What we give away; what we keep

I wrote the other day about how easily and thoughtlessly we give ourselves away, and many in the comments section focused on one of my examples, that of bloggers “giving away” their writing. Readers were very kind but I did wonder a little whether all the focus on the “money” part of the piece was because money is tangible and we can all relate, or if I’d simply not written a balanced-enough piece.

When I wrote about “blogging for free,” I forgot to mention that this is my great privilege, that being able to write at all is a blessing; being able to write and actually be read is beyond blessing. It is a blessing with gravy! Being married to a man who loves me so much he’d rather see me earn less at the keyboard than more in the office, that’s a humbling, priceless gift. When I do manage to contribute to the coffers, that is -as my kids would say- “just insanely, ridiculously cool,” but that is not really something for me to think about. Taking Jesus at his word, I concur with Friend Jeanette, who reminds, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not to thine own understanding; In all thy ways acknowledge him and he will direct thy paths.”

I do not say “thank you” enough, to you folks who keep stopping by and giving me your time and attention.

My point was was less about “blogging for free” than about understanding who we are, and our intrinsic worth; we too often treat our lives, our bodies, our intellects, our blessings and our various gifts like they’re nothing special, and so we devalue them. We forget that – as Jesus says in Matthew:

Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

We forget that we are Royal children, loved-into-being; that our lives are not meaningless or accidental – that we do not pass unnoticed, whether we’re grocery shopping, or meeting friends for drinks, or weeping in our closets, or watching ourselves show up on a “Girls Gone Wild” commercial and wondering what we were thinking, how we’ll ever explain that weekend to our child, and yes, what God thinks of it all.

In truth, we are meant to give ourselves away, but we often “do it wrong,” and throw our gifts down, to the dogs, rather than up, to the light.

Someone who often “does it right” is our friend Joseph Marshall, who has been reading me (and heartily disagreeing with me) longer than almost anyone. Joseph is a smart chap, a serious student of contemplative prayer from the Buddhist perspective, and an all-around good fellow, who is just too dearly attached to the left side of our political spectrum (I kid; I kid because I love!). In 2005 he wrote what I thought was the best analysis of why the Kerry campaign failed, even with Evan Thomas’ promised 10-15% points at the polls.

Joseph and I have occasionally bellowed and slammed doors as we’ve gone back-and-forth on an issue (he once called me “a glittering holy terror when annoyed,”) but our mutual exploration of prayer in our respective religions (and respect for each other’s devotion) has been the healing balm that allows us to sincerely call each other “friend.”

Joseph gave himself away – in the good way – in 2005, asking that I link to a post of his, and it was a doozy; a passionate defense of Pope Benedict XVI made by this Buddhist gentleman, moved by his beliefs to set something right:

There is a malignant story involving Buddhism and Hinduism spreading all over the Net. Moreover, it is a false libel of Pope Benedict XVI. It is intellectually dishonest and base rumor mongering, in the form of a supposed presentation of the Pope’s views about Buddhism and Hinduism, expressed when he was Cardinal Ratzinger.

If you read Joseph’s piece you begin to understand that his defense of Benedict, while noble, was not merely an attempt to rebut a slander, or even an exercise of “rigorous intellectual honesty”; Joseph was performing a work of mercy, for the souls of his co-religionists:

I would point out that Rabbi Lerner’s description of Benedict’s views constitute an extreme danger to the Dharma practice of any Buddhist who encounters it with no basis for rational criticism of that description…Part of the commitments in our Lay Practice vows consist of avoiding irrational and arbitrary anger, aversion, or criticism for non-Buddhist religions.

Joseph concluded (after puckishly admitting he likes to argue on right-wing blogs):

…to any reader, Buddhist, Christian, or whatever, but most particularly to any Catholic reader, if my translation of Benedict’s responses will help you defend him, please feel free to copy and use it…take it wherever it is needful to defend your Pope and your faith.

What a generous act! Joseph did not have to expose himself to possibilities of ridicule from the left and the displeasure of many – but he did it, and then he detached himself from it, setting the whole matter free, which is very much in keeping with what Jesus challenges us to do, throughout the gospel.

I wrote at the time:

We are all living in a better place when we are living in peace and not discord with one-another, and this Buddhist has just done an extraordinary kindness to the Christians and to his own, contributing to the side of peace. I know he will receive a blessing for it. I am personally both grateful and humbled, for reading it.

I’m sharing this for a couple of reasons. The first is that Joseph, who has always been very up-front about his struggle with bi-polar disorder, is facing a worsening of his mental illness, and he is in need of our prayers. I share this with his permission, as he writes:

There is no genuine reason to keep any of it secret. And prayers are always welcome from either you or your readers…A few weeks back, my doctor made it official…I am slowly but steadily getting worse….the end is periodic institutionalization and an exceptionally nasty and zombifying anti=psychotic called Seroquel. It not only eats your intellect, it also has a fair chance of leaving you with a permanent twitch in the muscles of your face!

My intellect, particularly my religious intellect, is my life and I will fight to the last to keep it even if it means permanent house-bound seclusion. I’m not that far from it now…I had to tell my good friend and American lama of our temple that I could no longer teach because I can no longer trust what I might say.

Joseph went on to tell me that my good friend Dick Meyer, who I’d quoted in my earlier piece as saying “only write if you’re getting paid for it” was wrong, and he described a lesson from a samurai film entitled Yojimbo: that we receive what we need.

“…we are taught to abandon those questionable things we can and not worry about the ones we can’t, even if they are very questionable,” writes Joseph. “Focus rather on doing what good things we can and trying to calm down our constantly restless minds.”

The other reason Meyer, who I esteem as a mensch and a valued friend, is wrong is because of something I shared with Joseph, and which he said made him exceedingly glad – an email from a reader, detailing the end result of Joseph’s “giving himself away,” in his defense of Benedict, in 2005:

I can’t remember exactly how I found your blog, but…at that point in my life I wasn’t going to church anywhere having left the fundamentalist denomination of my upbringing years earlier. I had a sort of unformed desire to go back to church, and your posts on your faith and on Catholic philosophy certainly made me see Catholicism in a very positive light… one post in particular…about a Buddhist scholar defending something that Pope Benedict XVI had said. When you said that the Buddhist would be blessed for this, I was astounded. In [former church] I always got the message that the only people who would ever be blessed were the ones who did exactly what [that church] thought that the Bible was telling them to do. No one who wasn’t a Christian could ever possibly receive any sort of blessings from God.

I think what was so astonishing to me about your post is that it made me think that God wasn’t the rigid, unyielding tyrant that I had always pictured.

During Easter Vigil of this year I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Even though we have never met, I think of you as one of my sponsors.

That email gave me goosebumps and humbled me down to my bones. A Buddhist and a Catholic, finding some common ground, “gave themselves away,” Joseph with his defense, me “blogging for free,” and then we detached from it – just “let it go.”

And all unknown, all unintended on our parts, through the actions of something greater than either of us, a stranger found consolation, and a cleared path out of darkness and into light.

Joseph was very pleased to hear this. When I showed the email to my husband, he said, “I don’t care if you never make a dime from the blog; this is the payment; this is the purpose.”

What we give away, and what we keep, matters. Giving away Holy Things to dogs matters. Keeping the junk of our lives, all the messes and hurts and anxieties we hang on to, matters. Both keep us earthbound, tied down and attached and unfree.

The email from our newly-Catholic reader is something worth keeping; it is so very instructive, such powerful testimony to our connectedness and the truth that nothing happens in a vacuum, that no sparrow falls away unknown. I will hold on to this episode and all of its lessons, for myself and for Joseph who may not be allowed to.

Our sins are like pebbles thrown into a pond – their effects ripple out, touching others in ways we cannot guess. This is also true when we give ourselves away, for good or for ill.

If you are inclined to prayer, please give yourself away in prayer for Joseph, a man who is in real trouble, and who will be glad of them.

O, Mystery.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Paul Hargadon

    I will add your friend Joseph to the prayer of intercession to St. Benedict Joseph Labrè that I pray everyday.

  • http://ejhill1925.wordpress.com/ EJ Hill

    I am in the television production business and I would never give away my services for a commercial enterprise. However, I have produced and edited a few political pieces for free distribution on YouTube.

    When you feel passionately about the life of your country you use what talents God gave you to participate in that life. Civic participation or religious evangelizing never falls into the category of “giving it away.” Indeed, if you are called by God or country, expecting payment should be beyond the pale.

  • JuliB

    Blessed Michelina of Pesaro, patron of mentally people, and all the angels and saints, please intercede for Joseph, who suffers greatly.

    Before reverting to Christianity, I wandered in Buddhism for a long time. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the religion/Way/philosophy, and those who seriously practice it.

  • expat

    Regarding the question of giving your work away or being paid for it:

    You may be interested to know about Nina Paley, who is giving away her fantastic animated movie, “Sita Sings The Blues”.

    Here is her web page:http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/

    This is breathtaking piece of art. Check it out and read her story about why she is putting her work out there for free.

  • DWiss

    Anchoress, this post covered so much valuable ground it’s like the summary of a semester’s worth of theology. I can’t comment on all of it, in part because I’m incapable, but this line caught my eye:

    In truth, we are meant to give ourselves away, but we often “do it wrong,” and throw our gifts down, to the dogs, rather than up, to the light.

    It reminds me of an especially illuminating paragraph in C.S. Lewis’ sermon, The Weight of Glory. I don’t have it in front of me to quote, but, to paraphrase, he says that we’re far too easily pleased with the pleasures of life – money, power, sex – to see the real treasure that awaits us, which is eternal life in paradise with the Trinity.

    Far too easily pleased. That’s really it, and until we can “let it go”, as you say, then here we’ll be, earth bound, unable to be free.

  • Robert

    Anchoress, I confess I read your blog only occasionally, but when I do, I always think it’s great. I loved this post, and forwarded the link to many friends. I especially liked your husband’s comment when he heard about the conversion. In a way, my wife is doing a similar thing, as a Catholic home-schooling mother, and as an NILD educational therapist. She has a gift for teaching, and for healing (used to be a great accupuncturist and herbal healer) and I don’t care if she ever makes a dime: she is doing great things for our kids, and will do wonderful things for learning disabled kids with her therapy.

  • Clare Krishan

    Eternal Word, Author of each icon of your logic, every human person, may it please you to keep this bruised reed and dimly burning wick, Joseph Marshall, from being broken by the raging currents of a self-reflective ‘autoerotisme spirituelle’, or extinguished by withholding the very oxygen needed for the purifying flame, chilled within a frozen pit of transcendental intransigence a ‘cycle infernal’ a ‘moralement cruelle.’ May this suffering servant learn from Isaiah what glorious purpose your incarnation revealed for each one of us.

    Wherever we are planted, may we learn to trust and hope in each dawn’s sunshine that sign of your Eternal Love, developing our potential to flower, to radiate that perfume that attracts others to the Source of all life, that we may yield fruit in due season.

    Whenever we are quickened in pursuit of the good, may the moon and stars at night relieve our fears and exhaustion, each glorious one tracing its own unique reflection of your inestimable creativity, that in our own creative acts each of us may reflect you also.

    We pray this in Jesus name, the Light of the World, announced to the astronomers by the star moving in the sky over Bethlehem, he, who sent the Advocate as fire descending to his Beloved disciples gathered in fear, that his Witness be made manifest to those most in need of his Mercy, Amen.

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  • Tom Heinz

    I don’t post comments on blogs – not usually in my nature. Nevertheless, this entry about Joseph and your “newly-Catholic” reader has touched me. I am part of the RCIA program at my church and I am always humbled by those who make the decision to move into communion with the Church. Reading this post is like a tonic for my soul and I rejoice (yes, I am actually “rejoicing” right now) to hear how great our God is. Peace be with you, Elizabeth.

  • http://www.RomanCatholicCop.com Jamie McAdams

    I found this article from NewAdvent.com and I enjoyed it very much and hope that I will always remember that lesson.

    As an amature blogger, I get my pleasure from family or friends saying that they enjoyed one of my posts and/or that one helped them in their interior life. Jesus gave everything for us and I think that we should give in return. I’m not criticize anyone who is able to make money off of their blog.

    Thanks for helping us remember that it’s good for us to give and I’ll remember Joseph in my prayers.

  • http://www.mystagogia.net Kathleen Lundquist

    I have a close family member who has suffered from schizophrenia for 35 years – with whom we all suffer as a family.

    Christ has been our light and our strength, and I will pray for Joseph that His light and strength will reach him and enable him to continue the good works that he is doing.

    Veni sancte Spiritus. Veni per Mariam.

  • Pam

    Anchoress,
    I’m with all those people who love your blog and for whom your sweetness is most definitely not wasted on the desert air. I always take away comfort or inspiration or a good laugh from reading your blog and if I am limited for time, it’s always your blog that I read before any others.
    I’ve written you before and am still on the road back to the Catholic Church. At the moment, I don’t seem to be anywhere near the goal, but I cling to the hope that somewhere, sometime the way will become clear. When that time comes, it will be in no small measure due to your gifts to me and to all who read your blog. Thank you, thank you and may you and yours be eternally blessed.

  • http://jakepoinier.blogspot.com/ Jake P

    Anchoress, darnit, it’s just like you to thank *us* when it’s we who should be thanking *you*! And your musings caught me on a day when I was pondering shallow things, and so I appreciate your wadings into deeper thoughts.

    OT, a Mystic Monk story…I gave little gift boxes of their sampler coffees as my holiday gifts for my business clients, and they were the biggest hit I’ve had in 10 years. Luckily, I bought a bunch of extras for personal consumption–Royal Rum Pecan, yum :)

    [It is the greatest coffee in the world; I keep saying it! Why don't people believe me? -admin]

  • http://sharp-edge-of-the-sphere.blogspot.com/ Tigger23505

    In my limited experience those who write can’t not write; likewise those who are artists can’t not do art.

    Additionally, the writing, art or other expression follows this rule. Out of the treasure of the heart the mouth speaks.

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  • Joseph Marshall

    Thank you, Anchoress. And thanks to everyone who has prayed for me. I in no way underestimate the power of prayer, anyone’s sincere prayer.

    I met the man who has been my primary teacher, the abbot of our New York monastery, in 1983, when I was 31 and he was 52. Tibetans in general are not a very long lived people. Even today, they rarely reach 70, and they themselves say that 55 is about the age when everyone begins to be at very high risk of what we call “natural” death.

    My teacher also was one of the Tibetans who came out with the Dalai Lama in 1959. The generation that did this died in horrible numbers simply from the shock of coming down from the extremely cold, dry, high-altitude, and disease free Tibetan plateau into the hot, humid, disease rampant land of India.

    My teacher has massive scarring in his lungs from chronic TB that remitted only after several years of American hospital care before he could even start to teach and build the monastery that is finally nearing full completion.

    When he was 55, we commissioned a long-life prayer to be written for him and one version or another of one has been used with every practice we do that uses liturgy ever since.

    This year he is 86. He now confines himself to the job of retreat master of our formal 3+ year group isolation retreat. We just locked in another set of the boys and girls last Fall. He says that he thinks he can stay around long enough to supervise this last retreat, but he can’t say for sure beyond that. If he does, he will be 89.

    He is not only a pure, devout, and experienced Buddhist monk, he is also an exceptional scholar in one of the most demanding courses of study still left on the planet. He has, as well, a fine dry wit.

    Once when he taught on “long life prayers for the Lama” he remarked that you don’t pray for the Lama’s long life merely so he can get more sleep. You pray for his dharma activity, the good he is doing, to increase.

    So that as you are all praying for me, I also pray for all of you to live long and I pray that the good you are doing also increases.

    Find the biggest rock of good you can, and go throw it in that pond.

  • http://victor-undergo.blogspot.com/ Victor

    I’m going to ask Jesus to throw a giant rock of Good into His Earthly Pond so that spiritual reality waves of Love with flow over our entire world.

    I hear ya! Careful Victor cause the last thing we need right now is another flood. :)

  • Maggie45

    Joseph, I just wrote your name in my prayer book, and will be praying for you each day more than once. One of my brothers struggles also with bi-polar disorder, and I had not always in the past treated him with the respect that he deserves. Then in 2000 one of my sisters suggested that I read “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison. It helped me to understand, as much as I am capable of understanding, and I made my amends to him. We have a loving relationship today.

    Elizabeth, I’m another one of those who was influenced by your writings to explore coming home to the Roman Catholic Church. The end of next month it will be a year back, after 41 years away, with an occasional visit every so often. Our Hold Father was another influence, as was a very dear friend who has a story similar to mine.

    Speaking of converts, I’ve been wondering how our Dave W is doing, after his surgery. I’m hoping he’ll pop into the comments one of these days.

  • http://summamamas.stblogs.org MamaT

    Anchoress and Joseph,

    I am no one special, just a wife, mother and grandmother. But please know that I have added Joseph’s name to my list, and will be praying for him daily.

    May God bless you both, my dears!

  • kelly

    thank you so much. i read you regularly, but have never commented here.

    thank you for this post. you are a light.

  • Mimsy

    I would write something, but my eyes are filled with sweet tears. It’s just lovely!

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