“Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?”_____C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis
As Hurricane Sandy raged outside, blowing leaves and branches into the turbulent air and hurling power lines to the cold ground, four old friends sat in a beautiful mountain home in North Carolina around a fire simmering in a lofty stone fireplace and laughed until they cried, mocking the petulant weather that had tried to keep them apart. The date had been set weeks before. They would not be dissuaded, because they had not been together for 15 years. How could that have happened?
Fifty years before, these four women entered Auburn University as freshmen and pledged themselves to the same sorority, never realizing that they were embarking on a life-long journey with each other. They had come from disparate backgrounds and different cities. They possessed varying tastes, friends, and faiths. One liked books; another, sports. One had a boyfriend; another, three. All of them were attractive, healthy, carefree young girls, oblivious to the knowledge that they were living in a time which was about to experience catastrophic changes. Their president would soon be assassinated; drugs would replace alcohol as a staple on college campuses; Vietnam would become a grim reminder of death and despair among their peers. But the fall of 1962 was an untroubled, magical time in “the loveliest village on the plains”— Auburn, Alabama.
Happily, I was one of these four; and I still don’t know how we gravitated to each other rather than to some of the other fine girls who pledged our sorority. However, I choose to believe, along with C. S. Lewis, that for the Christian, there are “no chances. A secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work.”
“Christ…can truly say to every group of Christian friends ‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others….by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him and then…increased by Him through the Friendship itself.”
_____The Four Loves
Lewis calls friendship “that luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen,” which is a beautiful and true way to describe the phenomenon of friendship; but I don’t think we knew that at eighteen. Thankfully, we know it now—and have sense enough to treasure it.
As the wind roared outside and we carefully selected the pieces of our lives to lay out for our old friends to grieve, marvel, or laugh over, I discovered several very important things about life, love, and friendship.
First of all, laughter really is the best medicine for the soul. For three days, we laughed with raucous abandon, as “do you remember…” became the opening line for one story after another. I had no idea the halcyon days of our youth were so hilarious! Of course, they may only seem that way through the eyes of wisdom and experience. We didn’t come to North Carolina with unmarred lives. We’ve battled cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. We’ve been devastated by Alzheimer’s and autism, old age and death. But we are still able to laugh. And by doing so, we can lighten our present loads and diminish our past ones.
A second point worth considering is that time and suffering really do deepen and mature us, so that we become not only better friends ourselves, but also more cognizant of the need for solid relationships that last. With maturity, we recognize how insufferable we were (and are). But, in the same way, we see that the stubborn streak in a person of eighteen becomes the endurance ability in that person at sixty-eight; and we begin to see in our friends the “beauties” that C. S. Lewis speaks of. We are all flawed, but we are also beautiful; and God has given us to each other.
Lastly, I have to say that the best gift my friends gave me in this reunion experience was gratitude. I am so very thankful that we are all still able to enjoy the luminous qualities of friendship that grow over a long period of time. I appreciate that my friends still love me and are concerned about the things that matter to me. I am thankful that God has been so good to all of us and that we have not suffered deprivation or disaster. And perhaps most of all I am grateful that, though we have experienced many fearful and even devastating things, we still recognize Him as our source and our “Master of Ceremonies.”
Thanks for a great reunion, Lynne, Jane and Kay!
“The shallow happiness of busy people often fills the place meant to experience the deep, lasting joy of Emmanuel, God-with-us.” ___Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns
Last weekend, on our way to a wedding in Nashville, my husband and I exited busy interstate 24 for a brief respite in one of our favorite college towns. Sewanee, Tennessee, atop Monteagle Mountain, is a picturesque village that has been home to The University of the South since 1857 and is a place of great loveliness and serenity. Set off by Gothic stone buildings, cloisters, and massive oaks, Sewanee—as it is familiarly known— is a place in which tradition and beauty vie for prevalence, untouched by the fast food outlets and sports bars that have swallowed up the uniqueness of many college towns.
As we walked around campus, we gloried in the brisk fall day and felt as invigorated and young as the students hurrying to class or dorm. Falling leaves whirled around all of us like weightless gold-leaf cutouts and made us incredibly rich with the affluence that only beauty can give. We wondered aloud if the young students appreciated it.
All of a sudden my phone signaled a new text message, and I was reminded that this foray into a mystical space was only temporary. I felt sure the message would call us back into the schedule and responsibilities of the “real” world; but fortunately, that was not the case.
My friend Jim Finn sends out a bible verse and thought every day to a group of people by way of a text message; and many times these verses are not only enriching and appropriate but also pointed—as though they had been routed through a higher source. Today’s verse had that sort of edge.
Isaiah 54:10 “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.”
He is the Lord of the Mountain when we are high on life and the Lord of the Valley when we are struggling through the hard times. At the end of the day, He’s right beside us if we will reach out to Him. Have a blessed day.
I looked again at the magnificence around me and knew my friend was right. He is the Lord of the Mountain, and He is here! But, just as importantly, He is also present in those not so mystical moments as well, the times when the weight of the world’s pressure, the disappointment of daily frustrations, or the sorrow of senseless pain devastates us. The goal of the Christian life is not to be found in the giddiness of a golden fall day or the artificial exhilaration created by an out-of-the-routine experience. The goal of the life lived in Christ is an abiding joy that lasts and lives through both good times and bad.
In 1936 the young man who was to become my husband’s father walked onto this lovely campus as a wide-eyed freshman. The small, rural South Georgia town from which he had come didn’t have mountains and massive stone buildings and gowned students; but this was home now, and he loved it. Tragically, a little over a year later he received the news that his father had died suddenly and that it would be necessary for him to come home and take the reins of the family business. He was the youngest child, but his mother and siblings needed him. He left Sewanee without a murmur; but part of his heart stayed behind, because for the rest of his life he relived the memories, kept up with the friends, and sent financial support to his first and only college.
As the verse from Isaiah states, the mountains departed and the hills were removed for this young boy; but the kindness of God never left him. Here on this mountain he had learned about faith, about duty, about life’s disappointments, and about love. He had also learned to value the gifts of life, no matter how transitory they are.
After lunch, we looked around once more and reluctantly got back into the car to journey on to our real destination. But now we traveled with so much more. Now we were accompanied by a greater appreciation for the beauty of the world, the presence of God, and the memories of those who no longer grace our days. As Nouwen so beautifully puts it, we had experienced “the deep lasting joy of Emmanuel, God-with-us.”
“The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart—this you will build your life by, this you will become.”___James Allen, As a Man Thinketh
On September 26, 1997 an earthquake measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale struck Assisi, Italy, and almost destroyed the Basilica of St. Francis, one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world. The greatest damage to the complex occurred in the upper church, which contained priceless frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue, and other Italian masters. All of this exquisite artwork wound up in a pile of rubble which had to be moved and re-moved in order to search for survivors of the disaster. No one could imagine that the giant jigsaw puzzle of thousands and thousands of fragments could ever be reassembled into anything resembling the original breathtaking beauty of the walls and ceiling of this church.
And yet in barely over two years the church was completely restored and open to pilgrims. Now, however, it was improved because it had been repaired with the latest technology and materials, which would hopefully prevent this kind of damage ever again.
Seventy restorers had meticulously handled those 300,000 slivers of plaster to reconstruct 5000 square meters of frescoes. Bricks had been reproduced by centuries-old methods to match the new to the old. Over 120,000 pieces of the magnificent fresco of St. Matthew had been digitalized in order to reconstruct this valuable masterpiece with computerized equipment. Workers had faced life-threatening risks of aftershocks and crumbling stone to do a job that was thought impossible. And everyone had worked together with a care and urgency that is only inspired by mission and vision.
The most wonderful thing about all of this is that the man in whose honor this church was originally built in 1228 began his “career” by rebuilding a ruined shrine in Assisi with money stolen from his father. Caught at that, the lively little Francis Bernardone denounced his father’s money and gave himself to God—completely. Though he was rich, he became poor; though a lover of women, he became celibate; though a soldier, he became a promoter of peace and gentleness. And from there he went on to construct two other churches (with stones that he begged) as well as an order of friars called the Franciscans, one of the best known of the Catholic orders.
G. K. Chesterton, in his definitive biography of St. Francis, says: “The transition from the good man to the saint is a sort of revolution.” The good man is a person for whom “all things illustrate and illuminate God;” a saint is one for whom “God illustrates and illuminates all things.” In other words, when a man like Francis gives himself totally to God, then God takes him in hand and begins to enlighten him about everything in life. Interestingly, Chesterton compares the “sainting” of Francis to an earthquake!
As I write these words, people all over the world are either on a pilgrimage to Assisi now or soon will be, because October 4 is the saint’s day of St. Francis. Revered by Catholics and Protestants alike, St. Francis has become an icon for those seeking hope and peace; and the basilica has come to be considered one of the “thin places” of the world—the places where the presence of God is almost palpable. I am especially conscious of this because a friend of mine is there, looking for a miracle in his own life.
The question is, however, can God only be found in the thin places, in places where men like St. Francis have lived and worked? Wouldn’t Francis himself have told us to look for God right under our noses— in nature, in simplicity, in the companionship of fellow believers, in the poor, in the most mundane of tasks? Wouldn’t Francis, with his serious mind and playful heart, have reminded us that it is as we give ourselves to God that He gives Himself to us? Wouldn’t Francis have encouraged us to leave off taking ourselves so seriously and to learn to love and live with abandon?
I am very thankful that the Basilica of St. Francis still stands to welcome pilgrims and to offer hope, beauty, and serenity to all who come, as I would like to do one day myself. More specifically, I am thankful for St. Francis, whose story has inspired me in my own pilgrimage; and I pray that my friend will find his miracle in places where St. Francis walked.
But more than all of that, I am thankful that we have a God who is a God of redemption and restoration, who reclaims and repairs brokenness with a vision for something new, something better, something eternal—-just as those many workers on the Basilica of St. Francis did when they gave new life to a shattered cathedral.
C. S. Lewid, Carl McColman, Christian mysticism, Dante, Evelyn Underhill, Flannery O'Conner, Kathleen Norris, monasteries, monks, mystics, Practical Mysticism, T. S. Eliot, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism
“My attraction to the monastic liturgy did not mean that I was becoming a Catholic. Instead, it threatened to turn me into a better Protestant…”_____Kathleen Norris, Foreword to Monk Habits for Everyday People by Dennis Okholm
“The Christian mystic therefore is one for whom God and Christ are not merely objects of belief, but living facts experimentally known first hand.”____Evelyn Underhill, Mystics of the Church
Several years ago I began going to retreats at monasteries. Some of the programs explored silence and contemplation as elements of Christian spirituality. Others probed the mystical writings of significant literary figures like T. S. Eliot, Dante, C. S. Lewis, and Flannery O’Conner. Enjoying the intellectual as well as the spiritual stimulation, I felt that I had at last found a practice that resonated with my nature and helped fill a growing chasm within me.
My friends, however, were completely puzzled; and the questions they asked indicated their deep dismay. Do you actually pay not to talk for a week? What kind of weird people go to these things? Do you pray all day? Do monks talk? Do you wear a robe (I did once)? Does your robe have a logo? They just couldn’t understand how a person who seemed as normal as I, and a Protestant as well, could enjoy something as bizarre as monastery hopping—which brings me to this weekend.
Following up on a retreat with my (real) brother last year to Ampleforth Abbey in England, I came yesterday to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia for a weekend program on the English mystics. Conyers is a long way from Yorkshire; but, this seminar, led by Carl McColman, author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, promised to be an interesting encounter—-at least to those of us who get unduly excited by ancient writers on esoteric subjects!
The real value of a weekend like this, however, is that it’s a package deal. It’s not just the opportunity to learn something new about something old. It’s a chance to share in a way of life that is vastly different from the modern person’s everyday experience, Being a part of a monk’s existence for even a weekend can give us a glimpse of how life could be if we only slowed down long enough to be in awe of the river of events that flows around us, to see and feel the presence of God.
Last night at vespers I studied the first row of monks as they chanted the time-honored ritual, and I couldn’t help thinking how very ordinary they seemed. Actually, they looked rather like a retired banker, a mathematician, a high school coach, a scientist, and a business executive. But, in reality, these five had passed up normal careers to live celibate lives in community and pray for the rest of us. They chose to put God before everything—and everyone—-else.
Obviously we can’t all retire from the world and become monks, no matter what our proclivities are. However, we can get a better perspective and a nobler list of priorities if we take time to come aside, slow down, and breathe in the glory of God that exists all around us. We need to be reminded that there is another world that exists parallel to our “real” one. It’s called the supernatural; and it’s there for the asking, seeking, and knocking.
Last week I stopped by a makeup counter in a department store to pick up my favorite lipstick. The girl behind the counter asked me for the color, and I told her, “Rendezvous,” an exotic marketing name for bronze.
After looking for several minutes, she said, “I don’t think we have anything by that name. Are you sure that’s it?”
Yes, I was sure; and no, she still couldn’t find it, so I volunteered to help and located it immediately. She looked at the bottom of the tube and said, “Ohhhh! You mean ren-DEZ-vus (her pronunciation).”
While she was ringing the sale up, she said, “Now how did you say that again?”
When I told her, she laughed and said, “Well, to each his own!”
As you might imagine, the English teacher in me wanted to pull up a chair, seat this young girl in it, and explain that some things do matter—like grammar, and pronunciation, and punctuation, to name a few. But she had a point about one thing: each of us has a choice to make.
Obviously, monastery weekends are not for everybody. Some people would go certifiably insane here in a matter of hours just from the silence and slower pace. However, when God said, “Be still and know that I am God,” I think he was telling each of us that we have to find a way to stop striving long enough to know, not just in our minds, but also in the deepest recesses of our hearts, that He exists. Religion on the run just won’t get the job done.
As I sit in the quiet and prepare for the day ahead, I know that this is the choice for me. And I pray that you, too, will find whatever it is that fills your soul with this kind of peace. In the meantime, blessings from the monastery.
“The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.”____C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
One of the best things about growing older is being able to reject activities that we never particularly relished in the first place: hosting spend the night parties for pre-teen girls, heading up the PTA, attending bridal parties, lifting heavy objects (like pianos), and a myriad of other jobs and duties that fell into the category of de rigueur when we were younger. Occasionally, however, something comes back around, slips up behind us, and shouts, “Gotcha!” And we find ourselves involved in a surreal reenactment of a familiar old experience. That happened to me this past weekend.
Back in the 80’s my husband embarked on a physical fitness campaign for our family that almost killed all of us. He biked, ran, and swam like Lance Armstrong on steroids. Every weekend we traveled around the country to any race or triathlon in which he and the children could compete. My job was to hold the jackets and valuables and to find a place to display the armloads of cheap trophies they carried home.
Finally the children got old enough to rebel; and my husband’s feet, knees, and back fled the punishment as well. “At last,” I thought, “we are through with this.” I should have known better.
This past January, at 68, “Turbo” decided to make a comeback. He pulled out his old bike, started training again, and on Saturday ran in his first 5K race in many years, making a respectable finish in the middle of the pack. I have to admit: I was right proud of the old guy!
While the finishers sweated profusely and waited expectantly for their trophies, I looked around at this crowd of dedicated early morning runners. Amazingly, there were many who ran with my husband almost 30 years ago. And here they were now, in their 70’s and even 80’s, still hanging in on the race circuit instead of hanging out at the local coffee shop or nursing home.
One of my favorites is a man named Pat Carmichael, who will turn 80 next month. Every day—rain or shine, 30 degrees or 100—Pat shuffles through town on his own three-mile course with his eyes on the ground, moving forward one short stride at the time. Skinny as a toothpick and flashing a grin wider than his face, Pat is “staying the course.”
Perseverance and endurance, of course, are great things; but so are kindness, and generosity, and good humor. Pat possesses all these and more, because the course he has stayed is a much broader one than that narrow path he runs every day. It is the course of Christian character and love. The writer of Hebrews called it “the race marked out for us” and admonishes us to “throw off everything” that may keep us from winning the race. (Hebrews 12:1) The image here is one of singularity of purpose.
Joan Chittister, in her new book The Monastery of the Heart, calls this singularity “stability of heart;” and she expresses it this way:
Stability of heart—-
commitment to the life of the soul,
faithfulness to the community,
perseverance in the search for God—-
is the mooring
that holds us fast
when the night of the soul
is at its deepest dark,
and the noontime sun sears
It is stability of heart that reminds us
that we are on our way yet
to what we are meant to be—-
if only we will stay the course.”
As we age, the lines on our faces show whether we have spent a lifetime smiling or frowning. Stability of heart evidences itself just as visibly: a heart at rest manifests itself in an aura of peace that affects everything it touches. May we all run the race that has been set before us in such a way that, in the end, we may indeed be what we are meant to be.
“Love is an affection of the soul, not a contract….and true love is its own satisfaction. It has its reward; but that reward is the object beloved. For whatever you seem to love, if it is on account of something else, what you do really love is that something else, not the apparent object of desire.”___Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God
In a novel I’m reading right now, a middle-aged man named Ian leaves a woman he has been with for many years in order to marry another that he describes as “exciting, enthusiastic, energizing.” All too soon he discovers that the quality he perceived as energy is really instability; her enthusiastic verve is just frenetic hopscotching from one place to another. Now he longs for the laid-back atmosphere of his old home, his old wife.
The problem here seems to be the one described by Bernard of Clairvaux in the quote above. Ian falls in love, not with a woman, but with an illusion. (I might add that the woman also has a great deal of money, which probably “clouds” his perception.) Too late, he realizes that all the money in the world won’t solve the problem of being locked in a relationship with a whirling dervish.
In a completely different kind of book written several years ago by Sue Monk Kidd, an unfulfilled married woman becomes involved with an enigmatic young monk. The relationship, of course, is doomed from the start, because one of the things she loves about the monk is his commitment to the life he has chosen. When she finally realizes that she has nourished a fantasy, she has this reflection:
I wondered if I would’ve fallen in love with him if he’d been a shoe salesman in Atlanta…I doubted I would have….My falling in love with him had had everything to do with his monkness, his loyalty to what lay deep within him, the self-containment of his solitude, that desire to be transformed. What I’d loved in him most was my own aliveness, his ability to give me back to myself….our relationship had never belonged out there in the world, in a real house where you wash socks and slice onions. It belonged in the shadowed linings of the soul.”
In both these books the characters pursuing love make the mistake of not recognizing the distinct need that exists within themselves, a need which they are depending upon other human beings to fill. They say they want to feel “alive,” but they don’t know what being alive really feels like. Somewhere along the way, they have missed the lesson that teaches us that real life comes from God—not a lover, or a spouse, or a friend. These people are the ones we “wash socks and slice onions” with, not the ones that meet the deepest needs of our soul.
One of my favorite passages from C. S. Lewis comes from A Grief Observed, written after the death of Lewis’ wife Joy (whom he refers to here as “H” for Helen Joy):
For those few years H. and I feasted on love, every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love, we ought to have lost all interest in Him….But…we both knew we wanted something besides one another—quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want.
The “quite different kind of want” was simply God. Both Joy and Lewis knew that though they had all the makings of a truly remarkable relationship, only God could fill the most profound crevices of the heart and soul, only God would make washing socks and slicing onions sacramental acts of love.
Although it is billed as a comedy, the new movie Hope Springs is at times a very sad commentary on modern, long-term marriages. In one particularly poignant scene, Meryl Streep’s character is asked by the counselor if she had rather live alone than with her husband. Her answer is a heartbreaking, “I don’t know.”
None of us wants to finish our lives with an “I don’t know.” It is only when God becomes our love object, our “beloved,” that we discover that true sense of self that will allow us not only to know ourselves, but to love ourselves. And it is then that we can we reach beyond the boundaries of ourselves and truly love others.
“Like a good chess player [Satan] is always trying to manoeuvre you into a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop.”_______ C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields wrote a delightful novel some years ago called Larry’s Party, about a man who lets life take him wherever it will. The book opens with Larry leaving a coffee shop in a rush to meet his girlfriend for a date. Because he is hurrying, he doesn’t notice that the jacket he picks up on the way out is not his. It is an expensive Harris tweed jacket with a sumptuous silk lining. When he puts the coat on, he realizes that it is not his old one; but it fits him perfectly, and it also transforms him. In this jacket he is a person of substance, a man of the world, the kind of person people notice.
Now, of course, Larry has to make a decision. Should he return the jacket and risk being called a thief by the possibly irate gentleman whose jacket he has “stolen,” or should he simply continue to wear it and enjoy his newfound identity? Finally, after much deliberation, Larry takes the jacket off, stuffs it in the nearest trash can, and hurries on to his date.
The point is that Larry just doesn’t have it in him to pretend to be the kind of man who can wear this expensive jacket. It is too far afield from who he really is, which is ironic because Larry struggles all through the book to know who is really is.
In my last post, I talked about wearing masks for the purpose of creating a more acceptable persona for the rest of the world; and I suggested that this creates problems on several levels. The first is illustrated by Larry’s dilemma. When we deliberately try to deceive others, we lose sight of who we really are and jeopardize the life that God intended for us. Larry opted to keep close to his true self instead of masquerading as a man of the world. Without realizing it, he passed an important test.
A second negative in this matter of pretense is the physical harm we suffer from trying to be someone we are not. A person who is attempting to pull off a charade of this nature runs the risk of being eaten alive with the inner turmoil that comes from inferiority, lying, envy, and pride. The pressure of keeping up the façade creates stress, which in turn, makes one edgy and hostile. Keeping unacceptable emotions inside creates additional stress, and eventually he or she will blow.
Jesus went to an awful lot of trouble trying to convince the Pharisees that the inside mattered far more than the outside; but they were probably too far down the road of make believe to listen. Lucky for Larry, he decided that the effort of “putting on the dog,” as my father used to say, was just one problem he didn’t need. Smart Larry!
I suppose there are many other damaging aspects of wearing masks which we could list and talk about; but by far the worst of any of them is the danger of actually becoming the person one is pretending to be. In C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the mentoring demon Screwtape counsels the inexperienced Wormwood on how to trip up human beings, or “patients.”
In a section on worldly companions, Screwtape tells Wormwood that he is delighted to learn that their “patient” has met a couple whom he says “are just the sort of people we want him to know—rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world.” He goes on to praise Wormwood because he has “made good use of all (the patient’s) social, sexual, and intellectual vanity.”
The upshot is that Screwtape feels certain the man will succumb to this vanity and wind up in the position of forfeiting his real identity in order to get into the good graces of the couple. He finishes the prediction with these chilling words:
“He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and skeptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the things they are pretending to be. This is elementary.”
And here we are again, right back to Jesus’ words: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.”(Matthew 6:33) We can have life only by choosing the kingdom. We don’t have to worry, lie, fret, or pretend. We only have to desire God and learn who we are—like Larry—and dump pretense in the nearest trash.
Yesterday I was met at the door of my son’s home by Christian, the five-year old, screaming, “Pammie, guess what’s coming?”
Knowing Christian, I realized that the response he sought could be anything from a movie to a Mac truck; so I replied circumspectly. “Evan’s birthday?” (Evan is the three-year old, and his birthday is this weekend.) Surely this time I had the right answer.
“Noooo, Pammie. Halloween!”
“Halloween!” I thought. “What about the five family birthdays, Labor Day, and the fall break before Halloween? For that matter, have we really already celebrated the Fourth of July, Easter, and Spring break? I would have sworn we just got through Christmas!”
Obviously, children and adults see time, among other things, differently; and one of those “other things” is Halloween itself. Children love dressing up and pretending to be a bigger-than-life character, and most parents probably enjoy watching them do it. However, when my own children were young, Halloween was an anathema to me. Back then, a mother couldn’t log onto a non-existent internet and order a costume. Super Mom had to either make one or buy a cheap plastic one from the forerunners of Wal-Mart! Luckily for me, Ginny would go trick-or-treating as anything that required makeup and jewelry; and Dee was afraid of masks—his own and everybody else’s. He dreaded Halloween as much as I did!
But what might have been considered a “flaw” in childhood, turned out to be a real plus in my son’s adult life. Today, he still dislikes masks—his own and everyone else’s. And because of this, he is a man of few pretenses, a rarity in a world made up of would-be superheroes.
We humans begin constructing masks early in life to protect ourselves from hurts and abuses: the “I don’t care” mask, the “I’ll be good” mask, the “who me?” mask, and so on. But, somewhere along the way, we discover that playacting can benefit us in other ways as well. We learn that pretending to be someone we are not can impress people and win for us the friends and accolades we desire. And for some, the “perks” of approval—especially from important people—become addictive.
C. S. Lewis calls this place we all desire the “Inner Ring;” and in The Weight of Glory he says: “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods…one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”
Several problems are attendant to this habit of pretending to be who we are not for acceptance in the Inner Ring. For one thing, it’s just downright confusing! We have a tendency to lose sight of who we really are and to forget what it is that we really want. When this happens, we unfortunately turn to the world, or the media, to give us a vision instead of going inside ourselves to the place where God and the person He created us to be reside.
When I was a child, I used to imagine myself living in a grand house with an ornate staircase that had several landings. In my fantasies I would descend that staircase with the impeccable poise and style of a duchess. Today in my daydreams, I reside in a comfortable old beach house by the sea, one that has a screened porch with a daybed and a door that squeaks. Another alternative I envision is a stone cottage in the mountains with lots of books, a well-blackened fireplace, and a soft, saggy sofa. My desires have changed because I know more now about who I am and what it takes to make me happy. A great deal of solitude plays into the picture, as does the approval of God instead of the masses.
I think this must be why Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33) He knew that if we would only set our sights on the eternal (the real) rather than the temporal, life would become clearer and sweeter, as well as more meaningful and less stressful. The Inner Ring would lose some of its glamour and import. As Lewis says, “The quest for the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.”
Isn’t this just another way of saying that in order to gain our “life”—the world as we perceive it or think we want it to be—, we have to lose it? We have to opt out of the world’s clamor, shed some layers, take off the masks, and get down to the core of the person God created. It is here and only here that we find the kind of joy and peace that lasts. Let’s face it: pretending takes a lot of energy!
“Whose feet shall the hermit wash?”___St. Basil as quoted by Joan Chittister in Illuminated Life
Yesterday I went to the funeral of a lady I didn’t know. Oh, I thought I knew her, would have said I knew her, and should have known her. But the eulogy revealed someone I only wish I had known. The truth is that I had sat across from Mrs. Francis Chandler in a not-so-crowded room—the sanctuary of our church— for 43 years and admired her beauty, her gentleness, and her smile. But I had never taken time to probe the depths of one of God’s most faithful.
During the service I discovered that “Miss” Francis had loved crossword puzzles, playing cards, and dancing; so we would have had much to talk about. She had liked to read and laugh and had taken pleasure in pretty clothes; we would have had much to enjoy together. She had been widowed for many years and had reared four lively children. She would have had much wisdom to share with me. She had loved the Sacrament of Communion; we would have had much to confess to each other.
It makes me truly sad to think that I have lost the opportunity to know a Christian heart like that of Miss Francis. In Illuminated Life Joan Chittister says in her distinctive way:
“The contemplative sees the Creator in the gleam of the created….The goodness we see in the other gives us a glimpse of the face of God. What we learn from the other we learn about ourselves….We depend on others for the kind of wisdom that exceeds mere answers. We hold on to others to find the kind of love that makes life rich with meaning, certain proof of the everlasting love of a God for whom there is no word.”
I was in a seminar once in which Cynthia Bourgeault was lecturing on her book The Wisdom Way of Knowing. During the presentation someone baited Dr. Bourgeault with a question on the purpose of life. Without hesitating, she replied that she believes the purpose of our tenure here on earth is to learn to love. Right or wrong, this begs the question: how well are we doing?
One of the last things Miss Francis said to her children before ALS took away her power of speech was “Did I love you enough?” This is one of the most poignant questions in the universe. It is one we all have to ask of someone: our parents, our spouses, our children, even our world. But especially God. And, of course, the way we love God will spill over into the lives of everyone we touch. In fact, when we love Him enough, we don’t even have to ask the question.
Yes, Miss Francis, you loved them enough. And you loved us enough. We just pray that we loved you enough.