Mercy on me

I’m always gladder to see the birds at our feeder. Maybe I like thinking I’m somehow helping them along through the winter. But mostly I think it’s just their skittery company I find comfort in.

wabi sabi birds by tricia mckellar
© Trisha McKeller

I have a jumble of things to say, and I keep waiting around for them to coalesce into some kind of theme, but that’s not working, so I’m just going to try and work them out here. Your patience please.

Wait. First I need to dry my hair.

I am back at my very own desk in my freezing hallway space. Cobwebs have formed in my absence. My coffee goes cold within five minutes. I rob my husband of our one space heater, shut my three doors (bathroom, playroom, front room), and huddle. Waiting. The whir of the heater’s fan muffles the boys screaming play in the basement. I wait.

Writing is hard work. I tell myself this as I sit staring out the window, trying to silence the other Jennifer who diverts herself with laundry, vacuuming, dishes, online shopping, mirror cleaning, floorboard dusting, recipe surfing—any kind of “productive” work (okay, the online shopping is just a vice) so that she doesn’t have to sit here in this office and work to get what’s in her brain out.

In her Letters Flannery O’Connor writes of writing: “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

I don’t do fiction, but trying to sort out what’s going on—with me, with the world, with my family—can feel a little like pulling teeth. Like O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Let’s start with what seems to be my near-constant state of irritation. (My office is finally warming. The great thing about tiny spaces is that they don’t take much.) One can blame irritation on others for only so long, at which point one can blame insufficient or excessive drug dosages, hormones, weather, inadequate sleep, or an unreasonable workload. But alas, the source of my irritation is my own dark self.

I have a friend I will call November. November is beautiful. She is tall and stately; her face is honest and kind. She is my friend who can see the world clearly, without romance, and still find it wonderful, if hard. November loves Jesus, but she doesn’t talk about loving Jesus. She just loves him. Verses from the Bible mark her refrigerator and her bathroom mirror. Her house is shambly in a wabi-sabi (wabi=simple imperfection, sabi=bloom of time) sort of way, always warm. Her life is often difficult, and she knows that this is partly her own doing. November works at love.

I haven’t been praying much for months. What I mean is, I have abandoned a rule of prayer and mostly resorted to Hail Marys and the occasional Thank You. Like I do with my irritation, I make excuses. I have been making them for so long that they are hardly even half-hearted. I certainly don’t believe them, so I finally gave them up. (Okay, I’m still in the process of giving them up.)  And so the only thing to do was ask for the desire to pray. More simply, to want to want to love Jesus, which is where my friend N came in. She had sent me a letter, a harrowing account of losing her three-year-old in arctic conditions (he had actually fallen asleep under a bed while playing hide-and-seek), that ended with Emmanuel. He is near.

So it was N that made me want to love Jesus again. To rediscover the joy behind/within the religiosity. To shoot for simplicity in the midst of chaos in the midst of a very grey January winter. I began to read three psalms at night: Psalms 50, 69 and 142—which are the psalms of Small Compline. Just three psalms, and not particularly long ones. But they are abundant, and every time I read them, if I pray them, I see myself a little more clearly. Which is to say I am humbled to recognize my lowly state, my need of mercy always.

So I offer here a very Short commentary on a few lines from 142. Just to say how words can speak and show. How God will speak and show through what we read (Scripture or otherwise). How joy can begin to return.

WHAT I READ:  He [“the enemy”] hath sat me in darkness as those that have been long dead… 

WHAT I HEARD:  The Enemy of Souls is certainly a crafty trickster. He starts with a good and then twists it all up until the good becomes a god. My own apathy, sloth, impatience (read irritation) and lust had me stuck in a dark place. Leisure became apathy, which turned to sloth. Having spent way to much time scanning through pages of clothing on an online used clothing site, I felt numb and blank, but I couldn’t stop. I had been effectively set in darkness.

SIDE NOTE (FUNNY STORY):  As spoken by the spiritually discerning and holy monk, Father Raphael (from Everyday Saint by Archimandrite Tikhon): He might, quite without intending to offend, still unerringly tell a sanctimonious priest: “What a snout your face looks like today! Were you watching television all day yesterday?”

WHAT I READ:  …and my spirit within me is become despondent; within me my heart is troubled.

WHAT I HEARD:  The darkness brought on by my own apathy, sloth and greed deceived me into thinking I was good. I was happy. I wasn’t even capable of recognizing my own troubled heart.

WHAT I READ:  Cause me to hear they mercy…Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk…

WHAT I HEARD:  The idea of refuge is forming inside of me. I may write more on this later, but initially, it occurs to me that cultivating a landscape of refuge would make for a self-sustaining existence, which isn’t really self-sustaining at all. It is God-sustaining. I still shy away from religious-sounding phrases like that, but I need to get over it. Because that’s what I mean.

WHAT I READ:  Teach me to do thy will…

WHAT I HEARD:  I am already being taught (read above). This astounds me. I begin to see what might be possible.

WHAT I READ:  In Thy Righteousness shalt Thou bring my soul out of affliction, and in Thy mercy shalt Thou utterly destroy mine enemies… 

WHAT I HEARD:  It is the good of God that brings me out of aforementioned darkness. The idea of God’s mercy destroying something is potent. Mercy isn’t necessarily about comfort or good feeling. It can be sharp and deadly. What’s frightening is thinking about that mercy working on me.

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