Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Rattling Beads & Grounding Souls

Listen here.

In times like these, when we feel the world reeling and careening out of control, prayer can help to keep us grounded. Rooted in our God, the ground of our being.

Prayer comes in a bazillion forms. Out loud. Silent. With the Book of Common Prayer in your lap or with no words at all. In meditation or shouting at God from the rooftops. There is no right or wrong way to pray.

So, consider now how you find God in prayer. And how God finds you.

I found God at the end of a rosary.

A little white plastic rosary. This little rosary came with a little white chapel veil, a little white missal, all tucked into a little white patent leather pocketbook.

Tres chic, I wore it over the shoulder of my little white organza dress with the satin sash. My hair was curled and tastefully pulled back under my little white lace veil. And for the final touch of piety, I wove the little white plastic rosary around my fingers.

My First Communion extraordinaire.

Blessed with a second grader’s growth spurt, I was paired with Jimmy Simkewiez. Blonde hair, blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, his Ivory Soap, squeaky clean aura made me weak in the knees.

Together we went forth to receive the holy mysteries. We knelt and simultaneously stuck out our tongues. The priest placed the paper-thin wafers in our mouths – so sacred we were not permitted to touch.

My sweet Lord. My sweet Lord. My sweet Lord.

As the beads of the rosary slipped through my fingers, I discerned God, in the body of my seven year-old partner, so sacred and so holy, I was not allowed to touch.

And henceforth, at every first Friday Mass, at Holy Family School, preparing to receive the holy sacrament, we would make regular rounds of our rosaries.

One “Apostles’ Creed”. Ten “Our Father’s”. Fifty “Hail Mary’s”. Ten “Glory be’s” – and we were good to go!

Shoulder to shoulder, kneeling on vinyl covered kneelers, packed into the pews, I prayed and prayed – mostly unsuccessfully – to once again – discern the body of my God. But Jimmy Simkewiez, preoccupied with baseball, paid me no attention. It was not to be.

So my rounds of the rosary became nothing more than routine, the religious duty of a second grader – possibly keeping me out of endless and pointless years in purgatory. So I prayed those rounds — just in case.

And then came Friday, November 22, 1963. The third Friday and not the first, that fateful Friday, the good sisters hauled all eight grades into church.

“ Take out your rosaries, children. Our president has been shot and is in grave danger. Let us pray, fervently that his life be saved and that our country be delivered from tragedy.”

You have to remember, that this was the time of bomb shelters, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We each had a cardboard shoebox, a “survival kit”, packed with Spam, fruit cocktail, Hi-C and a can opener, stored in the school basement. We all had practiced “duck and cover” under our desks.

Only seven years old, I was certain that the world was coming to an end. And not knowing really what “fervent” meant, terrified, I prayed my rosary at the top of my lungs. OUR FATHER! HAIL MARY! GLORY BE! O Lord, O Lord, O Lord, can you hear us? Please, please, please, hear us and deliver us.

At a time of national crisis, both the same and different from the viral one we now find ourselves in, that little white plastic rosary was my lifeline, tethering me to my only hope – a God I feared but did not know. The God, I hoped to God, who would save us.

Somewhere along the way of my Catholic school career – I put my rosary away. Or I misplaced it or I lost it. In any event I pretty much forgot it. Simultaneously, I pretty much forgot about God and was pretty sure also that God had forgotten about me too.

My rosary was relegated to history — buried deep in a drawer somewhere. My rosary seemed forever lost — until — insomnia resurrected my childhood ritual.

You don’t need a rosary to pray the rosary.

Those beads are imprinted on my brain and those prayers are embroidered forever into my memory. So instead of counting sheep, I started making the rounds of my rosary on my fingertips. Saying and not actually praying my childhood prayers, I would rattle just enough finger beads to lull me into sleep.

Until — I realized I was not alone. And Joani, who believed in nothing, started experiencing something or maybe even someone — of who or of what — I knew not a thing. All I knew is that this rosary connected me – concretely and deeply with some thing or someone cosmic. Crazy as it seemed at the time, the rosary grounded me in something or someone – most holy.

And on one terrible, terrible, indeed the most tragic day in the life of my family – the day my brother’s young wife and little boy – were killed in a car accident, reciting the rosary in my head, was all that kept my psyche from flying apart. Reciting the rosary in my head was the only thing that kept me tethered to the ground. Reciting the rosary grounded me — be it fleetingly – to the ground of my being.

And collectively in our present moment, the impact of the outbreak of the corona virus is as deeply personal as it is communal. Anxiously and with great uncertainty, it’s ripple effects are profoundly felt. The ground beneath our feet feels as if it is giving way. How can we possibly stay grounded in such disruptive times?

Lots of ways, of course, think back to the toughest times you have been through. How did you do that? What helped you to heal? Where did you go for solace? And most importantly who walked beside you through it all?

Remind yourself that you did get through it. With God’s help and likely the help of many, you emerged on the other side, standing, ready to greet another day.

And I bet for many of you, at your darkest hour you found yourself on your knees in prayer.

Prayer itself can be an answer to prayer.

Long ago in ordination process, the rosary once again was my answer. Going through rounds of interviews with the Commission on Ministry, one very insistent interrogator relentlessly pressed me to answer her question:

“Tell me about your prayer life.”

“Well, I use a rosary.” I told her.

“Tell me more.” she said.

“Well, it starts out as rote, but then the rhythm clicks in, and then the silent words of the prayers become like a mantra.”

“Tell me more.” she said.

“They are the same words, I learned as a child, recited like nursery rhymes really, but much, much deeper, so much deeper.”

“Tell me more.” she said.

“Holding onto the rosary is like tapping into something sacred. It tethers me to all that is holy: a deep well, an aching abyss, an emptiness that isn’t empty.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“Our Fathers, Hail Mary’s, Glory be’s – I clutch the beads and I feel connected, contemplative, calm – not to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost per se – but to mystery, Mysterium Tremendum – for which there are no words.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“Well, I keep one by my bedside, an Anglican one. I carry one in my pocket or sometimes I wear a very little one-decade Catholic one wound round my wrist. It’s tactile, it’s electric, it’s kinetic, an immediate and direct connection.”

“Tell me more”, she said.

“It’s literally connective tissue, connecting me to the Body of my God – Jesus, you might say.”

And at the name of Jesus, miraculously, at last she seemed satisfied. Either that or we simply ran out of time.

When I was ordained, a dear friend gave me a present: a rosary with weathered glass beads and a tiny crucifix. Repaired with picture wire, it was obviously beloved, old and worn. It was blessed with a lifetime of prayer. Bead by bead, it got her though a lifetime of sleepless nights.

Sleepless nights just like ours.

Bead rattler or not, though we cannot kneel in the church together, let us gather our hearts and souls around as if we were. Be you an 8 o’clocker or a 10:30 worshiper, let us be in prayer for one another. In prayer for our neighbors. In prayer for the whole wild world.


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Silence. Quiet. Shhhh!

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The Zen master of  the library –  recognize her?

 I am not by nature a quiet person.

Third child in a household of six, I had to speak up loud and clear to be heard. An extrovert par excellence, I am compelled to fill awkward silences in awkward conversations. A social butterfly — who works in a library – I am often shushed by the Head Librarian. In fact, last year at my stellar annual review discussing “room for improvement” my boss told me:

“Joani, you need to remember to use your library voice.”

Yes, my library voice.

As the noisiest person on staff  I am positioned in the perfect place – at the circulation desk. I love getting to know whoever comes through those front doors — studious students, various visitors, crazy clergy, fastidious faculty, steadfast staff.

Checking books out — I deal in public relations. Checking books in — I do a fair amount of pastoral care. We talk church politics. We talk reading assignments. We talk family. We talk churchmanship. We talk theology. We talk mental health. We talk small talk. We even talk a little bit of trash. (Shhh!)

I am a noisy and priestly librarian want-to-be. An Anglican who LOVES the OUT LOUD prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, I would make a very lousy Quaker.

A very lousy Quaker indeed.

Yet even in this loud mouth beats a somewhat contemplative heart.

I am no stranger to quiet. In fact, I love quiet. I live on my own and all alone and very rarely am I lonely.

I live in a third floor walkup. Two bedrooms and two baths — it is my sacred and solitary space. Alone in my cell, I am free to walk around in my skivvies and turn up the volume on my Spotify. I love to light my gaslight fire and curl up on my couch with a good book and a bowl of cereal.

It is my sanctuary.

I walk alone. An Olympic walker, I constantly check the stats on my Fitbit. I have taken 6,011, 861 steps  — alone. I have walked 2546 miles — alone. I have burned 1, 387, 139 calories — alone. Well mostly alone.

Walking  — my head is freed up to think about everything or nothing at all. Silently walking the streets of Capitol Hill, the Old Town waterfront, the wetlands at Huntley Meadows Park, St. Theo’s Holy Island –I think, I write,  I fantasize and pray.  While walking, I meditate, negotiate, and investigate.  I regulate, navigate, and instigate —

silently walking alone.

Stopping along the way  — I go coffee shop  hopping — alone. Silently sitting, nursing my latte, watching people come and go, I catch snatches of conversations – little bits of meaning – in all kinds of languages – haikus of wisdom. I pull out my notebook and write and write and write.

In high school,  I’d   go —  alone — to THE LIBRARY – the Library of Congress reading room. A hushed sanctuary, it smelled of wood polish and old books. I’d do my homework and write my essays on those lovely wooden desks lit by green shaded lamps. Here in this holy of holies, I first read Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”

 Journal-like it is not a journal. Theological, it is not the least bit systematic. Seemingly random, it is deeply reasoned. Mystical, it’s down to earth meaningful.  A monk in a Trappist monastery, Merton writes as a man of the world.

A man alone — a man who practices sacred silence — he has much to say. And what he says — he says in a few paragraphs, with a few sentences, and with a few well chosen words. (All the better for that long ago high schooler to understand.)

“Above all, these are the day-to-day impressions, the simple conjectures of a man in his own world with its own challenges. It is a monastic world, and doubtless strange to those who have no experiences of such a thing. Yet it is, I think, open to the life of experience of the greater, more troubled, and more vocal world beyond the cloister. Though I often differ strongly from the ‘world’, I think I can be said to respond to it. I do not delude myself that I am still not part of it.”

I am in no danger of entering a monastery anytime soon. But Merton does teach me that I really do have monastic moments. These monastic spaces help contain this  manic brain. These mindful and meditative places help expand this melancholy soul.

“One has to be alone, under the sky before everything falls into place and one finds one’s own place in the midst of it all…a spring morning alone in the woods…the ceremonies of the birds feeding in the wet grass.”

 Silence, quiet, shhhhh!

JoaniSign

 


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“Slow Down, You Move Too Fast”

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In the woods and in the groove, Sabbath time.

Remember “feeling groovy?”

This aging hippie certainly does.

Groovy is that “mellow yellow” mood so celebrated in the ‘60s. Groovy could be chemically induced tripping in your friend’s, Mary Jane’s basement.

Or groovy could be musically induced,  mind melding with the vinyl grooves of your favorite LPs. (Joni Mitchell being my drug of choice!)

But the hippie dippiest way to get your groove on was by “getting back to nature”.

Not too much nature, mind you, but just enough nature to pay quick homage to Mother Earth. Planting some vegetables, growing some “herbs”, skinny-dipping in the lake.

More recently, I got back to nature again, on retreat at Shrine Mont, with the good folks of Emmanuel on High, where,  Margaret Wohler, a gifted naturalist and artist at Huntley Meadows Wildlife preserve, introduced us to the lost art of illustration.

Like  “Lost Children in the Woods” she introduced us to “The Forest Unseen”.

Drawing, she said, helps us to pay attention. It helps us to slow way down. And her “way” was drawn out with lots and lots of extra “a’s”. We each got an art kit with a sketchpad and pencils.

“All you need are five basic shapes: a circle, a dot, a line, an angle, and a curve.”, Margaret said.

“Choose a spot to sit. Jot down the location, date, time, temperature, cloud cover. Close your eyes and listen for just a minute – 60 seconds. Then open your eyes and list everything you heard: birds, honking horns, wind in the trees, screaming babies.”

“Draw the big stuff first, then the little things.”

“Stay put. Look up. Look around you. The more you stay put the more you see. The more you see, the deeper you will go. The deeper you go, the slower you will go. And the more slow you go, the more you will know — not just about what’s is front of you – -but the more you will know about what’s going on inside you.”

(At least that is what I heard Margaret say.)

And so I sat for an hour in the woods, drawing trees and rusted out, old, discarded bathtubs — meditating and feeling groovy.

Recently this Celtic Warrior Woman trained to take on the three-day Warrior Challenge in The Patriot Running Festival in Williamsburg. And seriously train I did: walking up to 37 plus miles a week for 12 weeks for the Friday 5K, Saturday 8K, and Sunday 1/2 marathon.

That Friday morning, waiting for the Amtrak train to take me south, I sat down with my sketchpad for just the second time since Shrine Mont.

Now I have sat in this Civil War era station a bazillion times, idly and obsessively checking my phone, waiting on trains that rarely arrive on time. But this time, in the most mundane of places here I was – sketchpad in lap and pencil in hand.

I looked up and noticed the enormous, glass inset doors that lead to the tracks. So gorgeous, I had never noticed just how lovely they were – with simple, geometric patterns, arches, scalloped edges, and lots of rectangles.

I can draw this!

I had an hour’s wait for my train and thought sketching the doors would be a pleasant ten-minute diversion – maybe fifteen, max. In fact, however, I got into a groove and it turned into a sixty minute, mellow, mindful meditation.

First I sketched the doors, then the windows, the lanterns, the tracks and the buildings beyond, then the trees through the glass, the travellers on their way, their rolling bags and backpacks– all framed by those lovely doors – that I had so long ignored.

On the other end, my dear, dear friend, Pam picked me up in Williamsburg. She and I have been the best of friends since our seminary days – over twenty years. Very different people, we very much enjoy each other’s company. We gossip, laugh, shop, watch chick flicks, catch up, and confess all that is going on in our divergent worlds.

And best of all, we do the latter, floating in her pool.

The weekend was pretty well planned around my three day’s walking the Patriot Running Event —  and  Pam was charioteer-ing me wherever I needed to go. (Thank you, Pam!) But between the races, the two of us planned to pack in as much playtime as we possibly could.

So before I went, I gave myself permission — that while I was indeed getting my warrior on – it was perfectly okay to opt out of any or all parts of the Warrior Challenge.

Too much “works” and not enough “grace” can make Joani – a manic, manic soul.

So all three days we floated, floated in the pool — lazy and stretched out in the sun, gazing up at blue skies, listening to the birds and the wind in the trees, listening to the murmuring of the filter motor and the rumbling of lawn mowers.

And best of all, floating with my best of friends, Pam and I talked and talked and talked. And just as lovely, we floated comfortably in silence.

So slow, so blissfully slow.

Slowing down and feeling groovy.

So I walked the 5K on Friday. Yea!!

I walked the 8K on Saturday. Yea!!

And yes, I have the medals to prove it (though one is made of plastic!).

And then on Sunday, I chose Sabbath time. Not church per se – but St Mattress in-the-Springs.

I slept in, stayed in my pajamas until 10 o’clock, drinking coffee with my friend, went to brunch at 11, came home and slipped into my swimsuit, slathered on the  SPF 100  –

And floated, floated, floated – my ½ marathon – floating in Pam’s pool.

My mania calmed.

My mood lightened.

My outlook brightened.

My spirit lifted.

My soul restored.

God, in Her Heaven, all right with my world.

Slow, slow, so slowed down.

Kicking down my cobblestones.

Feeling groovy.

Slow down, friends, don’t move too fast.  God wants you to make your morning last. And just like Her — on that seventh day —  take some sabbath time and get some rest. The world can revolve without you — at least for a little while.

Thanks be to God.

JoaniSign