Holy Orders

Last week I returned to Iowa after having life turned upside down by ten days of travel in northern California.  The chance to visit dear friends, meet new folks, and soak up beautiful scenery was a blessed change from a school year routine that had me walking about in the sort of daze that gets a person cast as Zombie #23.

My daily schedule for the past nine months focused on a single goal:  survival of my first year of full time teaching. Yet even as I prepped lectures on Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, I knew that martyrdom on the altar of academia does not a holy person make.  The question that remained, after all the papers were graded and grades submitted, is what gives holy order to my life?

Jim Keenan, S.J. describes mercy as “the willingness to enter into the chaos of others so as to answer them in their need,” a divine quality made manifest ultimately in Christ (Moral Wisdom 118).  The correlative call for Christ’s disciples is to enter into others’ chaos as well.  And yet, maturing in that discipleship requires that I also continually accept and admit my own chaos and abandon the illusion that efficiency, to do lists, and alarm clocks remove my own need for mercy.

Holy order, then, seems to be tied to sacramentality, a prayerful attempt to notice and give thanks for God’s merciful presence.  The church’s tradition is alive with various forms of the sacramental imagination, concrete ways of encountering the world with eyes to see and ears to hear the mediation of God’s mercy.  Here and now, though, I’m beginning to think about sacramentality in light of another holy order, the divine command from Psalm 46:  “Be still and know that I am God.”

On one hand, stillness itself it not an easy task, particularly in a culture that commands us to be anything except still.  My own first response to quietude is nervousness, the second is guilt, and the third is distraction by shiny things.  On the other hand, I think this holy order is more than a mere suggestion, but is rather a key to creating another type of holy order, a life that personally and communally images God.

So here’s to summer months in which to practice ordering life anew, to welcoming mercy despite the disquiet that stillness may unmask . . . and to T.S. Eliot for always saying it better:

    I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
    Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
    The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
    With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
    And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
    And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
    Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
    And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
    And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
    Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
    Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
    I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
    For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
    For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
    But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
    Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
    So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
    Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
    The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
    The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
    Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
    Of death and birth.

    (From “East Coker,” III)