Last year I spent a week with some Cajun Catholic folk in Lafayette, Louisiana. They engaged me in stimulating intellectual and theological conversation. They fed me. They took me out on the Atchafalaya Swamp and let me catch a (very small) bream, which they all but got out of the boat and hand-placed on my hook.
At one point Father Sam Fontana, the priest who’d brought me there, spoke of La Bonne Vie — The Good Life.
After returning home to Los Angeles, I found myself asking: What is “the good life”?
I should say up front that I’m not a fan of prescriptive guides. We’re called to find, forge and follow our own path, not to duplicate someone else’s. Still, in my own tragicomic spiritual pilgrimage, I’ve noticed certain phenomenon that I’ve set forth below, using “we” and thus implying invitation.
Nor, I should add, is “the good life” a recipe for worldly success, fame or happiness in any culturally recognized sense. In fact, the more firmly our eyes are fixed on the Cross, the more our exterior lives may well be marked by exile, seeming failure and suffering.
That doesn’t militate against calling such an existence a “good” life, any more than the Crucifixion militates against calling the day Christ died Good Friday.
But cheer up! As a priest friend points out, Christ had a rich, full life — then three really bad days.
We voluntarily build uncertainty and discomfort into our lives
For me, this comes under the same heading as “Have I embraced celibacy or am I simply too wounded to enter into an intimate human relationship?”
In other words, have I voluntarily built a certain amount of uncertainty and discomfort into my life — or has my life been marked by uncertainty and discomfort because of my congenital brokenness, ineptitude and inability to “manage”?
Either way, my emotional, financial and spiritual resources have been meager enough so that I’ve been invited to learn to accept the things I cannot change and to have the courage to change the things I can. And maybe acceptance — of reality, of the human condition, of the way things are — is the first true mark of La Bonne Vie.
By “uncertainty and discomfort,” I’m not even talking, principally, about the ongoing recovery from alcoholism, the cancer, the divorce. Worse than any of those, I swear, has been my 20-plus year search for a quiet place to write.
When I die, you’ll find on my computer a document entitled “Noise Journal.” Read it at my funeral. See how I suffered. The unceasing pageant of insomniac, heavy-metal enthusiast and ADHD neighbors. The owner-roommate who decided to re-do the foundation and couldn’t understand why I objected to jackhammers beneath my bedroom for two months. The rental on a quiet, tree-lined street where no sooner had I moved in than the city decided to embark on a year-long new sewer installation. The apartment in Pasadena in which I emphasized before signing the lease that my main consideration was quiet, after which the owner promptly began re-roofing the building, followed immediately by a six-month rehab of the unit directly below mine.
At some point I had to realize that even an objective observer would agree I’ve had more than my share of noise. But what’s “my share”? What about prison inmates who are subjected to noise 24/7, or people in war zones, or kids with alcoholic parents who fight every night?
Why don’t I move to the country? Because I’d be lonely. Because I grew up in a family of eight kids and being alone in the midst of a crowd has always been my central human-interaction paradigm.
Like I said, acceptance. Nailed, like Christ, to the human condition.
The good news is that in spite of the noise I somehow managed to write several books and, for the last three years, a weekly arts and culture column, and also to travel a bit, stretch, grow.
Because of the noise, I’ve developed an ever-deeper prayer life.
And, seriously, I’m not bitter.
We incorporate into our lives an element of pilgrimage
Several years ago, in the midst of a (two-decade) midlife crisis, I set off in my ’96 Celica to drive from Los Angeles to the coast of New Hampshire where I was raised. In anguish over a broken heart, and with the kind of magnetic true north impulse that is said to drive migratory birds, I made a ritual, archetypal trip home to “Mother” (who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and barely registered my presence).
I was gone seven weeks. I didn’t visit holy shrines but made the trip into a pilgrimage by going to Mass every day. This was harder than might be expected as for large swaths of the Southwest and on through Texas, churches with daily Mass were sparse. Every day I had to navigate my way to a new city or town, and every morning (daily Masses are almost always in the morning), I had to get up early enough to find my way to a new church. I became well acquainted with the website masstimes.org.
I stayed at monasteries, hermitages, Motel 6-es and the houses of family and friends. I left on August 17, 2007 — the 11th anniversary of my confirmation as a Catholic — and returned on October 2, the Feast of the Guardian Angels.
I wrote a book about that trip that never sold. I was still too much in the middle of it, and nine years later, perhaps I still am. We want to resolve the situations, the relationships, the wounds from which our suffering flows. We wait for The Moment when we’re transformed: no longer grasping, no longer selfish, no longer afraid.
Here’s part of the epigraph:
In luce tua videmus lucem: In your light we see light. — Psalm 36
We hear a lot of talk these days about truth in memoir, about memory versus facts, about accuracy. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson said, by which she perhaps meant that all kinds of things are true. It’s true obsession isn’t love, but it’s also true nobody really knows what love is. It’s true we stumble in the dark, and it’s also true the light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. It’s true I drove 8,793 miles, laid out $5,000, took seven weeks out of my life for “nothing,” and it’s also true that trip helped change my life.
“[W]e can only hold the [power of romantic love] for a few brief seconds,” depth psychologist Robert A. Johnson observes. “The experience is not something ordinary humans can endure for long.” I had endured it for a lot longer than a few brief seconds. I had endured it as long as I could, thinking the whole while that I was doing something wrong, that my task was something other than enduring. I had endured it and now I was a different person: a transformation that had taken place anonymously, facelessly — as happens in the miracle of the Mass.
I’m not nearly as transformed as I’d hoped. But I had done something noble and hard and true that made me know my whole journey on Earth — even if I never left my apartment again — is a pilgrimage.
Like Jacob from the story in Genesis, I had wrestled with the angel. I had stayed awake till dawn. I had walked toward the light.
We celebrate food and we practice hospitality
I was fascinated by the fact that real Cajun guys cook. That’s just as it should be — not because men and women need to be “the same” or do the same things, but because cooking is one of life’s great pleasures. My own father, a bricklayer, was a wonderful cook: homemade bread, fish chowder, clam fritters.
But we don’t need to know how to cook to practice hospitality, which is the whole reason for cooking in the first place. Eucharist. The shared meal — even if we usually eat alone.
In a sense the apartment where I live is, in fact, the womb I ceaselessly prepare for the Christ child. The whole of the space I inhabit is the table laid for the uninvited guest.
One Christmas morning not long ago I woke in the dark and sat for a bit, basking in the colored lights, pine swags and vintage ornaments, and drinking coffee. The furniture was dusted, the mirrors were polished, and in the fridge sat a $138 standing rib roast. Christian, the friend I’d commandeered to cook the meat, would arrive in a few hours. Ten were coming to dinner and it was all going to work out perfectly.
First, though, I had to bake my pear cake, so I lit the oven — or so I thought — to 350, and began assembling my ingredients. Suddenly I realized I should have been feeling a current of warm air. I pressed my hand against the glass of the oven door: ice cold. I fooled around with the red pilot light button: no dice. I called the gas company, where the woman who answered told me I could make a repair appointment for January 5. I walked very slowly into the living room, sat down on the couch and put my head in my hands.
After a while I got up and called Christian, who sighed, and then offered to cook everything at his place. So he angelically drove down and we hauled everything out to his car: the 14-pound roast, the potatoes, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, parsnips and turnips, the baster, the beef broth.
There were more snafus. I commandeered my neighbor Oscar into taking the tchotchkes out of his oven and letting me use it to bake my pear cake — the one with the caramelized brown sugar “crust,” the hint of corn meal — then burnt it. One guest called to say she’d had a panic attack and been hospitalized. By the time Christian hauled down the roast and when the Yorkshire pudding had been cooked — in another neighbor’s oven — dinner was two hours late.
But in the end, everything worked out. We lit every candle in the house. We had a toast. Everything was delicious, or delicious enough. The anxiety faded. What remains is the memory that my plan got derailed but there was another plan: Things almost fell apart but miraculously came together.
I wonder if Mary and Joseph didn’t feel the same way, gazing down at the baby Jesus in the manger — which, after all, means “to eat.”
We make something with our hands
Caryll Houselander, one of my favorite spiritual writers, had a special affinity for traumatized children. She believed deeply in the therapeutic and healing powers of small handcrafting.
In The Spiritual Path of Caryll Houselander, Joyce Kemp describes how, for a period of two years, Caryll taught art at a friend’s school to boys who had been traumatized by war. She taught them to draw by inviting them to picture themselves as cavemen, guided them to build a crèche at Christmas, and for Lent to study the Last Supper, “making a portable altar, painting a crucifix and carving simple wooden candlesticks.”
In The Little Way of the Infant Jesus, Houselander wrote: “Not only those parts of life that are difficult and painful, but joy, too, is our Christ-life. . . . If we work with His hands, there is no work that is without dignity; whether it is a sheet of typing, scrubbing a floor, making a pie, doing a page of figures, carving a statue, playing the piano, or anything else, it is the work of Christ’s hands. It would be incredible if people, knowing that they work with His hands, did any work that is shoddy and careless, or is not the best that they can do; whatever they make will be warm and living from their touch.”
My own thing is knitting. I have no capacity to keep track of stitches or do anything fancy, so scarves. Lots and lots of scarves, most of which look like patched-up cobwebs. I also took a pottery class last year during which I made about 800 teeny bowls, good for storing three pills, a walnut or a single AAA battery. And I play the piano.
Whether we knit a scarf, build a bookcase or fold an origami crane, working with our hands — those wondrous instruments — helps build Christ’s Kingdom. The more time we spend making beautiful things with our hands, the less time we have for argument, opinion and gossiping.
We grow something, even if it’s a lone geranium on a windowsill
Though a city dweller, I’ve always been lucky enough to have a balcony or a patio for my many potted plants. Many times over the years my succulents and agaves have saved me from despair.
A year ago, I moved into a large Craftsman bungalow in Pasadena that had been divided into seven apartments. Beyond the parking area lay a huge backyard that was technically common property, but in which no other tenant was remotely interested, nor apparently had been for years.
I’d always wanted a real garden, but where to begin? The place was a total dump filled with decades’ worth of brush, piles of vine-covered logs and broken-down wheelbarrows heaped with grotty gravel. I hired my friend Jerry, who has tools and a pickup, to help. Together we spent several weekends clearing, hauling, raking, placing river rocks, dragging weathered logs, digging holes in the clay-like soil.
Meanwhile, I took a class on native plants. I pored over tracts on mulching and watering. I salivated over photographs of sages, manzanitas and buckwheats. Though my neighbors seemed oblivious, I spent half my time in the backyard, envisioning a beautiful place for all of us.
During that time I happened to read a New Yorker piece about Nancy Rosenblum’s Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America.
The reviewer wrote, “The essence of neighborliness, [Rosenblum] finds, is reciprocity: one good turn for another . . . These unacknowledged and perhaps unconscious exchanges contribute to our neighborly concord.”
I couldn’t disagree more. To do a favor because of an unspoken law that a favor is expected in return is not charity; it’s a business deal. It’s a quid pro quo contractual obligation: effective enough in its way, and practical, but it’s not charity. The essence of charity is that your little acts of kindness are very likely not going to be reciprocated. The Good Life presupposes a policy of generosity and love that hopes for but doesn’t expect anything in return.
The morning after Jerry and I finally planted, I looked out my kitchen window and saw a neighbor from the adjacent apartment, who in a year had never said a word to me beyond “Hi” and “Good morning.” He was strolling around the desert lavender, prickly pear and ceanothus with a phone in his hand. He was enjoying the garden!
Jerry and I had performed our work well.
My joy was complete.
We cultivate a sense of ritual
Not ritual for ritual’s sake, but ritual underlain by the self-immolating love of Christ.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Church is on a gritty strip of Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood, hard by a Rite-Aid, a clutch of Armenian groceries and Los Angeles City College. For several years, I regularly attended 5:30 p.m. Mass there.
Outside stood Larry and Eva, a couple who hawked holy cards, rosaries and melamine plates imprinted with scenes of Our Lady of Guadalupe and The Last Supper.
Inside were the women who came every day to say Evening Prayer before Mass, there was the welcoming spirit formed by decades of the Wednesday novena and the Tuesday Adoration, there were Fathers Rodel and Miloy, both of whom say a lovely, simple Mass and give a simple, useful homily, often with a bit of sly humor thrown in.
There were dark scarred pews, creaky kneelers and the spirit of love that permeates any place where people come, after a long, hard day, to bow their heads and give thanks. People who whispered too loudly, forgot to turn off their cell phones, shushed their kids, and rustled their prayer books, missalettes and paper fans.
People who knew to honor the passing, with the Sacrament of Sacraments, of another day.
After the Dismissal the cantor, a tiny Filipino woman with a helmet of silvered hair, led us in the Angelus.
We were tired but we stayed anyway: a lullaby, from us and to us. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary . . . And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. Behold the handmaid of the Lord . . . Let it be done unto me according to Thy word . . .
Here, across town; all over the world in city and country; for centuries past and for centuries to come, we of Christ’s ragtag flock laid Our Beloved to rest for another night.
A hush fell.
The sparrow sang.
We walk, whenever possible
I firmly believe that half our physical and emotional problems would be solved simply by taking an hour-long walk every day instead of sitting in front of a television set listening to hate-mongers and watching ads for antidepressants. Could the two possibly be related?
When we walk, we get to watch for flowers, birds and clouds. We get to know our neighborhoods and neighbors. We get to gather seedpods, small rocks and leaves, watch the buds unfurl, observe what time the sun sets.
The biographer of British travel writer Bruce Chatwin (In Patagonia; The Songlines) observed: “He believed that walking is simply not therapeutic for oneself, but is a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills.”
So all the better if our aging bodies ache a little; if we’re a little cold, a little tired, a little lonely, a little depressed. We walk for all the people who can’t walk: the people in wheelchairs, the old, the sick, the people in solitary confinement, the people in straitjackets, the babies.
Several years ago, I underwent a bit of a spiritual crisis.
So I found an out-of-the-way spot a thousand miles from home and signed up for a 40-day silent retreat.
The first thing I noticed was that my days at the retreat house were not all that different from my days in L.A. I already lived the life of a contemplative in the middle of the city. I began to see that my strange little existence had some kind of weird value. I was in the world but not of it: I never had been. I had always known that the things on Earth pointed to the things beyond.
The second thing I noticed was the spectrum of teeming life. Armadillos huffed along the drives. Javelinas ambled out from the palmetto scrub. Broods of wild turkeys bobbed across the lawn. Altamira orioles, brilliant orange-gold with jet black markings, were as plentiful as sparrows. How can you say there is no God? I kept thinking.
Every night after supper I’d take a long walk. I’d study the tops of trees, marvel at the wildflowers. I’d think about what I was working on, wonder what was going to become of me, and worry about my mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
One night, I’d taken my walk and was almost back to my cabin. It was not the cool of the night — the nights, like the days at this place, were sweltering — but it was toward night. The drive, lined with tall, old trees, stretched before me. I was in a kind of “garden,” which is where lovers meet. Suddenly I thought: Someday I’m going to be walking down a road like this and Christ is going to be walking toward me. I thought: What if he materialized right now and started walking toward me — would I recognize him?
I thought of how life is like a really long, really uncomfortable plane ride. I thought of how, when you get off a plane and know someone is waiting for you, recognizing the person in that sea of strangers still takes a second. I thought of how maybe Jesus and I would look at each other for a minute, with a little expectant smile — “Is it you?” Then I’d know. I’d just know. One day I’d see this face I’d been looking for, searching for, waiting to see, my whole life.
Mother Teresa, guardian of the poor of Calcutta, once wrote a note to Dorothy Day, guardian of the poor of the Bowery. “Dear Dorothy,” it read. “My love, prayers, and sacrifices to you. If you go first, please tell Jesus that I love him. If I go first, I will tell Jesus that you love him.”
We build our life on prayer
Setting aside a specific time to pray each day is essential, and a start. But prayer is really a way of being. Prayer is a stance toward reality.
In his essay, “The Domestic Monastery,” Father Ronald Rolheiser tells the following story:
“Carlo Carretto, one of the leading spiritual writers of the past half-century, lived for more than a dozen years as a hermit in the Sahara desert. Alone, with only the Blessed Sacrament for company, milking a goat for his food, and translating the Bible into the local Bedouin language, he prayed for long hours by himself. Returning to Italy one day to visit his mother, he came to a startling realization: His mother, who for more than thirty years of her life had been so busy raising a family that she scarcely ever had a private minute for herself, was more contemplative than he was.”
So setting aside time for prayer does not mean living in a cave. It does mean that surrounded by noise, chaos and even violence, we can still cultivate a contemplative heart. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7). But we have to want that more than anything. And we usually don’t want it unless every other person, place and worldly thing has failed us.
Culturally, we respond to our imperfections, our suffering, our longing for the infinite by trying to medicate or surgically remove them. It’s actually a great gift when we discover such “solutions” don’t work.
In my new book, Holy Desperation: Pray As If Your Life Depends On It, one of my main points is that we don’t have to be holy, or have a degree in theology, or even believe in God in order to pray. As the 13th-century German theologian Meister Eckhart said, “God is greater than God.” God knows us better than we know ourselves. There’s no big technique, or secret, or athletic warrior powers we can develop to shape ourselves up or get God to do our bidding. The greatest treatise on prayer ever written is the Sermon on the Mount, which begins: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
As a priest friend says, “If you’re really lucky, you’ll give up all hope of being happy in any way you ever thought you were going to be happy.” Being clueless, broken and a giant sinner, in other words, doesn’t disqualify us for the Kingdom of God. It’s our ticket in.
We have a sense of humor
Through prayer, we cultivate a wide-ranging curiosity. We embrace paradox. We take seriously our moral obligation to discriminate between the false and the true, the tawdry and the beautiful, the sacred and the profane.
We embrace our moral imperative to ask the deepest possible questions and to avoid facile categorizations that end in theological error and absurdity.
We do a daily examination of conscience. We take responsibility for building meaning, purpose and love into our lives. We avoid expecting others to give us meaning and then getting mad, disappointed and resentful when they don’t.
Also — prayer gives us a sense of humor. Especially about ourselves.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was a bourgeois French girl, a cradle Catholic from a pious, religious family who begged to enter the convent at the age of 15 and died of tuberculosis at 24. Clearly my life went a very different route, but Thérèse has become a wonderful companion. Her mother superior at the Carmelite convent observed of her that she was a mystic, she was comic, she could have listeners crying one minute and on the floor laughing in the next. That’s very attractive. That is how I would like to be known, as a mystic comic.
Thérèse was full of joy, but she deeply suffered both emotionally and spiritually. I think that is pretty much the path of any human being, and that is one reason she is relevant to our times. The person with an inner life on fire with Christ is invisible to the rest of the world. That was true way before the advent of social media, but to be faithful to that life may be especially radical in our culture of selfies and “Look at me, and here’s my cat, and my hot partner, and my groovy new shoes, and here’s me! On vacation! I’m so happy, and my life is so great.”
While we’re accepting the fact that our life actually isn’t so great, not like that anyway, we get to lighten up, tell a joke, swap stories. My own sense of humor comes from my father, who had that fatalistic, self-deprecating, black Irish comic sense that has tears beneath it. We can use humor to be glib and to avoid our real feelings, which to me isn’t really humor. But our existence — the huge gap between how we wish we were and how we actually are — really is tragicomic.
At the same time, to me there’s a real danger in being known as the hip Catholic, or the proudly (as opposed to humbly) neurotic Catholic, or the “bad” Catholic. I’m a stumbling, broken Catholic, but I’m actually a good Catholic. By which I mean I let my desire burn bright, with all the pain that entails.
When we dare to see ourselves and the world clearly, we can have a sense of humor and at the same time be deeply, deeply reverent.
Heather King is a memoirist and essayist with several books, among them Parched and Loaded: Money and the Spirituality of Enough. She lives in Los Angeles, speaks nationwide, appears monthly in Magnificat, and writes a weekly arts and culture column for Angelus, the archdiocesan newspaper of L.A. For more info and her blog, visit heather-king.com.