Making sense of today through yesterday’s lessons
Dear Future Self,
Do you ever have that experience of going back and reading something you wrote years ago, and being knocked over sideways by the insight you’ve found?
Of course you have. You might be doing that right now.
Well, lately I’ve been revising the Prayer as Desire paper I wrote years ago. The excuse for writing it had been academic: I could get out of re-taking a theology class if I wrote a lavoro scritto for my American professor in Rome. (Um, yes please.) The real motivation was to birth this thing inside of me. Existential longing - the ache of beauty (that was another paper) - the deepest foundation of prayer. Who is God. Who am I.
Big questions. Life-changing intuitions. But they were still echoes, whispers, hints. It’s like I had conceived this life within me, but had never held it concretely in my hands. Do you know what I mean? I knew it on some very deep level, but had never formed it into words that made sense to me and to the world around me. It was still gestating, and I needed it to be delivered.
So with my “midwives” John of the Cross and Augustine - and assisted by the encouragement of Iain Matthews and Christopher West - words were slowly put to concepts, and the concepts landed on paper. It made sense of my reality.
And, apparently, it still does today.
Safe or Alive?
For those of you who know me personally, a lot happened between my time studying in Rome and where I am now. Life turned on a dime. Mysterious illness taught me lessons I never knew I needed to learn. I transitioned from religious life to lay life. And I began to live the very normal but extraordinary life of a 30-something-year-old. 8-5 job. Bought a house. Got a cat.
With the whirlwind of the past several years, I had to let go of a lot. Perhaps the universe was giving me a chance to live what I had written.
Let go of your desires and you will find what your heart really longs for.
(OK, that was me quoting John of the Cross. How do you improve upon a mystic?)
This seems truer than ever in recent months. Through my years of illness, I had grabbed ahold of people and things that had helped stabilize me. This made sense. We all need ways to find stasis, or solid ground, when everything feels topsy turvy. It’s what keeps us sane.
However, as life began to settle, I had a hard time letting go of these wonderfully legitimate ways of coping. They made me feel safe. Unfortunately, safe is not the same thing as alive.
Anxiety crept in the way it does when something is amiss. After several months of discomfort and resistance, I let go. I framed it as an experiment: this might not be forever, but will be at least for a time. Let’s see what emerges when I don’t cling to my safety net.
Cue the Music
Of course, it just so happened that as I decided to let go, this idea bubbled up to revise the Prayer as Desire piece I wrote years ago. Make it an ebook, subtract the theological terms, add a little more tangible experience. Benign, right?
Benign—or sneaky providence.
(Er — ehm, substitute “loving” for “sneaky.”)
Of course, when I let go of the safety net, what emerged was desire. I could tell a lot was going on interiorly when I wanted to run back to my beautiful net and be warm and safe inside. Or when I’d start Netflix bingeing. Or start feeling sad for no apparent reason. These were symptoms of something deeper.
(The image: running around with my little cup, asking everyone to fill it. Netflix: “will you fill my cup?” Friends: “will you fill my cup?” Beautiful, alluring safety net: “will you fill my cup?”)
Prayer as Desire reminded me that discomfort is always an invitation. Undergirding the surface desires and the frantic search for a cup-filler— was the invitation to stop and stay. To not run from the night, but to wait there for the divine romance. It’s what I (and saints and artists and armchair existentialists) call the ache.
Oh, we all love to run from the ache. It’s far more comfortable to move, do, binge, laugh, scroll, create, and love-make— than to be still and wait for Love to Make us.
So that’s where I am now. Remembering the wisdom of years ago, that I need to hear today: be here, Kelly Jean. This ache is a promise. It’s the chasm within, created with the promise it will be filled. As I offer up my little cup (“please, sir, may I have some more?”) - I turn around and realize there is a waterfall.