The Eternal Now

Spirituality of Improv, The Holy Trinity

One summer, I disciplined myself to take walks like “Eyes” does. I paused to look at the patterns and shapes of flowers, the stippling of color along their petals, the bend of their long stems. I opened myself to the silhouetted patterns of leaves against the sky as the buds unfurled and the sunlight grew in strength from April to late August. When it rained, I stood over the puddles and studied my muted reflection, broken by the impact of drops and the ridges of ripples. One day, coming back home, I looked at the dirt and bracken beaten down around the edges of a parking lot, and I thought, “this is the only time I’ll see this with these eyes, see this particular pattern of twigs and trash and stones. They’ll never be in this exact pattern again, the sun will never slant onto them in exactly this way, I’ll never again find the posture and the position of my body that allows me to see how dark and hard their shadows are.” Everything is ephemeral, and I felt very grateful to God for being in each and every moment, for abiding in the eternity that these passing things have a permanent home in. They exist here only moment by moment. With God, they exist forever.

That Autumn, my mother died. She was in the ICU for a month, and day after day my father and I were with her, in among the tubes and trays and beeping machines. At first I kept to the disciplines that had filled my summer with such a feeing of grace. I quieted my breath, paid attention to my body, felt how my emotions played themselves out in my stomach and shoulders. I was a spiritual warrior, an unassailable castle, and I would agree to listen to grief and learn from it, but it wouldn’t break me. Three days before she died, my daughter and I went to see Arrival, the science fiction movie starring Amy Adams. The movie begins with a death, the death of her daughter, but is really about time and eternity. The aliens experience time differently, and their language reflects an understanding of the eternal now. My daughter and I left the theater with our hearts in our throats. The hospital was on the other side of the highway, and the tower where my mother lay was visible from the theater’s parking lot. I checked my phone and saw, miracle beyond miracles, that she had come out of her coma, and we drove to the hospital and found her sitting up in bed, her eyes open, mouthing words around the tube that snaked down her throat and into her lungs. We told her how much we loved her, tried to explain what had happened to her. She tried to write us a note with her swollen hands, an illegible scrawl. But it didn’t matter. She was getting better. Soon we’d get to talk to her, to sit with her at the dinner table, to watch her age with grace and, eventually, far into the future, die with dignity.

The next day she had slipped back into a coma, and my brothers were summoned from California to be there at her death bed. In the following months, as grief took hold of me and all of my disciplines fell away, my daughter would talk about time. She said that she didn’t necessarily believe in life after death, but she did believe that all time was the same in the eyes of God. With God, all things are eternally alive, in all of their different moments of existence. My infant mother was with God in the eternal now, and my dying mother was with God in the eternal now. And each moment of my own life, and my daughter’s life, will continually exist in God until the end of time. That is what is meant by God’s eternity.

To walk like Eyes, to be aware, to perceive, is more than a pleasant past time, more than a spiritual discipline that makes one aware of mystery and beauty and fills one with gratitude. To walk like Eyes is to touch God’s eternity, to see the incredible preciousness of each passing thing and to know that it really isn’t passing, but eternal. After her sister died, the artist Lori Esposito embarked on a series of “grief walks.” She would place water and dye on a porcelain plate and walk with it until the water had evaporated and a pattern of dye was dried to the plate. If the weather was humid, these walks would take hours – if it was arid, they would be quick. She walked in all weather. I walked with her once, and stared down at the crystalline patters of dye that rimed the edges of the plate where the water had splashed, and at the diminishing pool of tint in the plate’s center, the way it dried in waves, lapped like the patterns of tide on a beach. I breathed and moved my body and concentrated on the plate. Lori was teaching me to understand and participate in grief by understanding and participating in the now. Because it’s in the now that all things are returned to us. It’s in the now that the world is restored.

Name Untroubled, I Will Trouble Your Name

Spirituality of Improv, The Holy Trinity

My friend Laurie and I have been reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three One of Bourgeault’s central points is that we make a mistake when we think about God as a person, and the Trinity as persons. What if we were to think in terms of process, rather than persons? Not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but Unmanifest, Manifesting, Manifested. Her emphasis in this formulation is on action. God is unmanifest, huge cosmic, beyond our knowing and understanding. God is manifesting, reaching out to us, trying to lead and teach us. God is manifested, active in our lives, a continuous presence.

I really like this, but I am given pause by one aspect of it, mostly because it seems to contradict some of my thoughts on the spirituality of improv. Bourgeault describes this trinitarian process as affirming, denying, and reconciling. If God is unmanifest, than “God manifesting” is really the opposite of that. God, who is beyond our understanding, becomes human in Jesus, and is therefore understandable, or at least partially so. These first two movements of the Trinity seem to contradict each other. How can something that is eternally beyond our knowing become known? For Bourgeault, this is exactly the magic of the process. We affirm one thing, then we affirm something that contradicts it, and then we find that, instead of existing in continuous opposition to each other, a third thing happens that reconciles the first two. So the ineffable, mysterious God becomes known in Jesus Christ, and remains both known and deeply mysterious in the actions of the Holy Spirit.

Another book I’m reading, Scott Weems Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why has helped me to understand this. In fact, reading the two books together has been positively thrilling! Weems, a neuroscientist, says that our brains are full of contradictory thoughts. They’re a little like the United Nations, where countries are in constant and vociferous arguments with each other. Sometimes these arguments are about petty things, but sometimes they entail the clash of world views. But our minds don’t just leave these thoughts in conflict. Our minds work to reconcile them, and it’s the very process of reconciling two discordant thoughts that causes us to laugh. Humor is the result of reconciliation.

You can see the parallel to Bourgeault. Essentially, she’s describing with theology the same process that Weems is describing with neuroscience. For the first time in my life, I find science and theology actively supporting each other, pointing to exactly the same thing and describing exactly the same process. I laughed when I realized this, and then realized that I had just experienced in my body the exact process that the books were talking about. Theology attempts to describe the unmanifested. Neuroscience describes the manifesting. I laugh because I realize that these two seemingly oppositional disciplines have been reconciled, and the trinity is fully manifested in my laughter.

Pretty good stuff, right? Being excited about this, I’ve begun to wonder how it might change the way I pray. Traditionally, Christian prayer starts with an invocation, often an invocation of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’m wondering what kind of trinitarian invocations we can use that invoke process, rather than persons. It seems to me that such an invocation would succeed best if it could actually trigger the process of affirming, denying, and reconciling in the people who are praying it. The art work and the poem I created to try to express this is just a first attempt, and I don’t think I really got it right. But I share it with you now, and will share other attempts as I continue to try to develop this practice.

A final thought about improv. At first I thought that Bourgeault might be contradicting one of the tenets of improv by claiming that denying is part of trinitarian process. In improv, denial is a real problem, and improv practitioners are taught to yes/and things, not deny them. But if Weems is right, I think that denial is baked-in to improv, although not in the way we usually think of it. Two actors take the stage. They both have things that they’re going to say, and ways that they’re going to react to each other. One gifts the scene with an opening statement, such as “tell our kids to be quiet.” This would be the “affirming” moment in Bourgeault’s scheme. The other then has to set aside whatever they were going to say, and whatever character they thought they might be playing. They are denying their own ideas in order to favor another person’s ideas. “Okay,” they say to themselves, “I’m not a lumberjack, I’m a parent. Or maybe I’m a great big lumberjack daddy!” They accept the gift the other actor has given them, and add to it, and this is the moment of reconciliation, which is why it’s funny. It’s also why it’s holy.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Trinity

I had an idea for an image of the Holy Spirit, knowing that the very idea of an image of the Holy Spirit was foolish. Of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit seems most resistant to description, both in words and images. A dove. A flame. But what else? When we try to describe our experience of it, we can only talk about the enlightened feeling that comes upon a group of people when they’re together and helps to guide their decisions. Beyond that, words seem inadequate.

I went looking for prayers to the Holy Spirit, but couldn’t find any. Then I read that we don’t pray to the spirit because the spirit is prayer itself. The spirit is the spark of divinity in us, and it speaks, and listens to, the bonfire of divinity in everything around us. Yet we do pray to the Holy Spirit, at least in song. “Come, Holy Spirit,” we plead, and while we’re singing it’s not unusual for the spirit to descend, or, at least, for us to notice that it’s been there all along.

I know the spirit, and yet my capacity to depict or describe it is limited. Others have done it better. Here’s what Meister Eckhart had to say about the spirit:

“The Father laughs with the Son; the Son laughs with the Father.
The Father likes the Son; the Son likes the Father.
The Father delights in the Son; the Son delights in the Father.
The Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father.
This laughter, liking, delighting, loving is the Holy Spirit!”

And here’s what Rilke said about the spirit:

“If I don’t manage to fly, someone else will. The spirit wants only that there be flying. As to who happens to do it, She has only a passing interest.”

So maybe it doesn’t matter if I can’t perfectly depict or describe the spirit. It’s action in me helps to depict and describe me, and its action in other people will bring about the necessary work, even if I have only a marginal role in it.