“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
Simply by uttering that piece of a Psalm, some of you know that I am a Low Church Cradle Episcopalian. As such, I know the hymns I want at my funeral – (680 & 690), and so far I have repressed a desire to refer to Luk as Mr. De Volder. But being churched has nothing to do with being religious. And being religious often has no relationship to having Faith.
What ignites or reveals Faith? Is Faith inside of us and gurgles up or does it seep in from the world we experience around us? In what Spiritual Space does Faith come from?
In Lent some people cease doing things they enjoy so they can better appreciate the things that they’ve been given. Absence reveals presence.
In talking to a Priest about this sermon, she noted that the prophet Elijah met God in complete silence. Apparently Elijah stayed in a cave while all sorts of fiery mountain-splitting earthquakes failed to draw him out, and then God showed up in the absence of supernatural demonstrations.
But for most people absence is most dearly felt when it’s imposed on us – when someone dies, a marriage ends, a job is lost, or a child leaves home are absences that are often beyond our control. That absence of control often calls the question on Faith.
Despite my Cradle status, I stopped attending church when I was shipped off to high school, where football filled all voids. I then went to college to become a classic jackass architecture student.As a child, Faith came to me out of fundamental uncertainty – not because I attended church for my first 14 years. At the age of 6 the blistering Mad Men prequel that was my childhood found me in my bed, in the dark, as my own Betty and Don Draper raged on. I was alone. But not alone.
The crescendo of my full on academic ego bloat happened when I was chosen by Cornell’s professors to do the first full year’s design thesis in a decade. This final blast of the academic pressure cooker was the last act of a drama that had seen my class attrite down from the 140 who entered as freshmen to the 38 who graduated from what called itself the best school of architecture in the country.
That year of Thesis serial all-nighters culminated in a largely sleepless week of drawing and finally my gang-pressing 4 undergrads into a last all-nighter drawing sweatshop at my apartment the day before the drawings were due. Then, at 2AM, the power went out, the apartment went dark – and everything came to a crashing stop. Everyone left, I was crushed, but when I awoke at the crack of dawn once again I was alone, but not alone – and despite incomplete drawings, I passed my review.
My 40 days in the churchless wilderness of high school and college only came to an end because a fellow Cradle Episcopalian, Liz, wanted a church wedding – where I once again encountered what brought most us to this place on this day – the thoughtful, graceful, artful warmth found in our faith, together.
Like the fig tree in the passage of Luke heard today that decade away from church meant I had precious little spiritual fruit 32 years ago. But it was not the beauty of Grace Church in New York that gave me spiritual space.
The irony for this architect is that I found that space alone in the dark – in a six year-old’s bed and in a student apartment – not in the icons, spaces and rituals so many associate with religion.
The great “I AM” of Exodus was not heard by my Cradle Episcopalian ears in the liturgy I so dearly love, it was heard in the silence of dark nights. I love Cranmer’s words in our Prayer Book, Walden’s music and all of you, but I still find my spiritual space when there isn’t much left within or about me to crowd it out.
For me, that space lives in the absence of the “play” St. Paul warns against today. The easy embrace of making things happen in this world can make the here and now overwhelming, unless circumstances prevent me from diving in. When I am fully spent by any given day’s extremities, I am forced into openness. When I am trapped in a car and cannot engage in illicit texting, I have to listen. The overwhelming relief I feel when a meeting, deadline or performance is mercifully cancelled forces me to experience simple Grace.
This is not about “Lizard Brain” rote activities (like shoveling snow), or my daily self-flagellatory workout – those activities are, well, activities that have outcomes. Sadly, almost every aspect of our lives can be just another performance opportunity – where we can do “a good job” – or fall short – unless those aspects absent themselves.
The liberation of absence contradicts the typical architect mantra that the environment we create for ourselves fosters insight and inspiration. I have delighted in designing worship spaces, and love this splendid space and these services – but for me, for me, it is the presence of absence that lets me hear God.
I escaped church for a decade. But no one can escape being alone. Eventually the final Absence from all of this will be Present. But now, in full midlife emersion in the here and now, it’s in the presence of absence where I bump into my Spiritual Space.