Two nights ago, I attended a Spiritual Support group at St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church on the corner of Turk and Lyon St. in San Francisco, only a few blocks away from where I once lived (six years ago at the Westmont College Urban Program’s beautiful home on Fell and Lyon). Although St. Cyprian’s was, at one time, a thriving faith community made up of primarily African-Americans, the Church is now dying; down to about twelve consistent members. The Bishop has appointed a 29-year-old white priest to bring some new life to the dying church or to tend the dying until the church’s death can make way for a resurrection of sorts. The situation is both depressing and exciting. Depressing because the sanctuary, which once held hundreds, now looks painfully sparse and half of the consistent members are over 70 and often have to spend their Sundays in the hospital. Exciting because new life is possible and no one knows quite what it will look like. Not even the Bishop. We have some ideas and hopes, but mostly it is a time of experimentation and “anything goes.”
The Episcopal Church is in a liminal space, the space in-between, where nothing is certain and faith is mandatory. That is the theme that captured my attention this morning as I was reading The Soloist, a novel by Mark Salzman. Greg, the Chair of my Discernment Committee, described the story to me several months ago: a washed-up cellist receives a summons for jury duty on a trial involving a Buddhist novice who kills his teacher in order to follow the adage: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” I have written short stories and songs about me killing the Buddha so I had to read it.
Anyway, the narrator of the The Soloist writes about the liminal space he would experience before his concerts: “I used to love…the instant before I would start a piece and the audience would quiet down to absolute stillness. I always held the bow over the strings for a few seconds too long, just to relish that incredible vacuum, when a hall filled with hundreds of people could become so quiet. No one ever, ever sneezed, coughed or budged until I offered release with the first note.” (23).
This passage grabbed my attention because I just read last night about a similar liminality in Stephen Mitchell’s Meetings With the Archangel, a playful fiction that reads like the psychedelic and spiritual memoir of a bizarre Berkeley professor. Towards the end of the memoir, the Archangel Gabriel says to the narrator, “There is a moment before creation…No, let me try saying this in a different way. There is a moment before every birth, when the unformed spirit pauses on the brink of becoming. Behind it, the vast unknown out of which it arises. In front of it, pure world. The unformed spirit pauses on the brink of becoming. And, out of love and recklessness and the magnetic need to complete itself and a high curiosity, it is drawn to a life. The spirit sees a self and becomes it. It may take on the longest or shortest of lives, a life of bliss or deprivation or horror. It may become—I’ll use examples that you’ll recognize—a mosquito or a sequoia or an electron or a human being. Or it may become an archangel. Before it plunges into a physical or a non-physical universe, the spirit is granted complete foreknowledge of the life it is about to enter. Not only foreknowledge, but since knowledge and power are one, it is granted complete choice. It sees everything displayed before it, as if on a movie screen, but collapsed into a less-than-an-instant. And it chooses everything. Suppose it feels drawn to the human world: it sees a mother and father whose giant shadows it will have to grow beyond if it can, like a plant reaching for light; a set of core puzzles that may take it a lifetime to resolve; sufferings and joys, opinions, obstacles, illnesses, triumphs, disasters, swirls of events that at first or at tenth glance seem trivial or accidental; a particular era and country, with their collective blindnesses; lovers and children; enemies, friends; the circumstances, terrified or serene, of a death. It chooses that whole life, down to its smallest detail. And since the spirit is one with the will of God, God’s creation and its creation are the same. It knows. And then, at the moment when sperm pierces egg, it plunges headlong into the forgetfulness of the amniotic sea.” (231)
Here is a liminal space in which there is a foreknowledge that is soon forgotten. I get a kick out of imagining my spirit foreseeing all of my life before I was born and willfully choosing it. And perhaps there is a part of me now, deep within, unattainable, that holds a knowledge of my whole life, beginning to end, and absolutely relishes it.
Getting back to the Spiritual Support Group at St. Cyprian’s. Our group was made up of a Children’s Book Illustrator, an Attorney Office Administrator, an Episcopal priest, a young pilot, and myself: a soon-to-be PhD student and an Aspirant in the Episcopal Ordination Process. The young pilot shared his most sacred moment while piloting a plane.
He said the most sacred moment for him is that instant before landing, when the engine turns off. At this instant, all the pilot can do is trust in gravity to help land the plane. He described the moment as a peaceful, silent surrender. “As long as there is that moment,” he said, “everything is ok.” It is a calm right before the storm of brakes turn on. It is a profoundly spiritual moment connected with earth and air and time and space and gravity and Christ. The priest–who admitted to having a fear of flying–was reminded of the Dolly Parton song that always helped him when flying: “Jesus and Gravity.”
But again, it was this liminal space that he was describing. This space in-between. A space in which I find myself now: at the end of a season as a Youth Minister and on the brink of a new season as a PhD student. I am anxious, but I am learning to relish the stillness, the moment before birth, the peaceful, silent surrender where all I can do is trust in Christ and relax into his gravity.