Monday, January 19, 2009

Making Moments (disciplines for the inner life)

This is my Father's world, / Oh, let me ne'er forget 
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, / God is the Ruler yet
On a recent Sunday I was walking out of church and noticed a small huddle of friends standing in the middle of the atrium we call Main Street. I wanted to hurry by and get on with our afternoon, but I noticed that one friend was distraught. Her face was crumpled with tears. I tried to leave, but I couldn't. I turned back around and inserted myself -- silently -- into the small huddle.
She was talking about deep disappointment in relationship. She expressed a despair that nothing would ever change; that she would not ever be able to have what she desired. I understood. I had spent half of the previous week in bed fighting depression (Well, that and a nasty sinus infection). I had spent the last two and a half years mourning the foolishness of several relationships that had gone sour.
Pretty much the only thing I had learned -- other than the fact that I tend toward relational idolatry -- was that the bent I had toward the Grandiose Scheme was one that would, more likely than not, lead me astray. Good learning, yes, but quite incomplete. At some point there has to be a positive behavior to replace the old.
As I listened to my friend's agony and remembered my own these thoughts continued to ram into each other in my head like a couple of determined sumo wrestlers.I could not speak much. The others spoke some. We did a lot of looking straight into each other's eyes, not avoiding her grief-filled gaze. We did some nodding of our heads and a couple of times we refuted statements that were clearly misguided. But, mostly we listened.
In my past I would have shot straight toward the Grand Plan to Cheer Up this Friend. I just happen to be out of grand plans when it comes to relationships. So I stood and gazed and nodded. We prayed together. And, like a small thought, a small idea, during the final sentence of prayer it occurred to me. "We're going to Subway. Do you want to join us?"
"OK, then. Let me tell the family. Hey, after that we're going sledding. You can join us if you want." And she did.
We haven't really talked since, but for one sunny, sub-zero Sunday afternoon we ate subs, laughed together, dressed up in ridiculous-looking layers of clothing and sledded in lopsided chains of plastic sleds and snow-tubes, grabbing mittened-hand after mittened-hand all the way to the bottom of the hill. We drank hot chocolate out of paper cups and shouted cheers at the slip-slidy antics of the other sledders.
Then we said good-bye, hugged and left.
Don't mishear me. I am not mentioning that scenario as a recipe for deep relationship. I am just saying that it was a Moment. A fun, solid, memory-making kind of moment in our friendship. I don't know what will come next. I don't know if anything will come next. We did not talk about books we were reading or sins we needed to confess. We just took advantage of some ordinary activities on an ordinary Sunday to experience some ordinary moments - together.
It was this experience that lay like a warm blanket over my memory as I read one of the first meditations of last week's theme, making moments.
Some people appear to think that the "spiritual life" is a peculiar condition mainly supported by cream ices and corrected by powders. But the solid norm of the spiritual life should be like that of the natural life: a matter of porridge, bread and butter.... It is not the best housekeeper who has the most ferocious spring-clean, or gets things from the confectioner when she is expecting guests. "If any man open the door, I will come in to him"; share his ordinary meal, and irradiate his ordinary life. The demand for temperance of soul, for acknowledgment of the sacred character of the normal, is based on that fact -- the central Christian fact -- of the humble entrance of God into our common human life. (from The House of the Soul and Concerning the Inner Life, Evelyn Underhill)
For the same two years that I've been killing the addiction to the Grand Scheme I've been trying to understand how my relationship with God works in just the ordinary stuff of life. I have been trying to understand how to live from this place of contentment that David describes:
God, I'm not trying to rule the roost, I don't want to be king of the mountain. I haven't meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans. I've kept my feet on the ground, I've cultivated a quiet heart. Like a baby content in its mother's arms, my soul is a baby content. Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope. Hope now; hope always! (Psalm 131: 1-3, MSG)
There have been Grand Moments in my life. More than any one person deserves. Moments when it seemed that all heaven and earth synced for just a glimpse of glory. Like Jesus taking his three best friends to the mountain to share in the wonder of such a transfigured Moment. There's much I'm sure I have to learn from this classic biblical story, but one learning that has been pasted to the inside of my eyelids is that Peter could not get out of his head long enough to savor the moment. He missed or nearly missed -- I'm not sure from the telling -- the extreme grandiosity of God in this moment. He wanted to strategize, capitalize, theorize and theologize the Moment into something manageable and marketable. Something he could control.
I've lost track of the number of times my response has matched Peter's. Something in me is unable to rest, to savor, to soak in the Moment. My mind rushes on to ways that I can trap all the good feelings, pin the legs of the thing down and preserve it under glass. To build some kind of shrine to the Moment so that it will be available to me any time I rub the glass three times. And with all of that scheming I miss the voice of God: This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.
In these two years I've learned that my desire for the Presence of God on my terms and in my ideals blinds me to the Present God. The same God who shows up in a cow barn in the middle of the night and on a hike to Emmaus with old friends. When I am consumed with whipping up a plan to build some sort of shrine to the Moment I do not hear the knock on the door, Jesus standing at the door, hoping to be invited in for a meal. (I wonder how he feels about Subway?)
What is the fear of surrendering fully to a Grand Moment? I know the answer. It's the coming down from the mountain part. That's the rub. It's Frodo trying to live in the Shire again. It's Mary's first case of morning sickness after Gabriel left the room. It's Cinderella, shoeless, back to sweeping soot. It's two million people trying to get on the Metro after the inauguration this Tuesday.
The Reverend Joseph Lowery referred to this hard task in the inaugural benediction:
And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.
Without commenting on his theology, he got this unavoidable dilemma right. This temptation to despair we feel when it is time to leave the mountain, walk away from the burning bush, clean out the Upper Room, swallow the last morsel of Olive Garden's white chocolate raspberry cheesecake; pick your place and time -- nobody wants to leave the experience of a Grand Moment.
During this week's meditation I am reminded that I want to stop treating the rare Grand Moment like some kind of marketing research or science project. I want to sponge up the Moment so that I can walk away with it shining out of my eyes, and fingertips and the ends of my hair. (I shall tape a poster to my mirror, Tamara lassoes the moon.)
I want to develop my senses to recognize the Jesus of the ordinary; to notice sooner than the Emmaus travelers: Didn't we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road? To live in the abundant presence of Christ that surrounds and infuses the ordinary joys and pains of every day rather than just plucking the blackberries of the few-and-far between Grand Moments.
This is hard because it involves death. Christ followed each moment from day to day and his journey took him through suffering and death. I don't like this Christ. As Eugene Kennedy comments on the Matthew account of the Mount of Transfiguration in The Choice to be Human: This is a mystery blinding in its intensity. We still do not like to look at the separations and deaths to ourselves that are inevitable in lives fully and lovingly lived. Better, with Peter in his boisterous enthusiasm, to stay at this high point of affirmation than to follow with Jesus as he accepts his own departure to Jerusalem and the final acts of his mission. The passage, ringing with glory, turns our gaze down the slopes toward the often shadowed valley in which most people lead their lives. There we find the setting for the kind of religious experience of which Jesus has been speaking. It has little to do with the minute observation of detailed rules. It concerns rather those things which cannot be measured at all: loving someone throughout a lifetime, making sacrifices in our lives for the benefit of those who follow after us, raising a child, keeping our word, forgiving each other for our failures, standing together in the bad weather of life. Our Exodus leads us not through strange and exotic places but through the very middle of our quite ordinary lives. (The Choice to be Human, Eugene Kennedy)
If I am paying attention I will hear all the voices of other children of the burning heart through the centuries who find salvation and glory and sublime in the ordinary, draining, painful, exciting, mundane, sticky, dusty, hungry and thirsty, sweaty, peanut-butter-and-jelly, pot-scrubbing moments of each day. This must be what it means to live fully and lovingly. In other words, to worship at the shrines of Past Grand Moments is to live only halfly and meanly.
This is one of the greatest realizations I took from reading Kathleen Norris' Acedia & Me. Acedia is a stinginess of the soul that becomes disinterested in the time and place I find myself in right now -- this lower-case m moment.
In the fourth century, Evagrius marked acedia as one of the spiritual afflictions, far more deadly than the more physical temptations such as gluttony or lust, or the melancholy arising from deprivation or anger. Acedia, he insisted, is something more, a weariness of soul that ‘instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, [and] a hatred for manual labor...(Norris is quoting Benedictine Mary Margaret Funk, whose name makes me giggle)
This, then, becomes a serious issue. Hatred of place and time is hatred of good gifts from my Father. It's ultimately a self-aggrandizement that says I could do it better if I were just given the chance. I might as well say what I'm really thinking: These piddly little moments are meaningless to me unless I get my own way. This is a dangerous place to live and, I'm becoming convinced, thwarts the hand of my good, giving Father in my daily life.
My reading from other saints last week introduced me to a warning from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts…How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? He wrote this from an illegal seminary in Nazi Germany. Enough said.
Where does this leave me, then? It leaves me humbled in the presence of the Present Christ. The Christ who leaned down to fear-stricken Peter, James and John on the mount and said Do not be afraid.
It leaves me making the choice to be awake. To choose to notice and pay attention and be grateful. To quit day-dreaming of all the Grand Moments-yet-to-be and to enjoy the ordinary companionship of that Christ and of his children. It leaves me waiting in a cold Subway, hungry for lunch, working through the awkward tension of making conversation with a new friend. It leaves me noticing the beauty of wind-chapped cheeks and brightly colored scarves and mittens on a snowy hilltop. It leaves me in a wide-open stance, ready to receive all of Christ's gifts on earth and in heaven. It leaves me praying the unwitting prayer of Sylvia Plath (oh, how sweet for her to have found the present Christ):
On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect miracle
Or an accident.
To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.
Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent
Out of the kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then --
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent
By bestowing largesse, honour,
One might say love.
At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical,
Yet politic; ignorant
Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
(Black Rook in Rainy Weather by Sylvia Plath)
*picture above: Taken while rafting on a frigid Delaware River with a mess of courageous family members this past August.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...