Memoir of Body and Spirit

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{Introduction to Jesus Loves Women: A Memoir of Body and Spirit, 2011}

I arrive at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey just after compline, the last lauds of the day, when the monks chant Psalms by candlelight to the strains of a worn out guitar. It is fifteen minutes past sundown, and the sky falls over the chapel like a silk mantle, dusky cerulean fading to deep cobalt that fades at last to navy. The evening air, dense with the erotic fragrances of summer—pollen and grass and day-old growth, is starting to cool. Acres of lively woods behind the abbey seem to hold their breath till morning, when birds will burst into chorus and deer cut paths to the paltry streams sauntering through the hills. For now, all is deceptively still.

I reach the stairs that lead to the abbey’s guesthouse, and a weak light flickers on. The figure of Martin, apparition-like in his black, hooded robe, hobbles to the door, cradling a bulging brown bag in the nook of his arm. Opening the door, I see his face, all full of light and smiling. We hug as he hands me the bag, containing six large burritos wrapped in foil.

I am headed to retrieve my thirteen-year-old daughter Madison from her dad’s before driving the two hours home to Cannon Beach. It is a Wednesday, and on Wednesdays at the abbey, Martin cooks. The third day of the week is thus anticipated by the brothers, especially if Todd, a young monk with ascetic leanings, has cooked on Tuesday.

Nothing beats following a day of tempeh stew with a peak-cholesterol serving of Martin’s burritos. Not only are they dripping with cheese and chorizo fat, but they’re actually toasted in butter before serving. Martin, born to Mexican parents in La Mesa, California and a monk for fifty-some years, has earned a reputation. He crafts the tastiest burritos state-side, hands-down. But he won’t receive any medals from the American Heart Association. You could say Martin relishes the small pleasures: eating and cooking rich food, listening to torch singers like Natalie Cole on tapes in his cell, watching night fall in the abbey garden, and especially, appreciating the beauty of a tree. Whenever Martin makes burritos, he sets six aside for me. He has even been known to mail them. Last night, however, he phoned, knowing I’d be passing through town. Would you swing by the abbey a minute? I have something for you.

Martin and I walk a few steps to the reception counter, behind which glows the only light in the guesthouse. I put the burritos on the Formica countertop as Martin speaks through a coy smile: “I’ve been praying for your heart today.” He laughs silently, with his eyes, and I guess what he is thinking. On the phone I’d told him I met an attractive Mexican. He was pursuing me, and I was considering seeing him—seeing all of him, though I don’t divulge as much to Martin. Martin wipes his face with his hand, the way a mime wipes away one face to reveal another. But the second face is the same. Shaking his head and laughing, Martin leans his elbows on the tall counter. I adopt the same posture beside him. It’s the “couple at a bar” posture.

“Tricia, you know, you’re just always gonna love a lot. And don’t ever change. The saddest people I know are people who close up their hearts and won’t love.” He looks into my face with urgent eyes.

“A lot of men are going to love you. You are a poet, you sing. . . . You’re just gonna have to love a lot of people. I know people don’t understand. It’s something married folks don’t talk about. But when you write that book about how Jesus loved women, you will understand.” This time we both laugh.

“It’s not easy, though, which is why you have to pray a lot.” Martin puts his hand on my shoulder. We stand up straight and face one another. “Just don’t ever change, Tricia.” He takes hold of my arm, both a gesture of affection and an attempt to steady arthritic knees. “You’re ahead of the game, though,” his eyes aglow, “you have a monk here praying for you.” Again we laugh. “I’ll be praying for your heart!”

I give Martin a hug. “I love you, dear,” he says, cheek to my cheek.

“I love you too.”

With the inescapable Mexican cheek-kiss, he sends me off.

¨

I met Martin for the first time in summer 2000, following an overnight retreat at the abbey. I was thirty; he was seventy-five. It was a simple case of lost and found. After my stay, a man found a book on a monastery trail, The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill, and turned it in to Martin, who was attending the guesthouse at the time. Martin recognized my name on the book tag and sent me a letter. It was the first of many I’d eventually receive from him.

Though my memory of collecting the book is shadowy, Martin’s memory is not. In a note dated June 27, 2005, he wrote: “Since Mass this morning at 6:45 a.m., I keep thinking of the day you came to the guesthouse counter inquiring about a small book on prayer. . . by an English woman writer. I saw your eyes and something happened. I wanted to be your friend. Only God and I knew that desire. . . . They seemed to be eyes that looked at God.”

A year and a half pass after our lost-and-found exchange before Martin enters my memory in a detailed way.

It is early 2002. I again visit the abbey on retreat. This time I bring a large canvas, a set of oil paints, and my standing easel. I am eager to use an expensive tube of paint I recently bought, bright acid green, and to make the retreat an art get-away. With easel perched beside my guest-room window, beyond which lay a misty spread of waterfall and pond, I paint a large portrait of Madison, using a semi-abstract style with a bright green background. Over the course of two days, I paint for many hours, working on the picture late into the night, surrendering myself to an activity I don’t often do. The strong, vivid colors, the texture and smell of the paints, are my soul-food.

On this retreat I take time to visit Martin, and it is our first one-on-one. In the past we’d chatted at the abbey reception desk, me leaning on the reception counter, him quizzing me with questions between phone calls and inquiries from guests. But this time we sit. Scooting two chairs together on the sprawling porch of the guesthouse on a day alive with grasshoppers, dusted in pollen, Martin launches in to talking, beginning a conversation that will go on for years. And I do mean talking, as Martin’s style is characterized by story-telling, not dialogue—a manner likely to evoke rage in more chatty interlocutors. But Martin’s style has more to do with postwar hearing loss than an inability to listen. He relays tale after tale: people he’s known, marriages ending, children wandering, addictions and epiphanies and grace. I rest into the nest of lives woven before my eyes, marveling at the lack of judgment in Martin, the tireless concern imbued in his stories, the epic range of his love.

At the end of the retreat I show Martin my painting. “You are full of spirit!” he exclaims to my surprise. Tears pool in his eyes as he looks at me and my picture. And it is not so spectacular, this painting. Yet I feel like Mary encountering Elizabeth during her pregnancy—like Martin has seen something inside of me others cannot see, something mysterious and hidden from plain sight, hidden even from me. Something manifest in the layers of linseed oil and acid-green paint that gives away my goodness—the way Jesus could see a woman’s goodness pouring from an alabaster jar. Whatever it is, Martin is moved. “I can tell you spend time looking at God,” he says. I chuckle. Half of me even believes him.

Early in our friendship, Martin began to say, “Someday I want you to write a book about how Jesus loved women!” He said it over and over again, every time I saw him. When are you going to write that book about how Jesus loved women? It became his Tricia schtick. In 2000, I had finished a PhD in Theology, New Testament Studies to be precise. I figured Martin envisioned a book exploring Jesus’ relationships with women, women who supported him like Susanna, or women like Mary Magdalene who befriended him, something about the cultural prescriptions for women in the Circum-Mediterranean and how Jesus transcended them. The book sounded important, but I knew others had already written similar books. And after several years of research in biblical studies, I was plum bored. The book conjured no enthusiasm.

So I humored Martin: Sure, someday I’ll write that book. A harmless fib. Over the next few years, as my relationship with Martin deepened, he mentioned the Jesus book less and less. We had other things to talk about.

¨

Our friendship grows exponentially for the next three years. I visit the abbey and he writes letters—three in 2002, nine in 2003, twenty-four in 2004, and in the year 2005, over fifty. By the glistening summer of 2005, we are, you could say, best friends. We confide our deepest secrets to each other, leaving our dark sides bare. I find in Martin the most honest, unalloyed Christian I have ever met. He is like the grandfather I never had, so proud of my every triumph and so empathetic in my pain. With him I share my good news and bad days, and we hold one another in our hearts like a prayer.

By that summer, I have spent two tumultuous years bursting my life-encrusted cocoon of fear and conformity. I have been living apart from my husband for a year. Three weeks prior, I had phoned Martin telling him I was leaving my marriage, making real the separation from Darryl. I had not seen Martin since the news.

I ascend the hill toward the guesthouse to see Martin waiting on the porch. The sun paints broad triangles of light on the wood decking, and Martin’s smile radiates. He sports his ratty jeans and a faded polo shirt, the ball cap of his beloved Notre Dame, looking like he belongs at a hacienda, not a monastery. “Are you the mystic of Cannon Beach?” he calls out, his usual greeting (sometimes he says “mermaid”).

We exchange a hug. We then head to the pond behind the guesthouse where we most like to talk. “You look good,” Martin says with a note of relief as we walk down the graveled path, “the best ever! You look full of joy and peace.” I turn to check on him as he negotiates a small hill leading to the pond and his pace draws heavy and slow. Each step is a painful bend of swollen knees. “I’ve been worried about you,” he adds, “But here you are, a real gift to my heart!” Looking up, I see my favorite hawthorn trees heavy with red berries and full of sunlight. The hillside flaunts thousands of tiny purple periwinkle.

We take seats in plastic Adirondack chairs under a cherry tree that stretches over the pond.

I start in.

“It feels good to be free of my marriage, Martin.” My voice trembles with words I can no longer hold back, like air escaping a balloon.

Martin nods his head and smiles. “You remind me of my friend Father Thomas. He has a parish in Seattle. He comes to the abbey on a regular basis, but the monastic life perplexes him.” Martin leans forward, briskly touching his hand to my knee, and laughs. “He just can’t imagine the rules, the constraints.” Martin has a slightly husky voice, like a boxer from the Bronx, somehow masculine and emphatic at the same time. In his younger days, Martin had been an athlete, playing baseball, jogging daily well into his seventies.

“That’s how I feel about marriage,” I say, grateful he offered the analogy.

“For me, the monastery is what makes me feel free. When I go out into the world, I feel like I’m in prison. The monastic life gives me the structure I need to open my heart, to love and rest.” With eyebrows arched, Martin’s face looks serious and full of compassion. Martin joined the abbey a few years after returning from World War II combat duty in the Philippines and Japan. He’d been with the men who first marched into Japan after “V-J Day.” Martin’s first years of homecoming were filled with drinking and brawling and occasional visits to jail until finally the spiritual life beckoned him. Martin’s search led him to Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey.

“I find constraints stifling,” I say wistfully. “I’m more like an eagle. I need boundlessness. I need to soar.” Watching a pair of ducks waddle to the water’s edge, I add, “Sometimes I get snagged by a bear . . . but then I heal and fly again.”

Martin laughs at the image, his eyes twinkling and head tossed back. Then I bristle at the implication. My husband is nothing like a bear.

“I don’t have a super addictive personality,” I continue, rattling off my self-misperceptions. Martin, a recovering alcoholic for about twelve years, participates regularly in AA meetings and understands addiction. “I don’t need a lot of restraints to keep myself in check. . . . Some people use marriage as a straight-jacket,” I blather on. “But I’m pretty self-disciplined.” Even as I say this, blind spots dance before my eyes like skeletons escaping a closet. “If I am addicted to anything, it is total freedom. I dislike marriage. I can’t hold a full-time job to save my life.”

Martin nods, still smiling in utter acceptance. He never lets on he sees through me. But then, so deftly I fail to notice, he veers to the subject of men, my primary addiction.

“You need to give your heart some rest,” he says, “to enjoy silent love.”

“I feel like I’ve been loving silently for eight years!” I burst, referring to my lukewarm marriage. “I need some non-silent love for a change!” Martin’s face offers understanding. “I appreciate expressiveness,” I continue. “I want expressiveness in love, not silence.” We get to talking about Mexican culture, and Martin describes how the twice-yearly bilingual services at the abbey bring the place to life. I realize how attracted I’ve become to the vivaciousness and warmth of Latin cultures.

“That’s what I mean about how Jesus loved women,” Martin says, back to his old refrain. “You know, when Jesus spent time with those women . . . when the woman wiped his feet with her hair, he loved her.”

“Yes, and he didn’t love women like a eunuch either, he loved them like a man,” I say.

At this, Martin’s face lights up—a baseball stadium on a summer night. He knows a missing piece has fallen into place. “Yes!” He leans forward. “Certain women he loved like a lover, like the best lover ever.” I nod my agreement. I imagine Jesus having a crush on a girl, or feeling mature, deep love for a woman.

“Sometimes I’ve imagined how it would be if some woman went up and put perfume on the abbot’s feet, wiped them with her hair,” Martin muses.

I picture the scene in my head: the looking away and snickering, the whispers, the condescending men who would lead the woman away by her elbows, the shamed woman, her head bowed low. “It would be scandalous!” I say.

“Yes, people would make a huge to-do about it. But Jesus just loved her.” Martin’s eyes are enormous. “He was not afraid to show it.”

I see that Jesus wasn’t frightened by what a man could feel for a woman. He wasn’t scandalized or scared by sexuality. He knew it was good. Whether or not Jesus was married or had sex doesn’t interest me. Either way, he was a good lover. And God loves good lovers.

“Jesus would have been the best of lovers,” Martin continues. “He knew how to love.”

My eyes fixate on a firefly hovering by a tip of tall grass. Expanses of algae float on the water. Silky white water lilies open themselves, like fragile young women, to the light. In late summer, the pond’s vitality and virility literally buzz. Of course Jesus loves women!

I have on occasion run into monks at the abbey, either traversing the grounds or in the guesthouse, who seem scared of women. In female presence they are as awkward as fourth-grade boys on Valentine’s Day. I actually pity them their discomfort. I find myself pulling my jacket around my chest as I pass. But Martin is so at ease with women (as are many of the monks) and so at ease with sexuality, even as a monk dedicated to celibacy. How could someone live in such a place, such a pulsing, life-begetting-life environment, and not be? Who, in such a place, would not be awake to, and honoring of the sensations of sexuality? Jesus was awake to them—I am sure of it.

Intense afternoon light washes out the colors of trees beyond the ponds, and the grass of late summer is parched and yellowed. But under the shade of the trees where we sit, Martin and I are surrounded by vivid color: the variegated greens of the grasses lining the water, the silver and blue of dragonflies, the intense neon-green of tiny insects traversing our arms and the blood-red flash of ladybugs, shiny, scarlet cherries overhead, golden buttercups growing wild on the incline to the pond, the fathomless canopy of sky. Even the koi I spot every few minutes in the water blaze with color. The world, so sensuous, so vibrant. God is a lover!

“You know,” Martin says as he leans forward to rise, “my love and support are with you para siempre and no matter what, okay?” He takes my arm to steady himself as he stands. He hugs me like a grizzly bear, in an embrace that feels more loving than anything I’ve known.

When we return to the guesthouse that day, I start to write this book about how Jesus loves women, though not the book Martin had in mind when he suggested it. Instead, this book is about my struggle to believe the audacious statement “Jesus loves women,” and all that it implies. This is the story of how, after all Martin’s cajoling, I finally understood it. And it is about how crazy-hard it was to understand. In the course of my life I nearly drowned for love, I altered my identity for love, I betrayed a friend for love, I ended up in a small town police station for love—but I then finally got it. Jesus loves women.

Jesus loves women, and not because they are being nice, and cleaning up messes, and accommodating others. Jesus loves women when they are stumbling in the dark and breaking things. Jesus does not just love women who exemplify chastity (whether in the Victorian or the monastic sense) and who quell the earthy sensuality that distinguishes our menstruating, ovulating, child-bearing, lactating women-ness, that causes us to wax and wane with the moon. Jesus loves women in all our human fallibility and imperfection as well as in our God-like goodness and sensuality. With all that love encompasses, Jesus loves women.

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