Friday, October 24, 2008

Spiritual Exercises IV

This is not something I've published in our unit's newspaper, but figure is worth sharing with you. But first, an email, a bit redacted to protect identities, I received recently:

I would like to start coming to services. Also, would it be possible to talk with you again next week? [My wife] told me she had emailed you. I'm glad she did that for us. Made me feel like she is trying to help me. I said the "two words" you gave me yesterday. I got goose bumps, that felt like someone heard me said "ok". I look forward to saying the other two tonight. Talking to you has taken a great weight off my shoulders. Thank you.

Now, an explanation:

Friends of mine in AA long ago pointed out two sentences in their AA "Big Book" to me: "The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it." [italics theirs] That seemed like a pretty good sentiment, but I wondered what it meant in practice.

I'm a slow learner, and so I do a lot better when things are presented simply and unambiguously. But I'm also an alcoholic, so I naturally complexify everything beyond human comprehension.

Couple all that with an overly developed sense of needing approval for "doing things right," and a desire to outperform others (as long as it doesn't take too much energy, time, or other investment on my part) and one winds up in a quotidian quagmire of questionable quandaries.

(Seriously, now: When was the last time you encountered an alliteration like that?)

No wonder I drank.

Anyway, over the years I've learned that simple is preferable to complex, and this applies to all aspects of my life.

I suppose it's a corollary of the "one day at a time" adage of which my friends who go to AA meetings are always reminding me. Simplicity is especially important in terms of the spiritual life.

This became very clear to me one evening when I was in the Midwest, talking with an alcoholic/addict who was incarcerated (yet again) on account of driving under the influence.

We'll call him SPC C (though I didn't know when I met him that he was a Veteran). His father had called one of the Jesuits in my community at the time to ask whether he'd go visit this wayward son in the hooskow.

Now, Fr. Tom is a wonderful, sweet man, but a bit timid, so I suspect the prospect of visiting someone in lock-down because of 'the drink' was probably a bit much. He asked me to speak with the Dad, and to go visit the son, seeing as he knew I used to drink.

Turns out that getting into the facility was no problem. It was getting *out* of it that presented some challenge.

It took me six weeks of classes, and getting a special photo ID, and getting fingerprinted, and a background check, and other annoyances just to be guaranteed safe passage out of that place. SPC C's dad was getting pretty annoyed with me, and almost accused me of malingering. Easy to understand, from his perspective!

The evening finally arrived. I showed up downtown at the appointed time and place and had to surrender everything metal I had with me. At one point I felt sure the Corrections Officer was going to ask for the rivets from my black jeans. I suspect the building had been the inspiration for the "Adams Family" house. I'd never gone to a place like that before, and felt massively intimidated.

I was shown into a room and then left there, alone with my thoughts. I was reminded of the scene from the movie Amadeus after Salieri has been institutionalized. As I sat there, locked in all by myself in this scary house, I expected to hear moans and cackles off in the distance at any moment.

SPC C finally showed up and was ushered into the room by his handler. He seemed annoyed that it had taken me six weeks to show up down there, though perhaps because I was wearing a Roman Collar (yes, Elizabeth, I *do* own one!) he didn't press the issue too much. I decided not to mention that I felt annoyed at everything I'd had to go through just to be able to meet with him....

Soon he launched into a maudlin tale about how sad and pathetic his life was, and how understandable that was because God and the Church had let him down. He whined on for an eternity, it seemed, as I just sat there, listening. He was explaining how he'd been told by the staff at his institution that if he wanted to get -- and stay -- sober, he'd have to work a spiritual program. But that he knew that would be impossible because it was clear that God was out to get him and the Church was full of hypocrites and on and on and on. There was no way he could pray, and he certainly refused to go to Mass.

Outside, the rain was turning into snow.

After he'd been droning on for what seemed forever, I interrupted him by saying, very loudly, "SHUT ___ ____ UP!" (You can fill in the blanks.)

I thought he might be going to have a heart attack, he was so startled. Perhaps it was the volume. Perhaps it was the vehemence. Perhaps it was the Roman Collar, or perhaps the combination of the invective and the vesture and the volume and the vehemence.

He actually was speechless, with his eyes bugged out, and his mouth open.

Made my night, actually.

I then proceeded to tell him to forget everything he thought he knew. Clearly, whatever he'd thought he'd learned hadn't worked to keep him clean and sober!

The only thing he needed to know about the spiritual life and prayer was this: In the morning, just after waking up, say "HELP ME." In the evening, just before going to sleep, say "THANK YOU."

Don't address it to anyone in particular. Don't analyze it. Don't do the Serenity Prayer at AA meetings. Don't do the prayer at the end of meetings. Don't do anything else but "HELP ME" and "THANK YOU."

I told him to keep doing that until I told him to stop.

The crazy thing is, that here it is years later, and SPC C has been sober quite some time. He now prays at home and at meetings and at Mass. He has a rich spiritual life today which has seen him through much adversity since that night we met.

He says it all began with "HELP ME" and "THANK YOU." SPC C continues to pray those prayers today.

Starting simple works. Keeping it simple, works.

Some days, to be honest, I wake up and am not sure I believe in anything, but I make sure to say "HELP ME" and "THANK YOU." Inevitably something will happen -- a phone call, or an email, or a chance meeting in the hallway, or a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or I'll hear an evocative melody -- and my faith will be restored.

But when it seems as if everything is broken (especially me), and it's beastly hot, and I'm far away from my loved ones, and 'the sun is burning out' (as Tom W and Annie L say), if I can just remember those two sets of two words, I'll be OK.

Which brings me back to the email at the beginning of this post.

The young man who sent me that note has been Down Range for almost five years, continuously. His lovely wife has a rich faith life, but this young man stopped believing in God and going to church when he was 11 or 12 years old.

BLUF (bottom line up front, in 'Army-speak'): his wife has had it and wants out. Part of the problem is their lack of common spiritual experience. He's in so much pain, he finally asked to see a Chaplain -- something he'd told himself he would never do. He wants desperately to salvage his marriage, and is even willing to go to church, if that's what it takes.

I told him that's laudable, but since it's been so long, and since he's told himself for all of his adult life that he didn't need or want church or God, it would probably be a good idea to revisit the decision he'd made as a pre-teen, but slowly.

My hunch is that children who make adult decisions probably don't make the best decisions...

I suggested he might want to start very slowly, by simply saying "HELP ME" in the morning and "THANK YOU" in the evening. By the look of the note he sent me, it seems as though he's begun that journey, and already has noticed something.

I'm not sure what it means, but getting "goose bumps" and having the sense that "someone heard me [and] said OK" is an incredibly rich beginning.

I, too, have had those goose bumps since being Down Range.

Perhaps if you're having a tough time with the spiritual life, a simple "HELP ME" in the morning, and a "THANK YOU" at night might prove helpful to you, too.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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1 comment:

Mary Coady said...

Thanks for this. I've started doing this simple (simple is usualy the best) practice every morning and evening, and will keep it up.


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