Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Born Again


And she brought forth her firstborn son. (Julie Vivas)

Some Christmas pageants have plastic baby dolls stand in for Jesus. But the liveliest of Christmas pageants have a real live baby (If their parents will allow them to be so tortured!)

And when that live Baby Jesus makes his dramatic debut – all eyes are on the little tiny fellow. You can hear a pin drop as the holy family goes up to Bethlehem and climbs the altar stairs. Heads turn and hearts melt as all eyes are on the miniature messiah — propped up in Mary’s lap — a little bitty baby, who cannot walk, who cannot talk, cries at night, and messes in his pants.

Tame and tender, the grandeur of God is reduced to a babe in arms. The Madonna and Child are everywhere this season, in paper, and plastic, and plaster: fronting Christmas cards and frozen in Christmas crèches. Sentimental and sweet, safe and sound. Round yon virgin, mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild.

Have you ever smelled a newborn baby? Have you ever stuck your nose in their neck? There is no other scent like it: a scent of the holy, a whiff of the divine, the aroma of life itself.

And if you have, you know then and there that you are hooked. Your ears tune in to decipher their every whimper, their every gurgle and cry.

Teach me, little one, how to love you.

This helpless little person wins over your heart and takes over your world – a subversive little savior.

It’s been said that Christmas is for such as these. And why not? On Christmas Day, God came into the world a screaming, scrawny infant, small and insignificant. Just as we all did once upon a time.

One Christmas, I read the story of a little fellow, a six year old named Pete who ripped open his presents and pulled out a dapper new bathrobe. His dad admiring it said, “Wow! That’s an awesome bathrobe. I wish I had one just like it.” Pete paused for a little quiet introspection. “You really like it, Dad?” “Yes, Pete. It’s the coolest bathrobe I have ever seen.” “Well, Dad” says Pete. “You can have it. You can wear it when you get little.” (The Christian Century, December 1998)

Jesus says it quite plainly “unless you turn and become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Now to be sure he’s not suggesting we literally regress to cooing and babbling, pablum and Pampers.

No, Jesus emphasizes a very special quality of life, which he himself chose.

Like a child, God himself is unafraid to be needy. God himself is not ashamed to be helpless, hungry, lonely, and small.

God gets little on our account, choosing to be born poor in a simple town to an ordinary girl. It is almost too great a mystery and yet it makes perfect sense.

This little Messiah is God on the move: moving from the powerful to the powerless, from success to failure, from the strong to the weak, from the high to the low.

And if we let this Little One in, maybe — just maybe — he can creep through our cracks, mend what is broken, sweep away some tears, lighten some burdens,  brighten the darkness.

If we find a little room in our inn, and invite him in, with this Little One we are never totally alone.

This is how the subversive little savior breaks open our souls.

Love is why God gets little at Christmas.

And for love, may we, this Christmas, get little too.




Angelic, Manic and Magic

angels victorian

“Two angels sitting on my shoulder”

I  grew up believing in angels and archangels and all the choirs of heaven. Angels graced the holy cards that marked my place in my St. Joseph missal. Angels glittered on Christmas cards and sat on top of Christmas trees. Glass angels shone through the church windows and marble angels guarded the church doors. Their wings shimmered like silver. Their names sounded like spun gold – Gabriel and Raphael. Angels flew like the wind and they could dance on the head of a pin. My world was awash with angels.

At Holy Family School the angels that mattered most were of more of a humdrum kind. There was the angel who carried your prayers to heaven – if your hands were folded just right. And each of us little Catholic kids had a guardian angel  — who watched over us as we crossed the street like a crossing guard. Then there was a little nameless angel who sat on your right shoulder like Jiminy Cricket — the clear voice of a good conscience for a third grader. And the greatest grade school angel of them all was the veritable star of the Christmas Pageant –“The Angel of the Lord”.

“And behold I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto to you this day  in the City of David is born a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

These were my lines! I got the part and a star was born.

Three days a week for three weeks straight, we  rehearsed the words we would recite and the carols we would sing. I remember beaming with pride as Sister Inez Patricia blew on her pitch pipe as we burst into “Joy to the World”. But then Sister’s nose curled up like she smelled cauliflower cooking.

“Someone is flat here, let’s start again.”

Secure in the knowledge that I had  the voice of an angel — the Angel of the Lord. in fact — I sang even louder the second time. I virtually shouted in order to drown out the voice of that poor soul who could not carry a tune.


This time Sister looked as if steam was coming out of her ears. “Peacock, it’s you.” she said. “You’re out.” Wings clipped, this Angel of the Lord fell from grace, a third grader in  disgrace.

A place I was not totally unfamiliar with.

I did not grow up in a fairy tale household, but a crazy and chaotic one. I had, of course, an alcoholic bipolar mom and a workaholic dad and five wild and wooly siblings. But my childhood nevertheless was still somewhat enchanted. Now at fifty-nine, I can see that the guardian angel  that actually protected me. in fact,  was a hypomanic nine year old cherub. And those hypomanic years got that little cherub through a hellacious home life and all eight grades at Holy Family School.

A little mania is a gift that can go a long way. Euphorically it lifts your spirit. It can give you angel wings and let you hear the angels sing. Miraculously you open your mouth and out comes the voice of an angel. And you believe beyond a doubt and in your heart of hearts that God wants you in his choir.

And as long as you can keep your feet on the ground, it’s okay to walk around with your head in the clouds. And so for so many school days, I did just that. All through high school, all through college. Into married life, professional life, my seminary years, I did just that. A little mania is a marvelous management tool. And even better, prolonged mania is euphoric and delightful and delicious.

But it is also dangerous.

Tripping the light fantastic, I have fantastically overspent my bank account. Flying down the highway, I have flown over guard rails and totaled my car. Staying up nights on end, I have endlessly done myself in. Fearing no evil, I have lost my moral compass more often than I care to confess.

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

So goes The Steeldrivers’ song, a bipolar twist on “Angels we have heard on high….”

“I’ve been known to gamble on a long shot
Leave my better judgment on the rocks
When it comes to takin sides or takin chances
There’s a part of me that didn’t come to talk”

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

“I’ve spent a lifetime listening to the whispers
Always try to heed my second mind
Never done nobody wrong on purpose
But I’ve come mighty close a couple times”

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

I can blame the mania. I can blame the darkness. But in the end — bipolar or not – I have only myself to blame for my risky behavior — for my poor judgement — for my skewed thinking. There is no guardian angel to save me from myself. I am left to work out my own salvation.

Medically, chemically, prayerfully, therapeutically, responsibly, faithfully, fitfully, anxiously,  and o so gratefully. By the grace of God, I am left alone to work out my own salvation — in the choir of angels.

And now – Sister Inez Patricia be-damned – I continue to make a joyful noise. Fifty years on I have slummed in the soprano section of church choirs for Sundays and seasons both high and low. Singing is cathartic. Singing is ecstatic. Singing is therapy. Singing is a balm for my bipolar soul.

So friends, won’t you join me in the choir of angels?