Looking at the stars

We are all in the gutter.  But some of us are looking at the stars.  — Oscar Wilde

As a child, crying was usually an indicator of something negative happening in my life.  From falling and skinning my knee, to forgetting my homework and being reprimanded by a teacher, to getting in a fight with one of my siblings, the situations that sparked tears were ones of struggle.  I cried when I was sad, angry, hurt or confused. 

Somewhere along the line — maybe when I was in high school, when I began to see that words are usually as effective for expressing emotions as tears — this changed.  I still occasionally cry from grief or frustration, but more often now, my tears accompany feelings of nostalgia, hope, appreciation, love and awe.  I tear up when I read a story that demonstrates the goodness of humanity; my eyes get misty when a particularly sweet memory of my father, mother, sister or brothers comes to mind; my throat gets tight when I hear a beautiful piece of music of poetry. 

To be sure, the instances of struggle that used to cause me tears still exist.  In the world in which we live, sadness, anger, hurt and confusion are in many ways the status quo.  Maybe, along with learning that words as well as tears can express emotion, part of becoming an adult is realizing the pervasiveness of trauma, pain and suffering and implicitly acknowledging that if we let these things cause us tears, we’d be crying all the time. 

Looking around myself — reading the news, seeing a homeless man sitting on a cold stoop, talking with a grieving acquaintance — make me see that we’re in a gutter, all of us.  We are surrounded by pain — emotional, mental, physical, spiritual — and not a single one of us will get through life without suffering.  But my tears, now, remind me of the bursts of grace, the glimpses of light; the breaths of hope and the moments of joy.  My tears highlight the things that keep me going and get me through and remind me that there is meaning in life — in the good and the hard of it.  They remind me that I can be in the gutter and look at the stars. 

 

Photo by Mattias Milos on Unsplash

A Sacramental Imagination

A few weeks ago, I attended a handful of the events at Harvard Divinity School’s bicentennial weekend, including a festive reunion party on Friday evening and a faculty-led class on Saturday morning. 

Two of my life-long best friends, who I met on my first day of orientation at HDS.

Beyond providing a chance to see old friends, fountains of champagne and an inspiring address offered by the President of the University, the reunion filled me with a profound sense of gratitude for the place that I got to call home during my graduate student years.  With its breadth of alumni working for justice and peace in many and varied ways, its commitment to advancing the understanding of religion in a complex world, and the spaciousness with which it welcomes people and ideas spanning a wide spectrum of background and belief, Harvard Divinity School is a special place.   My time there significantly impacted my spirituality, my understanding of the world and the people in it, and my vocation.

What I was reminded of in an overarching sort of way on Friday night, I had confirmed in a very specific manner during the Saturday morning class I attended titled “Marilynn Robinson and the Sacramental Imagination.”  Offered by a favorite professor of both mine and Caleb’s, the session explored the idea of the sacramental imagination from both the Catholic and reform perspectives and addressed how Marilynn Robinson transcends the distinctions in her novel Housekeeping.  It was the first time I heard, in concrete and digestible terms, what exactly “the sacramental imagination” entails, and I was struck both by how very Catholic I am in my understanding of creation (as is related to the sacramental imagination) and the implications that this has for my theology and my way of being in the world.

If a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” (thanks for that pithy description, Saint Augustine), something that both points to God and makes God present, than the sacramental imagination is the way of viewing the whole created world as revealing God’s presence.  In other words, the universe is a sacrament: by its existence, it points to the existence of God, and God is present within the creation itself.  Catholic and reform theologians agree on “what” of the sacramental imagination, but they disagree on the “why,” with Catholics believing that God’s love was so abundant that God overflowed creation into being, and Protestants believing that God’s love was so abundant that God decided to create beings (all the plants and animals and things of creation). 

There are of course many, many, many more intricacies to distinction (intricacies that have significant implications on Catholic and reform theology more broadly); I have but a cursory understanding.  The personal key take away that I gathered from the talk, however, is simple: I am resoundingly Catholic in my understanding of the Sacramental Imagination, and I have been for as long as I can remember.  The idea of a loving divine energy that overflowed creation into being resonates with me so much more than the idea of a personified being creating sub-beings. 

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with language that personifies God the creator (I’m down with the humanity of the second person of the trinity…but not so much with the first and the third) even if it is to express nice sentiments: God loves you, God cares about you, God wants to hold you in God’s arms.  In the circles I run in (even the Catholic ones), this seems to be the dominant language for talking about God, and so I’ve always felt a bit sheepish about the fact that they don’t strike a chord with me.  It’s not that I disagree with sentiment behind these words (if God is infinite, overflowing Love, than sure, God loves me).  It’s that I don’t imagine God as a human-like being, so it’s as hard for me to understand God caring for me as it is for me to grasp a beautiful fern leaf or a setting sun caring for me. 

But an energetic and vibrant life-force that courses through creation, animating it with spirit and renewal and goodness, itself the very source of spirit, renewal and goodness; a belief that the core of me — my soul, my true self, my spirit — is a drop of that life-force, a light within; a conviction that all people share this inner-core-of-light, and thus we are united; a sense that my life calling is to nurture the life-force-creator-God-divine-energy in the people with whom I work, play and love, to tenderly care for the light of myself and the light of others — now that I can get behind!

It looks like HDS is still impacting my sense of vocation and space in this world.

Apartment-versary

Apartment

A year ago today, Caleb and I packed the last of our boxes, watched as movers emptied our Somerville apartment, dropped our keys in the landlady’s mail box, and followed the moving truck to our new apartment in Providence.  We carried boxes up to our third floor “Victorian Treehouse” (our tree-line view inspired this nickname), debated the ideal placement of our bed, and mourned our beloved hand-me-down red couch as we realized that it wouldn’t fit through our narrow doorway.  At the end of the day, exhausted, we ate Indian food at a now-favorite local whole-in-the-wall gem.   

While my predominant thought at the moment is how glad I am that we’re spending the day in a coffee shop writing instead of bleeding money, sweat and tears in the moving process, I’m also feeling reflective as I consider the year that we have had in Providence.  Anniversaries, like holidays, endings, and beginnings, are a good opportunity to look back on the past, feel appreciation for the present and look towards the future.  And I think that this act of looking back, examining the lowlights and the highlights, can help me to soak in the beauty of the present and move forward with energy, joy, and grit. 

Historic Homes Providence
Photo credit: America Pink

Hard stuff about my first year in Providence

  • I was homesick for Boston for much of the year, and if I am being completely honest, much as I have come to love Providence, there are things that I still miss so, so much about my old city.  I miss the MBTA.  I miss the vibrancy of my old Church.  I just miss the specifics of Boston: the old brownstones of Commonwealth Ave and the lively activity of Harvard Square and the rarified air of the Boston Public Library and narrow little streets of Beacon Hill. 
  • It was crazy hard to make friends, and so I felt lonely for a lot of the year.  I’ve made some friends and am building relationships, but I still don’t feel at my old-social-level.
  • Working at a job that requires a significant commute and a significant amount of evening and weekend hours is less than ideal.  It presented a stumbling block socially. 

Highlights of my year in Providence

  • There is good, good food in this city.  We could go to a new restaurant every week and still have more to explore.  There is great coffee shop culture, and a huge variety of food, and lots of places with amazing ambiance as well as eats. 
  • Being able to live in a place where we can afford a beautiful apartment is a gift.  I love our sunny kitchen, and our spacious dining area, and our cozy living room.  I love our gallery wall and my yellow desk and our little parking spot and our wood-paneled stair case.
  • I’ve found special, life-giving communities in my new city.  The two that come to mind are the Chaplaincy Center, though which I’ve gotten the opportunity to work in a variety of clinical settings and meed a wide range of people whose work and ways of being I admire, and the Providence Atheneum, that gorgeous little library that also serves as a magnet for smart, witty and creative people. 
  • Having a car (which we likely would never have in Boston) enabled Caleb and I to explore the New England area more, which brought us a lot of fun this year.  Favorite trips included Portland, the Cape, Newport and Bristol. 
  • I love living in a walkable city. Even though Caleb and I have a car, we more or less only use it when taking trips, or when I commute to work.  This feels like a priority for me in terms of places that I live. 
  • This city is clean and has beautiful architecture and landscaping.  I really value being in an aesthetically pleasing environment. 

Lessons that I’ve learned/Themes of the year

  • There’s no way out but through: moving is hard, making friends is hard, starting from scratch in terms of networking is hard.  It will always be hard before it becomes easy.
  • Things take time: building a sense of community, making friends, and finding special places.
  • Distance relationships with people I love are worth spending time and money on nurturing.  Having a car made driving to visit my family and friends in PA possible, and so I found myself going often.  The time and energy are worth it.  The same goes for friendships in Boston.  It’s worth spending money on a commuter rail ticket to meet a friend for coffee; it’s worth driving in to the city to meet with my old book club.
  • “Going for it” with persistency is hard, but worth it.  I have a hard time pushing myself to put myself out there.  It feels scary and exhausting.  But that’s the only way to meet new people, get integrated in a community and take on new roles. 

Homesickness: an Ode to a City

boston-286902_1920

During a recent day-trip into Boston, I was struck by how keenly homesick I felt for the city: the streets lined with brownstone row houses, the screeching start and stop of the MBTA subway cars, the sidewalks filled with young-professionals walking at a clip, the waterfront breeze inherent to a coastal city, and the abundance of coffee shops, one on every corner.  Even as I sat amidst it all, I felt an overwhelming longing for it — a longing to grab the city and hang on to it, to have it as a part of my everyday again, to be living it with regularity, not observing it from the stance of a visiting outsider. 

What was this homesickness?  Why did I feel such sadness and longing for Boston when I simultaneously feel so content in my new city, Providence?  Read more

Sacramentality

70HIn my first blog post, I wrote about how taking notes on life helps me pay attention to life, that writing for me is a practice of taking notice and cultivating appreciation.  I just finished reading a book for work (I’m a Youth Ministry Coordinator at a Catholic Church) that put my understanding of writing and my commitment to paying attention to life into spiritual terms. Read more

Places to play in…

Teresa Camping

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”    —John Muir

When we lived in Boston and had access to the most fabulous public transportation system (if my loyalties to the MBTA went unswayed in the midst of horrible delays and cancellations during last year’s treacherous winter, I think it is fair to count myself as one of this transit system’s greatest enthusiasts), C and I didn’t have a car.  I loved everything about not having a car — the financial savings, the absence of stress about traffic and parking, not having to worry about having a designated driver when we went out — and it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I realized we would need to buy a vehicle when we moved to Rhode Island.  Read more

Contemplating Attention, Cultivating Appreciation

Woman WritingI have an inkling that there is a direct correlation between attention and appreciation.  Increased attention to the stuff of life – books, conversations, scenery, foods, people, tasks, and so on – leads to an increased appreciation of what could otherwise be easily overlooked.  For an example, I find that annotating articles or books helps me pay closer attention to the ideas expressed in them, so that regardless of the extent to which I like or dislike the piece of writing, I am more able to understand and appreciate the point the author made.  The more I take notes, the more I pay attention, and the more attention I pay, the more I appreciate.  Read more