When I was a freshman at Westmont College (the only year I would spend there), second semester I found myself in the little white chapel next to the pond almost every night (even though it was quite a hike from my dorm), and at other times as well. I was homesick (okay, lovesick, too - pining for a good friend that I hoped would become more - he didn't), lonely, and grieving the absence of my roommate (and kindred spirit) who had left after our first semester (to be with the boyfriend she thought she would marry - she didn't).
I felt such an aching that I longed for God to soothe. I didn't want to be where I was, but I had to for a few more months, so I sought solace in that prayer chapel, a place free of distractions, quiet and peaceful, where I could be alone with my Creator and Savior. It had a prayer notebook where chapel comers could write to God, which is what I did. And I read what others wrote. In fact, I even made some friends that way, because we sometimes wrote encouraging responses, thus beginning a dialogue. But my main purpose for going to the prayer chapel was to seek God, to be consoled by his presence, and to hear him speak life to me through his Word.
I also liked the security in the ritual of "escaping" to this private place. I knew I could go there at any time and that I would be refreshed. That I had a secret space to pour out my heart and to come undone with no one but God watching, and holding me next to his heart, even if I couldn't always feel that with my emotions. I would come away with that peace that passes all understanding, which Jesus promised his followers. I might be romanticizing it a bit, but whatever happened during that season of my life, I always remember it as the time when I experienced the deepest intimacy with God.
When I left Westmont, I sorely missed that sacred place. The heartache of unrequited love (actually more of a crush but I still felt devastatingly disappointed), the confusion of navigating my educational and career path, and many more challenging circumstances made me pine this time not for a guy or even a friend, but for a special meeting place with God. Anytime I would go on a retreat, if there was a place of prayer - be it a chapel or garden - I would gravitate there. I even started a flickr group specifically for people to post pictures of such small sacred spaces. I made up my mind that one day when I was married and had my own home, my husband would build a prayer chapel in the backyard.
Fast forward twenty years from my twenty year-old self, and now this forty year-old has finally entered the promised land. It doesn't quite look the way I imagined. It's not even a building, but then again, I have no backyard to put one in. And no one built it for me - it started with a simple thought I had one day while freshening up in the bathroom (funny how my best ideas often originate there). Our closet is attached to the master bath, so I began thinking...wouldn't it be nice if instead of using this tiny room for clothing storage, I turned it into a little spa where I could give people facials? Then I remembered that I wasn't an aesthetician but a homeschooling mom who couldn't even wash her own face on a regular basis, let alone provide pampering to others.
Another idea emerged. It was true that if I moved the clothes out, the approximate four foot by (just under ) six foot closet could actually be converted to a room. And if not an actual spa, wouldn't it be nice to have a restful room, a sanctuary of sorts? Thus was began the project of repurposing our master bedroom closet into a prayer closet (alternate names: upper room, secret place, sabbath chamber, sacred space, rest spot, quiet nook, hidden sanctuary).
Once everything was cleared out (I moved our clothes into the kids' closets - we may eventually get a wardrobe, in which case this idea will have birthed two magical places!), it was just a question of what to put in it. When I thought about seating, I kept picturing a moon chair. That ended up being the one extravagance of our humble prayer closet, but it was totally worth the splurge, as it has turned out to be exactly the right chair - I feel hugged whenever I sit in it! After taking one child at a time into the prayer closet, I realized it was a space where two or less could gather, so I wanted comfy, inviting seating for a child as well. That turned out to be a makeshift "lounger" I created out of throw pillows and a comforter (our winter one right now). When I'm alone (which is most common), it serves as a foot rest.
I didn't want to clutter up the place with stuff, and it's tight quarters, so I decided on one small, narrow bookshelf we already had. The shelves are for the Bible, my journal, and books to aid in prayer and worship. I started with just the basics, so as not overcomplicate things, but gradually I will add others we have that are helpful for practicing liturgy, sabbath, and the contemplative life.
The top of the bookshelf is mainly for the oil lamp, which allows me to adjust the brightness, unlike the large overhead light. Its only drawbacks are a faint odor and that it gives off a fair amount of heat, especially with the door closed (I sometimes leave it ajar) and if I have it turned up, so I also bought an aromatherapy diffuser plug-in halogen nightlight that has a dimmer switch. I put a few drops of essential oil - usually lavender - in the glass dish and its fragrance fills the room. I also keep some strongly scented candles on the overhead shelf (where I store memorabilia - pictures, journals, etc.), so that the room always has a distinct, gently floral aroma. Sometimes when I come upstairs to go to the bathroom in the middle of our school day, I'll splash water on my face, a spritz of rosewater toner, and then open the prayer closet door, inhale the sweetness, reminding me that in a little while I'll be able to retreat here. Just a glimpse of the room and a breath of its scent is soothing and calming.
Walls. Not the emotional kind. I'm talking white space. I knew I wanted imagery to evoke beauty and serenity in this special space, so I finally put to good use those old calendar pages I had saved - of Greece, the Mediterranean, whimsical garden scenes, waterfalls, Scriptures - and put them up, but not too too many, mind you. It's kind of funny because we've lived in our house seven years and I've still not hung our pictures on the walls!
Another thing about the lighting and the windowless space that occurred to me is that it's similar to what it would have been like it the catacombs, those underground passageways in Rome where the early church met in secret to worship (we were just studying that in our homeschool history). Ironic that their light shone brighter in those dark caves than out in the sun where the worship of of Christ was forbidden.
For the past year, my husband and I have been reading books about Sabbath keeping, and we've been trying to practice that in our family. Keeping the sabbath is a tangible way of seeking the rest and peace of God. By setting aside one day each week to cease from labor, consumerism, social media, etc., and to actively pursue the things of the spirit - in body, mind, and heart - it trains and empowers us to live that way in the midst of whatever pressures might surround us during the week.
I had the epiphany that this prayer closet symbolizes, and actually is a vehicle for that sabbath rest. It's a tangible expression of stopping and breathing and focusing on what really matters, and giving all my cares over to Jesus, and receiving his love, grace, truth, and whatever "word" he might speak to me for encouragement and growth.
A place. A day. These are actual solid tools, props if you will, to take all our good intentions and actually apply them. Illuminating the candles to start the sabbath. Lighting the oil lamp to begin a "quiet time." Saying blessings over the bread and the wine to remind ourselves of why we're at the Lord's Table and what we're entering into. Opening the Word to feast on God's goodness as I come to him alone, hungry and thirsty. These spaces, these ceremonies, these objects - they are examples of how our senses can be a gateway into what we cannot physically touch or taste or smell or hear or see. Liturgy - patterns that are repeated - engage all parts of who God made us. Through repetition, we go deeper and deeper into the knowledge of our Lord, becoming more intimate with him, just as our routines and traditions build closeness and strengthen the bonds in families - between husband and wife, between parents and children.
I'm only just beginning to use the prayer closet, and not nearly as often or as consistently as I want to, but already it has affected me deeply, and not just me. I have had very special times in it with each of my children. Quiet cuddling. Heart to heart talks. Prayerful problem solving. And each of them feels special when they get their alone time in it with me. Even just a few minutes, because usually that's all it is. Our middle child (age 8) set up her own prayer space underneath her desk! I nearly cried when she showed me. It brought home the truth that we lead by example more than words.
One last thing - for now - about this special space. I find that spending private time with God enhances the my experience of him in community. When I come to church on Sunday morning, the worship is that much sweeter when I have prepared my heart for it...or rather, God has. It also helps fill me with his grace and love, so that I have more of that to give to others. I'm not just in church desperate to be ministered to, but instead, I can minister from a full heart. Admittedly, I'm not totally there yet, but just like having a place for church helps motivate us to gather with the Body of Christ, so does the presence of a prayer closet invite me to come and meet with my Lord.
Most people (well, only the lucky few who get them) take a sabbatical every seven years, but in my case, I've taken a sabbatical for seven years. Not from a job, though, but from what I'm doing right now: blogging.
Seven years ago (maybe even to the day), I signed off what was then known as the God blogosphere. I was part of that first wave of Christian bloggers who started talking aloud and then to each other. We created a larger dialogue that manifested itself in posts and comments and blog carnivals and even a convention - GODBLOGCON. Despite different denominations, backgrounds, ages, genders, and more, there was a kinship between us. That's not to say there wasn't also controversy and tension, but it didn't dominate our interactions.
My first blog was called Proverbial Wife. I started it in late 2003 or early 2004 (I had my first baby at that time, so it's a bit hazy, and I'm too lazy to go look it up). The name was a reference to the Proverbs 31 woman, whom I aspired to be, and it was quite catchy, but despite its popularity, I eventually changed it (felt like to much to live up to), and that - changing blog names - was to become a pattern with me. I can't even remember all the names, but the main ones were Marla Swoffer (as in dot com) and Marla's Musings and Always Thirsty. I also had multiple blogs at various times - notably, Olive Cheeses (food blog), GodBlogRoll (a directory of blogs categorized by bloggers' Myers-Briggs personality types), and Intellectuelle, a group blog of Christian women who won a writing contest I dreamed up - it was hosted by Joe Carter at The Evangelical Outpost.
I loved connecting with others who shared my faith and were deep thinkers, since it had rarely happened offline after I finished school. It was as close as I would get to being part of something like the Inklings - that group of Christian writers which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, my literary (and in Lewis' case, spiritual as well) heroes. Speaking of the Inklings, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the way my blog got its wings was when it was noticed by Jared Wilson, ringleader of what was then The Thinklings, a group blog, which though all male, I considered kindred spirits. They were the first ones to spread "the conversation" to my fledgling blog. (mind you, when I use that phrase, it has nothing to do with anything "emergent")
After 2+ years of blogging daily (or more), I had a solid readership, but the nagging feeling (conviction) that I needed to change my priorities finally got through to me with the news that I was pregnant with my third (and last) child. I had sensed that I should quit blogging when I was about to have my second child, a year before, but when an amazing and generous couple who read my blog gifted me with my first apple computer (which totally converted me) - a macbook (after I joked that I would blog during my labor if I only had a laptop) - I felt that I couldn't throw in the towel just yet, that with this second baby perhaps I'd finally master time management.
That was not to be. And instead of writing from inspiration, it had become an obligation to perform fueled by my desire for acceptance/affirmation/admiration as well as a more pure motive of wanting to encourage and connect with others. But there I had trouble as well - I was too transparent and vulnerable. I didn't "overshare" by today's blogging standards, but it was too much for my personality type (we INFJs are extremely private) and there were other factors at the time (see I've learned to censor myself) that made keeping certain deep things offline even more important (hint: never work out stuff on the internet that you haven't worked out with people in real life first).
The other problem was that because of being a crusader for truth, I was attracted to controversy, or it to me, but whatever the case, it got ugly. The stuff I alluded to in the aforementioned paragraph got mingled in with the online drama, which caused me major distress...and did I mention I was also in my first trimester of pregnancy? That brings me back to the biggest reason I had to quit blogging: my family. I had three year-old and one year-old daughters, with a son on the way. I wanted my attention to be focused on them - after all, they were the reason I was staying home. I also wanted to guard their privacy. And of course there was my husband, too. My online life definitely detracted from my real life - I simply couldn't spread myself so thin, especially being the slow, methodical, non multi-tasking person that I am. I won't even mention how my daily hours online affected the housework...
So that is why I quietly exited my public writing life seven years ago, feeling both relief and grief, but believing I would one day return to my writing (since I have always known - well, since high school - that it's a calling/vocation) when the kids were all in school and I would have my mornings free. That was supposed to have happened this last fall, but three years after I quit blogging, we unexpectedly became a homeschooling family, and I knew things would never unfold the way I had planned, but I also didn't (and don't) regret being on this path...and adventure really...that God has marked out for us. I also know how much it will enrich my writing.
Somewhere in there, I started blogging again (what can I say, I couldn't stay away), but not with my real name and not with any consistency. Thus I had no readership until a couple of years ago when I adopted the Literary Mom pseudonym. I was already a regular Facebook customer (see, even quitting my day blog couldn't keep me offline...sigh...), so setting up a writerly page really couldn't be helped. Thus, instead of blogging, I was blurting out thoughts and curating information for others (i.e. amassing lots of interesting links that came into my massive news feed caused by an untold number of page likes). That continues to this day, though I have "unplugged" from Facebook for weeks and months at a time (fasting it from it for Advent or Lent usually) to sort of reset myself. The internet is paradoxically a perpetual source of angst and delight for me as a person and a writer. I have a love-hate relationship with it and its social media offspring.
This past Lent, I gave up white flour and sugar and alcohol (except on feast days of course), and found myself blogging a little more frequently, which was what I set out to do, albeit half-heartedly. It felt surprisingly right and good. That got me thinking about how long it had been since I had left the God blogosphere; I realized it was exactly seven years. Through the working out of various circumstances (including a reconciliation I consider miraculous) in recent months, I had felt a gentle nudging to come out of hiding, so to speak, but also a sense of trepidation. Nothing had changed for me to be able to suddenly devote myself to my writing - my kids aren't little, but they're still young - and homeschooling is very consuming. So I really wasn't sure what the point in using my real name now would be, yet I also started to feel bothered about my picture being a face behind a book. While it had been apt for a season, I sensed that keeping it (and continuing to not use my real name) began to reflect a kind of cowardice that didn't apply to me. In fact, overcoming fear continues to be a major theme in my life.
So the seven year timing (I'm big on patterns and symbols and rhythms), feeling free to be myself, and rediscovering the joy of writing all gave me the inspiration to throw off the anonymity that bound me and cautiously start a new chapter in my blogging life, going forward with the lessons learned from my previous one, as well as what I have learned during these past seven years of relative reclusivity.
Here are some of my blogging resolutions:
I will not market myself or network or have giveaways (not really my personality anyway).
I will not blog out of compulsion or obligation or on any kind of timetable.
I will steer clear of controversial subjects, especially pertaining to other bloggers and their views.
I will write to express what matters, not just to me, but to others, and most of all, to God.
I will keep my family my first priority and not let blogging distract me or steal time from them.
I will be careful about what I share, guarding my family's privacy and not getting too personal.
If I am ever unsure, I will pray about what to say. I will not impulsively blog.
I will not compare myself to other bloggers or compete with them.
I will not feel compelled to respond to every comment. In fact, responding to comments will be the exception rather than the rule.
My husband likes to pretend he's working in the yard. In fact, we have no yard, but he does indeed work the land...or rather, the containers of dirt that line our outdoor areas. Having been raised by two farmers - one from the midwest, the other from the middle of the Pacific (Maui) - his thumb is greener than most people's. With nothing but a cement oversized patio and a covered porch, he has somehow managed to grow flowers and food. First we inherited potted rosebushes. Then my mother in-law gave us earthboxes, and he started with my favorite summer crops - tomato and basil. As the variety of plants has increased, so has his set up - installing grow lights in the house to sprout seedlings, very creatively using the minimal space available, and adding greenhouse type awnings to the sides of our patio walls.
We also don't have a garage or basement or any sort of tinkering area, which is not that big of deal since my husband is more of an artist than a handyman, but he can build stuff when he's inspired, so when I requested a fountain, he went to work and made one out of large ceramic pots in three different sizes. Then someone gave us a cute pedestal type fountain, so he spent time getting it to function properly. For Christmas, when he asked what I wanted, I requested an outdoor fire pit (I bet you're wondering how we fit all this stuff on our patio, along with a small table and chairs, and still with a little room for the kids to blow bubbles, do chalk art, etc...well, honestly, it's pretty miraculous), which he initially balked at, picturing the diameter to take up most of the width of the patio.
Well...a funny thing happened on Christmas Eve...he stopped into a bakery which our pastor had recommended, and guess who he saw? Our pastor and his family. He told them he was out looking for a fire pit to give me for Christmas, and then they told him that their landlord had left one in their yard which he said they could keep, but they didn't want it...so, you've figured out the end of the story, but the really amazing part was that it was the tall, narrow kind - called a chiminea, since the smoke rises out of it like a pot bellied stove - so it takes up very little space on our patio and it's whimsically charming. Best Christmas present ever. Smitten by divine serendipity once again.
In local literary news...our neighborhood library was a zoo today - they're remodeling the downtown branch, so everyone has been re-routed to ours, which is tiny. I couldn't find my requested books on the hold shelves - turns out there are so many transfers right now that they had to put them all in a room in a back. I've never seen the children's section look so sparse - the EZ readers had been totally raided. I guess this is a good problem to have..but I will be glad in a few weeks when our sleepy library is back to its normal self, complete with our usual librarian - he's a young-ish guy with a ponytail, glasses, who's reserved but friendly - I'm guessing he's into sci-fi and technology and saving the planet. Today it was a slew of older women running things, probably from the main library, which is about five times larger than ours, and not within walking distance...though we rarely walk to ours since we always are transporting so many books back and forth, and it would probably shorten the life of my trusty bookmobile.
It all started with a groupon. Half off the price for one hour in a sensory deprivation flotation tank sounded intriguing, especially after I researched the concept - what's not to like about all that soothing epsom salt and 60 minutes of uninterrupted solitude? Plus, I love the sensation of floating
and serenity and relaxation. Long ago in college, I had once gotten a deal on tanning sessions, and although I never repeated that experience, I did actually enjoy the time spent under those lamps in that coffin-like bed - it was warm and peaceful.
So I bought the groupon - a LivingSocial voucher actually - and when it was approaching its expiration, I finally made an appointment, in fact the only one available, since everyone else was cashing theirs in last minute as well. I started to feel a little nervous and thought about cancelling, but I didn't want to flake on a commitment or lose the money...or most importantly - give in to fear.
The day finally arrived. That day was today. I dropped off the kids at my mom's and drove to the establishment with the float tanks. Upon entering the reception area, I was told the rules (basically the grown-up version of "don't pee in the pool" which includes a lot of other stuff), given a healthy, yummy cookie (which I could actually eat
), and then I sat in awkward silence with two men in the waiting room - one reading a book, the other staring off into space, since his only other choices were our eyes or the ceiling or floor. I sipped water and rummaged through my purse for a hair band I knew I didn't have.
A few minutes later, the owner, handed me a hair band and whisked me to the bathroom where I was to shower briefly. When I was all ready to go, I stepped across the hall to the room with the tank, which was actually just a curtained off area next to another curtained off area with another tank. In fact, the reception area, waiting room, and tanks were all in the same room, or seemed to me to be, but it was very dimly lit and I was mildly freaked out, so I'm not totally sure, but such details have no bearing on my tale anyway.
The tank door was open, so I put in ear plugs, and peered inside. It looked very dark. Indeed, as I stepped in, I realized that when I shut the door, it would be almost pitch black. I was in a quandary. I didn't like the idea of not being able to see at all, nor did I realize in advance that it would be unlighted, but my only other choice was to leave the door open, which would create a draft, and more crucially, only a curtain would separate me from being exposed to the world. I couldn't take that chance. Worse than not seeing would be being seen. I really wished I had worn a swimsuit, but everything I read had recommended against that, saying that the fabric would add weight and create an uncomfortable wet/cold feeling.
So I closed the door and I floated and I didn't like it. Actually I liked the floating, but that was all. I tried putting my hands under my head, like the owner had suggested if I have neck/shoulder tension, which I do. Still, I didn't feel relaxed. I felt existential. I started to think that this is how atheists imagine death - simply ceasing to exist - a place of total darkness...but wait, if I'm thinking, that can't be non-existence, so actually this was more like hell, except for one big difference, I'm not separated from God. But even knowing that, and weakly attempting to pray, my intuitive self couldn't shake the creepy vibe, that something was spiritually amiss in this setting. I asked myself why my soul was at peace floating in a pool or the ocean, but not here. My answer: no sky, no sun, no trees, no space even to bask in the beauty of God's creation and to breathe in his grace.
Breathing. That was what happened next. I realized my mouth was closed, so I tried opening it and breathing more intentionally, but it still felt somewhat labored. Combined with the feeling of stuffiness/humidity and an irrational fear that I might suffer from oxygen deprivation (and even a vague paranoid delusion of a hypothetical situation that someone could be trying to kill me this way), I was overcome by an intense desire to breathe freely and deeply. I opened the door and gulped in the delicious air.
That's when I decided it was worth taking the one percent chance that someone would tear open the curtain and see my birthday suit. So I left the door open and went back to floating. Brr. And still no view. Sight yes; anything worth seeing, no. One thing I knew for sure, I couldn't close that door again. I would not face that darkness and feel the muggyness and worry about my breathing. It was all over for me, not more than 15-20 minutes into my hour.
This is not where my tale ends, however. First of all, I would be remiss if I didn't share one other part of my experience, which albeit a little embarrassing, is worth noting. In fact, it may actually have been the one thing I could take home with me. When I first laid down in the tank, the warm water, the dark room, my body stretched out...well, it put me in the mood. My husband is nearly always in the mood - perhaps it's more accurate to say he's on standby - and I'm mostly not, so this was interesting. It made me think that I should try taking a warm bath on those nights when I'm not feeling it, because it might just open up a seat for him if my love jets are all fired up. Sorry, I couldn't resist carrying the airport analogy further, though of course I will not talk about the flight itself, as this is a G-rated blog...well, maybe it's PG-13.
So where was I? Oh yeah, just getting out of the flotation tank. Wrapped in towels, I tiptoed a little ways down the hall toward the reception area, saw a man and woman seated at the reception desk, and called out the owner's name. Thankfully she hustled over to me, and I explained it wasn't working out. She was really nice and suggested I try folding up a towel to put in the door to let a little light and air in (beyond what the air holes were already letting in, which wasn't much). She saw by the look on my face that I was done, and she said understandingly, "it's just not for some people," and I nodded.
After I showered and dressed, I planned to just take off, but the owner came into the reception area, so because I felt like I should make some parting words, I said somewhat laughingly, "I guess I'm just a child of the light." She replied, "but there is light." I said, "There's a little," and she said, "I mean light inside of you." Then she invited me to sit down. So we had a conversation about God and darkness and love and Rumi and stuff like that. Just your every day Buddhist meets Christian kind of dialogue. Except that I was breathing silent prayers of help for what to say. At the end of our five minute chat, she said she wished I had liked floating because she would have enjoyed having me come there on a regular basis. And then she gave me another cookie. The end.
Well, not really the end. When I was in the car, starting to beat myself up for wasting money on another groupon that didn't turn out to be what I expected...I had an epiphany. What if the whole reason I bought the groupon wasn't for me in the first place. What if it was for those five minutes that God wanted to bless another person and draw her toward him...even to do a little name dropping, just in case...the name of my church, that is, because I know I'm biased but I really think it's the most grace-filled place where I live, and I know people there who have found their way in the darkness to light and healing and hope - hope was a word that really lit her up when I said it, as I was talking of God's restoration, of him one day making this broken world whole, but for now we get glimpses of his beauty as a foretaste of what's to come. The idea of community also resonated with her. She has only lived here a year and she said she really misses her spiritual community back east - I could see that longing in her face.
I reflected back on all my "spa" experiences - most of my groupon splurges have been for food or pampering. Nearly every single one was not the quiet "ahh" time I had hoped for (though still usually blissful, I admit), but instead a deep conversation with the aesthetician, always leading to spiritual things. I realized that because of my lifestyle, in which I am fairly consumed by raising and educating my children, it's rare for me to meet, let alone have hour long conversations with total strangers, especially those outside my faith. Rarer still is for that to happen right after I've just read Romans 5:12-21
, one of my favorite passages about sin and grace, which excellently nutshells the gospel. In fact, I had been so moved by it that I read it aloud to my children just before we left the house, and it had sparked a good discussion between my oldest and me.
One last thing. Part of me wrestled with whether I did the right thing in ending my session early. Granted, I wouldn't have had that meaningful conversation with the owner had I not been "unusual," nor would there have been time for it. But still, it caused me to think about my fears and resistance to being absolutely, totally alone with God. Because I had the opportunity, albeit an uncomfortable one (but aren't those the best for growing?), and instead of praying away the distractions of my own body and mind, I pronounced the unfamiliar not good. I'm still unsure about this. Part of me is very convinced it was a light vs. dark experience and that I did the right thing in choosing the light. The other part wonders if I should have persevered longer, if it would have helped me to more fully trust and rely on God. Either way, Romans 8:28
is the final word and I find that comforting.
I was tempted to title this "My Recurring e-Harmony Nightmare" because that's what it feels like. At first it was humorous. Then amusing. Eventually annoying. And now agonizing. Just when I think it's gone for good, that I've worked through whatever issue it stems from, it returns. Again. And again.
It goes like this: I am 40 (before I was 40, it was my late thirties), I am single, I am depressed, I am feeling my biological clock tick. I feel scared and lonely and desperate. Just when I am going through this panic/dread, I have an epiphany: e-Harmony! But of course! Why didn't I think of that sooner?! I need to get online right now and meet the man of my dreams.
Sometimes it ends right there. Other times just as I'm planning to try it, I realize that I am married and have children...and I am very happy to suddenly remember that. The other night - it had been a while since my last e-Harmony dream - I actually didn't even get as far as e-Harmony, and there was a bit of twist, because this time it was all about wanting children, and being afraid I wouldn't be able to. It was a horrible feeling, so I was whimpering in my sleep, and my husband woke me up and comforted me. That was a better ending than usual, but I still can't figure out why I have this dream over and over, albeit sporadically. It's been happening for the last three or four years or maybe even longer. I would say I've dreamt it at least ten times, about once a quarter, sometimes in clusters, sometimes with long stretches in between.My theories thus far:
1. During my decade long quest for my soulmate, searching for "the one" became part of my identity and purpose in life, so those roots are resurfacing (read more here
2. When e-Harmony came out, shortly after I met my husband, I thought it was really cool, since it used Myers-Briggs personality typing to match people. Part of me was disappointed that I didn't get to try it - not because I didn't think my husband was the right guy for me, but because of my insatiable curiosity.
3. It's somehow representative of all my deepest fears - of unfulfilled longings, unmet expectations, abandonment, inadequacy, etc.
4. It's a sign for me to pray for my single friends and to encourage them to sign up for e-Harmony. I've actually done this. Both praying and nudging.
...Well, when I told my husband what my bad dream was, he had the best explanation yet:
It's so that I'll wake up thankful to God for my family.
I love it when God speaks to me through a serendipity. He often does it through repeated words or phrases that reappear in pairs or clusters - for a day, a week, a season. Some people might argue that my experiences are coincidences or that my mind is finding patterns because that's what it's hard wired to do. Oddly enough, that's exactly what makes yesterday's serendipitous moment profound to the point of transcendence...because it was all about the brain and spirituality, or as the book that started this whole thing calls it: "neurotheology."
About three weeks ago we were on vacation and stopped into a thrift shop where I found a copy of Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning about the Brain and Spiritual Experience
by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I vaguely remembered having read about it and being intrigued, so I was pleased to score such a deal on a relatively new book. Initially, I was captivated, both by the subject matter and the author herself - a "mainstream Christian" (whatever that means) NPR religion reporter on a paradoxically personal and objective quest to explore the relationship between the brain and God.
About halfway into it, though, I struggled with going forward. Two things were happening: 1) my specific belief system was challenged (much like the author herself) by the fact that people of all religions have the same kind of brain activity when meditating or praying; 2) spirituality was defined as having mystical experiences, even though that is not the stuff of day-to-day faith, nor do most Christians (pentecostals aside) have other worldly conversions or supernatural seeming encounters. In fact, many never do.
Still, it was a fascinating topic and I wanted to finish the book, so I kept reading. Yesterday I read about brain scans that scientists studying neurotheology performed on "spiritual virtuosos": Newberg found another peculiar similarity. With both the nuns and the [Buddhist] monks, the parietal lobes went dark during deep prayer and meditation.Newberg calls this "orientation area" because it orients you in time and space: those lobes tell you where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. That is why Sister Celeste (and countless other mystics) described a unity with God, or as she put it, 'God permeating my being' It was the neurological reason that Michael Baine felt a "deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there was never a true separation at all."
Later that day, I received some books from my Amazon wish list that I had ordered using a gift card from my birthday. It was a little like Christmas, getting these packages several days in a row. That night, I took a stack of my new books up to bed, and decided to a read a chapter from each - sort of a literary nosh, if you will. In the introduction of one of them, SoulTypes: Matching Your Personality and Your Spiritual Path
, I read this passage: A group of scientists interested in exploring whether there are brain-based differences that determine our religion are using the type of prayer described there to define who is and isn't "spiritual." In all religions, these neuroscientists say, mystical, spiritual moments happen when parts of the brain (parietal-lobe circuits) go quiet, turning off your ability to distinguish between the body and its surroundings. Without sensory data, you feel a sense of being part of infinity or, for the religious, being "one with God." They use SPECT scans to determine whether the person is having such an experience. Building on this research, books such as The God Gene describe how we either are or aren't wired for faith. Kenneth L. Woodward, a religion journalist for Newsweek, points out the problem with this approach:"The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with specific experiences and feelings. Losing one's self in prayer may feel good or uplifting, but these emotions have nothing to do with how well we communicate with God. In fact, many people pray best when feeling shame or sorrow, and the sense that God is absent is no less valid than the experience of divine presence."
As I read that, I had an emotional experience - not of the presence of God, but of excitement over him having clearly communicated with me. He didn't do it through my feelings, an audible voice, or a supernatural sign - he did it through my life. He did it by leading me in one day to two books dealing with spirituality, which otherwise were totally unrelated, yet intersected at this one specific point, from whence they each went in very different directions. God used the second book to reassure me by validating/confirming the very thoughts that had come to my mind while reading the first book. It was especially powerful because it was merely a sidebar, so to speak, in the second book, and I therefore had no way of knowing that topic would be addressed, let alone that I would discover it just at that time!
Why is that during the most serious part of the church service, I feel the most silly? Well, it came to an embarrassing crescendo last Sunday...
It started months ago with the big pieces of crackers. I didn't mean to grab the one the size of Texas, but there I was crunching away for what seemed like an eternity. The generous portions of matzo continued, and my husband and I started noticing that not only were they the size of large states, they were the shape of them also. So naturally we had to show to each other - "I got Florida." "Mine looks like Utah." "Giggle, giggle, quack" (okay, there were no duck voices - I just know way too many children's book titles). Sometimes we played it safe and had small half moons of gluten-free rice wafers.
Then there was the wine - ruby port actually - encircled by its non-alcoholic counterpart. Having only ever experienced Baptist flavored churches where all we got was Welch's grape juice, and only once a month at that, as soon as we joined a Presbyterian church last year, I knew I would always choose the real deal, just like Jesus drank at the last supper (don't let the teetotalers fool you). Probably because it's still new, it makes me a slightly giddy, like tee hee, I'm drinking *real* wine in church. Silly, I know, but I'm that girl.
My husband, who is funny ninety percent of the time, mentioned to me that he likes taking the communion cup in the exact center of the tray. So I began noticing whether it was there or not when we would get up to the front, and every so often, I would take it just for fun. We'd have a silent chuckle over that - or if he got it, he would give me those smiling eyes and nod of victory.
As if it weren't enough with all the whispers and stifled giggles between us, my mom and stepdad started sitting next to us during the service. They volunteer to prepare communion, so she has the inside scoop on details I would have been better off not knowing. For example, when I showed her the ginormous piece of cracker I ended up with one morning, she told me that it's really hard to break up the matzo. This is funny in itself, but moreso because we're Jewish by birth. She's also the one who told me that it's not kosher wine (I had thought it was Manischewitz) but port that they pour into the tiny plastic cups.
Well, one week ago today, the humorous energy that had been gradually intensifying reached critical mass, and the amusing details combusted into utterly uncontrollable hilarity. I went up to receive the elements, and as I always do, I made eye contact when the person holding the "bread" tray said "His body broken for you," but as I grasped the cracker, I realized I had two pieces. For a split second, I thought of putting one back, but they felt stuck together, and I had already touched them...and I couldn't hold up the line, so concealed my double portion and my amusement, took the cup and looked up for "his blood shed for you," and made my way back to my seat, grinning widely.
I couldn't help but show my husband and my mom the extra cracker, which they also found funny. My mom then mentioned that there are always lots of leftovers, so not to worry, and that my stepdad drinks the extra wine. So there I got this ridiculous visual of him guzzling these tiny glasses of port in the church kitchen, and I could feel the laughter welling up in me. I tried to suppress it but suddenly I noticed all these white crumbs on my black pants, which I battled to brush off of me. A few seconds later, I saw my mom doing the same thing - dusting her lap with her hands.
It was all just too much. My body began heaving and I had to bury my quivering face in my hands, my head shaking and tears beginning to escape the corners of my eyes (later I was to discover I had raccoon eyes from my smearing my mascara). My stomach suppressed the hysterics, but I faintly emitted a sound like sobbing, which is what I sheepishly wished people would think I was doing instead of laughing!
It took me the rest of the communion time to pull myself together, and only just barely. I wish I could say it was holy laughter, but on the surface at least, it sure seemed carnal. I had, week by week, let my mind wander into these trivial details - the literal aspect of the ritual - rather than staying focused on the symbolic significance of the Eucharist. Not that I hadn't tried, mind you, to shut out these distractions (and, in fact, they occur throughout the whole service), but I had not forced myself into submission. In a way, I see what happened as evidence of grace. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I also felt a sense of release and relief - both emotionally and in terms of not being able to project any sort of pious image. That's me, people, showing you that I don't have it all together, not even in the moment when I "should" be closest to the throne of God. Then again, who's to say that in his presence, in the fullest experience of the most important release of all - from sin to freedom - there wouldn't be uninhibited rejoicing? Tears and laughter are made of the same stuff, I've heard it said, or if I didn't, I'm saying it now.
Afterwards, a lovely woman (who happens to be the director of children's ministry) came up to me and said she just had to ask what made me crack up. I told her the whole story (well, not as detailed as this) and we couldn't help but laugh together. Apparently joy is contagious - I almost wish I had let it all out and that the whole room had burst into laughter, but that will probably have to wait until heaven..."therefore, let us keep the feast"...and our sense of humor.