This post was written as a guest piece for Abbey of the Arts’ “Monk in the World Guest Post” series which poses the question, “How do you live as a monk in the world?”
“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”
~ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
A table was set up outside the bookstore at Kanuga, the retreat center where my family and I spent our summer vacation. As so often happens, on our final day there I felt the stirring need to purchase a little token of our time in that scared place. A slim white paperback caught my attention.
The Mockingbird is a journal, published by Mockingbird Ministries “…that seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways. [They] do this primarily, but not exclusively, via publications, conferences, and online resources.”* Each volume has a theme and this volume, Volume 5, focused on forgiveness. I scanned the table of contents, flipped through the beautifully laid out pages, hesitated, and put it back.
Something larger was at work.
As I moved on, perusing the other items on the table, I felt a tug, as though the book had lassoed a rope around my body and was pulling, drawing me in.
For months I have been struggling with layers of resentment and anger. For months I have been reworking the pages of my novel unable to figure out how to fix it. For years I have been lamenting that my life has, thus far, not turned out the way I envisioned it. I am not yet a bestselling author and humanitarian—a kind of literary Bono.
“Forgive me for the expectations I had of this life.
I had very specific standards that have not been met.
Either through my own failures or those around me.
That I would be Eudora Welty-meets-Mother Theresa.
That I would write tomes of wisdom whiling away my time in an urban ministry program.
Instead I am a mother who lives in the suburbs.
I occasionally remember to donate baby formula to the food pantry…”*
This was the first piece I read (and photographed with my iPhone and texted to my mother and best friend). The anonymous author continues on with an all too familiar litany of standards she set for her life, and all the many ways she struggles with acceptance and gratitude.
Next I read an interview with “The Warden of the World’s Nicest Prison” who affirmed my thoughts about incarceration but which I felt too naive to verbalize. Then I read an essay on forgiveness in marriage. After that came Hearts and Crosses by O.Henry, a story of how we hurt each other and how we forgive.
One of the main scenes in my novel that had been giving me fits was the critical moment where the protagonist forgives herself for all the ways she blamed others for her suffering, and in doing so offers the antagonist an opportunity to do the same. The essential plot and spirit of the scene was right but the setting, the dialogue, and the actions—all the basic elements of story—felt sappy and forced.
After reading Hearts and Crosses I took out my file of magazine clippings, crayons and watercolor paper, and made some Wisdom Cards. To make Wisdom Cards write a question on three or four pieces of paper, turn them over, and mix them up. That way you don’t know which question you are working with as paste on images and drawings. Each card will have its own flavor. An image on one card just won’t work on another. The pieces hone in on each other and create a new whole. When the collages are finished, turn the cards over, and read the question your art-making has addressed. I always expect direct answers. “This is action a, now take action b.” Fortunately, art is more subtle than that.
Lying in bed that night, after reading Hearts and Crosses, after making Wisdom Cards, words and pictures churned as I faded into sleep: hearts, crosses, forgiveness; the novel, my characters… decoupage… magnolias…summer heat… photographs… an antique store… a kind gesture. And there it was, how to fix the novel.
I may never be the literary Bono I envision myself to be—though I still hold out hope for that possibility. I may never truly rid myself of anger and resentment. What I need to remember is that neither of those things is the point.
What I need to remember is that it’s the process; the movement of the soul, the diving down into the dark, painful places of the heart: the resentment, the disappointment, the selfish grasping, the shame. What I need to remember is the many ways God has, if not answered, evolved the deepest longings of my being.
How do I practice being a monk in the world? I switch on my homing beacon, and listen.
*The Confessional, Mockingbird Volume 5, Mockingbird Press, page 19.
** I highly recommend both Mockingbird and the book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (which has a fabulous, unabridged audio version).
Melinda Thomas Hansen is mother to a one year old, so living as a monk in the world is a bit more challenging these days. Her touchstone practices are writing, yoga–both teaching and doing–, taking walks and looking at trees. Visit her online at www.thehouseholderspath.com