Thursday, February 28, 2008

More On Psalm Cursing & Psalm 58

Most cursing psalms are laments or cries for social justice (or both). As such, the sentiments they express are quite familiar to modern ears. “I’m deeply wounded. The pain is killing me. I did nothing to deserve this. Those who hurt me are arrogant and greedy. Vicious, wicked people, they take advantage of the weak and poor, wantonly destroying anyone they can. Stop them. Make them nothing. Demolish them as they have demolished others.” And so on.

As my last post was on the snail melting line of psalm 58, here is a bit more about it.

Psalm 58 is a straight-out plea for social justice. It starts by condemning the wickedness of rulers (“the mighty” or “the gods” in some English translations - though notably, the King James twists this into “the congregation.” Wouldn’t do to let the ruled to get wrong ideas about the rulers!).

From the New International Version (except they just lo-o-o-ve semi-colons. There’s no punctuation in the Hebrew so I put in periods. I also changed “men” to “people.”):

“Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among people? No. In your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. Even from birth the wicked go astray. From the womb they are wayward and speak lies. Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be.”

Many good-heated, modern people shake with similar, indignant passion as they consider the suffering caused by the greedy rich and self-important powerful. I have friends and family who speak at least that harshly of the present US administration. They fervently wish for results not unlike those desired by the psalm writer:

“Break the teeth in their mouths, O God. Tear out the fangs of the lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away. When they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted. Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.” (Note: this translation makes the whole snail/slug slime thing a little more transparent.)

And many virulent Bush haters have no less violent of a vision for the future than that of the writer who ends this psalm:

“Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns - whether they be green or dry - the wicked will be swept away. The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then people will say, ‘Surely the righteous still are rewarded. Surely there is a God who judges the earth.’”

It all depends on who you call wicked and who righteous… And what you think causes suffering and what you think will end it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Melt, Snail, Melt! A Psalm Curse

Recently, I’ve been writing about the cursing psalms. Then I read this quote on the portal page of MYTH*ING LINKS:
Almost all of us are gasping for more time. We are starving. And all of the devices and techniques that our inventive culture offers only increase the yearning for time - like the food of Hell that makes the eater hungrier. Our cell phones, computers, fax machines, and the countless other inventions that "save time" only starve us more and more... We are paying for these things with our time, with our lives, which is our time. - Jacob Needleman, in Time and the Soul, page 63
This reminded me of the famous curse line from psalm 58: “As a snail melts, let them pass away.”

The line is famous for being more than a little peculiar, if not completely senseless. But it made sense to the psalm writer. Supposedly, Mesopotamian people of that time believed that snails create slime trails by liquefying a bit of their own bodies. In order to move along, a snail had to melt itself. It used itself up until there was nothing left (which nicely explained why gardens are littered with empty snail shells.) So the curse is: may your actions be self-consuming, eating you up until you vanish.

Not bad, eh?

But as spiritual teachers have been pointing out literally for ages, this is exactly what human obsessions entail.

Common snailIn modern America we cry out for time, and become addicted to technology that destroys time under the guise of giving it to us. Once we could peacefully wait an hour or a day to phone again if a person we called did not answer. Now we are impatient, even insulted, if we must wait a few seconds or our messages are not immediately returned. An hour, a full day, has been compressed, lost, become seconds.

Those biblical curse-writers! They sure knew their human foibles.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Lenten In The Morning

Lent was not on my radar this year. Not that it’s ever been big in my life. In fact, I had my first Lent in 2003 just months before entering the monastery. That year I gave up children’s books - my most persistent addiction. I wanted a clean wind to blow through the space left by giving them up. Which actually happened.

A good (Catholic) friend said that Lent was a chance to identify one thing that kept you from God and practice changing it. This might mean giving up a habit – like addictive reading. But it could equally well mean adding one – like walks in the woods.

Lacking reading distraction during my first Lent, I entered a sort of spiritual hermitage. Traditionally hermits lived in stark places. This one had the reverberating emptiness of the high plains: miles of prairie under an arching sky with a strong wind blowing. Unbroken from horizon to horizon, the prairie sky is the presence of God, and that wind is God’s breath.

But let’s face it. Hanging out in The Presence is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. Which explains why I generally opt for avoidance activities over paying attention.

Still, that year I lost myself in Presence and by Easter felt all shiny fresh and clean.

This lasted about 3 months. Then I realized I was but a month from loosing my independent, worldly life (I thought) forever. Ack! I dove into children’s books and hid. Occasionally, I’d come up for breath and putter a bit at packing, then dive under again. Of course, I did finally manage it, letting go of my job, home, car and stuff (imagine dumping a fifty-years’ accumulation of books, clothes, furniture, dishes and jewelry, not to mention a huge doll collection).

So. All in all, my first Lent was pretty great. Lent in the monastery was also pretty great, although by then I was a novice and the cracks were showing.

After I was kicked out, I was just as heartsick for the liturgical year as I was for the Liturgy of the Hours. But it hurt to touch and so no Lent.

Things are better now and I decided I might as well mosey on down to the monastery and get my little thumb print of forehead ash. But I had no idea of doing anything for it.


We had a monster ice storm + blizzard on Ash Wednesday. The monastery closed along with almost everything else (except the idiot university). But I got a call from my friend with the idea that Lent is about getting to God not giving stuff up. She explained her reasoning and we read a couple of the lectionary pieces together.

Then I knew.

A confirmed night-person, in the monastery I struggled to drag myself out of bed by 6:30. But I liked how it felt so ever since, I have tried - absolutely unsuccessfully - to continue this. My latest attempt was a New Year’s resolution: “My day starts at 6:30.”

Which failed.

So for Lent, my day starts at 6:30. And this time, it has actually succeeded. Not that I’ve gotten out of bed at 6:30 every day but more than half so far, and every day has started earlier.

Practice. Practice. It is enough.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In The Demons’ House

In The Demons’ House

To experience a "demon house," you don't need some just-bought, never-gonna-fix-‘er-upper, much less one inhabited by spooky, little girls. Nah. For demon encounters of the spiritual kind, the most ordinary and uneventful of houses will do.

Most of my life, I had the romantic notion that desert hermits ran to stark, marginal environments for the quiet. Only it turns out peace and quiet were the exact opposite of what Syncletica, Evagrius and the other early Christian hermits sought in the desert. Nope. What they wanted was a fight. An all-out, no-holds-bared, knock-down, drag-out battle with demons. They went to the desert because that was where the demons lived.

In fact, the story goes that St. Antony renounced comfort, sex and family by moving into an abandoned desert fort. Once there, his demon desires for these were so strong they literally beat him unconscious.

You want to fight demons with no way to run and hide? Move into the demons’ house. And you don't need a desert. They are more than happy to face you anywhere you choose.


My creative energy was fueled by the narrowly-focused, pared-down life of the monastery. Before, it had been like a leaping, playful fire: lots of form and color, but no intensity. After a year of monastic confinement, it had the white-hot brilliance of a hurricane lamp.

Forced out of the cloister, I didn't know if I could maintain that creative fire. And I didn't know if I had the courage to live wholly from my spiritual center - without the financial security offered by community life.

Yet, I resisted the desire to immediately jump into a decent-paying, middle class job – the kind I'd had for most of my post-graduate life. It had taken entering a monastery for me to find the courage to shuck all that in the first place. I didn’t want to immediately load myself up again.

Because I can use a job and house to generate unlimited excuses not to write.

It was in making this choice that I found I had moved into the demons’ house. I do some freelance work - consulting and teaching - but dedicate my time & energy to writing. So by and large, I can’t say, “Of course I will write, but after I get this report done or that pile of papers marked because they are due tomorrow.”

With no externally imposed musts and shoulds, I have no cover story to disguise immobilizing habits, destructive thought-patterns and addictive, emotional fogs - and no insurance against the fear of financial failure. Instead, in each day’s effort to write, I must marshal my spiritual forces and struggle with these, my demons, raw and undiluted.

Strange. I have never lacked food, shelter or a comfortable bed. I even have a car and a dog. My environment is about as far from “inhospitable desert” as one can get. Yet here my demons are and here I am, in their house, facing them every day without protection.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Women's Voices IV: More on Amma Syncletica

I have already posted twice about my favorite desert mystic, Amma Syncletica. She offers an amazing, no-nonsense voice for spiritual practice - with heart. So here are few more of her sayings. For background go to Amma Syncletica, Part I. The Story, and I posted others of her sayings in the context of my experience at Amma Syncletica, Part II. Some Sayings.

You’ll notice that Syncletica (like Antony & Evagrius and other early Christian, desert hermits) described the struggle to detach from desires (or ego) as a fight with demons. The Enemy, of course, was Satan. As a good little Universalist, I don’t buy the whole Satan theory, yet there is still something apt in this.

I often feel like something has got hold of me and is dragging or tricking or seducing me into places I don't want to go. No matter what practices I do, I am still blindsided by waves of bitter resentment or preening pride. I may assume these “demons” all arise from inside me, but they sure can feel like an external attack. Also, it’s sort of comforting to imagine they are demon attacks. Then rejection has no if, ands or buts to it.

O.k. enough of my thoughts. Here are some sayings, uninterrupted except that I extracted bits from longer text. If you read the original, you might find other meanings by making different emphases. (All from the translation of Syncletica's Life by Elizabeth Bryson Bongie.)

# 22 “Whatever people say …that is useful springs from love and ends in it. Salvation, then, is exactly this – the two-fold love of God and of our neighbor.”

#23 “The person who has once given assent to what is less than good is unable to stand firm even in little matters, but is carried off, so to speak, into the pit of destruction… [and] is judged like a soldier that deserts; he is not awarded pardon because he left for a less strenuous campaign.”

#25 “Through our senses, even if we are unwilling, ‘thieves’ enter. How indeed can a house not be blackened if smoke from outside is wafting about and the windows are open?”

#26 “The more athletes make progress the more they are matched with stronger opponents… Were you victorious over actual, physical sexual impurity? …[The Enemy] continues to lurk in the crannies of your mind … conjuring up handsome faces and old relationships… [do] not give your assent to these fantasies.”

#30 “Just as heavy clothing is washed and bleached by treading and vigorous wringing, so also the strong soul is strengthened by voluntary poverty. But those with a weaker disposition have the opposite experience… When they are rubbed a little, they disintegrate like torn garments, not lasting through the wash… Although the fuller may be the same, the outcome for the clothes is different; some are torn and perished while another is bleached and renewed.”

#31 “It is essential to be trained in austerities… For those who have… suddenly rushed into rejecting their possessions are generally seized with regret.”

#32 “possessions are the ‘tools’ of a life devoted to pleasure. Take away first the ‘trade’ (soft living) and you will also be able easily to dispense with the material aspect… possessions; it is difficult… if the ‘trade’ is going on for the ‘tools’ to be absent.”

#34 “Just as domestic animals in the performance of their particular tasks are satisfied only with the nourishment needed to sustain life, so also those who practice poverty consider the use of silver worthless and they do their manual work in return for their daily nourishment alone. These people possess the foundation of faith… [by] not taking thought for the morrow.”

#35 “[To] those who live without possessions [the Enemy] lacks the means to do harm, since the majority of our griefs and trials originate in the removal of possessions. Can he burn their estates... lay hands on their dear ones? To these too they long ago said good-bye.”

#36 “[Vices] bring about their own destruction out of their very nature. For in bringing evil that is insatiable… their wound is incurable. The one who has nothing desires little, and on acquiring this little reaches for more. One has a hundred gold coins and longs for a thousand, and after acquiring these raises his sights, ad infinitum… Unable to establish their limit, they constantly lament their poverty.”

#37 “It would be a great advantage if, in our search for genuine wealth, we could endure as many tribulations as those hopelessly damaging ones that ‘hunters’ of empty worldliness encounter… But if ever we… do experience some little gain, we puff ourselves up, pointing it out to the people… In addition, we fail to include in our account what really happened. Those people… keep going after more; they count as nothing what they already have… Even though we possess nothing of what was being sought, we call ourselves rich.”

#38 “We must make every effort, then, to keep our gain hidden. Those who are describing their own successes should also try to mention the weaknesses that go with them… Those who live in virtue act in the opposite way; they describe their small lapses along with some extras they did not commit, thus rejecting the good esteem of people while concealing their good acts… Just as wax melts in the presence of fire, so also does the soul disintegrate in the face of praises and loose its vigor.”

#39 “If praise removes the vigor of the soul, then assuredly, censure and insult lead the soul to heights of virtue.”

#41 “We should not think that anyone in life is free from care… Every sprig of virtue grows straight as a result of pains… [in secular life] When they are not honored, they are sad; when they yearn for what belongs to another, they pine away; when they are poor, they feel distressed; when they are rich, they become obsessed; unable to sleep for watching over their possessions.”

#42 “Let us [hermit] women not be misled… Perhaps in comparison [those in the world] struggle more than we do. For towards women generally there is great hostility in the world… Let us not be deluded… that their life is easy and carefree.”

#43 “Just as one diet is not suitable for all animals, the same instruction is not suitable for all people. Those who find satisfaction in contemplation and gnosis are nourished in one way, while those who have a taste for asceticism and ascetic practice are nourished in another way, and similarly those in the world who practice good works to the best of their ability.”

#45 “Like a ship our soul is sometimes engulfed by the waters without and is sometime swamped by the bilge-water within… And so we must guard against onslaughts of spirits from outside us, and bail out impurities of thoughts inside us… Against the storm waves outside salvation often comes from ships nearby when the sailors cry out for help; but bilge-waters overflow and frequently kill the seamen, often when they are asleep and the sea is calm.”

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Perscription For Joy

“Keep Death before your eyes.” It's a common enough spiritual injunction. But the point of meditating on death is not to feel solemn or gloomy. It is a prescription for joy.

Like many spiritual practices that seem dour – to those who haven’t tried them – this is but one more, deceptively simple and very effective means of achieving what we seek: happiness, freedom, peace, and love of our neighbors. And we don’t have to become saints, first, either. Even my kind of never-remotely-perfect practice can bring us ordinary folks increased happiness, etc. - right now, in this life, as who we already are.

Recently a couple of psychologists have thrown their experimental weight behind this effect.

In Psychological Science (18: 984-990), Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumeister published the results of experiments to explore “coping strategies” when faced with mortality. Their paper is called, From Terror to Joy: Automatic Tuning to Positive Affective Information Following Mortality Salience. (oh, my!) For a lay explanation see ScienceDaily.

Volunteers meditated on dying and being dead. (Of course, if you happen to remember dying, as I do, you may think of the release of death as a bursting fountain of joyful light.)

A control group meditated on excruciating dental work. (Ack! Who wouldn’t find death happier?)

Anyway, both sets of volunteers then took word tests designed to tap into their emotions. One example was completing the word “jo_”. Those who got to meditate on death were significantly more likely to pick a happy word like “joy,” while the controls picked a neutral word like, “job.” There were also word associations like choosing to pair “puppy” with either “beetle” or “parade.” The death folks more often choose happier associations, like “parade.”

So. Volunteers preoccupied with death weren't gloomy. They weren’t even neutral. Instead they showed joyful, emotional associations (at least compared to folks meditating on icky pain).

The psychologists suggest this means the brain involuntarily activates pleasurable memories in order to cope with trauma or threats. (The findings also explain why “a delay is often necessary to produce effects in line with terror management theory” – hmmmm.)

Being empiricists, of course the psychologists describe this brain response as coping with a bad, not as a creative, spiritual good. And maybe they are right. Perhaps this evolved as a coping strategy. But we can still opportunistically take advantage and use it as a tool for positive, spiritual development.

(This is common in evolution. The new can only be got by remaking the already-in-existence. So things that evolved for one use are often developed for another… Like the standing-upright work our spines are adapted to do - 'though they are a very poor design for it. Trouble is, we and our spines evolved from fish (and before that, a segmented worm-critter). Our spines remake a backbone first evolved for flexible swimming - the body buoyed up in water and everything hanging down. No wonder I hurt after fifty-odd years of gravity grinding one bone another. Ouch!)

Anyway, there you have it: “keep death before your eyes” and experience joy.

...'Though I must admit the practice of letting go, as in death, releasing the grasp of possessions - of body, mind and personality... that ain't always pretty.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Forgiveness: Can We Will It or Does It Take Grace? II.

Warnings not to take candy from strangers don’t help most victimized children, as anyone who is paying attention knows. Because the vast majority are sexually attacked by people they know: fathers, stepfathers, uncles, older brothers, and family friends. Yet, some children are raped by strangers - even if they constitute a small percentage of the total.

Such was I. (If you’d like to read a story about it, go to Something That Happened.)

Not that I remembered, of course. In true, post-traumatic stress fashion, I buried the memory. Also in true, post-traumatic stress fashion, I acted out the physical and psychological effects in every aspect of my life. By my late twenties, those effects had given me: 1) intense insomnia – I rarely slept more than four hours a night and was often awake for days, 2) suicidal depression.

Eventually, I sought help. At first, only for sleep. Most of the counselors I saw stuck to that agenda - advising sleep aids and strategies.

None worked.

By the time I started my Ph.D., I was on my fourth or fifth counselor. Phoning her I said, “I don’t have any real problems. I just can’t sleep."

But Mrs. Julian was different. She didn’t take me at my word. “It was something about your voice,” she later told me. “I knew there was more going on.”

A few minutes into our first appointment she asked, “Do you deserve to live?” That took the lid off the worm can. I discovered I was depressed, and that given my druthers, I'd be dead.

Following my Ph.D. adviser, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. This turned out to be a very good thing, because there I met Kristin Huige, and she saved my life.

For the next 6 years, I averaged thirteen hours every week in therapy: one individual appointment and two, weekly groups plus a "therapy training" weekend every month and the occasional 3-day retreat.

I worked much harder on therapy then on my Ph.D. I had to. A good day meant getting out of bed and as far as the couch. On bad days I never got up.

A large part of depression is unacknowledged anger turned against one’s self. The hardest thing in therapy was letting the little girl I had been feel and express her anger towards those who had hurt her: the man who raped her, the parents who didn’t protect her, and the society that created both.

Forgiving them was the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t want to, saw no need to, and if anyone had suggested that I should, I would have blasted that person forwards, backwards and sideways.

Six years later, in the fall of 1988, I graduated, from therapy and the Ph.D. program – which was not exactly an accident since I would have to leave Ann Arbor to get a job.

Six years is incredibly fast for sexual abuse therapy. I used to complain to Kristy, “Why do you make me work so hard? Some people have been seeing you for decades and you just let them coast along.”

She replied, “I have to push you because when you graduate, you’ll be gone.” Then she paused, considering, “And besides, you’ll rise to the challenge. You might kick and scream, but you’ll do the work. Most others would run away.”

What gift was I given that I could take the fast track? So many go round and round, forward a bit, then back again until witting or unwitting suicide takes them - as it had my friend Ana. Were my injuries simply less severe? Or was my soul dedicated to dragging me through this thing - no matter how much the healing hurt - while theirs had reasons to stay in the injury, working it until they died?

Not that I thought it was a gift at the time. I was jealous of those whose pain swamped them enough that they could open the "back door" and leave life for good.

When I left Ann Arbor, I was on the upslope. A few years later, I emerged into a whole new country. For the first time since forever, life was good. Oh I still had problems, and was sad, lonely, hurt and frustrated. But my background, rest state was not a stinking pit of darkness. It was light.

Forgiveness was still nowhere in my mind or desire.

I knew the guy who raped me must have been an abused child himself. I still blamed him, was enraged at him, and fantasized about stomping him into a bloody pulp.

Five years passed and a funny thing happened. When my mind drifted to the guy, I felt sympathy. I was sorry he’d been hurt, although I was even sorrier he felt the need to pass his hurt on to other kids. I was still angry. It had been his act, his choice, and he was evil. It wasn’t forgiveness, but it was... Something.

A year or so later, I was snuggling on the couch with my cat when my mind wandered down the old track past thought of the guy.

By that time, I liked myself and was proud of my entire history - especially traversing the murky shadow-land of suicidal depression. I appreciated my injuries. It was better to have traveled that dark way than to have been less hurt to start with. It taught me compassion. It taught me fearlessness in the presence of other people’s pain. It taught me to listen with the "ears of my heart" - one of Benedict's prime directives.

I wanted no other children to be raped, but I was not at all sorry I had been.

That evening as my mind turned to the man who did it, I was shocked to realize there was no anger left in me. I felt as sad for the man - the hurt boy he had been and the hurt man he grew up into - as I still felt for my child self.

I thought, “If he was right here, right now, all I would want would be to hug him, to alleviate his pain.”

And so, unbidden and unexpected, I discovered forgiveness.

I was twenty-five when I started down the long, hard, dangerous road into the land of ash. By thirty, surviving and healing depression was my life’s work. I would have avoided it if I could, but it was heal or die and some part of me choose life - which meant feeling all the raw grief, hurt, fear, and anger. It meant expressing them without concern for what was “nice” or “selfless” or “good.”

I never willed forgiveness. I never choose forgiveness. I never wanted forgiveness. It just happened - after twenty years on the slow, tortuous climb into and out of the pit.

Forgiveness: It comes as a grace. Yet without preparation, there is no ground for that grace to appear. Doing your inner work - opening, facing and healing your old wounds - tills that ground. Then grace, and forgiveness, can enter.

* * * * * *

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Something That Happened

This story was based on my recovered memories of childhood rape. Written in a child's voice, it was originally published in 1991 in Calyx, Art and Literature by Women (13:72-74).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two years ago when I was five, my family went camping in the fall. It was really sunny out. Everything smelled like fall and leaves were coming down. I had to go to the toilet. The toilets were kind of far away from our campsite, but I didn't mind. I like to be by myself so I can think about things.

I walked right through every pile of leaves on the path to the toilets.

I thought, “Maybe when leaves turn colors it is because fires come from the sun and light them up. At first the trees don't want to burn and try to stay green, but the fire spreads and soon they're all burning. After a while, there's so much sun-fire in the trees they can't hold it and it falls to the ground. Then everything burns with sun-fire.”

I think maybe fall is my favorite time.

Then I went into the toilets. It was dark inside and it smelled damp and, you know, like toilets smell. Not very good.

I didn't know it, but there was a man in there. He came up behind me and he knocked me down. He was wearing a red, plaid shirt and he was big. Big head, big hands, big everything. Much bigger than me. I think I could have walked between his legs without ducking. I was so scared I didn't make a sound, not a squeak.

He got down on top of me and he held me on the ground.

He said, “Don't make noise or I'll kill you.”

The cement floor was hard behind my head and my back and under my hands. It felt gritty dirty. And cold. And damp. The white toilet bowl hung over my head: hard and cold, with nothing to hold onto, like someone who doesn't care what happens.

The man had black hair and a fat face, and black hairs standing up on the backs of his hands. Thick, black hairs like pins standing up all along the back of his hands, even on his fingers. He was pulling on my clothes and he pulled down my underpants. Then he put his hand down there. His big fingers like dry sandpaper with pins on it were pushing in. It hurt. It really hurt bad and his breath smelled.

Then, I didn't want to see anymore. I didn't want to know anymore. I didn't want to feel anymore.

So I just left.

I floated away. Up, up, up, up, up. I thought, “I will just float all the way away.” But I got stuck at the ceiling. So I had to hang up there by the ceiling and watch.

All I could see was his back. He was heaving around on top of something. I couldn't see what it was because he was so big and it was so small. Small and flat. Small and flat and dead. Just a flat, dead rag-thing that he was pushing at and tearing at.

Only suddenly I was back down there and he said, “I'll choke you if you bite me.”

He put his hands around my neck and he started to choke me. Just to show he meant it, I guess. Then he put his thing in my mouth. I wouldn't have bitten him anyway because only live things can bite. Dead, torn rag-things can't bite. And dead, torn rag-things don't need to scream because they can't feel anything.

When he was all finished, he left. I guess he thought he killed me, but I was just pretending to be dead.

My mom was standing by the picnic table and she was cooking. We have this green, camping stove. She was standing in front of it and when she saw me she said, “Would you like to help me set the table, Honey?”

You know how it is sometimes when everything seems so far away you couldn't touch it even if you stretched and stretched, but at the same time everything is rushing by so close and fast it is like trains booming past your ears? I felt like that.

I thought, “Why is she talking about setting the table when everything is broken all to pieces?” But I guess she didn't know. I didn't say anything about it either.

I was like that doll my sister got in Chinatown. The doll had a box on her tummy. When you pressed it, she would go “Maa, Maa.” Then the box broke and no matter how you pressed, she couldn't make a sound, not even a little squeak.

My mom kept on talking to me. I felt like I couldn't understand what she was saying, but I helped her set the table.

Then I thought, “Maybe I am really dead. Maybe everything is dead.” I decided if I'm really dead than that man was just a dream. It didn't happen for real.

When we got home I found out that there is a giant clam that lives in the toilet. If you don't wash your hands before the toilet finishes flushing, it will come out and grab you and drag you down there. Also, if you don't get dried off before the water is out of the bathtub.

Sometimes I barely make it. I yell, “Time! Time! Time!” and I run out into the living room where I feel safe. Of course, I don't yell it out loud, just in my head, because if anybody knew they'd say, “stop acting like a baby.” Then my chest is all tight and my throat closes up like it is just a tiny thread I can't get any air through, so I lean across the back of the couch and pretend to watch TV.

I hate toilets. Even though I'm way too old to pee in my pants, sometimes I'd rather do that then go into a strange toilet. And sometimes I see this knife or this scissors that is cutting off my fingers. I try and try, but I can't get it to stop. I recite “Mary had a little lamb” and “Peter piper,” but it won't stop. It just won't stop.

I don't want to think about this any more. It makes me want to scream and scream. Only, I can't scream. I can't even talk. No noise can come out, not even a little squeak.

Anyway, I know that I'm not alive for real. I'm not sure about other people. Maybe they aren't alive either. I do o.k., though sometimes it seems silly to go on pretending to be alive. But I'll tell you one thing, I don't like boys. If I was alive, I would want all the boys to be dead.

© R. Elena Tabachnick 1991

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Forgiveness: Can We Will It or Does It Take Grace? I.

In Christian history there is this long tussle between those who insist that we get to God through good works (and a good life) and those who insist God enters us through grace alone – no works of ours having made a bit of difference. That last was one of Luther’s big deals. It seems he felt so crappy about himself that all the good work, good living and consuming prayer he practiced didn’t help. Then one day (or night) -> poof <- God entered him and cleared out all the crud. For the rest of his life, he insisted “by Grace alone…”

Yet for some people good works have, well, worked... despite the insistence of those like Luther who’ve experienced divine relief as a pure gift.

This suggests there is not really an argument to be had here. Both must be true.

As in the story Bo Lozoff tells about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (It's a Meaningful Life - It Just Takes Practice).

Once the Rabbi said, “Full experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.”

Puzzled, Bo Lozoff asked, “Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?”

To which Rabbi Carlebach replied, “To be as accident-prone as possible.”

There it is: grace and works. In fact, grace after works or grace with works.

This matches my experience of forgiveness.

It’s that time of year for me. Valentine’s day. The date when my then best friend was overwhelmed by the pain of her childhood abuse. She killed herself, as I described in my last post. So my thoughts naturally turn to my own story of recovery from the wounds of childhood rape

This is also the story of how I inexplicably experienced forgiveness.

In my next post, I will share a published story based on my child’s experience of rape. Then I will describe the aftermath, and how that led to forgiveness.

* * * * * *

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Survival - A Valentine's Remembrance

Neither of my friends Ana and Jim,survived in the end, although they both lived a long time trying.

On Valentine’s Day, 1991, Ana put a plastic bag over her head, lay down on her bed, and suffocated. She was 39. In the winter of 1992, Jim put a gun to his temple and blew a hole in his brain. He was 59.

Technically, they aren’t “survivors,” but how long does one have to struggle on to qualify as having survived? Does thirty years count? Forty? Is it only how we die that matters, only at that last moment that any of us can be said to have made it, to have “survived”?

Consumed by overwhelming flashbacks, Ana often lost all sense of her real-time life and the present-day people in it. She wandered into heavy traffic, bought sleeping pills with the idea of overdosing, and was repeatedly hospitalized.

Jim used to drive wildly, fantasizing about having an accident. He smoked, took drugs, and worked in an OSHA-violating machine shop where he was constantly injured.

As a young man, Jim had lost a wife and baby daughter to heavy drinking. He let his anger out by  abusing those he cared for and starting fights until he bottomed out on the street, living only to drink. He later described himself as a hard, nasty man--a racist and a bigot. That is a story we have all heard too many times. What was different about Jim was that after two years on the street, he woke up one day and said, “I have got to change. I have got to find a way to live.”

Jim checked himself into VA detox, then got a job and an apartment. He saved money and saw a therapist. By the time I knew him ten years later, Jim was a model of gentleness and compassion. Absolutely trustworthy, he felt other peoples' pain as deeply as his own. He took in psychotic cats and offered support to injured women without the slightest hint of wanting anything in return.

When Ana’s demons first took her life, she was on the way to success. She had a good marriage, her Ph.D. in a hard, physical science was almost completed, and she had the respect of her peers. Then the long-buried memories of childhood abuse burst out.

Ana was institutionalized for schizophrenia. What else could explain a woman screaming, muttering to herself as she stomped down the street, or breaking into churches? But an amazing psychiatrist asked Ana to describe her hallucinations and realized they were actually flashbacks. The easiest memory came out at that time. It was of her father's one-time sexual attack.

Unfortunately, the first was not the last. Over the years, new triggers brought up new memories, each more awful than the ones that went before, but despite the times her past rose up to drown her, Ana finished her degree. She landed a hot, government, research position in a tight job market where most science Ph.D.s went unemployed or underemployed for years, published often, and traveled the international, academic circuit arguing for her ideas.

Jim worked as a machinist, but he dreamed of being an artist. At the Toledo Museum's art school, he studied drawing, painting and metal sculpture. He exchanged care of the metal shop for studio hours, and when students needed help they came to him first. He was never too busy, and unlike so many art professors, never needed to bolster his ego by putting students down. He was as kind and humble with students as he was with injured women and cats.

Finally, Jim felt secure enough in his new self to take the big risk. He quit his job and spent his life savings to be a full-time artist. Jim had taught himself to blow glass. Because he had no money, he traded his help for glass colors and scrounged color scraps that richer students threw away. With only bits of any one color, his glass pieces were streaked with swirling rainbows.

Jim had picked himself up from the gutter and changed his life--something few can do. He grew into the fully feeling, creative person he was born to be. But his demons--born in childhood beatings and a mother's insistent, sexual abuse--never slept. Like Holland with its dikes against the sea, his life needed to be constantly defended against their attacks.

After a year, his money was gone. Jim had gotten paid work on some local civic sculptures--welding parts or fixing patinas--but didn't make much. He had to return to the machine shop. It was the beginning of the end.

Jim abandoned therapy, hid from friends, and sank beneath the numbing waters of drugs and drinking. Then one dark dull winter night, he shot himself . He was so isolated by that time that his body lay for five days in his apartment before anyone noticed.

What is it that lets one person out of thousands find the will to change? What greater achievement could there be than to rise up out of your inner hell and the literal gutter, give up the numbing blanket of drugs, and grow into yourself despite the hurt that consciousness brings? What could be more admirable, whatever the final outcome?

At times Ana faced her past. She let herself remember pain that had been so intense her soul vacated her little girl's body tied to a bedpost, floating up to watch from far away. She let herself feel the betrayal inherent in parents' and grandparents’ abuse, a betrayal that hurt worse than the most terrible physical pain.

At other times Ana refused to deal with her past, angrily shoving those memories away. She WOULD NOT let them devour her creative energy or her ability to love. Yet this was a failing proposition. Left to act out of her unhealed trauma, there were days when she could not enter a room of men, although she worked in a science where almost everyone was a man.

Ana's rigidly rational male-scientist co-workers had nothing but contempt for extended medical leaves and intermittent phobic outbreaks. Of course, they never knew what the problem was. It was enough that she lacked their prized, competitive edge. Besides, her lack was their gain. In the spirit of laissez-fare, zero-sum, scientific competition, others gleefully built their reputations by trashing hers.

Still, between one psychotic break and another were long stretches of calm. Then Ana read widely, cultivated interesting friendships, and spent weekends leading school children through science adventures. She explored Zen, took snapshots of everyone and everything, and loved to walk in a local beaver marsh.

The last calm before her death had lasted several years. Her husband began to hope that, maybe, the worse was over. It wasn’t. When her past re-asserted itself, it demanded her whole attention. She was mentally lost for weeks.

Ana came to herself in a psych ward. There she finally faced the truth: no mental walls are thick enough to block the past. She would not be free until she faced it, all of it. Only if she worked through her childhood trauma could she truly heal.

For many years, Ana had found ways to live injured while healing only lesser hurts. Finally, she committed to the last dangerous trial. It might take years, even decades, and there were no guarantees.

Severe childhood abuse is like a terrible burn covering most of the body. The injury hurts in a way that cannot be imagined by those who haven't experienced it. The cure hurts just as much and goes on longer. Sometimes, burn survivors beg to be allowed to die instead. At every step of healing, abuse survivors risk being swallowed by their desire to escape through death.

What greater courage could there be than to choose to put oneself through the torture of healing? To keep going when it would be so much easier to hide, and when it is only your own stubborn will that keeps bringing the pain down on you? Only the very brave and very desperate agree to such a cure.

My own experience of being raped as a child was like being burned on no more than my hands and feet. That was bad enough. I teetered on the edge of suicide for years as I uncovered and healed my past. I'm lucky. I survived long enough to discover how great life can be.

Ana started that journey. She didn’t make it out the other side.

At her funeral, her husband said, "In her life, Ana had to climb a high range of mountains. She'd made it through the foothills. She'd climbed the lower slopes. Along the way she found people who could help. Others had gone before and pointed out trails. Then she reached the last assent before the top, but it was the steepest--a sheer cliff. Again there were people to help. Others were in front and to either side offering their hands, ready to guide her to the next toehold. She started up. But a fog came down and engulfed her. She couldn't see the other people and forgot they were there. Alone in the fog on that cliff, she lost her hold, slipped and fell."

Strangely, at her funeral one of Ana's hatefully competitive scientific colleagues wept and begged for forgiveness. He hadn't realized how much she was suffering.

In the end, both Ana and Jim killed themselves. But is that failure? After all, they survived for years-- more than survived. They lived and loved and gave and created, despite the terrible gaping wounds they carried. After years of struggle, they lost their grip. Do they not still deserve the admiration of those who admire survival? Can they not still claim the highest badge of courage?

When we heal ourselves, we heal the universe--whether we manage a little or a lot. Our motivation may seem selfish, but our work serves everyone.

Ana and Jim, my loves, thank you for the great gifts you gave us.

You both deserve the richest and warmest of Valentine's hearts.

* * * * * *

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Women's Voices III: Rabi’a al Basri

One of the greatest Sufi mystics was Rabi’a al-'Adawiyya who lived in Basra, Iraq in the second half of the 8th century AD. She left no written works. Most of the information about her comes from Farid ud-Din 'Attar who described her as “on fire with love and longing” and “an unquestioned authority to her contemporaries.”

The story goes that she was sold into slavery to a hard master. Instead of sleeping, she prayed, often also fasting. Once when she was praying her master saw her enveloped in a divine light. So he set her free. Rabi’a then became a desert ascetic.

Rabi’a never studied under any human teacher or spiritual master, instead going straight to God. However, she became a great teacher, herself. She had many disciples, and there are numerous stories of her conversations with contemporary Islamic sages, often showing off her deeper understanding of divine truth.

Rabi’a was a God-lover, spending hours in direct communion with her Beloved. Of formal worship - even in the House of God in Mecca - she said, “It is the Lord of the house Whom I need; what have I to do with the house?”

One of the first Sufis to teach that love alone is the guide for the mystic path, Rabi’a also taught that strong emotions like fear and hope are veils that hide God from our sight. In this quest, logic and reason are powerless as only the eye of the heart can apprehend God’s mysteries.

As an ascetic, she usually prayed all night, sleeping a bit just before dawn. She also lived in celibacy and poverty - owning only a reed mat, screen, pottery jug, and a bed of felt that doubled as prayer rug. When a wealthy merchant tried to give her some gold, she wouldn’t take it, saying God “does not refuse to sustain one who speaks unworthily of Him, how then should He refuse to sustain one whose soul is overflowing with love for Him?”

Some of Rabi’a ‘s poems:

Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist.
Is there not a region of love where the sovereignty is illumined nothing,
where ecstasy gets poured into itself and becomes lost,
where the wing is fully alive but has no mind or body?

In my soul there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church
that dissolve, that dissolve in God.

(Daniel Ladinsky, tr.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ironic, but one of the most intimate acts of our body is death.
So beautiful appeared my death – knowing who then I would kiss,
I died a thousand times before I died.

“Die before you die,” said the Prophet Muhammad.
Have wings that feared ever touched the Sun?
I was born when all I once feared
I could love.

(Daniel Ladinsky, tr.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In love, nothing exists between breast and Breast.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
The one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?

(Charles Upton, tr.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Everyone prays to You from fear of the Fire;
And if You do not put them in the Fire,
This is their reward.
Or they pray to You for the Garden,
Full of fruits and flowers.
And that is their prize.
But I do not pray to You like this,
For I am not afraid of the Fire,
And I do not ask You for the Garden.
But all I want is the Essence of Your Love,
And to return to be One with You,
And to become Your Face."

For more on Rabi'a al Basri see the Sidi Muhammad Press, MYTH*ING LINKS, Poet Seers

Friday, February 01, 2008

Creeping Hermit Desire

Wow, it was almost two months ago when I last posted.

A few days after that post, I began three weeks of house sitting in a place without Internet access. I could get on at a nearby library, yet somehow just didn’t take advantage, instead falling easily into web-withdrawal. But the house sit ended in early January .

Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve chosen disconnection.

In the monastery, I loved the strictures that limited social interaction and entertainment activity. "Cave time." That’s what the formation mistress called the separation provided by a monastic novitiate. She was referring to the story that Benedict shook off his urban social life by living in a cave.

But our monastic life was hardly isolated. We almost always had guests, and chatted through two meals with them. During work periods, we had unlimited Internet access on private computers. Although many monasteries carefully regulate computer use, our old sisters seemed to have no clue that computers can provide a social life. Still, I policed my own computer activity.

So what provided the overwhelming sense of separation from the standard, worldly, social whirl? Limited phone calls, rare personal visits, staying on the grounds except for group excursions on approved errands – no more than once a week. Somehow these opened up a huge physical and psychic space. I worried about stopping close communication with friends and family. But it was the effect on the others that was worrisome. For me, the one on the journey, the excitement of taking off swamped any feelings of loss - for a good long while, at least.

And I miss that emptiness. I still, sorely miss it.

I have friends who have taken hermit vows while staying in the world - with a job, an apartment, and all the rest. They create their own cave effect. But I don’t have a hermit’s call. It’s in the rubbing of close relationships that my spirit shines.

So maybe that’s why I’ve returned to a bad, old habit: going in waves of regular communication and then withdrawal. Every so often, life provides a trigger and I light out for the psychic hills…

But shoot, I used to disappear into the literal hills. Hmmmm... that sounds pretty enticing right about now...