09 October 2013

A Journey Begins With.....

-- Claude Debussy, "Claire de Lune for Flute," featuring James Galway

Looking at the title of this reflection, the majority tendency might be to complete the sentence with the words, "A Single Step."  We have heard this any number of times, and it is part of the public domain of sayings.  However, it is not what I had in mind.  

I am suggesting that:  "A Journey Begins with a Possibility."

To take a step is to engage an action that purports a destination or intention.  While not a universal truth, most journeys have marked intentionality.  My thesis is that, before the first step is ever taken, one must go deep enough within to perceive a possibility from which...at a later time...a step can be taken whose destination may turn out to be very different than the possibility suggested.

I know.  Again, this might sound like some philosophical mumbo-jumbo.  It's okay.  Should you bear with me, I'll work though this a bit.

Hi, I Was A Rigorist

When I was doing graduate theological studies, I was in my mid-20s and had moved through a great many shifts and changes in the seven years leading up to entering seminary.  Our dad had died suddenly (heart attack) just two months prior to my graduating from high school.  I made a shift in college locations to be closer to home, so that I might be more present if our mom needed me.  After spending several years preparing for a potential medical career, I suddenly (and literally) awoke to the realization that I did not want to spend the rest of my life doing that.  A struggle ensued internally... and with my suddenly chaotic academic career...from which I emerged with the vocational track that I had least expected.  In fact, it was the farthest possible track from anything I had imagined in my life to that point.  

If that was not enough, the interlude (or creative three years) between college and graduate studies was occupied as an enlisted specialist in the U.S. Navy...doing the kind of work I would never had expected that I (of all people) would be doing.  Thus, when I found myself at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, WI (27 miles due west of Milwaukee), I had developed a highly managed style of being who I thought I was becoming.  Make sense?

In other words:  Being an Episcopal Priest surely meant that I had to be a very "put together" and disciplined practitioner of the theological and spiritual arts.  I took this emerging craft very seriously.

I embraced the fundamentals of biblical, theological, liturgical and prayer disciplines so tightly, that several of my classmates would quip, "you are such a rigorist."  I didn't take those words too seriously...until about ten years later.

In early December 1987, our mom died.  Her death was relatively sudden.  Three weeks earlier, she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Her death was from a pulmonary embolism that doctors believed originated in the area of the pancreas.  I was certainly not prepared for the avalanche of both emotions and resultant chaos of events that shattered my highly "disciplined" interiority.  In essence, I crashed.  With two exceptions, no one around me realized this was happening.

In all of that, I did manage to have the good sense to, a) have a very good spiritual director, b) talk with my bishop about my spin-out, and, c) seek help from a very gifted psychotherapist.  The latter actually was one of those Grace points that gets sent at just the right time.  

It was in the psychotherapist's office that a whole new journey began.  On my second visit, she was running a few minutes behind schedule.  As I waited, I was browsing their resource room, which was full of books and materials.   My therapist came to fetch me to her office and, as we ambled down the hall, she said, "When I entered the resource room to get you, you appeared to me like a solitary eagle...unsure of your destination or purpose."  Nothing more was said until we sat down in her office.

Her first question to me, in her office, was, "What do you most want to be in your life?"  To my utter shock and amazement, I blurted out this response:  "A saint!"  She was silent for a moment...a twinkle in her eye and head tilted in amusement.  "How is that working for you thus far?"  My second response was more of a surprise to me than the first: "Frankly, Marian, the whole thing sucks!"  (the exclamation marks in my responses correctly emphasize that I was both fast and forceful in those responses).  I was very close to tears in that moment.

I cannot rehearse the year that followed that office visit.  Several major events reshaped me from my core outward.  I had an encounter with the Holy that almost literally spun me around and shifted my internal orientation in a way that made my theologically rigorous style unworkable.  It reshaped how I prayed, how I studied, how I did my entire craft as a Christian and Priest.  The theophany type experiences (two) can't be described, but they were powerfully experienced...opening a door I never knew truly existed.  

Hi!  I Was Obsessive-Compulsive

I actually do not know which is more problematic:  being a rigorist or being obsessive-compulsive.  The latter is a term used by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known simply as the DSM with the edition number behind it.  The DSM5 has just been recently published).  What came out of my therapeutic journey was a clinical diagnosis of "mild OCD."  It manifests as anxiety regarding the ordering of my environment and having everything in proper order.  It's that low-level anxiety I spoke of in a former blog posting...like a nervous energy.  If one would look at my desk, one would not think OCD.  Look a bit deeper or know what projects I have going, and the drive for order, surety of accomplishment and having operational details fully arranged becomes obvious.

One of the effects of retirement is that I no longer have charge of a large system that engages a diverse and large number of people on several levels simultaneously.  My mild OCD made it possible for me to do that without generally seeming rushed or harried.  It was like the juggler spinning a row of plates on sticks.  I could do that in my vocational craft and make it appear relatively easy.

There is a toll exacted in ongoing obsessive activity.  Like an engine running at constant overdrive, parts will begin to deteriorate over time.  Even though I could have gone longer, something deep within clearly engaged me by saying, "Shift now!" The possibility emerged, and the journey began.  I retired.

Retirement is not a shift into neutral.  I suspect it could be for some.  We certainly have that image in our cultural imagination.  The Bishop of Southwest Florida (who has known me for about 30 years, and this being the diocese in which we now live) said this to me at lunch in early June, "I know you well enough that you simply can't park yourself on the sidelines..."   Though I hadn't given it much thought, I immediately knew he was correct.

Hi!  I Am Simply Me.

Remember the tune, "Me and My Shadow?"  Part of growth is recognizing that we have a "shadow self." It is that part of us capable of doing the things that we might normally find distasteful or ethically & morally objectionable.  For instance: speaking a lie, being hostile or angry, death wishes, cheating, stealing, etc.  If we are attempting to live a balanced and "upright" life, we may deny that those parts of us even exist.  If we are able to admit they exist, we may spend a huge amount of energy trying to will them into total submission.  We tell ourselves such things as, "I can't let myself think this way, or feel that way..."  Our definition of ordered spirituality may engage such methodology as "doing battle with my anger or prejudice."  Ultimately (and unfortunately), the more we try to do battle or deny even having these shadow parts of our self, the more they will literally sneak out and be projected onto others.

Observation exercise:  The next time you find yourself really angry with someone or casting judgement, try to stop long enough to observe where that is coming from.  Better than 90% of the time, it is something inside us that needs to be owned and really has little to do with anyone else (beyond the fact that we begin by disagreeing on some issue).

I have a very good friend with whom I talked at length via phone yesterday.  He has a lot of wisdom and experience.  We were simply catching up with each other...having not chatted for quite some time.  In the course of our conversation (covering many topics), he simply asked me, "Hey, Fred, have you been able to dance with your shadow self yet?"  Almost without thought, I responded, "You know what, I really have been able to do that.  It doesn't happen as often as I'd like, but, yep, we are getting to that place."

Earlier this year, from deep within, a possibility for a new experience of wholeness began to emerge.  The parts of me that I have found either most objectionable, or least attractive about myself, over my entire lifetime, began to simply pop up.  At first -- kind of like the "whack-a-mole" game -- I would try to knock them back into the subconscious.  For some reason, after a time, I simply invited them to come out and introduce themselves.  Just this morning, in the predawn quiet, I had an internal conversation with a person who caused me great pain in my junior high school years.  That included a conversation with a strong root of anger and self-esteem issues.  This went on for about 90 minutes.  Then, as I arose and made my first cup of coffee, I simply imaged all that and asked, "Care to dance?"  What had been a dark place in my life suddenly became much lighter.  I spent about five minutes simply laughing at the spectre.

If you read the New Testament, you will find a story in Luke of Jesus healing a group of lepers, telling them to go wash and show themselves to the priest to "certify" their healing.  One of them, who happened to be a Samaritan, recognized the possibility that this healing was much deeper than a skin disease.  He turned around, went back to Jesus and gave thanks to God for making him well.  To this, Jesus replied, "Weren't there nine of you?  Only you have returned....your faith has made you well."

In the original language, the first word for healing (making the skin well) is a different word than the one used for the Samaritan being made well.  That final healing was the knitting together of his True Self and making the Samaritan God Realized.

All journeys begin in possibility.  That is what puts the wind in the sails and motivates us to press forward toward a destination.  But the wind of the Spirit will bring shifts, and each new horizon a clearer sense of purpose.  This new time of life, for me, brings a new kind of wholeness and new possibilities for engaging creative energy.  Creation is still happening.  The Spirit still hovers.  Love is all around us.  Care to dance?

Love and Blessings,


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