Thursday, June 7, 2012

After the Burning Bush

You see the burning bush, hear the still small voice following the storm, feel the burning coals touch your lips or get swept up into the heavens. Your mind enlarges beyond comprehension, your heart is thrown open wide and your spirit soars through the cosmos. Everything in you is different than the moment before; you feel changed down to the cellular level. In a burst of comprehension you realize that this is what you have lived your whole life for, this moment, right here. It is sum and total, prayer and answer, life and joy and everything.

And then the right here moment passes.

Umm… what?

At first the vision burns bright in your mind, continuing to change the way you look at the world and relate to the people around you. It changes - not your memories, but how you interpret them. And ideas of your future shift like sand beneath water as the sense of something greater takes hold.

But the minutes pass, and the days, the months. The vision which sounded a clarion call in your life dims just a bit; the bells ringing in your ears grow fainter. Until one day you realize that this extraordinary experience, this life-changing vision – it's only a memory now. Treasured, to be sure, a lamp unto your feet, but one that shines only when you turn back to look at it.

You're still different, though, right? Maybe not as different as you first thought, but different nonetheless. Maybe the shifts are more subtle, but they're still there, you still feel them, but they don't fill your consciousness the way they did. So what do you do now?

Well, you can’t go back from being changed to not being changed. If the coal really touched your lips, then you have to speak, even when the speaking no longer comes from a raging fire within. Maybe especially when it no longer comes from a raging fire within. Because if we live only for those peak experiences, we’re going to miss the life going on all around us. We will be ever seeking, ever craving. Rather than doing the deeper work of unfolding the vision into the minutiae of washing the dishes or mowing the lawn or changing the world, we’ll always have our eyes to the mountain peaks; what was received as grace and gift we will start trying to find or earn.

A Christian mystic from the 12th century named Hadewijch knew all about this. Her life was filled with mystical visions and ecstatic moments, but after she had savored their sweetness for a time, she made an amazing discovery: that getting to that peak experience was not the point. Going back out into the world and living a life of compassion and service was the point. She explained this by saying that if you want to be God with God – if you want the mystical vision of cosmic unity – then you have to go be Christ with humans – you have to go out and actually live for others. That “looking to the mountain peaks” mentality she called immaturity; being “full grown” meant realizing that the mountain peaks are just another step along the journey.

You removed your shoes before the burning bush, putting all that is less than the highest aside so that you could stand in the presence of the holy. So what do you do when the vision fades and the bush no longer burns? You put your shoes back on and get to work.