It just happened. I had nothing to do with it and there it was. Life just showed up. It does so from time to time.
This Easter it showed up for me on a spring break immersion trip I made with a group of Seattle University students. When people ask what I did for the break the most honest answer I can give is, “I did nothing at all. But something incredible happened.”
We went to Belize; a country where I lived for two years as a Jesuit Volunteer. At the end of our trip I found myself sitting on a weather-worn dock on a small caye on the western edge of the Caribbean off of the northern coast. A strong breeze gave my sweat-glands a much needed break at the end of a hot day and as darkness fell on the water I sat in silence under a blanket of stars. I’ve known few things as refreshing for the body and soul, and after a day of desire – for water, for shade, for rest – I found myself satisfied.
It just happened. I did nothing at all and I wanted nothing more. This would have been enough. And then, again, it happened.
Out of the eastern horizon a strong light began to break and a blood-orange moon made its slow rise out of the sea. In a few minutes the dark water was shining again in the soft illumination of thrice reflected sunlight which glimmered in sequence on the rough surfaces of the moon, the water, and my tired eyes. There was nothing for me to do, nowhere for me to go, and no one for me to comfort. I had need of nothing. I knew then the heart of the Psalmist who famously said, “There is nothing I shall want.”
I felt held. I felt held by that rotten old dock… suspended just over the water like an infant poised for baptism. I felt held by the strong breeze pressing against my face, wrapping itself around me, and caressing my sun-baked skin. I felt held by the light of the moon which, in its own marvelous way, was a borrowed gift of the generous yet unseen sun that had set behind me hours before. In the darkness of night I felt myself held gently in water, light and life.
After a university term full of too much work and a pernicious illusion of my own productivity, I felt held by a simple truth: I don’t do this – life and love; it just happens. I give thanks. All that I give, in labor or in rest, is thanks. All of my love, my laughter, my listening is thanks. All I have to give is gratitude and all of my gratitude is gift. The gift just shows up. It just happens.
Spring is a good season to witness this truth. We confuse ourselves into thinking that we make the world go ‘round, that we’re somehow responsible for making a life for ourselves, and in this confusion we run ourselves into the ground while life literally springs forth from it without our doing anything at all. It just happens.
Few accusations lofted at the religious imagination make less sense to me than the one that claims that faith is some kind of elaborate fantasy or a conspiracy constructed by underground myth-makers. In my experience (and isn’t that the only starting point?) it has been a journey to greater honesty about the fact of my life… not the fantasy of it. And in this journey toward honesty I have to say that I find more mystery and greater powerlessness than I’d expect to find if I were making this whole thing up myself. The religious mind is simply the one that chooses to accept its powerlessness as a gift, a strange gift that gives real power to our lives.
Pulled out of the nothing I reverence the One at the other end of the line… the one pulling me along… out of darkness and into light… out of selfishness into love… out of my false sense of self-as-god and into a relationship of humility toward the Other who simply is. In water, light and life, in love of neighbor as of self, it just happens.
As I sat on that dock in Belize I recalled the words of a spiritual director who suggested that I begin every prayer and meditation by simply accepting the fact of my life. She said, with great simplicity and wisdom, “Sit still and notice how you don’t have to hold the chair down; the chair will hold you up.” This wisdom has legs. Sit. Breathe. Love.
Just as we don’t hold the chair down, we don’t have to breathe. If we can just let go then our body will breathe on its own. And our hearts? If we can loosen up our chest, make a little spaciousness there, our hearts will expand and contract on their own and simply beat, beat, beat. The poet Mary Oliver tells us that we “don’t have to be good… we only have to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves.” Sit. Breathe. Love.
I could tell other stories about what happened on our spring break trip to Belize. People were fed. Stories were shared. Children were held. Wounds were healed. Mistakes were made. But what I most want to say is this: It happened. It was a great gift. And I’m at home again in my gratitude.