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This Habit of Mine...

Show me youre face Lord,...instead of piety,
accomplishment or worth.

Jennifer Haines

By Toni Flynn
Faced with the searing desperation in a young woman's gaze, Toni Flynn is led to pounder her own soul's state. Since the day I was born, I've lived in close quarters with those who suffer from alcoholism and drug abuse. But before I say anything about anyone else, I want to expose my own more invisible affliction. I want to confess how I am prone to perpetuating - sometimes proudly, sometimes painfully - the contradictions of my personality. I am driven to do this by a constant restlessness of spirit. Even my recent history serves as a perfect example of these patterns.

A few years ago, I lived the solitary life, first in a cottage on a secluded island off the far west coast of Ireland, and then within the cloisters of a retreat center nestled between the mountains and the shoreline of the California central coast.

All that time, I ached to become a Catholic Worker. Although I have had experiences as a supporter of the Worker movement, I wanted to formally be commissioned to go forth and serve the suffering multitudes.

Finally, in August of this year, I did it. I left the safety and privacy of my hermit lifestyle and joined a Catholic Worker community in a crowded harbour area near the Port of Los Angeles.

Ever faithful to this habit of contradicting myself, after only a couple of weeks of serving food to the poor, providing shelter to the homeless, and vigiling with a peace sign to passers-by on a sidewalk in the neighborhood, I found myself wanting to withdraw from the sea of ravaged faces ebbing and flowing past me in the soup lines and on the streets. Yep, before I had even completed my first month of Catholic Worker activism I wanted what I had just walked away from - a monastic break.

In desperation, I phoned my girlfriend, Leia, at the neighboring C.W. in Santa Ana. She told me that her husband, Dwight, was away on a men's retreat. "Come on over!" Leia said this to me with very inviting overtones and I was filled with elation when she continued to say how we could be monks together, barefoot and still, in a newly refurbished prayer room.

I showed up on a Saturday and we decided to devote a whole afternoon and evening to findingthe Face of God in quiet, simple ways. We would go to tea. We would read poetry. We would perform asanas and pranayamas at a yoga center. Leia would dust her room in silence while I would launder and iron altar cloths and liturgical linens for the Catholic Worker Mass. We might even dip into the Lectio Divina -a very very monastic meditation!

I might as well tell you right now that we never found time to dust or iron, to practice yoga, or to take off our shoes, let alone to set foot inside the prayer room. And as for the Lectio Divina ... "Something has come up ..." was how Leia put it to me. Would I like to do a communion service with her at the women's jail? At first I winced. It wasn't part of the plan. Then I raised my brow reluctantly. O.K. ... sure! ... why not? ... jail can be contemplative in a weird sort of way.

About eight women were brought to us after we set up for prayer service in the Catholic chaplain's trailer at the correctional facility. Most of the women appeared to be barely across the threshold of adolescence. Their young faces, like dim waning moons, were eclipsed with too much ... what? ... experience?

I didn't want to know. I avoided their direct, inquisitive stares as Leia began, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ..." Somehow, one young woman's anguished eyes locked inadvertently with my own eyes and for a minute or two I shadow-boxed with my conscience, considering whether or not I would respond.

I acknowledged her with hesitation, because despite my lofty new intentions as an 'official'
Catholic Worker, and some past experience as a social worker, I really didn't want to see fragments of myself reflected, magnified, or manifested in the guise of another woman's pain. I wanted the serenity that had lifted its elusive veil for me on the Aran Isles and at the retreat center. I wanted monastic serenity. I wanted it the way a defeated beauty contestant - after losing in previous years - wants this year's rhinestone crown and the first place ribbon across her chest.

While Leia was leading the prayer service and I was busy with my narcissistic inner struggling, the young woman began to disclose her despair over drug addiction and then to scrawl something on a piece of scratch paper. A poem, she said. The only poem she had ever tried to compose. When everything was concluded, this same young woman placed the scribbled poem into the palm of my hand, like a tiny lost blessing. What could I do but accept it?

Her plight was not that foreign to me. My family closet is bursting at the seams with addicts and alcoholics, most of whom have died in their rueful beds of denial. As a child, it seemed that the more habitually my nearest and dearest relatives sought their solace inside liquor bottles and narcotic vials, the more profoundly I rendered myself sober but inconsolable, wandering through foggy spiritual arenas, searching for ways to identify my own vague wounds. I almost coveted the exacting illness of my family members.

Sometimes I still find myself wishing that I too were addicted to street drugs or alcohol. As
abhorrent and masochistic as that sounds, at least drug addiction and alcoholism are nameable diseases. At least you can palpate them, in their stages of initial release and in their ultimate stages when they hold your body and your spirit in captivity. At least they render you visibly miserable in your surrounding community. If you die, at least you die clutching something ... a beer mug, a syringe, your own denial. If you embrace sobriety, that too, at the very least requires tangible things of you: abstinence and (in most instances) practicing 12 Steps one day at a time. Even that has a name. It's called recovery.

My own patterns of pain remain to this day, so much more evasive and indefinable. For the most part, I can get away with appearing rather healthy in my social circles. And in fact, I can even fool myself when I look in the mirror each morning, blinking my bright clear eyes, brushing my white smiling teeth. I can pray. I can perform works of mercy and justice. Doesn't that prove that I am a 'well' person?

It is only at such times when I find myself encountering someone like this trapped and transparent young woman at the jail that my more hidden addictive longings and desires circle around me like dark dreams of Draculean mist, wrecking my complexion with a lime green glow, revealing my character defects and my small hypocrisies.
There was something about cleaning up someone else's vomit and blod that humbled me and deliverd me like a newborn baby into the exquisite realm of the present moment. To be sure, this habit of mine haunts me like a ghost, taunting me to spend my life desiring what is just out of reach. And then, when I finally attain the objects of my desire, I am further taunted until I begin to miss, horrendously, the people and places I have just left behind. It is all about continually desiring the unattainable future. Continually longing for the irretrievable past. Denying the present moment and those people and circumstances who move through that moment.

And so, inevitably - perhaps because she unwittingly reopened the unclean chancres of
my psyche - I led myself to deny this young, fragile woman my full attention. She wanted so badly to reveal her true self to some one and to be accepted in the powerlessness of her addictive inclinations. Yet all the while that she was admitting her sins with a number 2 pencil on a crumpled letter pad, I was thinking back on my childhood and ahead to the possibility of returning to Leia's prayer room to light lemon verbena candles and finger prayerfully over the beads of a wooden rosary.

But there are some nights that refuse to allow you to escape your own shadow. Leia and I returned to a chaotic house full of guests falling off of their proverbial recovery wagons. The signs and symptoms of the disease of addiction were spilling and flooding the house. Only a couple of the guests were still sober and clear-headed, but they looked overwhelmed, sort of like Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, trying to contain a flood with mops and buckets running amok.

One guest was blind drunk, throwing up all over the front porch bench and floor. The scene was so absurd and serious, it became darkly comical. When Leia reminded him that the Santa Ana Catholic Worker was a clean and sober house, he slurped through his vomit and replied, What do you expect? I'm an alcoholic" Indeed, what did we expect? The question hung in the air - our meditation, our unintentional Lectio Divina.

Meanwhile, inside the house, another guest, usually quiet and kind, but currently appearing heavily under the influence of who-knows-what, was pacing and ranting on about unseen enemies lurking in the corners. Our feeble attempts to intervene failed and he sought sanctuary in the bathroom only to come running out screaming and then falling, unconscious, to the floor, blood pouring from an accidental -or possibly self-inflicted - cut in his hand.

While Leia and one of the still-sober guests rushed the wounded man to the emergency room, I was left behind with another guest to clean up the mess. There was something about cleaning up someone else's vomit and blood that humbled me and delivered me like a newborn baby into the exquisite realm of the present moment.

And it was there, of course, in that unfamiliar 'now' place, that I providentially stumbled upon
the diamond point wherein the monastic intersects with human misery and grace abounds. It was there, while on my hands and knees, scrubbing the remnants of sad stigmata drippings off of floorboards with soapy water and bleach, that I felt the first inkling of authentic engaged contemplation. For a split second, I even thought I saw the face of God in the puddles.

Everything quieted down by 3 a.m. and it was only then I pulled out the piece of paper given to
me earlier that day. I cannot tell you about the tears I shed while I read the poetic biography of the woman whose obscure and tragic life brushed ever so briefly against mine, for to tell you would diminish the experience. Let me instead, with the poet's permission, share excerpts from her poem:

Dawn ...
A long hot miserable day ...
Signs that night is descending ...
My soul put on hold
just trying to keep on living.
An evil far greater than Lucifer lingers,
putting my life up on a shelf.
Trying to believe I can still be saved
beyond a question of a doubt.
Asking myself ...
is it too late, can I kick it ...
this habit of mine?
Love - is it powerful enough
to conquer this deceiving?
Others like me say they want to sleep.
Fact is, it's time to wake up.
The shit is getting deep.
Hopefully, I'll get to the other side
of this nightmare on 'Meth Street'
before it's too late.
At one time I may have been
a good person.
what a shame.
I am drowning in poison
and self-created pain.
Pray for me.


Toni Flynn is currently searching for a suitable house for the High Desert Catholic Worker which she has founded. She can be contacted at P.O. Box 62, Valyermo, California, 93563-0062, USA.

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