My prayer life changed a few months ago. I can’t remember why, exactly, I did this, but I began to follow an Ignatian online retreat that has meditations and whatnots that change on a weekly basis. A 34-week retreat. Something to sink my spiritual teeth into.
I found that I liked snippets of the prayers offered, and decided to use them for the basis of my rosary prayers. So, instead of praying everyday the same prayer as I worked completely through it, I changed my rosary prayer every Monday morning.
Now, let’s face it, prayers aimed at our relationship with God pretty much settle on one basic concept: I’m inadequate in this, help me to do that better, I’m confused about everything.
So I was rather shocked this week when the line I picked out while listening through this week’s retreat assignments was, Lord, I want only what would make me truly free and truly happy.
Where’s the contrition? Where’s the mea culpa? Where’s the need for knees?
This little prayer spun completely away from the “con” approach to God and to the “pro” approach to God.
Let’s go for something completely guilt-free and self-centered.
I remember clearly a day a number of years ago when I had to admit that because of the nature of my relationship with God, throughout my life I had only focused on my needs.
With God’s absolute and ever-present answer of, Julia, you have what you need.
(Talk about harrumphs.)
But I had never, ever – well, almost never – taken any time to think about my wants.
There was the time that I wanted a bicycle. And got one.
And another time when because of shifting life situations I was without a best friend. And wanted one. And got one.
But after that, nothing really came to mind.
Nothing just guilt-free and self-centered.
Nothing that would enrich my happiness.
And so I came to admit that I’d lived my life without any consideration of my happiness.
Rather a shocking blow to see this.
So this last birthday of mine, I did exactly what I wanted to do, and I was very happy by the experiences I had, and by the fact that I actually did this.
But it was, in reality, a great deal of effort for me even to come up with something I would consider as supplying me with happiness. And even more difficult to breathe my way through it into actually doing it. It was more my concern in the days leading up to it to not want to “impose” on other people, inconvenience them in any way.
It was most unnatural for me to plow through my concerns and assert myself.
(Changing focus here, but there’s a reason.)
Lately, I’ve listened to a number of lectures that contain the idea that we all make “vows,” most usually in an intense moment in our early childhood (even in the womb), and quickly forgotten.
But vows made almost instinctively, not meant literally, but with enough power to program our souls to follow that path.
And I wondered, what vows had I made as a child?
And again, as is my tendency when I look back on my childhood, I see how different a child I was. Most of my life, I cringed at that oddness. The freak that became Julia.
It still brings me to tears, to be honest.
And I saw, surprisingly easily, that I did, in fact, make a life-long vow. A vow that I took very, very seriously. A vow that meant so much to me that it became my life.
It is not unnatural or wrong for a family to want their children to grow up to be “normal.” To blossom into what you were “put on Earth” for.
It is not unnatural or wrong for a British family to view genders in strictly defined roles. And for an almost obsessive insistence that children develop into those roles.
How old was I when I knew that I wasn’t like that (pointing finger over there)?
Had I known even before my first vision that cemented Who I Was for all time?
But I most definitely knew that I was not a girl in any ordinary sense of the word. I did not take any pleasure in crinoline skirts or patent leather shoes.
And working with God on a daily basis did something for me that has always surprised people who thought I was a nice, sweet girl: I knew that the ground underneath my feet was sure and solid.
I knew who I was.
And it didn’t take anyone else’s approval or acknowledgement to solidify it.
As I study childhood trauma, I notice a great deal of attention put on the damage done when a girl is not worshiped as a little girl. Made her Daddy’s little princess. Or, worse, having a man fall into her princess mode too much and treat her as a sexual partner.
When my father tried to treat me as a princess, when he gave me a beautiful you’re-a-girl gift, I cried my eyes out for days and days.
I knew who I was, and I wasn’t that.
So I looked at this in my relationship with the other women in the family: my mother and my grandmother.
And I saw the vow: I will never allow anyone, most especially another woman, to treat me as a lesser person for who I am.
I will never accept their disrespect for who I am.
And yet, I also see that if someone, anyone, had difficulty with me, I would take all the blame. I would just say, yup, I’m weird, and let it go at that.
I never held anyone’s animosity towards me against them.
I was like a zebra with no stripes, and knew it, and accepted the herd’s tendency to kick me to the outside of the circle.
I had no stripes after all. Who could blame them?
But, yet, down deep, there was the absolute resolution that despite my unstripedness, I would not accept another person’s (especially another woman’s) disrespect.
Kick me out of your life. Fine.
Try to lessen my value as a person.
And I have lived out this vow all my life.
Do what you want with me, all you strippèd wonders, but I know who I am.
And you can’t take anything away from me no matter what you do to me.
And so a real conflict is now before me:
My vow is part of the definition of who I am. But do I now go back in time, even recent time, and work on forgiveness for those who thought, or who think, that the sewer is the best place for me? That I don’t deserve their friendship or love because of who I am?
Or do I just stand proudly on my solid ground and shrug it off?
Does the swan forgive the ducks?
Or does she just fly off into her own world?
I never realized how subtle and complicated my relationship with the world was.
I knew it was difficult. I knew it was a climb up a very steep mountain.
But I never knew how choosing to forgive someone for the way they treated me, someone like my mother, say, would mean having to put down my own self-definition.
My own identity.
To say, fine, all right. You shouldn’t have treated me that way.
Or, even, you shouldn’t treat me that way today.
Where is the ground that I need to even offer forgiveness?
It would mean starting to close the apartness that began when I sensed God for the first time, and watched the ballerina dance.
The apartness that is so real for me that it almost hurts when it’s not there in my life.
A monk’s cell is a real thing. A true gift for that monk.
Emerging from that cell is no easy task.
And, so now, back to happiness.
Where is it for me exactly?
To forgive means to come out of my cell. To acknowledge, in human terms, the harm done to me.
To feel the earthquake under my feet.
And to know that I have to find a way to survive it.