Hanging out with a three-year-old the other day, I was reading a magazine while he attended his own mysterious business. Suddenly, he clambered up beside me and, clasping my face between small, absurdly warm, moist palms, turned my gaze full upon his own.
I started praying the St. Francis Prayer about nine months ago, using a great meditation tape by a man named Andrew Harvey. Taking each line of the prayer and meditating deeply on each word, then applying each line to my particular situation or frame of mind at that moment, provides me with a tether of sorts. The familiar words weave a connection to my Higher Power and a link to my beloved human family too. I can call on those words anytime; in fact, they are beginning to develop the power to rise up within me unbidden, yeast for a potent salve. Harvey says praying it regularly installs it like an operating system, and that’s what I need to be running on my hard drive.
“The innermost — what is it?
if not the intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.”
“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.” Most days, my attention is like an overstretched rubber band, snapping off wildly in every direction. Even after a quarter-century of regular meditative practice, I find myself with a toothbrush in hand when I mean to be sitting still with my eyes closed, or, worse, slipping from meditation into those endless loops of imagined conversations justifying myself to my brothers and sisters. Right in the thick of doing that, I picture myself, awkwardly and with great effort, climbing up into an oversized lap.
“Lord.” Tugging. Small, inconsequential. Oozing with need, sticky hands. Desperate courage welling up, I struggle through the fear to clasp the Beloved’s face in my hands. Hot, importuning. “Lord, make me…” Make me pay attention to you. Shape me, turn me, make me gaze deeper within.
A miracle: the Beloved turns to me, locks eyes with me. I am sinking into an infinite gaze, until nothing else is, only deep cobalt sky and stars. Rilke wrote “The innermost – what is it? if not the intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming.”
Yes, that, for an eternity that snaps into an instant and suddenly I cannot bear to sit another moment and jump up to take a pill, make a phone call, a cup of coffee.
The shape of my life frequently feels unbearable since my cancer diagnosis. Besides the physical pain, setting aside even the emotional pain, there is my cursed imagination. The turmoil in my bowels often bears a distressing resemblance to the shifting, turning, inside-out sensation of a near-term baby in the belly. Early in my diagnosis and even now if I work to attain it, I can revel in super-saturated sensations of taste, color, smells, just like I did in pregnancy. There is a waiting, an expectancy. My body is changing shape; the surgical hernia surges out from under my ribs, now larger than my breast. I wear a pregnancy belt to contain it. But what rough beast is slouching to be born?
Lord, make me pay attention to you. Take my thoughts and fears and yes, my imagination. Use me, play me, shape me, melt me down and cast me, into an instrument pouring out endless songs, an implement of peace that is itself intrinsically at peace. I clamor for that, I cast about and thrash wildly in demand of that, I wear myself out with these childish tantrums. But even that, even those struggles which appear pointless, damaging, serve a purpose: they force stillness on me, and eventually, with smeary eyes and snotty fingers, I can reach out again. Beloved. Turn your gaze to me.