Contentment #OneWord365

OneWord365For the past few years, I’ve been choosing a word every December to focus on for the coming year. I register the word with the folks at One Word 365, which is where I got the idea in the first place. Once you do this, you can find others in your “tribe” who have chosen the same word, and contact them if you are interested.

Find-Contentment-seekingcontentment.com_For 2019, I have chosen the word CONTENTMENT. Before I tell you more about why I chose that word, let me tell you about a message I received today from a woman in another state who chose the same word. She looked me up in our One Word “tribe” and sent me a message. Turns out she is caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. Small world. Or large epidemic (Alzheimer’s), depending upon how you look at it. We’ve enjoyed chatting online about our shared and different experiences, and although my journey/struggles with my mother and her Alzheimer’s ended with her death in May of 2016, this woman is in the throes of it right now. She is blessed to have help from family, including a future daughter-in-law who is a nurse.

So why did I choose “contentment” as my One Word for 2019? Because I struggle so much with various elements of its opposite— jealousy, greed, gluttony, resentment, restlessness. My father confessor has encouraged me to practice thankfulness as an antidote to jealousy, and that helps. Looking at my life from the outside (as all of us view one another’s lives) I’m sure most people think I have a pretty charmed life and should find it easy to be content. And I do! I have financial security, a good marriage of 48+ years, fairly good health (having survived cancer and a life-threatening car wreck), three healthy children who have good jobs, four healthy granddaughters, several very close friends, and the opportunity during this later season of my life (I’ll be 68 in March) to pursue my dreams—writing and publishing books. During a 17-month period in 2017 and 2018, I actually had four books published, which is pretty amazing. I went on close to 60 events in 7 states speaking and signing books during those two years, and really had the time of my life. So why do I struggle with contentment?

 4 books 2

 

Psychologically speaking, I’ve been looking for the love I didn’t get as a child (from my grandfather, who molested me, and my mother, who was verbally abusive to me) my whole life. And no matter what I have, it never feels like enough. In some ways I’ve been like an orphan who isn’t sure where her next meal is coming from, so she hoards bit and pieces of food for the future. Metaphorically. I’ve always wanted more. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a cheerleader more than anything life had to offer. When I didn’t get it, I went after everything else. But all the other honors and activities (Secretary of the Student Body, acting in school plays and being a Theater Guild officer, being business manager of the school newsletter, eventually being a “Favorite,” “Best School Booster,” and a member of the Hall of Fame did not make me content. I wanted to be a cheerleader.

At Ole Miss I pledged what I considered to be the top sorority—turning down bids from other sororities—and was elected president of our pledge class. I was dating, and soon engaged to, the president of the senior class. And yet I never FELT like I was popular, successful, or loved. What was lacking? What was it I wanted and didn’t have? This was almost 50 years ago, and yet I can remember it like it was yesterday: I wanted to be skinny and beautiful. I wanted to look like the beauty queens. I was chubby and had eating disorders and was never content with myself.

Those issues followed me into early adulthood and middle age.

And then there’s my “career.” For the first seven years of my marriage, I worked mainly in administrative positions in various medical offices and businesses. I only finished two years of college, not wanting to borrow money to continue school while my husband was in medical school and residency. Once he started making money, I chose to work part time on and off while raising our three children, but I was mostly a stay-at-home mom. So, when our third child left for college, I decided it was time for my “career.” I got cancer right away, which derailed things for a little while. But then I was able to pursue my dreams. I started with painting—studying iconography and eventually leading workshops and teaching in my home studio. In 2006 I started writing seriously, not knowing it would be 11 years until my first book would be published. During those years, I published over a dozen essays in various journals and magazines, but I wasn’t content. I believed that publishing a book would bring contentment.

Friends and fellow writers tell me I should be proud of what I’ve accomplished in my late life career, and I am. Proud. But not always content, which is another thing altogether. I spent months several times during those years trying to get a literary agent, so that my books would have a chance to be published by one of the large houses and be read by thousands. When those plans never worked out, I ended up publishing with four different independent presses who don’t require agent representation—two academic and two small presses. And while my experiences with some of those presses have been wonderful, I’m still in the “small pond.”

fc7fbc8db64bcda844fb8ee3e61b65e6So I tried again last year to get an agent for my short story collection, and also my personal essay collection, but after several months, I lost patience and sent the manuscripts to more indie presses. Of course I’ll be happy to hear that either or both books get published, but I’ll still be in the small pond. I’m asking God to help me be thankful and CONTENT in that pond. And I’m trying to apply Colossians 3:23 to my work ethic:

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

At 67 I’m seeing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is these areas. And I’m hoping that by focusing on CONTENTMENT in 2019, I’ll find that elusive peace I’ve been craving my whole life. As I was writing this post, I found a post on my new One Word 365 friend’s Facebook page that said, “Which Bible verse will guide you in 2019?” I began to look for verses about contentment (here’s a nice list of 20) and found a couple that resonated strongly. I’ll close with my favorite:

“That each of them may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”—Ecclesiastes 3:13

What would be your ONE WORD for 2019? Whether or not you chose one “officially,” I hope I’ve inspired you to at least consider a goal that will bring healing and encouragement to you in the New Year.

The End of the Affair (?)

Hershey's bars 6 packI thought that when I quit drinking in September of 2017, that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Turns out it was just the tip of the iceberg. Turns out Kettle One martinis have nothing on Hershey’s milk chocolate.

Of course it’s natural to crave sugar and carbs when suddenly abstaining from alcohol, which is full of both. And on top of that, I’ve struggled with disordered eating all of my life—not just my adult life. Being molested by my grandfather when I was five, and then being emotionally and verbally abused by my mother most of my life—especially when she was drinking—left me with a messy battle with food, alcohol, and my body. I was hoping that breaking up with alcohol would fix everything. Turns out it was only the end of one affair.

In recent months, Hersheys Kisses moved into my life with all the force of a lover in heat. It started with only a few Kisses a day, not even every day. But then it escalated to whole bags of kisses, which I would devour without stopping, usually while watching something dark on Netflix, like Homecoming. When I mentioned my kisses binges to a couple of people, they laughed, not realizing the seriousness of my situation. One of my favorite essayists, Anne Lamott, a recovering alcoholic herself, seems to condone my habit, as she writes in her latest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope:

Chocolate with 81% cacao is not actually a food . . . . It was never meant to be considered an edible. [Note: AMEN!] . . . .

Don’t let others make you feel unsophisticated if you reach middle age preferring Hershey’s Kisses. So many of your better people do. Also, always carry a handful of Kisses in your backpack or purse to give away. People will like you more.

IMG_5704As I read those words, from someone who like me had ended her affair with alcohol, I wondered if I could enjoy just a handful of kisses without eating the entire bag. I thought back to when and where the attraction to the Kisses began. It was five months ago today—June 15—when I was speaking at the Alabama Writers Conclave Conference in Orange Beach, Alabama. I’m always nervous when I’m going to be speaking, and I was also teaching a workshop at this event. When I was drinking, I would shore up my courage with alcohol prior to any such event, but with that source gone from my life, I innocently picked up a handful of Hersheys Kisses from the snack table in the foyer of the building where the workshops and talks were being held. For two days, I returned to that table again and again, pocketing more and more handfuls of Kisses. (I wrote about this new lover in a post in September, “Disordered Eating Revisited.”)

Recently I wondered if I could slow my roll by switching from Hershey’s Kisses to Hershey’s chocolate bars. One bar had fewer ounces than the smallest bag of Kisses, so maybe I could wean myself off. The taste was just the same—the amazing texture and the instant comfort as the milk chocolate melted in my mouth and pumped its sweetness into my blood stream. I even found myself comparing the rush to that of a vodka martini at the end of a long day, when I’m in physical or emotional pain, nervous, or stressed. But just like the vodka, after a while one was not enough. I would purchase a 6-pack of chocolate bars—intending to eat only one a day—but I found myself eating all 6 in one sitting, more than one time. I knew I was in trouble.

Enter the Nativity Fast. What? Now you’re wondering if this is the same blog post I started out writing. In the Orthodox Church we observe the Nativity Fast from November 15 until Christmas. It’s similar to our experience of Great Lent—the forty days leading up to the celebration of Pascha (Easter). There are some rules/guidelines for fasting during this season, and the Church emphasizes that the point is spiritual growth, drawing closer to God, not just following rules. I’ve always struggled with this, but something I read a couple of days ago gave me pause:

Did not the Lord Jesus Himself begin His divine ministry of the salvation of mankind with a long, forty day fast? And did not He, in this way, clearly show that we must make a serious beginning to our life as Christians with fasting? . . . With this weapon, He vanquished Satan in the wilderness, and with it was victorious over the three chief satanic passions with which Satan tempted Him: love of ease, love of praise, and love of money.—St. Nikolai Velimirovich [quoted in Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints and Fasting Calendar 2018—the Orthodox Calendar Company]

Love of ease. Love of praise. Love of money. I struggle with all three of these. In my brain I can’t understand how fasting can help me let go of these, but I do know that I’m hungry and thirsty for something.

Anne Lamott on Hershey’s Kisses.

An Orthodox saint on the value of fasting.

What’s she going to write about next? (You know I read widely and search diligently for wisdom from many sources.)

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

With Sheryl St. Germain at the Louisiana Book Festival

Last weekend when I was speaking at the Louisiana Book Festival, I met an amazing woman. I was drinking coffee in the author’s lounge on Saturday morning, waiting for my 9 a.m. panel to start, when an attractive, colorfully-dressed, bright-eyed woman came in and sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out she was Sheryl St. Germain, winner of the 2018 Louisiana Writer Award. She would be presented with the award and would give a talk—you guessed it—at 9 a.m. in another room in the Louisiana State Capitol. The other members of my panel joined us on couches and chairs in a circle and laughed about how maybe some of the people who couldn’t get into her talk would find their way to our panel.

Sheryl and I had a short but intimate conversation. I fell in love with her immediately and felt a kindred spirit with her as a writer and as a human. She is 9 years sober, and has suffered great loss in her life, including the death of her son to an overdose. She wrote beautifully about this in her poetry collection, The Small Door of Your Death, which addresses issues of addiction and recovery. Sheryl directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University, but she’s a native of New Orleans. She is also the co-founder and director of the Words Without Walls Program, which offers creative writing courses to those incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail, and also to inhabitants of Sojourner House, a rehab facility for women with children.

I’m reading her book Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair right now. In this book she chronicles the time she spent in Alaska, drawing surprising similarities to her home state of Louisiana, but also sharing insights from living so close to nature. I’m remembering my own visit to Alaska about thirteen years ago as I read these words this morning:

Juneau lies on a thin strip of land at the mouth of Gold Creek amidst a backdrop of mountains and glaciers that push down from the Juneau Ice Fields, which native people called “Home of the Spirits.” The irony of this name is not lost on me; I’ve seen a lot of public drunkenness since arriving in Alaska two months ago. . . . I’m reminded that the old label for what we now call alcoholism is dipsomania, which means, ‘crazy with thirst.’ As I hammer—with difficulty—the final tent stake into this rocky soil, I wonder if the thirst I have for wilderness and for union with the land is not more deeply connected to my own thirst for alcohol than I have wanted to admit. [Note: this was before she quit drinking.] Carl Jung would write that the alcoholic’s craving for alcohol is the equivalent, on a low level, of a spiritual thirst for wholeness, a desire for union with whatever one understands as God.

There it is—a spiritual thirst for wholeness and a desire for union with God. Yes.

And later she says,

It’s no mystery that Christ’s blood is offered to us in the literal and metaphoric form of wine, and it’s no mystery that alcoholics are such spiritually thirsty people.

I was hoping to give up Hershey’s milk chocolate altogether during the Nativity Fast, and possibly forever. If I can quit alcohol, surely I can quit milk chocolate, right? But I’m wavering today . . . still clinging to the hope that I can just be moderate with it. Hoping that I can stop with one handful of Kisses or one Hershey’s milk chocolate bar. Yesterday was the first day of the fast and I did, indeed, eat only one chocolate bar. I knew better than to buy a six-pack. One day at a time. Stay tuned.

Feeding the Lake

Father Anthony Messeh

Father Anthony Messeh

A few days ago a dear friend (one of my Goddaughters, actually) shared a link to a podcast that really blessed me, so I’d like to talk about it here. The topic of the talk was OCD—but not the definition most of us probably associate with those letters (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

The speaker, Father Anthony Messeh is a Coptic Orthodox priest and pastor of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Church in Arlington, Virginia. (Sidebar: Read more about the Coptic Orthodox Church here. I’ve always personally loved their icons. You can read more about them, and their music, here.) The new spin he puts on OCD is this:

Obsessive COMPARISON Disorder.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Living with OCD Part 1

My friend shared it with me because I had just been talking with her and a couple of other close friends about my struggles in this area of my life. For my whole life, actually. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t always comparing myself to someone else, someone who seemed prettier, thinner, more popular, more successful, or someone who had a happier family, a nicer house, cooler car, more money, etc. When I was a freshman at Ole Miss, I was president of the pledge class of a top sorority, and dating (and soon engaged to) the president of the senior class of the university, who would be going to medical school the next year on a full scholarship. From the outside looking in, I had it all. But I wasn’t content. I kept comparing myself to the other girls in my sorority, even the other girls my boyfriend had dated (some of them were, literally, beauty queens) and I felt less than. From a psychological point of view, I understand that some of that was fueled by the dysfunction in my family, including my mother’s verbal and emotional abuse of me my whole life, and my grandfather’s sexual abuse of me when I was a little girl.

As I’ve grown emotionally and spiritually (and chronologically, at age 67) I’ve made baby steps in healing the disorder, but I still struggle with it. The way it rears its ugly head for me at this stage of my life has to do with my writing career. Just a few years ago all I thought I needed to be “happy” was to get a book published. Now I’ve got four published (and two more shopped out to publishers now) but I don’t have a literary agent, so I didn’t get a book deal with a large publisher for any of them. I’m stuck in a small literary pond, watching lots of my writer friends who are more “successful” than me—some are New York Times best-selling authors, and many (who have agents and publicists) have won awards and reached a much larger audience. I recently spent about six months querying agents (again) for my next two books—a collection of linked short stories and a collection of personal essays. After many rejections, I’ve “given up” and have submitted both books to small presses (which don’t require an agent). I’ve decided to be content—and thankful—if either or both books get published by these presses, which are very reputable and will be good to work with. I’m making up my mind to enjoy this little pond I get to swim in, remembering that Madeleine L’Engle said, “We all feed the lake.” (more on that at the end of this post)

thankful2

 

Close friends tell me how much I have to be proud of, and I get that. I’m working hard and loving what I’m doing, but I’m also realizing how much more I want to experience contentment. A recent experience I had at confession helped. For my non Orthodox friends, the sacrament of confession in the Orthodox Church is (or can be) a very therapeutic thing. It’s not juridical. It’s doesn’t make us “right with God.” It helps makes us right with ourselves. If your priest is a good confessor, as mine is, he will help you see the ways you are hurting yourself or others, and how to move towards healing. The best advice I received recently had to do with being thankful. And I’m finding that the more I practice thanksgiving, the more content I am. I have an incredible number of things to be thankful for in my life, and as I focus on them instead of focusing on what others have that I want, I attain peace. It isn’t a once-and-for-all thing. It’s something I have to return to every day. Sometimes many times a day.

Contement is not chosen

 

One thing Father Anthony talks about in his podcasts is the way that social media amplifies this problem. The things that people post on Facebook or Instagram (my two go-to social media sites) are usually their best selves. Their accomplishments. Their beautiful families, vacations, homes, meals, children, etc. Bombarded with this, it’s hard not to compare myself with them. Father Anthony recommends taking a time out from social media, or even considering quitting it altogether, but I’m unwilling to do that at this point. I have too many good connections there with friends who live all over the country, and I don’t want to give those up. But I do want to respond differently to the multitude of posts that tend to make me feel less than. Instead of feeling jealous, I am working to be genuinely happy for other people’s successes. And I truly am happy for so many people I’ve come to care about and respect and even love.

 Father Anthony takes this issue a step further in his second podcast, Fighting FOMO Part 2. “FOMO” is “Fear Of Missing Out.” I don’t experience this as much as younger folks might, but sometimes I do, when I read about people I know who are doing fun things that I wish I was also doing. I have an 83-year-old friend who has shared with me much about the good changes we can expect with aging, including contentment with a quieter, much less “exciting” lifestyle.

 So, I’m going to continue to fight OCD with thankfulness, and jealousy with genuine joy for others’ good fortune. I’ll close with these words from one of my favorite authors:

 “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

The Zosima Society, Collective Wisdom Project, and the New Hagiography

zosima society IG imageI recently came across Andrew Herman Middleton’s Facebook and Instagram pages, known as “The Zosima Society.” He also started a Facebook group called “Orthodoxy and Culture,” which currently has 288 members. The description for the group is:

This is a place to discuss how Orthodoxy influences culture, and what kind of culture is beneficial to the Orthodox spiritual life.”

Andrew’s Facebook page is “Orthodoxy + Arts” and his page description says:

“An international network of Orthodox Christian non-liturgical artists. Previously OrthArts.”

CB on Zosima SocietyAndrew features non-liturgical artists, musicians, and writers who are Orthodox in his Instagram posts, and has recently begun a series based on my novel CHERRY BOMB, which features an Orthodox monastery, church, nuns, saints, and even weeping icons. He uses the hash tag #zosimasociety for each post, and featured the first one for CHERRY BOMB on Monday, August 6—the Feast of the Transfiguration. Here’s what his post looks like (left). Follow him on Instagram for future posts.

He is also host of the Protecting Veil You Tube Channel, home of the “Collective Wisdom Project.”  Here’s a recent interview he did with Father Stephen Freeman, “Why Did You Become Orthodox?” Andrew hopes to be in Memphis in the next few weeks and has asked me for an interview, so stay tuned.

I’m not sure how he balances all of these projects, but Andrew also has a site called “New Hagiography” which is “the ancient indie folktronica project of itinerant musician Andrew Herman Middleton.” So, what’s the New Hagiography about?

Ancient holy men and women played an important role in the history and development of Western culture, but knowledge of many of them has been  forgotten. Who were these intriguing figures, what animated their lives, what were their hopes and dreams?

New Hagiography retells their stories, beginning with the flowering of Celtic Christianity in 5th century Ireland.

A note about terminology: iconography refers to painted images of Christ and the saints; hagiography refers to the writing of their stories with words.

I’m so happy to have found Andrew and his projects, and I hope that other non-liturgical Orthodox writers, artists and musicians will join him in sharing their work at #zosimasociety.

Transfiguration: People Can Change

Transfiguration1-e1353430693909Today is the Feast of Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church. (Read about this feast at the icon here.) I went to Vespers at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis last night, which was beautiful. The icon of Transfiguration at dusk made the reality of what was happening on Mount Tabor more tangible, which is one of the things I love about the Orthodox Church. It offers an embrace for all the senses, with prayerful chanting, incense, and the glow of candlelight on the gold leaf halos of the icons. I wasn’t feeling well this morning, so I didn’t make it to Liturgy for the feast. But at home I prayed before our icons and thanked God for the way He is transforming me into His image, which is what this feast is all about

Eight years ago I wrote a post about this:

“Can People Change?” (Click on the link to read the post.)

And then six months ago, on my birthday (March 8) I did a follow-up post:

“Birthday Musings: People Can Change” #sixmonthswithoutadrink

I don’t really have much to add today, except that I am full of joy and thanksgiving for the way that God is helping me to change as I grow older. In case you aren’t taking time to click on one of the links above and re-read those posts, I’m going to share my favorite quote from Dr. Jamie Moran’s essay, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in the book, Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World:

People who leave a space for God—even for the ‘hidden’ God, which is what the Holy Spirit is: God’s humility—can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.

Dormition-of-Theotokos1I love that this feast comes half-way through the Dormition Fast, because the Mother of God plays a big part in our transfiguration, in our change. In his homily yesterday Father John Troy (Mashburn, our pastor emeritus) talked about healing, and how we must come to Jesus for healing, or someone must bring us to Jesus. I started thinking about HOW to bring people to Jesus for healing, especially if they don’t physically come to church. I remembered what my “yia-yia” Urania Alissandratos told me years ago when she was still living and “mothering” so many of us at St. John. When her children left home for college, she would “bring them to God” by symbolically bringing them to the Mother of God and leaving them in Her care. She did this symbolically by decorating her icon on the solea at church with flowers every year on the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Mother of God. At Vespers last night, I found myself praying for loved ones who weren’t there by bringing them to the Mother of God, mentally, spiritually, even physically and emotionally as I wept tears for them. We all need healing, and I know several people who have “brought” me to Christ and to His Mother for healing over the years. I hope that I am paying that forward by bringing others to Him in my prayers. I look forward to another opportunity to do that tonight, as we pray the Paraclesis Prayers to the Mother of God at St. John.

Rebranding Prayer and Mindfulness Revisited

Last night I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up, did some writing on the computer (not a good idea when Church Health Readerone is having trouble sleeping!) and then read for a while. Finally I went back to bed around 3:30 a.m., but my mind was still buzzing. The last time I looked at the clock it was close to 4 a.m. I remember falling asleep with the Jesus Prayer going through my mind and heart. Why didn’t I try that first, before getting on the computer and reading? Why didn’t I think to approach my insomnia and monkey mind with mindfulness?

Earlier in the evening I had gone to a different sort of book event. Two Memphis authors—Suzanne Smith Henley and Greg Graber—discussed their books at the first ever book reading and signing at Church Health Center at Suzannethe Crosstown Concourse. I went because of my friendship with Suzanne, whom I’ve known since 2011 when she attended a creative nonfiction workshop I led at the Fogelman Center on the campus of the University of Memphis. I was also in a writers group with Suzanne for several years, and I was honored to be an early reader for her book, Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New. I did a review of the book here on my blog back in March, and a review on Amazon, Rehab, Heart Attacks, and the Holy Spirit Riding a Harley.” It was fun hearing Suzanne talk about her book again, with her unique perspective on the use of prayer beads and what she called “rebranding prayer.”

GregGreg Graber is the head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School, and a mindfulness coach for the Memphis Grizzlies and several other sports teams. He spoke about his book, Slow Your Roll: Mindfulness For Fast Times. Greg also leads mindfulness workshops at the Church Health Center on Saturday mornings. His message about slowing down in this age of smart phones, tablets, and social media is timely and important, and can be incorporated into the lives of people of all faiths.

Suzanne and Greg were introduced by Dr. Scott Morris, founder and CEO of Church Health in Memphis, the largest faith-based healthcare ministry of its type. He’s a physician and a United Methodist pastor. I picked up a copy of the Church Health Reader Scott(Summer 2018, Volume 8, Number 3) while I was at the event, and was interested to read Scott’s article, “The Way of the Pilgrim.” Scott writes about his experience in college and beyond practicing transcendental meditation (TM). He says, “Even though I liked how it calmed my mind, I didn’t feel grounded in anything that was about God.”

He goes on to write about how the Jesus Prayer opened him to a Christian form of mindfulness:

When I first tried the Jesus Prayer with Henri Nouwen, it immediately seemed like TM. I just replaced om with the short prayer…. Years later I picked up a little book—it was only about three inches long—titled The Way of the Pilgrim…. I needed to try something, so I said to myself, ‘Start praying.’

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’

These days we hear less about the Hari Krishnas and TM, but mindfulness and meditation are widespread and have proven health and spiritual benefits. Many people of faith use mindfulness practices for the same reasons I’ve used the Jesus Prayer all these years—to let go of everything that clutters our mind and be fully present in this moment, to be present in prayer, to experience it more clearly, and perhaps to find God waiting there.

There’s also an article in this issue of the Church Health Reader by Tim Stead titled “Mindfulness in the Christian Tradition,” which addresses the differences in the Buddhist approach and the Christian approach.

And another article by advanced practice psychiatric-mental health clinical nurse specialist Jane Slatery, “Will It Really Make Me Feel Better?” It’s about the research on mindfulness and medicine.

Some of these articles are available online (the ones with links) but others are only in the print edition. SUBSCRIBE to the Church Health Reader HERE. I just started my subscription and am looking forward to future issues. Join me?

Icons Will Save the World

My friend Dr. Joanna Seibert invited me to contribute a guest post to her beautiful blog, “Daily Something.” She’s doing a series of reflections on quotes and images, and I was honored that she included an excerpt from an essay I had published eleven years ago in First Things, “Icons Will Save the World.” Here‘s the post, with the excerpt:

“Icons”

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

Nave of St. John Orthodox Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is mentioned in the excerpt

 

static1.squarespace.comI can’t remember how I first met Joanna, but we’ve been friends for many years, and have visited both in Memphis and in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she lives. She is an emeritus professor of radiology and pediatrics at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences and has been an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas for sixteen years. Joanna is the author of numerous books including, The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for Busy People and The Call of the Psalms, a Spiritual Companion for People in Recovery, Healing Presence, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food as Seen by a Mother and Daughter, and a two-volume series of sermons, Interpreting the World to the Church.  She has been a writer for Forward, Day by Day, and has been a frequent contributor to the Living Church, and the Anglican Digest.

Subscribe to Joanna’s “Daily Something” and enjoy her inspirational quotes, art, and meditations.

Read more about St. John Orthodox Church, which is pictured above.

 

Authentic Happiness

NYM_top1I just scored a 3.08 on a scale of 1 to 5 on the Authentic Happiness Inventory designed by folks at the University of Pennsylvania.  The score reflects my overall “happiness” compared with others in my age group, zip code, education level, gender, and occupation group. Although I think it’s interesting that “writer” isn’t even listed as an occupation, so I checked “artist,” the closest option to my occupation. Why did I take this inventory?

This morning, with my morning coffee, I read an article in the recent issue of New York Magazine, “The Cure for New York Face,” about Professor Laurie Santos’s new course at Yale University, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life. I was struck by the statistics—especially among people who seem to have lots of “reasons” to be happy, from an exterior point of view. Of course there’s lots about two things that seem related to our “happiness”—time and money, and how we value them and spend them.

In Praise coverSome parts of the article reminded me of the wonderful little book I read recently by Alan Lightman, In Praise of Wasting Time. I bought and read this book a few weeks ago, primarily because its author wrote the Foreword to the anthology I edited that was recently published by University Press of Mississippi, Southern Writers on Writing. Alan is from Memphis, but teaches at MIT now. A physicist. And a novelist. Interesting combination, and he brings both of those gifts to bear in his book, and his TED talk.

Last fall I did a post about Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, “Moments of Happiness.”

Last March I did a post reflecting on a Wall Street Journal article, “Two Types of Happiness.”

The same month I read and reviewed Daphne Merken’s book, This Close to Happy.

Five years ago I was blogging about an article in Psychology Today: “Mindfulness Does Not Lead to Happiness.”

And six years ago I wrote this one: “Permission to NOT Be Happy.”

Are you seeing a trend here? And yet, I do feel that I am “happier” now that I was six years ago. And I’m actually a bit surprised that I didn’t score higher on the Authentic Happiness Inventory. But I do tend to be quite honest and in touch with my feelings. From a spiritual point of view, I sometimes wonder how important “happiness” is, as opposed to what seem to be deeper states like “peace” and “contentment.”

thOne thing I found interesting in the New York Magazine article was the author’s comments about money and happiness. His study showed that $75,000/year seems to be the salary “scientifically proven to provide the maximum amount of well-being.” So, he noted that in one study people making $30,000 a year were asked what salary would make them truly happy. The average answer was $50,000. But people making $100,000 a year said, on average, $250,000 would make them happy. Maybe it’s the old adage that the more we have, the more we want. I’m thinking about this now, not in terms of financial success, but with my writing career. Five years ago I was working with a New York literary agent (whom I would later part ways with) on my novel, CHERY BOMB, wondering if it would ever be published. When it came out last year—with a small press in Mississippi and not with one of the “big five”—I was “happy” to be published. It was a lifelong dream finally coming true. Actually, having three books published last year was pretty amazing. And a fourth this month. So, why is it that I still want “more”? Why am I now querying literary agents again (for my linked short story collection) rather than submitting it to an academic press?

the-quest-for-authentic-happiness-460x291I put this question to a very spiritual person whom I trust, and he encouraged me that it was a normal progression in my career to desire this next step up. That I wasn’t being obsessive about “success” in an unhealthy manner.

And yet I find myself praying—yes—for more success. My novel is entered into two prestigious writing contests and I’m waiting to hear the results this summer. Would I find a greater level of “happiness” if it wins one of those awards? Or even makes a short list or becomes a finalist? Of course I believe that would make me happier, but is that a superficial goal?

Again, I’ve been struggling with this for years, as these posts show:

“I Want More” (from 2016)

“We Want More” (from 2013)

It IS interesting to read those posts now, as someone who quit drinking almost nine months ago. I still want MORE (potato chips, chocolate, and—in conflict with those cravings—a skinnier body) almost every day, but I take encouragement from the fact that I was able to tame my out-of-control desire for more vodka, and hope that eventually the strength (and God’s grace) that enabled me to do that will cross over into other areas of my life. Like food. And contentment in my career.

I’d love to hear from my readers about your take on happiness. And if any of you take the Authentic Happiness Inventory, please let me know what you thought about it. Meanwhile, have a great weekend!

#Lent2018: Sassy Counterpunches—Chiseling a Crack in Despondency

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the sixth and final entry in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first five posts and would like to catch up, here they are, in order from first week through fifth:

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

Gratitude & Thankswriting

Confession & Community

Labor & Leisure

For some reason Nicole skips Chapter 6, “Prayers From the Present,” altogether in the study guide that she created to go with the book. I read it before reading the “assignments” for this week, and found some treasures within:

One of the snares of despondency is to assume that more is always better…. [we] somehow get an idea in our minds that we should be praying longer harder, more intensely. We forsake the virtue of knowing ourselves—and our limitations—and cling instead to our fictional superselves.

This was an important “takeaway” for me from the book, because in years past I have gone to one extreme or another (which is my nature) during Lent. Some years I have rebelled against the whole endeavor, and other years I aimed too high. This has been my best experience of Lent in the thirty years since I’ve been Orthodox. Undoubtedly one reason is that I quit drinking six months ago, so this is my first alcohol-free Lent. But also, I’ve approached the season with a kindness towards myself and others that has permeated my Lenten practices—fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. So, when I read in Chapter 6 about what Nicole calls “counter-statement,” I embraced her approach of using short phrases from the Psalms or short prayers throughout the day to “counter” the temptations life sends our way.  As she says:

There is also an aspect of counter-statement that is lively—even sassy. These prayers are quick, punchy, and purposefully confrontational. They carry an energy all their own, helping to reignite the vigor despondency all but stifles.

Sassy prayers. I like that. It reminds me of the little quote I have taped to the lamp beside my computer that says, “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning the devil says “Oh crap, she’s up!”

oh crap shes up

 

I see these sassy prayers as a wonderful tool for what Nicole addresses in Chapter 7, “Stepping Stones Back to the Present,” where she talks about shifting toward “everyday strategies to mitigate despondency’s stranglehold on our lives.” This is the chapter where earlier she addressed humility, patience and perseverance, gratitude, confession and community, and labor and leisure, all of which I commented on in previous posts. This final week she surprised me by including humor as the final stepping stone. As she says,

The virtue of humor is likely among the last items one would expect to find in a book on despondency—which is why I’ve saved it, literally, for the end of this book…. humor helps us recover the vitality despondency robs us of.

And within the topic of humor, she addresses laughter:

Simultaneously, laughter causes an upsurge of energy within us. Riding on the wings of laughter, our soul can jump up through the cracks of our defenses and grab hold of ideas we would otherwise reject or overlook…. Adopting a more playful attitude toward ourselves and our shortcomings pulls us out of despondent thinking more swiftly than any other approach. It’s not a permanent solution, of course, but even a few seconds’ smile is enough to get our foot in the door of our own mind and start to redirect it toward the heart.

laughter-is-carbonated-holiness-2Anne Lamott calls laughter “carbonated holiness.”

I have a dear friend who has Lewy Body Dementia. She’s younger than me, but the disease has already taken away her ability to perform many of life’s everyday functions. She used to have the best sense of humor of most anyone I know, and I miss her laugh. So each time I visit her, I make a point of finding something humorous to say. And once she starts laughing, her whole countenance changes—from the dark, scary, negative images that the disease is pouring into her mind, back to the funny woman I once knew. I try to help her find some happiness, if only for a few minutes.

It might seem strange to be talking about humor and laughter during the last week of Lent and just a week before we enter Holy Week. (Or for my Catholic and Episcopal friends, as you enter Holy Week today.) But I think Nicole makes a good case for its proper use in our spiritual lives, as well as for our mental health. As she says at the conclusion of this chapter:

Wise humor chisels a crack in despondency just wide enough for our souls to slip through, get some fresh air, and see the bigger picture.

biblical10

 

In the final chapter of the book, ““Re-presenting Reality,” Nicole brings us back to the focus, to the reason for all the talk about despondency to begin with. We are preparing to enter into the celebration of Pascha, of Christ’s resurrection:

. . . not to commemorate the Resurrection, as though it were (only) a historical event, but to re-present it—to make Christ present among us as a living fact…. Likewise, we live in the present only inasmuch as we abide in His presence.

This is why so many of our Paschal hymns use the present tense, with phrases like, “Today is the day of resurrection,” and “He is risen!” The Orthodox celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection aren’t just remembrances. We enter into His suffering, and then into the joy of His resurrection in the services of Holy Week and Pascha. As Nicole says:

. . . let us have the courage to profess with St. Paul that today is the day of salvation—not two thousand years ago, not happily ever after in heaven, not when we finally manage to get ourselves sorted out, but today. . . . This is what we lose when we retreat into the slow, apathetic death of despondency. And this—all of this—is what we stand to regain when we return toward home and let the scales fall from our eyes.

#Lent2018: Confession and Community

Time_and_Despondency_cover_1400_px_wide__59137.1514922981.1280.1280-193x300This is the fourth in my weekly series of reflections on Nicole Roccas’s book TIME AND DESPONDENCY: REGAINING THE PRESENT IN FAITH AND LIFE, which I’m reading during this season of Great Lent. If you missed my first three posts and would like to catch up, here they are:

Gratitude & Thankswriting

To Re-spond or De-spond?

Patience and Perserverance

In Chapter 4, Nicole writes about our tendency to escape the present—to avoid our current circumstances, whether it be work, dealing with a difficult situation, relationships with other people, or anything that brings discomfort or requires effort. When we are despondent, we want to escape place and people, which is why confession and community are both important to consider at this juncture. We become restless, and we try to escape in three realms: physically, mentally, and spiritually:

The uncertainty of the present moment confronts us with an ever-unfolding reminder that we are not God, that we are not the masters of our own universe, that there are things we cannot choose or control. Whatever the present looks like at any given moment, there are only two possible ways of responding to it: to enter or exit it, to respond or despond.

Acedia

 

 

Of course one of the primary means of exit—of desponding—that I fall into often involves the physical act of gluttony, or “emotional eating,” as well as over-indulging in television and laziness in general. And one that she mentions that surprised me but makes perfect sense, is “unnecessary busyness.” I love being busy, and I’m sure I use busyness as an escape at times. This might sound confusing as I know I’ve heard that being active is good medicine for depression, but I think that healthy activity and excessive busyness are two different things.

Nicole Roccas, authorNicole goes into depth to expand our understanding of ways to mentally escape the present, including the understanding of two primary roots of despondency in the mind—desire and anger. As a creative (writer) I’ve always struggled with any idea of having my desires and passions stifled by the church. But understood correctly, I don’t think that’s what she is saying here, as she quotes the Dutch Catholic theologian (and one of my favorite writers) Henri Nouwen:

Spiritual disciplines are not ways to eradicate all our desires but ways to order them so that they can serve one another and serve God.

And what does she say about anger?

The anger of despondency is the anger of thwarted wishes, of reality not aligning with our silent demands—the anger that covers the pain of a lifetime spent trying (and failing) to be one’s own god.

So what does all this discussion about living in the present and not escaping it have to do with confession and community? I really like how she tied the importance of community in with our battle against despondency:

The relational context of confession reminds us how vital it is to cultivate fruitful community in the midst of despondency, which continually pulls us toward isolationism.

journal 1Her discussion and reflection questions helped me to reaffirm my commitment to do more spiritual (and not exclusively secular) reading during Lent, to participate as often as possible in the weekly services at church, and to continue to struggle against my tendency to escape with food/gluttony when I’m uncomfortable living in the present.

As she did with the previous chapter, Nicole gives us “Stepping Stones,” in this case, for confession and community: participate in community; initiate community; and learn to see confession as medicine. She asks the reader to consider one way to exercise the stepping stones this week. I hope to reach out to friends and neighbors who have special needs, initiating community and keeping despondency at bay.

P. S. I am really finding blessings in keeping my “thankswriting journal,” which I wrote about in last week’s post and began last Monday night.

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