A young mom, watching her four year old at play, asked Debbie one day, “At what point do you stop worrying about your children.”
“Never,” said Debbie, “You just worry about different stuff.”
Late November, a few years ago, Debbie and I were attending the annual national conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. By that point in my career, it was mostly a chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues, and to put in an appearance or two at cocktail parties organized by various publishers and grant makers. It was, in other words, supposed to be fun. We were sitting in our hotel room across the street from the conference center getting ready to go out when we received a call from one of our children.
There’s no need to go into the details of that call and the worries it provoked. Let’s just say that suddenly, everything seemed to fall apart all at once. In seconds we went from relaxed to terrified. I’ll leave the family situation aside, except to say that we have all probably experienced something similar.
My late friend Professor Alan Lewis, who died almost thirty years ago from cancer, had a special gift of saying things that dismantle old settled questions and force us to think in new ways. One day sitting in my office, he said, “You know, my faith in chance is getting shaky.” Maybe, he said, he was going to have to resurrect his belief in God’s Providence.
Well, as foundations were shaking in our world that November day, and as Debbie quickly left the conference to be with one of our children, I stayed behind at the meeting. But I was unable to concentrate on the papers in the various sections I attended. So I decided to wander the Exhibition Hall where hundreds of publishers were offering steep academic discounts on their latest books.
There are certain publishers I always visited, some to catch up with friends in the book business, some to check out new research in my field, and some for my own spiritual growth. I was looking through the books offered by Shambhala Press, a publisher in the last of those categories, when Providence apparently showed up.
I came across a book with the perfect title for how I felt that day, “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron. I bought the book (at a nice discount!), found a cup of coffee and a quiet corner in a nearby hotel, and started reading.
I admit that I turned to this book hoping to find some sort of easy comfort, a cooling balm for my fevered worries, maybe an escape into a mental glade by a bubbling brook. What I found was a spiritual warrior of the Tibetan sort with the personality of a tough old Marine. I wanted escape. She demanded a bracing dose of reality. She was right.
Recently, journalist Krista Tippett, in her excellent podcast, “On Being,” featured readings from Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart.” I think everyone’s experience of a classic like this deserves its own space, so I’m not going to get in the way of your potential exploration of the book, just in case you choose to read it. But I do want to tell you why this book became, from that November day onward, an important resource for my spiritual life.
It helped me learn that when things fall apart, the best approach is to step into the difficulty rather than to step back or away.
Deep within life’s greatest challenges, hidden within the folds of the most painful and anxiety-producing moments, lies the key to our spiritual growth. There, in the midst of our own discomfort, pain, and vulnerability, lies the opportunity to grow in empathy for others who suffer, the opportunity for our hearts to soften and receive life’s deepest and most subtle lessons. Instead of raging against misfortune, we have a chance to step into it to learn the secrets of our humanity.
Ironically, it was in reading this Tibetan Buddhist teacher that I was able to understand (in my heart) something about the two thousand years of Christian teachings on the spiritual meaning of Jesus’s suffering and dying on the cross, his prayer in Gethsemane, his words of love contained in those soaring passages of the so-called “high priestly prayer for this disciples” in John’s gospel. What had appeared simply “morbid” in the visual representations of the suffering Jesus was illuminated from within. Suddenly I could embrace more fully than ever the spiritual wisdom of writers like Lady Julian of Norwich who found in suffering the doorway to divine love.
“When things fall apart” it is fruitless to ask, “Why is this happening to me, Lord?” as though we should be immune to life’s pain. It is also theologically unhelpful, I think, to blame or to “credit” God with causing the conditions that lead to suffering. This creation is the ultimate “given.” In the teeth of suffering it just doesn’t get us very far to ask, “Why” or “How.” It is often very helpful, however, and may be the very height of spiritual wisdom to ask, “Given that I am in these circumstances, what might I learn here?”
Pandemics have to count as such circumstances, it seems to me. We feel vulnerable when there’s a virus on the prowl. The targets of a virus are completely random. This virus has only one “goal”: to replicate. That’s it! And it replicates with amazing efficiency. The fact that Jesus is our Lord gives us comfort in this time, but this fact is not an antidote to getting sick.
Not a day goes by that we do not hear stories of death and grief, stories reminding us of life’s fragility. Not a day goes by, however, that we also fail to hear stories of heroism and care in the face of danger, of courage when the chips are down, of love even as life passes so fleetingly.
We are reminded on every side of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “A breath, a sigh, the merest puff of a breath: such is life.” And, as we step into this reality, as we allow ourselves to feel the fragility of life, we may also sense the wonder of love rising in our hearts, an empathy for others deeper than any we have known before, a sharing in suffering (yes!), but also a sharing in our faith’s deepest call, to surrender our hearts to be overcome by God’s love for this aching creation and God’s vulnerable creatures.
To hold life gently as the precious reality it is, is to hold life as it is meant to be held, with wonder and reverence for every living being. There is so much to learn that can only be learned “when things fall apart.”
God bless you and keep you, my dear friends.
St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church