Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Steadfast Spirit

May is almost over and I have barely seen or experienced any of it. It took forever to get over the virus that hit earlier in the month. There have been house chores galore (the vast bulk of them handled wonderfully by Warren) as we get ready for company. There has been a lot of rain and my garden bed is ankle deep in lush grasses and weeds, while my puny seedlings sit on the sidelines, waiting to be planted.

It's not been a satisfying month for me. Too much of it has been spent coughing. And the rest has just been a plain, old nose to the grindstone kind of month. I told Warren we have not taken any time just to do something fun. I didn't mean go on vacation or have a Big Night Out. I just meant something simplea walk, an ice cream conethat wasn't tied to a chore or a job or an obligation or a meeting. He nodded. We then both turned back to our respective tasks to get more chores done.

I have spent more time than usual this month thinking about dying. No, this is not an announcement. My health is good. My cancer is stable. But I have of late been more contemplative about the reality of living with cancer, the impact it has hadfor better and for worseon my life, and the inevitable return of it somewhere in the future. Those thoughts tend to curve towards death much like a winding road whose end is over the hill still but not so distant as to fade into the far horizon. I shared some of these thoughts with Warren recently, adding that I thought death will be interesting. I am pretty sure that last comment caused Warren to take a deep breath before replying quietly "I know you have been thinking about it."

In the midst of muddling through May, I stumbled across a book, Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris, that has caught fierce hold of me. I am reading it slowly. (I tend to read swiftly, so the fact that I am taking this work slowly says something.) Norris writes about the concept of acedia, which can mean spiritual slothfulness, but which also signifies a greater spiritual malady of just not caring. In her book, she explores acedia in the context of her own spirituality, her work as a poet, her marriage, and the death of her husband.

For Norris, acedia is the inability to care about anything important, whether it is one's relationship with God, one's relationship with a spouse, or one's relationship to the community and society as a whole. Acedia is not depression (although they are related), but rather an intellectual and personal disconnect from caring and from being committed to anything. It is the response of "whatever."

Norris looks often to a line from Psalm 51: "Put a steadfast spirit within me." She has spent much time in Benedictine convents and monasteries and draws upon those spiritual communities. She often turns to early Christian writers, especially those from the fourth centuries, for solutions to being overextended and over stimulated to the point that she is numb.

Her reflections speak to me as I try to scale back on the external chatterthe visual and audio clutterthat filters into my life every day. It makes sense to me to continue to shut down my home computer early and often, although I still haven't weaned myself of it over both days of the weekend. (Question to self: why do I need to be on a computer on Saturday?) We don't go out to eat or run to the mall just for "something to do." We don't watch television. (Warren does listen to a lot of Cincinnati Reds baseball on the radio, which is a minor issue not because I am opposed to radio or baseball, but because I am not a Reds fan.) 

But it is still hard. I live in the world, not in a bubble, and recognizing and taking part in the world is a much a rebuke of acedia as prayer.

Norris also writes about turning down the internal static as well. Turning to her fourth century guides, she counsels: "Perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores; remember that you are susceptible, at the beginning of any new venture, to being distracted from your purpose by such things as a headache, an intense ill will towards another, a neurotic and potent self-doubt." She reminds us that those early writers were living and struggling in the desert, trying to make it bloom. She goes on to discuss using the repetitive, plain rhythms of lifebaking, walking, pulling weeds, doing dishes every night with her husbandto ground herself in her beliefs.

I nod as I read her words. Potent self-doubt is always trying to plant itself in my mind. Combined with the headache, the nagging cough, it is too easy to sigh and say "whatever" when asked to care, when asked to contribute, when asked to pray. By focusing on those humblest of tasks, balking perhaps but doing the steps nonetheless, I am able to give todaythis moment, this lifeits due time and attention. By grounding myself in today, I can move further down the road towards that unseen but certain destination.

I spent a chunk of the winter exploring issues of faith at the behest of my friend Katrina. In the end, her firm nudge propelled me back into the ocean of belief again, having lingered for the longest time on the shore. With the thoughtful words of Kathleen Norris, I am able to lean back against the stern of my boat and gaze up at the Milky Way.

For most of human history, we have navigated the seas by the stars. Put a steadfast spirit within me, Lord, that my hand stays steady on the tiller as I sail along under the endless heavens.


Sharon said...

A thought provoking post, once again, April, one which I will take to heart. I'm also interested in reading this book!

Hope you are feeling better! I think the whole country is experiencing the wet wrath of mother nature. June is coming....

Deidra said...

Thank you for sharing your life - your living - here. Your words wash over me as I read, and I reach for the remote control to turn down the news and all of its reports about weather and politics and money which have gotten out of hand...out of anyone's ability to control them. Your honest telling of where you are right now - without trying to figure it all out, or provide answers where there are none - makes me catch my breath and finally turn the TV off.

Put a steadfast spirit within me, Lord. May it be so.

Linda said...

So much to think about here April. I have been trying to quiet my outside world in recent months, but it really is difficult to quiet the inside. At night my mind just spins with thoughts that are anything but quiet.
I am learning to give even that over to Him (albeit rather slowly).
Thank you for sharing your heart.

Janis@Open My Ears Lord said...

As I have gotten older and there have been many changes in my life, I find myself thinking about the inevitability of death a lot more often. And thinking about how much closer it is.
I hope that these thoughts will bring me to turn down the noise and lean more into the Lord. Yes, Lord, I definitely need a steadfast spirit and a heart that pursues You to the utmost.
Thank you for this very thoughtful post and for sharing your life here.


Marilyn Yocum said...

THANK YOU for the new word that describes a state I am familiar with and times when I have needed to intentionally pull away from the chatter and get back into the basic rhythms of living life.....thereby coming back to life. Wonderful, April!

see you there! said...

Beautifully written. I've read some earlier works by Norris and now I'll look for this one.


Bristol said...

Hi April! Came over from the High Calling... This is a beautiful, well-written post. I love Kathleen Norris, but I've never read this one. I really appreciated your reflections on where her words find you in your own journey. I feel I may be exuding a bit of that "whatever" response in my spirit lately also. It's hard to stay spiritually/emotionally engaged in challenging times. Thanks for your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Great article. Maybe its clearing the hill of fifty, that I've recently felt burned out on t.v. commercials. I calculated that I've been watching t.v. now for about 45 years!
And I also have instinctively given up the news for the most part, it tends to have a dampering effect on my spirit. Of course I fall short,but it is my hearts desire is to be filled with His Spirit with every moment left of my lifetime. Allowing negative media to fill my ears and influence my mind, doesn't exactly renew a steadfast spirit in me. It takes a quiet environment to hear His still small voice. And a quiet environment to keep singing my little songs of praise to Him, which invite His Spirit to inhabit them.Keep singing Saints.