Being of melancholic temperament, my Quaker practice is occasionally reduced to long periods of inner struggle between faith and circumstance.
These are not periods of doubting God or of doubting that I can rely upon God.
Rather, they are periods during which I have difficulty finding God’s reassuring silence in the midst of my own emotional noise. Or, sometimes, in the midst of a kind of emotional shut-downness, when prolonged distress has dulled itself into exhaustion.
As readers of my other blog, Walhydra’s Porch, will know, for the past two years my sister and brother and I have been watching our mother’s rapid decline into Alzheimer’s.
In March, my evangelical Christian angel of a sister took Mom into her family in Pensacola. Since then, my brother up in Massachusetts has been helping me weave my amateurish way through the labyrinthine process—so familiar to him—of fixing up and selling Mom’s house back in South Carolina.
All through this, my dear spouse Jim—whom Mom calls son—has grieved and held me when I cry at the drawn out loss of my lifelong best friend.
I share this family snapshot to unmask some of the mystery which has confounded me over the past several months. In order to stop myself from minimizing how central this grief is to my life right now.
Because the human habit of survival, day to day, is to minimize, to normalize, to deny how much grief affects us, to convince ourselves that—through faith or whatever—we are coping with it and going on.
Well, we do do that coping. If we have any sort of faith, we acknowledge the hurt, we honor our tears, and then we continue.
But the animal in us, the body, remembers that the loss is still part of the present.
Three weeks ago in waiting worship, I was struggling with a profound sense of both personal and global vulnerability.
Jim was flying to a professional meeting in Utah…so I feared losing him. My mother’s Alzheimer’s and my father’s age and ailments and my own mortality were all very much on my mind. And the news was full of war and genocide and housing foreclosures and market collapse and city budget cuts and library staff resignations.
I longed for the relief of getting into the present in worship…but could not. My need did not feel like vocal ministry, yet finally I had to just speak it out loud.
How vulnerable and mortal we all are. How we tend to live in this fantasy that, if we just discipline ourselves to do the right thing, we will somehow avoid loss and death…but we remain mortal. How almost every hurtful thing we do to ourselves or to each other arises from our efforts to avoid or deny this mortality.
How I needed the prayers of my meeting—for all of us.
No one else spoke during worship, yet at the rise of meeting the stories poured forth. What members or their acquaintances were struggling with. What brought them stillness or hope or, at least, perseverance. And so on.
The paradoxes of human consciousness are so convoluted. There’s a loop which can play itself out between physical and imagined experience.
I notice this: the bodily symptoms of emotion come first—waking, for example, with a dulled anxiety clutching at my sternum.
Being human, I search for a reason. Being a successful human, my mind is able to find or imagine several. These “reasons” aggravate the emotion and its physical symptoms.
It has taken me a lifetime to learn to notice this loop and to interrupt it with deep breathing or meditation or prayer. But I’m not very good at interrupting it. It’s part of my temperament, part of my basic humanness, to apply imagination to symptoms—instead of just listening.
Two weeks ago, back in waiting worship. I seem to have temporarily burned out on worrying about mortality. Now I just want to stop squirming and center down.
So, of course, I squirm for most of the hour. Relax this muscle. Release that hip joint. Drop that shoulder. Stretch out that calf. Now…. Oh, just breathe. Now….
It’s not really different than the week before. Physical squirming rather than mental, yet still the dominant notion is: “If I can just….”
An image comes of kayaking on a turbulent river, overly intent upon keeping my balance. If I don’t manage this, I’ll fall over and drown in the river.
But—the thought comes—God is the river.
Maybe we don’t get hold of self-discipline as a way of receiving grace. Maybe self-discipline is a gift of grace.
Not seeking silence, but surrendering because we are unable to become silent.
On these worst days of anxiety and grief, when I have so much practical business to do, when I have to stop and pray throughout the day just to keep going, sometimes the answer is this: “Be still. You’re just not going to get anything done today.”
This past First Day. Waiting worship once more.
For a month I’ve been reading Larry Ingle’s 1994 biography of George Fox, First Among Friends. Somewhere in the discussion of Fox’s disregard for theology—I can’t find the passage now—I came up with the phrase: “Not belief, but faith.”
Now, sitting and waiting again. Not getting quiet again.
And, halfway through, a dear Friend voices a truth which annoys my ego with its platitudinous character:
I asked for my heart to be open to the world. But for this, my heart must be broken. And when the break is healed, my heart is stronger.
Grr, I think.
Then, in a series of quick flashes, inner Light reveals some missing pieces….
Nine years ago, my heart was wholly committed to counseling and caring for what felt like an extended family of mentally ill men in the South Carolina prison system.
A new, reactionary state government shut down our four-year-old program and abandoned these men to the negligent handling of a for-profit corporation in a rural prison.
I fled my clinical career for the imagined safety of the library world…and still don’t want to be open to the street people I now face daily in this different state and city and profession.
Still not healed…and resenting, because I fear the hurt, the presence of needful people.
As this opening subsides, I glance around the meeting circle and welcome the sense of present-ness.
Ah, we’re all just sitting here together.
Just before rise of meeting, the same Friend speaks again to tell about when Mother Theresa was once asked if she prayed.
“Oh, yes,” she said.
“And what do you ask for?”
“Oh, I don’t ask. I just listen.”
“And what does God say.”
“Oh, God just listens too.”
And so it is.