Monday, January 18, 2010

Viper's Tangle

“. . . Consider, O God, that we are without understanding of ourselves; that we do not know what we would have and set ourselves at an infinite distance from our desires.” ~St. Teresa of Avila

It isn’t often anymore I finish a book in a couple of days but today I was sick and the sickbed does have one advantage: you can’t do very much but sleep and lay around. In between sleeping, I read François Mauriac’s masterpiece, Viper’s Tangle. This is the fourth novel I’ve read from the Loyola Classics series, each one excellent, but this The Best by far. It opens with the quote by St. Teresa above.

Written in 1932, Viper’s Tangle is timeless and as relevant today as ever. It begins with a bitter, but wealthy, old man’s recriminating letter to his wife of forty years. His family is waiting on him to die; he wants to let them know a few things first. M. Louis has been writing this last ‘confession’ in his mind for much of his married life, almost from the beginning when his young bride told him of an indiscretion. In many ways, Mauriac is painting an Everyman who takes a wrong turn and then continues to compound his error with more bad choices all the while lost and estranged in the drama and tragedies of family life and allowing hate and greed to motivate him. As misunderstood by himself as by everyone else, he withdraws further, increasingly cynical, exacerbated by the pious practices of his Catholic wife and children whose religiosity doesn’t transcend and transform their lives.

The title of the book refers to M. Louis’s heart which he admits was a knot of vipers. Whether or not you ‘get’ Viper’s Tangle will depend on whether or not you believe in salvation and the power of God’s Grace to transform souls. Fortunately for us readers, Louis’s diatribe gets interrupted. Things happen which bring the plot of the story from past accusations to present actions.

It wouldn’t be a believable story if everyone just “lived happily ever after” and if this novel is anything (in my heart) it’s believable. So, no things don’t just get happy-happy all of sudden. But there is an awakening, transformation and redemption, for those willing to accept it.

There was so much insight in this book, I’d love to quote you all the beautiful passages I highlighted—especially those which made me cry—but that would make this post far too long. Instead I’ll just close with this:

‘Most men ape greatness or nobility. Though they do not know it, they conform to certain fixed types, literary or other. This the saints know, and they hate and despise themselves because they see themselves with unclouded eyes.’

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Story of a Soul

As I’m writing this the State of Oklahoma could be executing Julius Young.

Tonight I went to my first ever execution vigil. No, it wasn’t down at the state capital. It was in our little Daily Mass Chapel at my parish. The prayer vigil was scheduled to begin at 5:30 which would bring things to a conclusion at 6 p.m. – just around when the execution was supposed to take place.

Everyone took turns reading from Scripture: the story of Cain and Abel, an eye for an eye, how many times must I forgive my brother? The lone candle in the center of the room was extinguished; there was one less light of Christ in the world. We concluded by singing “Amazing Grace”. Although we were a small group, one man had the most incredible voice. His could have been the voice we silenced, I mused.

Afterwards our little group lingered ... as if we didn’t want to leave the comfort of each other’s companionship. We all complimented the man with the incredible voice. Another man spoke up about his experience as the spiritual director for someone on Death Row. He and his wife had literally lived there for the last few months of a man’s life. We listened and learned about that person’s final few minutes on this earth; he was praying.

As I left the chapel I recalled a gift I’d received earlier in the day from my Confirmation saint, St. Thérèse. It’s been awhile since I’ve asked her for a rose but I needed one today and she gave me one, a very special and beautiful rose. I wasn’t expecting two.

Our book club is currently reading her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. In Chapter 5 of Story, Thérèse relates an incident about an impenitent murderer who she prayed for, begging God’s mercy in response to Jesus’ cry from the Cross, “I thirst” for souls. In response, the man gave a sign at the last moment which allowed her to know he had repented his sins. This increased Thérèse’s desire to bring more souls to her Jesus.

I saw her hand in my being at the prayer vigil. Please St. Thérèse, continue to rain your shower of roses down on us. And beg God’s mercy on us all! We are so much in need of it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

cat cuddles

He looks up at me and cries plaintively. It means, “Pick me up. I am lonely.” Or, perhaps, “I need some affection, a hug—some of your bodily warmth and reassurance. Please hold me and rub me ... until I don’t want it anymore.”

I may read it, “He loves me.” And in his little cat-way, I suppose he does, so far as he is able. But I don’t worry about that. I know what he means. I need ‘picking up’ too. So I pick him up and in the process, he picks me up.

I hold him close, rub his soft fur, feel his warmth and listen to his gentle purr. He’s not a young kitten anymore, but neither am I and so we are well-suited to one another. We sit together for awhile enjoying each other physical presence. It’s nice, very nice and there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it. When he’s had enough of me, he wriggles free, stops to rub and bump up against my thigh. His sign of affection is to put his kitty forehead next to you and just hold it there ... almost in a position of submissive adoration. It’s so sweet and tender. I just love it. We calling it “bumping”.

While I watch him lick his ruffled coat back into pristine position, I muse: wouldn’t it be wonderful if we humans could do something like this?

Just look up at the person we care about—but don’t begin to understand—and meow, asking to be held? And just imagine if that loved one, a troubled teen or a disgruntled friend or even a struggling co-worker, could hold us in their lap for awhile and rub (or rock) us oh so tenderly and gently for just a little while without fear of ‘weirdness’ or sexual misunderstandings or gossip...

I know I’m being silly, but I think so many of our human problems could be solved if we could just do this.

But we can’t—for obvious reasons.

So we have pets.

Still, when my cat and I have our next cuddle (in about an hour or so) I’m going to think about the person I’m having the most trouble understanding – or loving – and imagine cradling her ... him, offering myself unconditionally and without fear like I do with my cat.

Then I’m going to see myself “bumping” that person: putting my own forehead up against my neighbor in an act of submission, trust and love.

Of course it would never work in “real” life, but oh, isn’t it nice to dream about?

And just think what cat cuddles and bumps – even just those we do in our imagination – could do for our relationships with others?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Trust in God

The trouble with being a book lady is that you read – or have read – and/or heard so many truisms, good words, wise sayings and profound thoughts from so many wonderful sources at different times and places, in various formats, written and verbal, you just can’t remember the origins of everything. Google and other Internet search engines are a great help in tracking down many things, but they can’t locate everything. Often, some of my favorite quotes and stories linger in my memory and form my conscious decision-making basis and yet I am unable to remember who first promulgated the idea or how to locate the exact words in a saying or place it contextually. It’s very frustrating to say the least. One wants to give credit where credit is due, of course. But also, there is always the sense of only having a fraction of the whole, a poor reproduction or a sloppy translation. (sigh)

One such normative principal for me concerns prayer. In case anyone who followed my earlier series on Mental Prayer is wondering, yes, I am still continuing on with it. In fact, for the first time in my life, my prayer life has taken wings. I have no idea where it is going, nor can I attribute it to any one particular book, method or routine. In fact, it’s almost been since I stopped forcing myself into the rigidity of fixed parameters—beyond that of adherence to a daily prayer commitment—I began to experience contemplative prayer for the first time in my life. My spiritual director confirmed that indeed it is possible to enter into contemplative prayer when one is washing dishes or doing almost any ordinary household task, although not advisable to do so when one is driving or operating dangerous machinery. But I digress.

What I was leading up to in the first paragraph was that I have always understood prayer to be ‘talking to God’. Listening to Him and hearing His answers are other matters entirely. They require much more spiritual maturity. Indeed listening to another human being, even one we think we know and love well, is no easy thing for most of us. Listening requires quieting our own minds, setting aside our own agendas and entering into a space with the other person. And yet even when we do this, we still bring ourselves into that new space. Indeed, we can’t leave our ‘self’ behind—well to certain extent, what would be the point? Presumably the person talking to us must have his/her own desire to talk to us as well. So what do we bring and what do we leave behind? Hopefully, we bring our compassion and our openness to the other person. We bring our desire to learn and be moved by what the other person has to say to us.

Now, extend that scenario to a conversation with God. He is talking to us ... or trying to. How can we or do we listen to Him? Do we attempt to squeeze Him into a few odd minutes here and there? Or do we fully enter into the time we give Him, and after presenting Him with our needs and concerns, petitions, thankfulness, sorrows, sins and ultimately our overwhelming love, adoration and worship, do we then rest in Him as we would in a lover’s arms? Can we settle quietly as His lost lamb ... rescued and now secure?

Somewhere, sometime I heard – or read – that one of the ways God speaks to us is through Holy Scripture. Not that we can use the Bible like an Ann Lander’s answer book: ask God a question and presto, open the pages to reveal God’s hidden truth for you. No, nothing like that. In fact, be very careful of doing anything like that! What I’m talking about is during your prayer time, it is often very helpful to have Holy Scripture or another favorite devotional book handy. Through these means God can and will sometimes provide words or an uncannily appropriate phrase which will touch your heart so deeply, you know without a doubt He has spoken directly to you. This is the half-remembered wisdom I wish I could trace back to its origins. I know I read it somewhere. I know it is true and that it is a reliable means of hearing His Voice.

Last night, I settled down in my bed, pulled the quilts up, propped my Bible on my knees and opened to Psalm 4. I have many, many favorite Psalms but I don’t think I ever appreciated this beautiful little song before or even paid it much attention.

A beautiful motto for the New Year, for the Epiphany and the rest of life: Trust in God. He is manifest!

My favorite parts from Psalm 4:

Answer when I call, my saving God.
In my troubles, you cleared a way;
Show me favor; hear my prayer.
Know that the LORD works wonders for the faithful;
The LORD hears when I call out.
Tremble and do not sin;
Upon your beds ponder in silence.
Offer fitting sacrifice and trust in the LORD.
Many say, "May we see better times!
LORD, show us the light of your face!"
But you have given my heart more Joy
than they have when grain and wine abound.
In peace I shall both lie down and sleep,
For you alone, LORD, make me secure.