On Extended Wings

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. — Thomas Merton1

On a Sunday almost twenty years ago, I traveled to New Jersey for the funeral service of a friend who had been something of a father figure for me. On the way, I stopped in Mount Holly for worship with Friends. As it happened, worship was held that day in the house in which the “Quaker saint” John Woolman had lived. After the meeting for worship, I would tour the house and read some passages by Woolman, noting that the phrase “living deeply” appeared more than once in the brief selections I’d found. From then on, that phrase would color my understanding of Quaker practice.

Even more significant, though, was my experience of worship there. As we sat together in a small room, the sincerity and depth of the silent worship lifted me up. And when another visiting Friend spoke of seeing a rare hawk soar over his home in Delaware, I was touched by his love and concern for the natural world. I had joined the Friends in Mount Holly in sadness, but in waiting with them upon the spirit of love, and in hearing words spoken from the heart of another, I was strengthened, even enabled to soar above the “ocean of darkness and death.”2 I was put in mind of a poetic passage from the Book of Isaiah.

They who wait upon the Lord shall have their strength renewed; they shall mount up on wings, as eagles; they shall run and not stumble; they shall walk and not falter.3

Sitting in worship this morning with the gentle Friends of Little Falls Meeting, I thought back to days when, forgetting the lesson of Mount Holly and the “they” of Isaiah, I had experienced myself as a lone eagle, propelling myself upward, toward the light, on powerful wings. But time has a way of dispelling delusion. I am much older now: winging heavenward, even with help, is beyond me; on mere feet I falter. Retiring from full time work, I stumble into an uncertain but certainly briefer future as I struggle daily with frailties of body and soul. Observing those memories in the familiar peace of the meetinghouse today, I understood that I am a different person now, and that I need a different kind of poetry. And I smiled as an appropriate passage came to me, lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.”4

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

No soaring eagle now, I am an anonymous old bird among the many flocks of pigeons – “rats of the air,” I’ve heard them called – known as “baby boomers,” my existence increasingly a burden to others, my vanishing traces ambiguous, my trajectory drawn “downward to darkness.”

But if these wings, weary yet still extended with the strength of worship, carry me downward now at evening, I can speak only of change, not of loss or gain. For soaring toward the sun is beautiful, but one must descend to go deep, and darkness need not be deprivation: after all, darkness is where the light shines. It may be that the darkness into which I sink is, in Merton’s words, “blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.5

The emptiness of me is the name of God, written in the void of my heart. And the name of God is Love. Descending into the darkness of spiritual poverty, I may vanish into the hidden spark of love that is “in everybody” – not the isolated glory of a soaring eagle, but the pure and invisible “glory of God” shining in the nothingness that, in essence, we all are.

However I may be known to the world6 within and without, Love is my true identity. Sinking into darkness, I sing my Nunc dimittis. Love is my name.

——————————-
NOTES

  1. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 60.
  2. George Fox, Journal, p. 80 in Vol. I of his Works.
  3. Isaiah 40:31.
  4. “Sunday Morning” is in the public domain and can be read in its entirety at Wikisource.
  5. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 158.
  6. Friends sometimes signed in such a way; e.g., “Given forth by me, whom am known to men by the name of MARMADUKE STEVENSON, but have a new name given me, which the world knowns not of, written in the book of life.” (Stevenson, one of the “Boston martyrs,” was hanged in 1659 “for conscience sake”: for being a Quaker. The execution date, October 27, is now International Religious Freedom Day.)

For the original journal entry about my experience at Mount Holly, scroll down to “March 24, 1991 – Homewood Friends Meeting” after clicking here.

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