Saturday, December 19, 2015

God is what happens to us when we’re waiting for spiritual direction


“Before you cross the street take my hand.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
.”—John Lennon, “Darling Boy” (dedicated to his son Sean)

I usually arrive either just on time or a little late for my spiritual direction session every month because I lead a very busy, activist life. Way too busy, sometimes. That’s why I am seeing my spiritual director, so I will give myself permission to take more time for contemplation and for things that nourish my soul. This month, which happens to be Advent, I arrived fifteen minutes early and was very glad I did so. I didn’t feel rushed or anxious, and I had time to go for a meditative walk. My spiritual director, Brother Dennis Gibbs, has his office at the Church of our Savior, a beautiful (and very wealthy) Episcopal church in posh San Marino. The campus is gorgeous, full of old pepper trees and bare white eucalyptus that dramatically set off the mission-style white adobe chapel. I was looking forward to exploring this beautiful site, which is a very different world from Northwest Pasadena, the culturally and racially mixed neighborhood where I live.
As soon as I stepped into the central plaza, I heard a piano playing so exquisitely I thought it must be a recording. Then I realized it was coming from a chapel that has large glass windows. I peered inside and saw a young man playing. He had long hair and a back pack next to his piano bench. He seemed like a high school senior. Poised over the piano, in semi-darkness, he played intently and with amazing grace. His fingers flew over the keys, paused, caressed the notes, and then boldly banged out arpeggios that rocked the chapel. I was in awe of this young man and the music he embodied so perfectly.  Was it Liszt, Chopin? I wasn’t sure. The image of this young man in the semi-dark chapel deeply touched my soul. I thought: God must be having a blast listening to this young man.
After listening intently for a while, I went on my walk, paid my respect to the noble trees, and came back to the glass chapel. This time I heard him carefully replaying a passage that was especially difficult. He was, after all, practicing. He was doing hard, faithful work so that his playing would seem effortless.
I thought of the young people who perform on Chris O’Reilly’s radio show "From the Top"—those gifted, quirky prodigies that O’Reilly loves to tease as well as praise. I wondered what this young man with the back pack was like. Did he dream of becoming a professional musician? Did he have any idea that his playing could give an elder like me a glimpse of heaven? It didn’t matter, of course. What mattered is that he, like the birds singing and chattering these venerable old trees, was doing exactly what his heart called him to do. And I was doing what I was called to do: listening with rapt attention, moved to tears, grateful beyond words.

I then walked over to the church office and went upstairs to meet with my spiritual director. My meeting was scheduled for 3:45 and I was still five minutes early. His door was closed, however. When I peered through a glass panel next to the door, I could see that he was engaged with another directee. I didn’t mind. I was enjoying this utterly free time.
As I walked down the stairs, I noted a picture on the wall I hadn’t noticed before. It was a “mappa mundi,” a medieval map of the world. I love maps so I paused to inspect it. It was very strange view of the world, written in Latin and German in tiny script almost impossible to decipher. I struggled to make sense of this unfamiliar world view. This round map mostly showed land, and hardly any water. In the center of the map was the city I was able to identify as Jerusalem. Below it was what seemed like a large river labeled Mare Mediterraneum, the Mediterranean Sea. Surrounding the land mass was a strip of water dotted with islands. Rivers coursed through the land like blood vessels in which fish swam. There were pictures of castles signifying cities and land animals, some of them fantastical.
I wanted to know more about this map and the man who made it. Was he a monk, like Dennis, drawing this map in holy solitude in a monastery somewhere? Did he feel blessed to be able to spend his days illuminating manuscripts, or was this just a chore he had to do? Did he go on pilgrimages, like the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Or did he just dream of going to the places he drew with such painstaking care on this mappa mundi?
As I pondered this intriguing map, a young Chinese woman with a clerical collar greeted me.
“Can I help you?” she asked politely.
“I’m just curious about this map,” I said.
“Hmm,” she replied. “I really don’t know anything about it, I’m afraid.”
Like me, she had probably passed it hundreds of times without looking at it. It was just something old and artistic and sacred, evoking the medieval world of Christendom. Just the thing to grace the walls of an Episcopal high church office.
I took time to study this map because, well, I was waiting for my spiritual director. And I have always been fascinated by how people viewed the world in times gone by. In the “old days,” when I was growing up as a precocious Greek immigrant’s kid in Princeton, I would have gone to Firestone Library and researched this mappa mundi in a carel, like a medieval monk.  But now I live in a totally different world, a world of instantaneous information, so I just googled on my iphone and found all kinds of fascinating tidbits of knowledge.
In medieval maps, the top portion of a map was east, not north (hence the expression, “to orient”—to find out where the east lies). Medieval mapmakers showed the known world as Asia (top), Europe (left), and Africa (right). The maps were flat, but medieval map makers knew the earth was rounded, perhaps spherical. But the purpose of the medieval map was not to portray the physical world or to aid in navigation, but to show the “harmonious order of God’s creation.” That’s why Jerusalem was in the center, and everything else emanated from this holy city. The medieval mappae mundi were maps of the soul.
Our maps also reflect our world view, and our souls. When I grew up, the United States was always in the center of maps, and Asia was split in two for the sake of America’s centrality. Sometime in the 1970s mapmakers began to place the United States on the far left, so Asia could be viewed intact. Even though our maps have changed, many Americans still have an America-centric worldview.
One of the maps I love best shows the world with south on top and north on the bottom. This map is especially popular with topsy-turvy Quakers and can be found on the walls of William Penn House in Washington, DC, and on t-shirts from the Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City. It is especially important to see the world from the perspective of the global south since they will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change. This, as the Pope reminds us, is how Jesus would probably see the world.
As I was contemplating the upside down world of Quakers, and of Christ, Dennis appeared at the top of the stairs. He smiled and said calmly:
“Sorry if I kept you waiting.”
“No problem,” I replied, also calmly.
During our session I realized that this precious time of just being is what my soul had been waiting and yearning for. Time to reflect, time just to be with the world around me and to appreciate the wonders that we often too busy to notice. Time to redraw the map of my soul.









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