Tuesday, June 14, 2011

When God Mumbles

My spouse, Martha, and I subscribe to a daily blog that offers select passages from the late Henri J.M. Nouwen’s lifetime of spiritual reflection. On most occasions Nouwen’s insights are encouraging and uplifting. Tuesday’s comment was different.

“The beginning of the spiritual life is often difficult not only because the powers which cause us to worry are so strong,” Nouwen wrote, “but also because the presence of God's Spirit seems barely noticeable.”

I wasn’t expecting that harsh reflection, but I know what Nouwen meant. Sometimes the Spirit of God is hard to detect.

But it’s an odd thought to insert between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, when the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the star. Where is the Spirit, anyway? If the spirit is among us, or inside us, why don’t we feel her? If the spirit is inside us this moment, why aren’t we citadels of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? Sometimes I feel those things, but not all at once. And often the serenity of the Spirit eludes me and I am anxious, worried and fretful.

Part of that may be due to the three years I spent as a police and political reporter for the Pottstown Mercury in Pennsylvania. A reporter sees a lot of grief and tragedy. All of us experience loss and pain at some point in our lives, but a reporter sees it every day: fatal fires and auto wrecks, airplane crashes, murders, murder suicides, sky jumping deaths, sexual assaults, child abuse. And not only journalists: police, ambulance drivers, judges and pastors see it, too. We become those pain-in-the-ass parents who growl when our kids ask for the keys to the car. “Aw, I’ll be careful,” they insist. “Nothing is going to happen.” But we know better. Something does happen, to someone, every day.

Of the thousands of poems I scanned as an English major in the sixties and seventies, there is one I can still recite from memory: “Hap,” by the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.

IF but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!”

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan...
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

The poem was written in 1866 when Hardy was 26 years old. Scholars surmise Hardy was having a depressive reaction to the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which set forth the theory of evolution. For millions of good Anglicans – including Darwin himself – the book was a serious challenge to the story of creation and the nature of God.

In “Hap,” Hardy registers a complaint against the universe: if he is going to suffer and die because an Almighty God wills it, so be it, amen! But if suffering and joy are heaped upon us by chance, woe to us all. Later poets put it more succinctly:

Life sucks with dreadful
Interludes. Will God be there
When it’s time to die?

Most of the time we can face life with a qualified optimism. It has been ten years since 9/11, and there have been no further terror attacks – although a common prayer of drivers when they head into the Holland Tunnel is, “Please, God, not today.” But even reporters and cops have no reason to suspect imminent mayhem, especially this time of year, especially in June. Perhaps a little James Russell Lowell will provide an antidote to the pessimistic Hardy:

And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays;
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten ...

Sometimes it’s possible to sustain Lowell’s optimistic airs, at least when the sun shines. But every now and then something happens that gives us pause, a 9/11, the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, or other natural disasters. Every now and then the media reports that a huge asteroid is passing precariously close to the earth’s orbit – a celestial phenomenon that happens often enough to inspire science fiction films. In the 1998 movie, Armageddon, an asteroid the size of Texas is headed for earth and the world's best deep core drilling team is sent to nuke the rock from the inside.

A century or more ago, it was easier to enjoy God’s creation without worrying about killer asteroids. Of course, asteroids did come, they did hit the earth, and the results were catastrophic. Some scientists attribute the extinction of the dinosaurs to an asteroid collision that strown (as Hardy would put it) dust and debris into the atmosphere for months, blotted out the sun and killed off the flora and fauna on which the dinosaurs depended to live. In 1908, an explosion rivaling the detonation of a hydrogen bomb leveled 830 square miles of forest near Tunguska, Russia – an event scientists believe was caused by an exploding asteroid. It happened in a remote area of Siberia, so few people noticed it at the time. If the asteroid had exploded over Port Chester – and it was pure chance that it did not – it would have been famous.

Happily, our ancestors rarely worried about these events because they didn’t know about them. If you Google “asteroid,” you get plenty of apocalyptic (if not always scientific) speculations. Scientists say a huge asteroid will hit the earth in 2014. No, update: in 2036. No, more likely: in 2182. Whenever. Asteroids have hit the earth before and they will hit the earth again.

Is there any way we can bring ourselves to stop worrying and love the asteroid? Many of us pray to a more powerfuller than we that the asteroid will miss us and hit somewhere else, or that it will avoid the earth until 2036 when our grandchildren can deal with it. But either petition puts us in the same predicament faced by the women and men of London during the Blitz in 1941. Is it fair to pray that the bombs will miss your house if they will hit your neighbor’s house instead?

Sometimes it’s exhausting to inventory all the things we have to worry about, ranging from your kids dinging the car to an asteroid hit on the Empire State Building. Life is unpredictable. Tomorrow we could discover a new Twitpic by Anthony Weiner and next November we could elect Michele Bachmann president of the United States. There’s not enough Alprazolam in the world to help us deal with the stress.

Which brings us back to Henri J.M. Nouwen, a spiritual leader whose authentic spirituality my spouse observed when she sat in a classroom with him during her seminary years. “The beginning of the spiritual life is often difficult not only because the powers which cause us to worry are so strong,” Nouwen wrote, “but also because the presence of God's Spirit seems barely noticeable.”

On Trinity Sunday, it seems more urgent than ever that we notice God’s spirit. The powers which cause us to worry are stronger than our will to set them aside, and until we can do that, our spiritual life remains embryonic. But how do we do it?

Nouwen is frank. In another blog this week, his words are recalled: “How can we move from fragmentation to unity, from many things to the one thing necessary, from our divided lives to undivided lives in the Spirit?” he asks. His answer: “A hard struggle is required.”

Sometimes I think the struggle is too hard. In order to keep going, I have to remind myself that some theologians believe the one sin beyond redemption is blasphemy against the Spirit. And I wonder: is it blasphemy to doubt that the Spirit will keep her promise to be with us at all times as an advocate against the powers that cause us worry?

No doubt Nouwen is correct. When the presence of God’s spirit is hard to detect, a hard struggle is required. And we can’t be passive about the struggle, delegating it as we often do to our pastor or our spouse or our loved ones. It has to take place within ourselves.

Brother Thomas Merton said that detecting the presence of the Spirit will require a willful shutting off of all the powers that cause us worry – turning off our televisions and computers, setting our iPods aside, closing our windows against the drone of traffic – and sitting in expectant silence. Only in the silence, Brother Thomas said, will we begin to hear the barely audible voice that dwells within us: the voice of the Spirit of God.

It won’t be easy, but the fruits are magnificent,the antithesis of the human weaknesses and worries that distract us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22)

But here’s the thing. We can't get there without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it takes many quiet moments to detect her presence. The journey to spirituality is not a caravan we join to follow others to the destination. It's a road we have to walk ourselves.

As always, Nouwen tells us where to begin.“Prayer,” he writes, “is in many ways the criterion of Christian life. Prayer requires that we stand in God's presence with open hands, naked and vulnerable, proclaiming to ourselves and to others that without God we can do nothing.”

Once we acknowledge our complete dependence, the Spirit of God will guide us all the way.