Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Into the dark night...

(Holy Week, Part I)

I first started writing poetry and keeping a journal when I was a young teen. There was so much going on inside then - doubt, anguish, joy, longing - and no way to express it all except on paper. Writing gave me a profound comfort as I witnessed deep parts of me being born into words in the spiral notebooks before me. Sometimes what appeared were ideas that seemed to come from somewhere beyond me, surprising me when I re-read them later, wondering where such depth came from ... certainly not from me.

Imagine then my dilemma when my high school English teacher, whom I liked and admired, made writing a journal a homework assignment. Suddenly, this sacred place where my deepest thoughts and feelings came forth was homework that had to be turned in and scrutinized by a teacher! I recall considering writing two journals, the real one and then another to turn in. But how could I do that? What could I say in a fake journal?

And, interestingly, it was not so much that I didn't want my teacher to know my thoughts and feelings. She had been kind to me and shown a special interest in me by inviting me to a spiritual discussion group for young women. I think, if anything, I really did want to share with her - to reveal all of this to someone and have them understand - but I was simply too scared. I was scared, I suppose, of being known and understood just as much as I was afraid of not being understood. Probably even worse though was that I secretly wanted to be liked, loved and admired for what I wrote. I suspect that I had to keep that desire secret, even from myself, because to want that somehow contaminated the whole thing.

So I was stuck. I wrote in the journal and turned it in, all the time struggling with self-consciousness and embarrassment. I found myself writing things that I didn't like. It was me before the audience, rather than me before God. I breathed a sigh of relief when the assignment was over and I could go back to my sacred place.

I am reminded of this during this Lent, this time in my church where we prepare ourselves for Easter. It was a tradition in my church when I was a child (non-negotiable, by the way), that we give something up for Lent. Usually children of that era gave up candy or cookies - it had to be something we liked - with the idea that denying ourselves this bit of pleasure would strengthen us spiritually. In more recent years, this practice has gradually been modified, with more emphasis on doing positive spiritual things or sacrificing something and donating its monetary value to the less fortunate. In other words, we have a lot more leeway in our spiritual practice and the question, "what are you giving up for Lent?" is seldom asked anymore.

I don't usually tell anyone what I am doing or giving up for Lent. Somehow that seems to make it more for show than for inner change. However, I am going to share with you what came to me at the beginning of this season. I say it "came to me" because I didn't set out to think of it or to really think of anything. It came to me this year to give up my self for Lent. If the thought knocks the wind out of you, know that it knocked the wind out of me too. It zeroed right in on that secret - the one that makes me want to be liked, loved and admired for what I do. As much as I want to tell myself otherwise, there are vestiges of self that like to imagine that the gifts coming forth in my words or my art are my own creation. There is a self inside waiting for the audience to stand up and applaud. A self that wants to be god, rather than be His vessel.

Of course, I have no idea how to give up my self or even what that means. I have to hope that God is doing in me what needs to be done, as I watch myself tripping and floundering through the forty days, seeming to get worse rather than better... One thing has become apparent: the Gifts that have come to or through me were not meant just for me. In fact, they have little to do with me. As the words in my early journals suggested, the Gifts came from somewhere beyond me. I can only write them, say them, photograph them, paint them or play their melodies.

There is a Gift that came to me 25 years ago, in Lent of 1986. It came during a time of great suffering for me and the writing of it was Gift for me, like balm on painful wounds. In the last 25 years, I have (until now) shared it with only one person, and then with fear and trembling. I have often wanted to share it - truly thought it should be shared but didn't know how. Now it is time to share it, my self set aside so as to not get in the way of the One who gives.

It is a simple thing actually and it may mean nothing to anyone but me. But I share it anyway.

In the tradition of my church, there is a prayful reflection known as the Stations of the Cross. Sometimes it has been called The Way of the Cross (or Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows). Its history dates back centuries, taking many forms, from actual pilgimages to Jerusalem, to painted images of Jesus at different points on his way to crucifixion, to prayers, traditional and otherwise, commemorating these steps or stations. More recent tradition marks fourteen steps along Jesus' way. In the audio that follows, I read for you the "stations" as they came to me in Lent of 1986. They are in a poetic form, different from traditional versions that some readers may know. One further note (since I know my readers come from varied backgrounds): my reference to the "dark night" is an allusion  to "the dark night of the soul", an experience of spiritual darkness or desolation written about by St. John of the Cross and others.

As always, feel completely free to listen, not listen or stop listening - there are many Gifts given and if this is not your time for this one, there will be others - always more and more Gifts being given...