This spiritual focus is long overdue. I already knew that. Last week, a colleague on campus asked me about it. I gave a vague reply about it having been a difficult semester. She nodded in sympathy. She shared the heaviness we all feel, still, at the tragic death of a student in early October. "Nothing spiritual to focus on, I guess," she said, giving me permission to pass on this month's reflection. And so I let it slide for another week.
But now it's a new month, and her words continue to echo in my head. She's correct that it can be difficult to find the right words in a time of struggle or grief. Sunsets and kittens and blazing fall foliage form an easy platform for messages of faith and hope. Death and darkness and shortening days pose more of a challenge. And yet, if a spiritual focus is something we cultivate only in joyful times, what good is it? If anything at all is spiritual, isn't everything?
There is a wonderful story from the Jewish tradition, told by Martin Buber. He says that Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher that in the evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. "Yes," said Rabbi Elimelech, "In my youth I saw that too. Later on you don't see these things anymore."
"Later on you don't see these things anymore." While kittens are born blind, humans are not. We arrive at 20/20 vision around the age of two. As anyone who has ever accompanied a toddler will tell you, the young child is amazed by everything, stopping in wonder to exclaim over a leaf, a stone, a crawling insect. But as we grow, we learn to filter out this barrage of wonder and cultivate a selective blindness. We need those blinders in order to proceed through the practical world. We need to tune out the spiritual, in order to get things done.
I remember years ago, when I was first ordained, I preached a sermon about finding God everywhere. I can't recall now what the Scripture passage was that day. I do recall my youthful enthusiasm, standing before my first congregation, and announcing that church attendance was not necessary for spiritual experience. God is just as present on the golf course as here in our church, I announced with naive certainty. The golfers in the congregation grinned back at me, exonerated from absences they had, I imagine, already scheduled. The expression of the older priest who supervised me was not so jovial.
This was only the first of many lessons I was to receive in the art of balancing the spiritual life with the practical. But so often we go too far. We forget that those adult blinders, necessary as they may be, are also removable. That's where spiritual practice comes in. And that's why we need community to remind us. When the beautiful colors of the sunset fade into darkness - when the cuddly kitten bares its sharp cat claws - when the red-gold leaves are brown and the branches bare- we need to remind one another that it's all of a piece. Light and darkness, beauty and squalor, despair and hope - all are stitched together into a tapestry of wonder, the mystery we call life. For the faithful, God is always present. The spiritual focus is simply a moment when we stop and tune in to what has been there all along. The air is thronged with angels. Only open your eyes, reach out your hand, and you will touch their wings.