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Message from the Heart

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All day last Wednesday, I felt a tightness and an ache in my chest every time I inhaled. It took about eight hours of chest pains for me to text my doctor friend and ask her if needed to do something. Her answer was yes, which led to a few hours in the ER and a battery of tests. In the meantime, I typed and planned and did my thing with my MacBook:

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Then they gave me a prescription dose of Tylenol and diagnosed me with muscle pain and sent me home. 

All this brings me to Jesus Calling: Devotions for Every Day of the Year by Sarah Young. 

I have a hard time with prayer. And getting myself to church, to be honest. Last fall, I recently joined the choir at our new church in St. Louis in large part because I needed to sing and be part of the service to show up. Sometimes I still don’t show up. At the same time, I’m an emotional, spiritual person for whom there are moments when I feel God’s presence so closely that I tear up and I can’t explain why. I tend to believe that it’s grace, and not weakness, that moves me to tears at random moments of my life. We think by feeling, my favorite poem reads. 

With all my feelings, I have mixed feelings about the Catholic liturgy through which I worship every week. The repetition and the deep traditions are affirming, grounding, comforting… But they can have the effect of dulling the senses, for me. 

The unique quality of this devotional is that it mixes scripture with the firm, loving, generous voice of Jesus as author Sarah Young imagines Jesus would speak to us. This approach goes a long way to strengthen my prayer life, helping me to break through the silence that I sometimes feel on the opposite end of my petitions. 

It seems to be a universal experience that has something to do with free will: the reality that God — the least controlling, nagging teacher — chooses to speak to us through the quiet, persistent voice of our own conscience and inner moral compass. Right now my husband Padraic is reading Silence (recently turned into a movie), about how Spanish priests grappled with their perceived silence of God in an inhospitable, persecutory Japan. 

So the silence is universal, and perhaps, meaningful; but it’s also worthwhile, as Jesus Calling does for me, to imagine the voice on the other side. I especially connected to this reading from April 1st about “not making an idol of your to-do list.” This is something I consistently do, separating me in some, gradual, corrosive way, from the people I love and the God who loves me so much more than I can imagine: 

I am calling you to a life of constant communion with me. Basic training includes learning to live above your circumstances, even while interacting on that cluttered plane of life. You yearn for a simplified lifestyle, so that your communication with Me can be uninterrupted. But I challenge you to relinquish the fantasy of an uncluttered world. Accept each day just as it comes, and find Me in the midst of it all.

Talk with Me about every aspect of your day, including your feelings. Remember that your ultimate goal is not to control or fix everything around you; it is to keep communing with Me. A successful day is one in which you have stayed in touch with Me, even if many things remain undone at the end of the day. Do not let your to-do list (written or mental) become an idol directing your life. Instead, ask My Spirit to guide you moment by moment. He will keep you close to me.

— 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Proverbs 3:6

How do you break the silence?

A Poem for Salman Rushdie’s New Novel

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I just finished Salman Rushdie’s latest, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Here’s a brief summary of the book’s premise, borrowed from The New York Times book review:

The central character of Rushdie’s new novel… is…a man who gets cursed and gets blamed for it. Geronimo Manezes, a Mumbai-born gardener now living in New York, has begun to levitate. This isn’t the wish fulfillment of a flying dream; it threatens his livelihood and brings the increasing hostility of strangers. “Why do you imagine I consider my condition an improvement? He wanted to cry out. Why, when it has ruined my life and I fear it may bring about my early death?”

But Geronimo’s predicament is not an isolated case. It foreshadows an era of “strangenesses,” where the “laws which had long been accepted as the governing principles of reality had collapsed.” The strangenesses — some meteorological, some natural disasters, some simply miraculous — are the prelude to a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension.

It turns out that all four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating the world from Fairyland and are bent on causing havoc in the 21st century. The only power that can stop them is a nice female jinnia called Dunia and her human descendants: Geronimo Manezes, the British composer Hugo Casterbridge, the young Indian-American graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor and a femme fatale called Teresa Saca. If Dunia can gather them up in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against the forces of darkness. “The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and dark jinn ride,” she tells Geronimo. “Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back.”

It certainly wasn’t my favorite Rushdie novel. The NY Times review is pretty critical, and I agree with its perspective. Reviewer Marcel Theroux notes that Rushdie’s “capcaiousness” and “breadth” as a writer/enchanter is a distinctive feature of his style and something to be celebrated… when “there’s been some compelling principle at work.” As Theroux puts it,

“Complaining that Rushdie’s not a naturalistic writer is like criticizing kimchi for its cabbagey funk.”

And I love Rushdie’s funk. It’s why I gravitate toward everything he writes. As for this novel, though, I’ll quote Theroux again:

“Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles a bare outline for a movie about superheroes. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil.”

Still, I am drawn to the “nice” jinnia, Dunia, who is enamored with the human world. I am fascinated with the contrast between capricious beings made of smoke and fire versus plodding, helpless humans. In the book, Dunia produces a line of half-jinn, half-human descendants, and the line they walk between their human natures and their jinn natures is fodder for us all. It inspired me to think about the “smoke and fire” lurking in myself, and my human company. I jot this poem down this morning. When I refer to “smoke and fire,” I think I’m referring to the ways in which our human limitations give way, the ways in which we surprise ourselves, transcending our human natures and tapping into something more powerful.

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Smoke and Fire

Smoke and fire:
You address me, “Beauty,”
You nick-named my stomach years ago
At a wedding, my arms are wrapped around you
“Python arms” you dub the photo
Then you say, “Hey Beauty, come here”
Insults, terms of endearment,
From You,
They both land lightly,
Almost to lift me up.

Smoke and fire:
I chased you out of the building
Clear sky, hot pavement
You were running for your life
Now we meet again in August
Your trusting smile,
signing your letter “yours truly”
“I’m ready to step up my game this year”

Smoke and fire:
Skin so thin that a hang nail
Threatens hospital beds and IVs
Skin so thick all the same
You weather your version of chronic pain
Far more graciously than me
And so I confide in you, and worry with you
Even when you’re the one hurting

Smoke and fire:
How many times have I rubbed
salt in your wounds
And you’ve called me back
Invited me over
Given me something from your closet,
Your fridge
“I’m so happy to see you,” you always say.

Smoke and fire:
You used to bribe me to type your papers
Your eyes were bloodshot as you
teased me about my first boyfriend
I bought you beer when I visited you at school
even though I was the younger one
Now you grip your newborn
like a football, easy
You’re well-versed in car seats
and choking hazards
And sleep schedules

Smoke and fire:
This life is muddy for you
Thick, brown, halting
Leaves traces of dirt on your shoes
Wherever you go
And yet you keep going,
So kind
Along your way

If only I could rub the magic lamp
Get a fat, blue little jinn
To fight your demons for you
Smoke and fire-like

Instead, I hold onto the traces
Of smoke
Of fire
inside these
human hearts.


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