Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Particular View of Things

If you follow the comments that come after this column you'll know that my post last week about the death of two of our brothers stirred up something of a discussion, and this discussion also continued in a series of email messages to me in addition to the 3 comments on the blog. So I've had the whole matter of what's proper for talking about and what isn't in my mind this week. It's an area that is pretty fundamental for me as it happens, and which I think ought to be more fundamental in the Christian life.

Just before the Anglican Church of Canada's last General Synod I was talking to a Canadian friend about the likely outcome of the vote on the resolution concerning the blessing of same-sex unions and she said: "You have to remember that the highest value for Canadians is reconciliation and that above all things we are polite." She predicted that the House of Deputies, being concerned with their fellow Canadians, would vote to approved the blessings and that the House of Bishops, being concerned with their fellow bishops all over the world, would reject it. That's exactly what happened.

So what are Americans - above all things? It seems to me that no matter how you analyze it, one of the chief things you have to include in the summary of our character is that we are positive. We look on the bright side. And, just as Canadians see being polite as a virtue, Americans see being positive as virtuous - and see anything that seems negative as suspicious at best. There was a news story some time ago about a school system in Texas (I think) where a group of parents was objecting to some lessons that had been given to their children on the topic of death (this had happened after the death of a prominent person in town). The interesting thing was that they were objecting because they said this teaching was against their religion - which was Christianity. When a rather puzzled school board inquired what about death was anti-Christian the answer was: "Well it isn't very positive, is it?" The positive is good. Anything else is to be avoided.

Well, that's a perfectly normal part of human nature. We love things that are pleasant. We don't like the dark, the painful, the angry or the dismal. In addition, the positive outlook has done a great deal for our society. It has given us an orientation towards the future, towards problem solving and towards a view that difficulties are just obstacles to be overcome, and this has made us one of the most successful, and most prosperous, peoples in the history of the human race.

But how does it fit with Christianity? (or just plain reality, for that matter?)

Isn't there a reason why Christianity puts the Cross at the center of everything? Isn't there a deep intuition that sees to it that one of the first things you see when you enter a Church is a Cross or a Crucifix? This visual orientation towards Jesus' Crucifixion and all of the events that led up to it is simply a way of being reminded, every time we set foot in a Church building, that there is more to life than the American viewpoint (or the Canadian viewpoint, or the Argentinian viewpoint, or whatever). Is the sum of our life simply to be the positive things we have accomplished?

My questions arise from many years of a meditation practice that requires that I examine the way my mind wanders and the content of my distractions, and that I examine these things not with suspicion but with curiosity. And I am also bidden to become aware of the times when my mind has wandered from my meditation and to bring it back, with no recrimination but with strength and with patience. In this way of looking at things, pain is a distraction and so is pleasure, and both are to be examined. A pleasant smell can be a distraction and so can a loud noise, and both are to be received with openness. And lest you put this down entirely to my Buddhist proclivities, I will refer you to the practice of Centering Prayer - a thoroughly Christian form of meditation - and its practice of open receptiveness and the welcoming of whatever comes into consciousness.

"I haven't got time for the pain" says the familiar commercial. But what happens when I do the unthinkable and take time for the pain? Well, just to give one man's testimony, when I learned to take time for the pain of a headache a whole area of my life opened up. I saw directly the ways in which I create tension for myself and how my body responds by trying to get me to stop doing this destructive thing to myself. My headaches, particularly the ones that start at the crown of my head and radiate through my neck and down into my back, have become friends instead of enemies, because they warn me that I am harming myself. And this happened just because I took some time and some openness with something that isn't positive. The same is true with death. Those kids need to know about death, and so do we all. We need to know that we aren't going to live for ever in this particular life, and that our time is limited and we don't have any of it to squander. This sense of limitation can push us to open ourselves to each moment and to be alive to what can be accomplished now. It can expand our lives in countless ways.

This is an acquired taste, of course. It calls for embracing a part of life that is normally hidden from view by our usual ways of functioning and that is always a challenging and difficult task. "Embracing the shadow" is what Jung called it and in his view it was the chief human task of the 2nd half of life.

The Cross is the constant reminder of the death of Christ and the triumph of his resurrection. And it's a lot of things besides that. It is an important call to wholeness, an insistence that we look at all of life and not just the extroverted positive view that our particular society imposes on us.

There's more to life than the American Way. There's more to my life than a summary of all the positive things that I've accomplished. And in that dark and sometimes fearsome place I have found great riches for myself. The Cross invites me to explore more than I would think of investigating if left to my own devices.

The call is openness. The tools are curiosity and perseverance. The reward is an endlessly expanding knowledge of myself and of those around me and of the world. Thanks be to God for a bit of negativity now and then!

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