Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Advent, or, Prepare ye the way of the Lord

I was scrolling through my facebook feed when I noticed that a clerical friend had liked a picture of the sacrament of penance/confession with the caption, 'Shopping is fun. But there's a better way to prepare for Christmas.' Hated the caption, loved the sentiment, not keen on saccharine Victorian depictions (though I did like that one). So here I am, blogging for the first time in a quarter, echoing it in my own way.

It is rare that I allow anyone to glimpse my true religious sensibilities: I use either humour to deflect or I have others, such as Pope Francis, speak for me. Both are defences to shield that which is incredibly precious and tender, needing protection, not exposure to ridicule, cynicism, or harshness. That soul essence is meant to suffuse me, so that indelibly intertwined with my light and shadow, imbued by my humour, stubbornness, and strength, it can then meet the world.

Part of that sensibility is the deep awareness closer than my breath, for as long as I can remember, of Advent being an approach to something deeply sacred, momentous, breathtaking. As is the hard truth that I have barely felt it - and Christmas - for years. I long for the sense I had as a Muslim child looking out my window on Christmas Eve night, waiting for midnight with baited breath, knowing something was coming, coming - then finally going to bed just after midnight in the certainty It was here and all was well. Somewhere, that got lost, and as magical as Midnight Mass is, it only ever brings a light brush with that feeling - during the Genealogy, It came upon a midnight clear, the odd moment during mass. Perhaps there is too much sensation, too much light, too much movement - and that awareness, that feeling, needs stillness, darkness, aloneness, and stretched senses beyond the usual five.

But that moment of wonder and knowledge also needs openness, clarity, the emptiness of a vessel meant to have something poured into it. Much as I'd like to imagine I am that, I'm too committed to telling myself the truth to believe it. I know better, and though I've worked at becoming that empty vessel, diligently addressing issues, leaving places that haven't worked, telling myself 'I can get through this event that has made it hard for me to breathe, bringing up so much emotion I feel like I'm drowning: G-d is always with me,' it has been, in internet language, an epic fail. Usually rather self-aware, I've been at a loss as to why nothing was helping.

As is the way of all things, if you wait long enough, if you listen hard enough, the answer will find you. And it was choking up whilst reciting a couple of Rachel Remen's stories over a week ago that made me finally understand what was going on.

In the first story, Rachel speaks of ER doctors who had come to her, wondering what had happened to their humanity because they would watch horrible things happen before them and feel nothing. We would recognise that as burnout, as does Rachel. But whereas most of us would put it down to mental weakness/breakdown, she nails the numbness as emotional overload: if we do not process our feelings, we eventually become so full that we can no longer feel. If ER doctors don't process their emotions at what they see and experience, at the patients they save and lose, then they will watch horrible things happen before them and feel nothing, because they are so full of undifferentiated and unprocessed feeling, they can't feel any more.

In short, we burn out because we refuse to feel, to grieve, to let go.

I completely choked up as I told John and Liz the second story about Rachel's transformation during her training: from crying with parents when they lost their baby to delivering the news of the death of a child so stoically that the father looked at her and apologised for crying. She said she thought back on that moment with shame, wondering when she became a person to whom a newly bereaved father had to apologise to for crying over the loss of his child.

My intense reaction to simply relaying both those stories, which I had told many times before without the same emotional charge, hinted that they held the cure to what ailed me: my loss of that sense of the sacred, that hushed expectancy, that magic I knew of Christmas as a child. Not that alone - also the sense of G-d's presence I have taken for granted and now struggle to find. I let it sit, too weary to worry at it.

I didn't need to worry at it. I knew how hard this year had been, how much had been rent open. How I'd walked through the most breath-stealing revelation and betrayal about someone who had been close to me, unsure of how to let anyone near to comfort me, to listen, unsure of how to completely collapse so I could rebuild. But G-d was with me, right? I could do this. I could walk through this - and not only WALK through it, but be there for others in crisis as well - so THERE. How I'd stood, week after week, watching the tableau unfolding, pushed beyond feeling by a sense of betrayal, feeling like an idiot for having given so much, knowing it was time to walk away. Sitting month after month, untangling so much pain from the past that whole weeks went by in a haze, my presence barely touching the world I walked through or those I listened to.

As the week went on, apparently unrelated issues arose: my resentment at having my sleeve figuratively tugged by those who seemed endlessly in need, only speaking when they wanted something, their 'How are you?' nothing more than a token awaiting 'Fine' so they could start; my rage at those who seemed to have no sense that they weren't the only ones in need/pain;  my unwillingness to socialise; my increasing irritability and unwillingness to give anyone leeway; my desperation to perpetually cocoon.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, the 'unrelated' pieces proved they were the ones essential in filling out the whole picture. The answer was blindingly obvious and crystal clear: I was burned out because I hadn't processed my own emotions. I'd insisted that, even helped, others process theirs, but as is often the case, I hadn't practised what I'd preached. My emotions, and those of others I'd worked with, had set like cement throughout my emotional being. I hadn't just lost my sense of joy and the sacred; I too had become someone to whom a newly bereaved father would apologise.

That is why that picture of the confessional my friend liked, with its horrid caption, struck home when it normally would have produced an 'Oy vey, how tacky': because stepping into that most vulnerable space, the confessional - both the sacrament & the emotional space - is my answer, how I am to prepare a way for the Lord. An honest, deep, unflinching confession will break open and loosen the cement, allowing me space to talk further and process that tsunami of emotions, emptying me so I can be that vessel capable of being filled with the awe and wonder of those long ago Christmas Eve nights, of feeling G-d's presence in every place and every breath.

We all need our cement loosened and our vessels emptied.

For me, going deep, taking unflinching stock, then going to confession is not a joyless duty or an occasion for fear. It is, as in the picture above, being the Samaritan woman sitting at the feet of Our Lord, having emptied myself to Him, in turn receiving the water that will become in me the spring of water welling up to eternal life, allowing G-d's love to fill not just me, but all around me, as it flows through and where He will.

It is a way of coming back into my right place in the order of things, of coming into harmony.

Shopping IS fun, and I'll be doing some of that - I know I won't be alone. But even as I fill up my shopping cart, I'll be preparing for Advent by emptying my vessel.

I hope I won't be alone in that either.

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