03 August 2011

Musings on Liturgy: One Thing

One thing I have asked of the Lord,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life;
to behold the beauty of the Lord
and to seek Him in His temple. 

Beautiful words, these. And their sentiment is one I would echo with my whole heart . . . if I could. When I first came to this prayer, I almost stopped. "I can't say that," I thought. "Because I ask God for a lot of things, and seek more than just dwelling with Him."

This is a problem that I often have with liturgy - the words are beautifully written and over the centuries they've been tweaked to truly say those things that the human heart most needs to say to God, and to do it in language that is a deep as it is wide. But so many times, my heart is in a different place. I want to mean the things that the spectacular words say (or at least I want to want to, but don't get me started on second-order desires), but I don't. Or I don't know if I do.

In fact, when I really thought about it, the truth was even worse than that. Not only did I feel, in the moment of my prayer, that I didn't mean the words I was saying, but I also I didn't know if the things this prayer asks for would truly satisfy me. If all I ever had was another glimpse of God, would that be okay? What if Dave never got a job and our kids got sick and we had to live with my parents forever? Would I still be okay because I'd be gazing at God's beauty?

There is one time in my life where I know I experienced God. Many, many other times, I think I've experienced him or I hope I've experienced him, but there's only one time when I know, absolutely, positively, hands down, that I experienced God. Maybe that's unusual for a Christian, but it's my experience.

I went to Confession exactly once while I attended an Episcopal church. I love the way they do it there, with the priest sitting beside you, a present observer, one who hears the sins but not the one to whom they are confessed. And then he offers absolution, saying a few words and making the sign of the cross on the penitent's forehead. I don't know what you think about absolution, but there was definite relief in my heart and my life to hear someone actually speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation with authority. 

And when he touched me, I experienced God. Love unlike I'd ever experienced it before flooded through his fingers and into me. I didn't know if it would crush me or make me fly, but such was the power that I felt like I had to let it do one of those two things. It was exquisite, overwhelming, powerful . . . and more. I cannot describe it, and that's part of how I know it was God. 

As soon as he stopped touching me, the feeling left, too. A few seconds, but I'll carry their memory forever. I'd followed God for a long time, but he became real to me in a new way, that day. He became real because he became other, not something I could make up nor feelings that I could drum up, but a being entirely other, to be loved and grappled with and understood and not understood.

When I think about that day, I feel like there's a chance that I could mean those words. If I was really living in the presence of God everyday, seeing his beauty and seeking the love that could destroy but instead chooses not to, I would be satisfied. I could not help but be so. 

I've noticed, though, that experiencing God like I did that day doesn't happen very often. Once, for me, in thirty-two years and a few months. Maybe more for some, but not a lot more. And so I'm left in a quandry - I could mean the words I see in the liturgy, but I don't think it's possible (or at least probable) that I'm ever going to be able to experience God like that in every moment. So do I pray the words as a wish, or do I refuse them because I know I have to live as me, in my world.

What I experienced that day was an unusual, powerful, and intensely personal demonstration of God's love. I can't get to that everyday. For one thing, I don't think God offers himself to me in that way everyday. Maybe knowing him that way would destroy me. Maybe it would make me superhuman. I don't know. But I do know this: it would take me out of my world. 

There have been a few who have walked that way. Dame Julian and St. Therese, to name just a couple. But more often, God gives his love in everyday circumstances. He doesn't make us all mystics, but instead calls us to seek and behold in our everyday lives. I don't think that means living with a moment-by-moment awareness of the kind of love I experienced that day. 

The truth is, I do dwell in His house every day. It's all His house: our cluttered desk, the dirty clothes on the floor, the teething baby, all of it. And while it's nice to behold his beauty in a more straightforward way, at least every once in a while, I can choose to see and seek Him everyday. 

It's hard, this finding-God-in-daily-life. Some do it through gratitude, some choose to look back and see where He's been in the past, and some pray the hours. I'm not good at it yet. But I have come to see that, if I could live that way, my life would be full. Or, rather, the empty spots wouldn't matter so much anymore. 

There are still days where I come to these words and pause, days when I don't really want to put in the effort to see Him in everyday life, where I wish he'd either reveal himself more vividly or leave me to my life. But I say the words because they're right and true, and because they're the call of my heart even when my heart doesn't know it. 


Brian Miller said...

a very honest post...you know i have those days as well...and find myself saying the words as well because sometimes the heart just does not know it yet...

Sharon Wang said...

I have recently been praying for God to change my heart. I know my heart is wrong, but I wasn't totally sure I wanted it changed. But I believe God has been faithful in answering those prayers.

Your confession experience reminded me of one I had years ago. On Ash Wednesday, my church had an early morning service and I went with a heavy heart. When I went up front to have the ash placed on my forehead, the pastor first sighed, and then said whatever he did (I can't remember what). His sigh wasn't one of, "It's early and I'm tired and have to put ash on all these peoples heads before I can leave." It was like he was burdened with my heavy heart and was reminding me to take a deep breath and receive what God had in store for me. I walked away feeling lighter. And I'm glad to say that the burden that was on my heart those many years ago has been gone for a long time.

emily wierenga said...

sarah, i love the way you describe everything as being his house... the way you ask the hard questions. and what a powerful experience you had, feeling the love of God that way... beautiful.

Leslie said...

I came back to read more, today, and have just finished reading, back-to-front, your "musings on liturgy." So much of your musings, here and in your second post, ring true to my soul and my experience. I believe you are right - that we say those words and pray those prayers, as the psalmist did in Psalm 143: 1-2, "Oh Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness, come to my relief. Do not bring your servant into judgement, for no one living is righteous before you."

As for your experience of God's love - WOW. I'll bet that was hard to put into words. Perhaps you are right, and we would be destroyed (or become like an evil Lord of the Rings) if we experienced such wonders all the time. (even Paul needed to have a thorn in the flesh after his experience being caught up to paradise.) Yet I can't help but wish it was a little easier to find His love in the tangle of the everyday...

I hope you keep writing. You have a voice which rings honest and true. You make me think. More importantly, you encourage me to keep seeking...