Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Waking From Loving in Dreams

I'm going to tell you a story, and I've probably told this story to you before. I'll tell it again because, frankly, you'll let me get away with being repetitive. If this were not true, you'd have been gone a long time ago.

And by the way, thanks for hanging around.

When I was in Swaziland, I met the poor crucified Christ. He was a starving woman whose family had thrown her away. She landed in the hospital, by some good grace, but she was completely emaciated. I saw Christ across the room, and I wanted to go to her but I didn't know if I was allowed. Finally, a woman, a pastors wife there watching her daughter languish, suffer, and die, gave me permission.

Andrea and I went over to the woman, Christ. She stank. She looked scary. Her cross was her body wasted away to a skeleton covered with a thin veneer of living flesh. Her bread and milk, carelessly sat on a bedside table next to her, was not reachable. She had no strength to raise herself up to get it.

My friend and I picked up the ant infested milk and bread. I was afraid to give her the bread because I didn't know if her stomach would tolerate it. Andrea apologized because she had to pick the ants out of the milk with her fingers.

I had some Clorex wipes with me. We kept things like that on hand because, lovies, we weren't in Kansas anymore. I tried to sanitize the parts of the cup that Christ's mouth would touch. This was the filthiest hospital I'd ever encountered. There was nothing in my frame of reference to compare it to, not in this century. And I'm wiping--an exercise in absurdity--while the horror of it all descended on me, weighty and dreadful, a suffocating thing.

I held her, while Andrea gave her tiny sips. She drooled all over my arm. And what was I doing? In this hospital--if you could call it that--way across the world, trying to feed a person who looked as if she were already dead. It was so small. It was nothing.

And then we had to go.

When I got back from Africa, despite the terrible suffering I saw in so many children, it was she who haunted me the most. This disposable person, whose own family abandoned her to starve to death on the street. Oh, Lord. She was the poor Christ. Her body was the cross. Starvation crucified her. And all I could do for her was hold her, rub her hair, and pray while Andrea gave her milk. Such a small thing. Not dramatic. Nobody got saved. She's probably dead. But...

She's still with me.

Today I have a cold. I languished in bed, sniffly and achy, in and out of a benadryl induced sleep. At some point I felt well enough to at least watch a movie. I chose Entertaining Angels, a biopic about the life of Dorothy Day. If you think around my birthday last year I was feeling mad St. Francis love, this birthday season I am smitten by Dorothy Day.

I watched this woman, so much like me. A writer who prayed, "I write, but it isn't enough." A mother. A woman of many hungers, and no idea how to be filled to satisfaction. She had no clue how to change the world. Neither do I. I just know that this need to meet the poor Christ burns inside of me. Sometimes it flares and flames. Other times I am indeed a smoldering wick. But the Word says He doesn't extinguish us.

I left Africa dreaming of a hospice, so people would not have to die like that woman was, devoid of dignity. Six months later I learned that right here at home, black Americans have the same staggering high incidence of HIV. Same as in Swaziland! Which poor Christ am I gonna serve? Do I need to pray about a hospice on the East side of Detroit.

I don't know. Right now Christ is dying without me. I feel stuck in my own damned neediness. Angry at myself for not being able to do what I think I'm supposed to, even though it seems small and useless anyway.

And that brings me to another Africa story. This one about Gerry and Robin. They run an orphange. Let me tell you, they didn't set out to run an orphanage. They didn't have secret dreams of that work all their lives. Gerry worked in the sugar industry. Robin was a mom. She realized kids were hungry in a dump, foraging food out of garbage, and she took them peanut butter sandwiches. That's all.

She said she's just an ordinary person. Peanut butter sandwiches don't dazzle. But it turned into taking babies in, nursing them to health sometimes, watching them die at other times. She thinks she's ordinary, but to me, she's a hero.

And now, back to Dorothy and me. I am praying our prayer, "I write, but it isn't enough." I am waiting to hear what God will say, if He says anything at all. Sometimes His silence is maddening.

A scene from the Entertaining Angels stays with me. It was after a woman had comitted suicide in the house. Everyone was upset. They took a vote. Things were gonna be different. They had to be! They were tired of the drunks, and hookers, and thieves, and lice, and bed bugs. The vote was unmanimous. Dorothy stormed out of the house and back to God. "Where are you!" She shouted. She had it out with Him. Told Him if He were in the poor, he was smelly, and ugly, and awful." Then she went to look for a job! But I guess she figured out what her job was. Loving smelly, ugly, and awful Christs. This brilliant, vibrant woman. This writer. Haunted by God.

And I cried as I watched. Feeling so lost. Wondering how I will ever relieve His suffering when I can't even keep us Burney's from suffering. Wondering how it's all going to unfold. Dorothy said to her defectors, when she returned home from fighting with God, "The paper [the Catholic Worker] is never going to be what we wish it would be, but God is not going to ask us how we changed the world. He's going to ask us if we were faithful to His poor."

I'm never gonna be what I wish I could be, but God, at least let me do something, no matter how small, to take Your suffering away, even if I do it with a dumb Clorox wipe and a prayer. If that's what you want, who needs literary fame.

One of Dorothy's favorite quotes was from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. It's from Fr. Zossima, "Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams." So far, I feel love has been stuck in my head. Poured out in my writing. Cerebral and emotional, but with no hands or feet to touch and walk to Christ. And that's okay for spiritual preschool, but it's time for me to grow up and be about my Father's business.

A rambling post, I know. Blame it on movie magic and cold medicine. I just feel like I'm ready for love--the harsh and dreadful kind. I'd like trade my loving in dreams in for a more incarnational model. But even this kind of loving--fierce and fearful--Dorothy did with with what she called "the duty of delight." Quite the paradox, isn't it? I guess I'll have to live it to fully understand it.

From Dorothy:

Little Miracles

We live from day to day, and by the little miracles
God performs in His bounty. If we ask our Father for bread will He give us a stone? But ours is happiness, ours is joy, for Christ comes to us each day, not only at Christmas, but each time we look at the face of our brother, who is poor.

Pray for me.


Rhonda Jeanne said...

Bless you mair.

Rosalie Riegle said...

Mair, You are so simpatico with Dorothy Day that you'll love reading (and then writing about) her diaries, beautifully edited by Robert Ellsberg and published this summer. The title is *The Duty of Delight.* Then read her autobiography, *The Long Loneliness* and next (shameless markeing) my oral biography, taken from interviews with her friends and co-Workers: *Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her.* (Orbis Books, 2003, now in paperback.)

Elysa said...

Oh honey...I so hear you.

I think the next time we go to Swaziland, Rhonda needs to go with us, don't you think?

ragamuffin diva said...

Thanks, ladies. Yes, indeed, Rhonda should go with us.

Rosalie, I'm delighted that you've visited. I almost bought your book, but the words "radical devotion" stole my attention! It's clear that I have a divine appointment with your book. I was going to get the duty of delight--I'm pining for it--but the budget wouldn't allow for the pricey tome this time around. It's so, so on my wish list.

Can't wait to read your book.
p.s. read the Long Loneliness. It's hear in bed with me!