By Peter M. Carey
“It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
and I feel fine….(time I had some time alone).”
REM, It’s the End of the World as We Know It
As I enter this Lent, the pounding beat and the prophetic words of the REM song “It’s the end of the world as we know it” run through my mind. I yearn to cultivate a Holy Lent, but there is much to do, and many to-do lists seem to stand in the way. However, listening carefully to the song, one hears the reply, “and I feel fine” and then, very quietly, toward the end of the song, “time I had some time alone.” There is a hope in the song that even in the midst of a busy life that feels like the end of the world, one can find solace; perhaps finding a bit of time alone is a key to unlock the door to a Holy Lent.
And then I say, “If only I could get through all this “stuff,” then I could have a Holy Lent! I could pray more, read more, take a class, go to church more, be more holy, give up caffeine and sweets, and meditate more. If only I could get through my to-do list, if only I had not so many commitments, maybe I could lead a Holy Lent!”
I wonder, if we are already feeling overwhelmed with projects, could Lent be a time when we just try to do one thing?
I have used this concept of “one thing” in my life as a teacher and coach and found it to work pretty well when people are feeling overwhelmed. In the midst of coaching a junior varsity soccer team after a terrible first half, when we were already down 3-0, I asked my team to agree to one thing that we would do better in the second half. I asked them to think of only one thing to concentrate on, such as communication, or movement off the ball, or pushing hard forward on the counter-attack. One thing—we had something to find unity around, and we had a goal on which to concentrate as we crawled out of a deep hole. In that case, we found a way to struggle back into the game, which ended in a tie that felt like a Super Bowl victory.
For this Lent, for those of us who are in the midst of multi-tasking, email flooding, blackberry buzzing, children running, bosses calling, grocery shopping, doctor visiting, there may be just one thing that we can do.
For that one thing, I would suggest “attention”.
That one thing is to strive to be attentive to the now and the here of our lives. If we have the courage to be where we are, we can cultivate awareness, we can cultivate attention. Attention to what, one might ask. Well I would make the claim that when we cultivate attention, when we turn aside from our to-do lists, from our cell phones, from our multitasking, even for a moment or two, several times a day, we are offered the gift of knowing God’s presence. God does not “come to us” only in times of calm reflection, but is ever present, what theologians call “prevenient grace.” God is with us always, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
I take wisdom from the words of the deranged prophet figure in the 1984 film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai across the 8th Dimension: “Wherever you go, there you are.” And, so, here we are. It is here and now that God breaks into our lives, not in some other place or time. It is here that God is, not only in mountaintop experiences, not only when we go away on retreat, not only in the midst of nature, not only in the midst of a concert hall, not only in the exhilarating rush of endorphins when we exercise. One of the Desert Fathers said: “Your cell will teach you all you need to know.” This does not mean that we all have to become monks. For the monk, the cell was his everyday place; it was his place of work. This going to one’s cell was not a retreat from the work of the monk, but was encouragement for the monk to go to his place, to seek God in the everyday place.
Rowan Williams claims in his book, The Trial of Christ, that “hardest place to be is where we are,” for if we want to turn our selves toward God, we must first work to be fully present, which can be hard when our minds leap forward and back, and we multitask ourselves away from where we sit. Cultivating attention may offer us a deeper sense of beauty, if we have eyes to see. As Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hahn claims, “The present moment is a beautiful moment.” And if we truly embraced the present moment, we might, indeed see the beauty of this place, and even see God.
So in the midst of the messiness of raising three children under 5, God is there. In the balancing of the checkbook, God is there. In the waiting room of the hospital, God is there. In the boring meeting, God is there. In the frustrating traffic jam, God is there. Lent might be a time when even in the rush of our appointments and commuting and to do lists we can be attentive to the place where we are, and attentive to God.
As we cultivate a greater sense of attention, we might experience frustration, we might have to acknowledge our fears and our anxieties, we might be confronted with thoughts of the past, and our worries for the future. However, taking the time to turn and cultivate attention may give us eyes to see the beauty of nature, the wondrous diversity of people, and God’s presence even in those interruptions.
To be where we are, in the present moment, means that we cannot deny the cries of the outcast, that we cannot ignore economic injustices, that we cannot ignore the sin of racism that not only surrounds us but is also within us. And it is our practices of being where we are, and in the present moment, that move us to take on the challenge of the brokenness and sinfulness of the world, as it is, in this place, in our own time. We are empowered by Jesus Christ to be agents of reconciliation, to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. We are given the strength to be reconciled with each other, to seek peace.
However, before we take on all of these projects, we can claim the gift of attention to the here and the now of our lives. God is with us always, so we do not need to recover some past glory, or hope for some future rest. God is with us where we are, so enormous journeys are not needed to know God in our lives. In the messiness of the stuff of our lives, in the feeling of “the end of the world as we know it,” we can find “some time alone,” and cultivate attention to this moment, to this place, for this is a beautiful time and place. Do we have eyes to see it?
The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine’s School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.