Friday, June 12, 2009

Creative Destruction

A few minutes after I took this photo near Truchas, New Mexico, the storm broke: rolling thunder, fireworks of lightning, a whirlwind of hail. A violent June storm, completely out of sync with the normal weather pattern for this time of year. For some reason, the foreboding scene made me think of a Robinson Jeffers poem that drew me hard in the old days before I came back to Christianity. Here, the storm that comes is fire rather than rain. When the siege is over, the poet returns to the still-smoldering hillside to see an eagle perched "insolent and gorged" on a burnt jag, the lucky recipient of free game, driven toward him by the flames. Jeffers speaks of the "merciless blue" of the sky, the "merciless black" of the ravaged hillsides, and the "sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them." And then, when it seems that this poem can only end in nihilistic despair, he adds a final redemptive line: "The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy."

Though Jeffers was a pantheist rather than a Christian, his work helped call me back to the great mysteries of Christ, which are often rife with frustrating paradox. But it was not until I found the monastic path that I began to discern the religious truth in Jeffer's last line. He is speaking here of the blessing of creative destruction--the magnificent but eerie beauty that rises out of death. And it occurred to me that the whole monastic vocation is about voluntarily embracing dying.

What must be put to sleep? The ephemeral delights that give our life meaning. Our jealously guarded self-image. Our most private and personal notions about God. Former Benedictine abbess Mary Margaret Funk calls these the "three renunciations" necessary for monastic transformation.

Such un-selfing can be agonizingly difficult. This is why St. Romuald of Ravenna, founder of the Camaldolese Benedictine congregation, adopts such a gentle tone when he describes the creative destruction we must undergo: "Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. . . .Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing but what his mother gives him." If we give in to it--if we raise our arms to the licking flames or our faces to the bursting skies--then God can do the work in us. If we refuse to go through this annihilating passage, however, we risk trading away our spiritual inheritance for Esau's pot of steaming porridge.

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