a short excerpt from Songs of Descent

 

Friends: I'm writing a lot these days, working on a few different projects including a few (I hope happy) surprises.  In the meantime, it's been a while since I've shared anything I've got cooking...so today I wanted to share a short excerpt from my (sometime) forthcoming book, Songs of Descent. I would rather you not be drowning--but if your life is currently under water, I hope this speaks to where you are, somehow.

-JM

This book is about trying to find life in and through the flood, letting the waters lead us where they will, even if they take us where we do not wish to go—straight into the heart of darkness, into the thick of what we fear the most. From the swamps of the bayou to the tidal waves of the Indian Ocean, we instinctively know all the mysteries come from the water. In Hebrew mythology, the sea is the place of chaos, the place where the sea monsters live off the far end of the map. All the things we are most afraid of lurk at the bottom.

This is a book about descent, about diving—or more often being pushed—into the sea where we contend with all the mysteries. While there is grace in the falling, we rarely fall in gracefully. In fact, losing control is at the very heart of descent. I’m defining descent in the broadest possible terms. The descent, in my vernacular, encompasses any and all downward movement. It doesn’t really matter much what takes you down. It can be an unexpected illness or simply the consequence of our own bad choices; it runs the gamut from traumatic death to fairly pedestrian rejection at the hands of another human being. There is no context in which descent is not possible—vocational, relational, spiritual; there are so many ways of going down.

Descent, by nature, is often a slow unraveling. “I saw Satan fall like lightning,” Jesus said. This is apparently one advantage of being Satan, because most of us fall much more slowly, hitting every step on the way down. The descent, even if we are more or less responsible for our falling, is rarely quite exactly of our choosing—at least not consciously.

Above all else, the path of descent is scary. It involves a journey into the unknown, an exploration of everything we are most natively afraid of. Surprisingly, the descent into the depths of our fears, the descent into our own souls, the descent into the mysteries of life, and the descent into the mystery of God are precisely the same journey. Surprisingly, the path of descent is the spiritual journey— perhaps the only spiritual journey. In the same way that the path of superficial success always corresponds with the road of upward mobility, the spiritual life nearly always entails the path of downward mobility. There is no other way into the mysteries of God, life, or our true selves that is not a pilgrimage down. There is no other way to move from living out of our heads into living from our hearts.

It’s the open secret of spirituality that we have so many reasons to ignore and resist, no matter how hard it stares us down. We resist the necessity of the downward spiral, and for that matter the reality of it. When we are on the slide, everything in us screams, at first, “This is not happening. This is not happening.” Though the more we resist the reality of our descent, the more painful it becomes. Whatever we resist, and whatever we fear, we empower.

For me, the genius of Christian spirituality is that it puts this path boldly front and center, by placing the death and resurrection of Jesus at its core. By making the suffering of Jesus so central to the mystery, the clear message is that the path of suffering and death is the journey into God, into freedom, and into life. It’s where the story was moving all along, really—Moses and the Israelites crossing the red sea, Jonah descending into the belly of the whale, and finally Jesus “descending into hell” in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. And yet even so, this kind of wisdom is so inaccessible to our minds, so terribly experiential to its core, that we are generally not able to see it until after our own descent begins.

So much contemporary religion is propositional—finding its center in belief rather than practice and experience. In historic Christian faith, both in its eastern and western expressions, the shared experience of the Eucharist was the practice that bound the Church together—the taste of bread and wine, the bittersweet meal that takes us into the mystery of Christ’s suffering. But the more pursuit of faith becomes chiefly about doctrine, about having “right belief,” the more distance we create from the mysteries in which the experiential reality of God may be found. For those raised on a steady diet of propositional “truth,” this may sound a bit shocking; but the truth is, when you are on the descent, beliefs actually don’t matter much anymore.

I feel vaguely sacrilegious to write that, because I, like many of you, grew up in a world where beliefs (defined as what you think) were everything. There are no questions nearly as urgent as those of what you think about God, whether or not you got the doctrine right, whether or not you prayed the right prayer in church. But I don’t say that out of a desire for novelty or controversy, but more as a statement of cool fact—a statement of what is: when you go deep enough, beliefs will simply not keep you warm. Belief alone will not save you from drowning. Ideas will not put breath back into your lungs. The overwhelming, pervasive reality is that the world has gone topside, reality has shifted, and life as you knew it is now underwater. The experience of drowning is more profound than any ideas you had about God, life, or the world before. It is excruciating. It is unbearable. It is an experience that took you under. Is there anything but experience that could lead you out? What you think about God, life, or the world doesn’t mean much anymore.

As a Christian, I place confidence in the particular story of the death and resurrection of Jesus; it’s the lens through which I understand the world. But I do not believe that the central goal of faith is to believe the death and resurrection as a kind of religious idea. The life of faith is the invitation to follow Jesus into the depths of hell for ourselves, that we might be joined in the hope of resurrection. It is not theoretical, but experiential. It is not a matter of believing that Jesus has done this for us, but of a fragile trust that Jesus will go down into our darkness with us now. The death and resurrection of Jesus does not mean we do not have to enter into its mystery for ourselves, only that we can follow him into it without utter terror. Once we become awakened to it, the message of death and resurrection seems to be encrypted into every facet of the universe itself. The way of death and resurrection is not only the path of Jesus, but of all created things.

If you are not on, or have not yet been on, the path of descent, feel free to put this book down. It cannot do you any good, because we are talking about things that can only be revealed, not taught. When the time comes that you are ready for it, you will know. But if you have already been on the dark path, you know there is nothing theoretical or romantic about any of this. When water fills your lungs and you feel yourself sinking, the experience is not poetic, but primal. There are no words for it but Oh God. you don’t know if you will survive it, or how. Life is reduced to its most basic colors, and now even the most basic of tasks like eating and drinking and sleeping do not seem so simple anymore. The world moves in slow motion when you feel like you are drowning; now you are conscious of every breath, every sound, every movement, and each and every movement feels labored, slow and difficult.

When you are on the path of descent, you will not likely trust any explanations of it, nor care about them even if you did—because there is nothing you can “know” in your head that will make it feel any better. The only thing we can hope for is not that some sort of existential “meaning” can be found in the descent, but that there can be some kind of revelation, some excavation, of the God at the bottom of the sea. It will not likely make the journey less painful. But it can make the journey more hopeful. The simple contention of this book is that love is the mystery at the bottom of all the others, and if we let ourselves be carried down deep enough into the depths, love is what we will find down here. Life is what we will find down here.

I do not claim to have any great wisdom into this. I have not lived long enough nor suffered enough to have the necessary credibility. In a way, I write about descent the same way I always preached—as a way of “whistling in the dark,” in Frederick Buechner’s phrase—a way of keeping my own spirits up. I write, brazenly, as a way to make sense of my own life, my own journey, my own descent. I write to find my own way down, and out. But I write with a sincere conviction that "the only way out is the way through." That is the genius embodied in the very body of Jesus of Nazareth—authentic spirituality is always death and resurrection; it is the religion of in-through-and-never-around.

TOO DEEP FOR WORDS

There are some places we can go that are too deep for words. We don’t have the words to really speak about these places, to speak about ourselves, nor are there words powerful enough to get beneath the dirt floor experience of life now underwater. These are places too deep for propositions, philosophizing, intellectual ideas, or even syllables. These are depths where only the Spirit can live: “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God,” the Apostle Paul says. Or, in the book of Romans, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8.26)

Souls are deep as oceans, just as beautiful, just as dark and dangerous. There are places of hurt and pain, of loss and longing, that we simply do not have the vocabulary for. There are places beneath articulation, beneath sea level, beneath soul level. We do not know how to pray for ourselves, or for anyone else, from this place. My prayer for you is not made of words but groans, with sighs too deep for words: that the Spirit who knows your depths, the depths of pain and longing—even the depths of God—would search you, reach into you, dive into you. That the Spirit would gently descend into the places so sacred, and so tender, that words would not dare be so blasphemous as to enter them.

There is no easy way out. There is only the way that leads deeper in. We cannot overcome the tides that drag us into the ocean, so there is no point pounding at the water, resisting. Somehow, we have to find a way to open up our hands, our hearts, and finally our lives, to let go into the descent.

If you are in such a place—however you got here—I am so, so very sorry. I can’t say a lot to you in confidence, but I can tell you this: you are not alone. And somehow, someway . . . you are going to be okay.

Please don’t lose heart.