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Suffering, Part 1: Margaret

Who were the homestead wives?
Who were the gold rush brides?
Does anybody know?
Do their works survive their yellow fever lives in the pages they wrote?
The land was free, yet it cost their lives.

— “Gold Rush Brides,” 10,000 Maniacs

A lovely woman whom I don’t remember meeting emails me periodically to check in on my faith. She’s Catholic, and named Margaret, so I probably met her at the one (1) catechism class I attended before I realized with the deep sweetness of unerring certainty that I was Not a Catholic.

We started emailing because I asked her not to email me any more. She organizes Dorothy Day Dinners (I imagine I’ll write about Day at some point in the future. I find her fetishization of the poor to be…worth writing about) and had sent an email to a group asking for people to contribute ingredients. It’s stone-soupy, if you will, if stone soup is a reference you’re familiar with.

I wrote to Margaret in early August, saying, “Please take me off your email list. I am so glad of the work you’re doing, and admire everyone. But after a lot of searching, I feel that my spiritual home is with the Quakers.”

So, as it turns out, my spiritual home is not with the Quakers, but that’s not the point of this story.

Margaret wrote back, “I have a sense of loss in reading that you are leaving our Communion and wonder if you would honor me with some details about what we are missing that you find attractive with the Quakers.”

So I did.

Margaret:

When I came to the Church, it was at a time where I finally was able to stay out of my own way about faith and God. Before, I worried that I was being intellectually disingenuous; I had always identified as an atheist, and thought that made me smarter than everyone who was a believer.

Of course, then God comes along and quietly reminds me that I’m not smarter than anyone at all. I’m just loud. :)

I knew I needed a spiritual home. I really thought it was going to be Catholicism. But I think there is so much culture there — being Catholic is more than just going to Mass. And I didn’t feel Catholicism in my heart at all.

Growing up in a faith tradition is easier than converting; and I feel maybe one should convert only if one cannot find what she needs in her own “home.” And I was starting out too late in the evening, as it was, to be an effective Catholic; I would have felt very behind all the time, and my disbelief would be heavy.

I found the Quakers because my husband said, “What about that?” He’s a Won Buddhist, a Korean-form of belief. (He’s not Korean, by the way.) His conversion was also circuitous. He had gone to a Quaker school in North Carolina (Guilford), which, by virtue of being a contemplative religion, made stretching into Eastern traditions less jarring, I’d guess. I went to my first meeting, and was sort of overwhelmed with peace and love. I could start there, from the beginning; whereas, while everyone was lovely and welcoming to me when I came to my one (and only) catechism class, I didn’t feel like I was starting from a place of love. I felt like I was starting only from a place of struggle.

I now identify as a Quaker with a sense of Flannery O’Connor about myself, and an appreciation of Gerard Manley Hopkins. So I’m not completely hidden from Catholicism.

Again, I can’t stress enough how much I now do not identify as a Quaker, though I admire them greatly. Our breakup was not the never-speak-to-me-or-my-good-strong-sons-again type. I just need more religion in my religion than unprogrammed Quakerism provides. I need the Bible. I need God and Jesus. I need pews and awkward hymns and a sermon because, as it turns out, I really need structure. I didn’t grow up feeling necessarily safe and secure; when I feel like things are too come-what-come-may my anxiety spikes and I’m left chewing the skin around my fingers and counting my steps to soothe myself.

My friend Steve, through a teacher he had, explained to me once that one is probably best served within the religious tradition in which they were raised. Those cultural groundings are important. It’s not a necessity — clearly, as Zach is incredibly content and thriving in Buddhism. But, as I learn more about myself and my relationship to faith, it is a necessity to me.

I later sent Margaret an email with a link to an essay I wrote. I titled it “of possible interest” and she very graciously said, “I probably will not be able to check in on your web site but things change and I may find time to do so in the future.” I love Margaret very much, and her honesty. I probably wouldn’t have time to read my own writing, too, but would lie to me and say, “I can’t wait to read this tonight.” But I’m trying not to be like that. Margaret went on to write, “My ex-husband’s health is declining and very soon I am going to need to give more of my time to him.” She also said, “Today, I am going to try and get through the heat, cook and can spaghetti sauce and make an offering of my day to God.” And she closed by asking for prayers for her and her family.

(The thesis of this post, by the way — suffering — we’re getting to it. I promise.)

A few weeks ago I completed hospice training. As part of my religious focus, on myself and the world, this felt like something I could give that also needed giving. Right now, it makes me feel useful. My hope is that it will make me humble. There’s something self-serving in announcing, “I PROVIDE HOSPICE CARE.” And it’s there because we’re humans, with human feelings and emotions. Even Christ let slip he was the Son of God every now and again, and he was both wholly human and wholly divine.

“You sound dead-set on turning your stove on today, so I won’t counsel against it. I baked cookies on Sunday and thanked God for air conditioning,” I wrote her back, among a bunch of other things, including how now, at 40, I’m better able to hear the Still Small Voice of God. When I was younger — in my 20s — I expected, or, rather, demanded, that God speak to me in a Giant Booming Voice. And when He didn’t, I told myself, ‘Well, that proves it. He doesn’t exist.’ But none of us are smart in our 20s. Now, in my 40s, I hear God in the still small voice from 1 Kings. I think about the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and how a very small faith, if well-tended, can provide safety and shelter. It is incredibly humbling. And such a great rejoinder to Twenty-Year-Old Mike, who didn’t know how to listen.

Margaret explained the stove thing to me:

The stove thing is because my garden had produced a nice crop of tomatoes and I must “do” something with them and not let them spoil. I often think, at this moment each year, about the pioneer women, or even early 20th c. women who slaved over a wood heat stove to can. They died young but at least I have made it to 70 and have fans. If I make the heat today a prayer, it is called the prayer of the body. What I mean is this: I pray aloud or silently and this is pleasing to God. If I offer my whole day to God, my prayers, works, joys and suffering, and I unite myself to His passion and death, then suffering the heat of the day IS a prayer.

And we’re where I need us to be, now. Thee and me, we are all caught up. Because I want to think about religious suffering for a few more words.

I want to make this clear at the start: my religious beliefs and practices are very much mine. They’re influenced by what I’ve read, what I’ve heard, whom I’ve met, and what feels right to me, which is ever changing as I’m influenced by the aforementioned three other things. (“I’m new in town…” — John Mulaney) I’m sure this is true for a lot of my brothers and sisters in Christ. The idea of God requiring suffering from me is so foreign, so unutterably alien, that I am actively compelled away from the idea of lovingkindness when considering it. Faith that values suffering is a faith that I don’t wish to have. It is a faith that is alien to me. It’s a faith, nonetheless; it’s just not mine own, mine own, mine own.

Within my faith practice, suffering is something I commit against myself. When I push against the mystery of God, when I give in to harmful/uncaring thoughts against my self (cf Cheri Huber, e.g.), I cause suffering. I can also cause others to suffer, too, which is reflected back on to me like rubber and glue. There is no good in suffering, as far as I can see. And Christ, of all people, certainly does not need my suffering to weigh the love I have for Him.

But it’s Margaret’s, and not mine to take from her, or disavow to her.

“Ok, I begin,” she ends.

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