where are you speaking

“It is the Hebraic intuition that God is capable of all speech acts except that of monologue which has generated our arts of reply, of questioning and counter-creation.” – George Steiner

Dear God,

Pause.

So, God.

Pause, again, take more time, roll the name off your tongue, honeyed and sweet but sharp and knifing its way through the air.

God.

Pause.

This is how I pray. I lose the words as quickly as they come, and for me, the word-smith, the hammerer of syllables, who watches words like owls at dusk, eyeing the next feast, the next shadow spilling over the ground. This is how I pray, stops and pauses, distracted by the name God, by the question of if I pray too much with “He” or “Father” because I’m listening too much to the sound of my own voice than I am to the silence where God speaks and sings. I pause and hear myself, preen my feathers in the righteousness of a bright sadness of Lent, which is a phrase from Alexander Schmemann in a book that I haven’t been reading but said I would read this Lent, a fact I haven’t told God in the midst of my pleased-self-reflection as I pray.

God does not monologue; where did I learn it?

In the hazy heat of the summers I stayed home and ran through my sprinklers, forgetting the provisions of the creation? In the midst of the chaos of the weeks that roll through my several synced calendars? Where did I learn the prayers of run-on sentences that begin and end with me and all the words are blurred not like poetry but like the overachieving grasp at something good to say to God breathless and always trying to beat my self at my own sense of piety?

God does not monologue. Pause, the phrase on the page, alone, before these italicized words are added. 

God.

Where are you speaking?

Because God does not monologue, I can use the second person, the “you” that in French has taught me formal and informal, friendship and lover and austere other, in those three letters looping through the prayer. Another pause, I’ve been writing and writing but the truth is I don’t know anything more about prayer after writing this, even these very words I crave and love.

If God does not monologue, God must want us to talk with him. He must like conversations, even the ones like this, the ones that are me pausing and asking myself if I know how to pray, the ones admitting, God, I don’t know how to pray and I’m talking and talking and writing and the words have lost me.

Where are you speaking, O God my God?

I will claim you in the second person, human being to Creator.

Where are you speaking, God?

I will talk back to you, this intuition of what you must desire and ask of us, in the depths of the silence that is your speech.

And I will fall silent too, to un-learn my monologues.

Amen. 

Love,
hilary

next to Jesus

Most of the time I don’t walk next to Jesus.

I walk sideways the opposite direction, smile frozen in place so if he happened to look over, there I would be, right prayers right charitable giving right causes right theology. And when I think he isn’t watching I inch away. You’ll find me pressed into a corner of the big family room of the faith, probably with a drink and my idea of a superior opinion in hand, watching nervously to see if anyone is watching me, if I look as good at this as the next one of us as the next one of us as the one over there who actually reads the Bible more than once in a fiery moon in summer. I’m a hideaway in the habits of this faith.

I walk past him in cities: head down, headphones in, insulated against the cold and against the winter and against the possibility that this banner of believer calls you to something more than just Sunday morning. I walked past him once outside a Starbucks in DC and was so sure I had missed Jesus that I went back with coffee and a sandwich and he only took the coffee, we never really spoke, I left the sandwich on the edge of a slab of concrete. I turn up my collar against the wind and wonder what I did, signing up for a lifetime with a lover of souls and a freer of captives, because someone like that takes you to captives, to lost and hungry and bleeding souls, to hospitals and corners and back alleys.

In the Ash Wednesday service the Gospel is about the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying. I’m an acolyte, a torch bearer, and so I’m close to the Gospel when it’s read, the words loud and the incense sticky against my face. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” I tell God in my head at that exact moment that it is a good thing I’m not like the Pharisee – that I don’t talk to him like that, that I know the moral of this story.

Jesus doesn’t say anything but I know he heard me. It’s the silence of him as I hear my own prayer said back, still in the words of the Gospel. “that I am not like that tax collector…” That I am not like that Pharisee.

Jesus looks back at me in the final words, reads me quiet and certain and the condemnation seeps into my heart and the incense is still clinging to my robes: “Truly I tell you, whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Nothing is safe with Jesus, it turns out.

You can’t keep your life, the habits of your heart, the way you expect the world to read you like a book, to be what you need, to offer itself to you for your easy understanding. You can’t keep that superior opinion in the corner of the room and you can’t walk past the corner and you can’t, oh, how you can’t pretend to Jesus that you’re doing it right.

He who would save his life? What was it? Will lose it. 

I forget that part.

It’s too quiet here, now, in the after of Ash Wednesday, we’re entering a bright sadness, as the Orthodox would say. It’s too quiet so I can hear myself, hear how little of what I think I am and what I think I know I am allowed to keep if I’m going to be someone who loves Jesus.

But this Lent, me, the Pharisee with the incense sticking to her robes and the old habits of her life sticking to her heart, I want to walk next to Jesus. I want the bright sadness before the Easter morning. I want Jesus. Whatever I must lose to find him.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: this is called delight

Dear Hilary,

So I’m reading the chapter “Artists, Mystics, and Clowns” in Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust and wondering: why do we act the way that we do, and how does this reflect God? What’s so great about efficiency? Gravitas? Breast-beating? Sobriety? Somewhere along the line I leaned that these were more holy than extravagance, art, and levity. Somewhere alone the line I learned I must stifle effulgent passions, had no time for interruptions, mustn’t laugh when there’s so much suffering in the world and so much work to be done, must put away childish playfulness. Somewhere along the line I learned that God is begrudging and exasperated. What is God’s disposition, anyways?

Sincerely,
Can’t-Lighten-Up

 

Dear Can’t-Lighten-Up,

In my high school, French was the only foreign language offered. We learned it playing “Tour du Monde” with vocabulary, drawing pictures of “fromage” and “papillon” for each other on the chalkboards in the House, wandering the streets of Angers and Paris and Aix ordering our first café au lait and pain au chocolat in giddy tones. I remember vividly one day after we had gotten out of class, I walked around the corner with my friend and we ducked our heads inside a patisserie, and we ordered in a rush two “religeuses.” The woman behind the counter didn’t look at my ratty hair in its pigtail braids and my very American purple winter coat (a hand-me-down from my sister, I think) and make a noise that meant, “American.” She simply smiled and put the pastry in a small bag with a piece of tissue paper. “Bonne soirée” she called out after us. And I felt the rush of what the French call “joie” – joy.

I was a junior the year that we sang Gabriel Fauré’s “Cantique de Jean Racine.” We used to rehearse the song in its delicate French in a crowded room with uneven and overly polished floorboards. I sat in a grey folding chair, tucked my feet under me, pushed that still-ratty hair behind my ears with my fingernails coated with blue sparkle. The song hushes in its final line to this – “Et de tes dons qu’il retourne comblé.” And may our praises return filled with Your gifts. It isn’t the exact translation – I’m not even sure I could translate it well, if I’m honest – but the last, hushed line, has the word, “comblé” which, whether or not I understood the line right, is a French word for “overjoyed.” The verb “combler” is about filling, being filled.

I tell you these stories because you are asking something about who God is, and what His attitude is about us. And I learned this from singing “Cantique de Jean Racine,” from the woman in the patisserie by the Lycée David d’Angers, from my years of unkempt hair and hand-me-down winter coats: God is delighted.

Delighted, overjoyed – we so often mistake those words for happy, or, more honestly, for naively cheerful or optimistic. We think that if we name those adjectives, we’re making it sound like we (or God or both) aren’t taking hurt seriously. That we have missed suffering. That we have lost sight of the ache of the world and are applying a pink band-aid to the gaping wounds.

But it is the work of delight and joy to come close to suffering, even closer than the so-called serious realism. It is through joy, not cynicism, that we approach the unspeakably difficult.

Because joy and delight are not happy feelings: they are the choices to let love win. They are the choice to trust love triumphant. Joy is a choice to believe God when He calls what He has made very good, and a choice to draw near to that very good world in its ache and terror and sadness.

If you do not practice laughter, you cannot know this joy. If you do not practice the playfulness, the levity, the extravagant gestures without reason, the shrieks of hide-and-seek games, you cannot walk with us to the places where love is most needed and most difficult.

God is overjoyed with us. God is delighted. Because He is these things, because He is delighted in my moment in the patisserie, eating something truly good and laughing with my friend, and wishing the woman kneading bread a “bonne soirée” – He can enact such an extravagant and mysterious story of love triumphant. Because God is delighted, because His delight is not some blithe or silly perpetual good mood, but the serious weight of everlasting love, He is able to save us.

This is the story we are going to tell the world. The story of love triumphant over darkness. The story of joy and reuniting, of harmony and whole, of laughter and extravagance. But to tell it, and to tell it in the places most needed, we must practice those things in ourselves.

So, dear one, this is the work of delight. It will take everything you’ve got, to live the blurred lines between sorrow and weeping and joy and splitting your sides laughing. It will take your whole self and a self transformed to banish the categories we’ve so carefully constructed around what counts as “serious” and what counts as “light,” to sing while we cry and rage while we laugh.

But I think it can be done. I think it must be done. So that, in the mystery of love triumphant, we can sing:

Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante;
Que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix;

Pour on us the fire of your powerful grace, O Lord,
That all hell flees at the sound of Your voice.

Love,
hilary

life is fragile

The day slants towards sunset at 5, 4:30, 3:57… I can see pink between the school buildings and I hesitate to look up, knowing that another day has already slipped past me.

I want to stop all the clocks and silence the chatter. I want to stop the poems leaking from my fingers and I want to gather them back up again.

I want to remind the world that it doesn’t have to spin so relentlessly, that it could stop, even for a moment – because there is grief on Wednesday nights in evening prayer in an almost-empty sanctuary, because there are days when Fernando Ortega sings “Praise Him Still” and you know that it is only in the very smallest corner of your heart that you understand that to be true. And you are silent. And you cannot sing, but you sing next to your father and hold his hand and cry.

Because heart attacks can snatch a life more precious than you understood, at the moment you were laughing over a cocktail, at the moment you were longing to write a poem, caught up in yourself – because life is so fragile, so beyond what I understand, that I write a whispered prayer somewhere and then I make an offering.

What do you want?

To play Horse Feathers on the radio
in my car, that absurd violin
against my chest.

To bathe in the music, in a driveway
in a February in a year of darkness.

To close my eyes.

To trust someone else’s composed
Universe for three minutes, fourteen seconds:
a last waltz in this bed, starving robins
in thistled spring.

I want life gathered, fragile –

That violin, playing me.

Sometimes the only offering in the face of a beloved professor’s sudden departure is to write something, anything, about the fragile, gathered life -

and the violin that plays as we etch sadness in our days,

and the violin that plays, to praise Him still, somehow.

Love,
hilary

God is not an if-then God

Oh friend, listen close. I’ve got this story that I’m bursting to tell you.

I’m bursting to tell us, because, you see… I want to tell you a story about grace.

I want to tell you that “God is not an if-then blesser.”

I was on the phone when I heard myself say it. I was fiddling with the earrings on my mom’s dresser, thinking about the way they caught the light, the way they felt like pebbles and glass in my hand, the sharp prick of the metal backing- and I said it.

“God is not an if then blesser.”

And the truth of it stared back at me- that this, this is the beautiful thing about grace in our lives. God does not ask for only the one path, the perfect walk, the right words always at the right times and the best choices and the best, well, everything. No, our God pours blessing over so much more. Over you and me in all our failing. Over the choices we regret. Over the ones we cherish.

He blesses because that is who He is. Oh, friend, can I dig this deep into our skin and write it across our foreheads, and remind us when we sit in silence in the face of our choices and how much we fear they will be, not only wrong, but without blessing?

God blesses because He loves us.

God blesses because He calls this world good and He dwells in it and His dwelling is blessing, and the blessing is uncontainable and mysterious and more constant than you or me or what we do.

This is a story about grace. This is about us coming out of the cage of perfect, of trying til we bleed to guess what He wants us to do because we are scared to lose something God is so eager to give us. He doesn’t need us to try to calculate our way into His heart.

He just needs us to come running, carrying our choices like pebbles in front of us, our faces alight with His light. He is a God of blessing.

He is the God of grace.

tell me that doesn’t begin to sing a little freedom into your heart? I’m singing next to you.

Love,
Hilary

dear hilary: lent and tenderness

Dear Hilary,

It’s Ash Wednesday today. I woke up feeling like it is any other day. I don’t understand Lent. What’s the point of giving things up? What does it accomplish in us? Isn’t it just a lot of fuss about nothing? Did you give something up?

Love,
Un-Lenten

Dear Not-Yet-Lenten,

I used to say the same thing when I slumped in my pew in the dreary February days. I would say that it didn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, that I “gave something up.” God and I were good. I talked to Him every now and then. I prayed, I went to church, and I could have a theological argument with the best of them. So what was the fuss about Lent? Why rend my heart (I didn’t know what that meant…) and come back to the Lord? Had I really gone anywhere, anyway?

And the answer that question was always, is always, yes. 

You see, I fling myself far away from the love of God. I hide in work and play, in comfortable living, in my sense of being so busy, so important, that I cannot possibly make time to be with Him. I hurt others with my words and actions, sling sarcasm and insult around as if it’s cleverness.

Sometimes, oh, sometimes, I preen like a bird proud of her bright feathers, trying to get your attention over here. I scoop up facebook shares and twitter mentions and try to breathe in from it a sense of making it or going somewhere or even, maybe this will really become something and make me a real writer… 

And I run away from God. I hide in my desire to be noticed and affirmed. I hide from Him in my plans and schemes, and I stop listening to His voice that says, “Enough, Hilary. It’s enough that you write, just for you and me.” 

Lent isn’t just about “giving things up” because we are sinful or disobedient – it is a whole heart transformation. It is about giving up the things we hide behind. It is about revelation and light. God uses Lent to reveal us to ourselves; and only then can He be revealed in us.

Lent is about the light of Christ: the light that reveals our dust selves, our sinful, ashamed selves, and the tenderness of that light. Because here is my favorite, surprising, radical thing about Lent: it is also about tenderness.

It is about God holding us in the midst of our realizations and heart-rending, loving us as we give up before Him things we don’t know how to live without, teaching us, and in that special way only He has, wrapping us up in His tenderness and grace.

Lent is about this, love: tenderness and light.

So I’m giving up Facebook and I’m giving up Twitter and blog promotion and writing my way in the silence of the blogosphere these 40 days. I’m giving that up so that, with bent knees and heart, I can lean into His tenderness.

Love,
hilary