Sunday, April 20, 2014

Last Day of Lent. Confirmation Tomorrow.

There has never been a time in my history when Easter has meant so much to me. I've usually greeted Lent (the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday) in years past with either apathy ("I'm not Catholic so I don't care about it") or half-heartedness ("I'll try to give up X and we'll see if I can actually do it or not . . . "). But this year, knowing that Confirmation, Eucharist, and new life await me on Easter Sunday, I jumped into Lent with both feet: Mass every Sunday, RCIA class every Monday, daily readings, morning prayer, evening prayer, etc. etc. etc. And here it is, six and a half weeks later . . . . and Lent is over. Tomorrow is Easter Day.

I asked myself in early March how I was going to be different after celebrating Lent. Spending so much time in silence, meditating, reading, or simply feeling stuck in my head, have definitely helped me come nearer to God. I even had a few epiphanies along the way--most of them along the lines of, "You are not the only person who ever suffers, you know. Try listening to other people more."

The one thing that I didn't really expect to feel--but that may not be all that surprising--was something akin to exhaustion. Towards the end of Lent, I started feeling so sick of being contemplative, sick of thinking about penitential things, sick almost to the point of resentment. I'd look at the stack of things I was "supposed" to read for the day (self-assigned, of course; no one told me to read them), and feel like giving up.

I don't think it's just me who felt this way, though. A few weeks ago, I was having a similar conversation with one of my friends from RCIA. She, too, gives herself a checklist of things to do to be more spiritual: "Before you go to work today, go take a walk in the woods, meditate, come back, do some yoga, and read the Bible." Those are healthy things. But she--like me--tends to view them at times as things to get through instead of things to enjoy, and that's when they lose their meaning.

I don't want to feel obligated to seek God; I want to seek God because my heart compels me to. Sometimes I set the bar so high for myself that I can't do it all. But that way leads to despair. I have come to the conclusion that it is just as authentic and valid--and maybe even more so?--to approach God with empty hands and an open heart. Like our Psalmist friend wrote, "You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it . . . " (Psalm 51:17) God would rather see our authentic selves. So I think my struggle to do the right thing should involve more sitting in silence and less frenzied labor.

This is not to say I feel my time spent in prayer, fasting, and charity was spent in vain. Far from it. I have been blessed beyond imagining. Lent is a glorious time for self-analysis, -reflection, -discipline, and -denial. And honestly, I've been too excited thinking about Easter Sunday to really be properly sad during Holy Week. I am immensely grateful for the experience of Lent and for this time of preparation leading up to Easter Day.

Tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. I'll be officially accepted into the Catholic Church. I'll be confirmed and take my first Holy Communion (time to edit this one, huh). I am also thrilled beyond belief that even though none of my family lives nearby, six--count 'em, SIX--of my good friends in Raleigh are coming to the service to cheer me on! It makes me so happy to feel such tangible support from them. (I appreciate everyone else's love from afar, too!) It's been an exciting journey, and tomorrow is just the beginning. Feliz Pascua!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why I'm Becoming a Catholic

(without any theology)

Nope, not because of my previous post. I said Catholic, not a nun. And not because Jenny is, because even though my sis has been after me to convert for the past umpteen years -- well, nine -- I've never given it a serious thought until recently. These kinds of decisions you have to make on your own.

It's been a long, arduous struggle for me these past few years. Spiritually-religiously, I mean. Back in 2009, I kind of lost everything I'd grown up with and it took until late 2012 to even think about wanting to find it again.

But once I got started, it came in earnest. I finally understood what the Psalmist meant when he wrote as the deer thirsts for water, so my soul thirsts for you, O God. I was thirsty like I'd never been before. Like I never knew I could be. Like I never knew anyone could be, for real. But I was.

It was a search for Something Real. Neither the superficial God loves you nor the intense God hates you theologies resonated with me. I wanted the Real Deal. I wanted Experience and Assurance.

This is the time when I was devouring all kinds of religious texts, discussing matters of life/death/salvation with anyone who would listen, meeting with my pastor outside of church, reading encyclopedia articles of World Religions, and anything else I could do to soak up answers to all the questions I had. And of course, meditating and praying, even though for a while there my prayers started off something like, "God, I don't know Who You are or What You are, or even if You're there and listening to me . . ." But I still prayed, and got closer and closer to what I was searching for.

Funny, though, how even though I was becoming more Connected to Divine Love (to use Doug Hammack's terminology), I still felt like something was missing. I wanted a meal that would satisfy my insatiable spiritual hunger, but I was only being offered snacks (do you like this church-as-restaurant analogy? Yeah.). I was out of the Pit I had been in for years, but I was just standing there on the edge of it, unmoving. I wasn't going anywhere. I had faith, I had light. But I lacked something deeper. I lacked substance.

You know who has a monopoly on substantial Christian theology?

Catholics.

So, finally, this past December, I decided that I'd do it. To give Jenny the credit due her, she was the one who nudged me to take the first step of emailing the person I'd have to talk to in order to enroll in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes at the Franciscan church near my house. Who knows how long I would have sat around complaining if she hadn't looked it up for me.

As soon as the priest opened my first class sitting in a chair in front of our group, closing his eyes and telling us to "breathe deeply and get in touch with your soul," before launching into an explanation of the changes of Vatican II, I knew I was in the right place. Here, the contemplative meets the common. Every class is full not of abstract, dull teaching, but practical, spirit-filled wisdom. I can't get enough.

So now I'm an official candidate for full communion in the Catholic church. Last Saturday was the official Rite of Presentation -- a beautiful experience where I received the sign of the Cross over all of me ("your eyes, that you would see goodness....your ears, that you would receive truth....your hands, that you would do good works...") and stated my intention in front of everyone. I'm planning on joining officially at Easter.

I don't think the Catholic church has all the answers. And I still have unanswered questions about Christianity in general. But I am satisfied that I am doing the right thing. It has been a long, hard journey to make this decision, but now that it's mine, I own it completely and feel very peaceful about it. I wonder where else it will take me . . .

[God said]: I will lead the blind on their journey; 
by paths unknown I will guide them.
I will turn darkness into light before them,
and make crooked ways straight.
These things I do for them,
and I will not forsake them.

-Isaiah 42:16

Friday, January 24, 2014

January

The following is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 What to Do After a Break-Up: A Day-by-Day Guide

DAY ONE: Hit him. Cry. Punch the wall. Cry some more. Throw out everything that even remotely reminds you of him. Wish you could move apartments. Delete him from Facebook. Cry again. Finally curl up on the couch with a blanket and watch 8 episodes of 30 Rock back-to-back, feeling sick. Sleep poorly. Wake up often.

DAY TWO: Cry again. Get mad. Write an angry letter and shred it. Cry again. Tell all your friends he’s an asshole. Add, “that fucker” every time you say his name. Run 3 miles. Delete all of his pictures and block his email. Look up “How to get over someone” online and read obsessively.

DAY THREE: Step back. Analyze. Try to understand his point of view. Fail. Sing along loudly with Ani DiFranco’s “Untouchable Face” on repeat at the highest volume possible.

DAY FOUR: Dye your hair. Rearrange your living room. Go for a walk. Write poetry. Get a text from him: Can we talk? Not yet.

DAY FIVE: Talk for an hour. Listen to his explanation. Realize you misunderstood some things. Realize you both fucked up. Realize that’s still no excuse. Express regret that it didn’t work out. Mention the possibility of being friends again sometime in the future. Say goodbye. Hang up. Stare blankly at your phone.

DAY SEVEN: Avoid all romantic music.  Hit “skip” constantly on iTunes and Pandora. Have a constant “him-him-him” feed in the back of your mind. Hash and rehash what happened. Watch a movie and think, “That actor looks like him . . . ”

DAY EIGHT: Week One. You’re biting your nails again.

DAY ELEVEN: Go out with girlfriends. Drink. Almost text him. Don’t. Congratulate yourself on your self-control.  

DAY TWELVE: Relapse. Talk about him with mutual friends. Miss him suddenly, physically, painfully. Keep it together until the door closes after them. Fall sobbing on the floor. Listen to the Helio Sequence sing “Lately” three times. Put “buy tissue” on your shopping list.  

DAY FOURTEEN: Catch up with an old friend. Relive the situation. See where you went wrong. See where he went wrong. Get indignantly angry again at the whole thing.   

DAY FIFTEEN: Week Two. Think mean thoughts. “My life without him is better than my life with him.” “I might never want to be friends again.” Flip off any car you see with the license plate of the state he’s from.

DAY SIXTEEN: Listen to “Me Voy” by Julieta Venegas over and over again. Skip “Limón y Sal.” Fantasize about sending him a mix CD in the mail. Ruin, The Pierces. The Rat, The Walkmen. Immediately reject that idea. Promise yourself this is the last time you get so one-sidedly crazy about someone. Promise. Promise. Promise.

DAY SEVENTEEN: Start getting tired of being angry and hurt. Starting looking objectively at the situation. Realize that not being together is best in the long run. Know that a better future awaits.

DAY EIGHTEEN: He accidentally calls. You don’t flip out. Not too much.  

DAY NINETEEN: You’re both on a Facebook group message. See his name. Stay calm.

DAY TWENTY-TWO: Week Three. Drive past his apartment complex on the way to another friend’s house. Don't pay attention to where the turn-off is. Don’t even realize.

DAY TWENTY-THREE: Suppose it’s not going to take 31 days after all. Click, “Post.”

DAY FORTY-SEVEN: Seriously? Seriously?! I thought we were done with all that.

DAY EIGHTY-NINE: Well, we gave it a good shot. Thanks, friend.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Advice from Father Zossima

"Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love . . . Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything. Seek that rapture and ecstasy . . . Don't be ashamed of that ecstasy, prize it, for it is a gift of God and a great one [.]"





(F. Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett)


Thursday, January 2, 2014

2014

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—

A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

It Still Doesn’t Really Feel Like Christmas But I’ve Got My Friends So It’s Okay

Last year was my first Christmas back in the States from Japan, and I was bursting at the seams with Christmas spirit from December 1 until well into January. I did every Christmas-y thing possible and it filled me up with happiness and excitement. But this year, even though I’ve gone to holiday parties, decorated trees, seen church Christmas productions, sung Christmas songs, drunk as much eggnog and eaten as much fruitcake as possible, even read “The Dark is Rising” like I do every December. . . everything still feels far away. Yes, I’ve gotten glimpses of that childhood Christmas feeling this year, like when my friends and I went to Duke Homestead for an 1870s Christmas (albeit in 70 degree weather) or dressed up in shimmery attire to enjoy musical performances. But the overarching “It’s Christmas!” feeling is lacking for me this year.  

You know that old Christmas song with the line, “from now on our troubles will be miles away”? Well, this year, it seems, they’re not. The month of December really threw a curve ball to a lot of people in my life, giving them troubles that overshadow the light spirit that usually accompanies this season. As a child, even when my dad lost his job and we didn’t have any money, I was too caught up in myself to feel worried about it. As an adult, though, I can’t help but mourn as I see people I care about struggle with infertility, illness, heartbreak, ailing parents, doubt, divorce, and unemployment. I want to take it all away from them and give them joy. Could it be possible for us to forget all of these things for a day, and be able to enjoy the present moment? I’m not sure, but I hope so.

However, the joyous part, is that in the midst of the anxiety, uncertainty and sleepless nights, in the midst of one of the worst Decembers I have ever experienced, I still count myself as indescribably blessed. Somehow I have been gifted and surrounded by compassionate, caring people, who seem to know just what I need and when I need it. I feel overwhelmingly grateful for my friends and for the community that surrounds me. There have been times in my past when I felt like I had no one close to comfort me, but now, I have never felt alone. I only feel thankful.

I am thankful for L holding me tight and telling me it’s all going to be OK when I was wracked with sobs at her door
For S texting me I’ll be right over just when I needed her
For C and T and M and their concern 
For the instant connection I have with J and K, and their uncanny knack for explaining God to me in a way I hadn’t heard before
For NRCC and their welcoming arms and prayers
I am more grateful than I can ever say

When I felt overwhelmed and incapable, I was surrounded by competent people who knew what to do
When I felt broken and confused I had good counselors--or at least good sounding boards
When I was in a spiritual crisis searching desperately for my path and not knowing what to believe, I had numerous people supporting me
When I felt hopeless, I was given hope in that I am never alone

Today is Christmas Eve. I’m going to a service at my church this afternoon, and to Midnight Mass tonight. Tomorrow I'll go visit my mom, and it will be wonderful to reconnect. I hope that all who are suffering today find a bit of peace and rest, if only for a little bit. I am so lucky to have good people in my life even in the hard times. It doesn’t really feel like Christmas for me, but I think it does feel a little like Thanksgiving. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Most Awkward Goodbye Letter

Last year, when I first started teaching ESL, I was operating under a grant that allowed students to continue attending the same class for several semesters. Here in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, I'm working under a different grant, one that is fairly number-heavy. So, for the first time, I'm only allowing students to stay in class for one semester, so I can teach new students and serve as many as I am required to serve.

Yesterday was the last day of my last class of the semester. I gave the students their certificates and awards, we had a big party with lots of food, and the students showered me with Christmas presents and love. All except one woman. She, maybe 65 years old and a returning student who has spent 8 months in my class, surreptitiously slid a note on my desk while I wasn't looking, only to come up to me after class and say, "Read my note!"

When I came back to the office, I unpacked my things and opened it, written in pencil on a sheet of lined paper torn from a notebook. Her orthography is not perfect, but here it is, written just as she wrote it. The most awkward goodbye letter I've ever received from a student.

"La Parodia de los Estudiantes"

A donde iran, tristes y fatigados, los estudiantes, que de aqui se van. O si en el cielo se veran angustiadas. Cuando Dios nos llame y no poder entender. A la mejor Dios habla ingles? Unas nos veremos angustiadas, por no poder entender.  Otras fatigadas por el esfuerzo que hisimos y no pudimos aprender. Estos estuduiantes que de aqui se van. Triztes por no aprender. Se va la maestra no la volveremos a ver.
Gracias por todo el esfuerzo que hizo para que pudieramos hablar ingles. Nos vamos triztes y con muchas ganas de volver. Para unas el esfuerzo no fue en vano. Para otras fue dificil entender pero nos llevamos el esfuerzo que hicimos para poder entender.
Adios maestra adios.
Bendiciones."

Translation:

The Parody of the Students

Where will they go, sad and fatigued, the students, who leave this place? Will they be anguished in Heaven? When God calls us and we won't understand. Could it be that God speaks English? Some of us will go anguished for not being able to understand. Others exhausted by the effort we made but couldn't learn. These students leave from here. Sad that they can't learn. The teacher is leaving we won't see her again. Thank you for the effort you made so we could learn English. We are leaving sad and anxious to come back. For some, the effort was not in vain. For others, it was difficult to learn but we take with us the effort we made to try to understand.
Goodbye teacher goodbye.
Blessings.

Am I really that terrible of a teacher? Do my students really have such a low opinion of themselves? I do understand that many of the intermediate students feel badly because their test scores didn't go up as high as the lower students did (mostly because it's easy to make a level gain from Beginning to Intermediate, but hard to take that step from Intermediate to Advanced), but they shouldn't be so worried. Also, I don't like feeling like I've failed them.

I have a stack of presents and hugs from the other students, but this one letter is the one that worries me.

Hopefully next semester I won't disappoint them!