The Things that Save Our Lives

I’ve begun reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, a title that speaks to the significance of our embodied lives and our daily experience of the world around us. Her book explores the meaning inherent in our physical existence. The chapters describe ways of inhabiting our bodies and our lives that help answer the spiritual longing for more—“ more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life.”

“The accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life,” she says, “suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.”

The friend who recommended this book called Taylor’s “an earthy spirituality,” and it is exactly that. She rejects the separation of earth and spirit, of body and soul, found in many spiritual writings. She sees that split as more an injection of the history of Western thought than the essence of a life of faith. She makes the point that Christianity at its heart reveres the life of the body through its reverence for the Incarnation. In her words, Christianity takes body and blood very seriously.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an excellent writer and I am finding both pleasure and meaning in her work. I appreciate the way she describes the practices that keep her grounded in the world and, at the same time, connected to the divine.

But the question that keeps prodding me is one she lifts up in her introduction, a question from which her book arises. Asked to speak at a church gathering, she inquired what the priest wanted her to talk about. In his wisdom, he went straight to the heart of life and asked her to “Come tell us what is saving your life now.”

There’s a question. What is so important right now that our lives depend upon it? How do we hold onto what will give life meaning or at least keep us from the pit of despair? Our answers change, but the question remains essential. I’m learning something from how she answers that question, and thinking about how to answer it for myself. I think conversations in which we can share the things that are saving our life are themselves part of what saves us.

For me, the process of learning to see helps. I’m learning to see how the spiritual resonates in the physical world, learning to see patterns in how life unfolds, learning to more clearly see other people. I think that learning to see is a way of learning compassion, as well.

So I would love to hear—What’s saving your life right now?

Clearing Space

A couple of days ago I noticed some interesting shadows in the evening light. The setting sun cast images of swaying trees and silhouettes of dancing leaves into the house. The most picturesque shadows were on the kitchen wall, below a board full of mementos. I set it up years ago to display children’s art work, but in more recent years it has held newspaper clippings, photos, and memorabilia from their activities. I wanted to get a picture of the light and shadow on the wall, but once I had my camera I realized there was too much clutter in the frame. Posters, newsprint, and a handkerchief hanging from the bottom of the board interfered with getting a good shot, so I quickly removed them before the light changed. I ended up with something kind of interesting:

I’ve been meaning to dismantle that board for over a year. Its role has passed. I’m still proud of my young adult children and their accomplishments, but it’s not about displays. The newspaper is yellowed, the medals are dusty, and the whole thing has been there, unchanged, for so long that no one even sees it any more. But the job I had been putting off—what do I do with all that stuff when I take it down, anyway?—is now underway.

It’s not an insurmountable job to remove the miscellany and open up the wall space, but it does mark the end of an era. Actually, the era has already ended and I’m just now catching up. The board was a simple and effective treatment for an abundance of artwork: a piece of matboard with clothespins glued to it, held on the wall with thumbtacks. It’s still in good shape. If you live nearby and need a way to display your children’s creativity, I’ll be happy to give it to you.

It feels odd to get rid of something that’s been part of the furniture for so many years. On the other hand, it will open up a lot of wall space. There’s something exhilarating about clearing out the old and making room for the new. I’ll enjoy the open space.

I wonder what will go there next.

Stretching Gently

You probably know how it feels to wake up with a crick in your neck. That happened to me a few mornings ago, a ghost of which remains when I turn my head to the left. I wonder how it’s possible to be in a position that does me harm and yet sleep through it. I could have avoided pain if my body had recognized the strain and awakened me with a complaint. But apparently I was too tired to notice, and remained in a contorted position until the damage was done.

This makes me keenly aware that discomfort helps keep us from harm. Restlessness is a message that we’ve held the same posture for too long. When visited by dissatisfaction and an urge to try something new, we’re goaded into making the changes we need.

These stirrings, even if unwelcome, are the energy of the soul pushing us forward. They are the whispers of God beckoning us toward the life we’re called to live, or at least to a healthier place. But exhaustion can block the message, and fear can convince us to ignore it. They tell us it’s not the right time to make a change, and sometimes they have legitimate reasons.

But we have to sort through the reflexive warnings and determine how we can stretch. And when they’ve outlived their usefulness and we’re fed up with being depleted or afraid, restlessness can overpower even those elemental emotions. The need to grow is as legitimate as the need for shelter and rest.

Though I wasn’t conscious of it, I got myself into the predicament of developing this crick. I have a new appreciation of how the neck operates, how often it’s called into use, how easily and naturally it turns and bends. And now I’m trying to guard its health. I turn my head gently and stretch the neck carefully, even though it hurts. I need to use those muscles, but carefully. Every time I stretch it gets a little easier. I expect that in a few days I’ll be able to enjoy the freedom of movement I took for granted just a few days ago.

Is there something your body is telling you?

Making Peace with What You Can Do

Walking in the early spring air this morning, I got by with a light cotton jacket. Yet the weather remains cool and damp. Green fronds push up from the ground, but the skies are grey. Trees are full of birdsong, though the bare branches appear unchanged since winter.

This almost-spring feels nothing like winter, yet there is no blossoming. As if the earth is saying: This, today, is what I can do. I can bring forth this much, but for now I can go no farther.

And the slow warming is enough. The turning of the seasons is exactly this; nothing more is needed. There is no hurry, no catching up to do. All is sufficient.

***

It’s tempting to discount those efforts we are able to make. How do you make peace with the limits of what you can do?

The View Through Old Glass

Looking through old glass feels a little like standing outside of time. The wavery, watery pane distorts the view just enough to hold it in perspective, as a fleeting moment in the long passage of years. It holds the scene at a distance, even as it offers a reminder of life’s fragility. An old window softens the world.

The old glass reveals motion I cannot perceive otherwise: the imperceptible turn of the earth with its accrual of days into seasons, a year, a lifetime; the pull of gravity over time, drawing down the pane into ripples and waves, pulling at my body in the same way. All the moments count, no one of them more or less than another, which is hard to take because that’s not how we see our lives.

Time passes without our noticing, yet it leaves its mark. The view through old glass notes the brevity of a moment, even as it attests to the lasting change a moment’s passing leaves. It’s an image of the weight of the past, and of the vitality that sets this moment apart.

It shows our days to be part of a long unfolding, part of something larger. At the same time, it invites an appreciation of the moment as all we have.

If I could see the view through the other side of the glass, look through the curving lines of light at myself, would I understand something more about my life?

Opening to the Sacred

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong talks about “this hinterland between rationality and the transcendent.” It’s the place where our thought, ideas, and intellectual life have taken us as far as they can, and we need a different kind of knowing in order to experience God.

The intellect is part of our spiritual path. It carries us past the limited notions of God that constrict our assumption of what religious life entails. It brings the fresh breeze of new ideas, which prepare us to see what we have missed. It shows the limitations we have put on God, and the experience of God, of which we were unaware.

But we can’t live into a new faith, or any faith, by intellect alone. An expanded idea of God doesn’t have much impact on who we are or how we live unless we develop a connection to God—asking, seeking, waiting, inviting, listening. In Armstrong’s words, “Religious insight requires not only a dedicated intellectual endeavor to get beyond the ‘idols of thought’ but also a compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood. . . . It require[s] kenosis, ‘negative capability,’ ‘wise passiveness,’ and a heart that ‘watches and receives.’”

Armstrong’s book mirrors this process. It summarizes and analyzes a long and complex history of how people have understood God. She places our current theological thinking in the context of history, the better to see how we arrived in this place and how best to move forward. Yet her work points to an understanding of God beyond definition or certainty, experienced in mystery, expressed in poetry and in love. It’s a book about what cannot be expressed in books.

Ideas are important; I thrive on them. Yet at a certain point ideas no longer satisfy. It’s like driving to the mountains to go hiking. At some point, you have to get out of the car.

I experience another kind of truth in the light turning gold as the sun rises, the purr of a cat under my hand, the voice of a loved one. These are openings to the sacred, to the sense of being deeply and truly alive.

I’m asking myself whether I’ve spent too much time reading theology and not enough reading poetry. Where is the balance between intellect and experience? Do you see one as more credible, or trustworthy, than the other?

The Taste of Chartreuse

In this season of almost spring (a time described beautifully by Amy Oscar at her blog: Story, Spirit, Seed), I find myself thinking about the taste of Chartreuse. The flavor suggests the greening of the earth, the scent of mown grass and fresh herbs, the return of the sun in spring. Even its luminous yellow-green color speaks of new life.

It’s still a bit early to retrieve the bottle from the dark recesses of the kitchen cabinet. But for the first time in months I remember it’s there, waiting. Its distillation of past growing seasons holds the memory and anticipation of spring.

Chartreuse and its secret recipe have a fascinating history, which lends a delicious mystique to the experience of drinking it. I first tasted the liqueur in the company of dear friends after we watched Into Great Silence together. The film shows the passing of a year in the Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, where Chartreuse has been made for centuries.

To watch the film is to experience something of the monastic life, with its beauty and tradition, as well as its constriction and mundaneity. The film evokes both yearning for the spare beauty of the monastery and claustrophobia at its repeated routines. It has no speaking, no soundtrack, only a few frames containing a word or two of French. Sounds such as the creak of a monk’s kneeling bench are heightened, enveloped in profound silence. It’s a beautiful film of changing light and unchanging ritual. I was glad to share its silence with friends, and also glad to speak with them about it afterwards.

The elixir made by the monks is lovely to sip on its own. Mixing it with the clear, cold effervescence of club soda makes a wonderful drink as well, something like the taste of winter giving way to spring.

That transition is a process happening now, at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere. But how do we know when to celebrate?

Learning to See

I enjoy taking pictures. It’s a pleasure to look at the world with an eye toward framing a photograph, and in that state of mind I tend to see more. Someday I might take a class or invest in a better camera, but in the meantime I just snap photos of what looks interesting.

So during a recent stay in an eighth floor hotel room I was glad for its view of the city, especially at nightfall. But when I pulled back the curtain with camera in hand, I found the scene obscured by water droplets and condensation. No good. With the window sealed so that it couldn’t be wiped clean, I would have to find another vantage point.

As I gathered my things for a trek down the hall, it seemed a lot of trouble to traipse around in search of a clearer window. But the light at evening had drawn me to look outside, the color and pattern of towers and skies held my attention, and I couldn’t resist trying to capture the image.

In looking for a better view, however, I was rejecting what I had already found beautiful. Photography helps me notice what’s in front of me, but it’s still easy to miss things. In this case I had only seen the foggy window as an obstacle and not part of the scene. I want to open my eyes and pay attention to the world I’m walking through. But that’s hard to accomplish with preconceived ideas about what’s worth looking at.

So I returned to the window and observed how the water on the glass reshaped the light from outside. I considered how the pane of moisture softened my perspective on the city. And I realized that for one evening, in that particular place, I didn’t have to resist the uniquely filtered view.

Is there something in front of you that you might cease resisting?