my closets less cluttered. Hopefully, my heart and mind will follow suit.

If you want to read of my past Lenten practices, you can check The Big 4-0 and Father’s Knows Best here.

Father Knows Best

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This morning I attacked Tim with a “Plan of Attack” for tomorrow. We have a 7:00 am departure time for one carpool, a 7:30 drop off for another, the Lad bringing up the rear with a 9:00 start time. We have an 11:45 dismissal, a 4:30 pick up across town, and a soccer meeting at 6:30. I leave for work at 4:00, so Tim is on his own for those last two items on the agenda, plus dinner and homework.

This is a fairly typical Wednesday.

Tomorrow is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season, so I threw some mass times at him as well. The local church bulletin listed services at 8:00 am, 5:30 and 7:00 pm.

“Which one can you make?” I queried. “Kiko is going at school; Finn and I can go to 8:00 am. Can you make it to the 5:30 with Molly, after your 4:30 pick up and before the 6:30 meeting?”

He looked at me like I was insane and I bristled. He wasn’t raised in a Catholic home, so I just knew what he was going to say. We don’t need to go tomorrow. We have a crazy schedule; let it go. You sound like your mother.

I was wrong.

He said, “Can we pull Molly from school in the morning? I’ll go into work late and we can go as a family at 8:00.” I must have looked surprised, because he clarified, “If we all go separately, whenever it fits, then it feels like something we ‘have to do.’ I want it to feel like we mean it, like it’s sacred space and time.”

Gulp. I was being religious, but not spiritual.

In my last blog, I spoke about people who honor rules and traditions more than their meaning. In this blog, I wanted to show you how easily it can happen. In the busyness of my life, in my planning and organizing mode, I lost sight of the holiness of the ritual, the significance of it all. While I was thinking “Get it done,” Tim was thinking, “It’s only worth doing if we do it right.” Have I mentioned lately how grateful I am to be married to this man?

As someone who is spiritual and religious, I seek the balance between the two. I don’t want to follow a set of instructions mindlessly, but I don’t want to throw them out either.  It seems to me that Tim’s wisdom is something I need to carry into this 40 day season of Lent as well.

Some years, I get lucky. On just the right Wednesday in February, my mind and heart are open to experience the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life. Some years, I don’t. Whether from stress, or illness, or just plain busyness, I am less prepared to recognize an invitation to Love. This is where religion can be our best friend, or our worst enemy. Following traditions and worshipping as a community can open us up when our hearts are closed down, but if we go through the motions without engagement and intention for too long, then we lose their meaning entirely.

Tonight, our family will celebrate a G-rated Mardi Gras. I don’t have to teach, so I’ll make a nice meal and we will sit around the table, listen to music and tell stories. I bet we’ll laugh and probably bicker as well. We’ll talk about Lent and what it means to be in the desert, to be scared and tempted and lonely, but we’ll also talk about what waits for us on the other side, if we trust in the power and presence of Love.

Though the kids might discuss what to ‘give up,’ I’m going to share how the tradition got started in the first place. I don’t want them worrying about “getting it done,” because “It’s only worth doing if we do it right.”   Apparently, in this case, their father knows best.