Drifting Ashes

A semi-fictional account of recent encounters with both my therapist and my spiritual director. I say “semi-fictional,” because it didn’t really happen quite as written below. However, it is all true in another way. Perhaps I could call it a “mythical account.”

We got deep into it that morning. Questions of career and direction. Questions of meaning and apathy. Questions of reasons to bother living. We talked about the Dark Voice, and my plan to talk back to him during Lent. Eventually she said to me: “This is really about identity, isn’t it? That’s where we’re going, isn’t it?”

“Identity?” I said.

“Identity,” she continued, “like what are your core beliefs about yourself?”

I thought about it a minute.

  • I remembered the whiz kid child I used to be.
  • I remembered all the things that came so easily to me as a child.
  • I remembered the things that didn’t come so easily, and how I always tried to avoid them.
  • I noticed how I still avoid things that don’t come easily.
  • I noticed how I so often still see myself as that whiz kid, and nothing more.

I had an answer: “Here’s my identity, childish though it is: I am someone who understands everything.

She nodded. “That’s a pretty tough bar to rise to, isn’t it?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “And every time I fail to understand something, the Dark Voice is waiting in the wings to pounce. He attacks and tells me: You see! There’s something you don’t understand! And if you don’t understand it, then you aren’t who you thought you were. And if you aren’t who you thought you were, then you are nothing. You are worthless.

I closed my eyes and thought for a few moments, trying to understand what I should say next, trying to understand what was expected of me next. I decided just to say what I knew: “I need a new core belief.”

She waited patiently.

After a few moments, I continued. “How about this: I am someone who always seeks to understand everything. No, wait, that’s no good. The always and everything would still be fodder for the Dark Voice. He could still say: Ah, you weren’t seeking just then, were you? I guess you’re nothing then. So how about this: I am someone who seeks to understand.

She smiled. “Well, that does sound much more attainable.”

I continued, “Yes, and it’s not completely different or alien. It’s not like I’m trying to throw out everything I was, and make something new. It’s more of a shift from a negative to a positive view. But how do I get from here to there? What’s the discipline to shift my core belief about myself?” It was the week of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, so I had discipline on the mind.

She said, “Discipline is an interesting word for it. I like it.” She thought a minute. “Well, one thing you could try would be a mantra. Something you say to yourself over and over in order to change the constant self-talk from one thing to another.”

I thought about the self-talk that I engage in. I thought of the things that come up from within, unbidden, so often, like a battalion of decrepit record players in my skull, playing scratchy, skipping records that repeat certain phrases and beats ad nauseam.

  • “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.”
  • “That’s it. I’m done.”
  • “Who cares?”

Over and over again, I hear these words in my head, like one stuck lyric of an earworm song. I thought about what a new mantra could be, what new song I could write and sing to myself over and over to drown out this cacophony of misery. I wanted something that could lead me from someone who understands everything” to “someone who seeks to understand.” I wanted something that would be authentic, and easy to remember, easy to say. I wondered if it should be something that also has a scriptural basis. I thought about this for a long time, and eventually came upon it. My new mantra is:

Was ist das?

It’s German for “What is that?” or “What is this?” or “What does this mean?” It’s a question I know very well from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the book he wrote as a tool to help teach the core of the Christian faith to children, a tool that Lutherans still use to this day. Throughout the book, Luther breaks down the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer into individual elements, and then asks and answers the question Was ist das? The story is that Luther wrote this book when his son Hans was at the age that he kept asking that question over and over, and Luther thought it appropriate for a teaching tool. It’s now the “Lutheran question”: “What does this mean?”

Was ist das?

I think it’s also a question about curiosity. I can imagine myself saying this, over and over, digging a trench in my neural net with it, so that it would become part of my habitual thought patterns. I wondered if this would encourage me to wonder more. To look at things that surprise me, or that upset me, or that offend me, or that worry me, with wonder. Instead of reacting to them with anger (“That’s it. I’m done.”), I could respond to them with wonder (“What is this?” “What does this mean?” Was ist das?)

I told her about it. I told her about was ist das?

She smiled. “I like it. Very you.” She said, “You’ve really done a lot of work this week. How does it feel?”

“I feel empowered, awake even. It’s so good to talk about this, and to get it out there. It’s so good to have a plan moving forward. I feel seen.”

She let me bask in that for a minute, and then said, “Step back from yourself, and imagine what God would say seeing you like this.”

I closed my eyes, and asked deep down: how do you see me?

  • The first thing I (thought I) heard was: Good, you finally get it. No, I thought, that’s not it. That’s just more judgment.
  • The next thing I (thought I) heard was: You’re finally letting me in. No, that’s still not it.
  • The third thing I (thought I) heard was: You are opening some windows right now to let my love in more. That’s more like it. That sounds like God.

She asked me, “What does that love look like?”

It’s light.

It’s a wide beam of bright shining light. I’m looking at myself from above, and I see the light coming from behind me, as though through me. It’s wide and broad, like a liquid filling a transparent hose. It flows steadily and strongly. I can almost hear a hum coming from it. It’s not white light. It’s got a yellow tinge, and I recognize the hue. This light is precisely the same light that shines from the Darkwater Church. It’s the same light I’ve always seen when I am aware of God’s presence, and right now I see it shining into the darkness. The “me” I see is covered in darkness, and the light shines all over it, like a fluid pouring over an object. Things are changing, shifting. The darkness is solid, like a thick crust over everything. As the light shines on it, it is slowly cracking and turning to dust, to ash.

It’s like when you descale your coffee maker. As the vinegar dissolves the mineral deposits that encrust every part of the coffee maker, this Darkwater light is dissolving the gunk of darkness that encrusts my inner self.

John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

She said, “We’re just about out of time for today.”

I look forward to this Lenten season of descaling, asking Was ist das? as I see bits of ashy darkness fall away. And asking Was ist das? as I see that same Darkwater Light shining, shining, shining.

 Featured Image by sasint on Pixabay.

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