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
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.