Sunday, May 17, 2009

An Angel With Scissors

Suzanne Guthrie says that I have to blog about my last haircut. Well, she knows about spirituality, so here's the story.....

My hair is unruly. Always has been. Over the years I've learned that because it's thick, and it's curly and that it grows in several different directions. It's not easy hair to have and it's not easy to cut. Over the years I've developed some instructions for whoever cuts my hair (#3 clipper on the side, scissors on the top, short, thin it at the upper sides, etc.) I give high marks to the people who actually listen to what I say - and they don't always.

Bad-hair-day Monk
Originally uploaded by Con Ryan

Anyhow my hair had gotten to the stage where its unruliness was about to get out of hand, which is the usual sign that it needs cutting, so on a Wednesday when I had some time, I went off to the mall in Kingston to the Unisex Hair Palace (should a monk get his hair cut in a place called the Unisex Hair Palace?).

Paul, who usually cuts my hair, wasn't there, but Joe was. I've seen Joe around, but he's never cut my hair. However, he was what was on offer if I wanted a guy to be my hair cutter, which is what I was feeling like, so Joe it was.

He asked what I wanted and I told him. "Yes," he said and nodded sagely. "That's right for hair like yours." Zounds! He not only had listened to what I said, but paid enough attention to my head to have my hair scoped out already. This did not appear to be the usual barber.

So we had a little conversation about hair, and about my hair. He said that you have to pay attention to hair, and it was obvious as the talk proceeded that he not only did that, but took some real pleasure in doing it. "After all," he said, "it's my job to make you look good." He talked about hair like mine and said that there are 2 ways to do it: 1) keep it short so it can't cause trouble, or 2) let it get really long so the weight of it will control what it does. "Anything in between will be a problem." It took me 60 years to figure that out! And here is this guy who has my head figured out in less than 5 minutes.

He talked about his whole philosophy of haircutting, which has to do with careful observation, to attending to the way that hair wants to grow, and about respecting what he's presented with. He talked about dealing with balding men, a particular problem. He said: "For instance, if you have a receding hairline, like mine, you don't let your hair grow long. That just draws attention to the situation. You cut it pretty short, and then it looks OK. It doesn't make people focus on it." I couldn't believe it. I had noticed that his hair looked really good - short, and really suited to him. I would never in a million years have thought to describe him as "balding". But when I looked, there it was; yes, the male pattern receding hairline. On him it looks good. He respects his hair. I told him that. He smiled and said: "Thanks."

So on we talked of hair and its ways. He pointed out a spot above my left eye which never blends in with the rest of my hair. He said that it's a place where my hair grows in a different direction and I shouldn't brush it the same way I brush the rest of my hair. That one spot needs to be brushed forward, because that's the way it grows. And presto - when he did that it blended right in. I often talk to barbers, but seldom of anything significant. And here we were, having a fascinating conversation about the life of hair.

And then a completely unexpected thing happened. There was this nice feeling, slightly above my stomach. Felt good. Felt like this conversation was an important thing. It took some reflection afterwards to unpack what was happening, but then I realized that I had to describe it in the famous phrase of John Wesley. I was feeling my heart "strangely warmed." It crept up on me without my knowing, but here I was, reacting as though I was having a spiritual conversation of particular significance. I read about spiritual conversations and I've often felt slight guilty that I don't really know how to have one. I know it sounds whacky, but the Life of Benedict by St Gregory talks about Benedict and his sister Scholastica being caught by a storm and spending the night "talking of the joys of heaven." I've often wondered how one goes about having a conversation like that. And here I was, talking to Joe about hair, and my heart was open and alive and joyful.

Well, of course! We were talking about mindfulness and respect and attention. We were talking about all the stuff that makes meditation effective. We were doing what I spend so much time teaching, just attending to what is before you, knowing that the heart of wisdom is there, wherever you are, and that God is always at the center of that. Imagine, having the Holy Spirit descend in the right-hand alcove of the Hair Palace!

When we were done I knew I wanted to give some signal that this had been a really good time, not just a haircut. One doesn't hug the barber just out of nowhere and I had to consider the occasion, and the fact that he was not (probably) having the same experience that I was. So I did give him a good handshake, which is unusual enough at the end of a haircut. But this hadn't been the usual haircut and the handshake was enough for us to signal to each other that we both recognized something of the significance of what we had exchanged.

God is such a surprise. I always say that the spiritual things that happen to me never happen when I'm meditating. My life grows and transforms, but I don't see that in meditation - it always happens somewhere else, when all of a sudden my eyes open and I realize that something has happened or is happening. Scripture talks about this sort of occasion as an encounter with an Angel, and the word "angel" just means "messenger". A little brush with Reality: someone comes along in your path and your eyes open and God is a little more real. So you pay the angel the usual 12 bucks for the haircut and go on your way, with more depth to your life, knowing that God can meet you anywhere at all - even in the Unisex Hair Palace.

And by the way - speaking (as I was) of Suzanne Guthrie, she has a really cool web site that some of you may enjoy. It's called At the Edge of the Enclosure (the name reflects the time she has spent here at Holy Cross and with the Sisters of the Holy Spirit with whom she and Bill now reside). It's an exploration of the ways in which the Liturgical Year is a reflection of the way the soul grows along the mystical path. It has a set of meditations for each week, and wonderful art and different little things to help you along in the spiritual journey as it we encounter it in the church's liturgy through the year. You can even subscribe and it will come to you every Monday. It might even be your angel!

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