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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Poetic Last Days

As I used to post poetry of some form in the end of the month, I thought it was a good time to resurrect the occurrence:

We all know the sensation,
The tug, below the heart.
The sound, whispered in our ear.
The gaze we settle into.

Is it a call, we wonder?
Where to?
From whom?
Yet, no answer sought.

No, no name given.
No face to describe.
No reply must be voiced,
The message is in the life.

Eyes covered, mouth closed,
Yet, senses alive and burning,
We go!
Step out into the wonder.

Something calls us,
Come and hunt!
Come and see!
Come to me.

It burns in our veins,
Faster, perhaps you will,
Catch up.
If only this matter could defy,
The laws of earth.

Oh, and how we sigh!
Such beauty, such joy.
No wind has felt this free,
No rain has felt this fiery,
No sea has felt this surge,
No mountain has known this height.

Gain, gain ground!
Move, act, drive!
Cannot be still one moment,
The heart beats too fast.

Nearly spent, and yet,
No end in sight.
No exhaustion,
No sleep.
Just go, and seek.
Find, and know.

Ah, the limits of language,
Like the limits of matter,
Giving the necessary form,
Yet, so unable to go!
The ache to explode and fuse into,
The yearning to truly share, to give,
To know by the most interior way,
To be the other.

We cannot escape the skin.
“Love” will ever be defined,
As the world will let it be.
As we attempt to live it.
As we weakly strive to share,
As we meekly seek to give,
As we vainly die to self,
As we mock the words we say,
As we belie our words in actions,
As we serve the self instead,
As we turn it all inward,
As we cover the ears and eyes,
Yet wag the tongue ongoing.

We reach the same edge,
The same view greets the senses,
The cliff,
The precipice.

The call we see,
Comes over the sea,
The sea of self,
The mind and heart.

Do we unbridle?
Do we release?
Are we so free, so real, so alive,
That we are at peace?
So able and so sure,
As to fall?

We cannot have both.
Die now, and live,
Or live, and die.
Jump, and give,
Or stay, and wither.

Some say irony,
Others paradox,
Yet, it is so logical.
A call from inside should not,
Be answered inside.
Whom do we speak to there?
No, the call must be spoken,
And known,
And shown,
And given to another,
So that the reply,
Is an answer,
So that the response,
Gives relief.

Limits of words,
Flesh and bone,
Are not shared,
By heart and soul.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The One and Lonely

Ah...where to begin.

I was at mass one day in the not-so-distant-past, and heard the priest quote Blessed Mother Teresa as follows:  
"The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.

Perhaps you want to reread that statement a few times, because I am confident that whoever you are, in whatever situation or state of life you find yourself, there is something in you that completely agrees with her. We have all been in a place of poverty such as this. Certainly, the level of suffering in this form varies from person to person, and even from period of life to another period of life for one person.

Yet, there are a few important things that can be gleaned from reflecting on this further. The first is to consider what it means to be "lonely." Loneliness can be understood as both a feeling and a reality. One can feel alone while not actually being alone. And I believe one can also be alone while not feeling alone. However, it is usually the saints who seem to manage the alone - but - feeling - so - comforted - by - God, and it is the rest of us who tend to find ourselves in some state of depression. Now, feeling alone certainly does not mean that one is depressed. (Depression is an actual illness, which has numerous stages, and can last from a very short time to becoming a chronic state. I do not feel qualified to talk about it because I know very little about psychological struggles, so I defer to people with actual degrees in that field.) However, if we are feeling alone, especially when we are not actually alone, it is something that we may need to work on.

From experience, I will share a time when I felt immensely isolated. I was a college student, with some very good friends, and a rather busy life. All logic would argue that I should have been anything but lonely. I was away from my family, but it was not so dramatic for me to constitute the feelings I was experiencing. I felt particularly burdensome, as if all of my friends had to endure my company, even while they wished I would go away. Or I would feel unwanted, as if my friends were tolerating me out of kindness, but in reality were anticipating my departure at all times. These feelings naturally drove me to be less-present around people, because I did not desire to inconvenience them. Therefore, I would plan my lunches to be after most people had left the cafeteria. To me, this meant there would be a nice empty table where I could eat in peace, and it would mean that others would not have to awkwardly make space for me at their table, all the while glancing at one another in that telling way, revealing how they wished I had victimized some other table that day. I also chose to do most of my homework in isolated places. Of course, I had the guise of "I need quiet to focus," but in reality, being near others seemed like a constant state of rejection-ism. I would read for class in the laundry room since no one ever went there. I would take walks by myself at night, just to get away from my room.

Eventually, all of these lonely and sad feelings culminated in a particular moment of confession. I went to the Sacrament with no intention of expressing my struggle, as I did not really see the loneliness as being sin-related. However, the Lord knows so many things that we do not, and right before I went to confession, I had an interesting experience while praying. I felt cold and dark all around me, closing in and cutting off my senses. I felt the most intense isolation. I did not feel isolated from God, thank goodness, but I felt isolated from life. It was as if I knew the Lord was present, holding me as he always does, and yet, I could not get to him, or reach him, or feel him.
So I took this all with me to confession and did what I normally do not do, which is talk to the priest about something non-related to confessing sins. Fortunately, he had wise words for me (which I cannot recall for the life of me). From that point on, I began to experience a turning-around of this period of loneliness. I certainly found that my prayer seemed far more fruitful after that day.

This is all interesting to me, because when I look back at it, I feel like I am recalling a movie I once saw, rather than remembering my own life. I am not typically someone who struggles with loneliness at all! I feel very blessed by my friends and family, and always surrounded by kind support and generosity. But this experience has led me to understand others' struggles at times that I would normally not understand, and that is a gift. Further, it has made me grateful to the Lord for the times when I do feel loved. As with so many things, it is not until we lose something or nearly-lose something, that we really understand how precious it is to us.

So, I stated that loneliness is a feeling and a reality. Blessed Mother Teresa would certainly have witnessed both. I spent about two weeks with some of her missionary sisters in Awasa, Ethiopia, and in that short time I came to realize just how raw the life of the MC's is. These women speak of pain and suffering not as philosophers, theologians or even just as intuitive women; they speak from experience, from heartache, and from consistently standing in the threshold of life and death. Most of us imagine that the end of life is going to be the most painful, challenging, and frightening time of our existence. Since I have not been to that point yet, I cannot really say. However, I have lived among women who spend the majority of their time each day being present with many people who are in that time of passing from life to death. Many of the people they assist are complete strangers. They literally find men and women, young children and even babies, right outside of the gates in the evenings. They have malaria, aids, and other infectious diseases. They have collapsed. They need water, and if they were in the States, they would be on IVs for days, simply combating the malnutrition and dehydration. Yet, there in Ethiopia, there is not that kind of help or care for them. So they come to the Sisters, just hoping to lay on a cot with a woman who will hold their hand while they face the great and mysterious time of passing over. For women who see this and bear this in their hearts every day, to speak of suffering is to speak of a familiar friend.

When Mother Teresa says that poverty is greatest in loneliness, it is because it is a kind of poverty that is very hard to enrich. One can buy the hungry man a meal, and the cold man a blanket. One cannot buy the lonely person comfort. One can only be with them. Further, being with that suffering soul for a short time, or just one day, will not appease the physiological hunger they experience for love. They need consistency. They need a life with a family, or at least a friend, who can witness to them the physical representation of the love that God holds for them. While God's love for them never abates, never abandons, never falters, the actual knowing of that love must come in varying forms. We cannot live on bread alone, and we also cannot live in our minds alone.

We need the soul, the body and the mind to be fed. We need physical presence as much as we need kind words and conversation, and then of course prayer. It is not surprising that if we feel disconnected and unsupported in the natural order of life, in our community, family, friends, and church, that we would struggle to have a connected and strong prayer life. While cognitively we may know that God is with us, and perhaps in faith we do believe in his love and presence with us, the majority of us need more than only faith to be assured of our in-relationship-existence. And this relational existence is so very imperative, as it is the natural order in which we were created (we come into existence dependent on another human being for our life).

So this all begs a further question, whether we are experiencing the loneliness or whether we know friends or family who are - what do we do about it?

First, we should determine causes. Perhaps it is an estrangement from a particular friend or family member that has been the root of these feelings. Perhaps it is a particular sin that we do not feel forgiven for, even if we have been to confession for it. Perhaps we are quite literally alone, due to travel or our living situation. Perhaps it is the death of a loved one or some other more dramatic separation that has thrown these feelings into sharp relief. Perhaps we are feeling lonely simply because we have begun a habit of being lonely. Consider the idea of loneliness as a poverty; a poor person is often poor because of a loss of job, a lack of opportunity for education, or unexpected expenses that drain the budget. However, the poor person is always faced with the decision to try to do something about the poverty, or to live with it. Granted, many cannot do anything about their situation, due to many social, cultural and even natural circumstances. But for those who can, it is incumbent upon them to seek work, to seek assistance, and to strive to change the situation. I think this can be said for the person who feels trapped in loneliness.

This moves to the second point - action. Depending on the cause, there are appropriate responses to the problem. If the feelings are mainly psychological, and are not remedied by the presence and company of family and friends, than the person needs to consider seeking medical help, and possibly spiritual help too. A good spiritual director or confessor may be able to help the person with emotional and spiritual healing, and a psychologist will be able to help the person in the physical and psychological (and emotional/spiritual too, as we are the union of body and soul) way. Seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of or fearful of; what is wrong is to allow the feelings to eat you up until you are too weak to fight back. That can lead to very sad events. If the cause is something along the lines of a dramatic event, like the death of a loved on, than the person needs to address the issue further. If they feel alienated principally from the person who is gone, they may want to pray for peace and also pray for the soul of their loved one to be with God. That person may also need to accept that this loneliness, while not needing to take over his or her life, may not go away until many years later. When we lose someone who was a part of our daily life, it is natural that the adjustment requires time to heal. But the person may also want to seek out help in the above mentioned ways, especially if the feelings are crippling.

What about those who are literally alone, even if the feeling of being alone is not the major suffering? This is a more common occurrence than one may realize. Typically, the first image that comes to mind is an elderly person in a nursing home or even in his or her own home, but without much company or with few visits from family or friends. However, while this is certainly a reality, the issue of isolation in a literal sense reaches even further, right on down through the generations. Many young adults today, for example, live alone due to jobs. Many have friends, families and coworkers who are not too far away, but in their immediate homes, they are alone. They mainly cook for themselves; they shop for themselves; they save for themselves. It is not to say that these young adults are not generous or charitable, for often they are the first to give of their means. However, as creatures who begin, from the moment of conception, existence within a familial structure, even for those who seem unaffected by the isolation, the burden of that secluded lifestyle can be intense.

These people, and the many of different ages who share in the same struggle, must be proactive in seeking out a remedy. For young adults, this may mean finding (a) roommate(s). Specifically people who they are comfortable with, or at least able to be in authentic friendship with. This may also mean finding a specific family or other group of friends with whom they can set up an established dinners with or other social events that allow for consistent fellowship and community. Further, finding a homeless shelter that needs volunteers, a nursing home, a rectory where the priests do not have a cook, or a religious order who do not have a cook are all ways that can allow for a more familial atmosphere in the common day to day life of the single person. For those who are older and perhaps immobilized, writing letters and cards, making phone calls, and inviting others to come to visit will encourage the presence of friends and family who often are sadly distracted by the business of life. For all people who experience the physical, literal isolation, seeking out the Lord and the family of the Church through personal prayer, Eucharistic adoration, parish novenas and holy hours, and of course, frequenting the Sacraments will give a real and tangible aid to the heart, soul and body.

I may yet need to write a second post following this one, for I find that I have reached a point of many words. However, let me reiterate once more what Blessed Mother Teresa said, "The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved."

I urge each of us, in our own way, to open up our hearts, hands and homes to those who suffer in this poverty. It may be through friendship, it may be through inviting someone for dinner, it may be through visiting someone who is ill or immobilized, and it may be in many other various forms. However, while all of these physical and tangible ways are necessities, we must not neglect prayer. We must pray for those who suffer in this way, especially in the most extreme cases. I will never forget Miss Edna, who I am sure is in heaven now, who I met in Jamaica. Blind, in her nineties, and totally alone, this tiny and frail woman did little else than pray the rosary. In a dramatic way, it was through her eyes that I first comprehended the suffering of loneliness in its most potent form. We must pray for the many who suffer quietly, unknown, and who do not expect relief. May the Lord in his mercy, knowing loneliness so dramatically on the Cross, comfort his children in a special way and hold them ever close to his Sacred Heart.