Going into the emptiness...

When Nora Gallagher wrote about what she wants/needs from a church - or a community of support or a collection of people woven together by faith, hope and love - she touched something deep inside me. Her description of her own longing begins with the story of Jesus and his healing of a blind man from Bethsaida in Mark 8: 22-26. She puts it like this in Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic:
What I want... I see now is a look between human beings that says we are knitted together, standing in a circle, holding each other up, waiting for the next ax to fall, rather than persons following a crowned Jesus, believing in an oppressive creed and tinny, false hope.  That "religion" is about wanting the thing to last forever and make the pain go away. The reality is, instead, more about Jesus kneeling in the dust making a paste of spit and dirt. The reality is much more raw.

Truth be told, I haven't paid much attention to this story over the years, most likely because my own health has been solid and good. But in going back to it I see new significance in this seemingly small but earthy event in a long forgotten place. There is archaeological debate about the exact location of the historic Bethsaida - most scholars think it existed east of the Jordan River in the north of Israel (what is now the Golan Heights) on the Sea of Galilee - but we know that it was known as the House of Fishing in Aramaic (beth-tsaida) and was the home of Philip, Andrew, Peter, James and John (disciples of Jesus.) It was also the locale for an event the New Testament calls the miracle of the loaves and fishes where 5,000 were fed.
Gallagher tells us that when she was in the midst of her most unsettling confusion concerning the possible loss of her vision, she walked a labyrinth. It was an act of faith outside the traditional church and an act of hope while in exile from the religious rituals that had once been so comforting. When she got to the center, she remembered two things: the first time her husband spoke the word "we" in solidarity with her medical fears, and, the story of Jesus kneeling beside the blind man from Bethsaida. She writes of her thoughts from within the labyrinth like this:

I picture again the blind man in Bethsaida. He sat beside the road begging, alone. More than alone, defiled. Jesus took him by the hand and led him. I had thought of this as Jesus helping him, or, healing him, the holy man looking after the poor beggar. But just then I felt, rather than saw, that that was not what happened that day. Instead, this blind man felt someone take his hand and walk with him. He felt someone put his hand over his eyes. He understood that someone had joined him in his suffering. Someone had said, "we."

More and more I feel this, too. It is a longing for "we" - it is a quiet and tender meeting in compassion - it is the embrace of real people who own their brokenness while being open to a love greater than our wounds.  As I've noted on other occasions, I most often experience this sacred "we" - the great I AM as some have called it - while making music. Playing Bill Evans' "Peace Piece" with Carlton at a recent funeral was emotionally cleansing and spiritually healing. Singing/playing "Deep Within" with my band mates earlier this month opened my heart to the holy.

At the start of Lent we added a "time for contemplation in sound, silence and song" to the heart of worship and I think we will continue with it after Easter. This part of the liturgy begins with the Psalm of the day and a sung antiphon. It is followed by the morning's gospel. Then for 5-7 minutes we sing some of the songs of Taize, light candles in prayer and sit together in silence. In ways that are still a mystery to me, this shared act of contemplation not only grounds me in God's grace in ways that I need, but also prepares my heart to speak to the gathered faithful. As someone said to me a few weeks ago, there is so little silence and quiet in my world; this feels like a reprieve from the busyness. I couldn't agree more.

Jean Vanier of the L'Arche Communities has said, "What is the impossible? It is liberation: to liberate people from the demons of fear, of loneliness, of hatred and of egoism that shackle them. To liberate people so that they also can love, heal and liberate others. In order to do that, you must go in poverty and experience the life of God flowing within your own flesh." Gallagher would add that you must sense the solidarity of "we" - the quiet assurance that you are not alone - that God's grace is greater than any of our wounds. I know that is why the song by David Hass, "Deep Within" evokes a sense of serenity within me. It reminds me that I don't need more information to follow Jesus. I don't need more encouragement to become more engaged in the world either. Mostly what I need is the refreshment of grace and the food of forgiveness and then I can't help but respond in gratitude.

Richard Rohr closes his book, Falling Upward, with this sage advice: do not waste a moment of time lamenting poor parenting, lost jobs, failed relationships, physical handicaps, gender identity, economic poverty or even the tragedy of abuse. PAIN IS PART OF THE DEAL. If you don't walk into the second half of your own life - where you can learn from your failings and wounds - it is YOU who do not want it. God will always give you exactly what you truly want and desire.  So make sure you desire - desire deeply - desire yourself, desire God, desire everything good, true and beautiful.

Rumi writes that the longing - the emptiness and aching - is part of the answer: so listen to it, trust it, honor it and go deep into its silence.

1) labyrinthsinstone.com
2) www.episcopalcafe.com


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