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Archive for April, 2008

The Ring

Mid-February, 2008

As I type this, my right ring finger sports a big amethyst ring. And I mean big: a honking huge lavender stone, emerald cut, in a rose gold 1940-ish kind of setting. This is a cocktail party ring, a show-off ring. This ring belonged to my mother, and I never saw her wear it. Which is why I’ve got it on.

Recently a friend of mine, looking at our wedding pictures on the sideboard, told me that I needed to tart myself up more often. And it’s true, I rarely if ever wear makeup or a skirt or any kind of dressy clothes these days. It just doesn’t make sense, given what the days are like here. My life at Heart’s Rest includes things like cleaning out mouse traps and stacking wood and turning compost. So why the ring?

Some of why I wear it is remembrance. This is my piece of my mother’s jewelry, and I wear it to remember her. But that’s a bit odd, since she didn’t wear it herself. It was a gift from my Dad on their honeymoon, and I can imagine that she put it away for later; but later came eight babies and very few cocktail parties. Not to mention that in 53 ½ years, I rarely saw her wear any jewelry besides her wedding ring, and never anything this flashy.

So most of why I wear this ring has to do with me.

When I was growing up, the cardinal sin was pride. I can still remember, with vivid clarity, the day in second grade that I won a school-wide writing contest. My joy got converted to shame almost instantaneously, because I made the mistake of showing how happy I was. I was told that I was exhibiting pride, and pride was evil.

This kind of thinking can make one very confused. I knew I was supposed to do the very best I could, and I knew that I was supposed to be grateful for all the gifts God had given me. But I wasn’t actually supposed to enjoy the good feelings that came with doing well. So I found myself deprecating my skills, not only to others but also to myself. The fear that I would lapse into pride, that I would misuse my gifts for selfish aims, was very strong.

Worrying about hiding a bad motive under a good action was not something that I grew out of when I got older. I got more, rather than less, sensitive to this issue in my middle thirties after I quit drinking. A cold hard look at how I’d been functioning in the world made it clear that I had an immense capacity to lie to myself. So I tried to keep the lessons of second grade front and centre.  Attend to your motives. Watch what you’re thinking. Be careful of feeling special: it can be a trap.

The need for this kind of self-examination became paramount when I began working as a minister. I saw good reason to be afraid of self-delusion. I’m sure that everyone reading this can think of people we’ve known, or read about, who have used their good mind and charismatic gifts for personal gain instead of for the good of the community. When I sat on the ethics subcommittee for my denomination in California, I got to see firsthand just how someone with great talents and a messed up value system—or just a sufficient amount of denial—could screw up a church. Frankly, it terrified me. I felt queasy about acknowledging, much less using, certain of my God-given talents, afraid that I would tip over into a self-absorbed, self-satisfied person disconnected from the One whom I was serving. Over time, rather than risk the perversion of my gifts, I sometimes found it easier to just hide them or deny them.

I worked hard at listening to the range of voices in my head. On Sunday mornings, as I stood at the back door of the church and shook hands with people as they left, I struggled with the compliments. I’d respond to people’s accolades by saying, “It’s not me,” or “Thank the Holy Spirit,” or “I’m glad you liked it.” Those sound like sane, measured, reasonable responses, right? But underneath it all were other voices, one saying (in the manner of Sally Fields) “They like me! They really like me!” Another voice would say, “Don’t you dare enjoy this praise.” If someone was critical, part of me would think, “What’s wrong with you that you don’t know great preaching when you hear it?” and the other part of me would think, “I’m an arrogant idiot and I need to quit doing this.”

It took years of working with a spiritual director to let my preaching gifts out of the box; to get over my fear that if I really let the Holy Spirit take control of me, if I just abandoned myself to the One and the work I loved, then it was impossible for the results to be bad. Uncomfortable for others, sometimes; frequently uncomfortable for myself; but not bad.

But even when I started to accept the gifts that God gave me, I still found myself, in many situations, relating to people primarily through brokenness and shame. I would try so hard to connect with someone that I would step back from acknowledging the working of the Holy in my life. I would make myself out to be less free, more bound by shame, than I actually felt. And the upshot of this would be a sense of falseness and less actual freedom. You can’t just make yourself small without having an impact on your soul; focusing solely on what’s wrong with me is yet another way of keeping God at a distance. Sure, it connected me to other people. But not where I wanted to be connected. That kind of connection didn’t factor in the love and forgiveness that I knew.

I want to be careful what I say here. I believe beyond believing that we can most deeply identify with each other when we acknowledge our human weakness and failings; I find nothing more personally off-putting and deleterious to community than a person who won’t see their own messed up places. I once taught a class on sin during which a woman declared that she didn’t think she had sinned in her entire adult life. Since I knew quite a bit about the politics of the church where I was teaching, and was acquainted slightly with the woman, I was quite certain that she was delusional. But the immediate result of her remark was that she stopped discussion cold. It’s kind of hard to get vulnerable when another person has claimed perfection.

But I’ve also had the experience of working with people who refuse to see the good in themselves. To acknowledge one’s indebtedness to the Holy is a very different thing than denying one’s own talents, gifts and hard work. When we—okay, when I—deny that we are good or gifted, when we refuse to enjoy what’s in our life because we feel as if we don’t deserve it, we choke off joy.

(Actually, I don’t really believe we “deserve” anything. It’s all a gift. But if it’s a gift, then we’d better enjoy it. Is there anything more miserable than giving someone a really great present that they don’t use because it’s “too nice?”)

There is a falseness in my soul when I refuse to celebrate what’s sound and honest in myself. There is a denial of God’s goodness when I refuse to accept the good—as well as the bad—circumstances of my life. When I want to connect with others, it’s okay to do it through my brokenness; that’s where I can start, that’s what we all have in common. But the fact of the matter is that I have more than my weakness and mortification to share. I have the experience of knowing that God loves me; I have the freedom of feeling deeply released from shame and guilt and self-hatred. I have the joy of living into the gifts I’ve been given. I have to share this knowledge too. One without the other is a lie.

I think that I have been afraid to let go of seeing myself as incurably fucked up because I am afraid that pride will take over and control my life. But during a recent meditation, I realized that we can be linked through compassion rather than guilt and shame. I can enjoy the reality of being free without being arrogant or prideful. I can be helpful to others not necessarily because I’m in the same place but because I have been there and I know how much it hurts.

When I take this amethyst uber-ring off the bureau in the morning and slip it onto my right ring finger, I am reminded that I have nothing to be ashamed of. No matter what I’ve done; no matter how I’m going to screw up today; no matter how small and insignificant I really am, God loves me. I am free, forgiven, beloved, and gifted. And so is everyone else.

Thomas Merton said it best, when he described the opening of his heart on a street corner of St. Louis. He said, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” That means you. That means me. That’s what I have to share.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2008