In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.
Dante, Inferno, Canto I (trans. A.S. Kline)
I found myself thinking of this eerie beginning to Dante’s poetic journey to hell this morning, not because life felt especially hellish but because I was thinking of Wednesdays as a mid-point in the week, a slump, and how Ordinary Time can often feel like the Wednesday of the year, or the Wednesday of life. It was in this kind of slump in his life that Dante had his vision, and it was ugly before it was beautiful. Yet Dante tells us that he had to see the ugly – and tell us of it – before he could get to the beauty.
One of my main wishes in life is to see the beauty in the midst of ugliness, as anyone who has read my writing will probably know. But there are times in life which challenge this quest, times when, like Dante, we feel ourselves stuck somewhere impenetrable, unable to see the right path, or indeed any path. This fourth lockdown that my city has been in has felt a little like this – not for being especially intense (in fact, it has been mercifully short compared to last year’s) but for being discouraging. We think we know the journey life is taking us – onward and upward – and then we find ourselves slumping backwards, with little sense of why.
In times like these we may struggle to see beauty. It may not appear readily or easily, though it is still often there if our eyes are attuned. But what is constant is God’s eternal fountain of goodness. When I found myself staring, at the end of the day, at the fountain in my school courtyard, I suspected it might have resonances with Dante, and when I came home and looked it up, I found it did. This, you see, is where Dante finishes his journey. Finally finding the woman he loves in Paradise, he finds that she turns his eyes from her to God’s eternal fountain, and teaches him to speak out of the fountain of faith within him.
It was fitting that I found myself, then, having a moment of quiet beside the fountain; even more fitting, perhaps, that while I was watching it the stormy winds blew the fountain waters wildly into the air. All the same, the water kept flowing. All the same, God reigns in all our Wednesdays.
“Which window will it be today?” Many parents of small children will quickly recognise those words which precede the moment in Play School when we “look through the window” to discover something new and exciting. I have spent much of today sitting by a windowsill with very limited ability to see. Our outside office sits at the back of our garden, with a window looking out over the fruit trees. In winter the leafless trees let in rafts of light which by afternoon mean that I am facing directly into the glare. And I am working in our outside office again, in this first week of the southern winter, because my city is once again in hard lockdown, for the time being at least. As Ordinary Time begins, it feels a curious way to be living this ordinary season, back in a situation that is far from ordinary yet which places us so immovably amongst the very ordinary things of our own homes and backyards. The familiar and the unfamiliar are in curious lockstep. We are forced to look more at our immediate surroundings and have fewer means of escape from the ordinary.
What is the spiritual fruit of this? Well, it will be different for each person, and different especially if you are not currently in lockdown and can perhaps relegate that to your recent past. But one thing I am working towards with God is to not avoid the ordinary but to look into it, to make it a window through which I can see God at work. That’s where I will see Him. He does extraordinary things, for sure, but most of the time He works in the slow, the frustrating, the “I-thought-we’d-finished-this-already” of ordinary life. So that’s where I want to look – not past the ordinary, as though His answers are magical, but in the ordinary, because His answers are trustworthy, sturdy and real.
Through the ninety-something days of Lent and Easter this year I set myself the discipline of taking a photo each day and posting it with a spiritual reflection. It was an enormous task and one that I often regretted setting for myself. But it began to do something in me that has continued now that Easter season is over: it introduced me to a practice that I’m calling “devotional seeing”. It taught my eyes to look each day for the signs of God in the small and ordinary things of my day. And, as the church year moves into the long ordinary of Ordinary Time I’m feeling that it’s something I need to continue. In fact, as my city puts its masks back on and returns, after months of zero cases, to watch the case numbers rise again, I want all the more to remind myself of God’s graces in the small and ordinary. So I’m going to keep up my devotional seeing, by sharing a weekly thought – each Wednesday – accompanied by an image from the day. Feel free to join me if it’s something you’re after too. Let’s go hunting for the open heart of God wherever it can be found.
Every Lent for the past six years I have gone off Facebook. It began the year I got married, with our wedding one week out from Easter, and was a powerful way for me to detox spiritually as I prepared for this new life. I found it so refreshing that I’ve actually looked forward to this Facebook detox every year since.
But this year I thought I would do something different. Having been more conflicted over the last twelve months about the power of social media for good or ill, I’ve decided to exercise a new discipline this year: to stay on social media during Lent, and commit to only being a positive voice. This means no doom-scrolling and no incessant checking for likes. Instead I’m going to do something I’m calling “Five Minutes for Lent”. What this means is that I’ll be posting a picture on Instagram from everyday life and a very short Lenten reflection related to the image, drawing on one of the three themes of Lent: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. I’m seeing it as a kind of daily soul maintenance, like the five minutes I might spend watering the garden, pulling up weeds or pruning. I might be thinking about something that needs pruning or uprooting, something that needs the nourishment of prayer, or a way that the fruits of my life’s garden should be used to bless others. I pray that, even if you are not someone who “does Lent”, you’ll tune in for five minutes of soul-keeping each day and be blessed by it.
But the five minutes has another meaning. I’m keeping myself to five minutes per day to write these reflections and five minutes posting and connecting on social media. To keep this to a minimum, I’m not going to post here: you can tune into @matthew.pullar at Instagram to find the reflections, and they’ll be reposted on Facebook. If you want to share a thought in response, please do so, but if your thought will take more than five minutes for me to respond, please share it via a direct message to The Consolations of Writing on Facebook, and I’ll be delighted to talk more with you that way.
Praying for you and your garden this Lent. Love Matt.
I'm not sure how science describes it but sometimes a neuron seeking safe passage yet finding none simply enters black space where nothing is thought or felt as reprieve from thinking, feeling too much. And in that space is only static only the humming of lost signals.
Emptied, what can speak or console? What can reconnect? Devils silenced, but so the voice of angels. In this deadness no strong man need cast the demon from the house. Only the Lamb who was slain can lie down and comfort this brain.
Itching ears may long to hear, All is well. Everyone relax. But truth is rarely so welcome, or simple; more often we hear All is not well before it is well. More often the doctor diagnoses before healing; the exiles must first be exiled before coming home.
All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well. But first we must learn the difference between "well" and the "fine" or "not bad" that we utter without thought when passing in the street. Well is a deep, unfakeable truth, a nature of being that has passed through the fire, and, refined by the fire, knows that His love is there, even in fire.
As an school-aged child, I was very orderly. My family would say, immaculate. Everything had its place and I noticed it anything was out of place, even if it was only by a centimetre. I always kept my hair neat, patting it down with water to keep it from sticking up at the back. My family called it my “water spout”. The jokes that I had OCD were only meant as that: jokes. But they were common, and I made them as much as others did. It was a way of labelling something that seemed cute but didn’t make sense. What made less sense but no-one else saw was what happened in my head, sometimes at night, sometimes simply when no-one was looking. That was what came first, before the neatness, and it would continue, and worsen, until one day, at age 28, it would be given the label that others had used as a joke. I had obsessive compulsive disorder.
But it wasn’t the neatness that showed I had OCD. The neatness was simply one of many coping strategies, and in my case it was the most mild. While I am concerned about cleanliness and hygiene, I’ve never had compulsive cleaning rituals. In fact, my compulsions are so invisible to most people that the psychiatrist who originally diagnosed me in said that I had none. But I can remember when they began, the compulsions: finger-tapping rhythms so my brain couldn’t make obscenities and blasphemies out of song-lyrics; the words I would repeat on loop in my head to avoid invasive thoughts; controlling my hair so I didn’t get ridiculed like the boy in my class whose hair made an egg shape on his head; the mental preparedness I needed when going to the bathroom at night to avoid accidentally summoning bloody Mary in the mirror without wanting to; the constant checking and rechecking of my thoughts that I would do while lying in bed at night in case I committed the unforgiveable sin without choosing to.
None of these anyone saw, and none of them I told to anyone. Why would I? They wouldn’t understand. It was only when I was in my 20s and the invasive thoughts had become darker, more constant, harder to control, that I finally began a process of therapy that saw me diagnosed, first with depression (a common comorbidity, and often the first to show itself to others), then with “Big O”, the kind of OCD that involves obsessions and primarily mental, rather than physical, compulsions used to control them. The neatness – decreasingly important as I got older – was a means of order, a means of control when my own head was far from controllable. I think this is the case for most people with OCD: rarely is it simply a need to keep things clean; it’s a way of keeping in check the invasive, unwanted and uncontrollable thoughts that the disorder will bring about. Many people are meticulous; that’s not OCD. The real thing is much more terrifying and, because OCD doesn’t affect executive function and often plagues highly moral, intelligent and capable people, is very, very well-hidden. We know that what we think and do is irrational, so the last thing we want to happen is for you to see it, even if it means going it completely alone. In the end I couldn’t go it alone. I value relationship, people and honesty too much. I opened up. But it took over a decade and who knows how much damage to my brain’s processing systems to get there. Many still do not ever get there.
One of the things I learnt to do over time was to turn my internal world to poetry. It helped me give voice to the things I couldn’t talk about in direct language, and it helped me give order to chaos. While labelling things as “a bit OCD” is profoundly unhelpful because it is almost never accurate, knowing I have OCD has been generally liberating: it gives a name to what for most of my life was terrifying in its namelessness. It also tells me that I am not what my obsessions tell me I am. In fact, we generally obsess over fears that we will do what is least in our moral code to do. That’s to say, our obsessions don’t reflect what we are like; they reflect what we are not like.
Yet my moral code is not what comforts me in the end. It is the knowledge that I do not need to fear the worst of myself. God has seen not only the worst I have done or thought but also the worst I am capable of, and He loves me and has made a way in Himself for me to be freed from the worst of me. When we try to fight our obsessions we strengthen them by revisiting and reinforcing the neural pathway. When we say to God, “You see this, and you are okay with me,” the pathway is weakened because we begin to teach our brains another story to tell.
My story is a work in progress. Now I am learning how to be a husband and a dad with OCD, and this is probably hardest for my family. They teach me grace every day. I will tell you more with time about what my brain looks like, the less frightening it becomes to do so. But let’s start with this: OCD is not a story of compulsive neatness but a story of a brain learning to defuse the explosive and invasive dread of its own thoughts. This is the part of OCD that you will never see, but it’s the part that most needs your understanding, most needs your love.
To the toddler eye, yeast bubbles for pure delight and the lump of dough is to be savoured now. Try as I might, I cannot explain why that treasure must go to wait in the sun, why the instant must make way for the delayed.
I too cannot understand kingdom yeast's delay in them, in me, cannot let go of moment's feast without the smarting of loss, although I know bread and how it emerges, transfigured, a wonder of bubbling life.