Does God speak to me? All the time, through the words of my family and friends. Recently He caught my attention with the help of my friend Laura, who pointed out that a focus on cultivating character wouldn’t necessarily end well. I agree, but it was necessary to spend some time thinking about why I agree, and then some more on figuring out how to say it, and then saying it. And still I’m not done.
The things we choose to focus on can easily distract us from other good and necessary things, so it is important to choose those things wisely. And, for the sake of our limited attention and energy, to be wise in choosing what not to focus on. I tend to be better at the second than the first, good at finding the shortest path to eliminating possibilities. I’m not so great at selecting the things to pursue—not hopeless, but not a champion either. I’m an excellent skeptic, not such a great proponent, and I’ve learned to accommodate that by curbing my tongue in both directions, avoiding both cynicism and starry-eyed enthusiasm in my writing by sticking to what I actually know through experience.
One thing I know about holy wonder is that the common paths to it don’t work for everyone, because they don’t work for me. That doesn’t mean that holy wonder doesn’t exist—scripture tells us over and over that it does. Psalm 19 tells us that the very heavens declare the glory of God. It’s just that I’m not a very good listener. And traditional means for experiencing that glory have left me cold.
When I talk about this (which isn’t often, or loudly!) the listener tends to assume that I come from a sterile, baptistic, low-ritual background. Quite the opposite. I have spent the bulk of my Christian life in the company of Anglo-Catholics and Anglo-Catholic wannabes. Once while attending a Presbyterian church plant that had adopted a nearly Anglo-Catholic liturgy, I was asked by the pastor (with barely concealed pride) what I thought of weekly communion. I surprised him by saying that I’d never attended a church that didn’t offer weekly communion.
I would probably surprise him further by saying that, after 20 or so years of weekly communion, I can take it or leave it, that is, I appreciate it as a memorial but nothing more, and I no longer need a weekly reminder. This is only to speak honestly of my own experience. I don’t doubt that others experience it differently, as an encounter with holy wonder, even as a means of grace. I only caution them against assuming that communion inexorably has that effect.
Mormons believe that sort of thing about the Book of Mormon, namely that one can’t read through it without being converted. I deliberately surprised the missionaries I met with by doing just that, heavily marking up my copy to show that I had, and using my notes as a springboard for discussion. To their credit, they were surprised and said so. Likewise, I’ve participated in several mystical practices of the church, at length and with an open heart, and they have not benefited me in any way known to me. I don’t conclude as a result that their goal is nonexistent, only that those particular paths are closed to me and I need to seek others.
I mentioned earlier that I am comfortable with silence and solitude, have ample amounts of both in my life, but still have trouble shutting off my brain in such circumstances. Or, I should say, I generally let my mind run free at those times, and it chooses to race rather than shut itself off. So this morning on my walk I decided to spent a short portion of it with a quiet mind, a couple of blocks worth. I happened to be walking towards the mountains, which are very close, so I just looked at them—until I felt the need to look at something else before I started thinking about them. I found myself enumerating the things in my view—bush, middle school, intersection, red truck, red gate, black and yellow Mercedes, slogan on the side of the Mercedes which said “Cruising is not illegal” … any one of those things could have sent me off on a train of thought, but I tried to simply name them and move on.
Once I turned the corner, which was my goal, I immediately thought it was funny that I had spent the time enumerating things, since just beforehand I had been thinking about how our desire to enumerate often gets us in trouble—ten commandments, really? Not nine or twelve? And God unfortunately failed to number them himself, leaving the task to us, giving Roman Catholics and Protestants the opportunity to differ on where to set the divisions between them. (Which reminds me of a joke I once heard Garrison Keillor tell, about Moses coming down Mt Sinai with the tablets and saying to Aaron, “Well, I managed to talk him down to ten—but adultery is still on the list.”)
But then I realized that I wasn’t enumerating at all, at least according to the definition. I wasn’t counting, or itemiing, or assembling a list, I was simply naming each item—not giving it a name, just calling out its name—and even that was only a matter of noticing each thing—and “noticing” may even be too strong, more a matter of noting its existence, then moving on. To what purpose? Nothing inherent in the activity, simply an exercise in stopping something else from happening.
It worked, as far as it went. A few times the thing I noticed was interesting enough to encourage a train of thought (“Cruising is not illegal”?) but each time I managed to resist simply by looking for something else to take note of. That’s still a mental activity, but at least it was one rooted in the moment. And there was some quiet space between each moment of noting. Perhaps that space will grow as I get more practiced at this. Or perhaps not, in which case it won’t prove to be a suitable tool for inducing quiet. Or perhaps the space will grow—and nothing useful will come along to fill it, in which case I’ll need to reconsider the idea of quiet and what good it can do me. Too early to tell. We shall see.