On a grey morning I turn to an old friend, Henri Nouwen, flip open one of his many books to find…
“and yet you are Christian….
only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society in which you live,
and only so long as you emphasize the need for conversion both for yourself and for the world.
You are Christian only so long as you, in no way, let yourself become established in a situation of seeming calm,
only so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.
You are Christian only when you believe that you have a role to play in the realization of this new kingdom and when you urge everyone you meet with a holy unrest to make haste so that the promise might soon be fulfilled.
(Pg102 of “With Open Hands” – I played with the phrasing)
Nouwen wrote these words in 1972. I was in grade eight – a place of profound dissatisfaction. Too big for public school. Eager to take on the mantle of teendom. And scared silly about swimming with the big high school fish - sharks and all.
I was ready for transformation. Yet my culture offered so little in the form of rite and ritual to help me peel off my childhood skin, ditch the too small shell, and venture into the wild threatening world armed only with what’s inside.
I did the United Church Confirmation Class thing. While the minister was sincere, the experience was more about confirming that I would conform to my parent’s world than about discovering the mysteries of a world where GOD roams hungry. What I remember most about that experience was this cute girl from another school that I got to chat with while we waited for our parents to pick us up.
Probably the closest thing we have in our culture to an initiation rite is the Rock Concert.
I remember my first high school dance. It began with heart pounding – risking arrest and shame - filling out the LCBO form (remember those?) to get a hold of the illegal intoxicating elixir that would – I was told - ease my passage into another world.
I had no circle of elders there to hand me the potion and guide my passage. We guzzled the mickey of vodka in hiding beneath the high school bleachers. It was a ritual handed down by big brothers. Maybe not quite the shamans we needed – it was what we had. And we had to do it. Somehow we knew – somewhere in our ancient celtic DNA - there was a call to enter into the storm to test our wits - witless.
You could hear the pounding bass from outside. The beat draws us in.
We run the gauntlet of teachers and police pretending to threaten our drunken passage - while exchanging knowing looks and smirks at our childish bleary-eyed attempts to appear straight.
We venture from lighted hallway into darkened cavern - eyes deprived of orientation – ears invaded by the flood of sound and every thought you ever had is blown out the top of your head and your a-hole at the same time.
Breathless - you manage to maintain balance – barely – slowly becoming aware of the crowd of shadowy bodies filling this new enticing hell you’ve entered. All eyes are drawn by the coloured rays of light thrown at the strangely costumed madmen on stage. They’re movin and agroovin - and as the magic of their bigger than life personas find you – you find that you’re moving too.
Your scared little butt is shaking. But the cheeks loosen and soon join head and shoulders in the same tribal response that the first humans danced to the first language they ever shared – the drumming. It is the drumming that took the heartbeat inside their chests and picked it up a notch. Once that blood starts pounding, those extremities can’t help but start groovin.
Did we pass into adulthood with that intiation? Hardly. Perhaps we passed from an extended suburban childhood into adolescence. But the world we entered – our North American, Western, Roman Catholic (or variations thereof) consumer culture – is an adolescent culture. Guided by older adolescents, we were initiated into an idea of manhood driven by Ego and not by Soul.
In Bill Plotkin’s second tome on the subject of earth-initiation, “Nature and the Human Soul“, he explains why such rites are no longer practiced in our “advanced” but retarded civilization. The stewards of our culture, the heroes of our youth, the role models of our passages are to be found on television and not around the wilderness fire.
Ghandi, King, Mandela and the Dalai Lama barely hold a candle to Bono, Gates, and Ronald Macdonald. These Billionaire Ego-acheivers do great things with the surplus of the love we send them.
But true soul guides teach us to pursue only the most important of quests – first stripped of all attachments.
The questions we were asked was “what will you do” and not “why are you here?” The acceptable answers were about our somewhat limited choices - jobs, education and social status. Instead of “how will you best offer the gift of who you are to the world” we were asked “beside what kind of house will you park your car?”
In the Broadway drama “Passing Strange“ (Spike Lee put it on video) the narrator says of the mid-life crisis “One day you wake up and realize the life you’ve been living for the last several decades was chosen by a teenager – a stoned teenager.”
I was just as jaded about those choices at twenty five as I am now. But, by luck, chance or a steady pursuit – I’ve found the elders needed to coax that “deeply rooted dissatisfaction” up to the surface where wind, rain, and sunshine can do its work.
The seed of those roots’ origins are what Nouwen defines as an “indestructible certainty”. It is the essence of what it is to be a follower of Christ. Plotkin says it is essential to all humanity.
The thirst, the search, the yearning for what is at the bottom of my soul is what takes me to the heights of my furthest reach. When I slip and inevitably tumble back to the muck and mud of the valley, it is that same unquenchable question that gets me to my feet again and calls me to love with a fierce warrior’s tenderness the ones I meet on today’s path.
“As a Christian it is hard to bear with people who stand still along the way, lose heart and seek their happiness in little pleasures which they cling to.
It irritates you to see things established and settled, and you feel sad about all that self-indulgence and self-satisfaction, for you know with an indestructible certainty that something greater is coming, and you’ve already seen the first rays of light.
“With Open Hands” H. Nouwen Pg103