Friday, July 17, 2015

Throw the dog a bone

Lord I believe; help me in my unbelief. Mark 9:24

 It’s inevitable; I should have expected to come crashing down from the mountain.

I’m confused about what God is—how do I even imagine something so vast, so incomprehensible as the existence of God? Who is He? Exactly what am I believing in, praying to, trusting? Trying to grasp this, I read about God’s nature, that our limited human brains can’t even begin to understand Him. And instead of being in awe of Him, instead of being comforted by His vastness and His power, my brain goes into overdrive trying to figure it out, trying to hold on to something tangible.

When I pray my mind wanders. I try sitting with Him in silent, contemplative prayer and I think that I really need to paint that wall in the living room where the paint is cracking but remember that was a slightly deeper shade than the color I used in the hallways and I not sure I even have any more of that living room color so should I go buy a gallon of the original paint color or would it work to use a different color, maybe darker or lighter, or should I just repaint the whole living room, but what a huge task that is because of all the windows and doorways and I’m just not up for a project that huge right now . . .  The inside of my brain is like Alvin and the Chipmunks on speed. Can you just turn it off, woman? Geesh.

Instead of resting quietly and comfortably in the existence of God and feeling my union with Him, I get distracted by the vastness of creation and what He is and the nature of infinity. “Be still and know that I am God.” Okay, work with me here, I’m trying.

“Lord, I’m hurting. I believe, I believe. But I can’t recapture the feeling that I had before, that absolute certainty, that blissful union with you. Can you please just throw this dog a bone and let me be with you for a while without all of this static?” I cry out in desperation.

One thing I know to be true: faith is strengthened by doubt—so consider this a strength-building phase. If I never doubted then this faith of mine would be unexamined and less deep. I have felt the depth of a relationship with Him. I’m in a fallow phase now and I know from experience that if I just trust Him and not give up, that feeling of relationship will reemerge from this swamp. I will not run away. I will dig deeper. I will remind myself again and again that God is a mystery, an unsolvable puzzle, and again and again I will pray for trust, for help in my unbelief.

And I go back to Scripture to find assurance that the Lord will not let me get lost, that He sent the Holy Spirit to help me understand.
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. John 14:26

Come, Holy Spirit, come.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

In feint praise of kale

Want to know what I’m wearing? I just put on a simple denim skirt (slightly above the knee, Ann Taylor, bought at the thrift store), a tank top, two necklaces (because one won’t do), and a copper bracelet. Shoes will be added before I leave the house. I’m going to Whole Foods to buy 10 pounds of kale. Just trying to make an event of it. Woohoo.
What’s with the kale thing? I grew up eating kale, one of the vegetables in regular rotation at dinner at my mama’s table. Like spinach, kale was always eaten sprinkled with vinegar, never Blue Bonnet on the kale. Kale came in a box, already chopped and frozen like a brick in a block of ice. I presumed that was kale in its natural state. Little did I know at the time it grew from the earth in leaves.

Like everyone else who eats food, I have become increasing aware of the kale epidemic. There are now kale chips and kale smoothies and kale gelato. I hold no grudge against kale, but I don’t get the excitement, like suddenly someone discovered that it’s a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the fountain of youth, and a path to nuclear disarmament. It’s just there, dull green leaves, ever so slightly bitter, but boring.
So last night I did a little online research, curious about clean food diets versus paleo versus anything else that touted a new, improved healthy life. Kale is the common thread—everything I read included kale. But here’s the thing—there is controversy about everything else. Some say don’t eat fruit because fruit is just basically sugar and sugar is the enemy. Grains, legume, carbohydrates, and fats can kill you. Nothing GMO, non-organic, or animal based. And here’s the newest wrinkle, courtesy of the clean food regime—don’t cook anything. Also don’t process it in any way (for example, don’t mash apples to make applesauce). So I kept crossing things off my shopping list. And why bother with recipes? All I need to eat is raw, unadorned kale.
I’m figuratively girding my loins, heading out to Whole Foods with resolve. I will pass by the bakery with that fabulous croissant bread pudding. I won’t even go down the potato chip aisle. Even the salad bar will be off limits, because those wretched red peppers marinated in olive oil could kill me. I will bravely buy a large quantity of organic, non-GMO kale and head home, triumphant.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

In love with a priest

This probably happens to most Catholic girls at least once in their life. I just held off for many, many years, waiting for the right one. I am in love with a priest. Not just any priest, of course—heaven forbid (use of that specific phrase is not lost on me) it should be an ordinary priest, some average Father Joe at the local parish who leads the youth group. Nope, I’m in love with a priest who is a Trappist monk who would have had his 100th birthday this year, had he lived. He died in 1968 from an accidental electrocution. His priestly name was Father Louis, but his given name was Thomas Merton.

I read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which he wrote when he was in his early 30s. It is the account of his boyhood in France, his education in England and the United States, his eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his growing longing to become a priest and live a monastic life.

I loved him as a boy who didn’t feel that he fit in with other French students, who mourned the death of his mother, and missed his artist father who was frequently away. I loved his intellectual brashness when he was a young man studying at Cambridge and Columbia. He smoked cigarettes, drank too much alcohol, haunted bookstores, and had long existential conversations with his friends. For a while he thought he was a communist. Over time he became more entranced with the mystical elements of faith, which led him to a deep exploration of the ancient Christian writers. Although I find his deep intellectual discussion of Catholicism a bit tedious, nonetheless I appreciate his dedication. In the end, his connection with God seems to be much more mystical than intellectual, and I love that aspect of him as well.

We would have had such interesting conversations. We could have dug in the garden and talked about how serenity brings us closer to God. We could have walked down the country lanes, saying nothing, just smiling knowing we were together in God’s presence. We could have sat on the porch, drinking coffee while the sun rose over the mountain.

Did I mention that I think he is incredibly cute in his monk’s clothes and his denim jacket? I love the joy that radiates in his photos. Yes, he’s the perfect man. Except he’s dead and he was a priest who consecrated his life to God and lived in a monastery. Just figures, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Si comprehenderis, non est Deus

Last week I was in Montana and Wyoming. Unencumbered by man-made structures and multi-lane concrete highways, cars and trucks, crowds of intense people rushing to do seemingly important things, and tsunamis of words from every direction, I felt the grandeur of God’s creation. The endless blue sky. The mountains and the meadows strewn with wildflowers. Rivers, lakes, waterfalls, little bubbling streams. Buffalos, bears, antelope, hummingbirds and eagles. And especially the night sky—vast, sprinkled with a million stars.
I try to sit at God’s feet, feeling His presence. An aging woman in Northern Virginia, the United States of America, North America, planet Earth, the solar system in the Milky Way galaxy . . . and on and on into the limitless cosmos. How can He—this God I cling to—know me? I, a mere speck in God’s creation, can’t even begin to understand what God is. So I believe without understanding. Even the concept of referring to God as “He” must be inaccurate, our feeble way of anthropomorphizing something beyond our comprehension.

“Si comprehenderis, non est Deus”—the words of St. Augustine. If you understand, it is not God. No human being can figure out God with our limited, rational minds. What a relief to know this, to know that one of the greatest minds of human history didn’t understand either.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Confiteor Deo omnipotenti,  . . .  quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

This keeps running through my head, both in English and in Latin: “. . . I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed. My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.”
When it comes into my head in Latin, you know it’s deeply rooted and deadly serious. Lord, have mercy—please not the Latin version.
I have sinned in thought. The self-centeredness, the continual struggle with compassion, the failure to keep my mind focused on the things of God instead of getting distracted with the acquisition and maintenance of my petty possessions. The struggle with forgiveness.

I have sinned in word. The mouth from which springs the most idiotic things at the wrong place and time. The sad story that runs on a continuous loop. The drama queen. The it’s-all-about-me sickening syndrome. The gossiping, both thinking and saying unkind things. Lord, I wish I could blame this on an evil force but I am sorry to say it’s my own stupidity, my bottomless pit of weakness.

I have sinned in deed. Indeed I have. The unkind things I have thought and spoken also can be counted among the deeds. I have wasted money, I have had too much to eat and drink. I have not bothered to tell the clerk that she gave me change for $20 instead of $10 or that I didn’t pay for the cat litter that was in the bottom of my grocery cart. When I was too sensitive and thought people were mistreating me, I took it personally instead of cutting them some slack—no, it was all about me again.

Of course, there’s a viscous loop in operation here—I get hurt, I feel like a failure, I withdraw from polite society because I don’t want to impose myself on anyone else for fear of more rejection. This is more self-centered depressed behavior. I think I’m a jerk, everyone else thinks I’m a jerk, so I’m sure God must think I’m a jerk too.

The only way out of this is grace, grace, and more grace. I’m standing in the need of grace, Lord. Bring it on!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Forgiveness revisited

Yesterday Ben Freeth, a farmer from Zimbabwe, spoke at church. He and his family were farmers in Zimbabwe until the government brutally ousted all white property owners from their land. He told a compelling story of how he and other family members were abducted by thugs and taken to a remote area where they were bound and beaten. (Freeth’s skull was fractured and he had many broken bones. His father-in-law later died of his injuries.)

The most compelling part of his story is his account of how he forgave his captors in what he describes as a supernatural experience, something that only could have come from God. His hands and feet were bound and he was lying face-down in the dirt. He recounts his experience in his book Mugabe and the White African:

I saw a leg right in front of my face and I knew what I had to do. I managed to reach out and touch it and said, “May the Lord Jesus bless you.” I saw another and I reached out again, saying, “May the Lord Jesus bless you,” and another, and another.

This kind of forgiveness is beyond amazing. After Freeth spoke, our pastor prayed and challenged each of us to forgive someone we have not been able to forgive. He guided us through prayer and called on us to insert the name of a person we have been unable to forgive. So I did it—I prayed and called the unforgiven one by name. This was at the end of the service and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I went through the motions but left the church in tears and spent the rest of the day in a funk because this issue, this unforgiveness that keeps rearing its ugly head. I think I’m over it and then it overcomes me again. I know all the pop-psych adages about by not forgiving you only hurt yourself, and so on. I’ve pounded my fist and prayed and said I was done with it. But I wasn’t done with it. Why can't I forgive like Ben Freeth?

So last night I sat and prayed some more. I told God it wasn’t fair. (Like He hasn’t heard that one before.) I said I needed Jesus beside me, needed the intercession of the Holy Spirit, pleaded for this to be resolved for good. I could not connect with God, didn’t feel His presence, not a word. I felt the frustration of knowing that I had been unable to resolve this forgiveness thing and I felt that God was absent. I acknowledged that He must be there, just like He’s always there, so the disconnect must have been my fault. I asked Him, “Is there some reason I’m hanging on to this? Am I getting something out of this victim role? I don’t need it, Lord—do something!” No response.

He wasn’t responding and I wasn’t going to sit there any longer talking to the walls. So I turned on my computer and typed in “Why can’t I forgive” into the search box. The very first entry that came up was an interview with a contemplative Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr. I knew of Richard Rohr and had read other work of his. The mere fact that this was the first thing that came up on my computer blew me away. Okay, Lord, forget what I said earlier—obviously He heard me and responded with a message, exactly what He wanted me to hear. These are some of the things that Father Rohr said in the interview:
  •  "Forgiveness is a decision, but making that decision doesn't override the emotional residue that often takes much longer to release. That feeling of wanting revenge or wanting to assert your rightness or your victimhood—depending on the depth of your wounding—can take days, weeks, months and even years to dissipate. On certain days, when you're in a down mood, your psyche will want to grab onto that hurt. You have to go through that necessary period of feeling half dead, half angry, half in denial—this is the liminal [transitional] space in which we grow for some reason.
  • "I don't know why God made an imperfect world. . . But recognizing that there's an essentially tragic nature to life, one that you have to forgive and accept in a foundational way, allows you to forgive the smaller daily dramas with much greater ease. As much as we want to see the person who hurt us as an evil person—as if they were a major exception to the rule, since we have falsely imagined a perfect world—we need to realize that we're all an exception to the rule of perfection and expectation. Humans are inherently imperfect. That is what differentiates us from the Divine level.
  • “Surely people have hurt you and you wish you could punish them, but whether you recognize it or not, you yourself were forgiven when you also were broken and mistaken. All, without exception, live under the waterfall of divine mercy. There is, of course, an essential and direct connection between our receptivity to undeserved love and forgiveness and our ability to forgive other imperfect people. There is not much point in weighing which fault was the greater; that is merely the ego protecting itself. When you understand your own limited but lovely place within this universally imperfect world, you will find it almost natural to become more patient and forgiving with other people too."
  • “If we can find a way to live inside of a deep gratitude for our own undeserved grace and mercy, past hurts have very little power to cause us pain in any lasting way. They are not worth our time or energy. They are mere sludge and dredge in the great school and journey of life. The gratuitous surrendering of hurts ("forgiveness"), the refusal to make them our identity, is almost the heart of the matter. If you do not transform your pain, you will with 100 percent certainty transmit it to others. And, I am afraid, you will have pain! Both the Buddha and Jesus seem to say that pain is part of the deal, and its overcoming is the very shape of enlightenment."

So, God led me to some guidance on this issue of forgiveness in the form of words from Richard Rohr found on the Internet. (1) Forgiveness is a decision, but I should not be surprised if I see it rear its ugly head from time to time. So I guess I shouldn’t beat myself over the head about this. (2) The world is broken, imperfect and it’s full of broken, imperfect people. That surely includes me. I do not deserve the love and forgiveness—the grace—that God has given me. Is it my ego that makes me think I deserve special consideration? Wrong again. (3) Focus on God. Keep my eyes on His overwhelming blessings. Move out the hurt and the pain (the "mere sludge and dredge") and fill that space with gratitude.
Once again I am incredibly moved by our awesome, awesome God.

Interview with Richard Rohr accessed on June 7, 2015. Online at

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The heartless Miss Hart

Well into his 80s Daddy would tell us stories from his childhood, stories we had never heard before. His brain was agile and healthy until the end of his life, so it wasn’t a case of him losing mental faculties and slipping back into his youth.

One story he told made our hearts ache. Apparently he had a teacher in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, when he was very young (perhaps first or second grade) named Miss Hart. Miss Hart didn’t like little Donald and she used to scold him and humiliate him. Daddy said that she put him the corner of the classroom and made him wear the shameful dunce cap—she told him he was stupid. Or she made him sit under her desk as punishment.

What my father could have done to elicit this severe humiliation is inconceivable. He was the sweetest, kindest, most hardworking man I have ever known. He was conscientious and he was very smart. He could figure out how to fix anything or build anything. He even cut my hair when I was in high school and my friends asked if he would cut their hair. There was nothing he couldn’t do or figure out how to do. He deserved a crown, a Nobel prize, canonization, not a dunce cap.

The only thing I can imagine he might have done to annoy the cruel Miss Hart is that he might have been a little too sociable. My father could talk the fleas off a dog. It was a trait so deeply ingrained he must have had it at birth so I’m sure he visited his little first grade classmates outside of visiting hours.

What is so sad is that he still felt the shame inflicted on him in that classroom some 80 years after the fact. He said he always felt like he was dumb. And these 80-plus years after the fact I’m angry that the heartless Miss Hart hurt that precious little boy who grew up to be my dad.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Dutiful wife

If only you could hear the internal dialogue in my head—it’s either amusing or frightening.

This morning I was cleaning my bedroom. I pulled out a basket under my bed and noted a significant amount of dust under the bed. And I said to myself, “Oh, you stupid, lazy woman! You need to stop wasting time, be a more dutiful wife, and get these things done.”

Was I temporarily transported back to the last millennium? A dutiful wife? I have been unmarried for nearly 18 years. Several weeks ago, I was signing a financial document and signed “Donna X. Burke”—that hasn’t been my name for 16 years since my divorce became final.

The dutiful wife is long gone. So the dialogue in my head and my slip back to signing my long-gone name could be alarming. One thing I can say with surety is that it’s not wishful thinking. I’m a different person now and I couldn’t go back to that life even if I wanted to go back.

Is my brain just distracted and unfocused sometimes? Of course. Everyone I know who is my age goes through these temporary blips in thought processes. It takes at least three of us an hour to remember the name of the actress who was in that movie—that movie based on the book, where her husband and family go away and she has a brief fling with that guy. No, that’s not the movie—it’s the one with the horse. That other guy, that famous American actor was in it. Who was that actor? And the actress, you know who she is—it’s that actress with dark hair. She’s English but she lives in France. I read that in a magazine at the beauty shop. She’s also in that movie where she’s in prison and she smokes a lot of cigarettes. I think the movie was in French. An hour later, when we’re comparing about our mothers’ atrocious recipes for Jell-O molds, someone blurts out “Kristin Scott Thomas!”. We all know what she’s talking about.

Or there’s another worst-case scenario. Am I developing some sort of senile dementia? Lord, please protect me!

Monday, June 1, 2015


This morning I sat on the floor, praying for the Biden family and all those with broken hearts who have just lost someone they love. I know that pain. I thought about what I had read in the newspaper—after Joe Biden’s wife and daughter were killed in a car wreck and his two sons were badly injured, his mother gave him some advice: “Out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come of it if you look hard enough.”
If I look hard, I realize that out of the terrible things that have happened to me—the heartbreak, the seemingly unending losses, that something good had come of it for me. When I found myself on my knees, I realized that was where I needed to be. I needed to pray; I needed God in my life. I saw how little control I have over what unfolds in this earthly life and the only solution is for me to build a stronger relationship with God.

For years I have been on a crooked path, but a path that leads me to Him. Today I prayed, “Draw me closer to you. Show me how to live ever closer to your heart.” I prayed to stay on the mountain, for Him to show me how to live in this crazy broken world without losing the sense of being in God’s presence. I prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide me every minute of every day. And as I sat in silence, trying to just feel the Lord's presence, a word floated through my consciousness. I dismissed it. It came back again—detach. And so, detachment it is.

With detachment, come both certainties and questions. I know that to detach means truly forgiving past hurts. (Period—end of sentence.) I know that I have to detach from petty earthly longings like status and beauty and accomplishment. What it means about possessions I need to figure out. I like trinkets—my little collection of Mexican pottery, vintage Indian sari quilts, and those luscious pieces of Native American silver jewelry. I like cashmere and linen and Eileen Fisher clothes. (In defense of myself, I should point out that most of these things have been bought at thrift stores. But feeling defensive also means I have a certain amount of guilt for wanting them and a certain amount of attachment to the trinkets.) Do I thank God for those things and appreciate their beauty, or do I go all Mother Teresa and give them to the poor? I don’t know.
All I do know is that in order to draw closer to God, I need to surrender any illusion that I control my life. He is telling me that I need to detach from earthly things. What that detachment looks like will evolve over time. I’m looking at everything, looking hard. Something good will come of it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Shot in the back

It's a photo of my little brother and me on a happy day, at a family crab feast, in his front yard, not far from the spot where he later died. Suddenly it washed over me today--a tsunami of grief and anger over my brother's murder. I can't erase the image of the autopsy photos from my brain. It was his birthday last week; he would have turned 60. For what it's worth I wrote this, a letter that won't be mailed, to the murderer who is now rotting in a Maryland prison:

Why did you have to shoot him in the back? He must have been walking away from you, avoiding confrontation. He had no weapon; you had a double-barrel pistol in your pocket, loaded with “cop killer” bullets. You were once a cop yourself, so what made you become one of the bad guys, no better than those you detested, those you roughed up when you arrested them?
At the trial I saw my brother’s autopsy photo on the big screen. It was my brother alright, his lifeless face in black and white. I saw the autopsy photo of my brother’s back—no blood, no gross trauma—just the hole where the bullet entered at point-blank range before it severed the arteries leading into and out of his heart. Did you even flinch when you saw the bigger-than-life photos from your front-row seat? Why didn’t you bury your head in your hands and sob when you saw the damage you did?
What kind of man can have the arrogance to take another man’s life, to shoot a neighbor in the back on a sunny Sunday afternoon in his own front yard? I can’t understand what kind of human being can do that. God help me, I don’t want to understand that kind of heartless cruelty.
So my brother died in his own front yard on a sunny Sunday afternoon in April four years ago and you are solely responsible. And as you sit in prison, I hope that every minute of every day you know what you are—a miserable excuse for a human being, a bully, and a coward who shot my brother in the back.
Signed . . . still a heart-broken, grieving sister