Saturday, May 23, 2015

Found Hearts

The main reason I entered the Religious life is so that I can hear God more clearly.  Throughout the Bible, God reminds us that we can all have happier, healthier and more meaningful lives if we just listen to him and follow his loving guidance.

That’s great if you can actually hear him, but I never could.  I was never Horton to God’s Who.  It was kind of embarrassing, actually.  Here I was going to church, reading the Bible and spouting off all kinds of wisdom from what I’d read but I never actually got anything from the horse’s mouth.

Like most people, I am exceedingly bad at making decisions.  I either collect facts and come up with 5,000 different scenarios and then I become paralyzed by fear, or I make a sudden decision that turns out to be an utter disaster.  My choices in my life have most certainly added up to something really great, but it certainly hasn’t been through my own efforts.  

I used to ask God for his guidance all the time: “C’mon, God - just let me know.  Should I leap forth from my pathological shyness and confess my feelings to this guy who seems to be thrown’ the vibes my way?  Should I?” and God would be silent.  I’d ask him over and over, every night.  I once did this for four years.  God didn’t say a word.   

Finally I made one of those extremely stupid, rash decisions and I blurted out my feelings for the four-year-crush guy because that always works when quirky gals do it in the movies (right, God?) Well unfortunately it didn’t work for me.  The guy said “Oh, well, um, wow.  I really, really don’t even remotely feel the same way, and I - I just feel incredibly awkward right now and I  - yeah, I gotta go…” 

…and he never spoke to me again, in spite of several pathetic emails and texts on my part.

Thanks a lot, God.

I once heard a preacher down south say that he had an elderly meemaw in his parish who was so in tune with God’s guidance that she once told him she had to go return a dress because she realized she’d forgotten to ask God whether she should buy it.  I always wished I could be like that.  What a great life I’d have, I thought, if only I could hear God.  Maybe he wasn’t being silent, I thought.  Maybe he was desperately trying to talk to me but that I just wasn’t on the right frequency.  

In 2001, I started going on retreats at St. Mary’s Retreat House in Santa Barbara twice a year in order to be silent and still, and listen to God.  Of course, being me, I couldn’t really be silent.  My thoughts were going a mile a minute and I jam-packed my brain by trying to read all the books in the library.  I power-walked all over Santa Barbara while yakking away at God in my head, and I took the tour of the Santa Barbara Mission over and over because I’m a nerd and I love history.

God finally broke through, though, during one of those crazy retreats in 2004.  I was sitting in the retreat house garden, reading a pithy 10-pound tome on the history of the Anglican church, and the sunlight was filtering through the canopy of a very tall eucalyptus tree above me, onto the page of my book.  I was bored to death with what I was reading but I was forcing myself to concentrate, even though I’d read the same paragraph several times without absorbing a single word.  Then - there it was - a heart.  It had smoothly formed itself right in the middle of the paragraph I was reading, from the sunlight through the tree leaves, in perfect symmetry.  There was no mistaking this heart made of sunshine. It wasn’t a blob that kind of looked like a heart.  It was as perfect as a cardboard valentine’s day heart. Even as the tree leaves shifted, the heart remained.  It wasn’t huge, either.  It was only about an inch high.  It stayed on the page for about five minutes, which is a long time.  Chills ran up my spine.  For the first time in my life, I heard God loudly and clearly.  He loved me.  

I was so moved by that little heart that I said “Ok, God.  That was so beautiful, you don’t ever have to say anything again. I know you love me, and that’s all I need to know.”  

God kept sending me hearts, though.  There’s a whole caught-moment photo trend of “found hearts” these days, pointing out to us all that there are hearts everywhere, but my little light-heart happened long before I knew about that trend.   I’d never noticed how many hearts there are in the world until after that heart appeared on my book.  They’d show up on sidewalks, in the pattern of wood or marble, and in leaves and flowers.  I continued to ask God for guidance on life’s big decisions, and I continued to be deaf to his advice, but he continued to tell me he loved me.  Even as I drove across the country with my friend Warren from LA to the east coast as I prepared in great fear to join the convent, I saw the hearts on the big signs of Love’s Travel Stops all along the highways and I knew God loved me.

In the silence and meditation of the Religious life, we learn tools to help us hear God or - in some cases - to feel God and recognize that it’s him.  I’ve been using these tools and I’ve come so far that I feel like a city-dweller who’s never been able to see the stars because of all the air pollution and light interference of the city, but who suddenly looks up and sees a sky full of stars in the clear air of the country.  

At first I kept hitting God with the big life-questions and I still couldn’t hear him.  Then one day God gave me something to ponder:  How could I ask God for help with the big things if I didn’t trust him with the small things?  I decided to try being like that devout southern meemaw with her dress. “Hey God,” I would ask him, “Should I get gas now or wait till after I go to Home Depot?”  “Should I run by Kings and get a coffee or will that be cutting it too close to get back in time for Vespers?”  Much to my shock, God gave me little nudges.  I kept asking him these itty bitty things, and it kept working out really well.

I know that pride often goeth before a fall, but I think I’m getting pretty good at this.  Today I was in retreat so my time was unstructured.  I decided to ask God “Where should I go for lunch?” and instead of mulling it over I said “Hey God - I’m not even going to be a part of this decision. I’m just going to get in the car and start driving, and you lead me where you want me to go to lunch.”  I got all confident and happy and then I froze in fear, keys in hand, by the front door.  “Wait a minute, God.  Is this crazy?  Am I being crazy?” No answer.  I decided to be crazy.

Without any aforethought, I ended up at the Chester Diner.  It’s an ok place but I’ve had some kind of “meh” experiences with their omelets so I still wasn’t quite sure if I was being crazy or if God really wanted me to go there.  Much to my surprise, I got a booth.  I never get a booth.  I’m a lone diner.  I love my own company and frequently go out to eat alone, but lone diners don’t get booths, and they especially don’t get booths on holiday weekends.  Thanks, God.  That one was pretty cool.

As I pored over the menu and calculated how much I could afford to order on what remained of my $50-a-month-allowance after I’d foolishly blown most of it on craft supplies and sugar-free Werther’s, I asked God what I should order.  “I want a hamburger.  That’s what I want.  No wait - God is that you telling me that, or is it Fat Sister Monica wanting to get fatter and pretending it’s you?  Should I order what Skinny Sister Monica would want and assume that’s what you want me to have?  Actually I think I want a cheeseburger because I think you’re telling me that you want me to be fat and happy.”

Then the waitress walked up and I said “I’ll have a Cobb salad with oil and vinegar, no cheese.”  I guess God didn’t want me to be fat and happy after all.  

I have to tell you, though, it was a really good Cobb salad.  Maybe this place was under new management.  I scarfed the whole thing and decided God wanted me to also have a cafe au lait in order to enjoy life while avoiding acid reflux.  The waitress came over to clear my plate and I said “Ok, I’ll get the check whenever you have a chance.” She just smiled and said “Actually somebody already paid your bill.  You don’t have to do anything.”

I was so touched I almost started crying right there.  I looked around the room to see who did it, but nobody caught my eye.  I stumbled through a thank you to the waitress, and then out to the car. “God, you’re soooooo smarrrrrt!!!”, I shouted inside my brain.  I was giddy.  I decided to keep this thing going.  “Ok, let’s just drive around, God.  I have no GPS and no smart phone, and these roads are all winding country roads and I get lost very easily and you know, Lord, that being lost is one of my pathological fears. Let’s do it.  I trust you. Tell me where to go.”

I turned down a country road, wound around and got lost on purpose.  I tried to remember the names of all the roads I took in case I had to reverse my trip but I lost track.  I drove and drove for about thirty minutes, up a mountain called - no lie - Mt. Olive - and I passed through one nondescript neighborhood after another with no sign of major roads or familiar landmarks.  I was so scared at one point I thought “Yep, God.  I’m crazy.  I’ve gotten myself lost with no bathroom in sight, and you know good and well I’m going to have to pee at some point because I drank that stupid Cafe au lait.”  I kept going, though because like the Jewish people schlepping around in the desert for 40 years - I had no choice.  I just tried to stay calm and listen to those little nudges in my soul saying “turn left here,” “keep to the right at this fork,” and just as I was starting to think “Hey, I haven’t had to pee yet…” - there it was - a heart.  

It wasn’t just a heart.  It was the giant heart that is part of the logo of Merry Heart nursing home, where I’ve taken communion to an elderly CSJB Associate more than once.  There was the heart, reminding me that God loves me, and after getting myself completely lost, I suddenly knew where I was.  I was on highway 10, and I found my way very easily back home.

I’m the worst at making choices, but God loves me and he keeps me on track.  He never lets me forget that.

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