Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Stillness and Reflection

Tuesdays in the Chapel Readings and Talk from March 13, 2012

Reading One:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion .... [W]e are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest .... This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud .... I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966) pp. 140-41

“If I could change one thing about this place.” It feels somewhat presumptuous for me to get to play with this question aloud, since I’ve only been serving as a chaplain on this campus since about the middle of November.
But with the boldness of one who doesn’t yet know better, here goes:
If I could change one thing about this campus, I would gather together architects and environmentalists and chaplains and engineers and people from disciplines I haven’t even heard about, to create Stillness Pods throughout the campus.
I have no idea what they would look like, but they would be places on the actual MIT map, not just within our mental or virtual maps, that you could step into and inhabit for a time.
Spaces where you get to Just. Be. Still.
The stillness these pods would cultivate is the opposite of absence. It is not lack. It isn’t wasted time, or the silence of loneliness or despair. It’s not being left alone with the cacophony of internal voices and judgments: rehearsal of our shortcomings, or those of  colleagues, teachers, students; conversations or situations where we didn’t say the right thing, or said it badly.
Rather it’s the stillness born of the freedom that you don’t have to do or be anything to be numbered among those whose shiny belovedness Thomas Merton was blinded by at some random corner in Louisville in the heat of the Cold War.
Merton was a Trappist monk who arrives at this moment in that excerpt Bob read, on the heels of prayer and meditation. He’s someone who tended to silence and yet understood its deep connection to life in the world; to the connections between contemplation and social action.
I’d like to think I could perceive the belovedness, the God-infused shininess of everyone I pass while bustling across this campus, or while rushing my daughter out of the house to get her to school on time, or my fellow travelers on Memorial Drive this morning. But more often than not, they look like people in my way, or people I feel worlds apart from.
It is stillness, midwifed by literal and spiritual places to plant myself within for a time, that softens the defenses, that reorders myself so that the desire to be extraordinary, to matter, loosens its grip, so that I can behold the world around me, behold you, behold even myself, from that holy stance that nearly knocks Merton off of his feet.
This stillness isn’t escape; it isn’t reprieve from the world. It is about slowing down enough so that our senses come back to life—so that we can perceive the wondrous in the everyday.
I’m guessing my vision of Stillness Pods cropping up across campus won’t happen anytime soon. (Thankfully we have this Chapel here already, as a concrete space to enter into.) So perhaps, instead, we can work to become embodied forms of stillness for others—places in which others can experience themselves as whole, holy, lacking nothing; beloved, shining like the son, so they can and we can re-emerge and engage the reality of life at MIT with greater honesty, less fear; a reality fraught with loss and potential, with sorrow and with joy. The mixed, ambivalent, complex reality of life in a body, in this body that is MIT.

Reading Two:

Miracle Fair
by Wislawa Szymborska
translated by Joanna Trzeciak

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it's backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

Rev. Kari Jo Verhulst
Lutheran Chaplain to MIT