Thursday, August 16, 2012

Nungazing

Though for some time now even the tiniest flicker of desire to be a nun has entirely vanished, and it no longer gives me The Sigh (some of you ladies will know whereof I speak) I still like to nungaze on occasion. (I would like to say for the record that I invented the term nungazing, which I have noted has gone around the Cathosphere for a while now thanks to Kat's having adopted it from my old nun-posts...without ever the least nod of attribution I might add.)

I don't really understand what happened to my nun desires. I remember them quite clearly, and know that I first decided I wanted to be a nun, contemplative if you please, by the time I was eight. I pursued it semi-seriously in my 20s and more seriously in my 30s and then one day, it just stopped. Like someone shut off an invisible switch.

They took a blow, along with nearly every aspect of my religious inclinations, when John Muggeridge died. I spent about three months not caring about anything after that. More or less just lying face down on the floor not eating and focusing on breathing as shallowly as possible. I got up later and started living again (since there didn't seem to be any alternative) but since then - and I realised with a start the other day that it has been seven years! - I have struggled to find any joy or enthusiasm or even interest in religion. Having had a good deal of time to think about things recently, it's clear that the succession of events, a lot of which I've not written about publicly, has really knocked the stuffing out of my "faith life". (Good grief! how I loathe frivolous God-talk!)

Oddly enough, living in Italy has significantly reduced my day to day involvement with the Faith. One would think that proximity to the Pope and all those incorrupt saints lying around in their baroque Snow White coffins would be sort of inspirational. But things have happened, let's just say.

Cancer treatment left me largely housebound and these days the trip into the City is hugely troublesome. A day in town must be paid for with two days in bed, and the rest of the week exhausted and draggy. I had a burst of energetic going-into-the-City in the spring when drawing classes started again in April and a kind donor gave me a huge whack of money to pay for nearly full time lessons for the spring session. But it was clearly way more than I was ready for because by the end of May I was so exhausted I could hardly move or think straight. I guess there's only so much I can force my poor old battered body to do.

Yesterday was a holy day of O. in Italy, as well as a national holiday and the start of Ferragosto, and it was impressive how many of the Italians observed the obligation. But my immobility combined with the insufferable, suffocating hot weather made going into town out of the question, as it has for several months, and the only thing going in S. Mar. of course, is the NO. There's a little chapel around the corner where they have Sunday and Festa Masses that only rarely employ bongos. Yesterday, and I assume througout the summer, they take the Mass outdoors instead of making us sit in the tiny chapel, putting plastic lawn chairs out on the bocce green next door. It wasn't unpleasant, (except for the rasping, off-key, caterwauling female "cantor" whose enthusiasm for singing directly into the microphone did nothing to encourage more than a little thin warbling from the congregation).

But I'll be perfectly honest: it was the first time I've been to Mass in several weeks and it did exactly nothing for me, except to make me more cranky and out of sorts. For the last year, I have been more or less dispensed from the Sunday Mass obligation and it has done nothing to encourage or bolster my flagging enthusiasm. I dutifully played the part at Gardone, but peer pressure is a poor substitute for genuine devotion, and it's only too easy to look pious.

But I've not given up. I don't really know why a thing that has been so integral, so much at the core of my identity, has suddenly fled but recently I've learned to roll with the punches and be patient. Things develop and often take time. Healing takes time, no matter how imperiously one commands one's brain and body to obey. It seems that I am the only person (apart from Christopher) over whom my bossy mind-powers have no effect.

I think I'm thinking about it more because someone I know has decided to go all the way and join the Carmelites, and it has opened the door to some rather dusty old mental and emotional closets. I think I have an idea what is going to happen to her inside. The World and its doings are going to become increasingly distant and irrelevant. I've experienced this just on the few short visits to monasteries. I recall that it was a bit of a job getting the old brain back into the business of caring about politics and All That after coming out. The world inside a monastery is a different sort of place. I suspect that it is more like the way God sees the world.

I find myself equal parts annoyed with K's decision and more lonely at the thought of it. (Yes, yes, I realise that I am supposed to be happy for her, but it's like using phrases like "faith life" and signing emails with "in Christ"...fine if you can fake it, I suppose.) It is acting like a dredge at the bottom of a very old river and bringing things up that I would rather allow to continue to rust away.

Now and then I test the old nun-obsession by doing a little nungazing of my own and it's always the same. Nothing. It's just not there, that old thrill.

John and I used now and then to spend an evening in his sitting room or in the little library downstairs. I would read aloud to him for a bit and we would sometimes say the Rosary together. I don't ever remember being happier than these little moments. But now when I think about them, all it does is hurt. And it's the same with most of the happy things in my past. My worst dreams are always the ones where I revisit my grandparents' house Up Island, that blissful little pocket of glowing childhood happiness and security. Those are the worst nightmares I experience, and the agony of waking up from them and finding myself back in the here and now is even worse than finding myself back there again. I always know when I'm feeling domestically insecure: I dream that I'm back there and wake up crying.

One thing I've learned is that we don't really ever "get over" pain and loss. We just learn to live with it. Or maybe it's just me.

Maybe that's a hint as to why my brain can't stand to think about God n' Religion any more: it seems like happiness that I can't ever have, like finding the Door to Narnia, and having it be locked. It's probably why nungazing now only makes me faintly sad. I think I have convinced myself at least that having had cancer, and having been cut apart to stop it, hasn't meant the end of meaningful life. But things are certainly vastly different now than they were before diagnosis, and before coming here, and before leaving Canada and the Oratorian Empire. In some ways better: I'm less fearful, less intimidatable, but also less able to be happy. My capacity for joy seems to have diminished. And I miss Cheshire.

We'll have to see what happens next, I suppose; I'm placing a lot of hope in art and in Seeing More of Italy in the coming months of chemo-free goodness. My hair has started growing at something approaching its previous rate (still weirdly curly though) so maybe my capacities will start expanding a bit soon.

Anyway, all this ramble was precipitated by a photo and a news story about the SSPX Dominican nuns of Wanganui, New Zealand. The rumour is that the Vatican Cong. of Religious has approved someone transferring from a NO convent into theirs. If true, this would be quite a good sign. And it reminded me of the hour or so I spent looking all over their website and daydreaming about them. For a short time, it was fun to imagine that I could retire there and teach drawing and painting in their little school. I could wear tweed skirts and twin sets and invite the girls to tea and teach them to make Victoria Sponge cake and drive the nuns to their doctor's appointments and things. It was a peaceful hour and felt sort of almost like the old twinge.

I suppose I've been sharing too much again. Sorry.



~

24 comments:

Bruno said...

A very interesting post. Thank you for sharing.

What you wrote touched a chord in me, because I often detect in myself the same caving to the temptation to wallow in my own feelings instead of caring about realities. Mass is the perfect example. The important thing is what happens there and not what I feel or what I 'get' from it. Still, I often complain about the priest, the singing, the reader or just about anything else... instead of realising the wonderful miracle that no amount of human imperfections or liturgical extravagance can obscure.

Something similar happens, I think, with caring about my own feelings when performing an act of devotion, be it prayer or something so simple as writing 'In Christ' at the end of a letter. It is again a temptation to worry about what I feel when I do those things, because the important thing is actually doing (or not doing) God's will.

Feelings are something passive. They are something we experience, not something we do. As such, they are basically irrelevant for salvation. What matters is what we do.

Feelings can be a gift from God to help us love him and our neighbour or can be a gift from God to provide us a with a challenge in order to make our love deeper, but of themselves they are of little consequence.

Best regards from Spain.

In Christ. :)

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

It's very easy, isn't it, to sit smugly back and say, "well feelings aren't important, so it's your fault for giving in to them".

Easy, that is, until you've lived through year after year of emptiness, with nothing but a blank space where the Faith used to live and grow and bloom.

It's a good thing that God understands that the heart is a crucial element in the Christian's life and that the emotions are a faculty of the rational soul without which the life of the Faith dries up. I'd certainly be much worse off if He endorsed your rather callous and dismissive point of view.

The exercise of intellect and will, the foundation of the Faith, is alone not enough to sustain us ordinary folk down here on the messy and uncomfortable planet earth. If it were, the Stripping of the Altars, the banality of the modern liturgy, the infantilising and uglifying of modern catechesis would be of no consequence.

But humans aren't machines, which perhaps is the lesson I'm supposed to be taking away from this rather uncomfortable period of my life.

I certainly used to be in the habit of writing such things as you have offered here, Bruno. Now I am certainly more able to see first hand how unhelpful it is to treat people's troubles so dismissively.

Job's comforters, I think people call it.

Job's comforter said...

My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.

~Katherine~ said...

Miss White,

I don't really have anything to offer except that a) I spent several years where you are now, b) it's horrible, and c) I'll remember you at Mass on Sunday. I wish I could offer some sort of wisdom, but as I can't, you'll have my prayers instead.

Christ's peace and joy to you,

Katherine

tubbs said...

Well you've so far survived the dark night of the body - and now to get thru the dark night of the soul.

An NO in Summer? I think there is a plenary indulgence, applicable to a gazillion souls, for every NO suffered thru in August.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jon said...

Hilary,

As a Sibling of the Big C, I think I might understand in a way these very sympathetic folks can't.

You and I have both had cancers that affect our very identities as man and woman. Our lives have been changed in ways we can scarcely talk about. What was "normal" has been taken from us, and so many possibilities of life, things very intimate and private, are simply gone.

As if that's not bad enough, the radiation decimates you in ways the doctors conveniently never conveyed. It leaves you feeling like Frodo after the Ring:
“No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark."

It blew me away to discover that this went double for the thing I felt I could rely on through the Nonsense - the consolation of religion. St John of the Cross may have been locked in a tower and beaten up by monks, but he was never radiated. Even so, my life-raft through this nightmare has been the Office. When I couldn't "stand to think about God n' Religion any more," I always felt that if I could pray (sometimes just read) just one Hour, God would pray to God for me, and I'd be off the hook. I must say it's worked.

Little by little, just going through the motions has restored the "God-feeling." To use the Tolkien analogy again (never did like Narnia), I've arrived at the Grey Havens, and I can see the Undying Lands rising in the distance.

Just sayin'.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

All those inclined to lecture are invited to go somewhere else.

Jon said...

Well, heck. I can't lecture my wife, otherwise she locks me in the tower and has me beaten by monks.

Karen K said...

Hilary,

This is why I love your blog-- your refreshing honesty (not to mention that we seem to be of a very similar temperament-- introverted, inclined to depression, and intolerant of the world's b.s.). You always seem to say things that I think but haven't put into words.

I too am struggling with loss of interest in God N Religion, and frankly someone telling me that I should just get over my feelings would just irritate the hell out of me.

I don't know about you, but for me it's a feeling of isolation and loneliness, sort of being adrift in a sea and struggling to keep your head above water. I can only imagine how dealing with a serious illness and surgery would add to that.

Thinking of you and wishing you peace, health, and yes, happiness.

Paolo said...

A very moving post. Loss, and the accompanying nostalagia are a big part of the reason for the power of the idea (or, if you prefer, fact) of 'the Fall' in the Catholic, and other, religious traditions. Maybe the loss and longing are an intimation of a broader cosmic reality, rather than only a reaction to terribly trying individual circumstances?

But no lecture - I just wish you peace.

Anonymous said...

I WANT TO BUY YOU ALL A DRINK - Karen

Anonymous said...

Dear Miss White,

I suspect you would loathe me if you knew me. After reading bits and pieces gone all over your website, I feel I OUGHT to loathe you. (I used to be an antiwar activist and your stance of hating Islam leaves me with the conclusion that you are likely one of those I call the "pro-torture people". I too disagree with the religion of Islam, but even so .... )

Anyway, despite these major difference between us, there are other aspects of our characters where we are so alike. In many of these areas, you so much more so than me. You endured a hippy dip mother. I merely survived a ten-year marriage to a man much like your mother. But that led to me being that most awful of things -- a divorced protestant peacenik.

Anyway, I too once daydreamed of being a nun. The past several days I've been missing going to church very much. Part of it is simply missing a good reason to play dress up.

What I'm trying to say is, despite our differences, there are so much similarities that my heart is touched by this, by you. Despite my own problems with religion, despite my severe disapproval of some of your ideological stands, I find I am praying for you AND generally rooting for you AND, God help me, liking you.

Peace to you, Miss White, and to everyone you love.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I haven't the least interest in the "torture" argument, it being a peculiarity of American politics which concern me not at all. But starting an acquaintance with such a weird and obscure accusation certainly says a lot about your own obsessions.

May I suggest that perhaps barging into someone's tea party, plonking yourself down and announcing loudly that you "ought to loathe" the hostess, but think you can just barely manage to tolerate her, isn't exactly going to win you any prizes for social grace.

If you want to stick around, you are welcome to do so, I suppose. Maybe you'll learn some manners too, who knows.

But if you want to continue to leave comments here, please be sure to read the commbox rules posted to the sidebar on the left. You will find that I do not have much patience for anonymous commenters. If you wish to post again, leave a real or plausible-sounding name or your comment will be deleted without further ado.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Did you imagine that I didn't mean "no anonymous posts" when I said "no anonymous posts"?

The Crescat said...

My apologies, I was unaware you had a trademark on the term. A term, I might add, I've used since 2006 - years before I was aware of your blog.

Teresa B. said...

I have been going through a rather long period of I don't know what. (Someone told me that it could be my own "Dark Night of the Soul" - but I am no St. John of the Cross.

I keep going over things that I have regretted doing in my past and then finding something new that I had forgotten.

Also, routine is driving me crazy.
So I have moved things around in the house all summer.

I could go on - as I have already done in my head while writing this.

I am glad (not on your situation) that it isn't only me who can feel bouts of whatever it is.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Yeah, that's why I write stuff like this. People then tell me that they're experiencing it too, and I feel a little better.

The Whateveritis has made me even more cranky than my naturally cranky temperament would make me. A pretty big factor at the moment is probably something as simple as the weather. It's been in the high 90s since June 19th. And not having a roommate is a drag. It's not the rent that bothers me, it's just having no social context. It doesn't seem to matter if I get up in the morning, or at five in the afternoon and stay up all night, leave the fridge door open, fail to clean the bathroom or spread my clothes all over the flat. A couple of friends of mine dropped in unexpectedly yesterday and it was only then that I realised it's been weeks since I had anyone over. I just sort of get into a state when all the days just blend together and I can't remember what time it is. We're not meant to live by ourselves.

Going out to see the new Batman movie tomorrow in Rome with friends. It'll probably help.

But I have also concluded, as Jon noted above, that the solution is between the pages of my Breviary. If the key to the Door to Narnia is anywhere, it's there.

I'm just this evening, also horribly homesick for England. Spent WAY too much time poring and pining over photos of Cheshire and the Fam.

Anonymous said...

I've resisted commenting on this because I doubted that I have anything useful to say but there's something which occurred to me as I was reflecting on your situation.

I have also existed in an emotional dead-zone for quite some time. Being a loner my tendency has been to shut myself off from people. I usually prefer my own company. But I've noticed that the times when I have felt most alive have been when I've been around other people, engaging with them in a meaningful way.

Modern life makes people vulnerable to feeling disengaged, alienated and lonely. But Christianity is a communal faith; it doesn't make sense for us to spend swathes of time on our own. I've tried to counteract my tendency for too much solitude by engaging in what people used to call the 'corporal works of mercy.' Not in some flag-waving social justicey way, but quietly and unobtrusively. And sometimes, when I'm visiting someone who is lonely or ill, I feel the presence of God manifesting itself though that interaction. I've also experienced the presence of God in providing hospitality to people.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that one antidote to feeling blank inside is to engage on a deeper level with people, face to face.

Also, making oneself pray each day can cause a fissure to open up which lets God's grace in.

These things have worked for me occasionally.

Lydia

Anonymous said...

God knows I could use some corporal works of mercy. AND AFTER, I WILL BUY YOU ALL DRINKS. - Karen

df said...

I can't disagree with you more on several points - but the one I'll mention here is your blithe statement that "it's only too easy to look pious". I know people who have been trying to look pious for years and have yet to achieve it; several priests for example.

That aside, I love the post, as I've always loved your writing. Glad to have been a reader all these years. And because I have been a regular reader, I've noticed patterns emerging, and this post puts me in mind of something you wrote (or maybe it was an email or telephone conversation) when you were in England, up North, and angrily not going to Mass, just before you decamped to Italy. Anyway, I have memory of that being a more depressing stage in your 'faith life' (you started it...). This is much preferable.

Will be over in September, so will probably be in touch nearer the time.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

All right, but I'm not calling you "father".

It should be quite a party. The Gang is all going to be back from Parts Foreign, someone we know is coming over from Tranna, and another Someone will be visiting from Michigan.

df said...

didn't realise I knew anyone in Michigan, let alone Someone.

Bruno said...

Dear Miss White:

First of all, I want to ask for your forgiveness if what I wrote sounds overbearing or self-righteous. I did not mean it that way. English is not my mother tongue and sometimes it's difficult to find the right words in a foreign language.

I certainly did not say (or at least did not mean) "well feelings aren't important, so it's your fault for giving in to them".

I actually said it was a bad idea (and usually my fault) when I gave in to them. Maybe you disagree, but I don't think that's a good reason to attack me.

You say "Easy, that is, until you've lived through year after year of emptiness, with nothing but a blank space where the Faith used to live and grow and bloom".

Well, how do you know how many years of emptiness I've lived? I think you'd be surprised.

You say: "It's a good thing that God understands that the heart is a crucial element in the Christian's life".

That's true and I did not deny it. But firstly, the heart is something different and deeper than feelings. And secondly, feelings are not important per se, but only as a means to love. Christ commanded us to love God and one another, not to feel this way or that.

You add that "the emotions are a faculty of the rational soul without which the life of the Faith dries up".

I'd say God does not think that. If he did, he would not let the saints (such as Mother Teresa, Saint Therese of Lisieux and many others) live for decades without feeling those emotions. And he would not let you feel that way if that were true. Because he is your father and cares for you.

If God takes away consoling feelings, it is to help us love him for Himself, and not for the rewards we migh obtain.

I certainly don't mean to undervalue your suffering. It is because I respect it that I've shared what experience and reading taught me when I was in a similar situation.

Again, please forgive any offense I might uncounciously have given or any discourtesy I may have committed.