Thursday, March 25, 2004

"Stopping the World," the Fifth Definition

While in the Navy, I continued to read voraciously. A new friend introduced me to Jack Kerouac, Herman Hesse, Alan Watts and Ram Das, among others.

I became involved in a small group who were attempting to synthesize Christianity, Eastern thought, and the Beats. It was led by a dynamic woman. We shared a house, and spent our time together studying and discussing various sacred texts. On the day the leader insisted on baptizing each of us in the Atlantic, I walked away. Another young woman walked away as well.

Six months later, this young woman and I were married. Within the next year, our first daughter was born. She was perfect in every way. In my eyes, she still is.

The depth of love I felt for this new creation was transformational. Making sure that she was safe and had everything she would ever need became the driving force of my life.

Another daughter was born, just as beautiful and perfect as the first. A son soon followed. My wife and I asked our priest when we might have him baptized. Getting the daughters "done" had been a rather simple affair, involving showing up at the church on a Saturday morning for the 30 minute ritual, and then having brunch with the family. This time, the priest said no. He told us that he saw no indication we intended to raise the child as a Christian, so he could not in good conscience perform the baptism.

I was livid. Who did this guy think he was? So we didn't go to church. We also refused to have a bank account. I did not trust any institution, and wanted nothing to do with them. But, for some reason that I didn't fully comprehend, having my children baptized was important. I was astounded by the arrogance of this man, especially in light of the fact that he was my father-in law; my son's grandfather.

My wife dug out a Book of Common Prayer, which I didn't even know she owned. We began discussing the Nicene Creed, to identify the specific difficulties we had with Christianity. Other than a few minor quibbles about a couple of words, we had no serious problems with this historic document. We agreed to get involved with the local Episcopal Church, for the sake of the children.

My parents were Episcopalian, of the C and E variety (Christmas and Easter). My father grew up as a Baptist, and my step-mother was Greek Orthodox. The compromise was the Episcopal Church. In my six years with them, I probably saw the inside of a church half a dozen times.

Having spent a few years active in a Pentecostal church, I had a pretty good idea what was supposed to happen on Sunday mornings. Consequently, I felt comfortable with the first half of the "service" at our local Episcopal church; songs, bible readings, a sermon and prayers. But the second half was a bit much. All that weird stuff up at the altar. But, I wanted my son baptized, so I went along with it and kept my mouth shut.

After a few months, I noticed a curious thing. The brief time of prayer in the pew after receiving communion became an intensely focused, yet peaceful moment. I noticed that others around me were having the same reaction. Eventually I had to accept that whatever they were doing up there at the altar, it seemed to be of God, as it was having a positive effect on me and all the participants. That is still the root of my understanding of Eucharist.

My wife wanted to go to a church-sponsored weekend that was popular at the time. In order to go, I had to agree to attend a similar weekend for men. A weekend with a bunch of men who drove Volvos and talked exclusively of football and irrigation systems? I knew that this was a vision of hell that even Dante had been spared. Besides, I didn't have time for such foolishness. I was working full time on the loading dock, and taking classes at the University full time at night. And now I was supposed to drop everything to sit around and sing "Kum Baya" with a bunch of yuppies?

At the same time, this interest in the spiritual life on the part of my wife was a new and positive development. We had been careful to avoid that aspect of our lives since we walked away from that synthesizing group. I went to the weekend, etching the marks of clawing fingernails the length of our driveway. Of course, I went for my wife. I knew I had no need for such drivel.

The event was actually worse than I expected. A series of long, boring talks interspersed with guitar music, clapping, laughter, and the periodic embrace of some weeping man declaring, "I love ya, man!"

Two nights later, a meditation was offered in the darkened church. The only light was a small spot shining on the altar cross. At its conclusion, the men wandered out into the hall, where ice cream was being served. I could hear the laughter and the back slapping. I decided that the only way I was going to avoid these happy huggers was to just stay in the church.

Soon, I was alone. I knew they would let me stay there for as long as I wanted, if it appeared I was having some kind of "spiritual experience." So, I got on my knees, gazed on the cross, and assumed an "attitude of prayer." After a few minutes, I decided that it would be a shame to waste this opportunity, so I might as well go ahead and actually pray. I started out with praise and adoration, as I had been taught to do during my Pentecostal days, telling God how wonderful he was, and how much I loved him.

Then suddenly I stopped. What was I saying? Why should I declare my love for God? God could care less if I lived or died. The ugliness of my life was evidence of that. It was time to be honest. I now knew something about love, through being a husband and a father. That experience made it clear to me that I did not love God, and saw no indication that God loved me.

I got off my knees and sat in the pew. I still had to stay in the church, of course. I could hear a sing-along starting up in the next room. So, I just sat there, letting my mind wander, enjoying the quiet peacefulness of the place. Suddenly, in my mind's eye, I saw a neighbor who had lived next door to us when I was quite young. I saw her holding me as I cried. There was a vague memory of falling off my tricycle, or something similar. I had not thought of this woman for 25 years. Yet, here she was, in a vivid memory, floating across the screen before my mind's eye. What a strange thing.

The image shifted. I now saw my grandparents. Then a teacher from grade school who used to talk to me after class. Various aunts and uncles paraded by. Then the man who took me in and fed me when I was homeless. Next, a counselor from reform school. A professor from the University. Finally, I saw my wife, my daughters, and my newborn son.

I was crying. I wasn't sure why. I was on my knees again, although I didn't remember moving. What were all these images about? I wasn't sure. They all drew from me a similar feeling, however. The feeling of being loved; of being loved unconditionally.

It felt as if I were being held and slowly rocked, as a voice whispered, "Shh, it's okay now. I've always been here, and I've always loved you. I know you've been hurt. And I tried to show you that I cried with you, that I so deeply loved you. I tried to show you through those you are remembering tonight."

I dared to believe this was real. This was a moment of transformation, equal to the encounters with the young buck and the frozen woman so many years before. I was loved. Even more importantly, I was worthy to be loved.

That was over twenty-five years ago, yet rarely does a day pass when I don't remember that night; the night I stopped fighting to survive, and began to live.

In summary; striving to stop the world is motivated by a seeking for that elusive "something more." The sign that points the way is not found in the external journey. It is discovered by looking within; by honestly answering the question, what is it you seek? Identifying your heart's deepest desire may just lead to a surprising discovery; that the thing for which you search has been right before you, traveling with you, from the beginning.

What is the heart's desire? To love, and to be loved. Nothing more, and nothing less, will satisfy.