Monday, May 4, 2009

Living is a Sacred Act

“Days are scrolls: write on them what you want to be remembered.”

Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, 
from Hovot HaLevavot (Duties of the Heart)

William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well, states, “If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do.” My wife, Allison, who is a wonderful writer, describes the process of writing as “pure hell and torture…until it works.” For her it is a journey through doubt and insecurity to a place of flow, self-assurance, and a satisfaction rivaling orgasm. In my case, writing involves a long battle with myself. It is a battle in which my task-oriented ego resists being overpowered by the creative impulse. Before sitting down to write, I pace back and forth in front of my computer like a caged animal, sometimes for several days, until my ego finally concedes defeat. When that happens and words begin to appear on the page, I am filled with a feeling that can only be described as gratitude.

The quote above from the Hovot HaLevavot, an 11th century text on the ethical teachings of Judaism, is not just an exhortation to “seize the day.” It is a reminder that life is holy and living is a sacred act. To say “days are scrolls” is to invoke the image of a Sefer Torah, a ritual scroll read during Jewish services. Each day is to be treated as a sacred thing, and our lives—the writing on the scroll—as a revelation of the Holy One.

My own experience, however, is that, like writing, sacred living is “one of the hardest things people do.”

Writing is a way of paying attention to the world. But more than this, it is method of discovering what is of value, of extracting some small bit of truth from the chaos of life’s events. A great deal of material has to be cut out, tossed away, and edited before what is truly of value is revealed. It is, as William Blake said, a corrosive method, “melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” Not everything that happens to us is significant, not everything we do is meaningful. Not, that is, until the hidden infinite in what we do is revealed.

“Days are scrolls: write on them what you want to be remembered.” Is it possible that the art of writing offers some clues about the art of sacred living? The writer, Luis Alberto Urrea, believes it does. In his essay for the NPR series, This I Believe, he describes the ground of being as an essentially literary energy. “I believe God is a poet,” he writes. For Urrea, what counts is the act of paying attention:

“I learned that if I went into the world and paid attention (in Spanish, you “lend attention,” presta atencion), the world would notice and respond. I would have demonstrated my worthiness to receive the world's gifts. It’s a kind of library where you lend attention and receive a story. Or God will toss off a limerick for your pleasure.”

I don’t believe that sacred living means only doing overtly spiritual or pious things and avoiding so-called ‘profane’ activities. I have spent many dry and unsatisfactory moments in prayer and meditation, and I’ve experienced grace sitting in a booth in McDonald’s. I do believe that what is essential is the quality of attention we give to our lives and to the world. The way we pay attention to our lives will determine the quality of what we find. I know that when I look for the worst, I find it. When I look for the good, I find that, too.

Taking this further, I believe that the sacred in our lives is revealed by taking a sacred attitude, by treating our lives as a sacrament. In a sense, God is a lens through which we look in order to find God. Not that we invent God in our imaginations and “project” the divine into the world. I do not believe God is an invention of the human mind. I see the situation more as one of needing God in order to be able to find God. (Incidentally, I believe this to be true of love, as well—we need love in order to experience love.)

What do I want to be remembered? What do I want to have written on the scrolls of my days? I don’t think the answer to this question is a list of events or experiences. I think the answer is whatever makes those events and experiences worthwhile. I’m not wise enough to be able to give a complete answer to this question, but this is the one I’ve come up with so far: Love and Gratitude.

Love and gratitude are like the inhaling and exhaling of breath. Love goes out, gratitude comes in. Love gives. Gratitude receives. They are paths beyond the ego and means of remembering the Other (“write on them what you want to be remembered”).  I believe that if, in any given moment, I can connect to the possibility of love and gratitude, I can experience the holy. And until that happens, all I’m really doing is pacing back and forth in front of reality like a caged animal, waiting to be overpowered by the Divine.

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