Striking the Match of Faith

The song ‘Lantern’ is a bit of Josh Ritter at his best: exuberant, defiant and hopeful in the face of world-weariness with lyrics packed with turns of phrase and strong images that burst into an eminently singable, and yearning, refrain. It is also one of the clearest rejections of a faith in a transcendent God, a theme of Ritter’s songwriting throughout his career.

The central image here is of light, as a lantern that we hold up for each other to light our way in a dark and difficult world. It could be a call to human community, to the kind of support I might think is a central point of a community of faith. It could even be a call to God to provide the light for our lives. But it is neither. Here is the rejection of faith: that the light in the lantern doesn’t have a source other than one another or, more specifically–and annoyingly in my opinion–one another in erotic relationship. The exuberant yearning of the refrain is a call to a lover to “Be the light of my lantern, the light of my lantern, be the light. Be the light of my lantern, the light of my lantern, tonight.” Later that call will become a little more explicitly so in one of the more delightful turns in the song.

“So throw away those lamentations
We both know them all too well
If there’s a book of Jubilations
We’ll have to write it for ourselves
So come and lie beside me darling
And let’s write it while we still got time”

You can barely argue with songwriting like that. But I will.

I will because, while the strength of the song almost convinces, we all know in the wider view of things erotic relationships are hardly comprehensive answers to the oft-felt bleakness of the world. I wish for a stronger vision.

The most pointed line of the song however, the point of the song where this rejection comes clearest, is the line that for me turns the song on its head. “Tell me what’s the point of light/That you have to strike a match to find?” It’s clearly a rhetorical question confident that the apparent absurdity will carry the weight of the implied conclusion. The lines before provide the context,

For every cry in the night
Somebody says, “Have faith!”
“Be content inside your questions”
“Minotaurs inside a maze”
Tell me what’s the point of light
That you have to strike a match to find?

The implied answer is, of course, that that sort of light would not be a light at all. If we have to strike a match of faith to find the light of God then what is the point/power of that light in the first place? Doesn’t it suggest that the light we might find is of our own devising anyway? If so, it might seem that the match of erotic love might indeed be one of the few remaining options in a dark world.

There is though a delicious irony in that rhetorical question because the answer that it contains for me is not the one intended. The point of light that you have to strike a match to find is precisely that you have to strike the match! There is something good and crucial to the experience of God that it requires something of us in order to experience. There is goodness in having to strike the match to see the light even apart from the simple fact of the image, that to strike a match is to create light.

I think this works on three mutually reaffirming levels. The first is on the level of the epistemological truth that to see well requires a certain disposition or posture. To know involves something very much like love, that you love what is to be known. The second is on the level of the psychological truth that a trust in the presence of goodness in this world creates the psychological space that allows for our creation of goodness in this world. The third is on the level of the theological truth that the light of God in this world is a call to each of us that we strike the match of ourselves in answer. God’s presence in the world as Creator and Redeemer requires an inner movement of heart or a certain inner orientation to see and to answer in ourselves in action

This image of striking the match evokes personal engagement with the world, it implies a striving to see, a striving to find light wherever it may be found. This idea introduces an ethical component to the problem of faith. To have faith or to desire to have faith, which is a desire to see God in the world, is to allow oneself to come under the call of the world as it is, to see and feel the light of the goodness of God’s created world that is all around us and the brokenness and darkness that is here also.

I want to be clear and gentle here. It is true that often the experience of faith does feel as absurd as the question: that we strike the match well before seeing the light of God at all. Or sometimes even more darkly it may feel that we spend our lives striking the match of ourselves without ever being lit from without. The answer of faith for me is that it is not even then an empty gesture. It is a series of gestures rich with the mystery of human agency, rich with the human power of meaning-making, with the complexity that makes up our ethical life. In theological terms it is a gesture rich with the image of God in us and all that this means for our lives. One might think here, tentatively, of the apparent struggles of Mother Teresa along these lines.

In this way the the image of striking a match becomes a very good metaphor for a life of faith from one perspective. Faith becomes a series of embodied decisions, it becomes a series of ethical choices, it becomes a striving to have faith. It means for some of us that we choose to see the light around us more than we see the darkness and for others it may mean the reverse.

In this context the best of the song ‘Lantern’ comes at the end in a sort of bridge section that is worth posting in its entirety.

“So if you got a light, hold it high for me
I need it bad tonight, hold it high for me
Cause I’m face to face, hold it high for me
In that lonesome place, hold it high for me
With all the hurt that I’ve done, hold it high for me
That can’t be undone, hold it high for me
Light and guide me through, hold it high for me
I’ll do the same for you, hold it high for me

I’ll hold it high for you, ’cause I know you’ve got
I’ll hold it high for you, your own valley to walk
I’ll hold it high for you, though it’s dark as death
I’ll hold it high for you, and then gets darker yet
I’ll hold it high for you, though your path seems lost
I’ll hold it high for you, through the thieves and rocks
I’ll hold it high for you, keep you safe from harm
I’ll hold it high for you, until you’re back in my arms”

It is possible, as it almost always is with Ritter, to hear this song otherwise, that is to hear it ascribed with meaning that he did not intend. And it is easiest in these two stanzas to hear the lantern as that call to a human community of faith and support where we do hold our faith together, holding up the light of faith for each other in our respective journeys. This is another crucial element in a life of faith, an element that we all need to experience, embodied in liturgy, experienced in prayer and expressed sometimes in letters and notes and spoken words one to another.

Some days you may even be able to hear the lantern as a prayer to the Holy Spirit for the sight to see our way.

So, when those lyrical lines heavy with turns of phrase burst into the refrains I often find myself wholeheartedly singing along, “Be the light of the lantern, the light of my lantern, be the light.”

Amen.

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Peter said to Paul: A series of upbuilding discourses on Josh Ritter

Hi folks,

How can you tell I miss school?
Answer: by a title/subtitle combo like this one.

I need to write. I’ve come again to the long-needed conclusion that even if my words are not read by many or even just not that good, the work that I do in writing brings me life and makes me live the rest of my life with better focus and energy. So I’m picking something with no specific utility but that I’ve long had in my mind to write.

Many years ago, somewhere in between 2002 and 2004 I went to a Sarah Harmer concert in Calgary with Steven and Rhonda Bill. Someone named Josh Ritter opened for her and the first sung lyrics out of his mouth were, “Peter said to Paul, ‘you know all those words we wrote are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go.'” I remember all three of us looking at each other as if to say, “Peter and Paul? as in that Peter and that Paul?” We leaned forward a little bit and the rest, as they say, is history.

The songwriting and the connection with the audience that Ritter demonstrated that night had us all hooked and when I say ‘all’ I mean everyone in the Jack Singer Concert Hall. I think it might have been for the encore or it might have been 3/4 of the way through the concert as the band took a break but either way, as the lights were turned down, Josh stepped to the very front of the stage unplugged, said “This one’s for Johnny Cash,” and into the expectant silent space of the concert hall sang Lawrence, Kansas.

“South of Delia there’s a patch out back by the willow trees/And I can’t leave this world behind/It’s a fenced in piece of nothing where I hear voices on my knees/And I can’t leave this world behind.”

So, I’ve been a fan.

I have no full plan for the following set of essays, thus the rather broad subtitle.  I  hope to think a little about artistic openness, doubt and faith and our economic life.  And I plan on using Ritter’s lyrics as a jumping off point to explore some of these things rather than focusing on his career as a topic in itself so as to hopefully still be profitable for those of you who might be totally unfamiliar with him.

We will see what comes! Do stay tuned.

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I am at peace: a summer of great gladness

It has been a year; a year since what was for me a summer of great sadness. Reading that post again I find my eyes begin to brim with tears but now for all the right reasons. Great gifts have been given.

This, this has been my late summer of great gladness.

And it is that vision, that was so tenuously held then, of freedom of heart, that has indeed been enlarged and that has indeed–wonder of all wonders, joy of all joys–born its own fruit.

This has been a late summer of great gladness. This gladness has been deep within me everywhere I go. It bubbles to the surface in the form of tears…lots and lots of glad tears. Grateful tears. Tears full of goodness. Let me explain…I tear up and weep whenever I encounter, or get a hint of, hit of, whiff of, real, difficult, splendid, deep LIFE. Whether it is witnessing this in the journey of someone else or reading about it in a book or seeing it in a particularly good film or experiencing it myself, whenever the depths are entered I tear up. For the past few weeks, about two months, I have been witness to a great goodness. I’m not saying it quite right. I have come close to a Great Goodness, approached a precipice high above an ocean of goodness so deep it could take a lifetime to understand, stepped onto ground so good I ought to spend each day barefoot. But instead I just weep, fairly frequently: in an evening painting session alone I sense a common vision of life in the music of a band I have just been introduced to and end up on my knees, forehead to painting pole, weeping; early in the morning standing at my bedroom window looking down onto 1st Avenue wet and shining in the streetlights as the rain comes gloriously pounding down, so needed and refreshing, I weep and can’t get back to sleep for another hour for the pounding of my heart; or that previous day’s hours across the table listening, and talking and sharing and nodding my head–and saying, “yes, yes, yes indeed, that is the way it is, that is the way it should be, this is my heart and my mind, this is my history, I hear yours, thank you, I see you, I wish to see you better, always, always better and better yet”–while the tears brim and glitter and fall, brim and glitter and fall, brim and gli….you get the picture, yes? Lots and lots of glad, grateful and good tears. I have never, ever, wept so many good tears all in a row, all in bunches.

“I would like to be free, free to love well.”

This has been the task of the last year and will remain the task for life as it is for all of us in one way or another. The rigidity and pattern of addiction has been broken open and I have fought hard for freedom of heart and have, in some important measure, found it.

These things are such a mystery. The experience of writing my post last year was important. It represented valuable processing and realizations and good inner work that was accomplished. But it was nowhere close to what was needed until a friend of mine pinned me to the wall with a comment on that post, skewered me in a brief text conversation the next morning, for what he rightly saw as my remaining enthrallment to the whole tangled mess. Speaking from his own experience, he told me in no uncertain terms what was needed and broke my heart open with the truth of it. My own post changed in my subsequent reading, becoming more the truth it tried to express. And that day I took irrevocable steps to introduce the distance that was required, I refused my heart when it was asked for and the cascade effect was absolutely remarkable. Instead of mere sadness, what came erupting finally forth was anger. What a cleansing, freeing, revitalizing force anger can be sometimes! It flowed down channels long dammed up, awakening parts of me that had long been dormant and cut through the connections that addiction had created: no longer the endlessly extended benefit of the doubt, no longer the extended excuses or the need to defend. In anger I became my own again. It was a bit dicy there for a few days: I was raw and wide open and anger flowed in all directions finding unfortunate bystanders, like my blessed parents, to express itself on. But it was the true beginning of the end.

Dave, thanks.

“A few times this summer and a couple in the last week I have felt a quietening of my heart through this sadness, a kind of enlargement and rootedness or presentness of heart through this experience of sadness.”

“Loneliness, when it passes through love, assumes an expansiveness and active capacity.”
-Christian Wiman, from ‘Sorrow’s Flower’ in My Bright Abyss.

“[Love] is the growing together in intimacy of two solitudes. Two solitudes that in relating each other to each other make a positive third in intimacy. [To be honest, that last line I write in private jest to a few who will smile at the reference, but the reference works no? A relationship that makes a negative third describes relational addiction rather precisely I think but a relationship wherein the relation relates itself to something outside itself relates itself to a positive third and then triumphantly ‘it rests transparently in the power that establishes it.’ This is love; this is the kind of love that builds communities.]”

There is always a third involved in a relationship between two people. We could call this third the reality of the bond itself; it is the character, patterns and history of that bond. What each person in the relationship expects and believes about relationships and the subsequent choices made will create the character of that third. This is perhaps most easily seen in the context of marriage because we have this prior idea of marriage as an institution, and a covenant, so we can imagine it having an existence that is subtly separate from the two people involved. But I think it is as true in the context of friendship as well. What is expected and what is understood as possible within a friendship goes a long way to forming the character of a third between two friends that is undeniable. [As an aside, C.S. Lewis on friendship in The Four Loves is immensely helpful in this regard, to explore a robust view of friendship in all its potential.]

Relational addiction is a relationship whose very connection, that third element that exists between the two, becomes more important than either of the two people involved, a connection that relates itself to itself and attempts to establish itself in anxiety, in need and in a sort of despair. It admits to nothing significant outside itself, drawing everything into itself like a black hole. This is a relationship that in seeking to establish itself by itself creates a negative third.

But a positive third describes the sort of relationship whose connection is based in freedom of heart, in healthy self-possession for each individual and in a meeting of hearts in trust. This kind of relationship always reaches outside itself for greater context, for support and in order to move out from itself into the world. There is this double movement out into the world and back into itself, drawing the world into itself. But this relation does not draw all in for its own need, instead it draws out of delight, in order to celebrate everything in the energy and goodness created in this freedom in the meetings of hearts. “It always protects, always trusts, always perseveres.”

And the wisest of these loves, are those who “in relating itself to itself, and in willing to be itself, rest transparently in the power that establishes it.” In explicit Christian terms these loves seek to welcome God into the heart of the relationship, to invite God to become the very third that connects the two individuals, the two solitudes that grow together in intimacy. This movement, this reliance on something exterior to the relationship that becomes its very heart is what protects the space in which two solitudes meet. It preserves the beloved from collapsing into the identity of the lover, preserving and protecting the freedom of heart that is so foundational to the joy and strength of this kind of relationship.

This is the kind of love that has the strength and energy to build communities, whether in the form of a marriage or in the form of the many different kinds of friendship. Indeed, and this is the kind of love that I am after, and that I taste in this great goodness, a mere drop of a dram on my tongue that is enough for now.

“I only know that I did not know what love was until I encountered one that kept opening and opening and opening. And until I acknowledged that what that love was opening onto, and into, was God.”
-Christian Wiman from ‘Sorrow’s Flower’ in My Bright Abyss.

I feel compelled to write, as an aside, what many of my readers would already know. This presence of God as the positive third in a relationship is not accomplished by any one action or move such as family prayers or a Christian wedding. It certainly does not happen on its own just because the two in question call themselves Christians or go to church regularly. It is as difficult as actually being a Christian, which is to say both very difficult and within the reach of anyone. It matters also what kind of God to which you believe you bow, because in some versions of what is claimed as Christian faith bowing does not adequately describe the movement made.

In other words, the movement of submission and reverence before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ always includes a posture of submission to the reality and dignity of the other person as an other, as well as the dignity of all others. The practiced presence of God and submission to God, in a marriage or in a friendship, ensures that the beloved does not become collapsed into the identity of the ‘I’ that believes itself to love. It is to join with God in protecting the dignity and rightful solitude of the other in love. To love with God as the positive third is to refuse to be threatened by the robust and separate inner life of the other person but instead to take great delight in nurturing that inner life, a life in which you know you can never fully take part. To preserve that space in which the beloved is separate from you, one has to nurture in prayer that space in which you are also separate, not in selfishness, but in loving submission before and dependence on God, and God in community, for the sake of the beloved and the freedom on which you depend. This submission before God is a submission to the love of God for you, it is submission to who you are before God in your belovedness, submission to and gratitude for “your creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life.” This, to state it unequivocally once again, preserves the space in which freedom of hearts blossom into intimacy. Let it be so!

[A large part of the above follows the thought of Soren Kierkegaard in Works of Love and Sickness unto Death without using his categories in a strict manner.  I feel justified in doing so, because the thoughts are found also in many other reflections on the nature of relationships. Perhaps though, given some encouragement, I will write a full post about these things in a more strict exposition of S.K.’s thought around the command, “You shall love your neighbour, as yourself.]

“Blessed mysterious process,
to turn one thing into another,
or rather,
tilled and tended, crushed, fermented and matured
to become more perfectly itself;
becoming more perfectly yourselves
grape to glass, two to two in unity,
one flesh in two, and with God’s Spirit, trinity.”
-a fragment of a wedding poem I wrote for friends this summer.

Prayer remains vital, in all its forms. And the sort of contemplative prayer I described in my post a year ago remains to be practiced more regularly and more fully. It is difficult. It is necessary. The greater depth I can attain in those ways, and the more expansive that this intimate cavern deep within becomes, the better I will be able to enter into this goodness and the more fully I can live with “a settledness and a presentness to the world that is my deep joy.”

This is the point, the whole point of this post.

This whole experience, this whole year of counselling appointments, of raw anger and vital prayer, of extended periods of dryness no doubt belying work deep within(Christ ripping out the mess in the garden of my soul, the taproots and runners of addiction and anxiety) has resulted in this: an openness to this experience of mutual respect and trust, of a shared language of relationships and values, of a common desire of heart and of life that has been so incredibly profound so as to move forth in gratitude and erupt in giddiness. Giddiness. And gratitude owed to the One who has given a great gift and in whom we rest as he establishes us, forming himself as the very bond of our love.

“But for as long as we can live in this sacred space of receiving and releasing, and can learn to speak and be love’s fluency, then the greater love that is God brings a continuous and enlarging air into our existence.”
-Christian Wiman from ‘Sorrow’s Flower’ in My Bright Abyss.

I do not mean, in all of this, and in all the Wiman quotes, to claim more for this great goodness than I ought, or certainly to claim for myself success in all of these movements. Wiman intends to speak of loves that have withstood greater tests than we have thus far. There is much work remaining to live into the fullness of this vision, the continuous work for a lifetime as it always is. But I do say, unequivocally, that this is the fullness a hint of which I have tasted, the merest drop of a dram that holds promise for much, much more.

So I’ll sing with Karin without the least bit of irony…
“We’ve seen the landfill rainbow, we’ve seen the junkyard of love. Baby, it’s no place for you and me. I was born to laugh, I learned to laugh through my tears. I was born to love. I’m gonna learn to love without fear.”

…And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.”
– ‘Peace” GM Hopkins

I am–wondrously–at peace.

 

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I am not at peace, but I will be.

I am not at peace but I will be.

This summer has been the summer of great sadness. This great sadness has been deep within me everywhere I go. It has described most of every day. Every so often bubbles of this sadness will rise gently to the surface and break the skin of me: a contortion of the face, the makings of a sob, maybe a tear or two and just like that it passes to remain in the depths. I have been just…so…sad.

Last week, the depths were stirred. The bubbles have risen more often since, the ache of the sadness has been stronger, eclipsing, on some days, nearly everything else.

This sadness has to do with a feeling of inevitability, inevitable loss and inevitable pain caused to another whom I love. It is my inability to do what a part of me would want to do. It is the feeling of inevitable loss and my powerlessness to hold that loss at bay. If this was all there was to the experience of this sadness it might have dissipated by now, but it also contains a little mixture of guilt and an almost equal feeling of inevitable continuation. For the past couple years I have lived this same loss over and over and over and over again: many times in actuality, hundreds of times in virtual emotional preparation that yet takes its psychic toll. An inevitable continuation of inevitable loss. A great sadness.

There is a motif in Louis L’Amour westerns that is a favourite of mine; the motif of the hidden valley. I suppose the motif is there in almost every story in one way or another. It is the retreat or reprieve right before the final drive towards the climax, the final battle. It is where the hero recovers strength. In Louis L’Amour stories it happens that the beaten and bleeding hero of the story left to die out in the hills finds his way to a perfect little valley hidden from almost every angle. It always contains a fresh stream. Here, in a small grove of trees beside the meadow our hero mends his wounds. Here, he gradually grows stronger with every passing day until he is stronger and wiser than before, ready then to reenter the struggle, the virtuous fight.

I want to stumble into a hidden valley. I need a hidden valley of my own. I am beaten and bleeding.

I have worked for three years in one way or another to get back into a community living situation; worked explicitly to build a new community house now for 9 months. It is nowhere to be seen. Unless the Lord builds this house…

…we labour in vain. All things considered I shouldn’t quite complain yet. By all accounts this kind of thing is difficult, difficult to do well, and the challenges we face in this neighbourhood are large. And so, I take a step back and wait. Wait and trust. Unless the Lord builds.

An inevitable continuation of inevitable loss. Inevitability. A pattern of control and anxiety. I think the other word for this is addiction. I am addicted to this uncertainty. No, I am addicted to this particular kind of experience of loving and being loved, but uncertainty was folded up within this experience right from the beginning. And now I can’t separate the love from the addiction from the uncertainty. Or I haven’t been able to, yet.

I have known myself as addicted for a while and have been doing something about it for far less time. Every once in a blue instant I glimpse the possibility of freedom of heart, to be able to love freely and I thrill at the vision even as it fades and clouds over with this sadness. My counsellor tells me that the task is to first believe in this vision and then fight to enlarge it, to hold it from fading just a couple moments longer each time. The next task is to act as if the vision is true, to not return to the rut, but turn the wheel against the side and rev the engine. I don’t care if the new track is parallel to the old rut. It just has to be new.

“When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.”   ‘Peace” GM Hopkins

When indeed? I am not at peace, but I will be. I have indeed felt the slow flex of some new power, the gradual coalescing of a new potential to live an old vision. It accompanies this vision of freedom of heart and it carries a promise of peace. And to be sure this vision comes with work to do. Freedom of any kind always carries with it so much more potential, so much more of reality. Freedom of heart takes the energy put into it and gives it back a hundredfold.

I would like to be free, free to love well.

Barbara Brown Taylor asks, “Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape” and gives this answer, “someone in deep need of a blessing, someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound.”

The blessing that follows the wound. The beauty of the phrase alone would make me want to hold on, to grip and not let go. But what is that blessing and what wound?

A few times this summer and a couple in the last week I have felt a quietening of my heart through this sadness, a kind of enlargement and rootedness or presentness of heart through this experience of sadness. It the realization from within the sadness that I am still here and my heart is still warm and living. And during these times of quietening I have been able to simply be with the person in front of me in a way unrelated to my normal anxieties. What a joy!

The poet Christian Wiman ends his poem ‘Lord is not a word’ with these lines, “Lord, suffer me to sing these wounds by which I am made and marred. Savor this creature whose aloneness you ease and are.”

The beauty of the lines alone have made it possible to know the same experience in my own heart: to have the reality of my own wounds settle my spirit into the present moment. Jesus, savor this creature whose aloneness you ease and are. If I can follow this sadness, this woundedness straight into the heart of God, to experience my aloneness and turn it into a deep place of solitude wherein I meet with God, then I find the blessing that follows the wound.  “The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.”

“Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” -Rilke

Though I now know enough about Rilke’s own choices in this regard to think that we might actually be after very different visions of love, I still find this famous line useful. This is what I’ve been after at times in all my uncertainty and it is certainly what I’m after now. It is the growing together in intimacy of two solitudes. Two solitudes that in relating each other to each other make a positive third in intimacy. [To be honest, that last line I write in private jest to a few who will smile at the reference, but the reference works no? A relationship that makes a negative third describes relational addiction rather precisely I think but a relationship wherein the relation relates itself to something outside itself relates itself to a positive third and then triumphantly ‘it rests transparently in the power that establishes it.’ This is love; this is the kind of love that builds communities.]

I am beaten and bleeding. Nevermind that in one way or another, a lot of my bruises and wounds are mostly self-inflicted. I have done my own beating but I have also clearly made others to bleed. But I am going to take this wound made in the grip that would not let go and find the blessing. I am going to savor and let God savor this aloneness and let it grow into a solitude from which I may meet others.

I have always been grateful for a sense of time and the temporal room it provides for new experiences, for growth, for a change of heart. I am so again. As I have said elsewhere, “I am privileged to dwell with a grace that will always hold out the future as a gift of time and opportunity to grow no matter how often I fail, or retreat, or mis-choose.” This is part of the gift of Christian hope. A hope for the future. A hope and a future. I often think that Christian hope is such that is carries within it a little bit of that future, is powerful enough to make that future present.

But recently I was challenged by a strange and wonderful Brazilian writer to see another side of hope, one that should be rejected. In The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector has her character G.H. say, “Hope was for me postponement. I had never let my soul free…I had so little faith that I had invented merely the future, I believed so little in whatever exists that I was delaying the present for a promise and for a future….[Hope] is fear. Since relinquishing hope means that I shall have to start living and not just promise myself life. And this is the greatest fright I can have. I used to hope. But the God is today, his kingdom already began.”

I think this can definitely describe a way that hope or wishful thinking can operate in our lives and I think it may describe also how some Christians operate as well. One of my favourite things is reading authors that subvert or invert, or otherwise play with, Christian concepts and words. I find much in Clarice that I may disagree with but she does us so much good to knock about our relationship to the word ‘hope’. What she is after is an experience of the present, an experience of the world as it is, a joy that is not always deferred to the next thing or to the kingdom come.

If we pay the best sort of attention to the world around us we may find that it contains so much life for us. And yet this sort of attention can also, I think, lead us back to a more robust Christian hope for the redemption of all things.

The books ends with among other things these lines, “I was approaching the most powerful thing that had ever happened to me. More powerful than hope, more powerful than love? I was approaching something I think was–trust.”

Beautiful: trust in the Creator God and the stuff of his world all around.

This connects with my belief that life is big enough to overwhelm the effect of any limitation. I have most often thought of this recently in relation to my food allergies. Though I don’t always do a very good job of it, I want to continue to celebrate those wonderful things like beer and bread that I can’t have.  I can do this in part because the foods that are still left to me like wine and steak are themselves enough, certainly. And if all taste were taken from me, there still would be sight and if sight than still the wonder of touch. I can pine and long and stamp my three year old foot demanding to taste without consequence the satisfying complexity of a beer or I can simply take and rejoice in the other wonders that are offered to me. I think this in part describes sainthood and I am not a saint. I fail badly in this but it doesn’t make it less true.

In every situation no matter the lack, LIFE is there to overflow the boundaries of our senses and our spirits. Life opens itself in the presence of love and every situation opens to us an opportunity to love. See that? In every moment we can choose to trust and love what is present to us, and this love will open the world to us.

This kind of thing requires the discipline of self-knowledge. A couple of years ago I came to find it helpful to distinguish between self-awareness and self-knowledge. The first describes someone who can be acutely aware of his emotional life, the power and arc of those emotions and how those emotions affect the world around him and yet not see the root or reason of those emotions. The second one describes a person who has a measure of intimate understanding of those roots or reasons, the patterns and cycles of her emotions, the why as well as the what. This can lead to making choices based on knowledge of her whole emotional life instead of on the power of whichever emotion is merely present in that moment. A measure of self-discipline is needed to move from self-awareness to self-knowledge.

To be sure this self-knowledge is not dispassionate. It is precisely the passion for life, for truth, for honest love that drives this desire for self-knowledge.

“Calm heart, peace
Let calm to courage bloom
Feel heart’s movement, trace
It’s comings and goings, make room
All to enter, all to go;
Touch contours, crumbling edges
Then take and test, test your
Claimed love.”

I am still addicted. That much is clear. Even after all this processing and writing, all this truth and glory, I am still waiting for something, for that crisis that will return me to the measure of ‘equilibrium’ that my mind associates with this addiction. But I have a secret measure, a secret tool that I use to wrestle my mind away from that awful false equilibrium and return it to the messy open reality that I long to adore. That measure is prayer.

Prayer is to return through the wound to that place of aloneness deep within. For a long time now prayer has meant a return to that great sadness. As I count backward from ten, which is my way of moving down through the layers of myself, I always feel the approach of the number two, and where it represents in my spirit, with a mounting sense of discomfort. And in the transition from 2 to 1 I enter that space with a piercing sadness which only dissipates if I’m able to stay at 1 for longer than a few moments. Then the sadness drifts away and I am alone with myself at the feet of Christ.  This lasts approximately four-point-two seconds, for I am not a saint. But most days that is simply enough to come away with a settledness and a presentness to the world that is my deep joy.  It also helps if I eat right.

I wish to be able to be present to and to love freely whomever is placed in front of me without my usual triangulated anxieties. I hear God’s voice to me saying that this is my birthright, this is my own place, my own calling, my vocation. It begins and ends and lives by that deep place of solitude that I find in prayer and the joy in being present to the world as it is that this prayer engenders. There I find my own hidden valley. There I find myself within the beautiful image given to me by a friend in prayer : a rocky bouldered highland pasture lightly bordered by a rising fog through which I walk content in solitude. In this image the drive to fuse myself with another, to find myself in another’s gaze, begins to fall away and the desire for intimacy begins to look very different, it begins to look a lot like a beautiful exercise of freedom. Yes, yes please.

So I’ll take sweet Pieta Brown’s song, make it my own and point it, full of irony, in the direction of the whole world. “You can take all night, you could take all day but you can’t take, baby, my love away. You can tell stories, you can tell lies, cause I’ve seen you, baby, in all your disguises. No, you can’t take my love, away. Some love is for sometimes, this love is true. I guess that means baby, we’ll never be through. No you can’t take my love, you can’t take my love, away.

I am not at peace, but I will be.

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Beginning a Lenten Observance: On a 33 birthday

I am turning thirty-three in two days. This seems absurd. Not connected with this fact until yesterday has been my experience of a small downward spiral in the last few weeks. I will try not to list the details of my situation beyond the basics; I am without job or career, family or household community. That’s the situation ‘outside’, while ‘inside’ I careen in and out of feelings of despair and uselessness with moments of panic and large swaths of doing anything else but addressing where I am.

It is Lent 2014. I am not succeeding in the lenten practices I chose a few weeks ago but the thing with Lent is that it remains to be observed for any remaining time at all.  And so, I begin again…

…with this further practice. I am going to read–and write about that experience of reading–‘Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing’. I have read a good amount of Soren Kierkegaard, probably around half or a little more of his literary output, but I have not yet read this one little ‘upbuilding discourse.’

I am going to read this little book over the next few days, probably finishing it on my birthday at some location outside of the city in retreat.  And I will write my experience of reading this book in my current state. I am not sure I will agree with Kierkegaard over the spiritual life anymore but I am sure that reading will stir up a good deal of stuff in my inner life. The aim here is to get the shit stirred up and flying about. Perhaps then, I can start again. For the thousandth time.

I do not know if I have any readers that might still get a notification that I have, miracle upon miracles, posted something on this blog again.  If I do not then that’s fine I will do with the illusion of a reader…

…perhaps even that single individual .

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The Sunset with Gibbie: Freedom

This essay first appeared in Regent College’s student paper, the Etcetera, November 15, 2011. 

—-

Into the silence, which was also at times a roar, of my thoughts and questions forever returning to myself to search there for an explanation of my life and its purpose, into this concentrated tiny hub of dense silent noise, came the cackle of a hen from a nearby back garden, and at that moment that cackle, its distinct sharp-edge existence beneath a blue sky with white clouds, induced in me an intense awareness of freedom.” – from ‘Field’ by John Berger

In 1971 author and art critic John Berger wrote a strange little piece entitled Field which explores an experience which he thinks is universal and recognizable by all. My opening quote describes one example of the experience of mundane particularities that provide a sense of freedom or happiness. He describes other contexts in which it happens: being sung to sleep, lazily observing a field across the road or being caught at a train-crossing for a few moments in order to observe what happens in the field that is formed on two sides by the road and the rail-line. In each case there is a minimum amount of order that occupies the mind, just enough to provide a context in which an event takes place that itself brings attention to that context.

Berger sketches the physical context in which this experience is most likely to happen as a lightly bounded grass field with, “an attendant openness to events.” He claims that “the experience does not enter into the narrative of your life…on the contrary, this narrative is interrupted. The visible extension of the field in space displaces awareness of your own lived time.” Searching for a way that this is accomplished, Berger writes, in his last couple of lines, that “Suddenly an experience of disinterested observation opens in its centre and gives birth to a happiness which is instantly recognizable as your own. The field that you are standing before appears to have the same proportions as your own life.”

After years of puzzling over this little essay I have come to think that what is happening here is the reverse of what might be suggested in Berger’s last line. The field appears to have the same proportions as your own life because the experience of one’s own life is changed. It takes on, or is supplanted by, the proportions of the field. Instead of the “dense silent noise” of the reduced narrative that is always playing, there is a lightly bounded space that is open at the edges to new events. The self-referentiality of our individual narratives is broken, to be subsumed by the field before which we stand.

This is the same reversal of belonging that I felt in the presence of Gibbie and the sunset last year on Galiano Island. This reversal, in which the scene suddenly reaches through our field of perception and claims us as its own, results in an experience of freedom. It tells us something true about our actual relationship to the world around us. In the same way that a momentary forgetting can help me see what is really there, so this kind of experience can help me see the truth that I belong to the context of each day. If this is so, there is no work to be done to justify my existence.

Simply put, when the ego meets with the reality of the particular, it’s strategies to maintain its own existence seem laughable. When we meet with the truth of that belonging, this pursuit is dissolved into an experience of a place in which to live and grow in a world much bigger than our constricting anxieties.

We can all assent to these things intellectually – of course we belong to a greater reality, of course we exist – but an experience of it is another thing entirely. It brings that truth into our heart and our gut and our body. The experience of the ‘field’ provides a discernible structure out of which particularity and freedom are born.

Such as just now, when, looking out the window from the kitchen table in my friends’ third-floor flat, I see a crow glide down from the roof above my head to the small tree across the road, a handful of yellow leaves still holding out against the cold and the wind. Have you ever noticed that a crow rarely alights on a branch from above, but always comes from below in an swoop before pulling up hard, black body perpendicular to sight, wings in full spread to attain the branch?

We are surrounded by these details, these particularities, that make up a world much richer than our concrete overlay. In this world we find the freedom from the pursuits of our ego, freedom to turn and lay down our constricted narratives in repentance, freedom to bracket our use of cyberspace, freedom to risk much to glimpse our role in social change and freedom to let the other require something from us in our communities. This is the inner freedom that is graced: the action of a God that continually sustains us and his world in this connection of belonging that we would finally learn to accept it from his hand as gift, as a healing gift.

So, walk with me up the path to the bouldered edge with sweet – and slightly neurotic – Gibbie. Sit down and watch the gold explode into light on the inky surface of the swells. Follow the light trail back up, millions of tiny novas, back up to the sun itself, low and bright. Glance over and watch Gibbie watching the sunset. See the long light give attention to the trees along the shore to your right: how each tree basks and absorbs the attention, how each leaf and each limb stand out distinct. Then realize that you too, bask and absorb and stand out in the late evening’s rays. Take this realization as gift.

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