Last summer I was privileged to prepare and lead a class on the Psalms. A big part of the experience was, upon completion of our more “formal” study, we’d write our own Psalm. The class produced some powerfully moving, deeply personal works. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, mine came out as a Lament.
I share here that Psalm and encourage you to share some of your own work in the comments!
O Lord, God of faces, where now is your face?
And why have you hidden from us your gaze?
Where once we walked together,
now we thrash and reel and hack.
Darkness has become our only ally;
and hopelessness our truest friend.
For those of insolence and hatred rule over us;
the ruthless and ragged become our destroyer.
Therefore, falsehood and lies bind us;
and the absence of truth shackles us.
We have become party with wolves and savages,
those without conscience or care for the poor.
They lash out from behind empty eyes
to oppress the widow and orphan,
the immigrant and the voiceless.
All that is good, pleasing, and right is set aside;
truth and love are traded for lies and hate,
victim to the victimizers.
And through their shame have we become a byword,
a cause for mockery among the nations.
We hear them cry out in the streets,
and moan among the people of injustice against them.
But it is they who are unjust,
with lies have they clothed themselves.
How long, O Lord? How long
must we watch our children caged,
our future torn apart?
How much more treachery must we endure at their hands?
Save us, O God, from their filth;
release us from their grotesque machinations.
Turn your eyes toward us for we are weary and broken;
tearful and confused.
Find a place again among us where all that was good
can again be good; where the darkness again is dark.
Rise up, once more, gracious Lord, and be our protector;
the light behind our eyes,
the light behind our faces;
the face behind all faces.
For we are your people,
and you are our God.
I think I’ll call this latest phase of my personal development, “observational spirituality.” It’s not particularly original. Kitschy, I suppose. Cutesy? Melodramatic? Perhaps all of that and more. But, at the risk of sounding dismissive of the apophatic theology or the sometimes borderline morose asceticism of some mysticism, I’m squarely in the “see ‘n say” life program. At least right now.
My prayers are open-eyes, open-hands, double-takes, pen ‘n paper, q & a, and laced-up shoes. Prayer, even contemplative prayer, is on the move, seeking God from a moving center of gravity.
Those who know me well but not normally affixed to the world of spirituality see this is as a return to normal, whatever that might be. God bless them. I think, on one level, they’re likely correct. My guess is what they mean is that Rob has become less esoteric and more fun to be around. Less spiritually obtuse, opaque, and more…reachable.
Nothing could be truer. However, it might not be in the way they think. I haven’t given up on the ocean of mysticism and my belief that the truest theology isn’t what we think but what we perceive and experience and live. But I am on hiatus from a contemplative spirituality that, at times, merely perpetuated my need to run from the sharper edges of a life I couldn’t understand, let alone master.
This has profoundly impacted my poetry and writing. Much less moan ‘n groan, much more cry ‘n sigh. Less sad, more glad. Less whine, more wine (metaphorically, of course). Even my demeanour is changing. I’ve fully re-embraced the extravert who had lain dormant for many years while God messed around in my business.
So, a little exercise. What follows is a short journal entry from last weekend in Portland, Oregon. My wife and I were writing, as we often do. Mine became a simple celebration of what was right before me. It helps amplify in me a favourite word these days: notice.
* * * *
Blocks of mismatched, oddly coloured flats, like leftover Legos, greet me upon opening hotel curtains, themselves an unfortunate retro-seventies error in judgment. I open the window and partake of the wet air. This stuff is made for lungs that appreciate breathing like fine dining more than the dry, git ‘r done Yakima dust.
The cool, soppiness of a Portland sky is a cliff dive for me into a densely soft Yorkshire Pudding of nature carbs. Richly satisfying. Even if I had to pay for it later, it wouldn’t matter. I’m full and the landing is even softer than the jump itself.
The almost preternatural way I’ve always taken to the damp, concrete-smell of mossy earth and sky tells an old story. It is one I’m only beginning to understand. There’s something oddly familiar about wiping this outdoor bathroom mirror sky to catch a glimpse of someone I recognize in no other way.
Not unlike many others, I live for these moments, moments of simple observation. Recognition of what is. Meditations upon the obvious. One discovers that, in discovering whatever lies just beyond our fingers, noses, tongues, and eyelashes provides ample fertilizer for the soul, which remains unseen.
So, in the interest of a better look, I pull down the blue-grey, clouded hat-sky upon my waiting head and tuck into the day.
Here it is, where everything meets, greets, and seats me. I do not need to look any deeper. It is already seeing me as I am. The rest, as they say, is gravy.
Thanks for being here with me. I need you all.
A fire makes its heartening presence known, tucked under the hearth upon which hang individual stockings and an antique clock I inherited from my Dad. A delightfully chaotic looking tree, augmented with bobbles made by growing dexterity of little boys’ fingers, the accumulated little boy detritus of Christmas past. They are now men of humour, virtue, and creativity.
Snow falls without sound just past living room windows that shield from the oblique, grey winter, and all I can think is this: if Christmas – the incarnation, God with us – means anything at all, it must mean more than the homegrown Thomas Kinkade painting I’ve just described.
It must mean that God is longing to burst forth into our own souls, finding enough room to receive the gifts of our own inner Magi. It must have the rough and tumble character of a once upon a time, ramshackle stable. It was messy and scary and uncertain, but the perfect crucible in which to define all that is truly important: the broken, smelly manger of human hearts made ready to receive the only thing powerful enough to draw them out of pain and darkness, God himself. And, apparently, God loves children. Enough to become one. Not a soldier. Not a business man. Not a political revolutionary.
A child. So be it.
O come, o come, Emmanuel. Ah, but we did and we have yet to see. Lord, help us to open our eyes to what is in front of us.
A merry Christmas to all of you from all of us!
Once again, thanks to Mícheál Eóin Mac Fhiodhbhuide for photo permission.
We’ve all heard the old adage, “one only sees what they want to see.” We easily and quickly make judgements on our perceptions of things, not always on the truth of things. It’s always been that way. I’m guessing it will always be so to some degree.
Some will see only a page full of black dots. Others see the number hidden in the middle (they kinda piss me off!) Some see the brown barrenness of parched desert. Others see the miracle of life which is possible even in austerity. What is to one a beautiful optical illusion is to another a confusing mess of nothing at all. One sees thirst and death. Another sees possibility and survival.
It is a remarkable feature of human nature that, on the basis of perceptions and in the interest of either self-preservation or the pursuit of fulfillment, we succumb to the process of other-worldly fabrications. Given our predisposition to see only selectively, we sometimes live our lives labouring under misapprehensions.
For my part, I have often built an enormous mental-emotional web of shadows and half-truths and desires and make-believe. A construct on whatever I think is true. It is mental, because so much of who I am and how I behave is conceived and constructed in my mind. Emotional, because, just like yours, my head and my heart are inextricably linked.
To think something is true is, correspondingly, to feel something as well. If I think a loved one is still alive after some long absence, it creates hope, expectation. To believe that same person to be dead is to create despair and hopelessness. If we believe the person to whom we’ve been communicating is still on the other end of the phone, we’ll happily blether on until the bleak reality dawns!
Conversely, to experience an inexplicable hope, is to believe all to be well in our little world. In the world at large. If we feel weighted down, we either have a need for companionship, a change of scenery, or mood-altering substances (my preferred M.O.!) Moreover, we will believe it to be so because, in such moments, the universe may appear to us at the time, a toxic and malignant place, unfit for habitation.
Our brains are a complex lump indeed! From the minutiae in our head comes the fodder for our palaces or prisons. All is either benign, malevolent or benevolent on the basis of what we believe to be true or false.
Perhaps the entire goal of grace, and with it, the contemplative enterprise, is constructed to help us monitor, manage, even master the cognitive dissonance we experience – the chasm between what we observe, what we know (or think we know), with what we experience?
It seems that God’s intention in the Gospel is to gift us with a mental-emotional equilibrium in a universe that, to our physical eyes at least, makes little sense. God seems to be trying to get our attention focused away from what we see and onto what we have yet to see. Or, better, what God sees.
For example, if I see endless amounts of unpromising, fruitless work – God sees a garden. If I see endless hours of frustration, ignorant bumbling and non-Sunday school language – God sees the end product of my labour – a new staircase, or a table. If I see fatigue, poverty, and unpredictability – God sees relationships, children, and the warmth of family.
To say then, “I see,” is no longer just a physical act – observations in time and space of what is immediately before me. In the infinitely broader perspective of God, contextualized in the Gospel, “to see” is simultaneously to hope, to rejoice, to weep with joy.
For, to see as God sees, is to inhabit all things at all times at one time. Things are not only as they appear to me now. They are shown to be what they will be then.
It is there, in that place of seeing through God’s kaleidoscopic eyes, that a universe – sometimes tasteless, flat and hopeless – becomes a sumptuous feast of possibility. Only then do I experience something counter-intuitive to what I “should” under my limited experience. My heart and head agree because God has introduced them to the broad spacious land – the realm of God. My earth and God’s heaven, kiss.
And I am reborn.
Seeing is believing, say the scientists. Believing is seeing, say the theologians. Being is both seeing and believing, say the mystics. Some cannot believe unless they see. Others claim to see and not believe. Still others claim to see what they don’t believe. Others will not believe whether they see or not. Confused yet? Yeah, me too.
God’s deepest reality? All of us belong in some way along the continuum of belief, sight and experience. God journeys with us wherever and whenever that is.
All that to say this: one’s emancipation comes most readily not from a change in circumstances, but in the readiness, and ability, to see. To awaken. I have often said that, behind and beneath and around everything we see with our physical eyes, is a pervasive spirit of glory.
The light and beauty and truth of God subsumes all things into itself. And, from time to time, there come moments of lucidity, of universal benevolence, when one becomes aware of the overwhelming perfection of it all. A built-in beauty not always immediately apparent.
But such moments are frightfully rare. They are gifts, shards of translucence and splendour, reserved for the unasked-for moments of clarity; when the paleness of our present reality, gives way to something else entirely. When it does, simply observe.
Rub your spiritual eyes and let yourself be roused from slumber. Wachet auf (wake up) as Bach might intone! Awaken to God’s tap on your shoulder. Throw off the covers. Stretch. Say nothing. Speak not a word. Just drink. Drink deeply of this stream. Let it do its work. For, once it’s gone, there is no telling if or when it may come again. But its nourishment is ours to keep.
Amazing image found here