Why I Pray

13th century Madonna with Child in the Italo-Byzantine style

13th-century Madonna with Child in the Italo-Byzantine style

More often than not, I pray out of desperation.

I’ve reached the end of my rope. I summon all my resources, and they come up short. My emotions have taken possession of me, body and spirit. I’m angry at someone else and disgusted with myself. I’m drowning in depression, overcome by anxiety, paralyzed by fear. I throw myself into God’s lap, bury my face in God’s shoulder, and cry out, “Help me, Father, for I cannot help myself” or “Get me the hell out of here!”—words to that effect.

I usually refer to God as “Mother-Father” when invoking God-as-parent, but in the throes of hopelessness, Father is often the appellation from my heart. I don’t know what that says about my family of origin—both Mom and Dad were always there for us to lean on. Probably it stems from my earliest prayers, from the time I first understood that I could present my ugliest, most self-absorbed, least honorable self to the Creator and be embraced with unconditional love and limitless compassion—and in the 1950s, in my Christian community, we prayed to God the Father.

Sometimes, however, I need a supernatural mother. Though I wasn’t raised Catholic, I turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, when I’m suffering parental pain. In extremity, I don’t worry about whether my prayer is theologically correct or if I’m committing sacrilege.

In fact, praying is the one thing I do without wondering if I’m doing it wrong. All I need when I show up is honesty. I can pray in my pajamas. I can use unholy language. I can blame and curse and carry on. I can think, as Anne Lamott puts it, “such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Anne Lamott has written much on how our brokenness allows God to heal us. “On the spiritual path,” she writes, “all the dreck and misery is transformed, maybe not that same day, but still transformed into spiritual fuel or insight.” There’s a great deal of dreck on my spiritual path.

I pray to confess and repent.

In the safety of God’s presence and the assurance of God’s forgiveness, I open the closets where the skeletons and monsters are. I bring them into the open and give them a once-over. When I know what they look like, I can steer clear of them. They are not “me.”

I pray for stuff.

I’m not ashamed to say that I come to God with wish lists. I pray for prosperity but also for compassion. I pray for healing—for myself and for others—but I also pray for the greater blessing. I might want a motorcycle. God might want me to have a pickup truck. I’ll take the pickup truck if it’s offered, trusting that I’ll know the reasons for it down the road.

I pray not so much to change God’s mind as to keep tabs on my own. I lay my petitions before God in order to remember what I want, which is ultimately who I am. Following the path of least resistance won’t take me to my destination. Left to chance and circumstance, my hopes and dreams will get lost in the distractions and emergencies of day-to-day living. They’ll succumb to entropy and gravity if I don’t tend to them. Pretty soon, I’ll forget where I meant to go in the beginning. It’s okay if my goals change and my passions evolve. I just don’t want it to happen because I lost track of them.

I make a ritual of love.

Jan Havicksz Steen The prayer before the meal

Jan Havicksz Steen, The Prayer before the Meal

Out of love and compassion, I offer prayers of intercession. Where I feel less than loving, I pray that my hostility and fear will be transformed.

Any number of physicians now agree with Dr. Larry Dossey that to exclude prayer from their practices is as negligent as to withhold medicine. Some believe in the power of thought to heal or to harm. Prayer, they say, is a form of thought that heals, whereas hate and fear are unhealthy for the bodies that hold those feelings and for those around them. Whatever the scientific rationale, one study reports that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe in the power of prayer to improve the course of illness. When I pray out of love, I am certain that in some way I bring sacred energy to the situation. Because my love is tainted with distrust and insecurity, I ask God to filter out the toxins and pollutants. Hate can’t keep its footing in the honest intention to shine more brightly in the world.

Thus, when I pray, I cultivate a spirit of gratitude. I practice thankfulness as I once practiced the piano—to form a habit that is more dependable with every repetition. I make gratitude a ritual—deliberately bringing joy into my field of awareness until it’s all but effortless. I believe in ritual. Some find it tedious. For me, it brings both comfort and inspiration.

I love the idea of the Rosary: the intention to pray announced with the sign of the cross; the tactile familiarity of the beads; the well-known phrases—“Give us this day our daily bread…. Hail, Mary, full of grace… pray for us sinners…. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end….” Orthodox Jews recite approximately a hundred benedictions every day. There are worse ways to spend one’s time than these.

I pray to invoke all that is sacred, regardless of where it resides.

Fra_Angelico,_Fra_Filippo_Lippi,_The_Adoration_of_the_Magi

The Adoration of the Magi, Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi

Some sincerely spiritual people believe that each of us embodies all holiness. Whether or not it’s true, to me it feels lonely. My primordial self believes in mystical forces and sacred powers that come only when they are called. It is said that angels will not violate our free will. Maybe it’s my dinosaur intelligence speaking, or maybe I’m hedging my bets, just in case Michael really is the angel of protection or of my life’s purpose, as Doreen Virtue claims.

I am a monotheist. I believe in one God, whose essence is love. How God dispatches helpers or emissaries transcends my human understanding. In fact, almost everything about the Divine is beyond my ken. Knowing, to the extent such things can be known, that God is love and God is supreme, I consider it not only possible but likely that God sends angels and other benign spirits to guide and protect us.

I pray to rest my spirit.

Prayer is not meditation, whose benefits are well documented. Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and the risk of heart attack and stroke, and to improve creative thinking, compassion, and emotional well-being. I promote meditation at every opportunity, and I meditate regularly.

Prayer is a different practice, though I bring elements of meditation into my time of prayer. I try not to make praying a mental exercise with discrete steps and a checklist. When I’m troubled, I might literally pray without ceasing. When I feel fear or antipathy, or when someone says, “Pray for me,” I pray right then and there. When I sit down with my prayer list, I begin mechanically—prayer is, among other things, a discipline—but at some point I let go. I pray to enter the collective unconscious, to immerse myself in life’s mighty ocean.  I let the prayer be bigger than I am. I lean back on the the universe, as one leans on the water when learning to swim, and trust that it will always hold me up.

In the mystical communion that is prayer, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve prayed for five minutes or an hour, whether I’ve prayed daily since childhood or I’ve never consciously uttered a prayer in my entire life. My spirit rests and is refreshed, and it arises pure and new. Love cleanses me and fills me, and I am indestructible. This is why I pray: To invoke the mystery of transformation; to love as God loves; and to walk in the world with fearlessness and grace.

 

Virgin Mary in prayer by Sassoferrato 17th century

Virgin Mary in prayer, by Sassoferrato, 17th century

WHY I PRAY
Act One

I pray for many reasons. Let me say at once: I’m
not above presenting God with this and that
request. But better yet, because it never fails: I
pray to give my mind a rest. The second I’m
awake—before I even make the bed—it races off
without premeditation. Where to go, and for
what purpose? Whom to benefit? It doesn’t
care. To be in motion is its sine qua non. If it
hopes in passing for a map to manifest, or for
some audible advice on navigation—”Stop”; ”Go
right”; “Go left”—that must suffice for caution,
and for prayer. At length it pauses, takes a
breath because it must (exhaustion trumps
intemperance) and—thus deactivated, and
belatedly remembering that haste makes
wreckage, cringing at the thought and
wondering what finer things it might have
done with less velocity and more compassion—
makes a small apology to Heaven.

“God,” it says,
“I did my best. Please fix it.” Then it doubts,
regrets its course, and promises thenceforth to
be more circumspect and not to ever leap
before it looks again. And this is when I catch
up and my mind pretends it hasn’t wasted an
entire day behaving like a cocker spaniel
wearing roller skates and never mind the frail
old gentlemen and soft-pink roses, daddies
walking babies safe in sturdy strollers; never
mind the halt, the lame, the twilight, and the
stolen kiss it passed because it couldn’t stop in
flight to pray. Look what you’ve done, I say. See
what you didn’t do?
My mind and I survey the
damage. It’s… not awful. Not by half. Expecting
a calamity, we got a gift.  While we were out
attacking entropy, we might have missed the
chance to be delighted by the shadows and the
rabbits and the white moon fading in the west,
but we did more than just not die today. We
lived, and it was effortless.

Mary Campbell
April 2, 2016

 

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Will Guilt Make You Good? (cont.)

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Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

GRACE means you’re in a different universe
from where you had been stuck,
when you had no way to get there
on your own.
—Anne Lamott, Plan B

What’s So Bad about Feeling Good, Part 2 of a True Story

Elizabeth Anna

Elizabeth Anna today

Sister Alma Rose’s friend Elizabeth Anna is 65 years old. As I mentioned in “What’s So Bad about Feeling Good, Part 1,” Elizabeth Anna, who has been living in Wales or some place for the past several years, came back to Hilltop last month for a visit, and to decide if she wanted to move into the house outside of Hilltop where she was born and raised, which is a fabulous mansion with servants and poultry and some sheep and cows and lots of horses, not in the mansion, of course, although Elizabeth Anna says that it would have been just fine with her daddy if the horses had lived in the house, because he was a breeder of racehorses, like his daddy, and his daddy before him, et cetera, but he is deceased and so is Elizabeth Anna’s mother…

King Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

King Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

…who was descended from the Welsh noble Owen Tudor, whose wonderful Welsh name was Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwr, of which I am sure the pronunciation is not as silly as it looks, but the important thing about Lord Tudor, or whatever they called him, is…

…he was the grandfather of King Henry VII of England, who was the first Tudor on the throne, and after him came his son, King Henry VIII, he of the six wives, and then Henry died and his heir, a poor, sick little boy whom nobody really cared about because his mother, Jane Seymour, was dead, had to be the king, under the name of Edward VI, while powerful men ran the show and otherwise neglected him, and when he died his half-sister Mary became Queen Mary I, who started out being popular but, unlike her half-sister Elizabeth, Mary didn’t think that she could rule without a king, so she married King Philip II of Spain, and then, of course, she was supposed to have a bunch of strapping sons, but she was unable to do that, and Philip was canoodling with Elizabeth when he wasn’t away fighting in some war, and Mary became bitter and dogmatic, and she was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” because she had hundreds of people burned at the stake for not being Catholic

… and then she died and Henry’s bastard daughter Queen Elizabeth I was crowned and things in England got back to the way they ought to be for the forty-five years or so that she was queen, until she died in 1603, and that, unfortunately, was it for the Tudors.

Catherine_of_Valois

Catherine of Valois

But Elizabeth Anna is not exactly related to the kings and queens, just Owen Tudor, who had children like there was no tomorrow, including but not limited to six children with his secret wife, Catherine of Valois, who was also married to King Henry V of England, and this is the honest truth, but in medieval England that sort of goings-on was just about normal for the aristocratic set, as was the way Owen died, which was being beheaded.

Elizabeth Anna’s burden

Now, here is what Sister Alma Rose told me about Elizabeth Anna, and this is a true story:  She has had a very unhappy life. Her preposterously wealthy parents — who actually lived rather simply themselves, no fancy cruises, no showy diamonds or rubies or furs, and who were also very generous to the poor and suffering — were determined not to spoil this pretty little girl, though she was their only child and though she was growing up on a fabulous estate in a stunning house surrounded by rolling hills on which to ride her horse, Robin, named after Robin Hood, the legendary English outlaw, who, in the 12th century or thereabouts, stole from the rich and gave to the poor, according to folklore. And that maybe ought to have set off warning bells, not Robin Hood, but Elizabeth Anna’s naming her horse after him.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

“Her folks taught her to be generous and to share,” Sister Alma Rose recalled, “and she was such a serious, conscientious little thing, she was always inviting the poor children of Hilltop to her house and stuffing them full of homemade bread and muffins and cream-cheese pie her mama fixed, and giving the little girls her pretty dresses and her dolls. And, Fanny, don’t y’all know that one day her mama heard Elizabeth Anna weeping piteously, and she asked what was the trouble all about, and Elizabeth Anna said, first off, that she, Elizabeth Anna, was the most selfish girl ever born and Jesus must hate her because she would never let the children ride her horse, Robin, and the other thing she was sad about was, she said, that she had given practically everything she had to the poor children until she was literally wearing the same too-small dress to school every day, but the little girls never wore the clothes she gave them and they still lived in their poor falling-down houses and they still weren’t getting enough to eat and Elizabeth Anna didn’t know what to do. And, Fanny, I have to tell you, a jealous, spiteful woman in her church, whom I went and had a chat with when I found out what she done, was just making everything worse, and Elizabeth Anna always came out of Sunday school trying to hide her tears.

Children in India, from www.colorado.edu

Children in India, from http://www.colorado.edu

“She told her mama that in the Sunday school class, her teacher was unkind to Elizabeth Anna because she was a little rich girl and she should be ashamed of being wealthy when children were naked and starving all over the world and here was Elizabeth Anna with her mansion and her horses and her rich parents who could give her everything she wanted.

‘Somebody should have helped

“This was a child who tried to take all the troubles of the world on her little shoulders at the cost of her own joy, and somebody should have helped her long before they did. But folks looked at her and all they saw was a little girl who could have anything that money could buy.

Mississippi Freedom Summer, from w3.iac.net

Mississippi Freedom Summer, from w3.iac.net

“Of course, coming of age in the 1960s, as Elizabeth Anna did, she was ripe for recruitment into the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, and she was beaten and arrested more than once trying to help black folks register to vote, and her mama and daddy was so proud of her, not understanding. Because it was a wonderful thing that was done that summer, but Elizabeth Anna never should have been part of it, because she wasn’t strong. All she did was she got more and more depressed. She looked around and saw the pitiful way that many folks lived, and she felt like however hard she worked and however much she gave, it would never be enough. She told me it seemed like every time she did something to help one poor, desperate soul, ten more sprang up in their place.

Elizabeth Anna's sunroom

Elizabeth Anna's solarium

“And at the end of that summer Elizabeth Anna’s mama and daddy got a phone call saying that poor Elizabeth Anna had tried to kill herself with pills, which nobody knew where she got them, but somebody had found her passed out on the floor of where she and a bunch of kids was living, and got her to the hospital, and as soon as she was out of danger her dear mama and daddy took her home. They moved her bed into the big solarium, which was windows on three sides, and they filled the room with ferns and Elizabeth Anna’s pretty furniture and all her books, and that was where Elizabeth Anna lived for the next five years, with a psychiatric nurse called Eleanor, who was an angel if there ever was one, staying with her.”

‘Suffering is suffering’

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Sister Alma Rose told me that for the first six months Elizabeth Anna didn’t say a word. She just sat in her chair, dressed in a beautiful old-fashioned white cotton nightie, looking out the window while Eleanor washed her and braided her hair and talked to her as if Elizabeth Anna were paying attention, which she might or might not have been. And sometimes Eleanor would say things like, “How much good would you be doing in the world if you had died? And look at you now, as sick with guilt as you’ve made yourself, could you even take a pen in your hand and write one single letter to a soldier in Vietnam? Or serve one single meal in a soup kitchen?”

Eleanor had her own pretty bedroom right beside the solarium. She told Elizabeth Anna’s mama that she, Eleanor, had been a social worker and she had loved the work, having, she said, “a stronger sense of who I was than that sad little girl in there ever had” (gesturing to the solarium) and being “called to the job out of love and not out of guilt.

Vignettes of Vietnam, epmediagroup.com

Vignettes of Vietnam, epmediagroup.com

“I quit because the bureaucrats and the regulations and the paperwork kept me from doing my real job,” Eleanor said, and then she went to school to become a psychiatric nurse, “and that was a calling too.

“Suffering is suffering,” Eleanor said, “whether the sufferer is rich or poor or black or white.”

After a year or so back home, Elizabeth Anna, who now says she rose from the dead by a miracle of God’s grace alone, because she sure couldn’t help herself — Elizabeth Anna asked Eleanor if she could find out about someone serving in Vietnam who wasn’t getting any mail, and Eleanor did, and that was the first of thousands of letters that Elizabeth Anna wrote to men and woman in uniform.

To be continued…

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

A Different Universe

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Henry VIII died at the Palce of Whitehall, 1547

Henry VIII died at the Palce of Whitehall, 1547

Listen to Your Broccoli

Fear is negative energy projected into the future —Charlene Bell, Taking Charge: How to Coach Yourself to Quality Living

ANNE BOLEYN; original portrait is on display a...

Anne Boleyn, 2nd of 6 wives of Henry VIII

There are no rights, only gifts Margaret George, The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers

The sun warmed your shoulders, and you felt glad. Or the wind whipped off the Channel, and you pulled a woollen shirt over your head and rejoiced in every fibre of that wool —Margaret George, The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers

From Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had no way to get there on your own. (54)

Anne Lamott - April 24th in Oak Park

Anne Lamott — Image by karla kaulfuss via Flickr

“God” could be considered an acronym [for] gifts of desperation. The main gift is a willingness to give up the conviction that you are right, and that God thinks so, too, and hates the people who are driving you crazy. (2)

[Quoting Mel Brooks, The 2000 Year Old Man] “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” (21)

The spirit within… [is] the secret place that, as Robert Frost wrote, “sits in the middle and knows.”

Robert Frost's Farm

Robert Frost's farm; image by StarrGazr via Flickr

Be kind, and breathe, and take a walk. (24)

You feel unprotected and small and buffeted by the wind, and this defenselessness is a crack through which fresh air and water can enter. (24)

Tomb of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi; Mevlâna ma...

Rumi's tomb in Kanya, Turkey; image via Wikipedia

All wise people say the same thing: that you are deserving of love,[1] and that it’s all here now, everything you need. There’s the memoir by a Hindu writer, It’s Here Now (Are You?), and one of my priest friends says the exact same thing, so I think it must be true—that when you pray, you are not starting the conversation from scratch, just remembering to plug back into a conversation that’s always in progress. (25)

When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility. (33)

Anne Lamott at Books by the Bay

Anne Lamott at Books by the Bay — image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

“Help” is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray—with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing…. As Rumi wrote, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” (37)

Jesus said, “The point is to not hate and kill each other today, and if  you can, to help the forgotten and powerless. Can you write that down, and leave it by the phone?” (55)

One secret of life is that the reason life works at all is that not everyone in your tribe is nuts on the same day. Another secret is that laughter is carbonated holiness. (65)


[1] I don’t think she really means this. Not “deserving of.” Having read the rest of the book, I think she believes that the act of creation is the motion of love.



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The Guru

Country Road

Image by annamon (Livin' la Vida Loca) via Flickr

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Sister Alma Rose is on vacation

All Paths Converge in the End

by Mary Campbell

A real spiritual teacher assists you in finding Yourself. They help you find, not their truth, but your own Truth Within. Teacher is a mediocre word for someone who does this; spiritual sponsor would be a more accurate description. Or reciprociter. Personally, I’d call them Friends and Family, that’s Who We Are. In Equality, who has greater Equality? The one who knows more than somebody else, or the one who shares what they understand? —Will on Care2

Journey to Bliss

The gift of any true teacher to his or her student is (1) to impart a love of learning and (2) to supply, or point to, resources… then to sit back and watch the student devour the resources and look for more.

The teacher walks a fine line, as does the writer. At what point does information become dogma? I believe that the tenacity with which some “teachers” impose their views on others has to do with a belief in mortality. “Gotta hurry and get my perpetually angry 35-year-old son on medication, or into meditation and on a spiritual path. His anger is ruining his life.”

Bristol Maraton, 2006; photo by Steve Gregory

Bristol Maraton, 2006; photo by Steve Gregory

But everything snaps into place when you understand that everyone is already on a spiritual path. Your path, and my son’s, will undoubtedly be different from my path, and I can accept that, even be joyful about it, because I know that the spiritual journey spans uncounted lifetimes, and that all paths converge in the end.

Prayers are powerful

Many pray for my son and their prayers are powerful. Occasionally I am sad to see my son struggle, every day, just to be. His brother and his sister both seem to have slipped, with varying degrees of ease, into their “place in creation.”

But I also see spiritual progress in my son, and it has been many years since I have despaired of him. When he was a little boy — who did not know the meaning of serenity — I tried to impose my remedies (my truth) upon him, because his chronic anger and unhappiness broke my heart. This is what mothers do, a lot — try to fix people, especially their children — until they (the mothers) have used themselves up.

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

So, making a virtue of necessity, I surrendered him to God, I practiced not worrying until not worrying became a habit, and in the process I came I understand that we are all in different places on our journey to bliss, and that there are no wrong paths, merely detours.

Many people have asked me how I learned to stop worrying, how I ceased feeling guilty and having regrets. Well, as someone whom I once had to study in World Lit. said, “I have been to the abyss.” When a hand finally reached down to pull me out, I promised God that I would always be happy and I would never fret about anything again.

I have died and been reborn — quite a number of times, actually.

GraceAnne Lamott writes, “means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had no way to get there on your own.”

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    Demon Lady Number Two

    Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

    Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

    If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

    I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish. —Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

    The Gospel According to Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the Banker’s Widow

    Some people just have way too much time on their hands, Sister Alma Rose is always saying. 

    Sister Alma Rose is so full of love that it spills out of her like a tumble of wild roses on a venerable trellis. I don’t claim to be able to see people’s auras — though I wish I could, and angels, too — but Sister Alma Rose simply shines. She even glows in the dark — not like a ghost, or a firefly, or something radioactive… more like a wisp of cloud as it slides past the moon.

    wild_roses_istock

    Not that she’s a pushover. I’ve seen her good and mad a couple of times, such as when she and Cousin Dulcie were making plans to steal Janet, who is now Sister Alma Rose’s yellow labrador, and, further, to put the fear of God into the old drunk who used to beat her (Janet, I  mean, not Sister Alma Rose). But then, after Janet was safe, she (Sister Alma Rose, I mean, not Janet) prayed for that pathetic old man.

    Janet

    Janet

    My third-grade teacher was so mean I called her Demon Lady. Now I can’t even remember her real name. Let’s say it’s Mrs. Pflug (it was one of those names that always make me think of sinus drainage). She hated children, and she especially hated me, and I wondered why someone who was practically allergic to kids became a schoolteacher. She always called me “Frannie” because, she said, “Fanny” was “a hideous and nasty name.” And when we had square-dancing on Wednesdays, if there were more girls than boys (which there almost always were), she’d make me sit out, every time, without fail.

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Well, the Demon Lady was Troubled, and, as troubled people in Hilltop usually do, she made her way up the hill to talk to Sister Alma Rose. And the next time I plopped down on one of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker chairs on her grass-green porch and started complaining about the Demon Lady, Sister Alma Rose put up a hand to stop me.

    “I know I can trust y’all, Fanny, to keep this to yourself,” she said. “That poor woman had two daughters, and she was driving them somewhere and ran a red light, and a truck smashed into her car and killed one of those little girls and the other one was brain-damaged and paralyzed and lives in the nursing home in La Mesa. Y’all remind her of the daughter who died, Fanny. She told me that.”

    I just sat there, with one tear dribbling down my face, feeling sad and guilty. Sister Alma Rose took my hand and squeezed it so tight I thought I’d faint. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know her own strength.

    “There’s a lesson here, Miss Fanny,” she said, mercifully letting go of my hand, which had gone numb. “Don’t never take nothing personal. Shine love and light on the person who wrongs you. Everyone has a story.”

    Meddling in the name of the Lord

    I tried to remember that advice when Miss Price and Miss Haggarty almost got fired from teaching, though, technically, it was Miss Price and Miss Haggarty who had cause for grievance, not me. As everyone knows, Miss Price and Miss Haggarty have been together for thirty years, and they are Beloved in Hilltop, which has a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude toward these dear and generous women, though anybody who doesn’t have beet paste for brains knows that they’re not just a couple of old-maid schoolteachers who happen to live together for convenience, but Hilltop folks don’t think much, any more, about their intimate personal lives. They are very much a part of the mainstream in Hilltop, where almost everybody is good-hearted and chooses to see Miss Price and Miss Haggarty as a couple of grown-up Girl Scouts rather than Deviants Living in Sin…

    Miss Price

    Miss Price

    …except for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the banker’s widow, Demon Lady Number Two, who is just plain mean-spirited, even Sister Alma Rose says so. She didn’t have time to do much mischief when Mr. Bert Mortimer was alive and they had children at home, identical twins, Maureen and Darla, who were nice girls in spite of their mother’s unrelenting attempts to turn them into May-Belle-Mortimer clones. Probably in self-defense, Maureen and Darla married men who lived in New Zealand — I am perfectly serious — and then Mr. Bert Mortimer died, and May Belle grieved for about forty-five minutes and then turned her attention to Cleansing Hilltop of Sin.

    Miss Haggarty

    Miss Haggarty

    Unfortunately, Mrs. May Belle Mortimer was on the school board and had a particular animosity toward Miss Price and Miss Haggarty. The lavish parties she used to give when Mr. Mortimer was alive were the only parties in Hilltop to which Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were never invited. If Maureen or Darla was assigned to one of their classes, May Belle would try to get them transferred to different classes, until Maureen and Darla put their collective feet down and refused to budge.

    Gotcha

    About ten miles south of Hilltop there is a lovely golf course and park on a small lake — big enough for sailboats, but not so big that you couldn’t walk all the way around it in a couple of hours. As cruel fate would have it, May Belle was driving to her A-frame cabin, which she always referred to, with haughty ostentation, as “Mortimer Cottage,” one Saturday morning in April — the first warm, glittery, delicious-smelling spring day of the year — when she spotted Miss Price and Miss Haggarty walking along the lake path, holding hands.

    Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

    Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

    I can only imagine how ecstatic May Belle must have been as she pulled into the Bathhouse parking lot (tucking her petal-pink Town Car behind a clump of spirea), grabbed her fancy-schmancy camera with the telephoto lens, and surreptitiously, as if she were Sherlock-Frigging-Holmes, who never used a camera as far as I know, but anyway, May Belle took a slew of photographs of two kindhearted women, without a care in the world, walking hand-in-hand on a gorgeous spring morning; and naturally she presented these photographs at the next school-board meeting, announcing that the photos proved that Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were Perverts Consigned to Hell “and should be dismissed from their teaching positions before they can infect our daughters with their insidious lechery.”

    Nobody said a word, though a couple of school-board members laughed out loud, according to what Mr. Archie Appleby, president of the school board, told Sister Alma Rose. May Belle continued to loom triumphantly in the silence, until she looked around and saw that everyone had sort of inched away from her, lest they become infected by May Belle’s insidious spitefulness.

    “I move that we fire these practitioners of base depravity — immediately,” May Belle said in defiant rage. No one seconded the motion.

    “Well,” she said, perching a little unsteadily on the nearest chair, “I guess I’ll have to take this matter to the state department of education.”

    “Why don’t you just do that, May Belle,” said Mr. Appleby with quiet menace. “But first — May Belle, you got your camera with you?”

    May Belle said that her camera was in the car and Mr. Appleby asked her to please go get it, so she did, and when she came back in, all the other school-board members, the teachers and principals who were in attendance, and the newspaper reporter who always came to the school-board meetings, were standing in a circle holding hands — men with men, men with women, women with women.

    “If you’re going to the state department of education,” said Mr. Appleby, “you might as well not have to make two trips.” Mrs. May Belle Mortimer just stood there like a statue, Mr. Appleby told Sister Alma Rose, for what seemed like half an hour. He said, chuckling, that he had been afraid he would have to kiss Kevin O’Hara, the reporter, on the lips to break through May Belle’s paralysis, but eventually she just turned on her heel and walked out of the room.

    Heart beams

    I wish I could say that the incident cured May Belle’s homophobia and that she and Miss Price and Miss Haggarty became fast friends, but that isn’t what happened. Had May Belle shown any kindness or remorse, she would have been forgiven and welcomed back into the fold. As it was, she closed up her house and “Mortimer Cottage” and went to New Zealand “indefinitely.”

    Sister Alma Rose believes that there are some people, or more likely, she says, they are androids or extraterrestrials (like the slimy giant cockroach from Men in Black), who are evil through and through, without souls. “Mrs. May Belle Mortimer is not one of those beings,” Sister Alma Rose told me, “but I think she’s going to need a few more lifetimes to scrape the crust off her heart. There’s a lot of bad karma that’ll need redemption.”

    And Sister Alma Rose and I prayed for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer. I was a little worried that our warm, loving thoughts wouldn’t make it all the way to New Zealand, especially mine, which were tepid rather than warm, and if they weren’t precisely loving, at least I no longer wished that May Belle would be stricken with an agonizing and fatal disease involving flesh-eating bacteria.

    “Our prayers and compassion will be carried on angels’ wings, wherever they need to be received,” said Sister Alma Rose… and the glow of the setting sun seemed to cling to Sister Alma Rose for a long, long time after dusk became dark and the crickets began their evening litany.

    Milford Sound, New Zealand

    Milford Sound, New Zealand

     

    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

    Thud

    Finding Your Place in Creation

    Honey Mesquite (photo, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station)

    Honey Mesquite (photo, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station)

    Sister Alma Rose gets around. She don’t just sit on her grass-green porch in her grass-green rocker at her big white house at Hilltop Farm and crochet doilies and spout wisdom the way Old Faithful spouts… whatever it is that Old Faithful spouts.

    One day, when Sister Alma Rose was in Arizona, she was setting next to a sunny window — sometimes, in southern Arizona, it’s exceedingly difficult to find a window that ain’t sunny — and she’s gazing absently at the mesquite tree right out next the window. As y’all probably know, mesquite trees has thousands (or maybe millions) of tiny oval leaves… and Sister Alma Rose says to herself, each one of those leaves is absolutely essential to the life of that tree.

    That’s when Sister Alma Rose understood that each of us is like one of them little tiny leaves. We all have us a place in Creation — a niche only we can fill — and finding that place — which is the place that both gives us, as individuals, the most joy and fulfillment, and also does the most possible benefit to the world, to the universe, to “all sentient beings,” as the Buddhists has it — is everyone’s assignment.

    Jon Sullivan)

    Old Faithful (photo: Jon Sullivan)

    Soon after that, someone (Dr. Gerry Swanson, a great man) gave Sister Alma Rose a copy of The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, which, if y’all ain’t read it, is a lovely little fable about how the Universe knocks itself out pointing y’all in the direction of your niche, your place, your destiny, your joy… and simple abundance. And if y’all ain’t paying attention, then the Universe will give y’all a big, and often uncomfortable, jolt to wake y’all up. Bonk. Thud.

    Anne Lamott has written that huge pain often precedes huge joy, only she didn’t use them exact words, but Sister Alma Rose can’t find the place where Anne Lamott put that thought down in words much more eloquently whimsical than Sister Alma Rose’s words. It’s like giving birth, that huge pain is, and y’all who’s done that knows that when y’all’s in the middle of it, there’s a time when y’all’s thinking, this is not a Good Thing, I am hating this, and then, out jumps the Joy.

    Sister Alma Rose was in a Dark Place when she wrote the song “All Alone.” The Universe was pulling her every which-a-way, and she just throws herself into God’s arms and says, “Take me away, somewhere, anywhere but here,” and God holds her a bit for a little rest and then sets her down in a new place, where there’s love, and light, and a calling. Sister Alma Rose prays y’all will find that place of your own, and maybe, if y’all be paying attention, y’all will find that place without the Universe having to pick y’all up and drop y’all down real hard on y’all’s head.

    All alone, just me and you, O Lord,
    we are all alone in the world. I need you to
    help me through this moment, God— please
    strengthen me when I am weary.
    My only home is here with you. There’s a
    peace I’ve never known before.
    I need you alone, my God,
    and nothing more.

    There’s a sickness in my heart
    only you can heal. When I
    come apart, only you
    can make me whole again.
    Only you my tattered soul can mend.

    Only you can lift my spirit high. Only you
    can shine in the dark; only you can
    heal my broken heart and put my
    mind at ease when I am afraid. But you
    paid the price. Now I am free. You
    gave your life for me, and I will
    never need to feel all alone
    again.

    Reconcile me, Lord, to
    brother and sister. Help me to
    find my place in Creation. Take my life
    and make it a celebration of your grace.

    And the flame inside my heart will blaze, and will
    light the way for others, lost and
    all alone, as I once was… and together
    we shall gather in your love.

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    The Secret Sisterhood of Healing

    Laughter is carbonated holiness.Anne Lamott

    When Sister Alma Rose was ailing, a dear friend sent her this get-well card. Sister Alma Rose is grateful for deeply spiritual people who do not take themselves too seriously.

    THE SECRET SISTERHOOD OF HEALING

    Blaise confronting the Roman governor

    Blaise confronting the Roman governor

    When someone we care about is sick, the Secret Sisterhood of Healing conducts a Healing Ritual.
    1. We sit solemnly in a circle with a candle in the center.
    2. One of us solemnly lights the candle. 3. The candle solemnly burns. It drips wax on the carpet. That’s what candles do. 4. We extinguish the candle in disgust. Solemnity goes out the window. 5. We join hands and pray — to God, to Jesus, to St. Blaise the Hieromartyr (he is normally in charge of Deliverance from Cattle Plague, but we like his name), to the angels — to Whoever Is On Duty, is the long and short of it.

    6. We beg, we bargain, we cajole, we threaten. Then we shut up and listen. Whoever Is On Duty makes small wounds in our hearts so that the love can seep in. Then we pray more, with greater power and not so much whining. 7. Next comes the ritual Casserole-Baking, involving expensive organic ingredients like wild barley from the mountainsides of Tibet, etc., plus exotic and hideous mushrooms from Madame Sasha’s Hideous Mushroom Emporium, kosher lentils, special healing garlic (or else hyacinth bulbs, we cannot tell them apart), etc. After we bake the “casserole” in a 520-degree oven for 47.5 minutes, as prescribed in the ancient Ritual Casserole Cookbook, the bottom half-inch looks like volcanic rock.

    Exotic Mushroom

    Exotic Mushroom

    8. So we have the ritual Throwing of the Casserole into the Dumpster. No one ever receives one of our casseroles. They are for Ritual Scorching and Discarding only, as a kind of purging of our spirits, to make our prayers more pure and loving. It didn’t start out that way, but it’s how we justify the expense…. 9. Then we have the ritual Sacrifice of the Sacramental Wine, which is a closely guarded secret. Dynamite Cabernet, incidentally, by the by, à propos of nothing, is a lovely, mellow dry red, sinfully smooth.* 10. The more beloved our heal-ee, the greater the Sacrifice of the Sacramental Wine. In your case, all the Sisters fell asleep on the floor, waking now and again to pray quite fervently, speaking in tongues or moaning in agony, we are never sure. 11. Our good friend the Rev. Bruce Hurley once told us that God Sorts Out Our Prayers. We certainly hope and trust that this is the case. 12. From that day forward we hold you in our hearts and pray unceasingly that you will be blessed with joy, peace, and glowing good health.

     

    With much love, on behalf of the Sisterhood…

     

    * Two-Buck Chuck is an economical and tasty alternative.

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