lenten journal: riding the monsters


    Sunday night is fading fast and I have promises to keep.

    I got home from the ski trip a few hours ago and have spent a good deal of time making sure Ginger, Gracie, and Lola all know how much I missed them. The ski trip was a great time. We took fourteen kids and three adults (me, my main high school sponsor, and his wife) in three vans (with DVD players) and spent two great days at Sunday River, Maine. The kids skied; I read, along with getting the lift tickets, making sure people got the rentals they needed, and taking care of the one kid who broke her arm. (She’s OK.)

    Parker Palmer spoke loudest to me from the mountain, with the help of a few words of Annie Dillard he quoted:

    In the deep are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for one another, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned. (30)

    Palmer keeps going:

    We must abandon the commonsense notion that the monsters we meet within ourselves are enemies to be destroyed. Instead, we must cultivate the hope that they can become companions to be embraced, guides to be followed, albeit with caution and respect. for only our monsters know the way down to that inner place of unity and wholeness; only these creatures of the night know how to travel where there is no light. (31)

    I had to read the chapter two or three times – at different times – because as soon as I read, “ride these monsters,” it was as if my mind jumped in the saddle and took off. I absolutely love the image; I also wish I knew how to draw so you could see what’s in my head. The best I can do is tell you to go find your copy of Where the Wild Things Are.

    The one that grabbed me first was big and furry like a bear — a cartoon bear; he was really fluffy with punk-rock-purple highlights to his hair and a big belly. I said saddle before, but it wasn’t that. He had a pouch on his belly (he stood on his back legs) – a turquoise pouch. Once he stuffed me in, I was just tall enough to see over the top if I stood on tiptoes. When he leapt into the darkness, he landed on some sort of stepping stone I could not see but he could find and we bounced down, down, down. Just before it got pitch black, I saw him put on his sunglasses.

    I don’t know what it means; I’m just saying where the words took me.

    Riding the monsters. Might as well. They’re the ones who know their way around in the dark. When we dive into the deep, deep end, Palmer says, “we draw close to the source that empowers all else, and in that power there is not only grace but danger, not only healing but wounding, not only life but death” (30)

    I’m accustomed to people listing those in reverse order when they speak of redemption: danger THEN grace, wounding THEN healing, death THEN life, but the monsters know differently. The angel came to Mary and said, “Hail, O Blessed One, the Lord is with you,” and told her she would bear a child who would be the Savior of the World. After that blessing, she watched her son grow to the point that she no longer understood him, and then watched him be crucified.

    Grace THEN danger, healing THEN wounding, life THEN death.

    A couple of years ago, our Vacation Bible School theme was SCUBA (sorry, I forget what the acronym meant), so we played up the skin diving idea. I’m the song leader at VBS each summer. That year I was the monster offering the ride, complete with snorkel mask and flippers, and we sang, “I’m going deeper with God . . ..”

    Interesting choice of words.

    Going deeper means finding more meaning AND sinking too far. The language of mystery and depression are similar not by accident, if Dillard and Palmer are right. And they are right. As long as I saw my depression as something to be fought, as if I were the knight who had been picked to go slay the dragon, I couldn’t find a way out. I could only picture myself like the headless carcasses of the men in the Great Hall in Beowulf, after the dragon had feasted on them despite their best efforts to protect themselves. I couldn’t fight the monster.

    But to ride the monster — to come to terms with the depression being part of me, rather than an unbeatable foe and let it take me down, to submerge me until I could learn how to breathe and see and hear in the dark — offers a ray of hope. At the deepest, darkest places I find I do bump into both grace and danger, healing and wounding, life and death, not as polarities, but as creative tensions that offer me the chance to grow and learn and thrive: to begin to feel whole.

    All of a sudden, my monster is joined by a heavenly host of sorts (I guess), telling me I’ve heard this song before: Labyrinth and Monsters, Inc., Bruno Bettelheim, Harry Potter, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Shel Silverstein. My list is by no means exhaustive. But I need them to take me out for a ride regularly so I don’t forget, as Annie Dillard also says, if I want to see the stars I have to go sit in the dark.



    1. Great Annie Dillard quote at the end; I’ll remember that.

      Several years ago, I was desperately praying that God would remove a certain temptation and struggle from my life. My agonizing prayer begged Him to make me whole, to ‘fix’ me, to make me ‘clean’. He shut me up and said to me, “You don’t really want to let this go, do you?” He was right…I wanted to be ‘clean’, but I wanted to ride the fence, too. When I recognized the monster for what it was and accepted my desire for something that was sinful – acknowledging my humanity – I found that I rode the monster rather than the monster riding me. The strength to battle my addictions was within me – I was just trying to manage it from outside myself. A willingness to see myself truthfully, like God does, brought healing.

      Great post that provoked my thoughts. Thanks, brother.

    2. Dancing with our dark side.

      Great writing again there Milton. Much to think about and yet another book to search out!

      By the way I couldn’t get the ‘Where the wild things are’ link to work. It took me back up to the mountains!

    3. this is very good stuff, pastor.

      Milton, I really admire you for writing what is the truth. I was thinking that for Lent I would write about my father, who died more than 30 years ago in a mental hospital. I was 15 then, and I’ve thought about him every day since then. He was brilliant bipolar scientist who had psychotic delusions, kind of like the scientist in A Beautiful Mind, but much more charming and more dangerous. Living with him was like living with an uncaged lion, and we — my mother and my brothers and sister — pretended that everything was fine. I could not possibly blog about it, but I can write for myself about it, which is a lot. More than I could have contemplated for many years. I’ve been reading Frederick Buechner: “Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep of the glad air and live one day at a time. Know that you are precious … know that you can trust God. Know that you can trust these people with your secrets because they have trusted you with theirs.”

      peace to you.

    4. Excellent post.

      I enjoyed, along with the comments from folks who are open and honest. As I read this I too thought about my “demons” or better yet my depression. There are times I want to fight the monster and there are other times I just want it to take me. Eventually the two Joes will learn to ride one another. It is a long path but I think I am on it.

      Thanks for the quotes and the book recomendations. Oh, and the spaghetti pie cooked perfectly, my wife was amazed!

    5. What a wonderful post! There is some stuff here that gives me the chills. “They’re the ones who know their way around in the dark.”

      And, BTW, SCUBA was Super Cool Underseas Bible Adventure in 2003, I think. 😉 Been there, done that one too.

    6. Saw this monster reference in another post of yours, Milton, and had to click on it. I’m part of a wilderness team that has used this quote, and the little pamphlet it came from called, “Leading from Within,” by Parker Palmer, for about a decade. Meaningful stuff for me and many others. Glad to see you found your own application.

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