Jan. 20, 2011
The spring semester has begun, but actual spring seems far away. The days are cold and gray, enclosing us, encouraging us to turn inward.
Fog hid the river in a mystical shroud earlier this week. We don't call it the Mississippi River. It's just The River, a force in our lives that seems always to have been here.
There's only one Mississippi, one Amazon and one Nile. They are storied, but the river didn't impress a California girlfriend who visited many years ago. From my description and probably Mark Twain's she expected something wider and mightier, a colossus splitting the continent.
We have been trained to do this, to compare one magnificence with another and to deem one or the other lacking in some way. Yet thousands of tributaries have created the river, a universe we pay little attention to exists inside each drop, and how feebly we try to contain waters that break their bonds when they will.
It's all magnificent.
Divinity is all around us, the writer Barbara Brown Taylor says. "Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars."
If seeking God, some of us look to a charismatic preacher as a guide. Someone alive with Holy Spirit is powerfully attractive.
Some of us want reason rather than passion in our preaching, preferring the measured words and familiar hymns that served our fathers and mothers and grandparents. We believe they found God.
Some, like Taylor, reckon God doesn't limit himself to sanctuaries, that the paths to God are everywhere and don't necessarily require trailblazing. Now a teacher of spirituality at Piedmont College in Georgia, the former minister outlines 12 practices meant to show the way. In paying attention, in nature, in work and in prayer are some of the ways to God, she says.
Encounters with other people is another.
Judging from our readiness to attack each other, that may be one of the more difficult practices. "Hell is other people," Sartre famously said. If we don't agree, most of us know what he meant.
The difficulty of seeing God in other people, she says, is when each of us views other people as characters in our own story. Certainly they aren't to God.
"The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery," Taylor writes. "The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over."
Anyone who has lived awhile has had spiritual experiences. They may be no more or less than a feeling of being connected to something beyond ourselves. Perhaps it occurred staring at a starry night or a "Starry Night."
Like fish in the murky turbulence of a river, we humans usually pay attention only to what's right in front of us. But sometimes we remember that a river becomes an ocean, oceans become clouds and clouds become rivers again. In a river we recognize a power we did not make.
Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.