Fairly consistently, since about 1985, I’ve kept a journal. Well, I write in them. I write the stuff that happens to me in them, the stuff happening in and around me. It’s cathartic in one sense, having the cleansing effect of affecting a greater “soulishness” about the way I live and relate to my world. The visceral feel of pen on paper gives an immediate reminder of my mortality and the deeply sensory way God moves in us.
These days, however, I do most of my “writing” on computer and my pen is rusty, dulled through inactivity. It has sat, bored and undemanding, awaiting my return to saner pastures where the literary stream of consciousness I call writing gives voice once more to the complex confines of my inner circus. It is a life that always needs the light of day to prevent it from becoming just another cavernous, uninteresting drone of pedantic inactivity. Still, it acts as worthy opponent to any temptation toward self-aggrandizement. Try reading, honestly, your journalistic exploits twenty years after the fact and one is speedily confronted with the fact that the things I dealt with then are pretty much the same now, only with a few added layers of sophistication. This probably makes them more insidious since it is a common reality among us all to live out our lives, more or less, as the same person from start to finish. Our dissatisfaction with this reality dwells in cahoots with God’s unending desire to find us. The result is what we commonly call spiritual formation.
This morning’s exercise in stretching my spiritual muscles comes in the form of a feisty, deeply intelligent nun, sister Alice St. Hilaire. She is my friend, a fellow Ignatian and my spiritual director. If anyone can see through my often blinding hypocrisy it’s sister Alice. I have come to depend on this valuable insight lovingly offered. This is most likely because I live in a pretty consistent fog; a mushy, grey pudding of sleepy ambiguity and lack of focus all peppered liberally with self-doubt. There are always questions – so many questions, all of which become annoyingly absent the moment I sit down to sip tea and share God-talk with sister Alice.
She is never bothered by what bothers me. Am I to be intrigued or insulted by this? To be sure, it can be disconcerting whenever someone hears the most vulnerable bits of our lives and offers back ne’er a blink. It’s as though she is thinking, “alright, is that it, then? You’re all worked up about that?” A good spiritual director is one who listens to the story behind the story, ably stripping away the layers of our experience like Shrek’s onion. “Ogres have layers” he quips. If he only knew! They are adept at sensing where God might be in our unfolding narrative and never seem to be in a hurry to suggest broad, sweeping changes that might make things all better.
If I didn’t already have at least some rudimentary awakening to the things of God, such mental vapidity would seem cruelly disappointing. Of this one thing I am certain, God does not intrude upon our journey to provide certainty and a laundry list of perfectly satisfactory answers to all our queries. Countless souls, significantly greater than myself have discovered this long before me, Job being chief among them. If Job’s experience can be considered normative in any contemporary sense, we should take away the abiding idea that God does not exist to provide us with answers. Instead, God gives us better questions.
Every time I step into sister Alice’s quaint living room, the presence of God is thick in the place, literally dripping from the walls and windows and oozing out of the carpet. It smells faintly of whatever modest breakfast was consumed earlier and bears the years of humble struggle to survive in Yakima’s tough downtown, providing shards of light in the darkness there. Where my family and I dwell comfortably in “suburgatory” (thank you ABC) in our multi-bedroom home with our multi-vehicle mobility, she chooses to live in a quiet, unobtrusive peace in the midst of the despairing milieu of Yakima’s poor and destitute.
Sister Alice is fond of saying that the ways by which God has revealed Godself to me becomes who I am and paves the way for whatever may be next. If she is any indication of the ramifications of this statement, then I need to make the journey from pen to tea and back again. It is a trip exponentially greater than the sum of the miles involved. It is a foray into the heart of God.