Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Sacred Mundanity

On a whim I purchased a blue mylar balloon for my toddler.  Such balloons last a while, so it meandered around the house, following the whims of the child and of the air circulation system.  It ended up in a corner of the playroom one morning.  At that time my morning prayers were taking place right around sunrise, some time in a cloudy part of spring.  I was just beginning and it was time to venerate the icons.  When I arrived at the Theotokos, I found that the blue ball the child Jesus in her arms was overpoweringly bright and I could not look directly at it.
Our Lady of Valaam
Fortunately I was in the midst of prayer, so analyzing it was far from me.  I thanked her, and carried on.  Of course, the sun had just happened to come out from the clouds, the balloon had just happened to drift close to the window, and the brilliant shaft of blue light happened to illuminate the icon in just the right place.  It would be easy to follow a course of skepticism and attribute the whole thing to chance and to my own miracle-hungry state.  The rules of physics were all followed obediently in this case, leaving that dark hole of self destructive cynicism technically open to me such that I had to consciously choose not to climb into it.  But a much larger window was open at the same time, allowing me to accept the unexpected and undeserved gift.

Miracles of this sort are good practice for overcoming reductionist habits.  It's strange to reflect on how obvious God's presence is, yet this dark hole of denial remains irrationally present.  I call it strange because this denial has absolutely no way of winning a fair fight, intellectually, metaphysically or otherwise.  Yet it manages to crawl back and present itself over and over again.  Worse than its tenacity, I see myself glancing in its direction as if it were a real option, and having to recapitulate over and over again what I have learned.

The new ammunition that this dark outlook has purchased is that I am undeserving of anything like a miracle and therefore it is all prelest.  Of course I am undeserving, and of course I need to watch out for prelest, so this part of the argument draws me in.  But the hook is a rejection of God's goodness.  God grants us, even me, these "apparently mundane" miracles in abundance.  So frequently that the danger of prelest is sufficiently low for my state.  The danger becomes instead that I fail to recognize the free gift.

If an experience fills me with an appreciation and love for God, that can feel quite amazing, but I have to recognize that I'm only seeing a reflection of a reflection, and that's probably all I can handle in my present decrepit spiritual state.  Have I seen the uncreated light?  No, certainly not yet.  But have I participated indirectly in the energies of God?  Of course I have.  God's love is unescapable.  The form I'm referring to is somewhat like antidoron, in that you get some for free just by showing up.

There was a realization and re-assertion, some time many centuries ago, that Donatism was wrong, and that the grace in the sacraments does not depend on the sanctity of the officiant.  It's a surprising and non-intuitive conclusion that one is nonetheless drawn to over time, and one cannot get away from it.  God came to earth to save sinners; therefore His techniques are designed to work for sinners.  As long as you show up you get something.  Certainly you get more through diligence, resolve and ascesis.  But the Gifts are all out of proportion to the sacrifice we make on our end.

"If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen even if someone rises from the dead" - Luke 16:31

And they won't listen to miracles either.  These lesser miracles can appear to be created by our faith, because without faith we cannot see them.

A non-religious family member of mine came to a church service and I found myself wanting the experience to be profound for her.  Every time someone coughed or forgot a line, or sang off key I felt somehow that my dearly beloved family member would not be sufficiently impressed and would not grow closer to the faith with me.  I knew I was being silly.  After a while I remembered to pray about it.

I realized I was being a Donatist.  I was once talking to a freshly baptized person who was worried that she was not feeling anything.  The reply that jumped out of my mouth was that it was like getting married.  Even if you don't quite realize what you've signed up for right away, it will certainly come and find you.  There is a change of state that takes place which, even if not obvious from up close, is quite obvious from a distance.  The service doesn't have to be sparkly and filled with visible angelic light to be effective.

This mundane feeling is what clay feels like.  It is dull, and it goes about things in a clunky, mechanical way. But it has been given a real heart, that is real Breath, so it struggles in this awkward, lumpy way to climb up into the light, to imitate the goodness it sees.  When it recognizes its Maker, it's heart leaps and for a moment we forget our rather forgettable clay-ness.

"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." - 2Cor 4:7

We have to bear with clay-ness for a good long while and let these Gifts percolate.  Over time as I find myself asking God, 'Would it be possible for me to approach You a little faster?' I begin to understand more clearly that the hold-up is not on His end.

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