“The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”
T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages V
Back in December I was thinking about the irony of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” how we are calling God, whose very name means God with us, to come be with us. We are asking Him to fulfill the promise inherent in His name and be with us, to ransom Israel who is still captive, to save us from our lonely exile. Where is this God who promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age?
In church, we’re making our way through the commandments, and this week we talked about number three, taking God’s name in vain. I left thinking about a sometimes inscrutable God who has a million names. But through all these different names, God is trying to help our small human minds understand who he is. When He says “I am your Savior, King, Friend, and Comforter,” He is telling us, “See, this is who I am and this and this and this. Test me; call on my name; trust me; ask me to save you and I will still the storm; ask me to be your King and I will rule your life; ask me to be your Friend and I will walk with you; ask me to be your Comforter and I will bring you rest.”
And when He says “I am Immanuel” he means, “I am with you always; look for me.” These names are metaphor; they are promise; they hold within them the hope of relationship.
Two and a half weeks ago I was sitting on the wall at Butterfly Beach, writing in my journal with great effort about that awful stoppered up sensation: wordless, numb, with all passion and laughter and joy and sadness run dry. A few hours later I sat at the dinner table in the bungalow drinking potato cream soup with some beautiful women. I knew a few of them very well and the others just a little. But we ‘built each other’s houses,’ spent time looking into each other’s eyes, affirming and blessing each other.
In their words and eyes I saw what I had been missing all that day and for weeks beforehand, and a longing stirred in me for a similar passion to grip my being, too. These women have fire in their hearts and it spills out in everything they do: in their looking, in their speaking, in their living. Rilke’s prayer was my prayer that night:
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one else ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.
May what I do flow from me like a river. Those last few hours in California with dear friends and dear sisters, sharing meals and tea and chocolate cake and tears and a dance floor and four hours of wide-open space and ten thousand memories, my heart was brimming and breaking a thousand times over, and all I could say was thank you thank you thank you.
Those two days two weeks ago so many miles far have been swimming beneath the surface of my consciousness since I got here, restless till I could get my thoughts down on paper. On the plane, unpacking, learning new faces and new names, walking along the Thames…I was thinking of all those lonely days when I couldn’t wait to leave, and then the shift my last two days in California when grace crumbled the walls around my heart and let me see, feel all the things that should have been.
Then, when it feels most like you’re turning your back on something, leaving behind all the things you’ve lost on the road, God stops you and says “Wait, child. Stop running from ghosts and walk in the good way I have prepared for you.” That good way is the way of being, the practice of emptying yourself of restlessness and asking God to fulfill the promise of His name: to be here now. Only then, only when He has poured His endlessness into your small being can the fire spill from you like a river; only here, where eternity intersects human time, only now, in the moment of encounter, can healing happen.
I am beginning to understand now the importance of knowing the right names of things. Naming is a way of seeing; naming is a way of grounding oneself in the present; naming is encounter. Shannon used to tell me how she would learn the name of a plant then suddenly see it everywhere, in places she never noticed it before. Knowing the names of things and people helps us see them too, helps us acknowledge their presence, opens the way for not only encounter and significant interaction, but also surprise and miracle.
Could we be here, then,
in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, apple-tree, window…
And the things, even as they pass,
understand that we praise them.
Transient, they are trusting us
to save them—us, the most transient of all.
I want to love the things
As no one has thought to love them,
Until they’re worthy of you and real.
These things, then—love, naming, sight, living—they can only happen in the moments when God’s unconditional love breaks through the clouds of past and future and holds you there, at peace, then flows from you and through you, completely unstoppered.
God is answering my prayers. My heart is healing, the fear that paralyzed me has been burned away by the fire that has taken hold of my heart, and the only words that come to mind are thank you.