The Empty Brainchild

There are stories wandering purposeless circles in the wilderness of my mind. There are emotions devoid of meaning playing like a handful of broken records in my heart and belly. There are neural pathways of entertainment worn so deeply in my mind that they have become muddy ruts in which my imagination can only spin its wheels.

Let me explain. I want a constant stream of entertainment in my head. I want never to be bored. I want a ceaseless stream of emotional stimulation. I want to feel something, and then another thing, and then another.

In order to accomplish this, I tell myself stories. Now, plenty of good has come out of self-story-telling. I’m a writer; I would not have become such a one without a love of stories. But there is love, and there is… dependence. There is enjoyment, and there is… addiction.

These little machinations of my imagination have become to the emotional what masturbation is to the sexual. I’m in it for a hit of feeling, a high of intensity. I’m in it for the sadness longing love loss joy amusement confusion fascination awe hope despair anger fury forgiveness bitterness happiness connection friendship pain hunger intimacy sensuality fear shock wonder glee gloom ANYTHING, anything, so long as it comes to a climax of intensity.

It’s fan fiction, usually, cross-fic, often but not always with self-inserts. I play with my favorite characters from all fandoms, and put them in situations that make them feel things, and ride those surrogate waves of emotion. I shoot up with little stories I tell, and retell myself, in my head.

I wouldn’t describe it in such harsh terms, would not even think that any kind of a problem (just such mucking about has in the past turned into the stuff of novels and blog posts) except that–

–I have come to see that it’s a button I hit in favor of participating in God’s greater reality. All the time. Dozens of times through the day, even more lying abed at night or in the morning.

And then one night, I thought, “Nay, I’ll set aside my bedtime stories this once, in favor of praying for those I love.” And like a toddler denied the same, my inner self started pitching a royal, screeching, panicking fit.

BUT I NEED MY STORIES. I WANT MY STORIES. I’M BORED WITHOUT MY STORIES. I WON’T SLEEP UNLESS YOU GIVE ME STORIES. I CAN’T SLEEP WITHOUT STORIES!

The irony of that being, it’s these very scenes that I play out, searching for the next emotional climax (it’s never really enough) that keep me awake for one hour after another.

That scared me. That internal insistence that I was dependent on these fictions. That it was no longer an activity that I chose to participate in, but a habit that had dug its roots so deeply into the matrix of my mind, my brain went into full-scale, physically-wracking withdrawals when I chose to do something else.

And I believe I was frightened rightly.

BUT IF YOU STOP TELLING YOURSELF STORIES WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR CREATIVITY? IF YOU STOP TELLING YOURSELF STORIES YOU’LL STOP BEING A STORYTELLER. WHAT KIND OF WRITER BRIDLES THEIR IMAGINATION? 

The irony of that being, so much of what I do is repetition of the same old idea. I’m not in it for the creativity; I’m milking what little creativity I began with for every last drop of emotion I can get out of it. I only look for a new idea when the last one cracks like parched earth. I don’t want to have to work too much for it. I want it cheap and easy.

If my mind didn’t run to this pattern almost without fail, I would have more time to dedicate to creativity in my actual works, actually. I’ve found myself having to work to drag my mind away from “What would happen if Sherlock Holmes encountered the Doctor, take 227–this time with John wearing a green sweater?” to figure out what happens in the stories I’m actually writing, in the work I have actually been given to do!

But more disturbing than even that is what set me upon this recognition: that when I try to turn my mind to loving the Lord my God with all my heart, all my mind, and all my strength, and loving others as myself, this gets in the way.

It has become an impediment to not only my sleep, but worse, my work, and worse yet, my relationships with others, and worst of all, my relationship with God himself.

I have fallen into dependence upon the shadow of the great Reality. It is time to turn towards that I truly desire, the natural longing that beget this unnatural degradation of desire.

“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”
-II Corinthians 10:5
(Contextual? No. Meaningful? Heck to the yes.)

And so, this coming Lent, I am denying myself all of what I’m calling “extracurricular” storytelling. If it’s part of my work, I can mull it over. A lot of being a writer is staring blankly out the window as gears spin this way and that in your mind. But 95% of what I’m doing is the other thing.

This Lent, the wind-up-toy-stories stop. And I can only beg God to fill the daily-dozens of cracks in my being that those hollow-eyed creations were failing to fill. Minutely grace for minutely need.

Pray for me.

Let Temptation Roll Like Thunder

With Lent quick approaching, I thought I’d recycle some of my thoughts on last year’s Lent–the first time I participated. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this is what I got.

*****

…During Lent, I may have mentioned, I was fasting from sugar. Sugar has been a subtle and insidious drug for me, an addiction that always seemed so innocuous, so unimportant, I didn’t really need to do anything about it… about the fact that, (unless I had an all-consuming writing project at the time, in which case I would severely under-eat,) I could and would binge unhealthily on the stuff whenever it was available, and I would find ways to sneak it if it was unavailable. A whole package of cookies I would down alone, in one sitting, even after I tired of the taste. Even if I didn’t like whatever was available–sub-par “chocolate flavored” bars, for instance–I couldn’t stop myself from eating it.

I knew I had a problem, but it was a problem that no one took seriously when I told them (except my mom, but she’s a health nut; give her an inch of admission of unhealthy eating and she’ll take a mile), because I possess a resilient body that showed none of this abuse. I’m sure it would take years for a form as strong as mine to start breaking down under the sugar intake, for sugar is a slow-working poison, but no less a poison. I had (and have) a muscular, slender figure, so if I started saying that I was worried about sugar, people would be all “Psssh, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” And I’d be like, People, it’s not about my body (just yet), it’s about the fact that I have an addiction and this is bad.

So I fasted from sugar for 40 days. It was interesting. I didn’t go into heavy physical withdrawls, to my surprise and interest, but I was often psychologically pained by the refusal of freely offered sugar. No more sweet coffee drinks at Starbucks. No more doughnuts at church in the mornings. No more cakes or cookies at parties. No more desserts. No more stopping to get ice cream with Dad. It was painful in a small, constant way. Rather painful.

The most striking moment of all of Lent, for me, was when I made brownies. It was Father Carlos’ birthday, and I decided to make brownies for him. A batch of mint chip, and a batch of mocha. It was a strange experience, standing there with my mouth watering, my brain reeling, just rinsing thick chocolate batter off of spatulas and spoons, never once licking a thing. Smelling the warm chocolaty scent filling the kitchen and house, with overtones of coffee and mint. Pulling it out and letting it cool, cutting it into squares and brushing away all the crumbs, not tasting a one. Minutely grace for minutely need. Man shall not live by bread alone. I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me. I can do all things through Christ. I can do all things. I can. Christ. I can. Christ!

It was ethereal. I felt waves of need wracking my body–a lick, a bite, a little bit–and I let them roll through me like earthquakes. I felt so calm; even as my body was screaming, I was surfing my own desire like a 30-foot wave, saying, I see you. I hear you. I feel you. You’re not getting your way. And that’s okay. Because I have what my spirit needs. I have what my spirit wants. I have more in this painful moment than sugar could ever give me, than surrender could ever gain me. Contrary to what you feel, my flesh, contrary even to what you may think, my mind, I have everything. I have everything. 

The moment was laborious, painful, and even mundane, yet somehow also thick with glory. It was, I might say, divine.

*****

I’m planning on staying my hand from sugar once again, this year. The addiction has been reasserting itself of late–and I want to die to it. And besides that, I have have a minutely need, but I have been failing to minutely remember it; I long for the constantly pressing consciousness of my dependence on my Lord. It’s not easy, but it’s good.

But that’s not all. Stay tuned for part II of my Lenten Resolutions: The Empty Brainchild

Happiness is “In.”

I just came across this quote in my facebook feed.

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I started really meditating on it. And I thought, there’s some truth to that, there really is. 

There are those who will take the strands of their observable reality and sit in their heads, laboring to weave a miserable moment, day, or entire existence out of it, however lucky or unlucky the base substance. And that… well, you really want to steer clear of that. You want to try and spot it if you’re doing that, and if you are, striving for some form of psychological overhaul would probably be wise.

But then, it got me thinking about the way so much pop philosophy is leaning today. In a lot of circles, suffering is getting a bad rap, like, really bad. It’s not popular to suffer.

^ This is not okay.

That’s not actually a ridiculous observation; there are ages and places and subcultures in which suffering is or has been cool, commonly among artists of eras past, actually. Being an artist who is commonly happy to the point of obnoxious perkiness, the history books would suggest I could hardly be great as well.

Now, though, it’s rather “in” to be a happy person. It’s “in” to find your inner peace, work through your childhood issues, find mental and emotional stability, employ mind-over-matter, come to peace with relational turmoil, embrace your journey, and for heaven’s sake, if you’ve managed none of that, to seem as though you have!

And I thought, again, there’s a lot in all that, a lot that’s good and valuable and true or touching on the truth. But it also sets up a distraction.

Because it makes idols out of peace and joy.

This is very easy to do, because peace and joy are good things, aspects of God himself, gifts he would love to give us. But as C.S. Lewis points out so adeptly, the brighter and more beautiful a thing naturally is, the more likely we are to set it up in place of God.

“But you and I must be clear. There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels. It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels. The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.”
-The Great Divorce, Chapter Eleven

Peace and joy are not all. They are not even ends. They are results, side-effects; they are, in fact, fruit.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
-Galatians 5:22-23a

All of these are things we should want to find in ourselves. But none are to be idols. They are the fruit of the Spirit of God, and if our lives show that they are lacking in us, there is only one way to turn–to God. 

Which brings me back to the idolatry of happiness and the eschewing of suffering.

I see upon the cross a man who perfectly manifested the perfect fruit of the Spirit. I see upon the cross a God who suffered, and suffered perfectly. That was not just physical pain. It was certainly not physical pain that had him suffering in Gethsemane at the very thought of impending Calvary. So, what, was Christ failing to be the psychological ideal? I daresay not! He would not have been a man if he had not been subject to suffering.

So it would seem that the highest ideal is not happiness. It would seem that the fruit of the Spirit is not the psychological capacity to eschew all suffering.

But if Christ, our only perfect example of absolute Spirit-filling, was subject to suffering, then it implies that suffering can coexist with love, joy, and peace, and in fact with that whole list up there. In fact, in other translations, “forbearance” reads as “longsuffering,” the very word implying that suffering will occur. And that is the least of the New Testament references that would suggest suffering as an expected part of a godly life!

So we don’t want to idolize peace and joy. And we are to accept suffering as a part of life. But we’re to be peaceful and joyful, as well. We’re to suffer, yes, but to learn how do it without throwing pity-parties and melodramatic fits (within or without!); those things run in the face of what the Holy Spirit is trying to produce.

This is all ridiculously difficult to manage, an impossible balance to strike. Fortunately, managing and balancing it is not the task set before us. Pressing closer to Christ is the task set before us.

Seek first God. To be near him, to be with him, to let him course through you.

And then, he will suffer with you, and you with him. And in the midst of your mutual suffering–what? Joy! And what’s this? Peace!

And of course. Because the nearer you draw to God, in suffering or pleasure, the nearer you come to suffering and pleasuring perfectly.

Bound to Stand

There is a hopelessness
like mirk’s morass,
that sweeps the hearts of men
in darkness vast,

It wonders if we’re
doomed to fail,
to ever stray from
narrow trail
and fall into the void.

And we are
Doomed to fail
Doomed to die
Bound to stand again and try.

The chasm is as deep,
as black as space,
and through it tumbles
Adam’s roiling race,

Searching hard
or running far,
how we wonder
what we are
within that fearful void.

And we are
Doomed to fail
Doomed to die
Bound to stand again and try.

But men still stand like suns
in stretching dark,
a pricking pin of light,
a hilltop spark.

Deeds of greatness
burning brightly,
tiny candle
re-lit nightly
to stand against the void.

And we are
Doomed to fail
Doomed to die
Bound to stand again and try.

There is a hope within
like burning sphere,
outnumbered by the
cold and dark and fear,

And yet when men
stare up at sky,
what do they look at,
count, and scry,
But diamonds in the void?

And we are
Doomed to fail
Doomed to die
Bound to stand again and try.

A latticework is laid,
the Milky Way.
Small flames can turn
the deepest dark to day.

The darkest hour
is but a cloud,
all open eyes
see past the shroud;
that starlight fills the void.

And dark is
Doomed to fail
Doomed to die
Bound to vanish, bound to fly,
For light is greater far than greatest void.

~

A poem I wrote some while back, pulled from my archives.

We much and poorly love you, Lord.

Some time ago, I stood with a congregation of Christians not of my denomination. To name it would distract from the point. I stood and noticed their differences, and how their differences could lead either closer to God, or if handled poorly by the human heart, could lead into distraction.

But, I  thought, is not every denomination full of such perils? Where one breaks away to avoid a pitfall, it only runs until it stumbles into another. Everywhere, there are those who seek and find God through the particulars of their tradition, and there are those who do not, though they have the same tradition. In every life, there are times we seek and find God through one thing or another, and then there are times we get distracted by the things we find him in–prayers once alive becoming dry words, motions and images and music that once drove our minds and hearts to humility and glory now only playing on our emotions, or not even that.

And I thought, how? How is it that we can love the Lord our God so much, and yet do such a poor job of it? As a Church, as fractured denominations, each seeking to be more deeply and truly Christ’s, as struggling local congregations, as stumbling families, as broken individuals… how is it that we who love God so much should love him so, well, badly?

And as I wondered, I watched a child, perhaps two years of age, running around on lovely marble floors, past holy symbols, babbling to himself about whatever he found. And then as prayers and incense rose before us, as we stood hushed with heads all bowed, this child turned and saw his mother, doing the same.

The toddler’s face lit with a happy light, and with a scream of gladness that pierced through the worship, he ran to her and flung himself against her legs, wrapping his arms around her and looking up with adoration.

And I thought, ahhh. That’s how. How sweetly, how truly and strongly, and yet how full of tantrums and forgetting and impropriety and lack of understanding, do we love the Lord our God. How at the wrong moments do we scream it, and cause others to cringe. How at the wrong moments do we clumsily toddle into the wrong places and do what he might not have us to do. How at his correction do we fuss and misunderstand.

How poorly do we love the Lord, and yet how much and truly.

And God, like the ever-patient parent, however poorly we show our love, (and even at those moments we forget him, or are upset and decide for a time that we hate him), so much and perfectly loves us, loves we who have not learned to love so well.

As my priest preached this morning, reminding me of these old musings: If we try to listen to God and follow him, we’re going to fail and get some things wrong. But as the good father whose small child has industriously taken part off of the car, and given it to his father as a Christmas gift, he does not rail and spurn our attempts, but is delighted at the dearness of our attempt, however poor, to show our love.

The good father says, “Thank you so much! That’s so sweet of you, and you must have worked so hard… But sweetie, even when we want to give Daddy a gift, we don’t take the steering wheel off of Daddy’s car.” And then he fixes up the mess, or helps the child to do so, and explains how better to give, next time.

We much and poorly love you, Lord,
We much and poorly love;
We scant and poorly give to you
That giv’n us from above.

We much and poorly love your face,
We much and poorly seek;
Your Kingdom come, your will be done,
Through hands so poor and weak.

We much and poorly love your sheep,
We much and poorly try
To call them to your feeding grounds,
As yet we’re drawing nigh.

We much and poorly love your will,
We much and poorly strive
To see your blessed building built,
Let your Life in us thrive.

You much and richly pour your Self,
Your Spirit and your Son,
Upon and through our weakling loves,
Until your Kingdom come.

(For more such poetry, here’s my website.)

Why not be utterly changed into fire?

 

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: “Father, to the limit of my ability, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and to the limit of my ability, I work to cleanse my heart of thoughts; what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply, and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: “Why not be utterly changed into fire?”

—Saying of the Desert Fathers