My St. Gertrude's God Question #2
Stuck in Purgatory: why am I angry and bitter?
“Heaven, hell, purgatory. Heaven, hell, purgatory.” A few of the sisters and Chaplain Meinrad were at my lunch table at St. Gertrude’s Monastery. They were counting the prune pits on their plates.
A Baptist from childhood, I was puzzled, “What’s that?”
“The number of pits on your plate tells where you’ll end up,” Meinrad said with a twinkle. If there are more than three pits on your plate you just start in again, heaven, hell, purgatory...”
“I didn’t get any prunes so no pits,” I laughed. “Does that mean I stay right where I am?”
“No,” a sister said. “That’s purgatory too.”
Great. Stuck in purgatory again. Purgatory is a Catholic term for “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” I understand getting put back through the wash cycle multiple times until I’m clean, but I believe my entry to heaven is guaranteed. Down here in the meantime, working it out (sometimes with fear and trembling) is unavoidable. And while I think that being good enough isn’t a prerequisite for getting in, I’m ok with calling the working out of things a purgatory of sorts. Either way it’s a miserable place to be.
And I’ve been working through things. Like grief, although I think I’ve almost freed myself from its grip. For years I’ve been wallowing in and sorting through various traumas that shaped me as a child and adult. You probably remember some of those posts. I’m sorry. The fortunate thing is that writing’s cathartic. In the process I feel I’ve reconciled everything of which I’m aware, but today I’m thinking, maybe not everything.
I’ve never allowed myself to express the anger I feel out loud. It’s a part of me that I withhold from you (and from myself) because I needed to seem as all-together. Perfect. The one with all the answers. Because if I don’t you won’t want me, and that’s an unbearable pain. One that makes me angry.
Before I came to St. Gertrude’s this month, I told the Professor that I thought there was another phase to pass through on my way to emotional healing. It’s anger, an emotion I’ve yet to explore. He didn’t say much but I imagine he was glad I’d explore it while I’m away. Me too. I fear that if I allow myself to feel and give expression to the latent anger within me there’s no telling where things could go. The universe could lose its moorings and cast me off, adrift in dangerous seas. I don’t like to see myself as angry or bitter, nor do I like you to see me that way. So, I hide them. I don’t want to be judged. I don’t want to fall short.
So, given that sunlight is the best disinfectant and that I know there’s at least one more storm to weather before I cross from anger into acceptance, what better question to ask God this morning than, “Why am I angry and bitter?” To understand why, I had to feel them and yesterday I did. My thought chain went like this:
“I put my whole heart into 1,500 words yesterday for a book on my experiences with the church and today it feels like rubbish. I’ll never write this. I like what I just posted on my blog, but it’s only got 2 likes and 1 comment. I feel discouraged. I pour my heart into these stories for the same people year after year and I’m beating my head against the wall. Is my writing no good? That makes me feel so much less than other writers I admire. Is my time worth so little? I feel stupid. Why am I always a runner up? That makes me feel furious. Doesn’t anyone want to hear what I have to say?” I move on.
“Why doesn’t anything I try ever work? I’ve tried singing professionally, being in local and state government, and now writing. I don’t fit anywhere. Not with the writers I know, not in my family, not in my friendships, and not in my community. I am invisible, especially since I retired. I was so busy trying hard that I didn’t notice I was getting old. Now it’s too late. No one takes me seriously. I can still do the things I dreamed about, that I know I’m capable of. I abdicated my career trajectory when I was recruited from California to a state that could care less about my abilities because I wasn’t born here. My employees hated me and so did our clients. Why me, God? Why is the door always, always shut in my face?”
And then, anger mounting, “I’m never anyone’s favorite. Why doesn’t anyone choose me first and then stay with me? They always turn to someone else, discarding me for the next flavor of the month. Like my mother did with my brother when he was adopted after me. Why won’t anyone keep me? Am I not worth that? God, you could change all this, heal me, with a word, but you don’t. Why? Why am I still in this purgatory?”
I usually progress through this thought chain, beginning with little things and end up with my mother, brother, and God. And then I realize that I’m still litigating the things that happened to me when I was too young to speak up. Too young to secure my piece of the pie. I call these wounds by different names now: an unfulfilled career, coming up short as a writer, losing a treasured friend, even having an entire state turn its back. But at the heart of it, the reason I’m angry and bitter is that these trigger the same feelings I had as a four-year old girl being excluded by her brother and mother. When they happen, it’s as if I’m experiencing that original rejection all over, as God stands by and watches it happen to me without coming to my rescue. I’m angry and bitter because of these.
And yes, while I need to forgive man (and even God) seventy times seven times, I need to lose the feelings that have distorted my life. Telling me to repent alone is simplistic. It ignores the roots of bitterness and anger that send up new shoots when and where I least expect them. These roots, whether I knew they were there or not, poisoned and compromised the tree. All the while I sat in the branches in a hurricane, fat, dumb, and happy, denying that the tree would easily topple. My first step in destroying their roots is to see that they are there and acknowledge them in a meaningful way. I see them. They are there. This post is the first ax blow to my roots of anger and bitterness.
Was the fact that I had no prune pits on my plate at breakfast this morning a symbol? I like synthesis, combining ideas derived from what I see around me into theories or systems that help me understand hidden things, so I guess they served that end. They were an entry point to thinking about what I hadn’t seen and to what was, what is, and what can yet be. Hopefully those pits were also the first steppingstone on a path out of purgatory.