After the ecstasy

art 02, Heart Lake, AdirondacksGoogle “the inspired life,” and in less than half a second you’ll get a list of 144 million sites, at the top of which I found a column in The Washington Post titled “Inspired Life: For a better you, a better community and a better world.” It says it’s about “inspiration, help and humor to improve your life and the lives of others,” and it covers topics like working better, coping with disabilities, happiness research, humor, relationships, simpler living – you get the idea.

There are lots of sources where you can get advice about how to live an inspired life – 144 million on the Web and probably more than a few in your own family and neighborhood. I wonder where to get advice on how to live an uninspired life. When my little boat is stuck in the doldrums and there’s no wind in my sails, how do I start moving again? When my life is flat and ordinary and I don’t feel anything I could remotely call the Spirit, holy or otherwise, in my life or in the world around me, how do I get through that day and the next and the next?

It’s a good question, and I suspect it lurks behind many other questions people ask, only people are afraid to ask it directly, afraid to admit to themselves or to anyone else that life can be, well, lifeless, purposeless. It’s something we don’t like to admit – even I don’t like to admit it – because to admit it to myself can make it seem a little too real, and to admit it to others might make me seem weak, and living in this world takes all the strength any of us can muster.

But I’ve got to ask the question – How do you live an uninspired life? – because that’s the life I think most of us live most of the time, and it’s important to know how to do it. And because I think it’s maybe the most practical question a Christian can ask. Mountaintop spiritual experiences are inspiring, and people who’ve been to the mountaintop are inspiring, but the mountaintop is not where we live. We live downslope, in the valleys, sometimes even in the valley of the shadow of death. How do we live there?

When I lived closer to the Adirondacks and my knees were better, there were few things I found more personally renewing than hiking the High Peaks. There’s nothing quite as inspiring for me as being on one of those mountaintops – if it’s not clouded over – where you can almost see the curve of the earth, and towns and troubles all but disappear.

But anyone who’s been there knows that the experience of the mountaintop is merely punctuation amid hours and hours of hard work in both directions, up and down, one foot in front of the other, eyes on the trail, looking for a secure place to plant your foot for the next step, pausing for a drink of water and a handful of gorp for the next mile and the next thousand feet of elevation. That’s one of the life lessons the Adirondacks taught me.

And it comes back to me when I read the story of Jesus and his friends on the mountaintop where he went to pray and where, Luke says, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). I don’t know what it means that his appearance and his clothes changed, but I know what it’s like to feel closer to God on a mountaintop, and I can imagine that when I’m there I might seem different to those around me.

And I can imagine wanting to preserve the moment somehow – to build a shrine or a cairn, as the disciples wanted to do, or take a photograph, or look so long and hard at what I see that the moment is indelibly imprinted in my mind. But the mountaintop is not a place to stay. There’s a life down there to come back to; and bills to pay; and relationships to build and maintain; and miles and miles, days upon days, of one foot in front of the other, looking for the next secure place for the next step.

Mountaintop spiritual experiences do exist. We can get there, and we do. We have moments of insight and clarity and intimacy; inspiration comes; people are changed, transfigured by fleeting encounters with God. Those moments are true, as true as your existence here and now. And there is another truth: Those moments don’t last. As real as they are, they are also as ephemeral as clouds, as fleeting as the wind. They cannot be captured or contained, only remembered and celebrated.

Robert Frost spent a lot of time peering into wells from the wrong angle, never seeing past the surface reflections, until one extraordinary moment. “Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb, / I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture, / Through the picture, a something white, uncertain, / Something more of the depths – and then I lost it. / Water came to rebuke the too clear water. / One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple / Shook whatever it was lay there at the bottom, / Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.”1

What happened with Jesus that day on the mountaintop, what happens with any of us in a mountaintop experience, is not for me to say, maybe not for any of us to say. I’m more interested in what happens after we come down off the mountain. The deepest mystery of life is not meant to be seen or understood, much less explained, and certainly not captured or prolonged. But if it comes but once, it can change a life, and it can be remembered and celebrated through a lifetime of one ordinary downslope step after another, even sometimes in the valley of the shadow of death.

After the honeymoon, they say, comes the marriage. After the election, the hard work of governing. It’s the same in the spiritual life: After the ecstasy comes the laundry. What happens when the fabulous voyager – Gawain, Ulysses, Ishmael, the Mariner – returns from land’s end and finds nothing changed? He unpacks the suitcase and does the laundry.

Stay in love with God, Wesley urged. In any marriage there are moments of high emotion and deep intimacy, and there are years of the ordinary work of maintaining a relationship and a household. Wesley called them “ordinances of God.” We know them as the General Rules of the church, things we do to get to the mountaintop once in a while and to make it through the long seasons between: your class meeting and covenant discipleship group; the weekly Bible study and prayer meeting; keeping Sabbath; tithing or proportional giving; works of mercy and justice; weekly participation in worship and celebration of the Eucharist.

The mountaintop experience is God’s pure gift to us; the work of discipleship, the discipline of faith, is our gift to God. Together they make a life worth living.

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