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.
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.
 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!