Posted in musings

depression and hope in psalm 88

The Psalm for Compline on Fridays (Psalm 88) is one of the darkest in Scripture. The author is in intense agony, holding onto his faith by his fingernails, clinging to a truth he can no longer feel or see clearly.

The exact conditions of his suffering are not revealed; all we know is that he is close to death and feels overwhelmed by the anger of God. “I am reckoned as one in the tomb: I have reached the end of my strength,” he writes, and “imprisoned, I cannot escape; my eyes are sunken with grief.” I have considered, for years, that this psalm of all the Psalms most accurately depicts the anguish of deep depression, as it aligns well with the interplay between faith and mental illness that I have experienced in certain seasons of my life.

Looking at the psalm now, however, I am noticing far more hope buried within it than I had seen before. Even as the psalmist feels alone, abandoned, and rejected – even as he claims that his “one companion is darkness” – still, he is in conversation with God. He has not succumbed to the silence of despair. He protests, he pleads, he questions, he presents a case: so at some level he still trusts God to hear him and to respond. The darkness of his circumstances and the pain within him to not cause him to give up his faith or to turn away from his God; instead, he brings his suffering to his God and proclaims implicitly, even through his complaints, the depth of his faith and the fierce fighting strength of his hope.

Make no mistake, it takes ferocity, determination, and endurance to be able to say with one breath, “Your fury has swept down upon me; your terrors have utterly destroyed me” and with another, “As for me, Lord, I call to you for help: in the morning my prayer comes before you.” It takes hope with deep roots to persist through that kind of suffering. And yet the psalmist holds fast. Even in the darkness, even in the overwhelming flood of his anguish, even though he cannot honestly say that he believes a better time will come and that God will give him the help he desires, he has the strength to continue to cry out to the Lord.

It does not make a person less of a Christian, less a follower of God, to be so surrounded by pain and darkness that they cannot visualize or verbalize the realization of their hope, or proclaim the promises of God in faith. What reveals the hard, true core of their faith is that they hope enough to continue to cry to Him even when it seems that no answer or succor will come.

Posted in musings, sqt

{sqt} – learning to pray (again) and celebrating a birthday

  1. One of my favorite short Harry Potter fan fictions, Sanctuary by Sheankelor, centers on a Severus Snape who is deeply, devotedly Catholic, and follows him through the war and its aftermath (Snape doesn’t die from the snakebite in this story) from the perspective of his parish priest and friend, who is also a wizard. The way faith is woven into the fabric of his life as he balances the demands of his dual role in the war – how it influences every decision he makes even as it remains hidden to protect his church community, how it is his source of strength when the strain of staying in Voldemort’s good favor is overwhelming (especially in the final year when even his former allies and fellow teachers are convinced he is against them), how it provides him with a pathway of repentance and renewal and lifelong conversion – it is simply beautiful, and utterly inspiring. If you like Harry Potter and aren’t averse to fan fiction I would definitely recommend it.
  2. Partly inspired by Sanctuary, and partly because trying to pray the liturgy of the hours on my phone proved to be too distracting, I used my birthday present from my Grandma to buy the one volume version of the liturgy of the hours, Christian Prayer. I think it is going to take a while for the structure of the prayer to become more natural, so that I can focus more on the substance of the prayer, but I love the ritual and beauty of it. I especially appreciate that the book contains not only musical settings for the recommended hymns (most of which I didn’t know and had to skip on the iBreviary app since I wasn’t raised Catholic!), but also has tonal settings for the antiphons, psalms, and canticles! It is so nice to be able to sing the psalms with a guide instead of making up something on my own and winging my way through it (especially since I am not particularly good at coming up with my own chant tones…). And I am hoping that I can make these prayers enough of a natural habit that I can begin to share them with my family, since they are ultimately designed to be prayed communally.
  3. In other news, Limerick turned five this week! It’s hard to believe he’s so old already when he’s still so small and snuggly sometimes – but on the other hand, it does make sense considering he can read fairly well and is comfortable with multiplication and division… but I suppose a bit of back and forth like that is to be expected in early to middle childhood. He’s expanding his interests a bit as he grows older, also: instead of just numbers, he’s now interested in numbers, the solar system, and climbing 🙂 One of his favorite games these days is to pretend he’s changing the size of the planet he’s on and acting like he’s experiencing the resulting changes in gravity.
  4. For his birthday, as he’d spent weeks resolutely proclaiming that he wanted no party, no presents, no people, and no cake, Paul and I took him to the Phoenix Rock Gym while my mom watched Rondel and Aubade. (While they don’t advertise this on their website, kids under 6 are only $5 for a day pass including gear rental, and it’s completely free to belay. So it was quite affordable for Limerick and I to take turns climbing with Paul as our alternate belayer!). He did so well, especially considering it was his first time doing that type of climbing. We spent about 2.5 hours climbing together – he would give a trail 3 tries and then take a break while I climbed one – and he got about twenty feet up several times but was a bit too nervous to climb higher. And he liked it enough to want to go back!
  5. Towards the end of our climb, another climber had a seizure and woke up extremely disoriented (he started fighting the EMTs and had to be restrained to go to the hospital 😦 ). It was really hard to watch. The man who was one of my closest mentors in junior high and high school was a rock climber, and passed away 9 years ago from brain cancer; needless to say, he had a lot of seizures along the way. So I was already in a place saturated with his memory, and then witnessed a reminder of the illness that left him vulnerable and hurting and ultimately took him away. And I felt so bad for the stranger suffering that day, and missed Mike so much at the same time, and thought about the man who represented strength and toughness and running the race of faith with endurance being so utterly helpless and out of control, and there was nothing I could do about any of it except to pray.
  6. It did leave me thinking about prayers for the dead. This is very much not a Protestant teaching, and it’s also not something I’ve spent a lot of time studying from a Catholic perspective. I understand praying to the saints – we know they are in heaven, we know God gives them the ability to hear us, intercede for us, and sometimes even respond to us. But most of the dead that we knew personally aren’t canonically recognized saints, although they very well could be in heaven rather than in purgatory – and that uncertainty makes me unsure of how to pray for them. At least I have the assurance, with Mike, that he was striving for Jesus and trusting his soul to the mercy of God. The pain of the death of a loved one without that knowledge must be so much sharper and more desolate.
  7. I suppose that in that case, as in the case of anything that seems hopeless or in the face of any call to despair, prayer is the only support we have left. It is the one unbroken thing in this broken world: because the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groans that cannot be uttered when our own words fail; because Jesus Himself stands before the Father on our behalf when our sin leaves us again in need of His mercy; because through the cross there is always an open door for us to come as supplicants, as worshippers, as beloved children into the holy of holies where God Himself hears our weak and feeble voices with understanding and with love. Of course the Apostle Paul tells us to pray constantly, when prayer is such a gift!

Join me over at This Ain’t the Lyceum for the seven quick takes linkup this week – and if you have thoughts on prayer, please do comment with them; I would love to hear from you.

Posted in musings, sqt

{sqt} – spring will come again

As the seasons fall toward winter, my emotional center falls with them. Even in the midst of good, happy things; even when I feel genuine gratitude for the blessings in my life and joy for the beauty around me; even when I have hope for the future and time spent in prayer – even in all those things, guilt, insecurity, anxiety, and sadness well up within me in this season.

a single stalk of grass fluffy with seeds about to fly

I’m not sure why this is – it could be the drop in temperature, the slowly shortening days, or the impending holidays (which for me really start on Halloween – we don’t have a week without something extra from then through Epiphany, since four of our birthdays are added to the mix).

But at least this year I am aware. I remember the way the wave of depression carried me away last fall, how it caught me unawares and vulnerable, how much I struggled through the next few months as a result, and was unable to lift my head up to see the beauty and feel the wonder and share the joy of Christmas. (I’m really much more of an Advent person – the waiting, the longing, the expectation, the melancholy and sorrow at the brokenness of the world tempered only by the hope of the coming Savior – but I think Heaven is going to be more like Christmas, the fulfillment of hope, the fullness of joy, and I ought to be preparing my heart for that eternal home – )

Looking towards the sky through the changing leaves of the maples

And now – I am being intentional. I am taking time to pray (more than before, but still far short of what I ought, what I need.) I am making time to exercise. I am pacing my efforts with the kids, letting good be good enough instead of demanding perfection from any of us. I am growing green in my garden, the rich riot of life a balm for my soul (yes, our seasons are all different here). I am resting in the beauty and freedom of nature, bringing the kids where they can explore away from the structure and restraints of the city, where we can learn to love the earth we live on, where we can find the secret treasures of the untamed spaces.

Limerick walking along a mountainside trail with a walking stick, like a hobbit journeying through the Shire

These things do not make the struggle go away. They do not lessen the pull of the undertow. But they help give me the strength that I need to keep my head above the water. It is an interesting strength, that I find in these times, through this intentionality, not a strength of fire and sparks, of passion and heat, of bold courage and drawn swords. It is more the strength of the tree, that bends in the face of the wind so that it will not break, that learns to grow sideways to endure the forces against it.

Wild grass, golden in the autumn sunlight, seed heads full and ripe over green stalks

It is even, I hope, more the strength of the grass, that sends down its roots deep into the soil, and its runners far-spread around it, and its seeds to every corner on the wings of the wind: by every means ensuring that when the fire blackens the land it will rise again from the ashes, that when the snow cuts off the sun it can wait for spring to come again.

I’m joining the SQT linkup today even though I don’t actually have seven things, but hey, Kelly is bending the rules too and it’s her blog party so I think it’s ok 🙂 Head over to This Ain’t the Lyceum to join in!

Posted in family life, musings, quotes, sqt

{sqt} – some awesome saints, and other thankful things

I’m linking up with Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum today – head over and read the other quick takes!

  1. Right now, I’m so thankful for the communion of saints and for the wisdom of the church in setting up set days to remember them! I’m thankful for St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day was earlier this week, and her reminder to me that all that matters is to love God – and that I can love Him completely and faithfully in each small, tedious, mundane act of service and duty that I do. I’m thankful for her example of perseverance and submission, accepting the waves of life as God brought them and honoring the human authorities over her.
  2. I’m also thankful for St. Francis, who we celebrate today, and his radical yet simple life of faith. How could I not want to learn from and follow in the footsteps of a man who saw and respected the beauty and dignity of all nature without succumbing to the nature-worship of the ancients or the romantic poets, who received visions from God but interpreted them so literally that he may have been autistic and certainly appeared foolish, who embraced that foolishness and transformed it into complete humility, who designed his own way of life and faith yet never broke fellowship with the institution of the Church, who lived in utter poverty and served the least and the forgotten? When a person’s prayers are preserved 700 years after their life and still ring with deep resonance and passion, that is a person I want to emulate and honor, whose prayers I wish to echo.

“I pray, O Lord, that the fiery and sweet strength of Your love may absorb my soul from all things that are under heaven, that I may die for love of Your love as You deigned to die for love of my love.

St. Francis, prayer to obtain divine love
  1. I’m thankful also for the warrior saints – for the angel Michael, who we celebrated on Michaelmas, and for his legendary archetype St. George fighting the dragon. Life can seem so big and demanding and overwhelming to a child, like the dragon loomed large over St. George, but in the saint we find inspiration to fight our dragons, to get up and try again even when we are knocked wounded to the ground, until they are finally slain. Like Michael fighting demons to bring the message of God to Daniel, using his strength and courage and valor to persevere in obedience, so we can summon up those traits (by the grace of God, and by practice and growth) to fight back the temptations to fear, laziness, anger, and any other vice that besets us. We read an illustrated rewriting of Spencer’s version of St. George and the Dragon this year, and it has given both the boys and myself extra motivation to endure in doing good even when it is hard. We know there are dragons; it is good to be reminded that they can be killed.
  1. I’ve been thankful for the weather recently as well! The heat broke and several days of rain blew inland from a hurricane, just a couple weeks after I seeded for the fall garden season, so all the little plants are doing beautifully and the sweet potatoes (which had to be started in the summer) are absolutely thriving – I’m trellising them so the vines don’t take over the garden beds and the vines are at least six feet up the trellis already.
  2. The kids were also so excited about the rain, as it’s such a rare occurrence here and the monsoons were weak this summer. We went on walks all around the neighborhood to enjoy it, Aubade splashing in every puddle, Rondel searching for treasure along the way, and Limerick challenging my strangeness by biking around barefoot in pajama pants and a winter jacket…
  1. There have also been some hard days recently – my moods and autistic sensitivities both oscillate based on a number of factors including my monthly cycle, and irrational guilt plus social anxiety plus hair-trigger sensitivities to certain sounds or touch does not make for a pleasant time. But I am so thankful that Paul understands and supports me through those times. He might not relate to it at all, but he knows it’s a struggle I have and he carries the extra weight of it when I can’t without ever making a big deal about it or drawing attention to himself. He doesn’t get upset when I hide by myself in a curtained side area during church service instead of sitting with him on days when I can’t tolerate the people around me. He makes time for me to rest and then makes sure that it happens when I need it. In short, he is always showing me love.
  2. And finally, I’m thankful for prayer and the Word and a God who draws near to us and longs for us to draw near to Him. I’m thankful for the sacraments: for the physical and tangible things God uses to convey His grace, like the mud and spit He used to give the blind man sight, and the waters of baptism that cleanse more than just our bodies. I’m thankful for His plan of redemption, for the hope that all broken things will be restored and that the glory to come will outweigh the suffering of the present, for the opportunity to say yes to His will and be a part of making all things new.

What are you thankful for this week? I’d love to hear the good things God is working in your life, whether it’s in the weather or a book or a relationship 🙂

Posted in musings

unity of mind and will

In college I read quite a bit of Kierkegaard – some was assigned for my freshman honors seminar, and I kept going from there – and one of the major themes that has stuck in my memory since then is single-mindedness. I always find it challenging to quote succinctly from Kierkegaard, since he did not write in easily divisible points but in arguments crashing over and rolling underneath each other like ocean waves at the shore, and it is necessary (or at least highly recommended) to read a whole discourse to grasp the end to which all his words were tending. So in that light I would encourage you to read “Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing” – but I will also attempt to include some short excerpts.

In that particular discourse, Kierkegaard began by contemplating the words of James: “for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anythings from the Lord.” (James 1:6-8). Those are concerning words to anyone who looks inside themselves and sees the draw of our desires and thoughts to multiple things: a desire to be loved, or to be respected, or to gain power, or to accumulate wealth, or to live comfortably, and so on. We try to follow God while part of our heart gazes mournfully off to the side, complaining and trying to persuade us to take a different path; we avoid the unseen and tedious acts of faith like daily prayer and Scripture reading while continuing to perform the outward acts of church attendance and token service; we pamper and comfort our bodies instead of ruling over our physical desires and denying them for the sake of the good; in short, we love God with only part of our mind, part of our heart, part of our soul, and part of our body (cf. Matthew 22:37).

Shall a man in truth will one thing, then this one thing that he wills must be such that it remains unaltered in all changes, so that by willing it he can win immutability. If it changes continually, then he himself becomes changeable, double-minded, and unstable. And this continual change is nothing else than impurity. […] In truth to will one thing, then, can only mean to will the Good.

Soren Kierkegaard, “Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing”

For of course, the only unchangeable One is God, so the only one thing that we can will, the only single purpose and direction we can have that doesn’t change through the seasons of life and even past death, is God Himself. The Psalms are continually pointing that out, after all. “Whom have I in heaven but You?” the Psalmist asks, “And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides You.” (Ps. 73:25). And again, “One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple.” (Ps. 27:4). Those are the words of a heart truly desiring God above all else and choosing to seek Him alone, not the changing passions of the body or the changing ideals of human culture.

What I have been realizing, stumbling through the Psalms and the Epistles in ways clearly not of my own planning, remembering that lingering philosophy, is that it is not easy to be single-minded, to have unity of purpose within myself, to truly and honestly will one thing in heart and mind and body and soul. I can say that I want the Good but be too cowardly to act on it when confrontation (or even just conversation) is warranted, showing that my will is also for safety and peace. Or I could be too undisciplined to pursue the Good diligently, again showing that I also desire comfort and convenience. And all the time I should be striving to say with the Apostle Paul that “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Father in Heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! What is all his striving, could it even encompass the world, but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee: Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all! So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. […] Alas, but this has indeed not come to pass. Something has come in between. The separation of sin lies in between. Each day, and day after day something is being placed in between: delay, blockage, interruption, delusion, corruption. So in this time of repentance may Thou give the courage once again to will one thing.

Soren Kierkegaard, “Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing”

But as Kierkegaard reminds us, there is help from the Spirit along the way, and the chance for repentance to choose to set aside our sin once more and attempt again to follow God with unity of mind and with totality of self. Our salvation is not a single prayer to cover all time, but a lifetime of learning and growing and choosing to walk in the path of the Lord, desiring Him and loving Him with all that we are, setting aside all that distracts and unifying all that is good and helpful into that greatest Good of all.

Posted in musings

walking by faith: because coping with mental illness is like striving for a virtuous life

When you live with a mental illness, you get a lot of practice at redirecting the pathways of your thoughts. Sometimes it’s as simple as stopping and taking a deep breath when the first hint of an unhelpful emotion or mantra wafts in; other times it takes repeated corrections, minute by minute, guiding your thoughts out of the road they want to travel and into a different pattern.

“He’s angry at me”, my mind says – and I have to force myself to look at the facts of the situation, remember he didn’t sleep well last night, so maybe it makes more sense that he is angry at something else or just tired and not showing positive emotions well.

“I can’t do anything right”, it says again, and I have to list off the things that have gone right in the past hour, no matter how small they are, and put the mistake in perspective: I fed the kids a healthy breakfast, I got a shower, I got everyone to speech therapy on time with activities prepared, and it’s not the end of the world if they only have socks on and their shoes are sitting at home…

“You’ll never be worth anything, they’d all be better off without you”, it repeats, and I have to turn the feelings inside out, repeat what I believe in the core of my being about the innate worth and dignity of the human person, remember the irrational and inexplicable unconditional love of a child, pray for the strength to run my race with endurance as did the saints who suffered and died for their faith, lift up my head like a superhero knocked down but not out once again.

The emotions are harder to deal with, being by nature less specific of a difficulty. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is covered in a gray mist, blocking out the color and the joy and the reason to try, and all you can do is make your way from one task to the next, drawing on reservoirs of strength you didn’t know you had, waiting for the sun to break through again. Sometimes guilt (or self-loathing, or whatever the word for it is) attacks like a fistful of knives in your brain, and you hold your breath through the mental pain and then, somehow, inhale again and lift your face to the fight once more. Sometimes everything you take in is edged with inexplicable sadness, the inverse of a silver lining, and you embrace the beauty anyway, despite the bittersweet twist in your heart.

And what I’ve been coming to realize, lately, is that this turning away from the easier path into downward mental spirals and unhelpful thought patterns, and this setting of my feet so carefully and unsteadily in new ways of thinking, is really very similar to the process of living a virtuous life. Here is my fear, dissuading me from some act of charity or justice or faithfulness – now I must turn my thoughts aside from that path, from the rationalizing of my cowardice, and take an action I very much do not have the emotional support to make. And in the act, I make it that much easier to choose courageously in the future. There is my anger, snapping out at the people I love, roughening my edges to sharp and jagged lines, giving me hurtful words to hurl – now I must close my mouth, count to ten, pray for peace and gentleness and self-control, try to look through another’s eyes, and eventually even try to speak in kindness and in calm. And in the act – in every time I try, even if I do not entirely succeed – I train my mind and will to not fall so automatically into the pathway of that vice. It’s rather a daunting thought, knowing that I have both sanity and virtue at stake here 😉 – but on the other hand, what practice I will have at it! And with God near at hand with His grace and strength, and the community of saints present to encourage and guide me, I have hope that my practice (in both arenas!) will not be in vain.

Posted in musings

on abortion and disability

I’ve noticed lately an uptick in the discussion on abortion among my online friends and on the radio; I’m pretty sure it is due to some recent state laws (or proposed laws) related to the topic, but I have been avoiding political topics like the plague recently for various reasons so I don’t know the details. So I am not planning, here, to go into legal details. I don’t know what is best from a pragmatic perspective, balancing the needs and rights of every person in a far-from-ideal world full of broken and sinful people and circumstances.

But a lot of the arguments I have seen remind me of the atrocities commemorated every March 1st on the Disability Day of Mourning. There are parents who believe that their children’s lives will be not worth living because of their disability, who think it would be better if they didn’t live at all then live with that suffering, and quite logically decide to kill them. There are reporters and juries and judges who believe that the burden of care and support placed upon these parents by their disabled victims somehow makes their crime less heinous and more deserving of leniency and compassion. None of these parents wanted a disabled child, after all. Their entire lives were overturned and their expectations and plans were dashed because of these children’s existence. And since the victims weren’t going to have great quality of life anyway, due to their disability, surely we can all identify with their parents and the hard decision they made stemming from their grief and anger and stress (again, all the fault of the victim). On the Disability Day of Mourning, the disabled community remembers these victims, speaking their names, attributing to their memory the individual worth and human value that they were denied in life.

And when I read what my friends have to say in defense of abortion – focusing on the pain and grief of the mother, on the brokenness of the situations that most commonly lead to abortion, on the emotional and physical caregiving demands placed by the fetus on an unwilling parent, on the potential for child abuse and poor quality of life for the unaborted child – it makes me think that if we (as a society) can say these things about the killing of the unborn, it won’t be long before we can say them about the disabled. Because yes, all those points are true and valid and need to be addressed, but they do not invalidate the humanity of the vulnerable and needy and young – of the child who did not ask to be conceived, or to be born with a disability, but who as a result of the brokenness of the world finds herself in need of care and support with no open and loving arms extended to her.

How do we love and support those who unexpectedly find themselves parenting a special needs child with no clue of how to handle things – or who find out they are pregnant and know they have no resources to raise a child? How do we protect children whose parents sink into abusive or neglectful behaviors because they are overwhelmed by the support and care necessitated by their child’s disability or believe their disabled child to be less valuable or deserving of love – or because they never wanted a child and are suddenly pregnant and have no love to give to the child of a rapist or abuser? Whatever the best answer is, I’m fairly sure it doesn’t involve killing those children, anymore than it would involve killing the adults who find themselves in parental positions they are inadequate to cope with. We need to reach out with hands gentled by our own knowledge of the brokenness of the world and of each human heart, and smooth the troubled path before the feet of these parents and their children: sometimes to guide, sometimes to lend a helping hand over obstacles in the way, sometimes to carry, and sometimes to chart a splitting of ways. And at the same time, we need to make sure that the amount of support a person needs – the extent of their dependence on caregivers – does not impact the value we ascribe to their life.

Otherwise, we end up attempting to erase a problem by erasing a person.