Thursday, June 30, 2011

Today's prayer.

Feeling grateful. Because I have seen that, without him, I could lose him.

If time were ever to wear you away
If circumstance should blind me
If age should bring a dark night on my soul
If fear and doubt should bind me

Please stir my heart
Take me back to the fire
Bring to me a recollection of joy
Renew my first desire

If pains and trials come to me
And I cannot stand strong
If fools adjust my theories
To believe Your truth is wrong

I swear it never will happen to me
But how can I know
For Peter swore the same to Thee
O, hear the cock crow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Love, power, and Hans.

I've been thinking a lot lately about love and how to communicate love. One of the biggest catalysts has been the debate over same-sex marriage in New York: I think the debate points to some disagreements so fundamental that we, as a society, have lost the ability to even have this debate. And so, there is no debate: There is, in the end, only power.

But power is not credible. Power is not satisfying, I believe, even to the one who holds it. Love alone is credible, and as a civilization I believe we have lost who love is: the true, the good, and the beautiful.

And, hey! I've read books about love... So here, with a few revisions is a re-post of my analysis of the third chapter of Hans Urs von Balthasar's Love Alone is Credible.

Hans presents two approaches to speaking of the love of God.

Eros. First, we can begin to think in terms of personalism: One person cannot presume to master intellectually another person's gift of love. I can't break down my husband's love empirically or even explain it in terms of his "humanity"--the minute I do, I lose him.

Beauty. The second approach to love is through beauty. "In the experiences of extraordinary beauty--whether in nature or in art--we are able to grasp a phenomenon in its distinctiveness that otherwise remains veiled. We encounter something we could not have invented, but which is nevertheless deeply compelling. It satisfies us in a way we could not have satisfied ourselves.

These two approaches are, of course, just "signs." Von Balthasar emphasizes that, unlike a piece of art, God's love is not something "produced," nor does it exist in order to "fill my need." But both eros and beauty come together and are transcended by God's revelation of his love.

Divine love replaces human love as "agape"; divine beauty is "glory." Von Balthasar insists that both terms are needed for us to perceive that majesty of divine love: because it is beauty, it possesses an authority. When this authority shows itself, it demands our obedience; we long to be obedient when we see it, because it is at once so glorious and so intimate.

He has a beautiful little meditation on authority in the middle of the chapter--addressing the authority of the ecclesial office (bishops), the Scriptures, and the "living proclamation of the Word." All three, he says, are "merely word." They do not take on flesh until God himself takes on flesh: "The sole authority is the Son, who interprets the Father in the Holy Spirit as divine Love."

The authorities we obey here on earth have authority in obedience to Christ's mission. They--the Church--"prepare man to perceive the manifestation of God's love and to give it its due." This is a lovely way to think about Church authority and all the "rules" and doctrines; they have authority insofar as they exist to prepare us to see God face-to-face.

Von Balthasar leaves us with a warning: We must interpret Christian revelation "either wholly in terms of the self-glorification of absolute love or else we simply fail to understand it."

Receiving the beauty of love--the glorious majesty of God--requires the eyes of faith, eyes that neither presume too much nor shrug with false simplicity.

On groaning.

Ah, I love those desert fathers. They are always groaning. Unlike me, however, in their groaning they hear a voice:

I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, "Humility."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Myself and not myself: Bringing back skepticism.

The postpartum depression diagnosis introduced me to the world of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. I went, curious but reluctant. I associate psychology with Freud and Jung, not bad men, but perhaps superficial men.

On the other hand, I know self-knowledge has always been an important part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we do not know our true condition, how can we undergo that transformation, that metanoia, from misery into joy? So much of our human suffering is rooted in isolation: from others, from creation, and from ourselves. Redemption begins when the divine life bridges those chasms between us: knowledge and love of all that the Father has created makes us at once more like God in his knowing and in his joy. Depression healed.

And so, I began the sessions with a secular psychologist with a mixture of apprehension and hope. At that point in my struggle, my basic instinct was, "Why the heck not? Self-knowledge tells me: I need help!" I had no idea what to expect or what that help would look like.

The beginning sessions were familiar: Know thyself.

Naming my demons (only figurative demons; she is, after all, a secular psychologist!) was the order of the day. Anger, envy, self-hatred... We examined various situations I found myself in, and I tried to uncover hidden emotions or "narratives" that were expressing themselves in depressive thoughts and behaviors.

All good. It was even fun to spend an hour every week just examining my conscience, even if the doctor couldn't absolve my sins.

But then.

I began to notice that we were hitting a wall. Every time I would regale her with a story of angry feelings, she would listen and say, "Good for you!" I would mention that I told my husband I felt angry: "Good for you!" Hidden anger was bad. Expressing my anger was good, she explained, because I would name it for what it was. It would no longer have the power to depress me or manifest itself in chronic pain.

Then she counseled me: "You need to tell Todd (or person x, y, or zed) that you feel angry. Don't try to explain it or fix it. Just tell him and ask him to know your anger with you. Be transparent."

"I don't want to always be angry," I said. "I hope to someday receive all these stresses of life with more grace. More graciously."

She smiled and fretted, "Oh, dear."

The message was: This anger is your self. Receive yourself. Express yourself. Do not allow anyone or any religion or any code to suggest that your experience of yourself is untrue or deficient. It is what it is. Be. Any attempt to transform yourself will mean more pain, more depression.

Again, this all sounded vaguely familiar. There is that strain in Christian thought, too: God accepts us as we are. We come to him broken, and he sees our brokenness and has mercy.

She, "Have mercy on yourself, just like you believe God has mercy on you."

My self. My experience. My truth.

So, I bit the apple. I took that fruit and ate it.

It was death. Not to be too dramatic here, but that self-affirmation almost literally the death of all love. Once I started down that path of "express your anger," "receive all your emotions as gifts," I felt great. It felt good to just let it all out, like a 3-year-old at the end of a long grocery trip. "You make me feel trapped! I feel rage! Don't take this personally, it's not your fault, but dammit am I angry with you!"

That is not love.

You see, I began to notice that the "truth of my experience" was that I expressed my feelings and let it all just hang out precisely when love called for discretion. The truth of my experience was that I stayed silent and failed to express joy exactly at those moments when charity demanded I speak. The truth of my experience of self is that myself is unreliable, weak, and destructive. Left to myself, everything I touch will turn sour, because I touch with both love and hate, joy and anger, healing and cruelty.

Because myself is fallen. That is the truth of myself. My sweet, lovable, sister Ass self --and I do love myself, both with a perverse and a true love-- is in desperate need of more than herself.

I returned to the psychologist's office one last time before we moved away forever.

I gave her a biography of Teresa of Avila, who knew both light and darkness and chose the light. And I said, "I believe suffering is an essential part of the human condition. I cannot escape it."

"Good," she smiled.

"And I believe I can be changed. I can in future receive suffering more graciously because of the life that is in me."

"Oh, dear," she fretted and shook her head. We parted in disagreement. I'm sure she's expecting to land right back on another leather couch within months. I may. I may not.

I do not believe those hours on her couch (yes! I actually sat on a leather couch!) were wasted. In fact, in a sense I found myself. But instead of naming myself holy, I named myself wretched. Along with acceptance of my wretchedness, I rediscovered my true and unfailing hope. The fulfillment of hope is not in me, but in something outside of myself.

How is it that any therapy --without reference to repentance or transformation-- could touch and heal the effects of that original wound in my soul?

I reject the idea that myself is immutable, unchanging, something I can abase only at my peril. I am more than pop-psychology can affirm; the psychologist has no idea how fearfully and wonderfully I am made. I turn instead to the Author of myself, who is not myself. He is greater. He is the awful, awesome, loving Father, who alone is perfect and who alone is holy. The eternal Word, the Logos, the Crucified One who lives and through whom all things have their being. The Paracletus, the Comforter, and Spirit. The three in one and one in three.

I reject self-actualization in favor of being a creature. I'd much rather my being be written by him --a God like the God of the Scriptures-- than by me. A healthy self-skepticism alone allows me to freely--and without any fear--submit once again to his healing touch.

A self-skeptic's Bibliography:

Frederica Matthews-Green, "Self and Skepticism" podcast

Peggy Noonan, John Paul the Great

Blaise Pascal, The Pensees

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Of fathers and Trinity.

Jeffrey Goldberg shares an inimitably tragic and glorious tale of a father's martyrdom. The story of Thomas Vander Woude's plunge into a septic tank to save his drowning son moves the heart as few others can.

Not every father is faced with the choice to either let his son drown in sewage or drown in sewage himself. But I believe every true father--every father who chooses to live his fatherhood--can identify with Thomas's brave decision. The gift of life may begin at conception, but the father continues always to give life--abundant life--to his child.

This is true of those priests who constantly die to themselves in order that we might live the sacramental life.

This is true of those adoptive fathers who give more abundant life to an abandoned child.

This is true of the Father of Lights, from whom every good and perfect gift comes. He made us, we belong to him, and he constantly holds us in being.

As Thomas held his son above his own submerged head.

Fatherhood is manhood, and manhood is fatherhood. I can think of no greater testimony to the power of grace and the beauty of human nature than the father who loves his children.

A blessed Trinity Sunday to all our fathers, of all kinds.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Hiding Place.

The holding pattern has broken, and the Ahern clan is living... all over New England for the next month. Our worldly possessions (the least important part) are holed up in North Haven, CT. The Scientist Dad will be living and working in Amherst, MA. And the girls and I are up in the wilds of NH, enjoying the finer things in life at my parents' home.

I have always told my mom that, even long after her last child left for college, that she is still a stay-at-home mother. She chose not to pursue a career outside the home with her free time. She finished a Master's degree in theology and makes beautiful art on commission. She creates a home. And she has remained available to her grown children.

Together, she and my father have made for us a hiding place: a place, or sometimes a phone conversation, to which we can withdraw with our burdens and cares and fears. They are a place, a home, a conversation of love where we can enter without fear of any sort of rejection. They are there. And as my father is working and bringing home the bacon, as it were, mom's frying it in the kitchen.

Ah. Metaphors are not my strong suite.

How beautiful, though. We have relied on them for many material gifts over the years of grad school, illness, and sundry. There is no greater gift, however, I could have asked than this home. All my mother's years of daily grind for her are, for me, a joy and rest. I realize when I am with her that all the days that are, for me, grind and stress in my own home will be, for my own children, an unsurpassable gift.

Nothing was wasted. All was grace and love. In my hiding place with them, I have hope.