Our Ordinary Unmysterious Lives

Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery
those moments when we suddenly know there is a God
about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –
accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.

And more crucially:

definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering

that come into every life, and that tend to destroy
any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.

~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel sanctuary by Barb Hoelle

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. 
No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.

It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

walking to church in Tokyo


A Multitude of Flashing Torches

And as you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.
~Stephen Graham from The Gentle Art of Tramping

That great door opens on the present, illuminates it as with a multitude of flashing torches.
~Annie Dillard (in response to the Graham’s quote) from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

When I pay attention
(and usually I don’t),
each day offers up a moment of illumination
like a multitude of flashing torches,
when we sense something beyond what is here and now.

It feels like an unspoken promise.

When I miss it,
this opened door that is not a door~
too busy to notice-
too blinded to see-
having turned my face away,
nevertheless it happens without my witness.

It saddens and gladdens my heart to know that
it will be offered up again tomorrow,
even though I once again may forget.

Something Way Down Deep

We all know that something is eternal. 
And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, 
and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars 
. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, 
and that something has to do with human beings. 
All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that 
for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised 
how people are always losing hold of it. 
There’s something way down deep 
that’s eternal about every human being.
~Thornton Wilder, from “Our Town”

Write as if you were dying.
At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.
That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because more than on any previous day, it became obvious to me I was dying, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies into eternity.  

Nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying with and around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients — some of us more prepared than others to move on — as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I get a little closer to the eternal, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I want to detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no time or word to waste.

So Very Sublime

In a dry wind like this, snow and ice can pass directly into the air as a gas without having first melted to water.  This process is called sublimation; tonight the snow in the yard and the ice in the creek sublime.  A breeze buffets my palm held a foot from the wall.  A wind like this does my breathing for me: it engenders something quick and kicking in my lungs.  Pliny believed the mares of the Portuguese used to raise their tails to the wind, ‘and turn them full against it, and so conceive that genital air instead of natural seed; in such sort, as they become great withal, and quicken in their time, and bring forth foals as swift as the wind…’.

A single cell quivers at a windy embrace; it swells and splits, it bubbles into a raspberry; a dark clot starts to throb.  Soon something perfect is born. Something wholly new rides the wind, something fleet and fleeting I’m likely to miss.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Whenever we have a blowing northeaster, I assumed that our snow simply blew southwest and we were left with nothing but a skiff of white here. But I was wrong. The snow and ice are sublimated, disappearing into the air as vapor.

I wish I could be so transformed, blown into something wholly new and free, not tethered and earth-bound.

Our Creator God does just that: we are so very sublime through the power of His breath.

Inexhaustible

As a bird cannot exhaust the air in the sky nor a fish exhaust the
water in the sea, neither can we exhaust the grace of the God.

~Charles Spurgeon

photo by Nate Gibson

It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown so to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free. 
Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

photo by Chris Lovegren

This grace never flags, never exhausts itself, flows free and endlessly.
And that is so– yet free comes at great cost.  Freedom can never be free.
Snow and ice melt, clouds deplete, emptying out their weight,
transfigured into something other.
There is sacrifice upstream and from the heavens.
It could and has run red, it is so costly.
Quenching our every thirst,  we no longer lie panting and parched.
Revived, renewed, transformed, grateful,
Forever changed.
Amazed and amazing, we are purchased and paid in full.

photo by Josh Scholten

Partly Cloudy

Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt,
and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.

~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever household or clinic or barnyard task needed doing,
I realized there are only a finite number of sunrises and sunsets left to me
and I don’t want to miss them, so now I stop, take a deep breath
and feel lucky to be alive, a witness to that moment.

Sometimes they are plain and gray
just as I am,
but there are days that are lit from above and beneath
with a fire that ignites across the sky.
I too am engulfed for a moment or two,
until sun or shadow sweeps me away,
transfixed and transformed, forever grateful for the light.

Keeping Your Face Hidden

 

 

 

 

 

Vast whisp-whisp of wingbeats
awakens me and I look up
at a minute-long string of black geese’
following low past the moon the white
course of the snow-covered river and
by the way thank You for
keeping Your face hidden, I
can hardly bear the beauty of this world
~Franz Wright from “Cloudless Snowfall”

 

 

 

A psalm of geese
labours overland

cajoling each other
near half…

The din grew immense.
No need to look up.

All you had to do
was sit in the sound

and put it down
as best you could…

It’s not a lonesome sound
but a panic,

a calling out to the others
to see if they’re there;

it’s not the lung-full thrust of the prong of arrival
in late October;
not the slow togetherness

of the shape they take
on the empty land
on the days before Christmas:

this is different, this is a broken family,
the young go the wrong way,

then at daybreak, rise up and follow their elders
again filled with dread,
at the returning sound of the journey ahead.
~Dermot Healy from A Fool’s Errand 

 

 

 

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.
~Annie Dillard from The Meaning of Life
 edited by David Friend

 

 

I am overwhelmed by the amount of “noticing” I need to do in the course of my work.  Each patient, and there are so many,  deserves my full attention for the few minutes we are together.  I start my clinical evaluation the minute I walk in the exam room and begin taking in all the complex verbal and non-verbal clues offered by another human being.

How are they calling out to me as they keep their faces hidden?

What someone tells me about what they are feeling may not always match what I notice:  the trembling hands, the pale skin color, the deep sigh, the scars of self injury.  I am their audience and a witness to their struggle; even more, I must understand it in order to best assist them.  My brain must rise to the occasion of taking in another person, offering them the gift of being noticed and being there for them, just them.

This work I do is distinctly a form of praise: the patient is the universe for a few moments and I’m grateful to be watching and listening. When my patient calls out to me, may they never feel they are playing to an empty house. May I always look for the beauty in their hidden faces.