catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 18 :: 2010.10.08 — 2010.10.21


Now we begin

We need no wings to go in search of Him, but have only to find a place where we can be alone — and look upon Him present within us.
St. Teresa of Avila

It’s not fear of damaging my reputation that repels me like the wrong side of a magnet when I sense the vortex of someone’s need.  No, I see images of high society and know well that I’m not a part of it, know that mine is a more average, down-home existence.  I like it that way.  A glossy identity takes too much time and energy to maintain and I don’t see the point of ever being embarrassed about a motley crew around my table or stressed out about my social status.

That said, there’s a moment of intuition when I meet or encounter certain people that puts that old familiar arm’s-length-stiffness in my elbow.  Need — emotional, physical, economic — is issuing from the skin like an odorless, invisible gas.  If I hold my breath, it will not become a part of me.  I am cordial, kind and smiling, while my politeness builds an impermeable wall between us.

As soon as I sit down to write about serving vulnerable people, I realize that I’m going to have to write about myself.  My resume might deceive you into thinking that my whole life is about serving others in various places of need — college students through education, economically disadvantaged people through fair trade, a struggling neighborhood through the creation of a community center.  But most days, these responsibilities are about busyness, about not-enough. 

As I fly through the checklists, there’s no centering mechanism.  I’m like a plane that’s left the earth’s field of gravity hoping to reach the edge of the universe; only there is no edge of the universe I can reach, just other fields of gravity constantly pulling me in.  In such a state, abundance turns back on scarcity.  There is much work to be done, a great sense of purpose, a future pregnant with possibility, a whole universe to explore!  But there’s only so much fuel to get from point A to point B, and when I’m obsessively watching the gauge waver near empty and wondering when the crash will come, I’m completely missing the view.  Not-enough time, not-enough money, not-enough energy — these become the problems that need solving in order to stay in the air; in the meantime, I’ve forgotten where I’m going and why.

On the ground, these problems result in a lack of presence.  I confess that I sometimes move through people like I move through tasks, mentally calculating the minimum duration and quality of an interaction required before moving on to the next thing.  I get claustrophobic in a moment that feels too focused, especially when the air is thick with another’s need.  Before it even occurs to me whether I can serve that need, I’m constructing an escape plan.  I’m avoiding the moment they need more than I can give — or want to give.  I’m plotting ways to control the relationship, while saving face as a “servant of others.”

I think this need for control is at the heart of the problem, nestled in like half a walnut with its fraternal twin: lack of control.  Not knowing how the mortgage will be paid or where the money for the tax bill is going to come from or how I’ll find time to finish the essential project or how the big ideas will ever be funded — so many big, open-ended questions leak energy profusely so that when it’s time to open up the engine and do something, go somewhere, there’s no fuel left, just a tell-tale stain of intention on the driveway.

I’ve learned to hear the observation that my husband and I do so much not as a compliment, but as a caution.  I know the harmful effects of over-commitment not just on myself, but on those around me.  In Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster advises, “Christian brothers and sisters may warn us if we are taking on too many activities, or if we are getting too puffed up, or both; as one friend said to me once, ‘You need to lay low in the Lord.’  They may encourage us that we are moving in the right direction.  They may stir us up to love and good works.” 

Lay low — it’s good advice, but what does it look like?  What does it feel like?  Occasionally the time opens up to do what I want, not just what I have to get done, and I find myself at a loss for what I even want to do.  For this reason, I think “laying low in the Lord” is much more than doing whatever springs to mind on a Sunday afternoon.  It refers to centering practices that, rather than just adding another responsibility to the to-do list, have the potential to ground everything we do. 

One such practice is that of solitude.  I understand solitude as being quietly present to God so that we might remember and experience that God is always present to us.  As much as it requires us to be physically alone sometimes, solitude can become a state of being wherever we are, whether a hermitage in the woods or a party in the city, as we become rehearsed in seeing the layers of reality in every moment.  God is present to me and in me and therefore present to others through me; thereby the personal discipline becomes not about me, but about what God can do through me for others.  In Celebration of Discipline, Foster writes, “The fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others.  There comes a new freedom to be with people.  There is new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts.”  Thomas Merton, a vocational practitioner of solitude, is even more direct:

The only justification for a life of deliberate solitude is the conviction that it will help you to love not only God but also other men.  If you go into the desert merely to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils. (New Seeds of Contemplation)

To “go into the desert,” of course, requires both more and less of me: I need to create more space by doing less, by expecting less of myself.  The good news here is that the presence of God is not dependent upon my achievement of perfect balance, like the mom waltzing around effortlessly in the laundry detergent commercial.  God is present anyway, in the middle of it all, whether I notice or not.  In The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner writes,

For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars but in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.  It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but the experience of God’s presence.  That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also, I think, the miracle we really get.

When I have eyes to see the gift of God’s presence to me in incarnation, in Spirit, my capacity for love grows large.  Then, out of the overflow of such an abundant gift, I am compelled to share.  The eternal breaks through into the present and suddenly time is not so scarce, the checklist is not so oppressive.  The rarity of such apocalyptic moments begs the regular practice of solitude to dismantle our walls, melt our hearts, open up space in our lives for God and others.

I acknowledge that even the possibility of practicing solitude is a mark of my privilege.  I’m not working three jobs to feed a family or enslaved in forced labor or suffering from chronic, disabling pain.  Even in my self-imposed busyness, I have time and knowledge to ask these questions with my own pathetic will as the only obstacle to change.  As with all privileges, this one comes with great responsibility.  I owe it not only to myself, but to all those whose paths I will cross to practice the presence of God that I might be present to others — not just in their joy, but also and especially in their suffering.  I may not always be able to solve every problem I encounter, but simply being a compassionate companion is a beginning.  The being present becomes its own teacher.  As Dorothy Day writes in Loaves and Fishes, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led Christ to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now I have begun.’”

your comments

comments powered by Disqus