Sunday, July 12, 2020

The light. The darkness.

That bright ray of light became smaller and smaller.

A number of years ago I was attending a music workshop at a college in the mountains of West Virginia. I needed some quiet time, so I went to my room and sat on my lumpy dorm bed trying to meditate, gazing at the mountains in the distance. My attention kept wandering but I persisted. I began to sense a ray of light that encompassed my entire body and the light became smaller and more concentrated until it focused in the middle of my chest. I was able to keep my focus on that light to the point that it felt that the small beam of light was my entire existence. My body ceased to exist, the room around me ceased to exist, and nothing remained but the light. Even then I wondered if that was what it felt like to die, and indeed I wondered if I had died. I wasn’t afraid.

I have recalled that moment occasionally, but only remember how it felt. It never happened again.

Today I recalled the beam of light experience, comparing it in a strange way to my experience in the isolation of the pandemic. My world is getting smaller and smaller, compressing into a feeling that has settled in the center of my chest. But it is far from the bright light I felt that day in the West Virginia mountains. Instead it is a crushing darkness—sadness, anger, and dread. The reasons for this darkness need not be discussed. There is no useful reason to explore the darkness.

I don’t want to be crushed by the darkness. I don’t want my existence to be overshadowed by anger and disappointment. I don’t want to feel this insignificant.

The only thing I can think to do—I will sit in silent prayer and look for the light.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Thoughts in quarantine

For forty years the Israelites wandered the desert. The Book of Exodus tells us the Israelites had been in bondage in Egypt for hundreds of years when Moses led them out of Egypt to cross the desert on the way to the Promised Land. God even parted the Red Sea to make their journey easier. The walk across the desert should have taken about a month, not forty years.

I’ve been thinking about the time that the Israelites spent in the desert, comparing it in a sense to the time most of us are spending confined to our homes because of the Covid pandemic. Perhaps we need to learn something in this time when life as we knew it has come to a screeching halt. We are in a virtual desert. Although I am looking out at a large body of water, it is a desert in terms of human contact and earthly distractions. I live alone, in relative solitude with no cable television and no companions. I have a refrigerator, running water, and air conditioning (thank you, Lord!). I’ve been complaining of course, especially since there is no end in sight. But complaining and kicking the baseboards has no useful value. Can I begin to see it differently? Can this time become something positive rather than a huge, frightening nuisance? 

God kept the Israelites in the desert for forty years instead of weeks. Obviously, they weren’t learning what He wanted them to learn. Moses never got to the Promised Land; he died in the desert. Jesus retreated to the desert to be alone and pray—the desert provided Him a chance to communicate with His heavenly Father. Early Christians—the Desert Fathers and Mothers—removed themselves to the desert in Egypt to live monastic lives in order to grow closer to God. I didn’t choose this time in “the desert” but I can try to overcome the loneliness and frustration and use it as a time to grow.

So I’m trying to accept this time, this vast desert of uncertainty, as a time to grow closer to Him. Something I read today struck me as way to approach this—to paraphrase, I read that even in misery, wanting to love Him is a sign of His presence.* Think about that . . .

*Reading Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Merton, Rohr, and God's plan

“We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened. But when we are in true spiritual darkness, we do not even know that we have fallen.” 
Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

This quote from the writing of Thomas Merton came to my attention today at a time when I am (once again!) desperately seeking the presence of God. A number of years ago, I went for a week-long silent retreat at an abbey on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia. I wanted marching orders from God, concrete directions on what to do with my life. A moment in time is seared in my memory—standing in the driveway, swirling around searching the sky, so convinced of the presence of God that I expected to see Him drifting through the clouds. And the only message I got from that intensely connected moment was not the concrete direction I was seeking, but the words that came from my mouth, unbidden, “I just want to be closer to Him. Closer to Him.” The reality of that moment, the utter conviction of the connection to God is just as strong now as it was then.

These words written by Thomas Merton, “We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened,” were reassuring, an affirmation that it’s okay not to feel the ever-present rush of my driveway moment when God seemed to be within reach, almost visible. Sometimes I doubt His presence altogether while recognizing the spiritual darkness and knowing that—for a time—I have fallen away from Him.

These days, these months of late, have been a spiritual test. The world is in the midst of a pandemic and, for me, that means months of living a life of solitude, even more so than my pre-pandemic life. I miss my children and grandchildren so much I can feel it as a physical pain in my gut. There is no end in sight so I don’t know how long I will have to endure. And I am increasingly filled with red-hot anger toward those who are ignoring the precautions advised to avoid spreading the virus. Meanwhile our country is experiencing another wave of racism and political rancor. It’s ugly. It can’t be God’s plan. Or is it God’s plan, the only way to move us into a more loving co-existence. Can I trust that God even has a plan? Has He ever had a plan?

Today’s Daily Meditation from Richard Rohr seemed particularly on point. I will include it here in its entirety (emphasis mine):

The Wisdom of Job
Tuesday,  July 7, 2020

Theology does not by itself provide wisdom in crisis. All theology must become a living spirituality to really change us or the world. It’s disappointing that we Christians have emphasized theology, catechism, and religious education much more than prayer and practice. The biblical book of Job is probably one of the greatest books on prayer that has ever been written. It breaks our stereotypes of what it means to communicate with God.
If we view Job’s story as a journey into an ever-deepening encounter with God, we keep the question of suffering from becoming an abstract debate observed at a distance. It is a text that only fully makes sense to those who’ve felt suffering, been up against the wall, at a place where, frankly, God doesn’t make sense anymore and we no longer believe “God has a plan.”
Job loses his livelihood, his savings, his family, and his health. His practical, religious friends appear as self-appointed messengers, to speak what they are sure is God’s answer to Job’s suffering. They offer the glib, pious platitudes of stereotypical clergy. What they do is try to take away the mystery, but they cannot solve the problem. God says you cannot solve the problem of suffering, you can only live the mystery. The only response to God’s faithfulness is to be faithful ourselves.
Most of the things Job says to God in his pain are not what Christians have been trained to say to God. The pretty words are mostly gone; there’s no “swirly talk,” as writer-pastor Molly Baskette calls it [1], that Christians so love to put in their prayers. Instead, Job dares to confront God, the very thing many of us were trained never to do. In fact, we called it blasphemy.
During Job’s crisis, he yells at God, accuses God of all kinds of things, speaks sarcastically, and almost makes fun of God. “If this is a game you’re playing, then you’re not much of a God! I don’t need you and I don’t want you!” It’s this kind of prayer that creates saints. Yet we can’t pray with that authority unless we know something experientially about God. We can’t pray that way unless we are assured at a deep level of the profound connection between ourselves and God.It takes one who has ventured into that arena where we say angels fear to tread.
Ultimately Job’s story reveals that God cannot really be known through theology and law. God can only be related to and known in relationship, just like the Trinity itself. Or, as the mystics assert, we know God by loving God, trusting God, and placing our hope in God. We cannot really “think” God.
Job’s religious friends and advisers have correct theory but no experience; thoughts about God, but no love of God. They believe in their theology; Job believes in the God of their theology. It is a big difference. The first is information; the second is wisdom.
 I consider all the times I have shaken my fist at God, knowing that He would still love me in spite of my insolence and doubt. 

I consider what it means to stop believing that God has a plan, that all of this makes sense from a worldly point of view. Maybe He doesn’t have a plan, He doesn’t micromanage earthly existence the way we think He does.

And maybe giving up this magical thinking about God’s management of creation will lead me into a deeper relationship with God.

All of these thoughts may not make sense to others. They are connected for me in a way that I am unable to communicate well. The way I experience God is undergoing some sort of transformation that I cannot yet define.