part the waters

This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because it exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.
{Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton}

It can be downright embarrassing to read the church histories. To go from Western Civ class and the peculiar wrestling match of Arian Christianity versus Roman Christianity to a book on the monastery at Cluny with its gracious giant, Peter the Venerable, as he set himself ideologically against the Cistercian man of the hour, Bernard of Clairvaux... It seems like a tragedy in the guise of a comedy. How do I share of love and grace when the past 2,000 years would seem to declaim that charitas was never much of a Christian virtue?

The struggle between Peter and Bernard is a particularly intriguing one to me because I find it microscopically paralleled within myself. One man was a scholar who cherished the belief that reason was sufficient to convert Muslims, and who loved the classics and truth wherever it could be found. He did not deny himself or his monks simple comforts like warmth and a full stomach, believing perhaps, as Mullins would have it, that extreme asceticism was a far greater distraction from meditation on the holy. Bernard, on the other hand, was the desert mystic reborn. He was a high nobleman whose charisma drew several other family members to enter a Cistercian order. Life among the Cistercians meant complete self-denial, days dedicated to manual labor rather than liturgical chants, and the elevation of the mind through the denigration of the body. For such a man, the greater threat lay in the ideas propagated by an untransformed mind, and he preferred to set aside all such lofty pursuits in favor of a humble mind and righteous life.

Maybe there are some people who fall to such distinct polarities as Peter and Bernard. But it is far more appealing (and difficult) to stand in the balance of what Chesterton would probably have identified as a paradox of Christianity. St. Augustine spoke of the human heart that it was restless until it found its rest in God. Inside of me (and perhaps you also), there is an almost mournful desire to leave everything aside: plans, loans, work, even family and friends, whatever the cares of this world are, and dedicate oneself to the one thing that is desirable. Not that other things have no appeal, but that this one thing makes them all pale in comparison.

"Mournful," I say, because it cannot be gratified. The separatism of the Desert Fathers was a shift: lovesick ones choosing the wilderness because it is from there that she comes up, leaning upon her beloved (Song of Solomon 8:5). And for their time, that was an appropriate expression. Still, to be other than the world cannot mean simply to be isolated from it. What purpose does that serve when our lives are testimonies of the work of God? A man alone is himself, neither short nor tall nor fat nor skinny, for these are descriptive terms based on comparison with something. A man in a crowd, now, he may be a point of contrast. The fire in his eyes is not the fire in everyone's eyes, but it could be, if he will only get close enough.

I guess Bernard and Peter were both right: somehow, we stand on the knife's edge and don't get cut. To live with an austerity born of singleminded desire for one thing above all else, but also to live with an awareness of the things of this world and a compassionate heart for the hurt and the broken.

Lord, my heart is not haughty,
    Nor my eyes lofty.
    Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
    Nor with things too profound for me.
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul...
{Psalm 131:1-2a}


Figments and Choice

I'm headed home, yeah
But I'm not so sure
That home is a place
You can still get to by train

An unhappy combination of maudlin sentimentalism, a head cold, and a recent of episode of Fringe have me pondering my present life. In the episode, the Fringe team is still trying to work out what to do with Peter who knows enough of the world to belong to it, and yet enough is different that the world cannot belong to him. Everyone seems to have forgotten him in the brief span of time between his disappearance and reappearance - unless he disappeared in one place and reappeared in another, in which case, they did not forget him. They never even knew him.

Right now I feel like I somehow jumped the tracks, and my train is steaming somewhere that I didn't realize it could go. Just after I got out of high school, I wrote in my journal that I felt like a mountain climber who had just conquered the apex of the mountain which had always stood before her in her quest. The plain that stretched away before me toward infinity was one which I had heard tales of, but which I did not recognize. But at least I had my first points along the trail. I would go to IMPACT 360, and then probably to Hillsdale since I had deferred my enrollment for a year and had a decent financial aid offer. Oh, but when I reached IMPACT, I felt that Hillsdale was not the right direction for me and turned to CIU and Biola instead. When the thought of the debt I incurred from IMPACT stirred around in my subconscious, I decided to take off school for a semester to try to pay some of it back. Instead, God had other plans for me, so I ended up at a discipleship training school in Harrisburg for eight months. While there, I finalized admission plans for Biola and Torrey, setting my sights on the exhilarating possibilities for the future and a completely different world. Instead, my dreams turned to sand, and I found myself living with my sister near Philly, working at Starbucks and going to community college. Do I feel like there was a point in my life when I was seamlessly transferred into a completely different timeline? Oh heck yes. Whose life am I living and why do I act like this is normal? But how do I choose to live any other way? How else do I explain the way that I ended up here, barely in contact with people who've changed my life and with a vision that has narrowed even more rapidly than it expanded.

And perhaps that's over-romanticizing on my behalf. Perhaps it's an excuse, and a lousy one, for the way that I have chosen to allocate my time: to work, work, and more work, if only to cover the gaping holes. Whatever happened to the boundless wonder of "The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day"? What happened to the sighs and gasps of delight over each new neatly turned paradox fresh from the pages of Orthodoxy? When did I cease to care about the things that fueled me with joy?

Hadassah shared with me recently about certain crutches that God has been removing over the past year. I could definitely connect with that. It's like when they talk about the beauty treatments that Esther and the other candidates for queenhood had to undergo: part of their rituals involved sloughing off a significant amount of the outer layer of their skin until it was soft as a baby's. Sometimes we get a massive build up of dead skin that we protect ourselves with because it's warm and safe and familiar. But God knows better than I do, so He lovingly begins to scrape away the dead bits. It's painful, oh, how painful, but He knows that when He's done, I'll be so much more beautiful and I won't be able to hide the life that is inside of me.

Abba, let Your love my heart's one desire and the fuel from which I am able to connect with others. So much of life feels small, but Your work is hidden from my eyes, and You are a painter on a finer level than what I can comprehend. Help me not to despair in this moments when everything seems strange and broken. You know the plans that You have for me, and I can rest securely in that knowledge.

I'm headed home, yeah
But I'm not so sure
That home is a place
That will ever be the same
{Southbound Train by Jon Foreman}