Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Making Every Day Holy

The Christmas I was five, Santa delivered an easel and finger paints to my Grandparents’ house, where we always celebrated. Early on Christmas morning, before the grownups woke, my younger sister and I crept into the living room and finger painted the carpet. Our actions become legend, retold annually throughout my Grandparents’ lifetimes. I could repeat the story verbatim, although I have no memory of the event!

Thinking about the holidays in the generic, I realize their celebrations began in a fashion similar to my finger painting episode––as something to be remembered for generations to come. Of course, the early Christians, and the Pilgrims were celebrating and remembering events of great significance to their cultures and communities and creating rituals to make those days shine in memory, so filled with glow of spirit they could easily be plucked from a calendar of ordinary days.

That’s one drawback of holidays. They’re fixed in number and assigned to specific dates. Who wants to be so limited when Holy Days can happen anytime? If you’re anything like me, some of the most profound events in your life happened on ordinary days. Days that began like any other, but now are infused with reason to remember, to celebrate or mourn––bringing us closer to God, the source of our being.

In the 2003 edition of Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Andrea Hollander Budy, author of the essay, “The Hickeys on Sally Palermo’s Neck: Some Thoughts on Beauty and the Creative Life,” writes:

“I can’t quite experience what I experience until I write about it. Even our most vivid experience is in danger of transience if we don’t learn how to hold onto it. Writing is one approach...all art, in fact––is an attempt to call us out of our ourselves, or rather, to call us into the deepest places in ourselves.”

I can’t quite experience what I experience until I write about it. Ditto. The memories and events I’ve chosen to capture through writing––prayers, poetry, memoir, fiction, and journaling––have become holy to me. Since 1986, I’ve composed a Christmas newsletter that has grown exponentially along with my family, and helps me to remember moments with them that otherwise might be lost to me. This is why, unlike normal people, I can’t revert to mailing a family photo Christmas card with a quick note on the back.

Much like flipping through a photo album with it’s owner and hearing the stories behind the pictures, I return at least annually to my family’s newsletter. Here are some holy moments recorded in our December 1995 issue:

Letter from the Editor (me)
One recent Sunday night, I was folding laundry with a heavy heart, thinking of all the prayer concerns lifted up that morning, when I heard Chrislynn calling out from her bed: ‘I love you Mommy. I love you Daddy. I love you Jennifer. I love you Roscoe. I love you Expo (the last two being our cats). I love you even when you’re not with me. I love you even when you’re far away. Because that’s what love is.’”

Mommy Interviews Chrislynn [age 41/2]
Q: Tell me about God.
A: He loves you and Jesus always loves you too. And that is the Christ. And Jesus is alive, and we’re glad he’s alive, but he’s not on earth. I think that when baby Jesus was born, God picked the name for Mary and Joseph. The shepherds looked when the Angels told them, they looked around and to the right and saw the road to Bethlehem. And that’s what I think Christmas is.

Mommy Interviews Jennifer [age 7 1/2]
Q: What does Christmas mean?
A: We celebrate because it’s Baby Jesus’ birthday. When the angels came and told the shepherds he was born, they followed the angels. We have a play in church every year to show what it means and our church does Christmas caroling.
Q: What does Christmas mean to you?
A: That Santa comes.
Q: Tell me about God.
A: God is a spirit. God is love. We study about him in church. God loves everybody and the animals. You pray God.
Q: You pray God?
A: Yes.

I lead spiritual writing workshops that I’ve chosen to call “Holy Ink,” because I believe the act of preserving our memories our thoughts and our feelings is a sacred activity, reuniting us with essential part of ourselves that necessarily brings us in union with God.

Writing is not the only creative act that leads us to the holy. Music, dance, performance and visual arts, storytelling and more birth the holy from our experience. As you gather with loved ones to celebrate the holidays, you bear holy gifts in your arms; the gifts of your words, your story, your life and your journey alongside others on this path toward God.

May you create space to celebrate holy ink, holy paint, holy photos, holy food and holy exchanges every day.

©Cathy Warner 2006

Saturday, November 25, 2006

My Grandfather's Prayer

When we gather around the table on Thanksgiving, none of us really knowing how to pray together, I remember and miss my grandfather. It was my grandfather who prayed for me, who prayed for our whole family. His prayer was as lush and full as his voice and thick white hair. Our precious heavenly father he would begin after we’d joined hands around the dinner table, and on from there. Sometimes he spoke for so long I couldn’t keep my eyes closed, and I’d squint at my grandmother’s china through my eyelashes. The plates were white with pink rosebuds and gray leaves.

I thought the leaves should’ve been green, instead of gray, but I didn’t really think about my grandfather’s prayer and what I thought it should say instead. I did wonder sometimes what it would be like to have a heavenly father, or a precious heavenly father, which must’ve meant you liked him better than a regular father, the kind in heaven, or the kind like my father, who drove around in his squad car looking for bad guys, a father who kept his gun in his sock drawer and took my sister and me miniature golfing on his weekends after he left us.

My grandfather wasn’t even my real grandfather, if I wanted to think about it. He married my mother’s mother when I was three and my little sister and I were their flower girls. Not that I remembered it, but they had pictures in frames on the wall in the sewing room where I could see them, and that made it real, and my grandfather was realer to me than any father, precious heavenly or not.

Whether he really prayed too long or not, I really don’t know, because everything grownup takes forever when you are a kid, until you are a teenager, then everything is just boring. My grandfather liked to thank his precious heavenly father, who I figured out was God, if there was such a thing. My grandfather liked to thank God for the most ordinary things, that my mom and my sister and my father, before he left, and I were there for dinner, that we had arrived safely, even though we only lived 45 minutes away off the 405 and my father was a good driver and our car had never broken down. He would ask God to send us home safely, and it seemed to me that if there were a God, that God would be too busy and too important taking care of the movie stars who lived nearby, or the President, who lived far away, to be interested much in whether or not we’d get stuck in traffic.

My grandfather always ended his prayer by saying, “Thank you for the food prepared here. Bless it too our bodies. Amen.” Well, I knew that my grandmother was the one who got up early on Thanksgiving and Christmas and stuffed the turkey and put it in the oven. She was the one who shopped at Von’s, the one who mashed the potatoes, baked the pies, whisked the gravy. It seemed to me that she was the one we should be thanking.

And what did it mean to bless the food to our bodies? Was it protection from overeating or botulism? Magic that would keep us from the Alka Seltzer or groaning, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”?

I heard that prayer with its standard opening and closing and very subtle variations in the middle at every dinner my grandparents served at their home, even if it was just my sister and me visiting with no other grownups in sight.

I didn’t know then that my grandfather was living out a spiritual practice. I didn’t know that deep down I wished I had the faith to pray like my grandfather did. I didn’t know that I would find God, or rather that I would be found, even found out, by God. I don’t call the God who found me precious or heavenly or even father. I think that’s because I don’t have an image of God in my head, or maybe we’re not close enough for me to think of God as family, and head of my family at that. But the God I know is as constant as my grandfather, and my grandfather’s precious heavenly father. Like his God, mine never seems to tire of the mundane details of my life, or my continual thanks.

Thank you for finding me, I tell God. Thank you for my grandfather. Thank you for all he taught me even when I didn’t think I was paying attention.

©2006 Cathy Warner

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Was That You, Jesus?

I spent the last week at the Academy for Spiritual Formation exploring, in part, my spiritual journey. I was raised in a spiritual void, even considering myself an athiest for a few years. I keep hearing that God is and was in all things, even when we don't recognize or can't name it. I finally saw God in my life and in the world when I was twenty-three and wrote this poem about the years before that.

Was That You, Jesus?

Listen! I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. ––Revelation 3:20

Maybe you were standing at the door for a long time
for a very long time but I didn’t see you
didn’t hear you over the clattering footsteps
of all the people walking in and out of my life

Maybe you rang the buzzer but my wires were disconnected
Maybe I opened the door but someone else
brushed in past you so I dated him

Maybe you knocked but I never heard
because I wasn’t home I hadn’t yet learned
to live in that house my house
with the gaping hole where the soul was supposed to be

Maybe you knocked but I was too tired
or too busy to answer and you had to stop
for just a moment because your knuckles were bruised and bleeding

Maybe when I thought I heard you
it was only the echo of your last knock
so that by the time I made it to the door I thought
no one was there

Maybe I heard you knock and considered letting you in
but I’d hidden the key to the door of my heart
or maybe the lock had been broken too many times

Maybe you didn’t really barge in
Maybe I’m the one who unscrewed the hinges
so that the door only looked closed

Maybe that’s why it seemed like you showed up
all of a sudden and finally one small sharp rap
toppling the door and you didn’t mind
walking in barefoot over the splinters

©Cathy Warner 2006

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

There's More To Us Than Our Brokenness

When he has nothing better to do, my dog chews and chews one spot on his right leg. His fur is clumpy and wet there, bloodied pink skin peeking through. It’s possible that he once had an injury, or even a fleabite there, something worthy of gnawing. Now, though, all the attention and worry is simply habit.

People are that way, too. As we age, conversations focus on aches and pains––bursitis, arthritis, cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. It’s almost a rite of passage to reach the place where one’s world narrows to comparisons of doctor’s visits and the minutia of one’s health with a capital H.

As I juggle acupuncture, naturopath, physical therapy and chiropractor appointments for my own litany of ailments, I think such attention to our physical failings can be bad for our spirits, if not our bodies. Like my dog, we become fixated on what is wrong, ignoring what is going well. Our worldview then is dictated by how we feel, and our outlook can become as constricted as our arteries.

A clergy friend recently noted, “We have become a culture bound together by our woundedness.” We find ways to relate to one another based on how we’ve been hurt. You have cancer; so do I. Your kid ran away; so did mine. You were abused by a lover; so was I. It is comforting to find others who understand our pain, who have experienced our particular trauma. If we’re going to overcome our addictions or our wounds, we do need people who have shared our misery.

Twelve step groups demonstrate excellently this aspect of community healing. We need help in the form of other people, and in the form of the higher power beyond ourselves [I call it God] if we are going to stop licking our wounds and move forward with our lives. Left to our own devices, we’ll act like my dog, keeping that wound fresh.

We all know people who wear their pain as if printed on their T-shirts: Hit by a drunk driver; life ruined. Husband ran out; life ruined. Small business failed; life ruined. Viet Nam Vet; life ruined. But it’s dangerous to define who we are by our brokenness. When we do, we box ourselves into permanent suffering. We circumvent the healing process, never allowing a scab and then a scar to form.

We all know people who recount their old injury as though it occurred yesterday. And us unsuspecting folks who are new to the story, do think it happened yesterday. Usually, our reaction––outrage, sympathy, or offer of help––encourages those stuck in pain to remain there. Why? Because it’s a place where they can make human connection.

We all crave that connection. We want to be known and understood at deep levels. And, in a culture built on drama and reality shows and TV news that tout our pain and suffering in front of total strangers, forming relationships based on healthy behaviors and the wholeness of the person sounds incredibly boring.

If we don’t have our pain then what do we have? If we don’t have the story of our pain then what do we have to offer?

That’s where faith comes in. Belief that life can offer something beyond our familiar suffering. Faith that the tremendous effort it takes to break our familiar patterns is worth the risk, and the belief that growth––in and of itself––is worthwhile. My congregation states it this way in our core values and beliefs, “We find more grace in searching than in certainty––in questions than in answers.” We give ourselves permission to not know the answers, but to journey toward healing.

The body is cunningly designed to heal from injury. The soul, when we allow it, also has tremendous capacity to heal. Spiritual healing can be so subtle, that we often don’t notice it ourselves. It’s only when we look back that we can see where we’ve come from.

Other times, spiritual healing is so dramatic, we experience a fundamental shift in ourselves. Religions talk of dying to oneself and being born again, or born into eternal life. In the Old Testament, God says, “Behold I make all things new.”

You and I have seen this transformation in the lives of people who share their journeys with us. They tell how their brokenness led to healing, and the healing led to a passion for helping others, like the former drug addict who now counsels at-risk teens.

New life awaits when we have the courage to break out of our old patterns. Now, if only my dog would get the message.

©Cathy Warner 2006