by Charles LaFond
In this series on writing a Rule of Life, we have reached the half-way point. In John’s Gospel, the great light of the transfiguration turns the corner into deeper waters. Our Rule must include the words and thought we are less eager to set to paper, less eager to read monthly. And so onward!
When you are writing your Rule, do not shy away from hard subjects like touch, sex and relational engagement. You are not a monk or a nun! Live! But write down your longings for intimacy so that you are reminded regularly that you need and want to find it, host it and nurture it. Too many marriages and friendships go cold because a Rule of Life has not been there to remind a couple – as the chapter rolls around – that healthy intimacy is based on healthy relationships – a welcome of equals. If your Rule of Life demurs from such topics as darkness or intimacy then you will find shallow friendships, lifeless intimacy, and a life increasingly cold without human touch.
These are this week’s three chapters. What would yours look like under these titles?
A Rule of Life Chapter on Shadows, Light and Darkness
There will be shadows. There will be light and there will be darkness and there will, as a result, be shadows. Learning to become and be comfortable with uncertainty along with being willing to examine my thoughts, will help me to stay in the discomfort of shadows without the comfort of an Epiphany Star.
When I look at great art, I realize the value of shadows. They define and they provide for contour; which is so valuable in discernment and discretion while also uncomfortable. And liminal spaces without any shadows are nothing more than pass-through, since it is the shadows which make the liminal so exciting, so magical and so mystical.
There will be light as we see in the Transfiguration, the Bethlehem star and the Resurrection-morning-breakfast on the beach. But in each case, the surrounding darkness defines the light and make it what it is. Transfiguration’s bright, white, uncreated light is set between great physical and spiritual darkness from which they emerge and into which they return. The star begins a conversation about being with and without light – since being with a star (“astron” in the Greek) is so comforting while being without a star’s guiding light can be so frightening and disorienting (how we get the word “disaster” from the Greek’s “dis-astron” – without a star to guide.)
God is present in the light, the dark and the shadows. God seems to not often interfere with nature and its rules, so the vulnerability of life is very real, un-sugar-coated with prosperity-gospel silliness but heavy also, with uncertainty and glory.
Am I willing to stay in the shadows of the sunrise and the sunset? Am I willing to embrace uncertainty and vulnerability as a reality and not fight it into religious boxes – labeled, controlled and neat? And can I, will I, believe that God shows up in the shadows as well as in the light and the darkness? Can I know the star is up there, even when it is behind clouds? And when I am in “dis-astron” (life’s disasters – life’s moments without the clarity of a guiding star) can I embrace a Savior who comes as a real recognizable, gentle, furious, human – aware that God so loves me and us that God would do such a thing to connect?
Charles, let go of the white-picket-fence idea of life! It has never served you well. Step into the jungle instead, where there is neither control nor order but great CHAORD – that magical, wonderful, shadowy place where vulnerability meets faith and God does much more interesting things.
A Rule of Life Chapter on Intimacy and Touch
I want intimacy in my human, physical and relational life, even in intimacy’s inherent vulnerability. Each month as I re-read this chapter in my Rule I need to ask myself if I am doing the relational work needed to maintain intimacy relationally and physically. Do I hold my friend’s hands when we walk? Do I hug with real connection or with a shoulder wedge? Do I have conversations with my friends which last into the wee hours? If not, then I am working too hard and need to connect better. Have I had friends for dinner (…see this month’s issue of Nourish Magazine in your local book store to see one!) and have we burnt out the candles?
It is a great help to me to know that medical science has now been able to definitively prove that humans who do not touch, or are not touched by other humans, turn inward, wizen, sicken and die. This medical proof helps me to know that my desire for human touch and relational intimacy are normal.
Human babies are born six months “early” because if they are not, their heads will be too large to emerge from human wombs. Being born “early” means that human baby’s eyes and ears are underdeveloped and so they get most of what they know from being touched. A newborn deer will be up and moving in a few minutes. Human babies will take 9 months for anything like mobility. We know that after only 8 weeks in the womb’s gestation, a baby recoils from touch. And we know that the same cells that form skin also form the nervous system – so – skin is an external kind of nervous system, designed, I suspect, to help us to connect to the planet and to each other. So, touch is essential. Americans and vigorous church-goers, generally, are often so sexually repressed that touch is frightening to them because it threatens to lift the lid on a boiling pressure-cooker inside them. So there is cancer, relational abuse, high divorce rates and church conflict.
I want to touch and to be touched. We need boundaries and I respect them; especially those with parishioners, given that I am a priest. However, my friends are people who touch me and who welcome non-sexual touch. And now that I have been hit by a train, survived, and have lost all smell and taste; touch is all the more important to me and has been heightened.
Physical intimacy need not be sex and is too often confused for it. When I meet angry, bitchy, cranky people I usually assume (often rightly) that they are starved of intimacy in their life. The intimacy/repression/angry cycle is a viscous one. So it is important that I make and work to keep friends who want intimacy, gently rejecting those for whom intimacy is unimportant or for whom intimacy is difficult due to a relational or psychological disability.
The church has two main icons which lead its pilgrimage. One is that of the Latin churches – the icon of Saint Peter with they keys. This icon is one of power and control. The other icon of the church is that of the Celtic churches – the icon of Jesus with The Beloved Disciple whose head is laid on his chest during the last supper. The Celtic icon resonates with me and so I embrace a more Celtic, earthy spirituality, choosing theologians like John O’Donahue and John Phillip Newell as my teachers in life. I respect other forms of Christianity, but have become peaceful with not embracing them. So intimacy with God is important to me as is friendship. I believe God wants intimacy. Why would God become human – a being who can touch and feel the caress of a friend and even the nails of an empire, if not to be willing to enter time and intimacy? So prayer is important to me, not to download wisdom or directions, but to have intimacy with a God which seems to so welcome intimacy.
A Rule of Life Chapter on Health
Let this chapter of my Rule of Life remind me monthly of how very precious my life is on this planet. It is no more precious than any other human life and my own personal belief is that my life is no more precious than any life of any sentient being on the planet. I am not of the belief that humans are more important or more precious to God than other animal life. Had Genesis been written by animals, the story would have turned out differently.
It is breathtaking to consider how my body works with its 37 trillion cells generating, dying and being replaced. It is hard to imagine, without medical training, the 60,000 miles of blood vessels in my body and their ability to work correctly. My brain does not understand how my brain works and yet it seems able to direct my body, store information, calculate problems and consider its thoughts while hosting sexuality, downloading God’s still, small voice and appreciating beauty.
Most of my life has been lived disregarding my body’s needs through a twisted and sick interpretation of centuries of religious thought about what is divine and what is earthly. A work addiction has not helped either, driving my poor, sad body to its brink and occasionally beyond, in a cultural-herding of caffeine, over-work, over-stimulation and exhaustion. Like so many other Americans, I had come to believe that I existed for work and was evaluated by its success or failure.
The Bible’s words about my body being “a temple” sounded like a Hallmark moment and was too easily disregarded, and for too long. But now, after a half-century of life, I find myself willing and able to care for my body and its health. After the workhouse-experience of monastic life I am careful to do the math around sleep, unwilling to give myself less than an 8 hour window for sleep – needed or not. My Rule of Life includes a rule about alarm clocks too – they are for mornings when I have a flight to catch – but generally I keep them turned off, which means I must go to sleep early enough not to need an alarm clock. I nap more and with less guilt, and I keep scented oils with which to rub down my body on the eve of my Sabbath day and its evening as a ritual-reminder that my body has great value and does me very great service on this planet.
Increasingly I am more and more careful about what goes into my body and need to be ever more careful about what I eat and drink. A half glass of wine at night is a gentle kindness I welcome and plenty of water (which bores me to drink) is a habit I need to remind myself will ease my aches and pains. When I can afford it, a massage is welcome to squeeze poisons back into my bloodstream that exit in urine with extra water consumption and I seek a rule which encourages a monthly massage, at a minimum, when I have the funds to pay for one. When I am sick, I will stop and rest.
And touch will be a priority. My dog Kai seems to like touch and will get daily puppy-massages in exchange for the way he cuddles against me at night with warmth and kind connection. My friends will touch my body – holding a hand or laying a hand on my arm or shoulder when in conversation, and I will be intentional to reciprocate. And with the loss of smell and taste, I will be intentional about foods for their consistency and nutrition so that my body gets pleasure and value from the foods I eat. When possible, my one rule about food is that I will spend money to purchase and eat good foods and only good foods. And I will get to know the homeopathic salesperson at my Whole Foods counter – using what she suggests with as much enthusiasm as regular visits to my doctor.