16 September 2012

On the Ledge

[nb:  for those receiving by email automatically at publication -- this is a corrected version of the original. Two errors in syntax and three spelling errors were corrected. One new sentence was added at the end of the second-to-the-last paragraph]

One of the places that can cause my body to feel as though it may go into instant "free fall" is the observation floor of the Hancock Building in Chicago.  The building itself is instantly recognizable in the city-scape.

I have made several trips to the top of that building over the years, and my sense of free fall has never abated.  One can walk from the elevator right to the edge of the glass wall that looks out over any of the four directions.  Look down.  Knees feel wobbly.  Stomach seems to get queezy.  Head feels light.  It is all as if one is about to step into the air itself outside the building.  On a really windy day, the addition of "building sway" enhances the experience.

There are folks who do not have that sensation, but i suspect most of us do.  One instinctively wants to take at least a step back and hold on to something.  I have spent time on that observation floor watching the phenomenon with hundreds of folks. Nevertheless, people like me go back again and again for the experience of incredible views.  Being up there seems to bring the world together in some way.

Frankly, I really don't like driving in Chicago (and I refuse to drive in NYC or downtown Boston...the latter just being plain dangerous).  I have driven many times through and into Chicago, during the eleven years I was Dean of St. James Cathedral in South Bend, IN.  Whether business ventures or family outings, Chicago was a destination place.  For sure, going up to the observation floor of the Hancock would be on someone's list of "musts"....especially during Christmas season.  Being above the vehicle and pedestrian traffic, the noise and the commerce, one could see the rich tapestry of districts, neighborhoods, industry and connective "tissue" that make the human community.  The top of the Hancock (or Sears Tower, which is no longer called the Sears tower) was the only way to get the big picture.

I have acrophobia in a form that doesn't mind heights when I am, say, in a passenger jet or light airplane.  I have problems with heights where I am standing near the edge with minimal, or lattice railing or full floor to ceiling glass panels.  The sensations described above are immediate for me, in those circumstances.  I want to be in a safe place immediately.  I can will myself to stand close; but it is a powerful and constant battle of will to remain....and I must be holding on to something.  If there is no safety railing...forget it.  Not going there!

I use this as a primary frame of reference for yet another kind of ledge.   This kind is internal more than external -- though it can have external modalities.  One does not know it.  One has to experience it.  I have spoken of the Self on several occasions in these posts.  It is the core of being....deeper than the self we know and express.  The self of consciousness engages the senses and the part of environment that we call reality.  But, it is only a very small...and not totally accurate...part of the Reality that is who and what we are.  That bigger part is what is "beyond the ledge" of our conscious experience.

I like the Hancock Building analogy because:  a) the observation floor is a finite "platform" that feels safe and secure; b) if we get really paralyzed by the sudden expanse of space beyond the floor, we can go down the elevator and be on "terra firma"....this is an illusion of which I will speak a bit more; c) from the observation floor we can see the more complete reality of the surroundings for about 20 miles in any direction on a good day.  It puts us and our environment in perspective.   On the ground and outside the Hancock Building, we are in a seemingly vast concrete jungle filled with noise, and the commerce of fellow beings.

I had a colleague once tell me that he did not do or teach contemplative practices.  When I asked the reason, he simply responded, "Folks can't deal with the idea of nothing."  What he meant by this is that the necessary suspension of the self leaves one with the seemingly endless landscape that goes in any direction for what seems to be an infinite distance.  Now that is a ledge!

Here is where the Hancock analogy breaks down.  If it were possible to literally stand on the ledge of the observation floor of the Hancock Building (99 floors above the street) with no glass wall or barrier, the consequences of one slip or bad move would mean plummeting down those hundreds of feet in free fall at the rate of 32 ft/second squared....the gravitational pull on your body.  NO, we are not built to free float in the atmosphere.  NO, we are not designed to fly by our own anatomical means.

However, stepping off the ledge into the vastness of the unconscious and into that reality is, in fact, part of our nature and being.  In our essence, we are designed for that journey.  Read any master of prayer, saint or mystic who has written about contemplative discipline in Christianity or Judiasm ... or any historically solid spiritual tradition... and one gets the immediate sense that we belong to something much bigger than our daily "awake" world incorporates.

I learned that being a priest in my own Episcopal tradition carries with it the sensate reality that I am an accomplished scholar in the theological and pastoral disciplines that ordination allows me to utilize to engage the daily commerce of what we call the Church Militant.  It is called that, because it is the corporate, business and organizational element of the Church Triumphant.  This latter designation is the Church that resides in that  reality  known as the Kingdom of God.  It is the place where the Divine is actually encountered.

I like very much Fr. Richard Rohr's analogy.  Since I was a Boy Scout, it makes a lot of sense to me.  In his book, Jesus' Plan for a New World, Fr. Rohr says, "In this now and not-yet Reign of God is the foundation for our personal hope and our cosmic optimism, but it is also the source of our deepest alienation from the world as it is, which is all based on merit badges, and various forms of win or lose....Living in this Big Picture of God will leave you in many ways as a 'stranger or pilgrim' on this earth."  (here he cites Hebrews 11:13.  This quote is on pages 3-4 of the above book).

I have spent most of my lifetime building a resume' that gives me credibility and stability in this reality.  It has earned me the benefit of a retirement income.  It gives me introduction to a variety of religious and social venues.  I am known as a "religious professional" (which means basically that I can run a religious based organization), and a "spiritual leader" (more complicated, but it usually means I can make the prayers that get stuff done and lead worship).  What is left out is that we most always stop with these descriptors.  

When a priest, for instance, begins to dig deeply into the relational elements of one's experiences of God in Jesus or the deep pool of actual spiritual reality, we are told that we are "meddling" in private matters.  Folks don't want to go there.  A lot of clergy don't want to go there.  It's as if pirates had warned us that, beyond that ledge of sensate reality, "there be dragons!"

Yep, there are dragons.  These are known variously as neuroses, emotional charges, baggage, etc.  It's the stuff we have accumulated that needs to be jettisoned before we can engage a truly enriched experience of the Holy One...in whatever form that needs to take for us.  That is God's work.  We don't design it.  We simply "fall" into it.

Meantime, we use words, pictures, ideologies, and all kinds of systems to make our case.  Evangelism becomes a "tool" for making Christians (or any other tradition for that matter).  No one likes the answer to evangelism that reads or recites:  "I have plumbed the depths of being, found God, who has filled me, and I simply am....that is enough."  Well.....it is enough.  Since we don't want to go there, we can't say that; so we invent "tools" and "programs."

The Bible becomes not a source of rich relationship and opportunity, but a handhold or railing to keep us from going over the edge.  We hang on to words and hope like crazy we aren't asked to actually experience what the folks in Scripture are sharing.  "Just tell me what to do..."   The Christian mystic would respond, "do nothing...and in nothing you will find yourself in God's love."  The writer of Hebrews says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God" (Hebrews 10:31). That is exactly the experience of which I am speaking!

That's enough for now.  My next post will go further and become much more contemporary in its reflection.  Thanks for being here.

Much love in Jesus,

Fr. Fred+

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