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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?

Lila

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 8.55.59 AMMarilynne Robinson’s newest novel, “Lila,” tells the story of a woman plucked from her family’s doorstep by a migrant worker, Doll, subsisting on farm work from one cornfield to the next. When we first meet her, an adult Lila has been waiting out the days in a small Iowa town, sleeping in a shack and idly tending the town preacher’s garden. She and the preacher, John Ames, develop a strange intimacy borne of Lila’s spontaneous gestures of affection, her poverty and vulnerability, her abrupt, disarming questions about God and religion.

As their relationship deepens, Lila confronts the many hardships of her past, trying to reconcile her pervasive feelings of shame and loneliness with the admiration and appreciation she incites so naturally in the wise old reverend. Between haunting flashbacks of her past, sparse, charged conversations with the reverend in the strange tranquility of their new home together and long passages revealing her passing thoughts about faith, loneliness and love, we get a searing portrait of a mysterious, paradoxical character, reflecting the deep mystery of life itself.

Lila’s relationship with the preacher is often shrouded in long, loaded silences. Her memories of being a prostitute, washing bloodstains off her caretaker after a knife fight, sleeping in the dirt with a wet rag over her face to shut out the dust, are confided to the reader in detail and then guarded from him, replaced by searching, philosophical questions about the Bible and offhand, defensive warnings like “You don’t know me” and “I never trust anyone.”

As for the reverend, we can only glean as much about his feelings and thoughts as Lila shares from the outside: his ongoing attempts to make her comfortable in a domestic, ladylike setting, his fears that she’ll leave, coupled with his pains to give her space, his deliberately unresolved, open responses when they discuss religion. His strong attraction to Lila appears to be connected to his intuitive beliefs about God and grace, as if Lila’s earnestness and honesty strikes a nerve in his lifelong pursuit of Christian truths. He marvels at the doggedness with which she seeks out difficult chapters from the Bible, like Job and Ezekial. The instinctive kind of raw kindness that Lila demonstrates to strangers, including his deceased wife and son, whose graves she attends with roses. The boldness with which she seeks him out, stealing his sweater, and asking him to marry her, then retreats, grappling with openness and trust. He often comments on her unpredictable nature. We can gather that her ability to surprise him is one primary reason she stirs him up. But the mystery of their bond, balanced by small, rich moments that we witness feeding it, reinforces the intensity and sacredness of falling in love.

There’s a scene where Lila returns to the shack she’d been barely surviving in before they met, presumably to retrieve a jar of money hidden under the floorboards but more deeply because returning to that place of poverty and isolation makes her feel like herself again. She feels compelled to escape the reverend’s trusting, forgiving embrace.  When she gets there, she meets a boy who ran away after hitting his father with firewood, possibly killing him. Out of pity she leaves him her coat and the money, wandering back home without protection from the bitter cold. The reverend is out looking for her when she crawls shivering into their bed, and when he gets home, he’s pale, weary, drawn, visibly shaken by Lila’s disappearance and the sight of a potential murderer wearing her things. She tells him she felt sorry for the boy and his eyes fill up with tears, saying “I do know you.”

Given their vast differences — his education, social connectedness and familial roots in the town, her nomadic childhood, piecing together a fluid perception of the world from one field, one odd job to the next — their union highlights a truth that applies to all relationships, though it is exaggerated in their case: the fact that every human being is fundamentally a mystery to each other, no matter how familiar. That loneliness isn’t a product of being alone or even a lack of intimacy, but rather arises from fleeting impressions of the world’s vast contradictions. And so Lila’s loneliness persists. For example, she struggles with the notion that her beloved Doll was apathetic toward religion, and in the most objective sense, a grave sinner. Her loyalty and love for Doll puts her at a distance from the reverend, whose worldview doesn’t allow Doll the same wholehearted acceptance and unequivocal loyalty.

I read the Pulitzer Prize winning “Gilead” about five or six years ago, to which Lila is the prequel. In “Gilead,” the reverend writes to his and Lila’s now seven-year old son as he prepares to die. As with most books, I hardly remember any specifics, only the general impression that it was sad, spiritually rich and beautifully written, that I remember loving it. “Gilead” is absolutely worth a read, but it’s worth mentioning that “Lila” stands alone from it, self-contained in its exploration of similar themes such as the workings of grace and the mystery of everyday life.

And Robinson’s language is a reason unto itself. As with “Gilead,” her writing about Lila is pared down, concrete and immediate, grounded in what Lila observes, remembers and wonders. In Lila’s humble way of taking in her surroundings and weighing her past, never overreaching for meaning or presuming to understand life’s mysterious nature, the prose possesses an elegance and astuteness. On that note, I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite quotes:

“Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.”

“She loved the smell of dirt, and the feel of it. She had to make herself wash it off her hands.”

“Lila’s thoughts were strange sometimes. They always had been. She had hoped getting baptized might help with it, but it didn’t.”

“She knew a little about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something.”

“In that letter he had said there’s no such thing as safety. Existence can be fierce, she did know that. A storm can blow up out of a quiet day, wind that takes your life out of your hands, your soul out of your body.”

“The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were.”

“Now here she had this preacher, maybe the kindest man in the world, and no idea what to do with him.”

“She thought for a few days that she must have come to the end of her life, because it felt so much like the beginning of it.”

“So. ‘Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.’”

“‘I can’t love you as much as I love you. I can’t feel as happy as I am.’”

For more about “Lila,” here is the New York Times book review.  

Finding the Spirit This Christmas

matee, but who cares? Christmas Tree CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I haven’t exactly been a model of good cheer this holiday season. Christmas tree? Meh. I hung a wreath on the door, pieced together an advent wreath with a few candles, and called it a day. Fresh batches of Christmas cookies? More like pragmatic pots of potato soup. Christmas carols? Instead, my ears have been ringing with Cuban jazz and NPR. Last weekend, I saw a group of decked-out carolers cavorting through the streets of Chicago and felt myself marveling at their energy from a comfortable distance.

So I was grateful when at church last week the priest mentioned a different way to prepare for Christ’s coming: repentance, seeking forgiveness. It’s so easy to get caught up in traditions that might best be described as decorative, that punctuate the holiday season much like the garlands on a Christmas tree, but never quite penetrate its central meaning. In the midst of preparing our homes for Christmas, it’s a refreshing prospect to do the more sobering work of preparing our hearts for the Lord.

What does this mean exactly? When I take good, long, honest look at myself with Jesus’s coming in mind I feel like one of those handmade, cobbled looking ornaments, my faith clumsily pieced together, a shadow of the smoothly crafted, well-integrated Christian life that I aspire to. But perhaps this is what the priest’s suggested examining is meant to yield — a reminder of how much we need the God who is coming for us on Christmas day, a humbling awareness of our own mediocrity and our unceasing need for him.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the book Quiet, including the author’s reflections on evangelical Christianity, how the evangelical movement is a bastion for the extrovert ideal, rewarding and revering those who live their faith out loud. I happen to be both an introvert and one who quickly became disillusioned with the non-denominational, evangelical church partially on the grounds of its bias toward extroversion, but for a short while I found the evangelical community very alluring, I’m sure partially owing to the charisma, aka extroversion, of its leading members. One of the phrases I remember being tossed around was called “active dependence,” the notion that we are called to proactively cultivate our dependence on God, to live fully in the reality of our need for him. Perhaps the most authentic preparation we can make this advent is to deepen our dependent relationship to the Lord.

In the meantime, there’s soup. Along with prayer, a good bowl of soup goes a long way toward refreshing the soul, I think. The pot is a repository for disparate elements, slowly transforming them into something new and life-giving, not unlike a prayer. You might consider this potato soup a token of my resistance against all the pretty, powdered, finely shaped edibles of the Christmas season, an invitation to pare down what is tangible about Christmas and leave space for the invisible turnings of the heart. Here’s the recipe:

Potato Soup
Adapted from the Pioneer Woman

Ingredients 

6 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
Medium onion, diced
3 whole carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
6 small Russet potatoes, peeled and diced
8 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Paprika
Cumin
Red pepper flakes
Chili powder
Freshly grated cheddar cheese

Tools

2 Cutting boards
Chef’s knife
Potato peeler
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Frying pan
Plate
Paper towels
Wooden spoon
Whisk or fork
Immersion blender or blender

  • Chop the vegetables and the potatoes. Measure out the stock, milk, and heavy cream.
  • Cut the raw bacon into pieces using a separate cutting board and cook in a frying pan over medium heat until crisp.
  • Remove the bacon to a plate and pour out most of the grease.
  • Cook the onions, carrots, and celery in the same frying pan over medium-high heat.
  • After about 2 minutes, add the diced potatoes. Cook for about 5 minutes, adding the salt and dashes of paprika, cumin, red pepper flakes, and chili powder.
  • Add the chicken stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes become tender.
  • Whisk the flour with the milk and add to the pot, cooking for another 5 minutes.
  • Using a blender or an immersion blender, process the soup until completely smooth.
  • Stir in the cream. Serve with cheddar cheese and bacon bits.
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