Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Irony Of Joy (A True Story)

(Serious post ahead....)

This counts as ironic. And perhaps a source of joy to others. And it's a more than a tiny bit funny, at least to me.

As I have said, I teach Christian theology for a living and as a vocation. And I have three very young handfuls (also known as kids). And a wonderful husband who watches them during the day while I teach, while he works writing in the evenings (i.e. we work split shifts). And I'm involved in a fair amount of service work; my husband even more so. And since I work for the Church, we're always in debt, wondering how to pay the bills. And don't get me started on the state of the world.

Lots of people deal with this gracefully every day, but perhaps it comes as no surprise that I deal with an anxiety disorder. I began this blog in part to do something light-hearted and amusing for 30 minutes a day, but despite that, my mind has become wired by a life that is far too crazy-busy than what I can easily handle. Well, all that, plus I was hit by a truck.

All these relationships, these gifts from God, and I'm treating them like intrusions. Then I get anxious. And snippy. And yell at the kids for not putting socks away. Let your imagination continue.

Wednesday night I went to bed very depressed about life in general. I had been receiving a number of compliments on work-related things at school, and the contrast between workplace success and my spiritual reality was making me feel a lot like a mess and a bit like a fraud. I fell asleep.

Over the night, I had one dream, over and over again--I kept dreaming that I needed to go to confession, and I was going to confession, and then the dream would cycle over again. Frankly, I've never had a dream like this before. I woke up a little unnerved, thinking "Why was I dreaming about going to confession all night?" (Yes, there is an obvious answer, but it wasn't occuring to me yet.)

Jittery and a bit bothered, I went to work and then the Noon Mass, which I rarely attend.

It was the feast of St. Matthew--that "I come not for the righteous but for sinners" Matthew.

And the priest preached a homily on the grace of reconciliation and the need for confession.

So, I go back to my office and beg for an appointment for reconciliation the next day. My parish priest agrees to it.

I write an email to the priest at work who preached on confession. He said he hadn't planned to talk about reconciliation at all until he was up there talking. (Insert Twilight Zone music here.)

God having sufficiently ganged up on me, I make an examination of conscience. It's harder than usual, because the anxiety disorder makes it a little--sometimes a lot--hard to pray. I will get racing thoughts, and it is very hard to focus on things. Many psychologists say meditation (OK, I'd say contemplative prayer) is the key to counteracting anxiety, but asking a person with anxiety to do that is like asking a sick person to run a marathon. Your brain is just on whirling static and can't focus on one channel. It's nearly impossible. After weeks of trying to pray (beyond table prayers and kids' prayers), I had pretty much given up trying. It hurt too much.

But I had asked for a special appointment for reconciliation--and besides, something was clearly up--so I had to try. I decide to write down on a sheet of paper "God, please show me my sins" and jot instances down, looking for any kind of pattern, any image in the tea leaves. I'm having a difficult time of it. I finally remember reading something about letting the Holy Spirit speak to you in the act of confession...and I figure, God seems to want this to happen, so that's just the way its going to have to be. With some anticipatory nausea, I go to bed.

I finally go to reconciliation the next afternoon. As I am sitting in the Church five minutes beforehand--basically reviewing the little bit I had written, staring through the stained glass, and thinking "breathe, breathe, breathe"--something mentally shifts. Prayer. I haven't been praying. I realize that stopping the praying--giving up reaching out to God--twists all my other relationships as well, little by little, until I realize that I'm way out at sea and wondering "how did I get out here?" When did I decide to prefer other things to God?

My parish priest, a man who is the soul of kindness, has a number of helpful insights. But the biggest one is Thomas Merton's axiom: "Pray as you can, not as you can't." Click, key in lock. Penance. Turn the handle. Absolution. Open the door.

I have to admit my first reaction to the sacrament being done is gratitude and relief, even in the midst of a certain awe. But there has been something about the grace of that sacrament in the past few days that made it possible for me to pray again, and truly "connect." I can't express how much this feels like a miracle. I was lost, but now am found; blind, but now I see.

I guess life can be crazy if God is in the center of it.

The irony? I found it hard to pray, I didn't pray, and it looked like this God-project was sinking fast (whether I expressed it in such a way or not). But instead, God basically took a 2"x4" to my psyche, shouting "Come back! I will help you!". And that walking into a confessional to pour out one's sins--which feels like it may just about kill you when you do it--can be the opening gate to joy.

Thank you for your prayers.


Julie D. said...

A really great and beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it. :-)

Jennifer said...

Thank you for sharing - very inspiring. And btw, this is my very favorite website, so please keep going. Let us know if we're supposed to do a novena or something to keep it going, I'll do what I must!

Jonathan Potter said...

Marvelous, IC, thanks. God's irony trumps and transforms all our little ironies.

axegrinder said...


I am sorry that you have to go through the process but I am glad that God walked with you in the midst of it and that you received his grace in the sacrament.

The ministry of the priests is a mighty thing to witness when it is enacted by godly men in concert with the Holy Spirit.

Jason Kranzusch

March Hare said...

Ah, God and His infamous "clue-by-four." I've been hit with it many, many times. (I'm a slow learner.) I'm always relieved when I discover I am not alone! :)

The Peace of Christ be with you!

The Ironic Catholic said...

The "clue by four"--I love it!

Thanks for the positive comments, everyone. I hesitate putting these things to words, because the words always fall short of the experience. But this was just far too cool a thing to keep to myself...when God acts like this, you realize in a fresh way how great God is.

angelmeg said...

God is good, all the time.

Even when He is taking us somewhere we don't want to go for reasons we cannot comprehend.

~m2~ said...

from one anxiety-ridden person to another, i could identify with this post more than i would be able to put into words, because the words are escaping me.

sound familiar?

thank you for this. just, thank you.

The Ironic Catholic said...

Oh, Martha...

Sarah said...

IC, I so relate with this post. It wasn't so long ago that I was struggling with going to confession, and I can feel it welling up in me again. Thank you for sharing your beautiful reflection!

Honora said...

His mysterious ways :-)

I just prayed an Ave in thanksgiving for your blessed honesty.

Maria said...

Awesome. Thank you so much for writing down and sharing your experience! Yes, God is pretty cool like that;).

Jenny from Chicago said...

I just had something similar happen to me....and so I too made an appt. with our priest FOR MY NINE-YEAR-OLD. It was a perfect answer to a question we didn't even know she was asking. It was a miracle, and that is not a word I overuse.

Ray from MN said...

Beautiful, I.C.!

Getting rid of those venial sins in Confession, frequently, helps to unstop the blockages.

And Father Corapi always has the ready answer:

Can't pray? Lord, help me to pray.

Can't do a task? Jesus, please help me with this.

Need humility? Holy Mother, teach me to accept these humiliations which afflict me.

Suffering? Merciful Savior, I offer these pains to you in gratitude for all you have done for me.

bargo said...

Very inspiring and reminds me the song "through your pain you will discover me strong and constant is my love..strong and constant is my love." like you God spoken to me, being a catechist I got to know him, for the sake of the children I teach. Now I must say that I have an intimate relationship with the Lord and not frightened anymore to face the challenges. If God be with me who can be against me.

Molly said...

Don't know if you'll ever read this comment since the post is so old, but your story reminded me of a variation on a hymn that I often run through my brain - Lord, send our your smack me upside the head.

I loved the 2 x 4 reference because I often long for that kind of jolt from God to wake me from my day-to-day lumbering through the universe.


Roz said...

Thanks to you writing with such brutal honesty, I got to witness yet another merciful rescue by God of someone like me. Thanks for the gift.

Stephen Taylor said...

You know I love you, IC, but I have to say, duh! You stopped praying!

Anonymous said...

You're awesome! I really needed to read this this morning. I have the same struggles with anxiety and tout openness is inspiring!