26 Mar Listening to Our Moment
Collectively, we are experiencing a dramatic shift in our assumptions and routines. It’s safe to say that our attention has been grabbed by this moment as we watch wealth dissolve and our usual movements curtailed. Like most pastors, I am adjusting to virtual worship, meetings, enrichment gatherings and personal conversations. With a disruption as profound as this one, we find ourselves wondering about all aspects of our lives. There is a gift in this. I wonder what we will do with this period of interruption.
Last night my wife and I watched an episode of The Crown, a Netflix series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family. This episode was called, Moondust, and focused on Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, when Apollo 11 was capturing the world’s attention in its journey to the moon. I was twelve at the time and followed this historic flight every step of the way, as did Philip. His obsession and excitement mirrored my own. I remember the wonder that it filled me with and still does.
Philip’s fascination with the moon landing is offset by many mundane royal functions and his irritation at attending boring religious services with his wife who, of course, is head of the Church of England. She sees to it that a new and more interesting Dean is called to their congregation. This Dean asks Philip for space on the grounds to form a retreat center for mid-career priests who are struggling to find meaning and energy in their calling. Philip consents, but is disdainful of these men, (yes,men, it was 1969 after all), and their gatherings of introspection. Philip gets corralled by the new Dean into attending one of the gatherings. After listening for a few minutes, he tells the clergy that all of this navel-gazing is a waste of time. What they need to re-energize themselves is action, like these men who have ventured to the moon. Find something worthwhile to do and go do it!
Some weeks later, the crew of Apollo 11 is traveling the world as heroes. They come to Buckingham Palace and Philip is granted a brief, private visit with them. In his imagination, he had made them into gods. In reality, he finds them to be rather ordinary and unimaginative men. Instead of finding something transcendent on their historic travel, they discovered only dust and rock and a view of the earth from space, but with not much time or depth to bring to such a perspective.
He returns to the group of clergy which he had ridiculed and shares his disappointment. He reflects on his own loss of faith and meaning. He despairs of his own sense of purposelessness amid his life of luxury and ceremony. Thinking that humanity’s accomplishment of a moon landing would bring meaning, he had discovered that it had not. God was not to be found in the barrenness of space. He imagined the fear of leaving earth and traveling to a foreign body in space, and concluded that such natural fear was nothing in comparison with the fear he was now feeling in bearing his soul to a group of strange clergy. Was the meaning he was longing for to be found in the vulnerability of his own inner searching?
In many ways, the moon landing of 1969 revealed the limits of the outward search for human meaning and fulfillment. What do you do next to top that? No subsequent venture into space has matched that moment for excitement. Will a human journey to Mars do the trick? Will we discover some wormhole passage envisioned in theoretical physics and science-fiction to bring us to the next leap in human consciousness?
Maybe the next leap, the next great adventure is to be found some place more ordinary, like in a group of middle-aged adults wondering about how their lives came up so short of expectations. Will this moment of collective disruption lead us to something new as a species?
We have experienced many disruptive moments before which soon faded away and we found our way back to the routines and consciousness which held us before. I remember how stunned we all were after September 11, especially those of us living in suburban New York, where many friends and family lost those close to them. For several weeks, everyone you met would stop and have a conversation from the heart. We wondered if life would change. Then, about a month later, I remember hearing a car horn at the intersection where I live, and it became clear that we were returning to who and what we were before. Will there come a time, not far from now, when we will leave our social isolation behind and forget that something strange had ever happened?
Perhaps the most disruptive experience I have ever had occurred when I was seventeen, delivering papers early one October morning, before the sun had come up or the sky had begun to grow light. I had been wondering about God and about whether I might know if God was real, for several months. Out of nowhere came an inner experience which was beyond anything I had ever imagined possible. It changed me, but I did not know what to do with it. Nor did I find much lasting or helpful counsel. Superficial religion, bad theology, and academic disconnect were there in abundance. Church service has brought its own rewards, but transformative religious experiences are not in the wheelhouse of most American churches.
Later in life, I am finding the mystics, our Christian contemplative tradition, and teachers and groups of fellow seekers to help ground me in a path of solid and informed transformation. This period of social isolation is creating more space in my life to explore more inner work, more time for prayer and sacred reading, more time for deep listening. I am devouring these days some of the writings of Teresa of Avila and marveling at the adventure she invites us to take, hundreds of years later, into the inner life of the soul and the union with God which happens there. This journey that she and countless mystics describe runs counter to every form of human wisdom which reigns in our culture, but it rings true in the depths of the soul. If we listen deeply enough in this profound moment, perhaps something truly new and life-giving may emerge within and among us. Nurturing that something might provide a sense of purpose that churches have been looking for, and address a need for spiritual vitality which is not being met in our culture.