Saturday, September 5, 2015

Green Fields and Goodbyes

Dropping a teenager off at college is not, of course, the end of the world.  Hauling boxes up four flights, watching books fill shelves, unpacking a new coffee pot: these are things we shoot for as parents, things we anticipate for a decade or more, even a kind of thrill.

And yet.  And yet I find myself on a lush green Connecticut field, with tears in my eyes, looking into my daughter's face and watching salty tears slide there too.  It's not the end of the world.  Hardly.  But something ends here, something falls to the green grass here, something dies.  I can't even name it.  But I see it in her eyes and a feel it like a lump in my throat.

So Fiona's great.  She'll be great.  (Check out the reflections of Wesleyan's president above: an exuberant celebration of education, formation, human development!)  This particular field will be crossed a thousand times: with new friends, toting new books, exchanging exciting ideas with teachers and allies.  But my practice, my role, even my responsibility now--is to let her go.  To let her walk the field alone today.  To let her find her way across.  And it's a practice I resist.  I have more advice to share.  Tickets to one more game.  A couple of books to recommend.  But it's time to go.

At moments like this, I return to books I love and teachers I trust.  And one of these is James Finley, whose book The Contemplative Heart has long inspired my practice of meditation and centering prayer.  I'm less disciplined than I should be, but more and more meditation seems an essential practice for just about everything: parenting, pastoring, getting old, doing justice, you name it.
We all share in common the inevitability of our eventual diminishment and death.  But if life, from its first moments onward is full of death, death from its first moments onward is full of life.  Jesus said that “unless the grain of wheat fall onto the ground and die it remains alone. But if it dies it brings forth fruit a hundred fold” (John 12:24).  Our faith tells us that he was referring at once to himself and to us in our share in the mystery of his resurrection.  Our contemplative pondering of the imagery of wheat dying and being born a hundredfold helps us to step into the vision of Jesus, seeing the mystery of death and resurrection in the cyclic mystery of our bodily being.  Sitting in bare attention to each inhalation giving way to each exhalation giving way to each inhalation, we experience directly that our bodily being is inexorably woven into the cosmic dance of all of life, perpetually arising, perpetually falling away.

This primordial dance is the essential nature of the one unending present moment in which we sit and in which our lives unfold.  Sitting still and straight, given over to the circularity of receiving and letting go that breathing embodies, we realize we cannot make the moment last.  For it is the nature of the moment not to last as it yields to what we call the future, and in so doing becomes what we call the past.  And we see that this not lasting quality of the present moment is the way the present moment always is.  And in seeing this, we see the permanence of impermanence.  We see the way not lasting lasts in experiencing the not lasting quality of now to be the very nothingness out of which the newness of the present moment ceaselessly arises.  Our faith calls the abyss-like ground of this mystery God—the infinity of the never lasting now that forever lasts.
So what does God have to do with Freshman orientation?  Just about everything, if you're asking me.  On a green field in Middletown, I weep a little and watch a 17-year-old daughter walk away, on her own, to a dormitory and a whole community of new friends and neighbors.  It's beautiful here, green and lush, a perfect summer day in southern New England.  But it's bittersweet for me, a kind of abyss and overwhelmingly disorienting.  

It's the 'primordial dance' in every sense, and I've prepared for it in meditation, in centering prayer, in contemplative silence for years.  Which is not to say that I'm any good at it.  But I recognize the lump in my throat, and the tears in her eyes, and "the way the present moment always is."  

Even more--and I have James Finley to thank for this--the lump itself is something of a sacrament.  What I mean by that is this: Jesus' koan (John 12:24) suggests that the mystery of death and resurrection (his mystery) is ours too, "in the cyclic mystery of our bodily being."  Watching Fiona go, I'm all in.  It hurts a little, or a lot.  But I'm all in.