In the Sermon on the Mount, original humanity speaks. Blessed are the poor in spirit means, “The new time is here, the time of the liberated heart, and lucky are the marginalized people who haven’t learned society’s way of ignoring the heart and its real hunger. They’ve really lucked out, in this new age when the God of desire is supplanting the God of power and prestige and respectability.” ~ Sebastian Moore, O.S.B.
One of the great gifts of being around people who have mental illness is how little pretense there is in the conversation. Often the lives of people who are seriously and chronically mentally ill have been shattered to such an extent that there is not much tolerance for the kind of polite pretending that “everything is fine,” which passes as conversation in Middle America. They have had everything precious to them – relationships, jobs, homes, reputations, freedom itself – stripped away via a grinding cycle of negative symptoms, societal stigma, and legal and financial consequences.
There are times when my interaction with people facing such devastation triggers fear in me because, I suspect, it reminds me of the utterly terrifying precipice I have walked myself in past years. only some six years ago. As I heard one wise person say, “Some of us might be further down the road than others, but we are all the same distance from the ditch.” Being so close to those on the margins makes it hard for me to forget how fragile and fleeting this troubled dream of life actually is.
In this way, hanging around emergency rooms and psych wards and sick beds continues to teach me what it means to walk in the Way of Jesus in this twilight time of the American Empire. In particular, I am reminded that truly to hunger and thirst for God means dying to all of those “counterfeit kingdoms” that seek to claim my attention and my allegiance: my need for approval and status, my ceaseless thirst to be comfortable and satisfied (now!), my urge to know it all and be in control. Alas, how many lifeless bodies and broken hearts do I need to see to get it through my head (and into my heart) that all that appears solid and important to me now is but a flickering shadow in light of eternity’s long gaze?
Die before you die. ~ Rumi
A few months back, one of the students at the university where I teach Bioethics asked me to explain why I had the above quote from a 13th century Sufi mystic at the bottom of my e-mail signature. I was caught off guard by the question. I went on to tell her that even though I personally encounter hundreds of situations of death and dying every year, I need regular reminders that the day will come when I, too, will be in that hospital bed, fighting for my last gasps of air.
The question that Rumi’s exhortation compels me to explore is how best to prepare for that moment. Will I enter God’s Eternal Now still clawing for ego gratification and clinging to all of my petty judgments, resentments, and delusions? Or will (what the African American tradition calls) my “Home-going” be marked by a peaceful surrender unto Mercy’s tender arms? To take Rumi’s advice to “die before I die” means practicing the art of letting go long before everything is taken from me by force.
One discipline of letting go I have been trying to practice this Lenten season is giving up some of my anxiety about time. I started doing this when a patient, who himself only had weeks to live, urged me to slow down, breathe, and attend more to the present moment. I was in a hurry that morning to see a lot of patients. Noticing my rather frenzied demeanor, he pointed to my left wrist and gently whispered to me, “Chaplain, perhaps you should be paying more attention to that prayer bracelet you are wearing than to your watch.” Busted!
Admittedly, all of this talk of dying, surrender, impermanence, etc. can seem rather morbid. I am aware of the danger of using these concepts to justify a kind of life-and -body-denying religiosity all too often used as a tool of political and sexual repression. We all know hyper-religious types (both of the Left and Right-wing variety) with perpetually gloomy faces and grim demeanors who seem to take perverse pleasure in rendering apocalyptic judgments about the end times, the collapse of civilization, the death of the eco-system, the imminent coming of Christ, etc. Yes, we need our prophets but not self-loathing doomsayers with a death wish for humanity.
As I have come to understand the Jesus Way, however, the spiritual path is about dying to our illusions and idols in order to be united with the One who can give all of the joy, fulfillment, and passion for which we desperately long. In order to do that, we must be in touch with our own hunger. We must acknowledge all of the myriad ways that we fill what Pascal marvelously called “the God-shaped hole” residing in every human heart with those things that are not God. In this practice of confession (to use Christian language) we admit our vulnerability and brokenness, not to heap shame upon ourselves, but to humbly and gently unclench our fists and open our hearts to the Love from which there can be no separation.
So rather than than to condemn or repress our longings, we can allow God to transform them into agents of healing grace. I think that the English Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore is on to something profound when he says that the key to our happiness is – with Jesus as our model – coming to know God as the “object of all desire.”
Jesus knew God as the object of all desire. For him the object was not just a hint, it was the most certain reality. He knew the ultimate as his Abba, which according to one Aramaic scholar, is best rendered ‘loving birthing parent:’ he knew all desire in himself, for joy in all its forms, for sexual fulfillment, for laughter and the love of friends, as the multi-faceted single thrust of eros toward its absolute origin.
And thus Jesus dreamed a society ruled by desire as he knew it, and not by the myriad forces that come to rule the world forgetful of real desire and forever sinking into its counterfeits. What we call sin is the enormous darkness everywhere, the worldwide conspiracy to turn our back on what we most deeply know about ourselves….Jesus had a name for society as he dreamed it, society ruled by our real desire. He called it the Kingdom of God.
~ Sebastian Moore, O.S.B.
May this Holy Week be filled with opportunities for each of us to get in touch with our “real” desire (desire for the Real) and thus to experience the true delight for which we were created. Jesus lived, died, and conquered death so that “we might have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (John 10.10, The Message translation). What we imagine to be “life” is short and pales in comparison to the Real thing. Off with that watch and over to the prayer beads! Holy Week blessings to all.