Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas morning 2007

On the way to church this morning-- a crisp, cool, and pristine dawn--I clear the windshield with a quick spray of fluid and a sweep of the wiper blades. Immediately, on the crystal-clear glass, countless paper-thin ice blossoms propagate in circular patterns on the windshield.

We marvel.

In the car on the way, I remark to my wife Neal that one of our chief failings is we think we are big. Each one of us seems to believe we are the center of the universe, and that we control the great influences that swirl around us. Of course, in most of us there is a practical part of the mind that logically realizes this is untrue, but the motive force behind us -- perhaps Western psychology would call it the ego -- persists in the delusion that it is all powerful.

Hence the need for what I mentioned yesterday -- submission.

We arrive at Grace Church in Nyack, New York, an Episcopalian place of worship. Built from heavy blocks of the local red sandstone, which was deposited in the age of the dinosaurs, it is a traditional, although tiny, Gothic church in the high tradition.

As we arrive at the equally tiny churchyard, a strange and misplaced taste of spring lurks within the winter frost.

Few people are in attendance. The church is dark.

This morning the sun comes through the stained glass high in the apse of the Church, casting rosette patterns of gleaming lavender and brilliant ochre light. They remind me of spectacular nebulae and areas of star formation--blurs of cosmic light in distant parts of the universe revealed by the Hubble telescope.

Candles surround us, reminding us of the light and fire that kindle meaning and relationship in every part of the universe.

At the end of the Church, a magnificent set of stained-glass windows recapitulating the passion. It glows with an incomprehensibly bejeweled presence that reminds me of the inner temple of the soul--that secret place which we all carry within our heart of hearts, but rarely glimpse; a place we seem to be forever creeping towards, in the breathless breath of our deepest possible confessional.

It is quiet this morning. There is no choir; all the big noise and celebration was last night at the midnight service, a service Neal and I are a bit too old and tired to make it to most years.

Even the church itself is holding its breath this morning. I feel as though we have slipped back in time, to a moment in the Middle Ages where the churches were filled not with pomp and circumstance, but with sobriety and the gravity of this brief life we live. Within the silence, a sense of humility, and a moment where I begin to recognize what Gurdjieff calls "our own nothingness."

I feel today as though I forever carry the beginnings of this soul through time-- as though the roots of my being lied buried far back behind me in time, in a medieval substance that I can still taste around me. In the chanting of monks, the bending of knees and the bowing of heads. I know this place. It has always been within me--how, I know not, but this is where the there is...

It occurs to me that events and time can begin to seem a burden in many lives, but it is actually the very weight of events and time that lift us up.

A paradox.

The minister--a young woman, fresh out of theological school, obviously brilliant--is new. An unknown, untested quantity. She's fragile, highly self-assured, yet nervous--a healthy blend of contradictions, provoking inner effort.

Hesitantly, she begins to speak of Marcus Borg and what he considers to be the "core question" of Christianity: did Christ bring us the light? What is Enlightenment? Weaving a complex web of associative symbolism about light, at first, she seems too intellectual--but then she wraps it up neatly--unexpectedly--masterfully--with a quote from Meister Eckhart, stating that the light is found within each one of us.

Perfect. In a sneak attack worthy of an old pro, she has deftly kicked the ball directly into the goal.

Now she continues the service, and she pauses -- actually pauses -- in the places where the catechism indicates silence should be kept.


This is a forgotten practice in the church. Silence is a dangerous thing. Something real might enter within the silence, and we spend most of our lives trying to avoid that.

She pauses more than once, intentionally. She pauses for long enough for us to notice the silence, savor the silence, taste the silence and physically encounter the solemnity of our wish.

Who is this young woman? I ask myself.

Something different.

Within the silence, I find myself asking yet another question. Do I come here hoping to receive something--

or is it what I intend to offer that matters the most?

Within the silence, there is a taste of both the joy and the sorrow.

May God's grace go with you--

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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