>Scootch, Scootch, Bog, or Grace (Eventually)

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I was in Little Rock yesterday, with my best friend and her daughter, Hallie, who turned 16 the day before. After lunch, I picked up my friend’s youngest son, Ian, from school and he and I visited at Starbucks while we waited for his sister to take her driver’s test. Waiting was fun… for me, at least… I’m not sure how fun it was for a 9-year-old to be stuck at Starbucks with a 56-year-old woman…. but we found common ground. Ian loves books and theater and art. We discussed the importance of book covers. Of getting a college education even if you’re going to Hollywood to direct films. This is Ian at Seagrove Beach last March, painting a picture of a sea otter.

Anyway, around 3:30 Hallie arrived at Starbucks with a big smile on her face. She got it! Freedom. Independence. All that a driver’s license represents. Which brings me back to prayer, because that’s what her mom is going to be doing more of as her first-born hits the road in her own car today. This is me and Hallie at Starbucks. Oh, and that’s my new (winter) hat from Salahie. It’s felted wool, crushable for packing, and so warm. And that’s Hallie, texting her friends about getting her license.

But before we get back to prayer, I must wish my daughter, Beth, a HAPPY 25th BIRTHDAY today. Yes. My BABY is 25! See how they run… She’s finishing up her first semester of architecture grad school at UT.

That’s me and Beth at Seagrove in April. And now you see why I wear hats… that wind gives you what my mom always calls a “bad hair day”… perpetually, at the beach!

And speaking of running, another of my (successful overachieving) Goddaughters, who is pregnant and due in April, is running the St. Jude ½ Marathon here in Memphis tomorrow! Stacy lives in Nashville, and she’s been training for a while. This is one of her personal goals. These young women are all so amazing. See how they run…. This is me and Stacy … you guessed it, (dancing) at Seagrove Beach last November! And here’s one of Stacy and Jared at Seaside that night.

And finally (you’re probably thinking)… back to prayer. Wednesday I wrote about Met. Anthony Bloom’s wonderful book, Beginning to Pray. Today I’m writing about another of his books on prayer, Living Prayer. These books are just full of spiritual pearls, so it’s really hard to just write short little excerpts from them, but maybe it will make you want to get the books and read them. It’s not formula prayer. It’s about going inside and having a relationship with God. But first, it’s about finding our real selves. Here are some excerpts, from Chapter VIII, “The Prayer of Silence”:

In social life we have a variety of facets to our personalities. The same person appears as one in one setting and quite different in another, authoritative in any situation in which he commands, quite submissive at home, and again quite different among friends. Every self is complex, but none of these false personalities or of those which are partly false and partly true, are our real selves to such an extent as to be able to stand in our name in the presence of God. This weakens our prayer, it creates dividedness of mind, heart and will. As Polonius says in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

So, how do we find the “real self”? (said the Velveteen Rabbit to the Skin Horse)
We all know that there are moments when we are nearer to being our true selves; those moments should be singled out and carefully analysed in order to make an approximate discovery of what we really are. It is our vanity that usually makes it so difficult to discover the truth about ourselves; our vanity in itself and in the way it determines our behavior. Vanity consists of glorying in things that are devoid of value and of depending for our judgment about ourselves, and consequently for our whole attitude to life, on the opinion of people who should not have this weight for us; it is the state of dependence on other people’s reactions to our personality.

Bingo. I’ve been a slave to this my whole life. How do we get free of this? The answer isn’t easy to hear. Even harder to do.

Humiliation is one of the ways in which we may unlearn vanity, but unless it is accepted willingly, humiliation may only increase our hurt feelings and make us even more dependent on the opinions of others…. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, fertile ground. The fertile ground is there, unnoticed, taken for granted, always there to be trodden upon. It is silent, inconspicuous, ark, and yet it is always ready to receive any seed, ready to give it substance and life. The more lowly, the more fruitful….it has accepted the last place and cannot go any lower. In that position nothing can shatter the soul’s serenity, its peace and joy.

A few weeks ago I blogged about “soul chatter”… I think there’s a connection here. The opposite of soul chatter is silence….

The Greek Fathers set this silence, which they called hesychia, both as the starting-point and the final achievement of a life of prayer. Silence is the state in which all the powers of the soul and all the faculties of the body are completely at peace, quiet and recollected, perfectly alert yet free from any turmoil or agitation…. Another simile… used by the Fathers is that as long as the mud which is at the bottom of a pond has not settled, the water is not clear and one can see nothing through it…. As long as the soul is not still there can be no vision, but when stillness has brought us into the presence of God, then another sort of silence, much more absolute, intervenes: the silence of a soul that is not only still and recollected but which is overawed in an act of worship by God’s presence; a silence in which, as Julian of Norwich puts it, “Prayer oneth the soul to God.”

I know that’s a lot to take in. Which is why both of these books, Beginning to Pray and Living Prayer, are classics, to be read over and over throughout life.

Now this might seem like a huge leap, but I am reading everything I can find by Anne Lamott right now. It started with Bird by Bird, her excellent book on writing. And now it’s her latest, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. What I love about Anne is her truthfulness. And humility. (Well, except when she gets on a rant about politics, which I wish she wouldn’t do so much because I think it lessens the beauty of her work and surely it doesnt help her inner peace….) Grace (Eventually) is a bunch of essays about life and faith and struggles. Stuff we can all relate to—some of us more than others, depending upon what your struggles are. She’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and openly admits to having had several abortions. She’s a single mom raising a teenage son. She found Jesus along the way and writes about her relationship with Him with tenderness and awe. And gritty candor. Her chapter, “The Muddling Glory of God,” is full of all of this. She describes the steps (incredibly patient) she went through to get her young son to sleep in his own room in a new, large, and to him, spooky house. It was a process, starting with him in a sleeping bag on the floor by her bed. Then by her door. Then out in the hall. Down the hall. Eventually he had the courage to sleep alone in his room. She drew a beautiful parallel of this process with her own life:

That’s me, trying to make any progress at all with family, in work, relationships, self-image: scootch, scootch, stall; scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch…. Clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in silence, in the dark. I suppose that if you were snatched out of the mess, you’d miss the lesson; the lesson is the slog.

Then she describes an emotional crisis in which she was assaulted by temptation to break her sobriety. (She’s been sober 20 years now.) As all of us who struggle with addictions know, they just take turns assaulting us. Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Food. Spending money. Here she describes the demon of gluttony attacking her:

Within minutes I was on the edge of full-on food binge, assault eating. I couldn’t even remotely find my way back to the path that I’d relied on for the past fifteen years, the path of feeding myself when I am really hungry, trusting my own appetite, and staying at the same weight without too much painful obsession. I was starting, and nuts.

I prayed for God to help me find my way out, and what I heard was, “Call a friend.” But something edgier was speaking more loudly, and I pricked up my ears at the sound, even though an old man at church once told me never to give the devil a ride. Because if he likes the ride, pretty soon he’ll want to drive. It felt as if someone determined and famished had taken the wheel….

And I did discover an important clue—that whenever I want to either binge or diet, it means that there is some part of me that is deeply afraid. I had been worrying about Sam (her son) more than usual, and only partly because he had just begun to drive….

All I could think to do was what every addict thinks of doing: kill the pain. I don’t smoke or drink anymore, am too worried to gamble, too guilty to shoplift, and I have always hated clothes-shopping. So what choices did I have? I could go on a strict new diet, or conversely, I could stuff myself to the rafter with fats, sugars and carcinogens. Ding, ding: we have a winner.

She goes on to describe her food/sugar binge… not a pretty picture, but one that wasn’t altogether unfamiliar to me. Maybe also to some of you reading this. Afterwards she summoned the strength, and humility, to do the right thing: she called a friend. Or two.

I told them that I was lost, and fat, and had once again, in trying to give myself comfort, turned to the wrong thing. That I’d been binging all day.

Oh, honey, they both said. Oh, bubbie. How can we help you?
Telling helped a little. It felt as if maybe the worst was over. “But why didn’t my faith protect me?” I asked one friend.

“It did,” my friend pointed out. “You found your way out of danger—and disgust—through humility, and even confession—to the love of safe people. Now you are safe again.”

“You’re a hero to me,” my friend continued. “You struggled through something really miserable. You told the truth, when it’s so tempting to cover up and disguise it. You said, “This is the mess of my life, and I need help.” And now you are being helped.

Grace arrived…. When I woke the next morning, I felt more kindly toward myself…. The spirit lifted me and now it holds on lightly, like my father’s hands around my ankles when I used to ride on his shoulders….

I have a friend like hers. One who doesn’t judge me. One who helps me when I fall. This bog, bog, scootch stuff is hard. Which is why we need the wisdom of the Fathers, like Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. But also the wisdom of beautiful human beings like Anne Lamott, who is learning the lessons about humility and sobriety and sharing them with compelling narrative in her essays and books. I haven’t read her fiction yet, but I’ve bought Blue Shoe, which sits on the table by my chair. Waiting. Like my novel, which has been waiting for me to come back and revise it, again. Maybe I will some day. For now, I’m more about the non-fiction stuff. I think I need to get a better handle on how to be a Real Person and write about Real People before I can make up Pretend People with any believability. Picasso was a master realist painter before he did the abstract stuff, you know.

There’s a great interview with Lamott here (in Christianity Today.) I love what she says about her novel, Blue Shoe:
‘I wanted to write about a character who is a Christian and yet not the kind of Christian that you might encounter at a Christian bookstore,” Lamott explains. “Somebody who is crabby—you know, like me—and lusty, and a mess, and a true believer.”

That’s how I want to write ficiton, too… sigh. (To have her gift.)
Happy scootching. And remember, the lesson IS the slog.

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