Monday, 15 December 2014

San Juan de la Cruz, meet Gaudete Sunday

Last week, I was on Facebook chat with a friend when this happened:

Clerical friend: The Czech church impressed me immensely. The archbishop is a hugely impressive man - spent time in prison under Communism but still full of joy.

Me, thoughtfully: But you know, sometimes I think that only people who have been through really hard things can experience joy. Everyone can experience happiness, but joy is too deep, too much a creature of light AND shadow, to be part of the life that has had no darkness in it.

Clerical friend: I think there is some truth in that. He was just full of joy. He reminded me in that respect of your great clerical crush... :-P

Me: Because joy has to underpin everything we go through. Denis Hurley, THAT clerical crush? Or Oscar Romero? Or our current pope who I am totally in love with? :-P

Clerical friend: Tutu.


Clerical friend: I forget you have so many. :-D

There it was. Not the bit about clerical crushes, we all know that. No, the part where I finally articulated something I've felt for a long time about joy out loud outside of a very small circle (say, 2) that I don't believe that people who haven't suffered deeply are capable of joy.

And so today's meeting of the feast day of San Juan de la Cruz, the mystic saint of the dark night of the soul, and Gaudete Sunday, that Advent Sunday of joyful expectation in the midst of a penitent season, felt like the perfect marriage to me.

It doesn't seem a likely pairing, does it? The dark night, the night of 'darkness and concealment', and the Sunday in Advent that gives us a glimpse of that day which is 'like the dawning of the morning on the mountain's golden heights'.

But that's just it, isn't it? There would be no dawning without the darkness from which it emerges, no joy without sorrow. We may be able to see that, but we may still feel the tension of apparent opposites. Reading San Juan's La Noche Oscura (preferably in the Spanish, but if not, there are plenty of wonderful English translations) helps us bridge it:

ni yo miraba cosa, 

sin otra luz ni guía 
sino la que en el corazón ardía. 
Aquésta me guïaba 
más cierta que la luz del mediodía.

And I saw nothing,
With no other light to guide me,
but the one that in my heart burned.
It guided me,
More surely than midday light.

When it is dark, when nothing lights us from without, we suddenly realise we are lit from within by a flame that that may blaze brightly or be banked, but is ever present. Then, it is the light burning deep within us, the one placed in us - our light - that must guide us, burning away the dross, the masks, the non-essential, leading us to do what we would would never imagine ourselves capable of in the comfort of daylight.

That inner light, not lit by us, but burning within us since our birth? Our joy. It is often the dark night of the soul that brings us to it.

San Juan de la Cruz, meet Gaudete Sunday.

Why is this? Because joy, unlike happiness (or at least the current understanding of happiness as pleasure), resides at depth. Think about how we express our sense of it: 'I am brimming with joy,' 'I am full of joy,' as if joy were something welling up from deep within us, from a spring we were not aware of until it overflowed into our consciousness and onto those around us. And so the foundation of joy must be sought in the depths, not the turbulent shallows, not the noisy sunlit topside, but in places of stillness, of light and shadow, in the place where we feel most deeply, the place that often only shows when life rips our outer persona from us through catastrophe, sorrow, the dark night of the soul.

Perhaps Gibran expresses it best:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

As we approach Christmas, we get a hint of that understanding of joy as something deeper in one of my favourite carols, The Seven Joys of Mary. We glide through it until we hit the dissonance of the penultimate verse:

The next great joy that Mary had, 
It was the joy of six.
To see her own son Jesus Christ 
Upon the crucifix.

Wait, WHAT? Excuse me, songwriting dude, but are you on the medieval equivalent of CRACK? 

Perhaps. But perhaps too, he had an understanding of joy that we have lost. Perhaps he understood that Our Lady remembered that she had been told that a sword would pierce her soul also, and that she had been pondering it in her heart ever since her son was in swaddling clothes. Perhaps he knew, too, that as she looked up at Him on the cross, the depth of her pain was equalled by the depth of her joy in having been His mother, having had that closest of relationships with Him, as Gibran reminds us:

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

If that last example was too theological, let's look at a secular one from a fortnight ago - Michael Clarke's eulogy for one of his closest friends, Phil Hughes:

He'd definitely be calling me a 'sook' now, that's for sure.


I walked to the middle of the SCG on Thursday night and I felt those same blades of grass beneath my feet, where he and I and so many of his mates here today have built partnerships, taken chances and played out the dreams we had in our heads as boys.

The same stands where the crowds rose to their feet to cheer him on and that same fence he sent the ball to time and time again.

And it’s now forever the place where he fell.

I stood there at the wicket, I knelt down to touch the grass. I swear he was there with me, picking me up off my feet to check if I was OK. Telling me we just needed to dig in and get through to tea.

Telling me off for that loose shot I played. Chatting about what movie we might watch that night, and then passing on a useless fact about cows.

Only those closest to you, those who take the greatest joy in your presence and whose hearts will break into a million pieces when you go, know exactly when you'll be calling them a sook and that you pass on useless facts about cows. 

In the midst of his deepest sorrow, Michael Clarke remembered and spoke of his deepest joy.

Joy is that light in us anchored in authenticity, intimacy, connection - with ourselves, with G-d, with others.

In the end, joy is rooted in that deepest & truest of all things: love. 

Whilst joy is constant, its form is not: it can be the quiet contentment of a sleeping babe in arms; the fierce exultation in a friend's accomplishment; the gratefulness for the chance to sit with a friend in their darkness; the sense of rightness about our current path; being unexpectedly brought alive by beauty whilst gripped by the most ferocious depression.

Joy is not external trappings, though it can be expressed by them: candles, vestments, incense (which always takes me back to childhood summers at Anarkali bazaar),  jumping up and down, squees, song, fizzy happiness. The touchstone is this: are those external trappings a way to hide, a way to maintain external order over internal chaos, to keep a death grip on the sunny topside, desperately avoiding the descent to the depths you can feel coming by the increasingly strong tug on your ankles? Or are they in consonance, in harmony, in order, with who you are and what you are feeling and how you want to express it?

As you wear those beautiful trappings and gravely celebrate or loudly dance and proclaim your happiness about G-d and saviour, do you ignore those who reach out to you in pain because it provokes panic and anxiety, fear that their pain will drag you under?  Do you desperately hope that they will take the hint from your silence and never come to you again? Or, if you find yourself able, do you go up to them and say, 'I'm sorry I didn't say anything, I didn't know what to say,' - the reaction that will make me want to cup your face in my hands, look you in the eye, and say, 'I know. You can't even be with your own pain, how could I expect you to sit with me in mine?'

If you're avoiding sitting with pain, honest connection, even though you paint a beautiful picture, hug everyone around you, dance and sing, smile and laugh, tell everyone how happy the good news makes you, that's not joy.

If, no matter what you wear, how you celebrate, you come towards me when I express my pain, reaching for connection, if you have the courage to stand up and talk about the dark night of the soul you experienced as a curate in a sermon on Gaudete Sunday, that is joy.

Joy insists that we go where we would often rather not - to our deepest places, where our oldest, most essential pain, sorrow, and darkness reside. But amongst these sit our truest essence, our brightest light, our surest guide - because all these things: light and shadow, joy and sorrow, woundedness and healing are true. And all of them are born of love: lost, rejected, given, and received. Joy will always insist on our truth and, like the chrysalis forcing the butterfly to beat its wings against it, on our growth.

Joy doesn't promise us ease - those days that we can only take one breath at a time because the pain is so intense will still come. But it does promise us the light that will guide us step by step, more certain than the light of midday, until...

and from the darkness we have light,
which make the angels sing this night

And if you think the angels will sing one iota less joyously for your step into love and freedom than they did for the birth of the saviour, I suspect you have another think coming. I think San Juan might agree.

May you ever hear them sing as you follow your light through the night to join with your Beloved.


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Advent, or, Prepare ye the way of the Lord

I was scrolling through my facebook feed when I noticed that a clerical friend had liked a picture of the sacrament of penance/confession with the caption, 'Shopping is fun. But there's a better way to prepare for Christmas.' Hated the caption, loved the sentiment, not keen on saccharine Victorian depictions (though I did like that one). So here I am, blogging for the first time in a quarter, echoing it in my own way.

It is rare that I allow anyone to glimpse my true religious sensibilities: I use either humour to deflect or I have others, such as Pope Francis, speak for me. Both are defences to shield that which is incredibly precious and tender, needing protection, not exposure to ridicule, cynicism, or harshness. That soul essence is meant to suffuse me, so that indelibly intertwined with my light and shadow, imbued by my humour, stubbornness, and strength, it can then meet the world.

Part of that sensibility is the deep awareness closer than my breath, for as long as I can remember, of Advent being an approach to something deeply sacred, momentous, breathtaking. As is the hard truth that I have barely felt it - and Christmas - for years. I long for the sense I had as a Muslim child looking out my window on Christmas Eve night, waiting for midnight with baited breath, knowing something was coming, coming - then finally going to bed just after midnight in the certainty It was here and all was well. Somewhere, that got lost, and as magical as Midnight Mass is, it only ever brings a light brush with that feeling - during the Genealogy, It came upon a midnight clear, the odd moment during mass. Perhaps there is too much sensation, too much light, too much movement - and that awareness, that feeling, needs stillness, darkness, aloneness, and stretched senses beyond the usual five.

But that moment of wonder and knowledge also needs openness, clarity, the emptiness of a vessel meant to have something poured into it. Much as I'd like to imagine I am that, I'm too committed to telling myself the truth to believe it. I know better, and though I've worked at becoming that empty vessel, diligently addressing issues, leaving places that haven't worked, telling myself 'I can get through this event that has made it hard for me to breathe, bringing up so much emotion I feel like I'm drowning: G-d is always with me,' it has been, in internet language, an epic fail. Usually rather self-aware, I've been at a loss as to why nothing was helping.

As is the way of all things, if you wait long enough, if you listen hard enough, the answer will find you. And it was choking up whilst reciting a couple of Rachel Remen's stories over a week ago that made me finally understand what was going on.

In the first story, Rachel speaks of ER doctors who had come to her, wondering what had happened to their humanity because they would watch horrible things happen before them and feel nothing. We would recognise that as burnout, as does Rachel. But whereas most of us would put it down to mental weakness/breakdown, she nails the numbness as emotional overload: if we do not process our feelings, we eventually become so full that we can no longer feel. If ER doctors don't process their emotions at what they see and experience, at the patients they save and lose, then they will watch horrible things happen before them and feel nothing, because they are so full of undifferentiated and unprocessed feeling, they can't feel any more.

In short, we burn out because we refuse to feel, to grieve, to let go.

I completely choked up as I told John and Liz the second story about Rachel's transformation during her training: from crying with parents when they lost their baby to delivering the news of the death of a child so stoically that the father looked at her and apologised for crying. She said she thought back on that moment with shame, wondering when she became a person to whom a newly bereaved father had to apologise to for crying over the loss of his child.

My intense reaction to simply relaying both those stories, which I had told many times before without the same emotional charge, hinted that they held the cure to what ailed me: my loss of that sense of the sacred, that hushed expectancy, that magic I knew of Christmas as a child. Not that alone - also the sense of G-d's presence I have taken for granted and now struggle to find. I let it sit, too weary to worry at it.

I didn't need to worry at it. I knew how hard this year had been, how much had been rent open. How I'd walked through the most breath-stealing revelation and betrayal about someone who had been close to me, unsure of how to let anyone near to comfort me, to listen, unsure of how to completely collapse so I could rebuild. But G-d was with me, right? I could do this. I could walk through this - and not only WALK through it, but be there for others in crisis as well - so THERE. How I'd stood, week after week, watching the tableau unfolding, pushed beyond feeling by a sense of betrayal, feeling like an idiot for having given so much, knowing it was time to walk away. Sitting month after month, untangling so much pain from the past that whole weeks went by in a haze, my presence barely touching the world I walked through or those I listened to.

As the week went on, apparently unrelated issues arose: my resentment at having my sleeve figuratively tugged by those who seemed endlessly in need, only speaking when they wanted something, their 'How are you?' nothing more than a token awaiting 'Fine' so they could start; my rage at those who seemed to have no sense that they weren't the only ones in need/pain;  my unwillingness to socialise; my increasing irritability and unwillingness to give anyone leeway; my desperation to perpetually cocoon.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, the 'unrelated' pieces proved they were the ones essential in filling out the whole picture. The answer was blindingly obvious and crystal clear: I was burned out because I hadn't processed my own emotions. I'd insisted that, even helped, others process theirs, but as is often the case, I hadn't practised what I'd preached. My emotions, and those of others I'd worked with, had set like cement throughout my emotional being. I hadn't just lost my sense of joy and the sacred; I too had become someone to whom a newly bereaved father would apologise.

That is why that picture of the confessional my friend liked, with its horrid caption, struck home when it normally would have produced an 'Oy vey, how tacky': because stepping into that most vulnerable space, the confessional - both the sacrament & the emotional space - is my answer, how I am to prepare a way for the Lord. An honest, deep, unflinching confession will break open and loosen the cement, allowing me space to talk further and process that tsunami of emotions, emptying me so I can be that vessel capable of being filled with the awe and wonder of those long ago Christmas Eve nights, of feeling G-d's presence in every place and every breath.

We all need our cement loosened and our vessels emptied.

For me, going deep, taking unflinching stock, then going to confession is not a joyless duty or an occasion for fear. It is, as in the picture above, being the Samaritan woman sitting at the feet of Our Lord, having emptied myself to Him, in turn receiving the water that will become in me the spring of water welling up to eternal life, allowing G-d's love to fill not just me, but all around me, as it flows through and where He will.

It is a way of coming back into my right place in the order of things, of coming into harmony.

Shopping IS fun, and I'll be doing some of that - I know I won't be alone. But even as I fill up my shopping cart, I'll be preparing for Advent by emptying my vessel.

I hope I won't be alone in that either.