2nd Ordinary Time • 1 Sam 1:9b-18a, 20 • 1 Cor 6:12-20 • Jn 1:35-51 • Jan 17, 2021
You are in a cave-like holy place. Candles flicker in the stillness. Slowly, slowly, you let yourself sink down… through the layers of struts and scaffolding that held you up through the week so you could keep doing what you had to do… letting those fade away, letting yourself thaw and melt, letting feelings and longings re-emerge. That’s what the candles are for, one for each longing, many of which have no words. Let them in… let them in.
And then, can you let them out? Can you let sounds and movements flow with the force of your longings in a messy, formless prayer?
This is where your inner Eli might kick in, even if there isn’t an outer one nearby: the guardian of propriety, saying you’re crazy and out of line to show your feelings in a holy place. Like later witnesses to disciples who had just received the Holy Spirit, Eli thinks Hannah is drunk.
And yet, what is a holy place for if not to reconnect us to our feelings, to be a safe place to feel our longings. If we can’t feel, we have no access to the messages traveling between ourselves and the Divine, the angels ascending and descending through our heartstrings, nerves, and guts. The first step of prayer is to hear ourselves. Only then, through that, we may start to sense more.
When we block our feelings, we block our ability to sense truth. The absence of deceit that Jesus praises in Nathanael is an absence of self-deceit. Not only is he honest enough to express his skepticism—he is honest enough not to idolize it, not to shut the door because he already knows that nothing from Nazareth can be good.
The Sufi poet Rumi writes:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.
This week more than usual, I’ve been thinking about calls and belonging, the communities we join, the allegiances we form. Nathanael’s openness is rare. Once we think we know, especially if we belong to a community that thinks the same, the tendency is to dig in deeper and deeper.
And if we’re mistaken and dug in deep, logic and evidence on their own won’t dig most of us out. For any amount of evidence, it’s always possible to find more than one interpretation. There are proofs of this in principle, and centuries of epicycles and conspiracy theories attest to its truth in practice. We’re not likely to reach for Occam’s razor when an especially cherished belief or identity is at stake.
So, what are we to do, in these days of deep and dangerous division and deceit, if we are worried about the beliefs of someone we know? If our gentlest efforts to hint at another perspective are received as if they were terrifying attacks?
In the footsteps of other oblates and some of the Sisters, I’ve begun exploring a practice developed by Marshall Rosenberg called Non-Violent or Conscious Communication. Last week I brought this question to the local practice group facilitator, Mary Kay Reinemann.
The first part of her answer takes us back to the cave-like holy place where we started today. Everyone needs a safe place in which to let scaffolding down and feelings flow. We need it all the more when faced with the possibility of a major change in our orientation to the world. No one can transform while feeling pressured or attacked. There is no butterfly without a chrysalis.
For the second stage, as Mary Kay put it: You can’t go into this with the intention of trapping the butterfly. A trap is not a chrysalis. Some things happen only when we stop attempting them, when we are willing to lose our life to save it. The goal becomes connection, rather than conversion of the other—and this requires conversion of ourselves! Can we listen with love and without judgment, through the stories and beliefs, to the feelings and yearnings, until our companion feels heard, respected, and valued?
Only then, and least importantly, comes the third stage, sharing in small doses our personal experiences and feelings, always ready to return to the first two stages as needed, with human connection as our only agenda. With a sufficient sense of safety and connection, an occasional personal story may be received in a relaxed enough way to catalyze gradual recalibration.
Eli, in our first reading, had the grace to recalibrate and treat Hannah’s anguish with respect and compassion. Had he not done so and blessed her prayer, perhaps she in turn would never have given birth to Samuel. Perhaps it was his blessing, the experience of being safe and heard, that allowed her to relax enough to let something new happen and grow in her body.
These days anguish probably lives in most of us, whatever our convictions. And anguish is a sign of holy longing. Yet it’s a rare day now that any of us can relax enough to let in a glimmer of divine response. We may need to practice this opening ourselves somehow before presuming to touch the motes in the eyes of others, if only to remember what we may be asking of them.
Anxiety and anguish, the traumas that lock them in place, the potential for healing and opening, the compassion that can melt fear, all live in our bodies, and sometimes our work has to begin there, as Resmaa Menakem eloquently explains in his book My Grandmother’s Hands. Too often we treat our bodies and others’ ungently, as if they or we were robots. But to say our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit is to remind us that all feelings are holy. They are angels ascending and descending through our heartstrings, nerves, and guts.
This is not to say they lead in a straight line to the buried treasure. It’s more realistic to expect them to lead to one clue, and then another, and another. What we find along the way may not match our expectations, just Nathanael’s idea of the Holy wasn’t someone from Nazareth. But the cycle of prayer and response, of honest seeking followed by outcomes that alternately satisfy and disconcert, leads us closer to God in zigzag steps. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you, at the doorsill where the two worlds touch.