Monday, 23 February 2009

And after the fire

Evensong on Sunday was wonderful. Not just because I got to see Deacon Friend, which always makes me pretty happy, but because the sermon she gave seemed so relevant. I hadn't heard her preach before, and didn't realise she was going to be speaking last night. I'm very glad I made the journey to Leafy Suburb Church, even though it meant I got home late.

That marks six weeks and counting of going to church every Sunday. A year ago you'd never have convinced me this would happen, even if most of the services have been Evensong. I've changed such a lot in a year. It's appropriate, then, that the subject of the sermon was transformation.

A few things stood out for me. One was the acknowledgment that being open to God and to the possibility of transformation can be a frightening thing; changes in ourselves and in others can be scary, especially when we don't yet understand what's going on. I've certainly felt that in my own life and I don't really know how to deal with it, though I think I'm improving in some respects.

Fear is a very powerful thing, perhaps the closest thing to evil that I can bring myself to believe in. Much of my depression, I think, was related to how I responded to fear. I allowed it to rule my life. My comfort zones got smaller and smaller as I shied away from any discomfort or uncertainty, and the fear only got bigger. Eventually I was so tired of being scared that it just wasn't worth it to try any more. Retreat and withdrawal seemed like the only options.

I still get scared. I've always been cautious, easily frightened, perhaps more sensitive than I should be to life's lack of stability and consistency. I can't say what changed, exactly, and I can't point to all of how it changed, but my response to fear is different now than it used to be. Oh, I still have days where I hide under the duvet, unwilling to cope with life, but I choose them strategically now, and they don't spiral out of control. I still get discouraged, but somewhere along the line I learned to hope that tomorrow will be better, to let myself believe that things might improve. I still get frightened, especially when my mental state has been patchy for a while, but having experienced recovery once I know it's possible to experience it again, and that helps a lot. I haven't become an optimist, exactly, but I'm a lot less likely now to write off the world just because it is sometimes terrifying.

That's a pretty powerful transformation, at least from my perspective, and I don't really know how it happened. I can point to lots of little things, but adding them up doesn't seem to balance with the sort of change I've felt.

Which brings me to another point from last night's sermon: that transformation can happen on many levels. Sometimes learning a new perspective sheds new light on a subject and our thinking is transformed. I am blessed to see this in my teaching work: a student understands something and the light goes on, and in that instant they are transformed by delight. Other times transformation can be more profound: someone who has recovered from a serious illness or addiction can seem like a completely different person afterward. That sort of caterpillar-into-butterfly metamorphosis can be frightening to watch and frightening to undergo because it is so far-reaching. It has the potential to be extremely disruptive. But it can be a wonderful, inspiring thing to witness.

DF said in her sermon that the transformation Christians seek is to become more Christ-like: more loving, more merciful, more just, more compassionate, more encouraging, more faithful. If that's what Christianity is all about then sign me up! I'm not sure that isn't what most religion is about, though. I think Karen Armstrong might point out that increasing compassion is a major component of at least the three Abrahamic faiths as they are today, as well as that of several Eastern religions. But I digress. The point was that the sort of transformation Christians seek is to become more Christ-like, and that can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, frightening, disruptive. It changes lives.

And it's contagious. In loving others more fully, in forgiving those who harm us, in seeking to meet the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves, in encouraging those who struggle, in consoling the unhappy and fighting for the justice of the oppressed, what we do is teach people, by powerful example, that they are loved, they are worthwhile, they are valued. When they learn this they will often turn around and try to do the same for others. When they see that it is through God's grace that kindness has been done to them, they will seek God's grace themselves. And we don't have to say a word about it, we don't have to tell them how it's done, we don't have to push them to accept anything that's hard for them to believe, we just have to take loving, kind action. That's my understanding of what she was saying, anyway.

That has certainly been my experience with a number of people. Appropriately, DF is one example of someone who has been hugely influential in my own spiritual searching, despite--or perhaps because of--her complete acceptance of where I am now and her steadfast refusal to push her own belief system on anyone else. She helped me, a lot, when I most needed it and when she could have just walked away. I've seen her do the same or similar for many other people. Her capacity for loving, kind action astounds me. It has long been clear to me that her kindness to others is a result of her own relationship with God. I see the way she treats others, her commitment to the wellbeing of everyone she meets, and I am inspired. I want to live that way. And if her way of life is a result of a relationship with God, then I need to cultivate a relationship with God. And so here I am, cultivating that relationship with the aim of augmenting compassion, in the ways that I know how: reading scripture, praying daily, going to church of all things, and she didn't have to say a word. She didn't bother telling me the word, she just got on with living it as best she could.

That leads to the third point of her sermon, one that is perhaps most difficult for me. It was a suggestion of silence as a valuable means of seeking such transformation. I don't doubt that it's useful. I don't doubt that most of us, in this busy, noisy world, need more time for contemplation, more silence and stillness in our lives. But stillness and silence have never come easily to me. The closest I come to having a mind free of scampering, skittering thoughts is when I am playing or singing music, which is hardly something that counts as silence. My head is full of words and sounds and pictures, and all my efforts to clear it have failed; the best I seem to be able to do is to fill it with words, sounds and pictures that inspire and encourage me rather than cause me to feel desolation and despair. I don't know if silent contemplation or meditation would be transformative for me: I never get that far. The closest I get is in song.

So which hymn did we sing? This one, of course:

Jesus, these eyes have never seen
that radiant form of thine;
the veil of sense hangs dark between
thy blessèd face and mine.

I see thee not, I hear thee not,
yet art thou oft with me;
and earth hath ne'er so dear a spot
as where I meet with thee.

Yet, though I have not see, and still
must rest in faith alone;
I love thee, dearest Lord, and will,
unseen but not unknown.

When death these mortal eyes shall seal,
and still this throbbing heart,
the rending veil shall thee reveal
all glorious as thou art.

The veil of sense hangs dark between thy blessed face and mine. That sounds about right for my incessant attempts to make logical sense of something I actually believe to be ineffable. I really want to understand this... I really want to understand how Jesus fits into this world, this life, my life. It's proving difficult. The Trinity is not an easy concept for a rationalist like myself, and all I get from reading everyone from Tom Wright to Paul M Collins to Karen Armstrong is that some very influential Christians also don't think it's an easy concept... but while it doesn't make sense to me, thinking about God in Trinitarian terms gets in the way of thinking about God in terms of what I should do next. Veil of sense indeed! At the moment the only time I believe in a triune God is when I'm singing about it. The rest of the time, my concept of God is one of overwhelming unity and interconnectedness, of infinite wholeness.

I will give more thought to silence. I will keep trying. But in the meantime, I'm going to keep singing.

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