My minister tells a story about deciding, as a child, that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. In fact, if I remember right, her realization was that she needed to be one. So she wrote her adult self a letter to ensure she’d remember, and not stray from the righteous path.
I’m not saying she strayed, but she’s not a teacher now. She wasn’t a teacher before she became a minister, either. There is something about the present that utterly refuses to be controlled, even by the most earnest wishes of the past.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. There has been some debate as to whether I’m standing at the edge of a cliff, or have recently fallen from one, but either way, I’m afraid—sometimes clingingly, desperately afraid—of what I lose on the way down.
And what I’m afraid of losing now is nothing less than my faith.
That looks extremely dramatic in print. I think that losing touch with what moves us is a common worry, though—it’s just one that we prefer not to acknowledge, even to ourselves. Having just survived Early Christian History, for which I researched a paper that included lengthy sources on legitimacy and apostolic succession, it is clear to me that the urge to pin down “truth”—to fix it forever—is not a unique inclination.
At a deep level, this might be what we seek in doctrine: the relief of not having to worry, search, redefine, or make ourselves too uncomfortable. In theory, we come together and make creeds— mold our shared beliefs into shared words—so we will know one another. “In our belief in these truths,” we are saying, “you and I are one and the same.”* What if, though . . . what if we really write them for ourselves? “Remember, now, this is what you believe. Nothing else. This. And if you can just hold on to what I tell you, I promise it will be this way for always.” (Be still, my heart—I have found another trusty, dependable rock!)
Frankly, the promise of “same” is tremendously appealing to a creature of habit such as myself. Those of you still shaking your heads at my repeated grad school adventures may be surprised to learn that I have eaten the exact same lunch—two tacos, with cheese and pico and my favorite red salsa—every Monday and Wednesday for months. Or that I am the person who will give you a look and struggle not to think unkind thoughts about you if you take “my” chair in class. Or that I still haven’t forgiven Ruth’s Diner in Salt Lake for cancelling my favorite side from the menu, or my local coop for ceasing to carry my favorite yogurt. Seriously, I am the slowest adjuster I know. It’s ridiculous. But I like what I like, and I want it to be there when I need it—my rituals and routines are precious to me. (Did I mention that I took a Buddhism seminar this semester? Did I also share with you that this did not go well?)
And yet, intellectually at least, when it comes to my faith, I don’t want to write myself any letters. I know better than to attempt to enjoin my heart, my soul . . . my love.
What I’m trying to do is to get to an open place. What I want to do is trust.
But, digging into and struggling with and thinking about and sometimes, yes, loving those early Christian scriptures, I realized that there’s another piece here. It’s not just that it’s scary to be open to new things. It’s that there’s something here that I absolutely feel and experience, but can’t name or control. It lives in my heart, I think–at least, I feel it there. It resists my mind’s efforts to put it in a box. And sometimes, for reasons I don’t totally understand, I kind of forget about it. It doesn’t go away, but I sort of do . . . and then, almost like a child, I am surprised and delighted to find it again, as I did recently amid old books.
This “something” is faith, but it’s not simply a quiet certitude. It is spirit. It is magic. And when I felt it in the library the other day—when my heart skipped with excitement and love, I rejoiced. And then I worried. What if, in one of these times of forgetting, I lose it entirely?
Perhaps I’ll wonder if I ever really knew it–knew faith, knew God–at all.
This makes me think of Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Polar Express, in which a sleigh bell is given to a small boy as a reminder of his belief. That tiny bell rings for him with the knowledge of his experience, but his parents are sure, always, that the bell is broken. They can’t hear it, not even on that first Christmas morning.
Will the bell will ring for me forever? Or will I, like the boy’s sister, realize someday that it has fallen silent, never to be heard by my ears again?
Scary truth: it concerns me to surround myself with people for whom it never rang in the first place—not because I’m uninterested in what they have to say, and not because I’m afraid that their truths will somehow invalidate my own, but because sometimes you need someone who can carry the spark for you. There are times when the ultimate faith of friendship is to keep someone else’s spark alive with a bit of breath, to walk with it, hold it carefully, so that you may pass it back to her when she can keep it again. And maybe that’s what they were thinking back in Nicaea. Not, here’s a measuring stick so we can kick those unbelievers out, but, does the bell ring for you? Can I trust you to carry this spark for me?
Are my fellow Unitarians willing to be spark carriers? Are my fellow Christians?
Amazing, beautiful, surprising . . .and powerful. This spark has its enemies. People have tried for thousands of years, for more reasons than we can count (and yet also, for only one: because we fear), to blow it out or bury it.
And yet, it will not be buried. That’s the amazing, soul-freeing, regime-shaking truth: you can build entire cities, limestone and marble, glass and gold, trying to “honor” the spark while really seeking to cover it over, or bend it to human will—and it will pop up again somewhere else. Often where we least expect it.
In short, I’m not worried for it. Not at all–the spark will continue. I hope to be worthy to carry it, but it doesn’t depend on me.
I’m only worried for myself.
Because the truth is, having known it, I don’t want to be without it. I want to feel it. I want to hold it in my hands when it’s been weeks or months or please not years of talking about God instead of connecting with God.
And so, I guess, there is this. It’s not a letter, exactly . . . it’s somewhere between a reminder to myself and a plea to the universe.
Don’t lose this, girl.
Is that to much to ask?
*Notice, dear friends, that this is not “one in the same,” which is a phrase spawned of mishearing rather than linguistic precedent. I moonlight as your friendly Grammar Witch. You’re welcome. :)