To Confront Life In All Its Fury

December 31, 2021. We stood outside, in the shadow of a Presbyterian Church so rooted in the 1800’s that it had no restroom facilities inside. The church itself was graced with light, a sight much warmer than the frigid temperature inside . For December, the weather was mild – but the wooden pews and stained glass held fast to an earlier chill. It was colder inside than outside – so it was good that we’d be outside for the service.

We were three women, each of a different decade – a little over ten years between the oldest and me, the middle; a little less than ten between me and the younger. We stood in our funeral black and spoke in hushed voices of the departed, of the deep grief and sorrow radiating from his small family, as they stood between us and the burgundy tent over the open grave.

My friend Linda spoke out of a brief pause.

“Well, tomorrow is a new year. A new start. We can hope for the best.”

I responded without even thinking, raw from the chill of the church, the reverberation of another funeral, the exhaustion that seemed to fill so many moments of the previous 365 days. We’d lost so much in 2021; so much would be left behind. I hardly had the strength to hope for anything, and I said so.

I don’t know about hope. I think I’m just going to take it as it comes.

“Oh, Beth – we always have something to hope for!” She said it with firm grace, conviction, and from evidence – her long life reflects hope upon hope, grace upon grace.

She’s right.

But yesterday, I just didn’t feel centered in hope. New Year’s Eve, for me, meant a new planner and some semblance of a restored sense of purpose and order. Some new practices to try – spiritual, emotional, physical. I welcome the changing calendar, the marking of the moment.

But, hope?

Frankly, I’m not sure what to hope for. That nobody else I love dies, because it hurts so much?

That I don’t have to bear witness to other people in immense pain, because it is overwhelming?

That my daughter doesn’t get sick again?

That I get more time with my loved ones who are so, so far away?

That the pandemic ends? That the chaos of the world gets calmer? That people start to behave better, think more clearly, listen to one another?

To hope for any of those things seems an exercise in futility.

###

After the funeral, I drove home, changed clothes, and went for a run. Depending on my mood, that, too, seems an exercise in futility. My pants are too tight, there’s too much snack food around, and I tend to munch, mindlessly. I’m also learning to bake pies from scratch, and that requires a lots of tasting: Apple filling, blueberry filling – and buttery crust, rich and decadent… Anyway, I’m convinced that the futility of exercise is a mind game, because I always, always, always find my mood elevated when I a) am outside, and b) move my body. There is no real futility in exercise – it’s always worth it.

So I ran. And while I ran, I listened to Brené Brown do something a lot of folks would love to do, me included; that is, sit and talk awhile with Willie and Lucas Nelson.

Willie is a hero in our family; his music, his family, his ability to shoot straight and just live his life. I’m always willing to listen when Willie speaks. So, Brené is giddy, a fangirl, enjoying every minute of the conversation, and they start talking about fear. And worry.

And Willie says something that stops me in my tracks, enough that I rewind 30 seconds and listen again.

“…a negative thought will release poison into your body and your heart and your soul and everything…Imagine what you want and get out of the way.”

Imagine what you want and get out of the way.

###

I’m reading The Monastic Heart by Joan Chittister, who has become one of my favorite authors of recent days. I tend to get hung up on a paragraph or a phrase and park for hours with new perceptions, slightly different ideas, or just New Stuff I Didn’t Know. She is a Benedictine Sister and she writes about life with God from a still, small place that encompasses vast landscapes of spirituality. This lastest book arrives from her own pandemic experience, and it is brilliant and helpful.

From Chittister, I read about antiphon, a word I know from my choral days, but one I’ve never considered from a poetic point of view.

An antiphon is a refrain that begins and ends each of the psalms… It is meant to distill the psalm into a single idea that can be pondered and understood.

She goes on to reflect on the overwhelming experience of being a new postulant and learning how to pray, and how paying attention to the antiphons became “the lifeline of [my] soul.” All 150 psalms are said every week in the Daily Office of the monastic life – not simply memorized scripture or “Bible reading”, but ancient poems that “speak of joy and suffering, hope and despair, beauty and sorrow, faith and trust in hard times. They speak of everything we’ve ever felt in life.”

Chittister writes of praying the psalms as a way to “confront life in all its fury.”

This triad testimony from the wisdom of my friend Linda, my hero Willie, and my literary mentor Joan, suddenly coalesced into something powerful – and somewhat optimistic, even.

I looked up the actual definition of hope and found it surprisingly aligned with Willie’s mantra:

hope: a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.

Imagine what you want and then get out of the way.

Chittister writes about the way we can shrivel from the glut of realizations. She advocates writing antiphons for the “great moments of life”, to protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed. Her final paragraph on the topic is so achingly clear, I am reminded of the bright chill of the beautiful, empty church.

It is in marking off your life in antiphons – in segments – that you will see God most clearly one day at a time and life as a cataract of gifts and graces, of crises and challenges that, eventually, bring you to the fullness of growth.

That feels remarkably like hope to me, but I’m going to rephrase it; I’m not going to “hope” as much as I am going to prepare myself to “confront life in all its fury.” Gifts and graces, crises and challenges: No matter.

Here’s to 2022.

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