March 10th, 2008

stained glass

The Last Time

I have not written too much here recently; I have been depressed over the loss of my feline companion, and also fighting a respiratory ailment which, while not serious, has left me feeling even more inert.

Four days before Jeoffry suddenly became ill, I noticed him doing certain things he had not done in awhile. For instance, one night he slept on my bed. He'd slept on my bed every night for many years, until about three years ago when he stopped (no doubt due to my increasingly loud snoring). That night, I was surprised to feel the familiar soft thud as he hopped up on the bed, and felt him curl up behind my knee as he used to, purring contentedly. I didn't understand why he suddenly decided to do it again, but I was grateful for his presence. A day or two later, he did another thing he hadn't done in ages; he climbed up on my chest while I was watching television, and nestled there with his head on my shoulder. After that he went outside and visited with an elderly neighbor he had not seen in a long time; and made his rounds in the yard more thoroughly than usual, stopping to survey his kingdom at length from several different vantage points. Another day he nagged me to play one of our wrestling games, in which he would end up rolling gleefully off the back of the couch to land in a heap on the cushions... which he seemed to think incredibly fun. All of these had been favorite activities of his, in which he had not engaged recently.

The next day, he suddenly developed heart failure. Three days later he died. When I look back on those few days, now, it seems as if he had been making a farewell tour of life. I think he knew that his time on earth was ending.

This made me start thinking about beginnings and endings. When we are young, life is a series of beginnings. Our first step, first words, first day of school, first date, first child. We start college, we start a new life, we start over, we start many things.

At some point we reach an age when life consists more of endings than beginnings. There is less future in my life now, and much more past. There is not as much of life left ahead of you. I was surprised one day to realize that I probably will not become the person I always thought I would be; time has run out on some of my dreams. As more and more people leave my life -- most recently my beloved Jeoffry -- I am very aware of those endings. There is an old thought about hermits, that a life in enclosure is something like being entombed. I understand where that thought comes from. When I close myself up in my apartment for days at a time, I do feel a bit entombed, as if it is a preview of the final leavetaking that will happen some day. Like Jeoffry, I, too, have become conscious of doing more and more things for the last time. Maybe this is not the last time, but there is a last time for everything.

Life is, by its nature, transient. There will be endings, good and bad. I would really like to be able to do what Jeoffry did: honor the people and activities in my life that have been important to me, with a good ending. When I knew Jeoffry was getting old, I became especially mindful when I held him, wondering each time if it would be the last time. I let my senses memorize how he felt in my arms, the softness of his fur, the gentle rise of his breathing, the shape of his little feet, the sound of his purring. I should be as mindful of everything and everyone I value. Since I cannot usually know when the actual last time will be, perhaps I will begin treating every time as if it were the last time, and savor that last time, as fully as I can.


My approach to Lent has changed drastically over the years. Like most people, as a child I was taught to give something up, without being taught why. It came out like a New Year's resolution, something that had to do with self-improvement, like dieting. Usually you gave up something lovely, like chocolate. As if chocolate was bad, as if anything that good had to be wrong. It seemed like the point was to intentionally make yourself miserable for 40 days. No one seemed to know why, or what you were supposed to get out of it.

Later, I began to think that it had something to do with developing your willpower so that you could resist Satan. You took on a Lenten discipline like an exercise, to prove you had the strength to say no to temptation. Clearly, this was during my (thankfully brief) evangelical period.

Even after I got past that phase, I still thought Lent had something to do with self-denial. Not in the sense of sharing Christ's suffering. It was in a period of my spiritual life when I went overboard with repentance. Self-denial, to me, was equivalent to self-punishment, which I was certain I needed, and certain God wanted.

I broke out of that pattern after escaping from an abusive marriage. One year, I told that cruel image of God I'd created to fuck off, and gave up self-denial for Lent. It was the best Lent I'd ever had.

But I still thought Lent was supposed to be about self-improvement, or self-actualization perhaps. Maybe it was about improving my relationship with God, or even just with myself. A time to focus on my spiritual life and make it better. In those days, I really thought that was something I should do.

Once that theme developed a bit, I thought Lent was about right living. I thought that Lent was a time to put one's life into proper balance. During this period, instead of giving something up, I would take something on, such as reading, or an extra devotion, or acts of charity.

None of these things are wrong. For someone else, anyway. But it wasn't until much later that Lent began to work for me.

Lent has now become for me a time of purgation, in the most classic sense: stripping away all the barriers to my intimacy with the Divine. As I think about my need for the Holy One, I try to identify what is holding me back, what is getting in the way. What keeps me from loving, and allowing myself to feel loved, deeply and fully, by the Lover of Souls? What's in the way? Is it fear? shame? inattention? busyness? grandiosity? anger?

For me, Lent is no longer about my self-discipline, will power, righteousness, or moral purity. It's not about earning points by doing good deeds. It's not about fixing or improving anything. It's not really anything that I do. I am not the one who removes those barriers. It is an act of grace. God does it. I just have to stop resisting.

Any Lenten activity for me comes from living into God's radical, unequivocal acceptance and love for me. I ask myself, if there were no barrier to my intimacy with the Holy One, how would my life be different? What would I do? Then, I just try to go there... and live as if I knew, without reservation, that the Lover of Souls loved me.