The way most people in the world mark the beginning of the new year strikes me as most unmystical. The process begins with a critical self-scanning, with an assumption of responsibility for everything, and it ends with stated intentions to do whatever was wrong last year right this year.
It becomes a list of “to gets.” I’ll get this, and I’ll get that. And I’ll top it all off with getting whatsit over there.
Wonderful. An assessment of what’s bad about me, offset set by a list of “gimmes.”
Gimme a new body, more focus at work, a new girlfriend, and, of course, more money.
I prefer the approach to the world that the desert fathers take: what happened yesterday, happened today, and will happen again tomorrow. I am a most imperfect man, and I grieve my imperfections, but the way I will deal with them is to stand in the presence of God and praise him.
Sounds just about right to me.
I also don’t like the annual global ritual of crunching up our “old,” to make way for our “new.”
Ah, I’m done with that, we seem to say, I want to be something else.
For me, the old is that which I’ve worked my entire life to attain. A person looking at me might not see much, but what I am is who I am. One who has been created by standing in the presence of God until my knees give out and praising him.
I’m not willing to swap anything out, thank you very much, for something that comes in a newer model. At most I would just feel the loss, and ignore the new, like an old, weathered hound’s response to a new puppy. It can just go off and play in the field by itself. Me, I’m content to lie on the porch and take a nap.
And this approach really doesn’t have to do with age. It has to do with encouraging contentment with our worlds, even if it’s just a dusty old porch.
Expressing contentment, the anti-New Year’s Day ritual, is a slap in the face to all those who believe that healthy living is defined by constant criticism. Just look at the shelves of books on self-improvement. Tips on how to make the world fully aware of your discontent.
And the biggest problem with the new is that it needs to be brought into your life slowly and gently, with emphasis on both slowness and gentleness.
For instance, I decided to spice up my prayer life this year by adding some elements from Jesuit-style prayers to my daily routine. It didn’t like much, but in the end, it began and ended an internal earthquake (soul quake?). All these additions did was add an instruction to me before my more “formal” prayers to be aware that God loved me.
It wasn’t much, really. Just before I started to pray, I was to take a few deep breaths and beware of God’s love for me. Or realize that I was in the presence of God’s love for me. Or any one of the permutations this concept had. The bottom line: God loves me.
It may not be an earth-shaking concept to anyone else, but I have a very, very literal mind. And I wanted to respond positively to this instruction, do what I was told, and feel God’s love for me.
But I couldn’t.
I could remember feeling his love for me as a child. But as an adult, where was my personhood that was loved by God? Who was I that I should be singled out (because these instructions seemed to imply that I was loved by God. Not just we are all loved by God, which I can get easily. Standing in the crowd of souls before God, faceless essentially. Doing my thing(s). Being nudged by the one next to me. Stepped on by the one behind. No big deal. Just there, one of many, many, many who are loved by God.
But sitting alone before prayers and having to imagine God loving me, now that I could not seem to do.
So I thought a lot about Mother Teresa, who admitted in her later years to not only not feeling loved by God, but actually feeling hated by God. And I thought, if that woman can have such feelings, who am I to have more?
So I shrugged, and continued to try to imagine that God loved me before my noon prayers. And so it went.
Well, so it should have gone, to my mind.
But, of course, this is God, so, no, it didn’t.
Instead, I got to have spiritual open-heart surgery. What is love to you, Julia?
Oddly, I didn’t put an intensive, excruciating study of my approach to romantic love together with my inability to feel personally loved by God.
Maybe not so oddly.
But it was an emotional whirlpool that I neither appreciated nor felt up to handling. Until the day that I just let go and said, this is just a vision. Just treat it like a vision.
If this is God, this will lead somewhere. And there’s absolutely no telling where.
So there were childhood memories split open and disassembled. There were more recent brushes with love. It all felt to me like a long-term, nauseating illness had come and settled in me to stay, but then, because I was treating it as a vision (and only a vision), it all started to break apart.
And while the culmination of the visionary aspect of this study felt like being tossed off Mount Everest with no supplies or protection (just roll down the mountain and take your lumps), I found myself, in the end, or at the end, in a most remarkable place.
Of course. It goes without saying that if it is God, it is remarkable. Awesome (that which fills us with awe).
Let’s see, how do I put this? It wasn’t just me crashing down the mountain. Everything I carried inside me about romantic love crashed down alongside me.
So there I was, one day after days and days of such intensive visions that, well, I wished they hadn’t been so intense.
But I ended up, I guess you could say, with something new.
I ended up, oddly enough, with an expanded appreciation of myself. And an understanding that I was innocent. That the guilt that I had carried around inside myself about my wrongness as a “girl,” was nothing but a pile of mud.
And I could feel that. That I was innocent. That I had harmed no one. That my “wrongness” wasn’t wrongness at all. That, in spite of how I felt about me and my actions, I had honored God the whole time. Well, maybe not the whole time. There could have been more acts of respect (or fewer acts of disrespect) here and there. Mostly over there.
But that’s what apologies are for.
And in the midst of putting these new building blocks together to see what I could make of them, I was stopped by an overwhelming realization that I was loved by God.
I was loved by God.
I had been led by the nose up the mountain, down the mountain, through the mountain, around the mountain; smashed into the mountain; had the mountain fall on me, all to the end that I, with my literal and exacting mind, could finally see that there is nothing all that much wrong with me.
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
And all this was done because God loves me. He wanted me to know this. So he showed me.
In addition, I got to see that romantic love isn’t all that stupid or weak or insane as I always assumed it to be. I thought a lot about Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, and how the two romantic heroes aren’t romantically heroic in the least. One, in fact, is so spineless and neurotic that he slanders his supposed beloved, causing her reputation’s ruin, and jilts her openly at their wedding ceremony. For no real reason whatsoever.
The other supposed wooer is so acerbic and critical that his beloved can barely stand to be in his presence for more than a minute or two.
And, yet, in the end, both women stand by their men and marry them. Which is not to say that Shakespeare was suggesting anything close to happy endings.
But he was suggesting something about the nature of love: that it is true where it exists, and that it’s purpose is only to exist. Love loves in order to love.
All the rest has to be sorted out by the rest of the person.
Love is oblivious to anything that is not itself.
And so it is with God. God’s love is oblivious to everything that is not itself. And we have to understand that our love is also strain-free, if we choose to express our love as we ought to.
Forgiveness is the whisper of the wind that gives love its lift, that takes it about. But love is, most definitely, not new. It is not something that belongs on a list. Or something that ever needs to be changed or updated.
Love itself just needs to be cherished for the wonder that it is.
And expressed whenever possible.
It is, perhaps, the strongest and best thing that one can say about oneself: I love.
And when we can’t say that, then it’s time to stand in the presence of God and praise him until our knees can’t take it anymore.