So lately I’ve been grappling with God. Not in, like, a Jacobean angel wrestling kind of way, though that story really takes on new meaning when you tackle it with a spiritual chip on your shoulder, let me tell you. Rather, this round of theological sparring is more of a spiritual exercise, of sorts (pun only half-heartedly intended). You see, we’re in the midst of the long, lazy stretch of Ordinary Time on the Catholic liturgical calendar, and that means I’m bored.
While Christmas and Easter grab all the flashy headlines, and Advent and Lent are veritable playgrounds for us spiritual nerds and authentic Jesus groupies, Ordinary Time is just kind of…there. I mean, sure, it’s supposed to be more than just that. Sacramentum Concilium (that’s right, I’m dropping Latin on you – know your Vatican II documents, people!) tells us that “Within the cycle of a year, she [she being, of course, Holy Mother Church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord.” So Ordinary Time is, I guess, us just sitting around and twiddling our thumbs in the joyful hope that something fantastic might happen. Or remembering that something fantastic happened once long ago. Or becoming mindful of the fact that, even though we tend to sensationalize them, the lives of the original disciples involved a lot of day-to-day minutiae. In other words, we get bored.
Don’t get me wrong, I friggin’ love joyful hope. But we’re currently 16 weeks into a 33-week stretch of Ordinary Time. 33 WEEKS! At some point waiting in joyful hope during Ordinary Time just becomes sitting and watching a pot of holy water come to a boil on a stovetop perpetually set at 99° (Celsius, of course, because I speak Latin and I am not a barbarian). And so I get bored. And when I get bored I tend to get thinky. And when I get thinky, I sometimes find that I get a bit doubty. And about the time that I realize that I’ve become a bit doubty I also come to see that I have somehow, for better or worse, gotten myself tangled into a wrestling match with God.
You see, I’ve always found that the more I think about God the more I find that my little God bubbles are bursting all around me. The moment that I think I’ve got something, anything, puzzled out is the exact moment that I have achieved the opposite of enlightenment. So congratulations, go me, and why am I doing this again? Doubt creeps in from all sides, and not just the typical “why do bad things happen to good people” or “if God is so benevolent and wonderful, then why is God also such a huge asshole sometimes” kind of doubts. (Side Note: The obvious theological sticky wicket here is that God is benevolent and wonderful AND is the source of all benevolence and wonderment AND is also a huge asshole…AND is the cheeseburger you ate and then sent careening toward said asshole AND is the cow before it became said cheeseburger AND is all of those things at once AND is none of those things at all, and on and on in infinite directions until you go cross-eyed and vomit on your sneakers…which are also God. So, yeah.) Those are the doubts that plague us all on a regular basis, and they are woven into the fabric of the spiritual journey and the collective experience of religion. They’re big, scary questions, but they are part of the everyday reality of living in relationship with God and one another.
The doubts that creep into my Ordinary Time ruminations are zebras of an entirely different stripe. They’re the kind where I wonder what would happen if I were to travel to the expanding edge of the universe and stare into the abyss, the kind where I wonder if God would be there looking back at me, the kind where it inevitably ends in mystery because there’s just no way to drift that far into the unknown and have anything even remotely familiar or tangible to hold onto. Those are the ones that keep me up at night. This is what Ordinary Time does to me, guys! Advent keeps us busy with calendars and candles and carols, and Lent gives us focal points like fasting and almsgiving and digging into our the depths of our soul to understand that we’re nothing but dirty, rotten sinners who must wander the streets in sackcloth and ashes, but Ordinary Time just leaves us with 33 weeks (33 WEEKS!) to take a deep dive into the theological danger zone. If you’ve read this far, then you can probably understand just how terrifying of a proposal that is to me!
None of this is to say that any of this is actually a bad thing. I don’t look at these wrestling matches with God as some sort of battle for my soul where there will be a winner and a loser. God wants me to win, and I want God to win, and I’ve always had a bit of a yin-yang theory about the relationship between faith and doubt to begin with (though that’s a tangent for a completely separate blog entry, I’m sure). And besides, wrestling is how bored freshmen boys blow off steam, and how baby bears gain strength and dexterity, and how greasy Turkish men build personal honor and mutual respect, or something. So it can’t be all bad, right?
It was in the midst of these struggles that I recently began to read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It’s a good book, though it does rank pretty high on the old schmaltz-o-meter, and eventually I came across this little gem: “…since you are a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.”
A leaf in God’s forest – what a lovely image! Reminders like this one of the scale of God’s bigness transport me almost instantly to the point where I am ready to concede my cosmic wrestling match. And yet, at the same time, they are what makes the struggle all worthwhile. In grappling with the very concept of God we are delving into something so much bigger than we are that to even utter the word “God” is to acknowledge that we are nothing more than a drop of water in the ocean or a grain of sand in a desert stretching infinitely in all directions. What a gift to be able to acknowledge the bigness of God and the smallness of us, all while knowing that God is still willing to put up with our feeble, flailing squabbles with infinite love and mercy.
I am a leaf on a tree in a forest that is intimately known and cared for by the arborist, and where every single inch of the landscape is loved into its very existence by that selfsame master gardener. For some reason, there is comfort in that for me.
And so, every year when Ordinary Time rolls around, I struggle and I fight and I wrestle with God. There’s growth in that, even though I inevitably find myself pitted against a force that could throw me to the mat and pin me down in a heartbeat (and has, on more than one occasion). In the stretch and flex of the struggle, the hope is that we all get a bit stronger.
Perhaps this struggle is the true essence of Ordinary Time. Clear away the wreaths and the banners and the fancy candles. Push the pews out to the walls and make room for the divine royal rumble that ensues when we stand naked before God. Get bored, get lost, get weird, and in a quiet church on a warm summer evening find a new square inch of the forest that begs to be explored.
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