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.

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About Elizabeth Scalia