Friday, January 30, 2009

Stay in touch, blockhead!

I was once asked on another blog to tell about St. Lucy. Seeing how I did not have any clue, I followed the time-honored tradition of all clergy and simply made up answer that went like this: St. Lucy was the sister of St. Linus. She was widely known in church history for pulling the football out of the way just as St. Charlie was about to kick it. Church authorities excommunicated her for her prolific use of the phrase "blockhead”. This was known as the great "blockhead controversy". St. Peppermint Patty led the orthodox defenders of the view that all heads are created round. Legend has it that the pagan Pigpen, who only bathed once a year, persecuted her until he heard a voice from an unseen source that said "Mwahnawawaw Wampwahwa" Pope Snoopy the Great reversed her excommunication and her influence continued to grow. She is the patron saint of people who feel compelled to charge money for worthless psychological advice. It is widely rumored that Dr. Phil is a devotee of the cult of St. Lucy. On her feast day crabs are traditionally served since, by her own admission, she often felt "crabby." In the 20th century a group of English lads from Liverpool wrote a song about a vision they had of her "in the sky with diamonds." Ethel Mertz, a resident of New York reportedly saw a vision of St. Lucy's face on a piece of toast, but then she later sold it on Ebay.

I have been a target of the St. Lucy Society ever since I gave that answer. They have wanted to hunt me down in order to deal with my blasphemy. However, I remain an unrepentant follower of the notion that if one has to learn ecclesiastical history, then it should at least be mildly interesting, if not always true. (Evidently this was also the view of early hagiographers as well.)

The real reason that I know anything about St. Lucy at all has to do with a letter I have to write every so often. When my Bishop granted me postulancy, he asked me, “Do you know about Ember letters?” I am sure the dumb look on my face revealed the answer long before I shook my head and said, “No, Sir, I do not.” In my mind I was picturing a Varsity Letter jacket from High School with a small charcoal grill as an emblem for the sport I excelled in. Around my house I am called “the grill master”, so I could easily envision myself lettering in embers if grilling became a sport. (Yes, I had better stop this before I completely embarrass my Archdeacon. I try very hard not to embarrass her in public.) Four times a year, the Church sets aside days to reflect on God through creation. These “Ember Days” take place in winter after the Feast of St. Lucy; in spring following Ash Wednesday; in summer after Pentecost and in fall after Holy Cross Day. Our Canons state that I “shall communicate with the Bishop in person or by letter, four times a year, in the Ember Weeks.” The purpose of these letters is to reflect on my “academic experience and personal and spiritual development." In other words, I am supposed to let my Bishop know what is going on with me. No, I have not, nor will I ever communicate to him my version of St. Lucy’s story. The whole point of being a postulant is to get to go on and become a candidate for ordination! As strange as it may sound, I actually enjoy writing Ember letters. I received an email from the Bishop’s administrative assistant this week reminding me that another one is due in a couple of weeks. It is sort of nice to know that your Bishop wants to know what’s going on with you. Heck, it’s sort of nice to think that anyone wants to know what’s going on with you. Very often the difference between solitude and loneliness is whether or not you have someone who is thinking of you while you are alone.

I have come to value that type of communication in my work at the shelter. No, I do not require the homeless to write Ember letters. Sometimes I have people who come in saturated with the smell of wood fires they have stayed around for days. Occasionally a person will pass out too close to one and serious injury will occur. I can only imagine what I would get if I said, “I want you to write me an Ember letter.”

On one of the tours of the shelter that I conducted today I was asked, “ How do you know if people continue to do well after they graduate from one of the your programs?” I told her that follow up was largely done through voluntary self-reporting. In other words, we ask people to stay in touch and check in with us from time to time. I cannot track people down, but I genuinely want to know what is going on with them. I was asked, “How do you know if they are not doing well?” I replied, “We stop hearing from them.” In the world of addiction recovery, when someone drops off the radar screen it is never a good thing. When people are doing well they love to tell me about it. I have one fellow who still calls me regularly from Seattle just to let me know how he is doing. I also have a regular stream of people who come by to stick their heads in my door on occasion and let me know they are doing well. It is a very subtle form of accountability, but it works.

I have worked with people on the journey of recovery long enough to know that I really know nothing when it comes to recovery. If I had a magic pill or a secret program success formula, the world would be beating my door down. The irony is that the people who I often think will not make it are the very ones who graduate from my program. The ones who come in showing the most potential are often the first to relapse. We simply try to take the best of the 12 steps traditions and combine them with the most intensive mentoring discipleship and pray that we get it right with each person seeking help. I have discovered that everyone’s journey is unique and there is no cookie-cutter cure-all for addiction that is “one size fits all.” However, I have discovered some important themes that seem to run through all of the lives that continue to do well after leaving the shelter. One of those themes is accountability. Whatever form it takes in each individual situation, there is always a degree of surrender to being open to others. We strongly encourage people to find a faith community to become engaged in so they can make the transition to independent housing with the accountability and companionship of their church families. I tell them it is the difference between playing defense and offense. It is a plan for failure to simply go home alone at night and sit in an empty apartment and say, “ I will not use drugs, I will not use drugs.” That is simply sitting back waiting for temptation to come. I encourage my guests to be proactively involved with their new communities and get some real face time with people who are interested in how they are doing. I have come to believe that is not only critical for the battle against addiction, but for the struggle to remain human in the midst of the dehumanizing indignities of our modern culture.

We all need someone who wants to know what is going on with us, even if it’s just to say “Good Grief” every time the world pulls the football away just as we are about to kick it.


Awareness said...

I love the idea of Ember letters and you're so right about the difference between solitude and loneliness. I hadn't thought about it that way before.
You are so right about recovery...the predicting part and the need to be connected to acountability as well as a faith. I was actually thinking about this today after i had met with a guy who has spent years on the streets dealing with addictions and demons and has been in the hospital for a month healing his leg and cleaning up. On Monday he moves into his own apartment for the first time in who knows how long. I'll be there to help him a bit, but I don't know if he will make it or not. We'll just have to see.....wish i had the magic formula. :)
ps....Our chocolate Lab was named after Saint Lucy, both the VanPelt one and the Ricardo one. :) She was the real deal Saint Lucy. Our friends used to say that Lucy wrote the book on how to be a dog. We miss her every single day.

Erin said...

This is so moving and funny - in equal measures. Thanks for this. I really like the idea of ember letters. And your comment about loneliness and solitude really choked me up.
Really enjoy reading your stuff.

Jim said...

I own a paperback, "The Gospel According to Peanuts", out of which I extracted several cartoons and pasted them into my Bible. Shultz actually questioned a call into ministry at one point in his life, then felt he could so speak to people much better through cartoons. I never realized how much he did so until I purchased this book and realized how "hit and miss" I had been with his work until then....

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Yes, everyone's journey is unique and there is no cookie-cutter cure-all for anything. But accountability is important. Often, when I'm struggling with some issue, I try to find a self-imposed accountability to someone other than myself. It makes a big difference.

Under there... said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

Rest assured that we know who you are and that your fate has been sealed for these blasphemous comments regarding our venerated patronly fuss-budget. As soon as we finish with Schroeder, the author of the "Van Pelt Code" and his work exposing our ancient international conspiracy hidden in the classic painting of the Great Pumpkin, we are coming for you and your blog Mr. Tim! Sincerely, The St. Lucy Society.

Hee-hee. Seriously, Awareness, Erin, Jim and Ruth. Thank you all for your comments

Hope said...

This reminds me of my initial response to ember letters. Recovery is like writing an ember letter every day of your life.