Monday, July 2, 2007

How Do You Pray When It's Too Hot To Pray?

By and large, in this part of the world the summer has been unusually idyllic so far. There have been a few brief stretches of hot weather in the Northeast, but there have also been long stretches of weather in the 70's (occasionally even in the 60's) with nights in the 40's, sparkling clear days and nights full of twinkling lightning bugs with the sky full of stars. Certainly unusual, and wonderfully enjoyable.

Then come the hot interludes: and the loud complaining begins. We're so uncomfortable. We find it hard to take. It's too hot to work. And it's too difficult to pray when the weather is like this.

I'll be the first to admit that the advent of cheap air-conditioning has made life a lot easier, and being able to sleep in a cool room does make the next day a whole lot easier to manage. And I'm glad that my office can be at least reasonably comfortable when I go there to work. But I also know that I'm very old-fashioned for this present age: I tend to assume that in summer it will be hot and in the winter it will be cold. I know that's impossibly archaic for lots of people, but there it is. It's the way I am. When I was growing up the only places I knew that were air-conditioned were the movie theatre and the most expensive department store, and central heating was no where as sophisticated as it is now. We tended to get through things one way or another, and complain a lot.

It's the complaining that interests me right now, or rather the root from which the complaining comes. I've come to see what an important issue this is for me, especially in living my life in gratitude.

The crucial turning point in my thinking about this happened one hot September day about 17 or 18 years ago. I was living at a monastery that we had at the time in the Low Country of South Carolina. Having grown up in Kentucky I knew something about hot summers, but when I went to South Carolina I discovered that I was only beginning to explore the area of heat and my response to it. There were days and days - even months and months - of blasting hot weather, during which it was hard even to breathe. We got up quite early for Matins at Holy Savior Priory, so we needed to be in bed at a fairly early hour. In mid-summer at about 9:00 pm when I wanted to be settling down it was still quite light and the temperature was still over 100 degrees. No matter how good your air-conditioning is, in conditions like that the walls of the buildings are hot and radiate a blanket of discomfort over everything. It was, in a word, awful.

The climax of it for me was September. Where I grew up summer could be extremely hot, but by September it was beginning to moderate and so my body always expects cooler weather in September. And my body's expectations weren't met in South Carolina. The heat went on. And on. The blasting discomfort continued. It was unending.

And one searing hot day I was crossing the lawn between two of our buildings, suffering a tremendous lot from the heat and feeling unjustly treated by the universe because here it was in mid-September and the weather was still like this. I remember the dialogue that ensued as clearly as if it were yesterday: I said to myself: "Isn't this ever going to end?" And from somewhere in my mind came the answer: "No."

And that small simplistic dialogue proved to turn a lot of my life, or at least of my thinking process, upside down. After that things had changed. I no longer expected the weather to be any different than it was. It was still terribly hot, and that still had its unpleasant aspects. But I was no longer expecting that my discomfort would change anything, and to my astonishment that made my experience of the heat altogether different. There was still lots of heat, still lots of sweat, it still felt like I was breathing through a wet blanket, but somehow I was no longer wishing for something else. And that was what made the difference. It took me some time to figure out what had happened. In some senses I am still working on that. But I knew in that instant that something had changed.

In the years that have gone by since that September day, I have explored that moment a number of times. I've thought about it and reexperienced it in my memory. I've been fascinated by it because I've so seldom encountered such a dramatic and sudden change. Along with that, meditation, in its slow and persistent way, has been sharpening those abilities with which I abide in the present moment. In simply sitting on my cushion and making the constant effort to return to the focus of my meditation over and over I seem to have learned something about my mind: I've learned how much energy I use up wishing that things were different.

Wishing for a reality different than the one I've got exhausts a considerable amount of my energy, I discover. And in doing that I am robbed of a good deal of the present moment. Most of this process is nearly unconscious. I had to work for a long time to see - no, to experience - how much I give up in the constant desire to have things be different. What happened in my encounter with myself on that lawn in South Carolina on that impossibly hot day was that I turned that energy loose. I decided, mostly unconsciously, not to use my energy that way any more. That gave me quite an unexpected reservoir from which to live my life in the present, and I've been unpacking the results of that moment for years since. In some ways nothing changed: it was still hot, it was still uncomfortable, it still robbed me of desire to work or pray. But in other ways everything changed: I was simply no longer fighting the way my life was at that moment. That turned out to have big consequences.

I can't tell you a recipe for getting this to happen. I couldn't give instructions to someone who wanted this experience for themselves. The Buddhists would say that you have to experience how much suffering you are carrying around and finally make the decision to just drop it because you no longer want the weight of that burden. Christians talk about these experiences as moments of Grace. Because of the artistic bent of my family, I have always treasured the beauty of what was before me in the present moment. Maybe, at some level of my awareness, I just got to the point where I knew how much of that awareness I was robbing myself of and decided not to do that to myself any longer. But it wasn't something I consciously decided to do: it was, in Christian terms, a moment of pure Gift.

And these moments, which we all experience in smaller or greater ways from time to time, are what Christians mean by the Experience of God. They open our experience to deeper and more vast levels. They show us the majesty of the life we have been given to live. They are what transfiguration is about.

Is this why the Church chose to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in the summertime?

I'll have to think about that for a while.

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