Wednesday, July 12, 2017

the blessings beyond the vertigo...

This morning I was assaulted by vertigo. It was horrible - and now exhausting. Who knows why it hit me or what caused it to move on?  I am simply grateful that the room is no longer spinning, my stomach no longer retching and my head no longer pounding. The abrupt onset of violent, physical illness is humbling: I am in charge of so very little in real life. Running water, air conditioning, mobile Internet devices, and on/off electrical switches create an illusion of control. But the approaching thunder storm tells a deeper truth. I am vulnerable. Fragile. Dependent on others and God's love. I know this viscerally to be true while my insides churn, only to relinquish it rapidly when a measure of health returns. This is one clue that in spite of his many mistakes - including an ugly, misogynist spiritual anthropology that continues to wound us all - St. Augustine's insights into what the West calls "original sin" rings true. 

My sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in (God) but in myself and God's other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.

Not that pleasure, beauty and truth are problematic, not at all. Rather, that a self-absorbed and self-centered way of living - one that avoids and denies vulnerability, compassion and solidarity - leads to pain, confusion and suffering both personally and socially. Augustine's point is that we are hard-wired for both guilt and grace (to paraphrase St. Leonard Cohen.) Without an inward commitment to truth and tenderness - spirituality - an an outward community of accountability - religion/culture - we will actively collude in our own demise. That is why 16th century spiritual guides in both the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions - Jesuits and Calvinists alike - urged people of faith to practice re-membering. When we take the time to reclaim the feelings evoked in a day - or an experience or even in a week - we discover one of the ways the Holy helps us live beyond illusion or denial.

Jean Vanier of the L'Arche community puts it positively: The beauty of human beings lies in their capacity to accept who they are, just as they are; not to live in a world of dreams or illusions, in anger or despair, wanting to be other than they are, or trying to run away from reality.  Feelings are important clues in practicing this letting go so that we might live as we truly are. My helplessness this morning was an earthy invitation to honor my frailty as well as my need for loving care, but only if I remember it within and re-member it through my actions with others. Without the remembering, it is a gift wasted. Small wonder that Vanier insists that the true measure of any life-giving spirituality is "downward mobility." Living in solidarity and compassion - vulnerability - with others who are equally fragile. For me as a 21st century Christian, St. Paul's words in Philippians gets it right: "Though in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God as something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a servant."  

Novelist, teacher and essayist, Marrilynne Robinson, describes what happens when people commit to both their better angels and life in a community of accountability: we do not always do the right thing, but we have a better chance of enfleshing the mercy of Jesus than the crass selfishness of the Social Darwinists(who seem to hold the reigns of power at this moment in time.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin says: "With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. This is pure Malthus. So is the demurral: “[We could not] check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature … We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind…” None of this is abstract or general or innocent of political history or implication. The Descent of Man (1871) is a late work which seems to be largely ignored by Darwinists now.  (The Death of Adam)

It is the inward/outward journey in community of whatever tradition that empowers us to remember and then re-member all that is good, noble, true and beautiful. Vanier concludes:

The longer we journey on the road to inner healing and wholeness, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens. The sense is not just one of belonging to others and to a community. It is a sense of belonging to the universe, to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity.

This is how I understand the challenge and core of resistance at this moment in my life and our culture:  to become fully human in concert with a universe saturated with gratitude.

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