When I was a young girl, my Dad used to say that he hated “why questions.” Even later, during the years when I practiced law with him, “why” seemed to strike paternal discord. Just coming out of the fourth iteration of the 4 to 7 year old child’s incessant “why” phase, I understand. Who, what, when, where, and how are tangible, efficient, and clean. Each word lends itself to a tidy explanation. Why, on the other hand, defies order. The practical question words dwell in the analytical world of scientists and craftspeople. Why belongs to philosophers, theologians, and artists. Yet what kind of world would we have if our answers hinged only on the seen and certain? Why is the one word that opens humanity to meaning, expands our vision, and explores our connectivity. Why is often an attempt and a mystery – a plunge into depths we tend to ignore in the quotidian busyness of life. Why will not give an answer, but only a conjecture, an opinion, or, often enough as parents, a snappy dictum.
For these reasons, theology and spirituality explore why. Why do we exist? Why does God love us? Why did Christ die for us? Why are we male and female? Why are there ants and bees, planets and stars? Why is there something and not nothing? Why?
Thus, this blog begins and will most likely continue with why. But first, why write?
For almost as long as I could scrawl letters on a page, writing has been the medium through which God allows me to explore my own why questions, tease out speculative answers, circle back, and with new understanding add layers of answers atop the old. Writing has been a dialogue between myself and Christ in me, a private and personal communion of Love with beloved. Writing has grounded me and broken me open, calmed me and brought me to cathartic sobs of reflective understanding. In writing I have found my truest expression of gratitude and joy, heartbrokenness and sorrow. Because of this, my secret written words have often resounded my soul when my spoken words and actions portray a tough, protective layer of togetherness. My situation, in many ways, is that of an artichoke.
When I read St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s, “Story of a Soul,” I thought that if she were a rose then I was, at best, a dandelion. Then one day my spiritual director asked me if I had a metaphor or image of my relationship with God. After a moment of quiet reflection, I answered “artichoke.” When I was a kid, oddly enough, artichokes were my favorite food. If you’ve ever prepared an artichoke, though, you know what a feat it is to make the thing edible! An edible artichoke is actually the flower bud of the artichoke plant, which is a thistle. To prepare it, you have first to cut off the woody stem and sharp, pointy thorns at the tips of the leaves. Then, you have to boil the heck out it – about 45 minutes at a rolling boil. Then, to eat it, you have to tediously peel off each individual leaf, scrape the delicate, pulpy flesh, and discard the tough fibrous base. You work from the outside of the thistle in, leaf by leaf. As you get closer and closer to the center, the leaves become more and more delicate, until finally they become soft and translucent. Nearest the center, the fragile leaves are a purplish color blending to faint green, curved and restful. Finally, all that is left is the tender heart topped with a soft, fine beard or choke. To consume the heart, you must gently remove the wispy choke.
Left in nature, the artichoke does an even more remarkable thing. The flower bud will bloom, making what were once potentially edible leaves coarse and eventually a rich, purplish color. Over time, the leaves open up to make room for the extravagant artichoke flower to shower toward the sun its multitudes of fine, lavender petals. In full bloom, the artichoke flower is simultaneously sturdy and delicate, prickly and soft. Its colors begin earthy at the base and fade upward from a sumptuous purple to an ethereal lavender crown. In my lowly estimation, the artichoke flower is every bit as wonderful as the pristine rose, and perhaps a bit more interesting given its unique intricacies. But I may be a bit biased.
Through regular prayer, the Eucharist, spiritual direction, the Spiritual Exercises, therapy, and most importantly the blessing of wonderful friends and family, God has prepared my artichoke heart for both consumption and radiance. Just as an artichoke must be boiled in extreme heat to be fit for consumption, suffering prepares a human heart for its vocation to love. In the words of St. Thérèse, “I see that suffering alone gives birth to souls, and more than ever before these sublime words of Jesus unveil their depths to me, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it will bring forth much fruit.’” Suffering makes the inedible edible and the tough, scaly shell crack open and yield to the beauty within. But suffering left on its own brings forth nothing just as a boiled artichoke is of no value unless it is given for consumption. Unconsumed, the soggy, boiled artichoke will eventually rot and decay. Yet when consumed, the artichoke actually gets more and more savory as its leaves are eaten. Likewise, God peels off the tough outer layers of our hearts slowly, delicately, in his time and ours, until what is left is the most beautiful, delicious, and tender part.
So with this little blog, I give you, my dearest friends and family, my artichoke heart. I look forward to journeying together, in the communion of saints, toward the vast fields of why and piecing together our fragment of time. I hold you each, as always, in the depths of my being as much a part of me as my own self.