As I write this, I am looking out my picture window and noting that it’s still dark at 7 a.m. A fresh snow fall increases the sense of expectant hush this dark time of year has, especially in the cold states. There is a feeling of waiting, of advent, and also sometimes a feeling of hybernation, of sleepiness and weakness, even if you aren’t sick. Sometimes, I feel a little like a hybernating bear dragged out of a cave and made to deal with tasks I’m just not up to–deadlines and gifts to buy and parties. Yesterday, on Monday, the most tired day of the week, I dragged myself like a drowsy bear over to my local post office to have a passport picture taken so I can get my passport renewed in time to visit my daughter at Oxford in February. There, before a grim audience of people waiting to mail packages, I stood against a grimy wall and let a well-meaning postal employee take my picture (“Wait, I’m not pushing the right button…oh dear, that one’sreally not good, let’s try again….”) The resulting picture, the best of three, chilled me to the core. The holidays coming around again themselves can remind a person of the inexorable way time passes, but this, well, I felt a bit like Scrooge encountering the Ghost of Christmas Future.
It wasn’t just that I look much, much older than I feel, who doesn’t? It was the expression on my face. Even though I stood there trying to be present, sensing my feet on the ground, willing my heart to be open to the postal worker and the impatient customers and all beings–even though I wished very much to show some evidence of my true humanity when I cross borders, I looked, well,really under the weather. Literally. I looked like a creature who is carried along passively by the life, blown by the winds, washed away with the floods, crushed under the great wheel. There was no denying the truth, dear reader. The evidence is overwhelming, and has been for years. Take that train trip that I described last week, right after 9/11, when fear was so strong in New York. A perfectly nice young woman sitting next to Alex and I asked us to watch her insulated lunch box while she went to rest room. Alex and I agreed, but after she didn’t come back for what seemed a long, long time we began to stare at each other. We were afraid of it, dear reader! Even though it looked like a perfectly ordinary lunch bag, we thought it might be a diabolically clever bomb planted by a very cleverly unlikely terrorist! If you wanted to know the power of fear to strip you of your own senses and intuition, those were days, my friends! I remember screwing up my courage to open the thing I wanted to show Alex her mother could be brave and noble!) when the nice woman came sweeping back into her seat and thanked us.
It was one of the many moments in my life when I have been aware of the truth in this quote by C.S. Lewis, which was recently posted on the Parabola Facebook wall: “Five senses, an incurably abstract intellect, a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them–never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?” I no illusions about my capacities on the train that day, or in the post office yesterday. Yet, at the same time I was–and am– aware that there is another power source in us, a heart that glows and assents to things unseen and even sings while the mind (what we usually call the mind) struggles to keep up.
Sometimes, there is a clear seeing awareness that can visit us like an angel–or like one of the ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It is not something that we conjure up. It is a greater awareness that we sometimes allow in–sometimes we can feel like a reluctant hero in a movie or a myth, pushed into stepping out of the cramped old world and onto the path of the unknown. Like Scrooge (or a bear, dragged out of it’s cave). We are not ready, no able to be part of the great adventure that is offered. Except the heart is ready. The heart has not been sleeping. It has been waiting for this moment.
“Be helpless, dumbfounded,/ Unable to say yes or no./ Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up,” writes Rumi. The heart stays awake and opens the door and lets grace come in and gather us up and make us Whole.
This Christmas, consider giving away all your illusions about yourself, all your cherished ideas and opions and assumptions. Give away the best of yourself too, give big, like Scrooge. Open up the doors and the blinds and see who or what comes in. “Where one is emptied of self, ideas, concepts, assumptions, images, and all else; God pours himself into the soul, and the light at the core of the soul grows so strong, it spills out holiness and radiates through the whole person.” Meister Eckhart.