I haven’t been paying attention. Christmas is Sunday and I feel confused by that fact. Like we skipped a month in there somewhere, or I had amnesia. This post is long, even for me. So consider it your fair warning of my catching up from a couple months away.
My life has been a non-stop string of changes and challenges in the past couple months, which have only been put in perspective by the bigger shifts and challenges our country and world are facing. There has been nothing stable about the ground on which our feet are planted…and my view has become equally impacted by the transience in my own life as well as the shifting scenery in our country. A double dose of world-tilt and nausea.
I remember how in ballet we were trained to find a still point to whip our heads around and find as we spun to keep ourselves from getting dizzy. Your body turns, your head keeps still until the last possible moment when you whip around to find the point again before the rest of your body comes around full circle behind your still gaze. The eyes are the last thing to leave the still point and the first to come back to it…while the world turns around you while you spin in graceful double and triple pirouettes.
I keep trying to find something still to fix my gaze on these days, and I can’t find it. I’m beginning to realize that “still point” is going to be found from a different set of eyes than the ones that look out at all this change. I’m realizing that it wont be my eyes at all that can find the still point now, but a different seeing altogether…and it's going to require a deeper kind of muscle memory: one that relies less on the way things look and relies more on a gut intuition that there’s more than meets the eye to all the chaos that surrounds our individual and collective lives right now.
How many of us are feeling this way, I wonder? How many of us are looking for the still point, grasping at straws for something to stabilize the sense of dislocation…trying desperately to move through the motions of normalcy hoping it will start to feel that way long enough to keep the nausea at bay?
My body finally called the stop on my attempt to lose myself in work as a way to escape…and after a chest cold turned sinus infection, I am bed ridden with strict orders from doctor and family to stay put. At least for one afternoon. The timing is eerie: today is winter solstice. A friend texted me to tell me that last night was the darkest night in 500 years…a lunar eclipse to boot. Now comes the turn…slowly edging back toward life. At least that’s what the seasons will do—they will always keep going, keep turning—their still-point is life itself.
So while I lay here, and watch my world nauseatingly spin long enough to consider the reasons why, I suddenly thought about the Christmas story from this angle….what if Mary felt exactly like I do right now? What if she was as nauseated and unsure as I am?
What if she wasn’t as passively acquiescing as the male narrators of her story have made her out to be? I mean, is it really so different to how we look back on traumatic events in our own lives from the comfort of hindsight?
We are very guilty as humans of a perpetual tendency to dress down the absolute chaos of what life in the past was really like, and fit the anguish of it all neatly into a sequential linearity tied up with a bow of clear outcomes. We fill in all kinds of meaning and beautiful angelic messages into what was really just a shit-storm of uncertainty and small moments of courage that wind up defining our whole lives.
I recently came upon some old pictures of when I was in my late teens visiting refugee camps in Algeria. One picture stopped me dead as my younger self seemed to look at me in a way that demanded I take immediate inventory of my life. Youth does that: the way we look at the world, with a mixture of hope and expectation, with a sense of purpose and the soft-animal-body belonging that hasn't yet been tarnished by cynicism or self-doubt. What are you going to do? What will you do with this life? Those eyes seem to ask me from across dimensions.
So I’m wondering about Mary now, and what her eyes looked like as they asked those same questions, probably a little younger than mine in that picture.
It doesn’t interest me whether it was an angel that came down and informed her of what was happening, or whether the circumstances that brought about the Incarnation were less angelic. What matters to me is the moment of choice: the moment when she accepted her own agency in the matter. That one moment that probably was much smaller than we’ve made it out to be.
I imagine that moment which, in reality—like all moments, was simply timed between a steady heartbeat and an inaudible in breath and outbreath. Life was absolutely ordinary in that moment everywhere around her, I guarantee it. All around her, life was getting on with business as usual, things needed to get done, and the minutes were slipping by like they always do. In that very moment someone in her village was dying, someone was being born and some couple was wildly making love. The animals were being animals and shitting all over the place, and the sun was lighting up the dust, or maybe it was behind clouds…either way, the sun was there in the background in the scenery of life, like it always is.
Maybe even to an onlooker Mary looked like she just stopped to look out the window for a moment. Maybe the angel appeared only to her. Maybe the angel spoke in the sound of her own voice in her own head: Mary. Your life is at a crossroads. You have a choice in the matter. What are you going to do? What will you do?
And I imagine Mary—not like the male narrative version of her story--maybe seriously thinking through all her options and really feeling the weight of it all. Maybe she had lived her whole life delighting her mother and father with how good she was, how perfectly she had met their expectations. Maybe she had been a valued member of her community, and they expected her to follow the well-traveled route of generations of women before and after to—above all—fit in, get married, make babies, and do what is expected of you. Maybe in this critical choice she realized that to do herself justice, she had to break the hearts of those she loved. She’d have to bear their disappointment—and maybe some of her own as well—in order to bear the new life within her. She probably realized she’d bear the judgment of society, and be misunderstood by most for most of her life.
There were more than a few beats between the question and answer. Any woman knows these identifications aren’t easily shed in the moment we’re faced with the choice to move out from under the heavy cloak we’re often more comfortable hiding behind.
Maybe in that moment of choice she realized that to be true to herself, she had to connect to a larger intuition she’d always had deep within her. An intuition that knows somehow our courage to step out in this way is inextricably connected to some part of Divinity becoming manifest. Maybe in that moment of choice she realized there really was no choice after all, not if she was truly honest with herself. It was a choice between life and pretending to live, and in that moment, the scales within her favored the living…even knowing that being alive in that way always comes at cost of great pain.
Not that Mary knew the scope of it, mind you. None of us ever do in the moment. I think all she had to go on in that moment was her own trembling voice, her own body and her deep spiritual intuition. Whatever the angel was or was not saying, ultimately, it came down to her trusting her own gut.
Before she could answer herself, she would have to first surmount her doubt of believing herself worthy of such a love, a love that offered her a part in a story so full of hope and beauty. Everything must have been fighting against that small intuition in that moment: like all humans, Mary probably never believed herself worthy…not really. Sure, she was headstrong, and perhaps always imagined that her life was meant to take on bigger dimensions, but in the moment? I promise you she was deeply tempted to take the easier and more well traveled path of minimizing the greatness that welled in her, to take the path of self-loathing and shame that would have created a much darker but more manageable narrative out of the events. The choice that would have led her to take a much more believable storyline….something people could handle and make sense out of. It also would have come at the small price of her very soul.
There is a connection there between what we believe about our worth and the way that belief yields the fruit of hope, picked later in a moment of wild courage and unpredictable circumstances. And how—in the moments of real choice, of real courage—what we are really saying with our choice is that we believe something about the core of who we are that this world and the hardships of life may have almost stolen from us or tried to cover over.
It is something that the eyes of our youth fiercely communicate: you belong here, you are part of something bigger and you can trust the invitation your heart offers you with every beat to trust your own inner “still point”…you can trust that choice you knew deep down wasn’t a choice afterall. Not if you wanted to be truly alive. Not if you wanted to offer something good and true and lasting to this world. Not if you want to help in whatever small you can with our “ordinary” choices. And what do we know about the scope and effect of our small moments of courage, anyway?
So that was it. The moment came, and somewhere between a bleating goat in the background and a man yelling something to another man down the road, Mary said: ok. I trust this. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know how it will end. But I trust it.
I imagine that this moment began a circuitous rehearsal, and that over her lifetime she must have stared out the window thousands of times asking her the same questions: what have I gotten myself into? What will I do? But that one first moment set the course of a lifetime of trying to learn how to trust and believe herself as part of something bigger, of learning to find her still point deep within herself rather than in the spinning world around her.
So yeah. I don’t think Mary was as passive and acquiescing as we’ve made her out to be. I don’t quite believe the ages of male narration of her story that have turned her inner conflict into a five minute exchange with an Angel. I think Mary was equal parts scared shitless and awake enough to know the choice she had to make. I think her world was spinning. And I think that between one breath and the next she just chose to trust that somehow the events of her life would not be wasted or lived in isolation from a bigger story, and she chose to accept herself as playing part in a story that arched toward hope. And that takes a lot courage…the kind of courage that incarnates Christ in this world.
By the way. Don’t forget the other characters in the familiar story…there were psychotic power-hungry mad kings, there was a genocide of a whole generation of male children, and the world was in absolute chaos and filled with violence, fear and uncertainty. Not unlike our own world today.
And while it might be tempting for us to believe ourselves as powerless in the face of what seems like an onslaught of terrible outcomes in our world lately that we thought we could stem the tide of, maybe we’re not as powerless as we believe. Maybe all of our small moments of courage add up to a lot of things shifting. And maybe one moment begets another bigger moment of courage.
Maybe it begins with believing ourselves as capable to step out of the prescribed story lines like Mary did. Maybe that one moment of choice is all it takes to begin a domino effect. In Mary’s life, that domino effect gave her the tenacity to face being a refugee, running for their lives and surviving on nothing. Maybe that one moment led to a lifetime of moments in which Mary found a way to stand up to the empire with her resiliency and hopeful belief …a belief that she instilled in the mind and heart of her young son.
Whatever the choice is you face in your life…be courageous, evolutionaries. Trust the inner voice. The voice that sounds like yours, but carries the weight of angelic power. The deeper intuition you have to take leavefrom the ordinary and to believe yourself worthy of bearing divinity through the ways you step out…and you just might find the ways that your many moments of courage add up to a life capable of standing up to empire.
Back to my room. Things are still spinning here. But when I think about Mary’s courage, I’m filled with the deeper knowing that I’m not performing a play in isolation from the larger stage of life. All of these moments are connected somehow. I can feel the still point somewhere in my belly…and it is there that I can feel a deeper knowing.
I don’t know what it means. I don’t know where it will end. But I trust it.
I leave you with these word of David Whyte as a Christmas gift. I hope you can feel that still point in you even just for one moment this holiday season…and may that point be the revelation of your own courageous voice. For whatever comes next will require each of us to begin perceiving reality from a deeper set of eyes.
REVELATION MUST BE TERRIBLE
Revelation must be
terrible with no time left
to say goodbye.
Imagine that moment
staring at the still waters,
with only the brief tremor
of your body to say
you are leaving everything
and everyone you know behind.
Being far from home is hard, but you know,
at least we are all exiled together.
When you open your eyes to the world
you are on your own for
the first time. No one is
even interested in saving you now
and the world steps in
to test the calm fluidity of your body
from moment to moment,
as if it believed you could join
its vibrant dance
of fire and calmness and final stillness.
As if you were meant to be exactly
where you are, as if,
like the dark branch of a desert river,
you could flow on without a speck
of guilt and everything
everywhere would still be just as it should be.
As if your place in the world mattered
and the world could
neither speak nor hear the fullness of
its own bitter and beautiful cry
without the deep well
of your body resonating in the echo.
Knowing that it takes only
that first, terrible
word to make the circle complete,
revelation must be terrible
knowing you can
never hide your voice again.