Thursday, February 14, 2008
Born From Above
In an earlier blog I mentioned my desire to think differently about my notion of time, conceiving of it less as a linear reality and more as a cyclical phenomenon. One of my great helps in this has been the liturgical calendar and the lectionary readings that lend it depth and meaning. I have also found the spiritual discipline of lectio divina to be very instructive when coming to these texts, taking time to move through the four stages of lectio (holy reading or listening), meditatio (meditating on a particular word or passage that speaks to me), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (resting in the presence of God). I was introduced to this practice as a Benedictine Oblate and have so appreciated the role it has played in my spiritual life over the last four years. However, being rather intellectually inclined – that is, prone to place an exaggerated emphasis on the centrality of words and the discourse that arises from them – I have found that seeking out the logos in another important text has been as vital to my spiritual growth as any foray into the narratives of the Bible. I try also to open the Book of Creation on a regular basis. Too often I forget to do this "other reading," but it isn't long before I am convicted of my spiritual negligence. Today was one of those days.
Living as I do in the central flyway of the United States – the corridor through which migrating birds flock at various times of the year -- I have come to associate the season of Lent with a biological cycle that has been played out in the skies above me for untold millennia. Usually around Ash Wednesday I can expect to see the first harbingers of spring in this part of the country: the bald eagles. They come in anticipation of the waterfowl that use the cornfields and wetlands along the Platte River as a staging area, a place to pick up a little fat on the bones before heading north to their mating grounds. I have actually come to associate the eagles with the traditional ashes of death, for that is the ecological niche these raptors occupy, as abhorrent as it is to those of us whose values shy away from what we perceive as violence. They are the keepers of the gate, as it were, deciding which ducks and geese are strong enough to avoid their ravenous scrutiny and which ones will be called upon to make the sacrifice that keeps the cosmic wheel turning.
Last week the reliability of my ecological calendar was confirmed. Two days after Ash Wednesday, as I walked out of the Hastings College library, my eyes were drawn to an unusually large black shape offset by a deep blue February sky. The bird was too big to be a hawk, and turkey vultures don't arrive in Nebraska until about May. Within a few seconds my expectations were confirmed as the sun glinted off the white tail feathers of this magnificent form gliding so effortlessly in the distance above me. Naturally I was appalled when I realized that no one else saw this gift from on high. I pretty much made a fool out of myself as I coaxed everyone who passed to raise their eyes to the heavens. I exuded the kind of enthusiasm that should be reserved only for a sighting of superman, but apparently the students and other faculty had better things on their minds. Their interest quickly waned and their eyes returned to a concerted examination of the ash-gray sidewalk beneath them.
Today, not even a week later, I was reminded of why the eagles had landed.
The afternoon was a busy one with appointments scheduled from lunch until a late dinner. I had agreed to meet a couple of students who had just returned from Calcutta, India, and wanted to share their pictures and experiences with me, so at 4:00 I shot out of my office and made a bee-line to the library, a few minutes late as usual. With all the ice we've had over the last three months it has become customary for me to keep a steady eye on the sidewalk in front of me as I make my mad dashes across campus. This afternoon was no exception -- I kept my nose to the grindstone. But then I heard it, unmistakable, the distant sound of spring, of hope. If you've ever seen a legion of snow geese in the sky overhead – and I mean thousands -- while your feet are planted in a patch of slowly melting snow, then you have some sense of what the text of creation has to say about being born from above.
I like to think that this afternoon I was born of water and Spirit, and in a way that I hope I can experience for years to come, like clockwork... but not the tick-tocking that makes us run from place to place, trying to catch up with so much lost time. No, the rhythm of this timepiece is so much greater and gentler than I have ever known in my workaday existence. As I watched the spectacle above me I became strangely aware of the sound and smell of melting ice, dripping from the gutters of buildings and the branches of pines -- an ablution for the winter's sins. The wind was blowing where it would, and the primal call of the Spirit issued forth from every one of those determined creatures above me whose lives were intersecting with mine for but a few eternal seconds. Kairos.
It's no wonder that the Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of night. He knew that what the rabbi had to say could never be heard in the full light of day where words have their exacting meanings and the law of God is followed to the last jot and tittle. Jesus' teaching, by contrast, was mystifying and timeless, as if drawn from the depths of creation itself. Chthonic. It is not too far out of the realm of possibility to imagine that at the very moment that Nicodemus was posing his questions to the rabbi, thousands of miles away and on another continent the dance of water and spirit was being played out over the river basin that would later be called the Platte, as it had been for centuries and would be for years to come. The Spirit moves where it will, but not without its own design. This was the perplexing insight of Jesus that so confounded the Pharisee, a language of the earth that offers us all, paradoxically, an unexpected intimation of heaven -- a little gift of grace -- and the possibility of being born from above.