Monday, May 15, 2017

Moving Over the Abyss: A Monday Morning Benediction

Image by FloridaMemory on flickr
Recently a friend of mine relayed a game that he sometimes plays with young nieces and nephews: Holding them up high - sometimes over a pool or the ground or the churning waves of the ocean as they squeal with an inextricable mixture of terror and delight, and assuring them , “I’ve got you, I’ve got you!” Its the fun of swinging a child into the air by her hands. 

“Again,” she will cry, if she is young enough to still be unafraid, “Again, again!”

What an apt metaphor for the terror/ delight of being. Which, in my experience, tends to be more habitually acute (the terror part, that is) at the start of a given week than at any other time.  After a certain age, how quickly we come to focus on the abyss below us as we flail in complete uncertainty, while completely forgetting the hands that hold us. 

My customary habits for reacting to this fear include paralyzing terror and complete panic. I don’t suppose this makes me too different from many, although I am sure there are better ways. So this Monday, at the first onset of wishing to bury my head desperately into the sand as I notice the alarm has gone off and I have sweat through my sheets again with another round of nightmares, my intention is this: To lean into change and not away, letting go of fear of being held over the abyss, to focus on the hands holding and not the vast space below. Perhaps even to find some way to delight in the thrilling insecurity of it all - for if I were not so desperate, would my eyes and heart ever be as open as now? 

A very young child does this naturally, upon being tossed into the air, knowing she will be caught again, by the same hands that released her so she could better feel the thrill of a weightless rise and rapid descent that pulses at the center of everything. This is the prayer: to embrace the pain of these innumerable faults and weaknesses in an imperfect heart, and understand these in concert and not separate from the injuries of the world, yet continue to believe in an endless river of beginnings, and in the constancy of growth everywhere. Entropy accelerates, yes - but with it, restoration of order, replacement of dead cells, the birth of new stars, the re-alignment of broken bones, and the continued beating of broken hearts. Sometimes all that can be done is to give oneself over to this endless movement, especially when the path is obscured. Members of AA call this “one day at a time,” marathoners call it the art of putting one foot in front of the other. Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railroad, is known to have said over and over that the path to liberation, to rest, to freedom, to Grace, was simply this: “Keep moving.” 

Okay, then. Here we go: left, right left.

It is now mid-afternoon and I am glad to report that the strategy is not only effective, but rewarding. Even at an extremely slow pace, no fewer than three angels are counted: by angel I mean jaw-dropping manifestations of undeserved generosity and awesome beauty - which generally result in the surprise of tears, laughter, or a wave of relief - and as often as not, all of these at once.  In their presence, even my most cynical demons are reduced to cowering in the corner.  I wonder what tomorrow will bring? The only way to know is to walk into it, however slowly and broken and afraid.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

To the Divine Mother

You repair what is broken, and pick up the pieces of the castle I was building when the wind knocks it over and it all falls down. You teach me gently, Look, make a game of it. Sing like this, hold hands and spin, "Ashes to ashes!" and at the end shout "We all fall down!"  - and then laugh and do it again.

When I am wrong you chastise me, carefully differentiating between the extent of my wrong and the extent to which I am eternally loved.  And then you offer something to eat.

Without this, I am not sure I could keep living; shame over my wrongs would be too great, and on top of this I would be too hungry and scared to move.

You love me anyway, and how often have I lived just for another moment of leaning in to the soft flesh of your body as you pull me close, and smell the familiar smell of your flesh: me and not me, more myself than I can name. I breathe and breathe and breathe, wishing to hold onto each inhalation forever. But eventually I cannot take it, I have to breathe out, and there you are again.

I am too afraid to move on. Then the other night I am on Facebook and you show up in the form of a video of a mother duck leading her ducklings as they leap in complete abandonment and surrender themselves to a paradox: the only hope of safety is to follow, and the only way to do this is to give up what is known, and take instead the endless encouragement that is offered, in all of its mystery.

Today, Catholics around the world acknowledge the feast day of Fatima, the vision of your incarnation who appeared to illiterate children in a field as they grazed their sheep. You offered nothing but your unfiltered self, but proof is a man-made concept.  The children believed you, and the doubters did not, so you offered even more. So returned months later, as only the children said you would, to answer the doubters, and on the thirteenth of October, thousands witnessed the spinning of the sun, and the sky as it swayed towards the earth. This mesmerized many, although it did little to eradicate doubt. 

You keep offering, anyway: constant radiation, the “pure cosmic play” of a poet’s ecstatic cry.

In another manifestation of your wisdom, the Goddess Kali wears a garland of snow-white skills, offering by her presence a constant reminder of freedom from the limits of birth and death. 

Teillard de Chardin observed, of the depraved creatures of a broken and endlessly renewing world:
"Humanity is being taken to the point where it will have to choose between suicide and adoration."

Everywhere you look, faces that only a mother could love, and realities so dismal that the only hope capable of enduring is that of a mother waiting for her child's return, even when all practical evidence points to certain loss. How many times has it been the faith of a mother that waited long after others gave up hope?  This love is always mad when measured by the insufficient tools of common perception: all mystery, all embrace beyond words, all given. “Be not afraid,” the resurrected Christ said when he showed himself first to the women at the tomb, and it is impossible not to hear in these words an echo of what Gabriel told Mary when he announced divine conception. She died to everything she knew to give birth, and only in the otherwise senseless death of her son could it be made clear why this was necessary.

To the mother who loves what comes, no matter what comes, however ugly it may appear to the tyrant known as objective sense:

Yours is the music of a funeral, and the cry of death in the moment before birth.
Yours is the world without end, and the surrender to mystery at the center of every Amen.

I Love You, Little Beast

The following is less of a review, than a reflection, inspired by a reading of Richard Rohr's The Divine Dance. I was fortunate to hear Rohr on a recent On Being Interview with Krista Tippett and I knew within minutes of listening to him speak that he was a reliable spiritual mentor because he quickly passed the sacred beer test, which basically amounts to crudely measuring the overwhelming goodness of what he has to say (by way of the love, relief and hope it inspires) against the sense of security that he would be excellent company with which to share a friendly after-work pint or two. I find that my own energies tend to gravitate more strongly towards those for whom the distance between these two realities is short.

I am still absorbing my thoughts on his writing, but on a recent morning I highlighted this passage, in which Rohr (a Franciscan priest, now in his seventies, who has devoted his live to contemplation and understanding of what he calls "perennial wisdom") discusses the paradoxical need to embrace suffering - especially that which is borne of love. Because as he explains later, there is "no resurrection without death," and because "Grace shows up where logic breaks down." In this line of thought, he observes:
"I am going to somehow enter into solidarity with this pain. I'll not allow myself to participate in other people's abandonment, betrayal, rejection, or marginalization.
How different this is than other passages I have read on suffering. How much more accessible it is to me, because it requires only that I love its essence. I can do this so much better than I can pretend that it does not exist or that it is not some essential part of my basic nature.

So much easier said than done. Give me something beautiful and I quickly want to define it, measure it, name it, capture it, or find a way to claim it. At my best I may accept it as it is, delighting in its presence (thinking of my daughter here) and yet still waste countess hours and evenings worrying over its loss or spoilage.

Even now as I write this, I cannot keep from noticing that scarcely an hour - perhaps not even fifteen minutes - has gone by today during which I did not check my phone, my email, my recollection of the events of the day - reviewing them for signs of some basic lack. I am missing something, somehow; I know it. Something is essentially deficient about my ability to understand, and the suffering of this  hour, this month, this year, this lifetime, must be because I have failed, somehow to correct these inherent deficiencies.

These fears are code, of course: for “I may not be worthy,” and this suggestion inspires latent anger and deep fears, such that it seems necessary - immediately and desperately necessary -  to relieve some of the pressure by sharing it - usually by blame, or irritation, or by making sure to add their perceived slight to the endless tally of perceived slights -  immediately, because I feel myself too small to hold within me the tension of needing to love against the doubt that I am worthy of being love. 

It is easier, it turns out, to reject true intimacy, than to take it - with all of the unpeeled layers and resultant exposure that it implies. 

Better, if one is leaning towards coldness and bitterness, to be wrapped in the heavy, oily furs of familiar demons. Here they come, at the first sign of doubt in an endlessly renewing warmth, which needs no clothing to keep it in, only constant openness to its flow.

Enter: fear, anger, insecurity over being loved - all the old demons, awake and eager to play at the first signs of discomfort. I can feed them, or I can watch them move. I am trying to watch them move.

Most active among them seems to be the one in charge of keeping track of the accumulation of numerous minor offenses. This one certainly growls a lot. It is very greedy, and always wants to be fed, and when it is not satisfied (and generally its way of being is one of complete dissatisfaction) - it tends to resort to incessant and loud detailing of the innumerable wrongs it has endured in its constant hunger.

“Yes, yes, beast.” I try to pet it now, “I know, you are never satisfied.”

"Pug Dog" image provided by Alex Brown 
It seems even the wisest of dogs will occasionally be unable to resist eating so much that it throws up the very visible remainder of last night’s dinner in a heap on the carpet. The dog isn’t bad, it just couldn’t resist the pull to eat food. I hope I’m not all bad, and yet I must acknowledge that it is only by a great deal of effort and also by moments of Grace that I am able to resist the ever-toxic and ever-alluring pull towards defending my self-importance.

“I know, beast,” I tell it,  “You want someone to tell you you are wonderful." And so on, like this:

There, there beast. I tell you all the time but you do not listen. You do not know what is good for you and you insist on eating the food that you are going to throw up hours later, all over the carpet. 

Silly beast, you always want the very praise that makes you sick.
Come here, you poor little depraved thing. You are okay.
I won’t let you go, little wretch. 

Look at you; fur matted and half of you covered with mange, still begging to be pet; still looking startled when I come close, as if you fear I would hurt you. You are either too dumb or too stubborn or too much of an animal to hear what has been said to you all along:

Listen: You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.

"Ugly Dog" by Nick Thompson
Even in your ignorant tunnel vision, even in your seeming incapacity for refraining from your endless measuring, tallying, hoarding, envying, and worrying over the measurement and shoring up of constant abundance; you are endlessly worthy of this close connection, and how could you ever doubt that when you will approach in earnest, someone who loves you will forever be ready to reach out a hand to scratch you behind your ears? How can you doubt that when you roll over with your vulnerable belly to be scratched, a hand will be there to meet you and let you know that you live in a space that is loving and communal?

It’s all we want, isn’t it? 

Communion: From the Latin, meaning mutual participation. Meaning, the  act or instance of sharing, as of thoughts or feelings. Meaning also, the sacrament by which the elements of God are received by a congregation. Congregation: the gathering of two or more people in the name of all that is seen and unseen at the deepest level of our longing, in observation of the sacred wound which is inseparable from everlasting hope.

I used to say in church, in complete ignorance of the meaning of my words at seven years old when I was clasping the hands of my grandparents on either side, “I am not worthy to receive, but say the word, and I shall be healed.”

So listen, beast: you are beautiful, blind little thing, in your desperate gnawing at that which is freely given. You want more than anything, with your twisted, small, and jealous heart, to be reminded over and over of the truth. 

O pathetic creature, I want to extend to you now my compassion. I am sorry that someone stole from you once, and I am sorry that they whispered to you in your moments of greatest and most trusting vulnerability - when you were at your best, feeling lowest! - some indication that the way to survive was this: doubt everything, trust no one, and hoard what you can until the inevitable end of all life.

O helpless creature, you are so fallen that you doubt the endurance of your very life.
When did you stop knowing what you are?
Don’t you realize - of course you don’t or you would not behave this way - that you have within you a connection to all that is eternal, to all that is, ever was, or will be? 

In light of this realization, you would have a sense of how ridiculous your posturing is. 

But we never know our blind spots until we rise above them and look, and we never rise above them except in the presence of Grace, that overwhelming knowing that begins only at the end of all that makes sense.

It is the thing that makes our mouths fall open at sunsets and babies and unexpected acts of kindness by strangers, and also at the senseless suffering of children, and a burgeoning awareness at the way the children we once were have been - almost, but not yet, systematically destroyed.

Come here, little beast. Sit with me awhile. You will not eat me up, you are so blatant in your needs. Come, and let me pat with my hands, the quivering tension of your trembling body. You never outgrow your infant hunger, do you? 

Sorry, beast. I don’t have any food for you now. We ate it all, remember? We feasted on shame, and on a warehouse of mistakes and wrongs we’d been storing up - were we afraid, somehow that we would run out? We have indulged in orgies of tears and in wild flights of panic. It’s gone now.

But I will sit with you in silence, and we can look and see what comes. And when it comes I know you will startle with its arrival, and spring into action as you must always do, and then my hand will be here, and we will breathe together and take it in, and you will stay hungry and I will stay open, with my beautiful and hopeless beast beside me, hoping still.

And in this silence comes the music of all that is made to dance.

Perhaps I have given the dog and other beastly-seeming creatures short shrift with my crude metaphor.  As Rohr reminds, dogs tend to often be better models of acceptance of their divine place than are people. He observes, “We’re the only ones who deprive ourself of essential ecstasy,” and goes onto offer this illustration:
“Dogs don’t stop the ecstasy. You get tired of them jumping up and licking you, but they don’t. It’s pure, unadulterated, fascinated enjoyment being a dog, apparently. And then most of them just lie down one day and die. No drama. The dog doesn’t question reality. It doesn’t anguish in existential malaise, beating its paws in the dirt and asking, Why aren’t I a duck? Apparently, dogs just like being dogs, mulberry trees like being mulberry trees, and bees like doing what bees do; the red snapper does not mind if we name her “red snapper,” although surely she knows her real name. All things give glory to God just by being what they are.”
Funny, how it is so difficult to acknowledge this small weak presence within myself that I resort to metaphor, and even the tool of my metaphor falls apart, for when I compare the “beast” to a needy dog, I miss the point: the dog is generally more at home in admission of and being within his own needs and vulnerabilities than I am. 

Even the broken, abused dog, needs only to find a small, vulnerable creature to love an protect in order to calm itself away from its own tortured and warped reactions to pain.

On the night that I am first drafting this reflection, I come across a video posted on Facebook, highlighting an incredible affinity between a formerly abused dog and a child it wants to protect. They do little together but sleep and nap. They wage no campaigns against the former abuse. They craft no knowing testimonies of survival. Mainly, as far as I can observe from the video, they hold on, and rest in a place where they can sleep, pressed closely together in an intimate embrace. 

For to know God in the triunal sense that Rohr explores is not to trust in an abstract idea, but in the recollection of a deep and intimate dance between the divine source and its fleshly and imperfect incarnations, in all of their flawed and beastly forms. 

He calls to mind these lines from Theodore Roethke’s “The Rose.”
Near this rose, in this grove of sun-parched, wind-warped madras, 
Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself, 
As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being, 
And I stood outside myself, 
Beyond becoming and perishing, 
A something wholly other, 
As if swayed out on the wildest wave alive, 
And yet was still. 
And I rejoiced in being what I wasn’t.

"Desert Rose" by gomagoti
Perhaps it is not possible to dance, except by complete surrender - first to the silence of the frightened beast who can finally accept being loved, long enough to sleep - and then to a music beyond what can be seen and understood. In order to be able to do this, perhaps it is necessary to lovingly acknowledge the countless weaknesses that crave artificial certainty over divine flow, who would rather gaze endlessly at the watery pool of its own small reflection, than endlessly up at the wonder of all that may be - and take it in, arms splayed out, spinning, growing dizzy with the joy of a child at the exhilaration of dancing and falling at once.