Lately I’ve noticed that some books which used to move and inspire me now feel foreign to me. This includes Isaac Penington’s warm and lyrical writings about life in the Spirit of God and Daniel Berrigan’s apocalyptic and lyrical writings about peace and justice and the lack thereof. I find that I have a similarly mixed reaction to some of the songs, speeches and articles sent to me by a friend who is passionately involved in the Occupy movement. I don’t mostly disagree with them. I believe, like Penington, in the reality and central importance of the inward encounter with God; I believe, like Berrigan, that our continual warmaking is a sin against the creation and the creator; I believe, like my Occupying friend, that we need to stop widening the gap between rich and poor, need a new economics, politics and culture that will focus on cooperation and sustainability rather than endless debt-fueled competitive growth. And on some level I am glad that people are talking vigorously and articulately about these things. On another level I feel remote or even wary.
It isn’t that I’m hopeless or unable to engage. Henri Nowen and Wendell Berry, still speak to my condition fully and clearly, and there is no sense of foreignness there. It’s taken me a little while to figure out what makes the difference. Lately I seem uncomfortable with sweeping words that focus on the Vision Splendid, whether the vision is of ecstatic union with God or of the sane and peaceable society, or on the Miserific Vision, whether of the soul bereft of God or the dystopian society. I still respond to writing that starts from the small scale, the particular experience of trying to care for certain persons and a certain place, and that returns to the questions of how to do this work well, though it may go on in between to speak of societal or universal truth.
I think I have some good reasons for this preference. I also think there is a danger in it.
For one thing, sometimes the Vision Splendid seems to encourage its followers to split the world into people who follow the Vision and are good, and people who don’t and aren’t. I find this annoying and worrisome but not too much of an obstacle since it isn’t generally one of my temptations.
For another, I have been disappointed (as probably most people have) by some people who had the Word and the Vision, who conveyed a vivid sense of the presence and power of God, or a passionate and hopeful cry for justice. I was moved and attracted by their messages, disappointed when I got close enough to them to see that the message didn’t seem to have penetrated very far into their daily lives. I’m in no position to judge them. I have sometimes been proud of my inspired emotions or my inspiring words, about God or about other people, even as I went on making choices that distanced me from God and made life harder for other people. I’ve been ashamed of this and tried to avoid repeating it.
I’ve tried, then, to focus more fully on being, not sensitive, moved, moving, inspired, but useful, capable, attentive, helpful. Mostly this has been good and grounding for me. But it is also capable of distortion. I can avoid or disengage from helpful renderings of the vision because of my earlier disappointments, I can get caught up in the minutiae of my daily work and forget why I am doing it. I can get busy enough, outwardly or inwardly, so that much of my daily worship time is spent lurching between to-do lists and daydreams and duty-prayers. I can feel satisfied with the progress I’ve made in a small area and then feel overwhelmed when I am reminded of the larger dangers in which I, as an American or a human, am caught up. That doesn’t help.
As usual, it isn’t either-or. I need to work well--for the work’s sake, for its importance and the pleasure I take in doing it, not to prove myself. I need to listen to my neighbors--for their sake, not to show how sympathetic I am. I need to stop my distractions and be open to God, not proud or ashamed of myself, just present. And all these things, rightly done, complete and enrich each other.
I need, also, to give thanks for and pay heed to the right and inspired words that I hear and read, whether or not they appear to me to be grounded in lives that match them. I need to speak the truth when it is given to me, and also to live by it as well as I can and acknowledge the times when I fail. I think this attempt and this acknowledgement is important both for my sake and for others’; I know too many people who are deeply hurt by or dismissive of the religion that has given me challenge and comfort and guidance and an opening into God, and I know in some cases, surmise in others, that this is because the people who spoke the words that I found life-giving lived in ways that made all their words seem suspect*. I think the same thing happens, not just with religion, but with particular causes and values that matter to me.
I need, when it’s possible, to spend time with people who speak practically, not stagily, of the joy of God and the hope for justice and the hard slogging that moves us toward these things and the grace that sometimes picks us up and moves us closer when we can’t slog any more. I miss my Quaker Meeting for this, but I do find other openings into this kind of fellowship, and I mean to hold onto them. And I am reminded that this fellowship isn’t limited by time and space. I am reading Thomas Kelly again with some discomfort (having to do with my distracted ways, not with doubts of him) and much hope.
I’d like to hear from you about what books or practices or fellowships or experiences help you to find balance, or to live your words, or to hold onto what’s good in others’ words and lives without getting too distracted by the rest.
*--I didn’t want to take up any more room in that paragraph, but I wanted to make it clear that I am not wishing that everyone would join my religion; only that they wouldn’t see it as worthless or destructive.