Signs of Life Day Seven

I had final interviews this afternoon for the piece I’m writing about death according to five major religions.

I know what you’re thinking —

JENNIE, You said Signs of LIFE, not Laments of DEATH. Please stop. 

I hear you, I do. But it’s all connected, and that’s something I just can’t shake.

This last conversation was the most helpful to me personally, so I wanted to share the best bits with you. I spoke to Dr. Mark Webb at Texas Tech University, professor and chairman of the philosophy department. Though he isn’t a practicing Buddhist religion-wise, he values the ethics and meditation practices associated with it, similar to Thomas Merton and the Christians mystics regarding contemplative prayer. Meditation is a helpful life practice, he says, it is beneficial to everyone – particularly those who dwell in the past and worry about the future.

People just like me. 

Dr. Webb went on to me about the time he was robbed – when valuable things were stolen from him and it sent him into a place of despair.

“My father and mother were gone, and now their matched rings were stolen. I wanted to give those to my grandchildren, you know? I searched flea markets looking for my things. I gave those robbers an apartment in my head. It took a good month to realize it. You just have to decide to do better. Don’t keep renting space in your head to past things. It’s just good psychology.”

I’ve never been robbed, but his story hit me like a two-by-four to the head. I have a MANSION of past and future worries living rent-free in my brain. They take up ALL THE SPACE and leave no air for good thoughts. I’ve taken medication to help with my anxieties, to chemically temper my worries. I am THE QUEEN OF ALL THE OVERTHINKING.

Even while doing yoga, my brain is everywhere.

Practicing mindfulness is not easy, but nothing worthwhile is easy. To live fully present in the moment, one must set aside the things that cannot be fixed or changed. What’s in the past is in the past, and the future is yet to be seen. 

In the last week I’ve been told and retold that acknowledging my own mortality makes for a better life. Decisions are easier, priorities are clearer. Life has greater purpose. Like Dr. Webb said, “To frame your life as an impermanent thing is motivation to make the most of what you have.”

I need more time to dwell in these ideas.

Until I have more answers, I’ll table the death talk.

In the meantime, the sky was magnificent today.

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

Book Review: The Seven Storey Mountain

I gotta say – I miss fiction. It feels like I’ve been immersed in monks and heretics and religious history for ages, and my brain is weary. There is a stack of fiction books waiting for my attention, but before I even get to those, Chuck’s insisted I read One Second After, which he says will turn me into a full-time apocalypse prepper. (Summer hobby?)

seven storey mountainLast night I finished Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. He’s a lengthy writer and seems to leave no word unsaid. However, inside those long paragraphs and chapters is an intimate and critical look into his early life and eventual conversion from no belief system to making a lifelong vow to the Catholic church as a Trappist monk.

The book was published in 1948, just a few years after Merton took his vows at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky (where I’ll be going for a weekend retreat in July). The time frame is important because much of Merton’s life was lived in pre-war France and New York, so there was a constant, ever-present threat of the war that we all know eventually played out. Merton was called up in the draft but was turned away for medical reasons.

More than a dozen pages of this book are dog-eared because Merton wrote something that I need to re-read and consider. Such as:

  • We refuse to hear the million different voices through which God speaks to us, and every refusal hardens us more and more against His grace — and yet He continues to speak to us: and we say He is without mercy! (page 143)
  • I think one cause of my profound satisfaction with what I now read was that God has been vindicated in my own mind. There is in every intellect a natural exigency for a true concept of God: we are born with the thirst to know and to see Him, and therefore it cannot be otherwise. (page 191)
  • All our salvation begins on the level of common and natural and ordinary things. (That is why the whole economy of the Sacraments, for instance, rests in its material element, upon plain and ordinary things like bread and wine and water and salt and oil.) And so it was with me. Books and ideas and poems and stories, pictures and music, buildings, cities, places, philosophies were to be the materials on which grace would work. (page 195)

Though his conversion story is interesting on its own, my favorite part of the story is when he finally submitted himself to the contemplative, quiet life of a Trappist monk. He spends several pages describing the peace and solitude of the abbey, how the silence enfolded him, how the liturgy brought him to tears, to his knees. I am entirely fascinated by the idea that someone would walk away from life – unload all possessions, ideas, and expectations – and commit to a life of service, labor, study, and prayer. Merton suggests that it is the prayers of these few faithful who help keep God’s grace and mercy upon us:

“The eloquence  of this liturgy was even more tremendous: and what it said was one, simple, cogent, tremendous truth: this church, the court of the Queen of Heaven, is the real capital of the country in which we are living. This is the center of all the vitality that is in America. This is the cause and reason why the nation is holding together. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for the grace and the protection and the friendship of God.” (page 356)

Buy The Seven Storey Mountain here. 

Update on Lenten reading

For Lent I give up fiction in exchange for theological books – works that make me question and wrestle with matters of faith and scripture. This may not seem like a true sacrifice compared to life-and-death sacrifices other people make, but it’s not meant to. Swapping fiction for nonfiction is next to nothing, after all. However, this is a Lenten practice that replaces satisfaction with discomfort, so in that regard, it’s a practice I’ll continue each year.

lent books

This year I’m reading two books. The first is The History of God  and it’s the harder of the two, for sure. I don’t know if I’ll finish it by Easter. It requires all of my brain power to understand Karen Armstrong’s train of thought and language, particularly since she tends to jump around in ways that don’t always feel natural to me. The subject matter is fascinating, though, particularly when you start to understand how three of the world’s biggest religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – were born out of the same small region.  The research is dense and expansive and stretches well beyond the scope of my personal and academic experience. When Armstrong starts talking about mysticism, I have to muster concentration.

But I press onward.

The second book, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, is a delightful read so far. It is a memoir sprinkled with bits of wisdom that spotlight Merton’s slow build to devout religious conversion. He is an insightful and fervent writer, quite humble and honest.

One of my favorite blocks of wisdom so far follows the part after teenage Merton visits his dying father in the hospital. Death is eminent and he’s grappling to understand the weight of it. At this point in his life, Merton has no working faith at all. To him, God was an abstract idea brought to life by society’s need for tradition. Much later in life, underpinned by Christian devotion, Merton looks back at how he handled his father’s illness and offers readers a snippet of sincerity:

Thomas Merton“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out; and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against themselves.”

Gosh, such truth there. We are so often our worst enemy.

Trudging along in winter, Lent, and this awful, no-good political season

Friends, we’ve been busy. It’s hard to tend to a blog when I’m writing for freelance work, writing the novel, and teaching Jeremy how to find the circumference of a circle with decimals and fractions. Thank goodness Jackson has picked up double-digit division with such ease. My brain can handle only so much math at one time.

Bouts of snow

We’ve had bouts of snow here and there, icy conditions that closed area schools or delayed them, but nothing substantial that provided any solid sledding in the front yard. It’s fair to say that we’re all sick of winter and looking forward to warmer days. The boys are tired of being stuck inside and both Major and I need to run off our winter fat.

Even the traditional Ash Wednesday service at our church was cancelled on account of weather. Fortunately, our pastors offered the imposition of ashes at a local coffee shop, so we were still able to officially observe the start of Lent.

Speaking of Lent, I’m really enjoying Thomas Merton’s book right now:

Happiness isn't a grabbag

He’s a thorough storyteller, and even though I’m not far into The Seven Storey Mountain, I’m settled in for the long road that maps out his life. As long as the frigid temperatures continue, I’m happy to lay in bed with a mug of coffee and read.

Random plug: I don’t enjoy politics anymore and really struggle to watch current debates. I’ve yet to find a candidate that represents me, so when I look at who’s running for office I feel utterly lost. However, we recently discovered The Circus on Showtime, a documentary-style series about the campaign trail. It’s an interesting peek into what candidates are like on the road. It’s not scripted, which I appreciate, and I’ll tell you something – even though I disagree fundamentally with everything Bernie Sanders believes about the role of government, he’s a likable guy. He seems authentic, and for a politician, that’s rare.

Lent Reading 2016

A few years ago, when we joined a Presbyterian church, we began acknowledging the liturgical calendar. Beforehand, we had Christmas, Easter, and, depending on the church, a loose reference to Palm Sunday. Now we view these holidays as part of a larger tradition that incorporates four weeks of anticipating the birth of Christ (Advent) and the 40 Days leading up to Holy Week (Lent), which begins this Wednesday.

When it comes to observing Lent, religious and cultural traditions usually have us giving up something we enjoy – a specific food or habit. Some give up meat or caffeine, some go dark on social media or turn off their television for a few weeks. Those are all well and good, and if you are replacing that deficit with something spiritually edifying, all the better.

My way of participating in Lent is to suspend my beloved fiction and instead read books that provoke thought and teach me something about the history and significance of Christianity. I realize most people do this without needing a religious holiday to propel them, but I only dabble in nonfiction occasionally. I prefer the escapism of fiction.

In recent years I’ve read books about baptism, women in church leadership, homosexuality and the church, the history of the church, contemplative prayer, the physical and metaphorical interpretations of hell, and so on. Each book has either challenged or solidified a previously held belief or planted a new idea for consideration.

This year I have two books (though I’m on the lookout for a third – suggestions?):  A History of God by Karen Armstrong and The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.

Lent reading 2016

I also intend to finish Gilead, which I’ve been reading slowly. Considering it’s subject matter, I suppose it fits in nicely with Lent anyway.

Lent Reading 2015

A few years ago I started observing Lent, but instead of giving up meat or coffee or carrots (which Jackson said he was giving up for Lent), I decided instead to take these forty days and immerse my brain in study. I pick a subject (or a subject picks me) and I read a selection of books that will stretch or test my faith.

This season of Lent will be about prayer. I’m starting with a super short book by Anne Lamott.

Help Thanks Wow

In truth, I’m terrible at prayer. I was that girl in the youth group who really tried, mainly because I knew I was supposed to pray so I could say YES when someone asked, “Are you doing your Quiet Time?” (I’m glad no one asks me that anymore.) I’d have bouts of regular prayer in adulthood, times here and there when I’d study something or pray for a very specific thing (like our adoptions), but nothing stuck. I’d get complacent and robotic. So I’d stop. I told myself that if it didn’t feel real, I shouldn’t do it. To be brutally honest, for many early years I was that person who used to say “I’ll pray for you” and never did, not because I didn’t care but because I didn’t understand how to make it a priority in a meaningful way.

Several years ago I stopped saying “I’ll pray for you” because I didn’t want to be disingenuous. I actually do pray for people, but it’s not a formal thing. It’s in the moment, at the second it occurs to me, and it’s usually very brief.

Lord, please make it easy for her today. Amen.

God, this feels so unfair. Make it not hurt so badly. Amen.

Heavenly Father, give him a moment to think. Calm him down. Amen.

Thank you for all of this, Lord. Truly. Amen.

Participating in responsive prayer has been helpful to me in recent years, but I know I’m still missing out on something. For that reason, I’m going to read about contemplative prayer during Lent, a practice I know little about but wonder if it will benefit my scatterbrained mind. After Anne Lamott will be a book by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who wrote extensively on contemplative prayer. I’ve also ordered Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, a book I didn’t even know existed.