Lent and Well-being: Enough is enough

So here we are in Holy Week, and while tomorrow, Maundy Thursday, I’ll be thinking about Jesus in the Garden, begging his friends to stay with him, to pray with him, and all the anguish that follows before we emerge blinking into the light of Easter resurrection, today my thoughts are bent in a different direction.

This week is not just the Christian Holy Week, but also of course the Jewish Passover. The last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a friend’s Passover seder, and what’s reverberating in my head right now is one of the children’s songs traditionally sung during the meal, Dayenu. Dayenu means, roughly, ‘it would have been enough for us’ or ‘it would have been sufficient’. Some of the lyrics (in English) go like this:

Had He permitted us to cross the sea on dry land, and not sustained us for forty years in the desert, Dayenu!
Had He sustained us for forty years in the desert, and not fed us with manna, Dayenu!
Had He fed us with manna, and not ordained the Sabbath, Dayenu!
Had He ordained the Sabbath, and not brought us to Mount Sinai, Dayenu!

 You get the idea. There are 15 of these stanzas, and each one concludes an affirmation: It would have been enough. Enough for what? To be satisfied? To be rescued? The Tanach Study Center explains that the answer is ‘enough to praise God’. Reason enough to celebrate. Reason enough to be grateful.

Lent gives us six weeks to eschew excess and appreciate the grace of enough before we enter a season of more-than-enough. It also gives us a chance to notice where there is most definitely not enough. Where there is not enough food, not enough love, not enough dignity. And if we find that lack in our own lives, can we find help? And if we find that lack in the lives of others, can we give out of our newly recognised abundance?

This is a reflective week. A holy one. Perhaps you’ve been contemplating the Stations of the Cross. Perhaps you’re attending Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. I think as part of my Holy Week reflection, I’m going to try to write some of my own Dayenu stanzas, a sort of glorified gratitude list to mark the end of Lent. What would go on your list?

‘There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.’
—Marilynn Robinson, Gilead

Lent and Well-being: Telling stories

I remember a much-loved literature professor impressing upon us the importance of story. ‘Why does it matter?’ he asked. ‘Because that’s what we are. You’re more than a personality; you’re more than your DNA. You’re a story, and your story is unique. Even if you and your identical twin did exactly the same things side by side for the rest of your lives, your stories would be different.’

And now we’re heading fast into Holy Week, a time in the Church year when we re-tell, and on a certain level re-live, the story most central to our identity as a faith community. And while that story is unifying, an arc big enough and transcendent enough to embrace us all, it enmeshes with our own stories to become something new and intimate. Each person’s journey towards resurrection is both like everyone else’s and very much unlike everyone else’s.

This early Easter story tells of two troubled young people and ‘the long journey we each take to go beyond what hurts toward the one who heals us’, while The Stories that Bind Us focuses on the communal story, pointing to the importance of a strong family narrative for children’s emotional health and resilience, and blogger Ellen Painter Dollar reflects on the dominant narratives surrounding disability as well as those stories it seems we’re not allowed to share.

The American radio programme, On Being, has also been talking about stories and story-telling lately. The episode entitled The Great Cauldron of Story, an interview with Harvard professor of Germanic languages and literature Maria Tatar, touches on the importance of fairy tales and legends (which she is careful to distinguish from sacred stories) in the working of our own personal narratives:

And at one point, I asked many of my students, what books from childhood they had brought with them to Harvard. And why? And what I was struck by was that often the students didn’t really remember much about the story, but there was something in the story — some little talisman. Some moment, a sentence, something a character does, a detail in a picture sometimes that they bonded with. It was almost like a little souvenir of the tale that they then carried with them into adult life. And you know, when they would think of that — everything with light.

We talked about brain sliding up that there was, and some deep connection with your childhood. And trying to figure that out was always such an interesting exercise. Because inevitably a story grew out of that souvenir. Not necessarily the story from childhood, but a new tale — their own story. And so, you know, again it became a kind of platform for figuring things out in their own lives — in their own daily lives.

Finally (I’ve saved the best for last), this interview with storyteller Kevin Kling gives me so much to think about when it comes to stories and healing that even though I’m going to put in a few excerpts here, I urge you to listen to the whole programme some time when you’re in the car, or washing the dishes, or anything that allows you to pay whole-hearted attention to the funny, gentle wisdom found in this man’s stories and reflections. If you’d rather, you can read the transcript instead.

Kling was born with a birth defect and later survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident. I love his initial exasperation with fairy tales and how he came to see them:

And the Ugly Duckling, OK, this one, this one was a particular thorn for me. Um, because, I mean, the Ugly Duckling, it’s all going great, you know, when he’s this large uber-duck. I love that, you know, this big duck. But then they find out he’s a swan. And so he, he, all of a sudden, he’s not a duck anymore. He’s a swan. Well, when you’re a kid with a disability, what does that do, hope, you know, hope a ship of aliens lands and goes, “No, you’re really one of us?” Because, you know, but you’re stuck living with ducks…And yet when I learned you could tell them the way you saw them through your own eyes, and that fairy tales were meant to be told, and told at, to get your point of view across, then I got to change them around and thicken them up.

And elsewhere:

But that’s exactly how I use stories, is that by telling a story, things don’t control me anymore. It’s in my vernacular. It’s the way I see the world. And I think that’s why our stories ask our questions, our big questions, like, “Where do we come from before life, after life?” “What’s funny in this world, or sacred?” And even more importantly, by the asking in front of people, and with people, even if we don’t find the answer, by the asking, we know we’re not alone. And I have found that often that’s even more important than the answer.

But I want to end with another resurrection story. This is Kling describing his experience after the accident when he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, and how he remembers re-awakening to life.

And I had to take an elevator down to the bottom floor every day and try to walk a half a block. That was, like, my job. And I’d walked my half a block, and my wife, Mary, met me in the lobby, and she bought an apple for me. And I hadn’t, food had no taste. So I was losing a lot of weight. And she said, “Just take a bite just for me.” So I took a bite, and flavor, that was the day it came back, and the sweetness came in, and, um, when the sweetness hit my tongue, it, I started to cry and it was flushing out all of the antibiotics and toxins that I had. I had not, again, I hadn’t cried in years. And my eyes were burning, and with my burning eyes and the sweetness in my mouth, it just felt good to be alive.


Lent and Well-being: Quiet Day

The Dublin & Glendalough Diocesan Committee of the Church’s Ministry of Healing hosted a Lenten Quiet Day last Saturday. The following report comes from one of the attendees, Hilary Ardis:

Those of us who were able to attend the Quiet Day on 9th March were so grateful to our speaker, Bishop Patrick Rooke, who introduced the theme of ‘well-being’. His three talks encouraged us to ‘mind the mind, the body and the spirit’.

The first talk was based on 1 Samuel chapter 16, and the choice of David to be king. Not the favourite brother by human standards, but what is it that God is looking for? We were asked to consider how we make judgements. How do others see us? How do we see ourselves? As in Psalm 24, we need to have ‘a pure heart and clean hands’.

In his second talk, Bishop Patrick looked at a passage from 1 Samuel 17 where it is clearly shown that success does not make life easy. David comes down from the heights and is embroiled in a struggle for acceptance and forced to come face to face with the giant, Goliath. Saul tries to turn David into a conventional warrior with ill-fitting armour. We were asked to consider whether this is what we do to people. Do we expect them to act as we see fit? As David we must be willing to take risks for God, but we also need to be appropriately prepared, not encumbered with things which weigh us down. We need to keep ourselves fit and clothe ourselves with the armour of God, as in Ephesians chapter 6.

In the third talk we read Isaiah 40:1-11, 28-31. Bishop Patrick spoke about the importance of times of retreat and opportunities for reflection. In all life’s distractions it is all too easy to lose sight of God. In the wilderness, a deeper reality of God is encountered. The desert teaches hope for those who persevere: ‘water springs up in the wilderness’. The flame of God’s love shows more clearly in the darkness. For our general well-being, therefore, it is important how we feel about ourselves in ‘mind, body and spirit’.

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

End of Life Seminar

The Dublin & Glendalough Diocesan Committee has organised a seminar on End of Life for those serving in parochial ministry. From the brochure:

 During his Presidential address at the Diocesan Synod in October Archbishop Michael outlined some areas that he would like to highlight in the years ahead. One of these was our response to those who are approaching the end of life. This seminar has been organized in order to give those serving in the Parochial Ministry some pointers to deal with this very sensitive issue. It is our hope that you will leave here better equipped to minister sensitively to the dying and their families. To die with dignity must be a great blessing. By understanding our own attitudes better, we are empowered to help others at this very sensitive time in their lives.

The seminar will take place on Thursday, 18th April 2013 from 9.30am to 3.30pm. To request further details or register attendance, please contact the Rev Mark Wilson before 22nd March by emailing stnicholas[at]eircom[dot]com.

Lent and Well-being: Re-filling the feeder

The Underworld
By Sharon Bryan

When I lived in the foothills
birds flocked to the feeder:

house finches, goldfinches,
skyblue lazuli buntings,

impeccably dressed chickadees,
sparrows in work clothes, even

hummingbirds fastforwarding
through the trees. Some of them

disappeared after a week, headed
north, I thought, with the sun.

But the first cool day
they were back, then gone,

then back, more reliable
than weathermen, and I realized

they hadn’t gone north at all,
but up the mountain, as invisible

to me as if they had flown
a thousand miles, yet in reality

just out of sight, out of reach—
maybe at the end of our lives

the world lifts that slightly
away from us, and returns once

or twice to see if we’ve refilled
the feeder, if we still remember it,

or if we’ve taken leave
of our senses altogether.

This poem comes from Sharon Bryan’s collection, Sharp Stars, which ‘blends such disparate subjects as biology, astronomy, sports, philosophy, and music to probe humankind’s desire for spiritual, even physical, transcendence’.