Weathering necessary storms

We must not try to domesticate the spiritual life
May 31, 2004

THE SNOWS OF winter are gone and the long rains of spring, and we have come to the time when lightning cracks the sky from horizon to horizon.

I love storms, love snow carried on a blast of cold, love sliding into sleep under warm blankets while the wind snuffles and howls like some northern beast nosing at our warm places. Love the strong rains of spring beating the earth out of its long sleep. Love the thunderstorms that march across the land in a part of the world where the scenery is the sky and it’s never the same for two days -- or two hours or two minutes -- running.

Life is like that, I think: a series of storms and calms and never twice the same.

Not long ago, I received an urgent e-mail from a friend. An old schoolfellow, a woman she had known for more than 30 years, had been diagnosed with a serious and perhaps fatal illness. “I’m sending this e-mail to everyone I know to be a praying person,” my friend wrote. “Please keep Mary [not her real name] in your prayers. She is a good person and has done much for others.”

I prayed for Mary and will continue to do so, and I’m sure the others who received the message will also pray, for by definition a praying person is a person who has learned to take prayer seriously. And there is something wondrous in the fact that prayer can be called forth so easily. One stroke of the finger, and the electrons dance to the other side of the globe.

Yet even so, my mind returns to my friend’s message. What does this brief note say about the one who sent it and the ones who received it? What swift impulse of love and succor caused my friend to write that “Mary is a good person and has given much to others”? What inner need caused me to be vaguely comforted by it, as if it were needful for me to know that Mary is worthy of my prayers?

No one is worthy of our prayers. No one is unworthy of our prayers. In our minds we know that; in our tangled and uncertain hearts, we are not so sure. We want an ordered and proper world. We want to see the good rewarded and the bad left by the wayside. We want the sun to shine only on the just.

We are not going to get that kind of world, and so, much of the time we try to make one for ourselves. We establish our hierarchies and entrench them; we make our rules and regulations and try to believe they are God’s law. We invent a world of ease and safety and make ourselves at home in it.

And yet I think the worst mistake we can make in the spiritual life is following our human desire to domesticate it. A stained-glass saint, after all, asks nothing of us, nor does a blond teenage angel. And as for that dusty-footed first-century preacher ... well, there is a deep and watchful instinct in human nature that recognizes the scent of danger, an instinct that suspects that a man who can fast for 40 days and who has the strength and purpose to forgive those who are driving nails into his body might be a rather dangerous person to know. Gentle Jesus meek and mild is a more comfortable traveling companion.

But the earth is not always benign; the victories of the saints are terrible and costly. True angels come helmeted with fire and introduce themselves with the necessary words, “Fear not.”

We need our storms. We need to know that God is not tamed. We need to give ourselves to the wildness and changes of life and to the freedom of a God whose only law is love. For when we do, we will come not into tragedy but into the heart of laughter. We will find ourselves in the place where, as Meister Eckhart writes, “The Father laughs and gives birth to the Son ... the Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.”

And when we have been drawn into the divine laughter that shapes the worlds, we will find the thing we had lost and never knew it and the place we have never seen but know to be our home.

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