Love’s Body, Love’s Spirit

Photo by Roland Hechanova on Unsplash

“Among men, who knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way, only the Spirit of God knows what God is.” — 1 Cor 2:11 NEB

For several weeks in the long, dark, waiting room of this election year, I immersed myself in the British television drama, “Call the Midwife.” Obsessed as I was with the campaign season, impatient to reach the due date of November 4, apprehensive of the rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, I found some solace in the wonder and awe of childbirth as practiced in the East End of London in the 1950s.

The sisters and the nurses of Nonnatus House carry out their mission with good humor and courage. Always on call, they swoop down the narrow streets on their bicycles at all hours, clutching their birthing kits to them and dashing up narrow stairs to bedrooms reeking of sweat and pain.

The fathers pace outside. If they are young and it’s their first child, they run their hands through their hair and chain-smoke. If they already have five or six, they leave it to the midwives and await the news down at the pub.

Every episode ushers several babies into the world. The mothers are vulnerable and young, brimming with hope and terrified. The older women, the ones who have been through this too many times, bear down grimly. For them, the awe and mystery are long gone. They’re pacing themselves to go through the wall ahead while they’ve still got breath to scream. But all of them, mothers and midwives, rejoice when the babies are born, bloody, squalling, and beautiful.

It’s entirely natural to gape in astonishment at these creatures. When my son was born, he emerged gray and slick; in that moment I knew he was dead. But then in seconds—hours, it seemed—his robust cry transfixed me. He blossomed pink, then red. Then Love crashed in, a tsunami of feeling that narrowed my vision to a single point. Reason, control, diffidence — all was dwarfed by this mighty rock of love, solid and sudden, in my soul’s desert.

I had not known what to feel or how. Through circumstances and geography I had been raised as an only child by my grandparents. While I certainly did not want for love and all my needs were cared for, the absence of my father left me with an inner coldness that I feared. I had marked this day with dread and hope. Dread, because I did not feel capable of loving a child in the way he or she deserved. And hope, foolish or not, that I might somehow be saved through this experience.

It wasn’t that I was socially withdrawn or reclusive. I had friends, good friends, the kind that were as close as brothers or sisters, but without the competition for affection or the resentment that sometimes results from one’s birth order. It was rather that I had a stillness within, an impassivity as of a house intact but abandoned. It felt as if I had walled something up inside myself, as much to protect something within as to keep some unnamed terror without.

Years later, through a counselor, I was given a clue to a possible cause. He recommended John Bowlby’s book, Separation, which reported the effects on children who were sent to homes in the countryside from London and other cities to escape the nightly bombings during the Second World War. When finally, they were returned to their mothers after a long absence, they often refused any contact and turned away, silent and despairing. Bowlby believed that problems in the adulthood of these children could be traced back to this early separation.

My mother left when I was nine months old. My father, now alone, desperately needed to give me a stable home, so a succession of friends cared for me until his parents took me in when I was three. I don’t know if this explains my reticence entirely. We are woven of many strands, not all of them identifiable and no one of them strong enough to account for who we are. We make it up as we go and later, if we’re fortunate, we may see there was a pattern to our steps.

I grew up, blessed in ways I only later acknowledged. It was always the case that I would go to college; that was never in doubt. It was expected that I would work for the church in some capacity, either as a pastor, a writer, or as a teacher. It was assumed I would have a personal relationship with Christ, the inevitable outcome of the sermons I’d heard, the Bible classes I’d attended, the religious instruction I’d received for baptism.

It was taken for granted that I would fall in love. Which I did, several times, hardly knowing more than how desperately I wanted to give love, yet feeling how little I had to offer.

***

In the Advent season we live in expectation of change. We live in hope. We are pregnant with it. However else we may imagine God throughout the year, this is the time we think of God as an infant. God, born “on a Christmas morning.” God, whose coming as a baby transforms the world, one possibility at a time.

We call it the Incarnation, when Spirit becomes flesh, and we build a creche to house the Baby Jesus. We spot the birth of the Lord in a stable out behind an inn, nestled among the patient donkey, the lowing cattle, a rooster or two and a dog.

As an historical event, we know very little about his birth really. It was probably in 4 C.E., most likely at Nazareth, a backwater town in a province of the Empire notable mostly for its volatile populace and its strange apocalyptic urges. His birth was foretold, as later writers believed. It was somehow written in the stars, as some Persian astrologers divined. It was a threat to the local ruler’s corrupt regime, and it was the trigger to the massacre of male babies under the age of two within a precinct.

The birth itself was unremarkable, similar to the millions before it and the billions that would follow. There was pain and blood and relief and joy. But what makes God so perfectly real, so thoroughly human, so ultimately thisworldly, such that we are drawn near year after year, is that in some mysterious way this infant is the embodiment of the Divine.

In the epigram, Paul says we know ourselves as God is self-known. If that seems a stretch, the possibility of Christmas is that the Incarnation brings us in love to the Christ-child, mirrored now in every vulnerable birth of every baby born, and in so doing, as Paul says, we come to “possess the mind of Christ” and thus to know ourselves as we are known by God (1 Cor 2: 16 NEB).

A Loneliness that Hears

WinchesterCath

We do not have to discover the world of faith; we only have to recover it. It is not a terra incognita, an unknown land; it is a forgotten land, and our relation to God is a palimpsest rather than a tabula rasa. There is no one who has no faith (141). Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

“Be here now. Be some other place some other time. Is that so difficult?”

That is my recollection of a quote I heard several years ago attributed to Ram Dass, an American guru in the Hindu tradition. It’s no wonder we find it difficult to be in the present moment: we can’t see its edges. It’s a Venn diagram rather than a line or a point. Yet thousands of years of spiritual tradition and writings insist that this is where God is, here, in the present moment.

“Just as clairvoyants may see the future,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man, “the religious man comes to sense the present moment.” Is this an extra-sensory perception? Something that only one in a hundred is born with, those with second sight, the fortunate few who travel always in the assurance of being surrounded by the divine? “It is primarily, it seems, an enhancement of the soul,” says Heschel, ”a sharpening of one’s spiritual sense, an endowment with a new sensibility . . . Things have past and a future, but only God is pure presence.”

***

There is a Native American perspective that when we talk to one another we are surrounded by everyone and everything that has brought us to that moment. Our ancestors hover over and behind us; our past experiences and actions are melded into our bone marrow; our thoughts and words spring from the rivers of tradition and culture that water our singular desolation at times when we feel most alone. I have mentioned this to my students in ethics courses as a way of suggesting our links to our past and our debts to those who have gone before us.

When we speak, then, it is our entire experience of life to that point that shapes our responses to the person in front of us. Sure, we’re processing the signals we encounter, decoding while we encode, taking in the feedback—both verbal and nonverbal—and trying to see the moment through the eyes of our partner; all of this in the wider context of our social, political, and psychological sensitivities. That we do all of this in seconds, without even breaking a sweat, is testament to the commonplace extraordinariness of communication between humans, surely one of the most complex aspects of our species. But that’s just the baseline, something that most of us take for granted, like gravity or sneezing with our eyes closed. To recognize who we are as a result of our past can give us a wider understanding in order to be fully present in that moment.

When it comes to communicating with or even sensing God, though, we feel knocked back on our heels. Theories abound, well-meaning, but ultimately trite and foolish. We try: we adjust the parameters of our experiments in reaching God, taking notes when something seems to work, discarding methods like junk mail with hardly a glance. At prayer we try not to put our own desires forth, somehow thinking that if we refuse to acknowledge the very thing we so desperately need, that God will be good enough to give it to us. It all becomes ridiculous after a while, akin to superstition or sorcery—prayer as incantation. So, we drop it in disgust or regretfully move on or determine to go it alone.

I was in Winchester Cathedral with friends; we had come for Evensong on a summer’s afternoon, making our way from the Hospital of St. Cross and the 12th-century Almshouse of Noble Poverty, through the quiet back streets, past Winchester College, following the roofline of the cathedral in the near distance. When we arrived and slipped inside I had a deja vu moment reaching back four decades to when I had hitchhiked there as a student. I remembered it as one of the holiest moments of my life, in which I had encountered God in the echoing stillness of an afternoon as I knelt near the altar. There was no prayer, no words, no conjuring up of any images. The soaring windows above the nave and the transept, the light pouring in through the clerestory, were enough to lift me and awe me to my knees.

“Only those who have gone through days on which words were of no avail,” comments Heschel, “on which the most brilliant theories jarred the ear like mere slang; only those who have experienced ultimate not-knowing, the voicelessness of a soul struck by wonder, total muteness, are able to enter the meaning of God, a meaning greater than the mind.”

I knew nothing of that then, just that the sheer immensity of a hovering and sheltering Being was there, a Real Presence that transcended and shattered all sectarian rigidity. The fact that the building was designed to evoke such a response did not detract from the experience nor does the recognition that my recent visit, while spiritually uplifting and inspiring, did not overwhelm me in the same way as my first encounter—none of that diminished my sense of God’s presence therein.

Abraham Maslow’s little book, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences offers insight into these things. Maslow compares and contrasts ‘plateau-experiences’ with ‘peak-experiences,’ and suggests that the former “is serene and calm” rather than the climactic response to “the miraculous, the awesome, the sacralized, the Unitive” that we get in peak experiences. Whereas the peak experience is almost purely emotional, the plateau experience always, says Maslow, ”has a noetic and cognitive element . . . It is far more voluntary than peak-experiences are.” As we age and begin to make our peace with death, we are more likely to cherish, with sweet sadness, the contrast between our own mortality and the “eternal quality of what sets off the experience.”

Perhaps most important, says Maslow, is to realize that plateau-experiencing can be learned, achieved, practiced, and continued throughout life. There are no shortcuts to this, however, and, as Maslow notes, there isn’t any way of “bypassing the necessary maturing, experiencing, living, learning. All of this takes time.”

We don’t—and can’t—live on the peaks continuously. Indeed, Maslow cautions that those who put the peak experience before everything else can become the nastiest, meanest, least compassionate, people around. Furthermore, their constant pursuit of ecstasy-triggers, the compulsion for an escalation of stronger spiritual stimuli, easily slides over into magic, the anti-rational, the obsessive.

Some of the greatest spiritual adepts have had their “dark night of the soul,” when God cannot be found or even sensed. Most of us only have our gray days of the spirit, when our spiritual pulse is barely flickering. In those times we call upon our memories of the vistas we have seen from the peaks we have scaled.

“The most precious gifts come to us unawares and remain unnoted,” says Heschel. “God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes do we acquire the ability to grasp the theme.” In those gray days, and especially in the dark ones, we connect the dots looking back in order to be fully here in the Now.

There will be days when God seems not to answer, not to be found. God is not a pearl deep in the ocean, warns Heschel, as if we could, through our skills and intelligence, dive deep to discover Him. We can take the initiative—in fact, we must not be passive—but without God’s response and aid, we cannot come close to Him.

There is an aloneness that is solitary, yet not abandoned. I felt it upon leaving Winchester Cathedral, and have felt it since. But there are times when the peaks are enshrouded in fog, when even the plateaus are beyond our reach, when the valleys are the only possible route forward. In those times, declares Heschel, “There is a loneliness in us that hears. When the soul parts from the company of the ego and its retinue of petty conceits; when we cease to exploit all things but instead pray the world’s cry, the world’s sigh, our loneliness may hear the living grace beyond all power.”

Photo: Winchester Cathedral by Barry Casey