Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Training of a Soul (My Own)


If I am brutally honest with myself (and all  of you, I suppose), I am complainer. I might say by nature, but I hope not. I like to think that all of us are, by nature, born to praise and not to petulance. By birthright, then? In any case, I cannot remember a time when I did not complain. In the culture I grew up in, it was about more than the occasional gripe fest. Complaining was a sort of modus operandi for filling each other in on the news of the day.

“How was school?”
“Well, you wouldn’t believe…!”

“Didn’t so-and-so get married.”
“Yeah. The food was awful. Oh, but her dress was lovely.”

That was the way we did things. Complain, then throw in the stuff that went well. I suppose we thought the complaints made for a better story. More authentic. We were big on authenticity. I was proud of it.

When I went off to college in Southern California, my poor West Coast friends didn’t know what to make of me. Especially my friends from Hawaii. They just didn’t talk that way. When someone asked me how a class was going and I said the lecturer was boring or I disagreed with the thesis of one of my texts, they began to wonder among themselves if I was suffering from depression. I found this quite odd, since where I came from, I was noted for being overly cheerful. What I saw as authenticity, my new friends saw as morose. Well, we were both wrong.

There isn’t anything particularly noble about noticing the good in something over the bad. Most things in life can be good or bad; it’s all in how you spin it. You can take a hard, honest look at spilled milk and still see a half-full glass. Or, you can see a puddle of spilled milk.

And, as for morose, I wasn’t either. I didn’t mean to be depressing. I’d just built up such a habit of complaining that it’s where my mind went first. In fact, I often found—find—myself complaining about events or places or things about which I am actually perfectly happy. I just don’t say it that way. It’s not the way I learned to tell a story.

Aye, there’s the rub. Learn. I learned to complain. It’s not my nature. My nature—my goal—my reason for being—is to glorify God.

Our Blessed Mother said it best, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Or it should. But, mine wasn’t. Because I’d learned the habit of complaint. For years, I tried, unsuccessfully to stop complaining. I tried giving it up for Lent. I made New Year’s resolutions. I prayed. I knew what the problem was, but I was going the wrong way about eradicating it. I was navel-gazing. Looking at my own failings and trying to extirpate them. But, I didn’t need to examine the beam in my own eye. I knew it was there and how coarse and how long and how wide and deep, and the looking and the knowing wasn’t doing a lick of good to get it out. What I needed was new eyes.

Ann Vos Kamp writes in her book One Thousand Gifts,

“…all these years it’s been utterly pointless to try to wrench out the spikes of discontent. Because that habit of discontentment can only be driven out by hammering in one iron sharper. The sleek pin of gratitude.”

If I wanted to unlearn complaint, I would have to remember how to magnify. To do that, I needed a new language. The language of thanksgiving. The language of blessing. The language of gifts acknowledged. The language of, as Ann says, Eucharisto.

Every week, sometimes more than once, I hit my knees, I bow my head, I hear the ancient words translated into English, transmitted through the voice of my priest, and He is there. Thanksgiving Himself. Broken and bleeding for me. I swallow, kneel, give thanks for this moment, this bread and wine, this Body and Soul and Blood Divine. But, until now I do not learn. I do not learn that this is only the beginning, the weekly strengthening, the refocusing of new eyes. To live into this faith, I must live into this Eucharist, into thanksgiving.

“How was your day?”

Kids pushing. Disobeying. Discipline with tears and I’m sorry. Let’s pray for Mama. Dinner forgotten until too late, and I’m tossing together what’s in the pantry. What’s in the darn pantry? Kids, get out of the pantry! Hungry, tired, failing.

I put aside my prideful visions of authenticity. I bite back the words of habit.

Teaching opportunity. A moment of humility to let my Savior in, let my children see Him in my brokenness. Little hands laid on Mama in prayer. A full pantry. Young curiosity. Obedience this time, though it would have been better had I not shouted. Dinner cooking, warm bed waiting, Savior catching…


“Good. Long. How about yours?”

We talk as I cook. I try to listen more than I speak. It helps to keep the gripe fest spilling forth.

This, too, is authenticity. I’m not a Pollyanna. I am simply a woman with eyes wide open who wants to see the world for more than just the downside. If I get one go at this, then I’m going to squeeze those lemons for all their worth. I’m going to drink that glass down to half-full. Dip fresh-baked cookies in spilled milk. I’m going to see it all as gift, and learn again to magnify Glory.


  1. I love your blog and I love this post, thank you for sharing! You write so beautifully. I always enjoy my visits here. Hope you have a blessed week!

  2. That's funny, by reading your blog, I always get the impression you're not a complainer. You always see to keep your house with such style and cook together these wonderful baked good that would probably reduce me to tears and curses in the kitchen. But then, I live between NYC and Philly, big complaining territory.

    P.S. Now I want jelly beans too!

  3. Maryann- Haha! See, it IS cultural. I grew up in Rochester, NY with a few years spent outside Philly.

    Oh, and there have definitely been tears in my kitchen, trust me!


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