Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Birds and the Foxes

I recently participated in a group exercise where we discussed issues of our own spirituality. We all picked a photo of an animal from a big pile in the center of a table – the idea being to choose one that somehow captured your spirit.

I chose the raccoon, ostensibly because its facial markings show it to be a kind of superhero-bandit. Obviously not the noblest of creatures, but for some reason I still picked it out of all the others.

His whiskers are also charming
First, we had to describe how we thought about our animals. I looked at my racoon’s downturned eyes and thought he looked sad. The raccoon sneaks around all night, going through peoples’ discarded things, looking for food enough to live on. Although they must live somewhere, I rarely see the raccoons in our neighborhood haunting the same place: they seem uprooted, unsettled, homeless.

The raccoon isn’t a beloved animal: no one really wants them around, and if you see one you’re more likely to chase it away with a broom than to take a picture for your album of cute, fluffy fauna. Though they must mate and reproduce (there does always seem to be a supply of them) the raccoon strikes me as solitary, alone, and lonely. It lives with uncertainty, never quite sure what will happen next, where it will go, or what it will find.

Having thought about the animal we chose, we were asked to change directions and think about our spiritual practices. To be honest, I haven’t really been doing much lately. I don’t spend time intentionally in silence with God, or in reflection, or contemplation, or even the more physical disciplines of meditation. There are reasons for this, some of which are better than others, and none of which are adequate. I do go to church every Sunday for the celebration of the Eucharist, so that’s a spiritual discipline. I guess you could call it the heart of my spirituality. If it has a backbone, it’s the Daily Office. I try to pray the Office every day, although I’m not always successful. Sometimes, on bad days, I just do the readings and skip all the prayers. If I’ve had a really bad week, you can find me on Saturday night doing all the readings I’ve missed, struggling with guilt and a crushing sense that the psalter has no end.

There are drawbacks to this kind of spiritual discipline. I am often alone, saying the Office in my room, and although I know there are people all over the country praying with these readings, I still feel isolated. There is little room for spontaneity, and the prayers at times can feel impersonal and non-creative. My prayer is filled with words, and has little space for silence. But it also has some amazing qualities: I can count on its regularity, the discipline of following a practice, the same words spoken over and over again giving you space to move between and within them. It is communal because this form of prayer has the weight of history and the communion of the Church behind it.

We were asked to consider how the animal we chose related to the ways we think about our own spiritual practices. It suddenly seemed obvious to me that they way I’d framed my spiritual practice was profoundly affected by the way I’ve felt like I’m sliding down something with no bottom and no edges, and the way that I feel inadequate to deal with it, and afraid.

Like the raccoon, I feel like I’m picking up something left behind by somebody else long ago, not necessarily for me, but rather something I’ve just happened to find. I don’t have to put any real effort into discovering something new or making something of my own because I have found it already there. Sneaking around at night, mostly alone, taking what I have found to survive.

Like the raccoon, I feel a little bit uprooted, homeless, alone. Not so much because of where I’ve ended up: I like my church. But maybe because of how I left my last community – without intentionality. I left them without saying goodbye, without closure. I quit the groups I belonged to by email because I didn’t have time to do it in person. There are loose ends: I still receive their emails, and somehow am still the administrator of their Facebook page (I don’t know how to unhook it from my account and transfer it to someone else, which is why it has no content). I felt like I was running, and since I haven’t really worked out how to feel about what happened, I have lingering emotions connected to not knowing where I’m going to go from here.

Sometimes, like my animal, I feel as though I am surviving but nothing more.

People occasionally ask me why I chose to become Anglican. It’s true that, when I was preparing to be received, my sponsor helped me study the historical texts of the Anglican church, the theologies and doctrines that shaped and changed our faith, the beliefs we have held, and the breadth and depth of what Anglicanism allows in our communal relationship with God and each other. Understanding the brainy part of our faith was, I’m sure, some kind of a factor. And it’s true that I enjoy the Eucharistic liturgy, both the comforting similarity of what I grew up with and the exciting differences that leave room for new sparks of insight and the pure, unadulterated joy of discovery. I love the political and ecclesiastical structure of our faith, and the positions of our Diocese on the issues we grapple with were also something I considered.

But the truth is I chose the Anglican church because I fell in love with the Daily Office. When I had just started attending an Anglican Eucharist in the middle of the week, and was going to Anglican and Roman Catholic churches simultaneously, I switched my personal daily prayer from a Cistercian prayer form for laypeople to the Morning, Midday, and Evening prayers found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I remember taking that prayer book with me as I sat the Holy Thursday and Good Friday morning vigils at my Catholic church. I moved to Common Worship when I started praying Morning and Evening prayer with the Diocesan Theological College, and I’ve used other forms, like the one found in the BAS. With each of these liturgies, I’ve found a sense of wonder and excitement and peace. I love the Daily Office lectionary, and the way it carries me through the years. I love the sense of history and timelessness, and the rich depth of the texts we read. I love the substantial engagement with the Bible and the beauty of the Canticles. O Lord, open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise. When I began to pray the Daily Office, I felt like I had come home.

It’s true that, at times, with only this form of prayer to keep me going, I feel like I’m barely surviving. But it does feed me. It does nourish me. I may have found it by the wayside, I may not add anything to it or create anything in it, but it keeps me going in its unceasing rhythm. It is there, every single day, even when I’m not, even when I can’t seem to get up the courage to go looking for it. The raccoon may have nowhere to lay its head, but I have a dwelling place and it sustains me.

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