Thursday, November 16, 2017

... a hidden wholeness...

Today was a totally wild day: it rained, the sun shined, there was wind and
darkness and a touch of frost, too. Mostly I spent it catching up on commitments that are emerging beyond the realm of church: a poetry slam for young people concerned about challenging racism, sexism and antisemitism; an interfaith concert in solidarity with immigrants and people of color in this harsh and challenging time; late tea with a beloved colleague. During tea, we laughed about our mutual monastic inclinations, albeit from different spiritual traditions, the quest for a deep inner life surrounded by solitude. When I got home, I thought to myself, "Wasn't I just musing about Celtic monastic spirituality earlier this week?" And sure as shooting, my worship notes for this Sunday start with: "I have always been drawn to monastic spirituality – particularly Celtic monastic spirituality – for it honors the seasons as well as the Scriptures."

Of the many insights that I treasure from time spent studying and visiting these places of prayer and hospitality, is the practice of statio. It is a commitment to stopping one thing before starting another. It is the antithesis of contemporary multi-tasking – and is grounded in the Celtic fascination with thresholds. For Celtic monks a threshold was a sacred place: it could be a breath between tasks that help us center ourselves in the present moment rather than remain distracted; it might be a season in time – like the month of November – when the day s grow shorter and the darkness increases. Sometimes it looks like the beach between the mountains and the sea; or the clearing between farmland and the forest. Whatever the nature of the threshold, “whether physical places or experiences in time,” Celtic spirituality cherished the threshold as a place of possibility.” (Abbey of the Arts)

In fact, this monastic tradition taught young novices to practice statio, a commitment to stopping one thing before beginning another. By our nature, we are all impatient – and this is as true in the monastery as it is in the business world. So what would it be like if we learned to transform waiting from either a nuisance or a frustrating waste of our time, to an invitation to breathe into the now and honor its gifts? The Celtic priors believed that “each moment that we breathe was a threshold – a movement from inhaling to fullness and exhaling to emptiness – an organic invitation from God to be prayerful and engaged rather than exhausted, frustrated and selfish. "Imagine," writes Christine Valters Paintner of the Abbey of the Arts that, "instead of rushing from one appointment to the next, that between each one you paused, breathed just five long slow breaths: how might this transform your movement from one activity to another? Or even when you move from one room to another, allow a brief pause on the threshold between spaces, to recall that God lives inside our breath and invites us to make everyone our connection to the resurrection?"

All of November, for example, strikes me as a threshold month helping us prepare both for Christ the King Sunday (next week) and the longer cycle of quiet prayer we call Advent. November begins with Halloween and All Saints and Souls Day – a time to look backwards and take stock of those who have crossed over in death to life everlasting – and what those deaths might mean to us as we continue to live? These are threshold days. The same is at work in our marking of Veteran’s Day: the ceremony of the empty table calls us to pause – to breathe in and reflect – to remember. But never in nostalgia or sentimentality – always in reverence – always seeking to learn from what has already taken place. T.S. Eliot masterfully expressed the challenge of November thresholds in poetry:
The endless cycle of idea and action, 
endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; 
knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death, 
but nearness to death is no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living? 
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
O the cycles of heaven in twenty centuries brings us farther from God 
and nearer to the Dust.

All of November – all of autumn – quietly invites us into the sacredness of the threshold – if, of course, we choose to notice – which is never a given. That’s why our tradition throws some pretty weird stories at us this month: they are intended to wake us up from habit and start to move us into another rhythm of living.

St. Paul speaks of God’s grace breaking into our experience like a thief in the night – or a woman beset upon by labor pains – or even a nation that boasts of peace and security in confidence only to be upended by a sneak attack. Stay alert. Be awake. Honor your thresholds. The same sense of shocking challenge is at the core of Zephaniah, a prophet of ancient Israel in the 5th century BCE, who called out the lethargy and cheap grace of his people saying: Be silent before the Lord God for the day of the Lord is at hand… on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who dress themselves in foreign attire (not honor them.) I will punish all who leap over the threshold to fill their master’s house with violence and fraud… rather than do justice and compassion.

Honoring our ordinary thresholds takes practice. Silence, completing one task before starting another, and watching patiently in the darkness rather than rushing off to force an action. This is part of what November asks of us in the Northern Hemisphere if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.  Another monastic, Thomas Merton, put it like this: There is in all visible things... a hidden wholeness. Parker Palmer builds on this observation noting that "in the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of 'hidden wholeness."  And these opposites do not negate one another: "they cohere in a mysterious unity at the heart of reality."

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