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Rising and Falling

I have made a new friend this summer. Ok, I haven’t actually met her in person, but she has been open, honest and wise with me, sharing lessons from a difficult life. She is writer Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me which I began to review in an earlier blogpost.

In pondering the theme of my next blogpost, a phrase from her book has stayed with me in recent days. She quotes a desert monk from the 3rd century who told his disciple,

Brother, the monastic life is this: I rise up, and I fall down, I rise up and I all down. I rise up and I fall down.

This quote reflects one of the lessons I am learning this summer. Those who know me know that I am prone to perfectionism. This tendency to need to get everything right has given me (and no doubt others) much grief in life. People frequently tell me that I’m too hard on myself, something I know all too well, but I catch myself at it all the time. Like an addiction, I don’t know how not to do it without a Higher Power. How do I give up trying to get it right, and the larger problem behind it of wanting to be seen as a “good person”?

Norris’ book has reminded me that I’m not alone in my struggles. She writes of facing many struggles: her husband’s illness and death, and her own tendency towards depression and perfectionism. She has reminded me that the true failure is not in having struggles common to everyone. The real failure is forgetting that God is with us amid them.

321e4bbc08c97370010f78258e54e998This summer, I’ve had to do a bit of climbing out of what John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress calls the “slough of despond”. With health and emotional issues in the spring, I felt I’d lost the battle to “get it right” as grouchiness and a sense of despair gripped me, and was left with a sense of underlying depression. As I’ve sat with it in prayer, in talking with friends and in my reading, I’ve realized God has been speaking to me in my time of perceived failure, reminding me that like the old childhood game of Ring Around the Rosie says, “we all fall down”, and that, by God’s incredible mercy, we all rise up as well. The monastic life is this: I rise up, and I fall down.

You might be thinking this is pretty obvious, and I agree. The teaching is not new to me, but in the application of it, I think I am a total beginner. The question is, have I accepted God’s love of me as I am, warts and all? As the new school year approaches, can I learn to live in whatever each moment has for me, whether rising or falling, and learn contentment? I feel a stirring of hope in me lately that God is digging these lessons more deeply. And as the 13th century poet and mystic Rumi wrote, the invitation never ends:

“Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
It doesn’t matter
Come, come yet again, come”

Back in early May, Lyle and I went to Minneapolis for a weekend. We had a great time, but the congested cold I had combined with an airplane ride left me with stuffed ears, a condition called barotrauma. It’s been 13 weeks, and while it is slowly healing, I am still living with this weird symptom.

As I’ve been considering the lessons God is teaching me, I have to confess that my inner ears have been

plugged as well. God was speaking all along but I was so caught up with falling that I didn’t hear God’s invitation; God’s reminder that falling doesn’t matter. What matters is walking into the future with trust that God is in every rise and fall, forgiving our stumbles even before we know they’ve happened.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
Psalm 121:5-6

Picture from vladstudio.com

Picture from vladstudio.com

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Summer Reading

One of the benefits of a slower pace in the summer is that I get to read more. While at the lake last week, I cracked open a book with the odd title Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris. “I thought this could be relevant for you,” said my friend Cal after he and his wife Linda acediaandmelrgpicked it up for me on a trip. Cal knows me well since he and I often struggle with the same types of issues. “Let me know what the book is like,” he added, and even though I am only ¼ of the way through the book, I thought I’d begin to answer Cal’s request. He was right, the book has been very relevant already.

I had heard the term acedia over the years as one of the seven deadly sins. Some think of acedia as sloth or depression, but it is more nuanced. Norris defines it:

“…as the spiritual aspect of sloth. The word literally means not-caring, or being unable to care, and ultimately, being unable to care that you can’t care. Acedia is spiritual morphine, but it does more than mask pain. It causes us to lose faith in ourselves and in our relationships with others.”

The word was originally coined by the desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd century AD. They were a group of hermits and monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt to escape the pagan world and flee the persecution of Christians. Renouncing any pleasures of the senses and  embracing solitude, they deliberately removed distractions from their lives so they could enter a deeper relationship with God. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, poverty and celibacy were practiced.

images-2I know when I remove distractions from my life in order to focus on something, it doesn’t take long before I get squirrely and restless. Simply opening a new page to begin a blogpost invites the urgent need to clean my keyboard or check my Facebook status. Any distraction seems much more inviting than what I had set my mind to doing. I can become like a horse veering off course without blinders.

As the monks sat in their cloistered room (called a cell), seeking to follow God’s call in prayer or scripture reading, they frequently reported being tempted to want to be anywhere but where they were. As Norris writes, acedia’s assualt wasn’t just an occupational hazard, it was a given. They became restless and faint-hearted.  One monk from the 4th century wrote that acedia made it seem that the sun was barely moving, if at all, and that the day seemed fifty hours long. It became the worst at noon as the sun became hot and the monk was hungry and fatigued. He became highly susceptible to the suggestion that a commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort.

The monks went to the desert fathers for advice and the condition was diagnosed as acedia, whose greek root meant “an absence of care”. It was said to be the vice that caused the most serious trouble of all, and it began to be known as “the devil of the noonday sun”.

Every diagnosis needs a prescription, and the monks received the spiritual direction to resist the temptation to want to leave their cells. In fact, they were told to stay in the place that was the most difficult, right where the demon seemed to visit. “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything,” one monk was told. In another piece of advice that could be a fridge magnet, a monk was told to “Water a dry stick daily until it bears fruit.”

Norris writes of Maurice Sendak’s book Pierre, where a child keeps saying “I don’t care” to imagesevery parental inquiry. Finally a lion encounters the boy and wants to eat him. When the boy habitually responds with “I don’t care,” the lion pounces and eats him. The book has a happy ending when the lion is shaken upside down and Pierre emerges images-1and is happy that he is not dead and realizes life is worth living. This image of being consumed by apathy, says Norris, is a perfect image of acedia.

As I sat reading beside the placid lake last week, I read these ancient words and thought of my own profound inclination to be distracted and sink into an “I don’t care” outlook on life when life gets difficult. The metaphor of watering a dry stick is exactly how it often feels to stick with the discipline of prayer or ask the blog question, “Where is God this week?” Isn’t it just easier to give in to the insistent voices that say my anxiety or self-absorption is all there is?

I felt addressed by the book, both in having my own “I don’t care” tendencies diagnosed as a spiritual temptation as well as the advice I received that it can and needs to be resisted. Norris makes it clear early on in the book that acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer. She spends quite a bit of time distinguishing between acedia and depression, the latter being an illness that is best treated by counseling and medication. This route has never worked for me.

I’m no monk, but our home becomes a bit of a hermitage when Lyle and I spend time reading and set regular times aside to pray, alone and together. Our community is a hermitage in our gatherings where we study scripture, pray and worship together. It has been good to recognize the temptations that exist in this calling and that I don’t have to be a victim.

“You will not fear the terror of the night,

Nor the arrow that flies by day,

Nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,

Nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.” Psalm 91:5-6 (ESV)

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