Monday, May 29, 2006

All Fall Down

We arrive in this world each ruling a kingdom – our hearts enthroned, each in its own vast palace. Then the Usurper comes, trouble-maker, toppler of kings, with the great siege engine of his words:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Down come the jewel-encrusted walls of our treasure rooms. Down come the golden temples we’ve built to proclaim our own spiritual perfectibility.

“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Down come our circuses and ballrooms, our fire-eaters’ and jugglers’ dens, all the bright rooms where we play in frantically happy denial.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Down come all our armouries, our battalions, our catapults and battering rams, all the apparatus of our conquering, crashed to rubble.

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

Down come our kitchens and feast halls, our stuffed larders and pantries, all the places we fill and fill our emptiness in futile gluttony.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’

He uproots our dungeons, turns over our condemnations, sends our torturers and executioners into exile, throws open every stinking cell and hacks to splinters the axe and the gallows.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Down come the draperies of our lush bedchambers, the houses of our concubines, the tapestried couches of all our lovers. He cleans our filthy garments; he scours clean our painted-over eyes.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Down come our bunkers, our board rooms of strategy and machination where all other men and women become pieces on a chessboard under our hand.

“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Down come our throne rooms, our court halls, the galleries of the lofty and praised, the stages of the lauded and acclaimed – down they come, all their golden accolades turned to dust.

“Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.”

Down come the grand courtrooms where we reward the polished and eloquent and punish the naive and awkward. Down come their judges and their scowling juries.

“Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

Down go the safe, private rooms where we whine about our injuries and curse our enemies in peace, justify our righteous selves and lament our unjust fate, the innermost mirrored room of our palace where every wall shines gloriously with our own likeness.

Like cannonballs through the stone walls of our hearts, the usurper’s words send our private palace tumbling, leave us nothing but heaps of ruin, leave us finally alone in whatever kingdom there can possibly be outside our own – alone with him in the splendour of our nothingness.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The View

I've been reading a book that a friend loaned me: The Sacrament of the Present Moment (originally Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence). I love this passage:

You are seeking God, dear sister, and he is everywhere. Everything proclaims him to you, everything reveals him to you, everything brings him to you. He is by your side, over you, around and in you. Here is his dwelling and yet you still seek him. Ah! You are searching for God, the idea of God in his essential being. You seek perfection and it lies in everything that happens to you – your suffering, your actions, your impulses are the mysteries under which God reveals himself to you.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade


Well, there’s a nut that could take the rest of our lives to crack. But some days I think I see the order and sense of it, the creeping edges of a sort of light. So one foot falls in front of the other, tentatively.

And yet in the days when that light is obscured, there is actually less deliberation about what to do, isn’t there? He has not left us bereft – in his Word there are a hundred straightforward, honourable things with which to fill our days: love your neighbour, do your work, serve the needy, do the work of the church, all that stuff. If we balk at these routine things (and I do, I do!) and crave merely the flashy, the powerful, the unique, it is our pride at work, not our faith.

God is hiding in buying the groceries, paying the bills, washing the car and doing our taxes (ouch!). More than that, God is hiding in the day gone awry, the marriage in trouble and the diagnosis you prayed you’d never hear. Wrapped in frustration and affliction, God moves at the heart of it all, like Lazarus’ freshly beating heart wrapped in his stinking graveclothes.

The moments, all moments, are jewels on a string. De Caussade says: “We must therefore allow each moment to be the cause of the next; the reason for what precedes being revealed in what follows, so that everything is linked firmly and solidly together in a divine chain of events.”

I rarely see it but, as Madeline L’Engle said once: I have a point of view; God has View.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Feathers

Looking out into the yard I saw a small brown bird – sparrow, wren, not sure what kind, prettily round and spotted, just big enough to settle its curved breast into your palm – picking its lunch out of our lawn, which is admittedly mostly moss.

It met my gaze and froze. Turned its little head right, left, to regard me with each eye. I froze too, not wanting it to flit away. Then it turned and stretched, hunching its shoulders and rising on its toes before returning to pecking. I had been it deemed, I saw, not enough of a threat.

But that speckly brown bird had had a moment, common for a small bird, I’m sure, of fear for its life. All the minutiae of its days – pecking, flying, nesting, feeding scrawny chicks, pecking some more – may have rushed through its head when it saw me there. How it would all end with a pounce. Its life was immensely important to it then. All its energy became focused on protecting it.

And what does a bird’s life mean? Other than pronouncements about the food chain and the ecosystem, whether a bird lives for two years or two years and two weeks seems of no importance whatever. If I were cat and gobbled it up, no creature on the planet would feel any different for a second. All the grand machinery of human existence, and almost all of animal existence, would grind on.

But Jesus said his Father knows: his eye is on every little brown bird. Every time the beak falls into the moss. Every time the wing breaks, the mate is eaten or the chick falls prey to a hungry crow.

The world is overwhelmingly complicated. Even in my own backyard I see the details of the lives of what we might consider the most unimportant creatures – ants, squirrels, robins, wrens – and am rendered almost speechless by what it takes for them to eat and sleep and reproduce. And every second of it passes like the finest sand through God’s fingers under his never-sleeping, loving eyes, which is the only comprehensible way we can say this: no detail of any being in the universe is hidden at any time from his complete knowledge and perfect love.

So the sparrow and I are on the same team, then, except for the fact that he can’t know it and I can, when by the grace of God I don’t forget. Providence is knitting it all, sickness and confusion and death, all of it, into something amazing that we’ll get a look at later. We’re even, by his love, given flashes of it now in the muck and muddle of our days.

And yet perhaps I assume too much. Why am I so sure that the bird can’t know about God’s care? It would give me hope, somehow, to think that there’s even a little-brown-bird way of being aware of Maker and Sustainer, some flitting knowledge, some avian-cerebral twitch, that signified even to this creature that God is with you.

I’m not asserting anything theological. It would just be...neat. And encouraging. Emily Dickinson was right on the money, I think. Hope is “the thing with feathers”.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Word From the Deathless Land

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4: 16-18 (ESV)

The quality of “done”, the quality of “gone”: both are present in their opposites in this fading, dying world, in our dimming eyes, our slowly closing ears.

The “here” and the “to be”, the present and the beginning, are muddied always by their opposites in this stale world.

All that’s best here, glorious as it is, drips with what it can never be: human love that will never be perfect love; peace that will inevitably shatter; faith that will sputter and go out like a candle. Everything is fading, slowing, dying.

There is a lusciously vital moment that occurs when this comes home to a person all at once, in single souring breath: there it goes, it’s going, it’s gone. Recognition of this truth, as of any really true truth, is satisfying and freeing for a time. We can live on it as food (indeed, no other food will really satisfy), even when it’s bitter. We melt a cube of sugar into the absinthe and swallow it down. It’s wonderful, for a while.

But eventually it loses its savour because it’s only part of the truth. Out hearts have feasted and are hungry again.

How do we live in such a dying world, in our own dying bodies, and still long for anything beyond, outside of, above death, as people have done since anyone ever bothered to write anything down at all? Surely in a universe where everything is subject to death and entropy, any idea of a universe without these things must have come from...well, somewhere outside that universe.

It is as though a very wise fish began to tell his schoolmates about breathing oxygen in a waterless atmosphere. It’s not an idea he likely came up with on his own. He would have no reference point, no way to begin to think of such a thing. Somehow someone from the world-of-no-water reached him and told him about it.

As for us – some information from outside the universe-of-death-and-entropy must have reached us, or we would have no way to believe or even imagine any existence without it.

Because humans as a rule do, we almost always have, imagined and believed in such a world, it must have happened. Word from the deathless land has reached us, has been given us, and unless we are dead inside already we can never forget it. It eats our hearts, our minds; it eats into everyone, from politicians to pop stars, from the latest clique of obscure poets to the creators of the newest TV commercials.

We make no sense, really. Everyone is at once constantly dying and yet constantly hungering for deathlessness, for the full, fulfilled, complete and consummated life that has never occurred in time and space.

Well, except for that one time...

And whether we remember that one time, that one life, with love or with fear, with gratitude or with vague annoyance, we can’t seem to put the knowledge of it out of the human mind. It is the Life outside of entropy; the Word that keeps reaching us from the deathless land.

What pain it is, but what hope it brings! For if even the truth of our slow death can be a brief, delicious meal for our hearts, think what food Real Life will be: real, deathless, irreversible Life.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Words Fly Up

I‘m feeling exhausted these days, exhausted with life’s worn-out struggle. I barely bother to call it a struggle anymore; it’s a fight that’s softened into capitulation, resignation. An old ache, a war wound that never heals. What’s the point in trying? You know that most of the time I’m not really trying. I am a Claudius of the heart – afraid of the punishment but unwilling to repent the offense: “Bow, stubborn knees!”

But Claudius says “words without thoughts never to heaven go”. Hate to disagree with the Bard, but go they do, words without thoughts, words with thoughts, words muttered in the dark in the obscure fog of drunkenness, words uttered without our consent in dreams, words rising unbidden into our heads that we never speak aloud. Every one of them is known in Heaven, is in God’s mind and is woven somehow into what he allows to transpire in this wheat-and-tares world.

How frightening that all my desperate thoughts, thoughtless remarks, small-souled sarcasms, all my puffed-up pronouncements and glib, indifferent toss-offs are audible there. How certain I am that, at this point, they outweigh by a thousand whatever sweet, comforting or edifying words have ever passed my lips.

Indeed, our thoughtless words ring through heaven like, as Ophelia said, “sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh”. Somehow they echo from one end of eternity to the other and at last, by some miracle, ricochet themselves into praise.

They do this, I suspect, by proclaiming, trumpeting, our contingency, as Thomas Merton said. We give glory to God by our contingency: the very fact that, in and of ourselves, we cannot be wholly good. We can’t be whole at all. This very fact, declared loudly in our every thoughtless word, is deliverance and peace to us if we can accept and receive it in the context of God’s love.

For myself, I think of it as “throwing myself at God”, like a determined baseball pitcher practicing, over and over again, trying to perfect the exit of myself from myself: “I can’t do this right, Lord. Look, I’ve messed it up again. Here – you take it, you have it; I can’t fix it.” And I throw myself at God. Fling myself at Mercy, straight between shoulders and knees, so fast you can’t even see it. And he makes the aim true every time – I land with a dusty, satisfying thump right in the heart of the great Catcher’s mitt -- stee-rike!

We’re not fixed, not perfected, yet (I keep telling my husband: “I’ll be perfect next week”...). But we can aim in the right direction. We can, when we open our mouths and release more idiocy into the atmosphere, turn in God's direction and land our stupid selves in the only place from which it's safe to try again.