The Only Way Out Was the Locked Door — I Felt Doomed

PringleFranklin_headshot_002_webby Pringle Franklin

Last night, I had a nightmare.

In the dream, my parents had turned against me and decided to kill me. I was an adult woman, not a child. Now, in the way that dreams can be symbolic, these people were my parents, but they weren’t the same parents that I actually had growing up. I think they represented the concept of relationships that are deeply established.

They took me to a modest and unfamiliar house. The mother-person forced me into a small room, painted white, and locked the door, announcing that she would return in the morning to finish the job of killing me. After being left alone, I began desperately looking around my cell, searching for a way out. The room felt like it had once been a bathroom, but now it was stripped bare. That space on the wall that normally would have been a window was bricked up.

There was no furniture, no food, no water, nothing but an empty room. And the only way out was the locked door. I felt doomed.

After the passage of some time, I made a discovery: the door was actually unlocked. I had been so certain that the door had been bolted shut. Yet no one had touched it since my imprisonment, so that meant the idea that I had been locked into the room had been an assumption all along. Yet the power of the assumption had been as powerful as any lock in keeping me trapped.

What a surprise. So I was free to walk out of the cell? Images filled my mind of carefully opening the door and looking out, only to come face to face with the wicked people who had imprisoned me, waiting with weapons on the other side of the door. Full of dread, I stayed in the cell, unsure what to do. Eventually, enough time passed that I came to an ugly choice: die passively in the cell or die bravely, in trying to escape.

I chose the latter. After gingerly opening the door and coming forth, I realized that the entire house had been abandoned. The pseudo-parents had left me there, counting on my own fear and cowardice to keep me locked in the cell.

It had almost worked.

This dream was not incomprehensible to me. Through my daily practice of meditating on God, in a method known in Catholic Church circles as Centering Prayer, I have been challenged to rethink my basic assumptions and reactions to the world, myself, and others. Spending time in the other Reality that is beyond comprehension, labels, or measure, I have begun viewing myself and cultural expectations in a new light. Old habits, long accepted, now appear as traps. Long-held mindsets and ambitions have been revealed to be obstacles.

The landscape is shifting, and I am trying to adapt, to realize when I am keeping myself locked inside an unlocked room.

For example, I am beginning to understand that, in many cases, we do not have to accept the role of the victim, even when we are cast into it by someone else. Now, I am not talking about victims of a crime or of violence. I am talking about the times that a friend, family member or colleague hurts or offends us, perhaps leaving us feeling that we received harsh treatment which we did not deserve.

Last week, I was on the receiving end of this from a trusted friend. When I made what I thought was a helpful observation, I was told to “stop being so controlling”. There was a hint of rage behind the words, and they stung. In the moment, I did my best to retreat, to avoid escalating the situation, and glided into silence. My friend seemed frazzled and stressed, and my attempt to offer a simple observation had pushed her over the edge. I simply busied myself with something else until I could slip away.

Her forceful and sharp reaction was unexpected; her frustrations did not originate with me. Even though I had demurred immediately, I was left feeling belittled by her scolding tone. As it happened, it was still morning and I was fresh from my daily silent time in which I had practiced Centering Prayer. Before this tense encounter, I had felt surrounded by the light of the divine presence. The stinging verbiage threatened to crack this glass wall of peace, and yet, by God’s grace, I grasped the new concept that I did not have to wallow in the pain.

As later I explained in my journal:

“I found myself able to see that I did not have to smart from the blow or waste precious time feeling hurt, like a victim, feeling angry. I understood that I could choose whether or not to enter the prison cell of anger and resentment. Even though I had been silent in the moment, I could still enter the prison cell afterwards by occupying my mind with damaging thoughts about my friend and her behavior and about the injustice of how I had been treated.

“Or, I could stay freely in the place of spaciousness with the presence of Christ, stay where the Love is, by controlling my thoughts. By God’s grace, I was able to steer my thoughts away from this confrontation and focus on the incredible and available love of God that supported and surrounded me.”

It helped that, soon after the unhappy incident, I was alone, driving to yoga class in my car, so I was able to listen to a soothing “nature sounds” playlist of birds, rain drops, gentle winds, which helped lift me away from the negative feelings. I kept turning my inner attention back to being grateful for Christ and his all-encompassing love. Finally, I was able to pray lovingly for my friend to find release from her agitation and inner turmoil.

Admittedly, this is virgin territory for me. When I feel unjustly blamed or attacked, my natural tendency is to spend time replaying the scene in my head, reliving the pain, trying to understand the sequence that led to this emotional bee sting. Often this mental instant replay doesn’t help, it only rubs the wound raw. My rehashing is admittedly very subjective, and it only increases my sense that I have a grievance. And if an apology is not forthcoming from the offender before sunset, I will experience the heartburn of resentment.

Who wants any of that? Honestly, not me. But I never realized before that the cell door was unlocked.

Now here was the Lord saying, not so much, let it go, but rather, focus on me instead. I recognized that this was a liminal experience in my mental habits, as fragile and full of the possibility of new life as the tiny green sprouts coming up in my kitchen from the butternut squash seeds I had recently planted.

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I had watched the black soil in the boxy container for five or six days, waiting for any sign of life. Nothing seemed to be happening. Suddenly, out of the lifeless dirt, six or seven verdant heads poked through the dark surface, asserting their right to life on spindly legs. This vibrant banner of green hope, this promise of growth and renewal and vitality through God, had filled me with riotous joy.

My new perception of my ability to choose freedom felt like those seedlings. I did not have to wallow in the dark dirt; I could turn my attention toward the sun and stretch in that direction. As it happened, a few days later God prompted another friend to direct me toward a rather obscure book, written in the Middle Ages, called The Cloud of Unknowing. This “cloud” is a treatise on Centering Prayer, and as I read about it on Wickipedia, I found this quote from the 7th chapter:

“If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as “God” or “love” is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defense in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you.”

As I read this, the word love leapt out and attached itself to my mind. This is where the Lord had been leading me. As The Cloud suggests, this one word, your ideal, love, will be your defense in conflict or peace. Naturally, none of this is possible without having poured out yourself to the Lord in devoted silence, without having relinquished the agonies and demands and desires of the self-centric ego into his hands, trusting in his higher and better ways. In him, we have more power to choose freedom than we realize. As a species, we have sold ourselves short.

When we turn our minds and hearts toward God, he will give us whatever we need to draw closer and come farther in. The way is not easy, and I am as tender and frail as those butternut squash sprouts. But the promise is there, and the potential, and that fills me with the courage to push on into new growth.

The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.

Robin S. Sharma

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

John 13:34 (NIV)

When Your Angel Has Sunk to the Bottom

angel

by Pringle Franklin

I was struggling to resurrect my fallen angel. Why was this so difficult? He kept rolling away from my grasp.

Too often it’s the same with the people whom we love: they resist our well-intentioned efforts to help. So the ebb and flow of this dance felt sadly familiar, expending energy on behalf of an ill-fated rescue, only this time my task was to save an angel statuette from murky waters.

A neighbor had given me the tiny praying angel after my father passed away in 2000. We had kept the terra cotta figure around in the yard for almost 17 years, and yet he had never found in his proper spot. He is so small, about 10 inches tall, that the flowers and shrubs in our garden beds dwarfed him.  On the patio, the childlike angel seemed unmoored, without impact, more clutter than art. One recent day while I was planting rosemary in the garden, I received an inspiration. I relocated the angel boy so that he was kneeling on the edge of an oblong pond in the patio area, staring down at the basin with clasped hands.

Ah, that felt better. In this setting, he looked meditative and peaceful. One might stop to wonder what the little angel was thinking.

Yet my husband resisted the new placement, saying that he was sure to bump the statuette into the water. Keeping that in mind, I moved to tiny angel to the far end of the reflecting pool, hoping to keep him out of the flow of foot traffic.

For three days, everything went well; often I found myself looking with new eyes at the little statue. Funny how simply relocating an object of art to a fresh locale can heighten your awareness and appreciation of it.

Then a crisis struck.

“Your angel is under water,” Sam told me.

“What happened?” I said.

“I knocked it over, and now it’s in the pond. And I am not sticking my hands in that water to get it out,” he said.

I received this news with a sigh and went to peer into the pond. Sure enough, the orange-tinted clay creature was swimming on his side, wings down and toes floating under the grayish water. We keep chlorine in the reflecting pool, and Sam regularly scoops leaves out, but there was enough rotting debris circling around the basin that I wasn’t keen on plunging my hands into the water either.

I fetched the long-handled pool net, trying to scoop the angel into the woven nylon end. However, the net was too weak to properly support the compact statue, and my efforts felt clumsy. As I was pushing him around the water, he was stirring up swirls of yang and muck. I paced around the oval pond for about 10 minutes, angling the net this way and that, but I was merely knocking the kneeling angel around like a hockey puck.

I felt defeat standing over me and jeering. “You are such a hopeless incompetent,” ran through my thoughts. My shoulders drooped. Perhaps I would be forced to stick my arm up to my elbow in that dirty water, and Sam, who was sitting nearby at a patio table, would tell me that it served me right for having ignored his warning.

Had I been foolish? I wondered. And yet I had been touched to see the angel gazing fixedly into the pool. It had not felt foolish.

As I squatted around the basin, net in hand, a thought crossed my mind. I remembered Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” A new surge of determination fortified me. I prayed a silent prayer, telling the Lord that while my efforts had failed, I believed that, if He willed it, I could rescue the angel through Him, through his love and power.

I thrust the net toward the angel, and this time, the winged creature rolled right into the center of the net. It took a moment for my brain to register. The angel was trapped. The struggle was over. Soon I had hauled the angel out of the water and set him on a garden wall to dry off in the sun. He looked no worse for wear.

IMG_3417And I felt remarkably better. The part of my brain that had been listening to self-critical language was silenced. For I had been reminded: I was not left to my own bumbling efforts down here on this earth.

When prayers are answered quickly like this, our connection to God might feel magical, but this is not magic; we are not given prayer to satisfy our petty whims or selfish cravings. Prayer is an electrical cord connecting us to the Source, and sometimes when we remember to plug it in, the Lord in his mercy will answer a sincere cry for help. This “proof” should not be mistaken as a tool for making our lives on earth easier, as many who received the loaves and fishes from Jesus misunderstood the true value of what the Master was offering. Rather such miracles are evidence of the power that is available to us in the spiritual realm. The lesson in God’s abundance applies to conditions of the heart and soul which are much more important than a sunken garden statue or a basket of fish and bread.

If God can answer prayers about earthly issues so efficiently, through the energy flow of Christ, then why should He not give us the grace, and the courage, to actually grow more and more like Jesus? When Christ taught his new commandment in John 13:34, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he was both calling us to action and offering to help us with the uphill journey.

Let’s get specific. Since August, I have become aware, through divine revelation, that critical and judgmental and gossipy talk is offensive to God, as He is the loving Father of all. Since I gained this clarity in a personal way, not just in a general “thou shalt not” sort of way, I have been astonished to notice some of the ugly things that spring from my lips. I have been making slow progress to change this habit for months. One day, I will bite my tongue and resist saying something unattractive; yet the next day, I may join into a conversation with gusto and begin bashing someone’s behavior without even pausing to reflect.

But now the fallen angel had brought me an “Aha” moment. In my future fight against temptation, I will remember to call upon Christ for help, and to expect to receive help that is sufficient. In the case of gossip, the self discipline that I need to obey his higher calling will be granted when I seek the grace to follow Him.

We all have our bad habits. Yours may be in a different arena. Whatever the area of weakness — and let’s be honest, at times we enjoy our proclivity to sin — we are not going to find success on our own. The only hope is to rely firmly on the promise of Phil. 4:13, that we can overcome through Christ. His power is ours for the asking when our intention and purpose line up with God’s will.

If we flop back into our comfortable pattern of sin, it is not because we are fallen creatures. That excuse is dust; in Christ, we are no longer left defenseless. If we fail, it is simply because we don’t care enough to take up our cross and struggle under it, relying each step on the sustaining grace and strength of Christ.

I must ask myself, what is my true desire? Do I really want to pull back when others begin to gossip? Let’s be real here a moment. I fear coming across as prudish if I refuse to go along with a friend who is complaining or back-stabbing. No sister wants to gossip alone! If I must speak only in love, then how can I have normal conversations with other females? I don’t want to pinch my lips and act like I swallowed my tongue. But if I confess that I am guarding my words, it will seem like a criticism of the person in front of me who has just said something indiscreet.

Only by keeping my focus on Christ and his ability to do all things in me can I find the right path forward. Keeping this focus is easier if I spend time daily in deep prayer. My experience in Centering Prayer — a silent meditation on God’s presence — has opened spiritual floodgates. My mind has become less cluttered, and I am more able to grasp the reality of what living in Christ can mean.

As Paul suggests in Romans 12:2:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Let us not limit ourselves to poverty of the soul when Christ is offering to hoist us out of the murky waters. May our quest for holiness be in earnest.old cistern/El Jadida