Two and a half months into the New Year, we’ve gotten rather used to 2016. I’m no longer writing “2015” on documents out of habit; it’s been long enough. The habit has changed. We’re long enough into the New Year that the new behaviors we promised ourselves at the turn of the year should be ingrained in us. They should be – but are they? Those of us who practice Lent may be in the midst of new behaviors promised at Ash Wednesday. Now is a good time to review our New Year’s Resolutions, if we made them. How are we doing?
Personally, I decided this year that New Year’s Resolutions as traditionally practiced were not useful to me. For me, they have been unreasonable promises to make sweeping changes in behavior or high, unattainable expectations for living conditions. So, instead of making promises to myself that I could not keep, I spent some time at the end of 2015 pondering what I needed most in my life. From there, I sought one word that I could focus on this year. I sought a word that would encompass everything that I felt I needed to accomplish in 2015 in my physical as well as my spiritual life. By December 31, the word I came up with was “Organization.” I thought if I could clean out my closets, literally as well as figuratively, throughout this next year, life would improve.
Organization. It was a good choice. It covered everything I had thought of that I needed to work on. It’s a good, solid word. It’s a utilitarian word that describes rearrangement and cleaning out. Yes, it was good, I decided, and I began the year with this word as my focus: Organization.
Then came the final meeting of my Simple Abundance group. We had meeting been almost monthly throughout 2015 to discuss our readings in the classic devotional by Sarah Ban Breathnacht. As a group, we had been learning to apply spirituality to our daily lives through the readings and our discussions. We were unable to meet at the end of 2015, so we met on the first weekend in 2016 to wrap up our discussions and to discover our intentions for the new year. Obviously, I intended to share my thoughts about Organization. It had, in fact, been our Simple Abundance reading and discussion that had led to my choice of this focus word for the year. By the time we came to our sharing about the coming year, though, something changed.
You see, after we talked about the readings and how we had been affected by them over the year, we spent some time in meditation. Our leaders asked us to think about a word or a phrase that would encompass our goals for the coming year. Of course, I had done this. I knew my word. Organization.
Our gatherings took place at a beautiful place in Apache Junction, Arizona called Sacred Space for Retreat. The property includes a large stone labyrinth. We were sent to the labyrinth for a silent meditative walk. The labyrinth walk is one of my favorite contemplative practices. In fact, I have a small labyrinth of my own at home. The one at Sacred Space is much larger and provides the opportunity for a longer, deeper walk with God.
As I walked that day, focusing at first on my word, “Organization,” I began to let go of thought, focusing only on my breath and my steps. As I neared the center, I began to feel cleansed. I looked at the ground for a moment as I walked and I noticed a geode. I came to the center, where I stood facing the eastern mountains. I took three deep belly breaths, and stood in silence. I could hear the soft crunching of the feet of those who walked before and after me. I heard the birds that flew above and the rustling of leaves on the mesquite that grow in this desert environment. I felt the caress of the soft breeze upon my face, upon my uplifted hands.
Then, I heard clearly in my mind a new word: Purity.
As I walked out of the labyrinth, I pondered this word. In today’s world, the word “purity” can have connotations that feel contrived or self-righteous. The first meaning of this word that came to me was about the idea of moral purity, which seems to me a rather subjective connotation. Among the evangelical crowd, there is a push for sexual purity that leads to purity contracts, purity balls, purity rings; all promises to remain “pure” until marriage. A second, more negative connotation of the word “purity” is related to the idea of racial purity and the atrocities of ethnic cleansing. However, to be pure is also to be free of harmful substances; it is to be clean, as in purity of water or air; it is to have a perfect quality, as in the purity of sound, music, voice.
Thinking about this word as I walked out of the labyrinth, I wondered how it could apply to me or to my life. I am a messy human being. I am disorganized, often scattered, and always overscheduled. In other words, I am a human being immersed in twenty-first century life. What has “purity” to do with me?
I thought of the geode. On one side, the geode is a rather ugly, bumpy, dirty rock. On the other, the stone is white and almost translucent in its beauty. One can imagine that beneath that lovely, smooth, shiny surface, there could be some glorious crystal.
Many years ago I read a science fiction novel that I will never forget. The book, Swan Song, by Robert R. McCammon, describes the world after a nuclear detonation. The radiation spurs an evolution among the people that begins with the growth of what they call “Job’s Mask,” which covers their faces. The masks are ugly, hard, and often debilitating crusts. Some of the people develop gifts as well, such as visions and the ability to make things grow. Eventually, the Job’s Masks fall off, revealing the true nature of the individuals inside. Some who had been considered ugly, bad, or unwanted before the war are revealed to be truly beautiful on the inside.
As I pondered the geode, I thought of this book, and I thought of what both the rock and the book revealed to me about purity. Purity is not always visible. Alchemical purity is the absolute perfection of a substance. As a person, is purity truly possible? As a Wesleyan, I have to say that yes, it is. After all, Purity is Perfection. Perfection is possible. It is not something to declare; it is something to seek. It is not something to take pride in; it is something to be revealed. If Purity is cleanliness and the absence of harmful substances, then “Organization” is an activity to be used as a tool toward Purity, toward Perfection.
As we near the final week of Lent, we commemorate the clownish street theatre of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem on an ass, with palms waving and strewn on the ground before his feet. We remember the final week the twelve Apostles and the many Disciples would have with the friend and teacher they knew as Jesus, the night they shared a final meal, and the night He would be betrayed and denied. This week, we near the end of our 40 days of self-denial and contemplation.
On Easter morning, we remember the stone rolled away to reveal an empty tomb and Jesus transformed into the glorious, divine Christ. We will also be rolling aside our Lenten promises. When we do, what will we reveal? Will we be new people, set with our faces toward resurrected lives in Christ?
It is my prayer that on Easter morning I will set aside my simplistic denial of a worldly thing and continue the formidable task of organizing my cluttered life, revealing beneath its ugly, bumpy reality the hidden path toward purity. It’s only one new beginning of many new beginnings winding through my life. Yet, each new beginning is an opportunity to set aside the ugliness of self-absorption to reveal the deeper beauty found in self knowledge.
My path toward Purity begins with Organization.
There’s an app for that.
I call it prayer, followed by action.