Lifted up and out—breaking free from dejection

jenny on my lapJUNE 20, 2016 — We all go through spells where we feel blue, even downright dejected. I know lately I’ve been waking up in the morning and feeling a sense of dread about facing a new day. Those fears and anxieties that lie just below the surface tend to be magnified in the wee hours of the morning before the alarm goes off. A quick cup of coffee, some time in prayer with Jenny on my lap purring, and those feelings begin to dissipate. Lately however, I’ve had a harder time getting them to leave me.

One of the psalms that I pray each morning describes dejection to the point of despair:

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.

Psalm 88, 6-9 NIV

Most days I think of those I have known who have experienced that kind of despair. I think too of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, overcome by the knowledge of the suffering he would experience. But some days, I think of me.

I pride myself with knowing why I feel the way I do—I am introspective by nature, and to a fault. But lately I am not clear as to why I feel the way I do. Perhaps it’s the cycle of days seeming to go by faster and faster. It could be those small aches and pains of age reminding me that youth is long over. Maybe I need to stop paying attention to the news because the world no longer makes sense. Maybe I need to stop being so introspective!

I prayed to God today during that psalm and I prayed again during the one o’clock hour when I lift up petitions of healing for family and friends. I rarely include myself but today I did. I asked for grace to come up out of myself, to be lifted up and out. And my prayer was answered.

pedlar's progressI am reading an antique book printed in 1937 about an historical figure, Amos Bronson Alcott. The book is large, its pages browning, the paper soft to the touch. The spine is such that that the book stays open by itself. The cover is exquisite, vintage 1930s art in earth tones. The biographer is totally immersed in his subject, revealing to me the mind and the heart of one of recent histories’ biggest conundrums. Alcott was a man of extremes—at once brilliant, original, insightful while at the same time blind to the physical needs of his family, unable, unwilling at times to work to support them. He drew amazing creativity out of his daughters but inflicted great scars through his demands for perfection and virtue, causing one to become a workaholic to support the family while constantly striving to prove her virtue (Louisa) while another found that virtue perfectly in death rather than life (Lizzie).

peddlar's progressWith all his fatal flaws, Amos Bronson Alcott is a fascinating figure and Odell Shepherd, the biographer, writes about the man with incredible beauty and insight. Some call it “old-fashioned” but I say that Shepherd, because he wrote the book only forty-nine years after Alcott’s death, was closer to him that current biographers could ever hope to be. Perhaps the writing style is “dated;” the fact that there are no footnotes proves to be frustrating for scholars. But there is general agreement that the work is authentic. And that’s why it speaks to me.

And today during my lunch break as I read, scribbling notes in the margins, I found myself being lifted out of my dejection by the sheer beauty of the words and the tactile experience of holding that magnificent old book.

God answered my prayer. Through the experience of reading, I could be lifted out of the prison of myself, my eyes no longer dimmed with grief, my spirit no longer overcome with waves. Because I could get lost in the life of another through the exquisite writing of his biographer, I could receive a gift of grace.

We all have tools we use to help ourselves feel better when we are blue. Some like to listen to music, go for a walk, take a swim or see friends. These are all gifts of grace from God who knows our every need. In my case, rather late in life, I was given the grace to lose myself in a book and in the lives of fascinating historical figures.

Thank you Lord.

 

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Words that Transform – God can speak to you through your library books

This is my monthly column for The Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com.

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Words have power. Through prayer, guidance and meditation, the Bible can change lives. While God speaks most directly through his Word, he can also speak to you through the books you have in your home or that you find at your local library. It’s all a matter of being aware of how and when he is speaking to you.

My mother's copy of Little Women
My mother’s copy of Little Women

I developed a passion for reading four years ago after my mother had died. She had been ill for many years and all I could remember about her was her suffering. Reading acted as a balm upon numbing grief; it was an unexpected gift of grace from God. While cleaning out the family home I came up on my mother’s collection of books by Louisa May Alcott, each volume marked with her personal name plate. As I thumbed through the pages and enjoyed the familiar stories, I imagined my mother as a girl reading them along with me. I found myself wrapped in warm and happy memories of the woman I had called my very best friend.

mr. emerson's wife by amy belding brownBooks soon became a means of spiritual growth. Reading exercised a lazy mind and challenged my heart to open and grow. A novel of historical fiction was my first “breakthrough” book, one that shone a glaring spotlight on my soul and moved me to repent and change. Titled Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown it told the story of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife Lidian. a highly intelligent and accomplished woman who, although married to an “enlightened man,” suffered the plight of all married women of her era. Just a scant one hundred and fifty years ago women were the property of their husbands; they had no legal rights. Women could not own land or a house, they could not vote and they had no lawful custody of their children. There were few options for gainful employment if a woman became widowed. Women in the nineteenth century were in essence invisible and powerless, unable to chart the course of their own lives.

While wholeheartedly agreeing that all people are equal despite gender and race, I have never embraced modern feminism. This, however, did not give me the right to judge others who did embrace it. My judgment was harsh, secretly leveled at dear friends whom I otherwise loved and respected. After reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife, my heart began to open for these women with whom I had disagreed as I came to an understanding of their passion and point of view. I prayed to God for forgiveness and asked him to stretch my small heart, replacing judgment with love. He wasted no time in showing me how to love better and to leave all judgment to him.

Other books challenged me spiritually. A series of novels by Chaim Potok explored the lives of people of great faith whose heritage clashed with their enormous gifts of intellect (The Chosen) and artistry (My Name is Asher Lev, The Gift of Asher Lev). Danny Saunders of The Chosen was a brilliant young man who was the rightful heir to his father, an Hasidic rebbe. Reb Isaac Saunders meant for his son to devote his vast intellect to study of the Torah while Danny hungered to be a scholar, feasting on the knowledge of the world outside of his Jewish community. Asher Lev was an artistic genius, compelled to create provocative paintings and drawings even if it put him at odds with his family and his own Hasidic community.

chaim potok books

Danny and Asher were young men of great courage who pursued their callings while remaining faithful to their Jewish faith. Their stories challenged me to dig deeper to find my own calling while at the same time, reminding me that such digging must be done in complete partnership with God, allowing him to lead me to self-knowledge.

Think about the book you are reading now: how does it speak to you? Can you read between the lines and sense God touching your heart, moving you to change? Does your mind open up to seeing the world around you in a different way? Do you derive comfort from the book? Or does it challenge you and motivate you to repent of some sin? Does it inspire you to step out into the world and serve God’s people?

Consider these possibilities the next time you visit the library. The next book you read could transform your life.