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January 2014

My Shadowed Self

“Dear Lord, please make me want you. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want you when I think about you but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be fulfillment.”

(Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal)

Even in her prayers, Flannery O’Connor used the grotesque (cancer) to illuminate grace — here, the grace of being possessed by God, of being filled with a desire to know Him. In her recently published prayer journal, kept by a youthful O’Connor from 1946-47, she gives us insight into a person desperately seeking God and yet aware of her shortcomings: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing the moon. . . . [W]hat I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.” She was throughout her life keenly aware of the shadowlands of which C.S. Lewis wrote.

I would like to reduce the footprint of my self-shadow, and yet it’s a difficult thing to do. Even as I write this, the shadow looms, as I wonder what you will think of it or of me, or if you will read it. Like humility, there is no straight line to selflessness, to becoming so opaque, so self-emptying, that the moon of Christ shines through. Yet if, as Picasso said, “art is the lie that tells the truth,” then deliberate indirection may be the key to a good and artful life. We become more transparent by focusing not on what we do, as there are all kinds of ways to call attention to self and congratulate ourself, but on Who we see. Here are a few suggestions for reducing your shadow by repositioning Who you see.

Meditate. On Scripture. On a verse or a phrase. Forget about memorizing it. You’d only congratulate yourself for doing so. Forget the commentary. The point is not knowledge. Just let the verse or phrase roll around in your mind for a day or week or more and see what happens. I have taken to copying out a verse on a 3x5 card and carrying it with me, in my shirt pocket, enjoying the tactile sense of its presence with me, stiffly provoking me. (You could also write it on your palm or, to use an Old Testament example, tie strips of it around your wrists.) Let it seep into you. Let it touch you.

Take a walk. Not a power walk. Sans music. Just consider the largeness of what is around you. When I walk, I like to touch things - an oak tree rough, a signpost smooth and cool, leaves brittle and crumbling. Strange, I know, but again the tactile brings home the fact that I am a bit player in a much larger story being told. And yet, the verse in my pocket is elevating, proclaiming "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come."

Pray wildly. Follow every detour and tangent the mind takes. Bring no agenda to prayer but simply pray where you are, where your mind takes you. It may not be the way to always pray, and yet it has the salutary goal of helping to liberate us of a self-congratulatory discipline. I assume the pathways of my mind are superintended by God, so this kind of prayer is a way of remaining in conversation with Him, on his agenda. Or even if they are distractions placed there by the devil, they are repurposed by being swept up into the conversation with God.

So, there you have it. You thought about a verse. You took a walk. You prayed a distracted kind of prayer. Brother Lawrence you may not be. You can't escape the self shadow, as you can even congratulate yourself on these small things. And yet, over time, you may become a little more transparent and your shadow a little less long.

Me? I'm congratulating myself on the great advice I just rendered you. I can only laugh at Grace that has to do it all, that, ultimately, must save me from myself. There is no technique to gain humility but staring at (fixing our eyes on) Christ, praying O'Connor's prayer: "Dear God, please make me want you." Indeed, save me from my shadowed self.


A Landscape of Grace

“This is the true nature of home. It is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division.”  (John Ruskin)

Almost everyone has a place they call home. Emily Dickinson said, very simply, that “Where Thou art - that - is Home,” and often that is true, and yet still for many there is a longing for something more, something more like what Ruskin suggests.

Just before six this morning, I went out walking. I thought as I walked that I am blessed to be walking from, to, and in something of what approaches that place of Peace that Ruskin suggests. This morning the landscape suggested something more than what appeared. It became a landscape of grace. Walking in the stillness of fog, with only a light dripping of rain, alone, I thought of what Adam must have felt like that first day of existence in the Garden, when God walked with him, his presence as palpable as rain. Water from heavier rain, rushing under the bridge, became one of the four rivers coursing through the Garden, a river with an exotic name like Pishon. I walked through trees I could not name and thought of Adam considering each animal and each tree and naming it. What a privilege to give something a name, to define it, to give it shape by our words. The gentle contour of the road suggested grace, a cul-de-sac an opportunity for repentance, for turning, a stop sign a simple command: “You shall not eat.” I touched it and stopped, and then turned for home.

The best homes and places become for us huge multi-layered metaphors for our true Home in Christ. For the believer, all streets lead to Christ, even the ones with no name. The familiar rooms of our homes, our favorite chairs, our window with a view, remind us of the deep contentment that we will know in a New Earth. Every tangible thing in Creation becomes an icon, a window on a Triune God. They point beyond themselves. In Heaven, our God-senses perfected, perhaps we will then hear rocks cry out and trees clap their hands.

Yet this morning, I was content with the whisper of the fog, the holy mist that swirled around me, and the poetry of my heartbeat, that primal iambic pentameter. My prayers - inchoate, interrupted, and distracted though they were - were the baby-talk of a love language I’ll master on that coming Day.

That’ll be the day.