Life after Epiphany


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Addicted to numbing agents

IMG_0003The experience of dining alfresco on a fine day with a light meal and a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc … perhaps with laptop opposite me on the table, or with a good book in hand. This was something I learned to enjoy whilst completing my Masters degree, back before I entered the convent. A research student isn’t anti-social by design, but does end up spending a great deal of time alone, working away at reviewing the available literature on a given topic, or updating the latest chapter in the dissertation that is the object of his/her research. When I couldn’t tear myself away from what I was working on, but needed a change of scene, I’d find a nice restaurant or cafe and I’d nerd it up in style. 🙂

Since returning home from the convent and obtaining some modest employment, I’ve found that I’ve returned to the practice of dining alone at a nearby cafe, with either a laptop or a book to keep me company. In the early stages of my PhD, this is unsurprising, I suppose. It was a winning study formula during my last degree – why not stick with what worked?

The thing is, I think I’m addicted. No – not to the sauv blancs or the lattes. Not to anything you would have THOUGHT would be called an addictive substance. I think I’m addicted to the ambience, to the joy of discovering a new, quirky cafe or a new favourite menu item to delight the taste buds. I’m addicted to the experience.

IMG_0001As part of my personal campaign to do better, I’m looking honestly at some of the things that get in the way of my peace with myself and my relationship with God. Dining out at cafes is definitely a good to be enjoyed… but I think its important to look at HOW we enjoy things, and why.

Often, for me, the experience of dining out is an escape… a sort of numbing agent. If I am finding my post-convent lack of direction and peace troubling, and if I have a little bit of disposable income available on a given week, then I’ll go and cheer myself up with an afternoon out. Oh – I’ll take my research with me. Nothing worse than spending an afternoon unproductively and feeling guilty about it later. But in a sense I remove myself from my regular environment and place myself somewhere that is pleasant in numerous sensory ways. I distract myself from what I am feeling so that I don’t have to face it, process it, pray about it, work on it.

Lately, I’m realising, though, that not even my subconscious is fooled! I picture in my mind’s eye “the perfect afternoon,” note down all the things that need to happen to make it so, and then execute the plan… and come up dry. The lack of peace doesn’t disappear, and even though I’ve eaten lovely food and had a comfortable afternoon and enjoyed some time to myself, I come out the other end unsatisfied.

I’m looking for peace and happiness in all the wrong places, all over again.

Distracting myself from my need for God is unhelpful. I need to frankly admit my need of Him, to Him. Numbing my frustration, trying to escape – they are different ways of describing the classic self-lie. And the dis-ease that I feel is the evidence that even as I try to lie to myself, I really do know the truth. Maybe that constant yearning for Him that I really do feel is my prayer when I’m not consciously/deliberately praying? My lack of satisfaction with the things and experiences of the world, my lack of comfort with the holding pattern that post-convent life seems to look like just at the moment – all of these things just ARE. They’re my experience of reality right now. They’re the things that I need to be honest about WITH MYSELF so that I can, in turn, be honest about them with God, and take them before Him.

IMG_0002The next time I go out to enjoy a bite and a nice glass of something, I think I really will enjoy it more – because I’ll know that, even though life isn’t perfect, and that the afternoon won’t be perfect, life is good. It really is good. And God is with me in my need. And I’m not running from the things in my life that aren’t just right. I’m sitting there at the table, with my glass of wine, my frustrations, my insecurities and a good book. There at that table, I’m not hiding anymore, because I’m sitting at a table for two, and He is with me.


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I would so much like to do better!

compline

One of the most confusing things, when one leaves religious life behind, is trying to figure out what a healthy prayer life “on the outside” looks like.

On the one hand, stopping to pray at all the same times and with all the same devotions as I did in the convent is just plain unhealthy. I’m not a religious – I am a lay woman. The prayer life of a religious is not appropriate to the lay state of life. In fact, its actually harmful, as it keeps the lay person from performing the duties proper to the lay state.

Having said that, the opposite extreme would be disastrous. To cease to make prayer a part of my day? Unthinkable. That would be to sever my relationship with the God with whom I have developed an intimate and precious relationship. That would be to lose the spiritual dimension of my life, that life breathed into me at Baptism, that in-dwelling of the Blessed Trinity that I hope and pray I would literally die to preserve.

Well… how about minimalism?

That doesn’t really work either. My relationship with God is founded on love. Minimalism is pretty loveless, pretty self-serving. That would be turning God into what I have heard described in the past as a “Toothbrush God” to be used for ones own health and well-being, and placed back on the shelf until the next time required.

So I know what healthy prayer in lay life is NOT. But what IS it?

I’m still over-correcting one way, and then over-correcting the other, trying to find equilibrium. In 3 days it will have been 8 months since I removed my habit and got on a plane to return home. In that time I’ve done a pretty mixed-up job of trying to maintain a strong and loving relationship with my Heavenly Father. I so much want to do better!

One thing I know for certain – the Mass is central. I need to get to Mass as often as I can. I need Jesus. I need Him. There’s just no two ways about it! I meet Him in the Eucharist. Whenever I’m tempted not to bother with weekday Mass, THATS when I need to step up my commitment. THAT’s when I need Him most. And not in a self-serving way. I need Him because I know that He is the only way for me to be able to return love for Love.

But outside of the Mass?

I’m a Scripture research student. My research is doomed to fail if I don’t spend time PRAYING with Scripture to support my study. I want my research to be at the service of the Lord – so I need to remember ALWAYS to put it in His hands. Each time I sit down to do any work on this, I need to start by praying with the Text for at least 10 minutes prior to commencing any work with it.

What about mental prayer? I need to set perhaps a more realistic target than the 1.5 hours of time before the Blessed Sacrament that used to be part of my horarium. Perhaps 15 minutes of dedicated time for mental prayer. That’s St. Teresa of Avila’s recommendation, right? They didn’t make HER a Doctor of the Church for nothing! 😉 At the beginning of the day, or perhaps some silence in the car on the way to work if all else fails.

And here is something that I think will REALLY be helpful – I need NOT to let go of the Office. Perhaps praying all the hours that I used to do is maybe a little unrealistic at the moment. But Compline? I can fit Compline in. It takes 10-15 minutes and its just before bed so it’s pretty hard to forget.

OK. These are the concrete goals I’m going to set myself for now. Not as a checklist of daily chores – but as an authentic commitment to a relationship that I want to nurture. If you chance across this blog post, please pray for me!


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Credit cards conquered… lessons learned.

When I first moved out of home, I was a little overly optimistic about what I could spend and still be OK. I was young, ambitious and forgot that the generation ahead of me weren’t born into their comfortable, middle-class lifestyle.

So I bought a laptop computer. It wasn’t a top-of-the-range laptop – it was just a low-spec’d machine that would enable me to type lecture notes and take my studies with me wherever as was convenient. Nevertheless, it was more than I could afford to spend.

I maxed out my card.

I had a limit of about $xxxx at the time, but I only worked on a part-time basis around my full-time study. This was going to take a LONG time to pay back, and a lot of discipline. All the while, interest was multiplying like a virus.

In an unusual run of bad luck, I wrote my car off at about the same time. (No – nothing as terrifying as wrapping it around a pole – I simply didn’t keep the fluids topped up under the hood, and it was an old car. One day the engine overheated and seized.) I lived a good hour’s drive from my place of employment, and 1.5 hours from my college campus. I lived 45 minutes from my parents’ home. Public transport in the area I lived was very limited. I needed a car.

AND there weren’t any laundromats near where I lived, so I was driving to my parents’ home each week to do my laundry. I needed a washing machine.

I’ll bet you can guess what happened. I took out a loan. I bought a car, I bought a washing machine and I paid off my credit card.

But now I was in debt to the tune of $xxK, and I STILL only had a part-time job. AND the temptation of a $xxxx credit limit on my card.

It took me 3 years, and I paid down that loan with a LOT of hard work. THE most intelligent thing I have ever done financially, however, was to cut my credit limit DRASTICALLY. I changed my credit limit to $xxx. On a part-time income, with living costs and a loan to service, and the same need for occasional retail therapy that afflicts most young women? A higher limit than that would have been begging for more debt trouble.

Over the course of those three years, after I graduated from college, I grew to be very successful in my work and by the time I paid off the loan I had secured for myself a contract role that was bringing in a good income.

Do you know what happened to my credit limit, after I was back in the black and my income had improved?

THE 25% RULE
I NEVER allowed my credit limit to exceed 25% of my monthly income.

The benefit of this was that I could still make online purchases or leverage small amounts of credit where I saw an opportunity to win. But I could ALWAYS pay my card off within a single pay period without impacting my general living expenses, and I NEVER ran the risk of amassing interest-debt.

Essentially this kept my risk completely contained. The worst case scenario was that if I made a budgeting mistake and spent too much, I could clear ALL debt the very next pay cheque, and still have enough money to meet all living costs and financial obligations. I just might not have much disposable income that particular month. This served me incredibly well in the years that followed.

I offer this little story of my own mistake and lessons learned to anyone who is just starting out and is tempted to spend more than they really can. It’s just not worth it. Hold out for the weeks or months it might take to save a bit more in order to be able to afford your needs/wants over the early years and to buy them free and clear. Don’t start playing with debt until seeking financial advice from someone qualified to dispense it. Contain your personal financial risk until you are better established and know what you’re doing.

My financial situation is very different, post-convent. When you leave religious life, typically you leave with little more than the clothes on your back. So I’m getting established all over again. But I’m pleased to say I no longer have a credit card. Each thing I purchase, in my moves to get more established in my post-convent life, is something I have saved up for until I can buy it outright, without having bad debt hang over me.

There is a place for the use of credit – but not in personal spending. Purchasing real estate or investing is, 99% of cases, going to demand more than what one’s personal bank balance has to offer. Credit is a useful tool; yet when it ceases to be a tool and you become its slave, it can be a very cruel master.

FINALLY – NEEDS vs. WANTS
I don’t need the latest, highest spec computer on the market. I don’t need $400 coats or shoes. Evaluating the difference between needs and wants, and limiting one’s personal credit risk – you might not be living life in the fast lane, but you’ll enjoy the freedom that comes with being safely in the black.