Splashing Around in the Waves

I have a bit of a problem biting off more than I can chew.  This blog is no exception.

As my other blogging-compatriots know, I’ve been on the fence about blogging for a while.  One of the things that finally tipped the balance was my desire to have a forum to talk through my faith.  You see, I am a Catholic Christian who believes in God, which is all well-and-good until I start to explain to people what I mean by “Catholic,” “Christian,” and “God.”  At that point, people’s reactions vary, but they usually have a facial expression that I interpret as:

“I feel so deceived…”

So, in addition to what I mentioned in my first post, I wanted to have a forum where I could lay out what I mean when I use those three words.  More than that, though, I wanted to have a place where, by writing down my thoughts and discussing with others, I’d be forced to work through my faith.

And then I sat down to write the post.

Those of you who are bloggers, or writers in general, will understand me when I say that nothing is more taunting, more judgmental, than a blinking cursor on a blank page.  I could hear it: “Oh, you thought you’d just sit down and type out a masterwork, did you?  Is that what Flannery O’Connor did? Is that what Wordsworth did? No? Oh, so you just think you’re SO MUCH BETTER THAN THEM then?”

(As an aside, I really need to stop anthropomorphizing things.  It’s getting to be a weird habit.)

Needless to say, I never wrote my great treatise on my faith.  I will write it, eventually, and publish it, probably in installments.  But I need to take a few more nibbles of this blogging thing before I bite of something with that much substance.

So, I hope I can ease into the subject by sharing with y’all some thoughts I had on this poem by Mary Oliver.

Now, I must ashamedly admit, Mary Oliver is not my favorite poet.  It isn’t that I think she’s a bad writer – she’s brilliant.  It’s just a style thing.  I have a rather strong (and somewhat outmoded) attachment to formal style and meter.  Sure, I’ve done free verse, especially when I was younger.  But there is only so much free-verse poetry I can read.

This, then, is Mary Oliver for me: really good poetry that I can’t read too often.  But the first poem in her new book, A Thousand Mornings, is one I keep coming back to.   It’s called “I Go Down to the Shore.”

I go down to the shore in the morning

and depending on the hour the waves

are rolling in or moving out,

and I say, oh, I am miserable,

what shall –

what shall I do? And the sea says

in its lovely voice:

Excuse me, I have work to do.

In this short poem, Ms. Oliver has captured beautifully something I struggle with in my faith life, and that is what I call spiritual narcissism.

I know I haven’t written about it yet, but my faith life over the past 5 years has been a bit of a struggle.  It has been a transformative struggle, but a struggle nonetheless.  And I have expressed a lot of that struggle in prayer (read: one-way conversations that ranged from a discussion with a trusted friend to a temper tantrum akin to a toddler in Target when they don’t get the toy they want).

I think prayer is good.  I think prayer provides people with an excuse to take a break, retreat within themselves, and really reflect on what’s important in their live beyond the noise.  It’s a re-grounding in those truths we’ve always known but tend to forget in day-to-day life.  And that truth, deep down, is love (more on that later).

But, if you grew up Christian like me, I think it’s easy to transform those centering-times into emotional pep talks that focus on one message: “It’ll be OK; God has a plan for you.  So don’t worry.  You can’t mess up too badly.”

I think this is unfair and turns faith into an emotional safety net.

Now, I don’t think God has “plans” for us.  I don’t think He directs, causes, or compels.  In a phrase, I think God is being, not agency.  But putting my heretical quibbles aside, I think the point of the religious experience isn’t to direct our lives but to help each of us engage his or her life most positively and authentically.  To be cliché, faith isn’t a road map, but a pair of really well-made glasses, allowing us to see and understand whatever comes next.[1]

And, getting back to Ms. Oliver, this is the role of the ocean in the poem.  It is so easy, in the depths of despair, to convince yourself that every little thing has meaning.  “She yelled at me for a reason.”  “He broke my heart for a purpose.”  “This must be the turning point in the story.”  But I think this is assuming, on some level, that I am the center of the universe; at it’s heart, everything is here for me.

Yet, like the ocean in the last line, the mysteries of the universe have their work to do.  And, yes, that universal mystery, which I call God and experience through my faith, is always there for me.  It is there to help me contextualize the joy in my life.  It is there to help me understand and grow from the sorrows.

But it is not there to be my protector.  The universe is not my high school guidance counselor.  God is too big, too grand, too radical and mind-blowing to fit in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book.  And I’m OK with that.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have a companion than a director.  And, like the ocean, that companion will always be there.  But we can’t truly enter into this mystery until we accept control and ultimate ownership of our lives.

There is nothing there to save us from ourselves.   But, if we choose to take a risk on religious experience, to make that leap of faith, I think we will discover joy and love.  And, in doing so, we can become more self-aware than we ever imagined.

But we have to choose this daily.  And no one is going to choose it for us.


[1] It’s funny how life works.  As I was writing this, another blogger I know linked me to an article that comes to a similar conclusion, albeit in a different context.  If you’re reading this, thanks Jordan!

The Bitter End

Twilight in Rome, via @CatholicNewsSvc

So (and, yes, I tend to begin most conversations with “so” – it’s a weird personal tic)…

In case you haven’t heard, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI announced today that he is resigning at the end of the month.  Like most, I am stunned.  This is the first papal resignation in almost 600 years, and the last one happened in the midst of a great Church schism that makes today’s problems look like child’s play.

I wasn’t planning on this being the topic of my next post, nor was I planning to write a new post so soon.  But, you see, besides being an historic moment for the Church and western civilization, it comes at a strange time for me.

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about commitment and fidelity.  I take that back, for a while now I’ve been thinking a lot about commitment and fidelity.  And I really don’t know what role they play, or should play, in my life.  But today’s events bring the dilemma into relief in a way I wanted to share.

On the one hand, it takes great humility, to admit your weaknesses and know when enough is enough.  It also takes a great amount of self-knowledge – the more the world knows of a person, the less a person often knows about herself.  And publicly admitting that you cannot go on any longer, despite generations of shoes to fill and over a billion eyes ready to judge and mock you, takes more courage than any one person should be expected to have.  In this way, today’s events have been an exceptional and unexpected dose of grace for a world that rarely takes its medicine well or without complaint.

But, on the other hand, what about commitment?  What about, despite it all, sticking to the oath you made before God and yourself to persevere?  What happened to suffering publicly, to sacrificing everything like Christ on the cross for others?  I think people, including myself, are much too easy on themselves and willing to compromise on their beliefs when they “can’t take it any longer.”  And while sometimes change is good, sometimes a person needs to follow through on his vows.

And see it through to the bitter end.

Like so many twentysomethings, I’ve felt myself at a crossroads.  And which path I should take is unclear.  Do I follow through on my commitments to myself and those I love?  Or do I cast these burdens aside, as more than any one man can bear, and reap the whirlwind?

…This would be the part of the post where it would be nice to have a profound conclusion.  But I don’t have one.  Like my Church in general, I don’t know what is coming next.  And like my generation in general, nothing is certain.  Yet, like everyone, all I can do is stand, take a few deep breaths, and face what comes next with as much courage as I can.  The future comes whether we want it to or not.

Regardless of the answer, thank you, Holy Father, for making me ask the questions.  And may strength carry you until life grants you rest.

With love,



So, I’m scared to do this, for many reasons.

First, there’s the fear of rejection.  As a upper middle-class, American twentysomething, I have grown up in a world of everyone-gets-a-trophy kindergarten soccer teams.  We, as a generation, have worked hard, but also have been taught to be impressive, to get the right internships, to join the right groups, to have the right resume.  And so the thought of putting something out there that is not 100% polished terrifies me.  Add to that the idea that people on the internet aren’t always known for their kindness– it’s enough to put a person off of blogging entirely.

Also, while I obviously won’t put up my entire life on this page (if you want that, go watch some show on TLC), this project will require a certain amount of honesty.  Not just the honesty of telling the truth, but the honesty of accepting that I don’t have all the answers, that my views may change, and that I may not be the same person I was when I began this.

….So, guy who has still not told us his name, if this is so terrifying and awful, why are you starting?

I’m glad you asked, oh convenient apostrophe that I will probably use more often than my readers will like.  First, I have gotten to know an amazing group of bloggers who have inspired me, made me laugh, made me cry, and generally have torn themselves up inside to make me feel like there are people out there with similar thoughts, burdens, and interests.  (If any of you are reading, believe me, it has meant an amazing amount to me.  And I owe y’all a cup of coffee if we ever meet in person.)  And they have inspired me to be more open about my thoughts, on the chance I can pay that generosity forward.

More than that, though, I need an outlet to share the creative side of me.  And this, I suppose, is as good a transition as any into this blog’s purpose.  Since I was young, I have enjoyed writing and music.  And while I’ve been rather open about the music I’m into, I talk a lot less about my writing.

You see, I love poetry.  A lot.  And essay-writing.

At some point in my young life, I decided that boys weren’t supposed to be into poetry and essays.  So I carried on these practices in secret, like some incredibly nerdy addiction, for decades.  And it gets really tiring having parts of your life that give you so much joy, but you cannot share with the world (more on that later).  It really dampens the joy and makes you weirdly ashamed of the parts of your heart you treasure most.

Well, having tried to be the archetype young me was fed, I’ve given up.  These writings are me.  I express myself.  I feel things.  I get weirdly excited about prime numbers, religion, philosophy, and new bands.  And it’s time to share these things with the world, or at least the world that happens to stumble across this blog.

Now, I doubt everything on here will be profound.  I, like any nerdy guy who spends way too much time on the internet, have been known to make the “ZOMG look at this puppy with a balloon!” posts.  And I don’t want this to be another place for me to posture.  If I’m not ready to discuss or post something, I won’t.  Also, I am trying to be less type-A by allowing myself to make typos and not edit the soul out of everything I write.  For this reason, while some things will be polished and concise, others will be rambly and awkward.  Not every thought deserves the same amount of care and attention.  So, please be patient with me.  After all, while I hope you, the reader, gets something out of this blog, I am seeing this mainly as a space for me.

…That was a really long-winded way of saying you are starting a glorified LiveJournal.  And you never said what your name was.”

Oh, sorry, call me AJ.  More on that later too.