Fragments of Contemplation

Yesterday I was driving home after an exhausting but productive meeting, weighed down by a weak of dealing with conflicts.

The Seattle gloom suddenly broke open, revealing the sharp contours of the Olympic and Cascade mountains, Puget Sound sparkling like flint, and the clean, sharp snow of Mt. Rainier.

I was overcome with a flood of desires pulling me in a hundred different directions. All of the parts of myself that I had been ignoring in order to focus on my organizing and teaching the past week came crying out, competing with each other for attention. I felt like a herd of goats let out of the barn the first day the snow starts to melt, running in circles.

I tried to keep my focus on the road, feeling the anxiety of rushing cars, suddenly aware that I could die in an accident while watching Rainier and so much would be left unresolved, unrepentant for, and unborn.

And yet, this thought didn't grow into the prayer that it should have become. Instead it turned into a strong desire to get home and wrap myself up in all of those desires, crawl into myself, fold myself into them, and fall asleep in a cocoon of blankets where I'd be safe from sunlight, mountains, cars, and relationships with other people.

At church this morning, I realized that this is one of many moments were I've been offered a choice between heaven and hell, and I chose hell. Hell is isolation from people, a false contemplation that turns us inwards seeking relief from the responsibilities of caring for other people. It inflates our egos so we can crawl inside desperately seeking warmth, solace, and false peace, as if this flabby, temporary, changing thing we call ourself were God - we mistake our own self-pity for God's compassion.

In contrast, heaven is that raw, visceral, clean, clear and sharp desert - the desert rhythm of conversations, glowing snowy mountains, wet city streets - the shifting, risky, wild, and spontaneous landscape of love.

This reminds me of the movie Magnolia, which I watched with friends on Thanksgiving evening. It is a series of intertwined stories of broken American lives. The first half is brutal in its unrelenting exposure of the nihilistic, selfish, violent choices the characters make as they attempt to keep their own self-images from shattering. They cheat on each other, abuse and exploit their children. For a second, it seemed like the movie was going to drag on and on with no redemption, no moral vision, just poking fun at and almost celebrating the fragmentation and barbarism of our society. Because of that, my partner was like "is this some sort of hipster movie?"

In the middle of all of this, there is a Black kid who raps a cryptic poem laced with prophecy: "when the sun don't work the Good Lord sends the rain." The cop who he's talking to doesn't get it, and just keeps telling him to watch his language.

This marks the turning point in the movie; he is like a voice crying in the wilderness.

Seemingly random, visceral events begin to intervene in the characters lives to shake up their sin-hardened hearts so they can take a chance on redemption. The TV quiz show whiz kid pisses his pants so he can't win the competition, and this prompts him to stand up to the producers and his father who are exploiting his talents. Two of the old rich Hollywood actors and producers are dying and have to confront their lives of self-centered manipulation of other people, from cheating on their wives to abusing their children. This goes on for the second half of the film, as the characters stories begin to intertwine and they have to face the need to forgive each other.

The problem is, there is no way to make sense of, let alone forgive the meaningless evil these characters had committed - at least not according to "normal", everyday concepts like justice and fairness. There is no way they can make up for it, and some cheesy deathbed conversion is not enough to help them comprehend the karmic ripples of their actions, the devastating chain reactions their sins have caused in the lives around them.

Ultimately, this takes an apocalyptic break of biblical proportions - frogs begin falling from the sky ( a reference to Exodus 8:2 "And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs")

The extra-ordinary, almost supernatural character of this event suspends the normal expectations that govern human relationships, and opens up a space in which the characters can make an existential choice to forgive and to let go of their burdens. In this case, it takes the chaotic, bloody pounding of frogs on the windshield and through the skylight to make the recklessness of compassion and forgiveness actually credible.

A lot of Christian reviewers of the movie see this Biblical event as a punishment for the characters' sins. But it's more than that. It is also a radical break with the world and its principalities and powers - its addictions, neuroses, and lacerating whips of desire. It is God marking a different type of time, a kairos, or crisis moment where the characters can wake up and be free. In this sense, it is like the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in all of its scandalous, physical particularity. It saves us from a slow heat death, from dissipating like a scream into static, like entropy dissolving into nothingness. It erupts from within the world like a thief in the night, splitting it open, rising from its contradictions and giving its history and its bloodstained biographies the possibility of a real ending.

The moment of sharp winter sunlight over Seattle steel, water, and mountains could have been a moment of the inbreaking Kingdom just like the moment when the frogs fell in the movie. In reality, we are confronted with kairos moments like this all the time in our lives. Thomas Merton calls them the "seeds of contemplation" that the universe is constantly planting in us. Usually we kill them before they sprout because the comfort they offer stands in direct contradiction to the comfort we usually seek by turning into ourselves and wrapping ourselves up in our own desires.

A lot of the Christian reviewers of the movie are like the cop figure (who happens to be a Christian himself)- they miss the prophecy running through the film because it is told in vulgar, confrontational language just like the boy's rap. But what the film - just like contemporary hip hop - tries to do is to take the jagged fragments of contemporary culture and to weave them back together like disparate samples woven into a new beat which can build a path for new prophetic words.

These Christian conservatives miss the point. They think that by shielding themselves, by folding themselves back into a world of cocooned peace and porcelain civility they will somehow be able to avoid temptation and sin. In my own experience, such desires to avoid the messy contradictions of contemporary life are actually the root of temptation and sin. All sorts of addictions - whether to alcohol, food, drugs, sex, or self-righteous prayer - arise when folks try to escape the world of other people and find peace in the false solitude of self-gratification.

The alternative is the spiritual desert. The early Christian monks embraced the harsh, sharp, and dangerous spontaneity of the Egyptian desert because here they literally had to pray to stay alive. They denied themselves the option of going home and wrapping themselves up in some preoccupation to forget the world. If they did not concentrate on every action - getting water, making tools, carefully fasting to preserve their food - then they would die. In the process, they died to their egos and were able to be at peace in the middle of harshness and conflict. This allowed them to help other people without burning out.

We don't' have to go to a literal desert to find this unity-in-struggle, this peace-in-contradiction. The city is a spiritual desert, full of dangerous confrontations and harsh edges. Rather than running away from these dangers, we should use them as a grinding stone to grind down our egos and selfishness through daily practice so that we can better love our neighbors.

When we do this, we will become more open to the seeds of contemplation that the clean winter wind is blowing into our faces as we drive home, stuck in traffic on the I-5 bridge among millions of people waiting for the advent of the Kingdom.