“The secret of happiness,” Socrates said, “is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
Lifting the angel latch
Tradition holds that when a person desired to enter a monastery, he would stand on the threshold, strip naked, and plead for admission, upon which he would be given new clothing appropriate to the new life he was beginning. Today that may not literally happen very often, if at all, but it happens symbolically. Leaving everything of his old life behind, a postulant enters with no possessions and is given the few things necessary to follow the rule of life upon which he desires to embark.
It’s a good practice to follow at the beginning of each new season of life, even at the beginning of each new day. “Finish one day before you begin the next,” Emerson wrote, “and interpose a solid wall of sleep between two.” Before retiring for the night, let go of everything – frustrations, disappointments, resentments, as well as the hopes, dreams, and plans produced by life in that dying day. Unburden yourself so you can sleep the sleep of death before rising the next day to greet new life and the mercies of God that are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23).
Life in this world, at least in the culture I inhabit, is so much about accumulating the possessions, prejudices, and preconceptions that end up possessing us, we can too easily become, as Thoreau aptly observed, “crushed and smothered under [the] load.” The person we are and the truth of life we carry in the heart (Jer. 31:33-34) get crusted over so that they are barely recognizable, even to ourselves. Blessed are the poor (Luke 6:20) or the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3), for they are not so burdened and have a better opportunity to “cultivate [their] few cubic feet of flesh.”
It’s true even in the culture of the church, which too often has us masquerade in the “faded wardrobe” of the past. “The sun shines to-day also,” Emerson wrote. “There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” As I retire from a career of thirty-six years in parish ministry and prepare to take up whatever emerges next, I’m conscious of the extraordinary opportunity I have to do just that, to stop the masquerade and live a different life. And I’m carried back to a dream I had years ago.
Trying to walk, I am not able.
My body cannot get in sync with itself,
arms and legs can’t find their rhythm.
I try shortening my stride, quickening my pace,
swinging my metronome arms to a different cadence.
Nothing feels right.
Energy is wasted.
Surely I was made for more than this.
The crowd around me blocks my way, hedges me in.
Uneven terrain and unsure footing
give way to room after room of interconnected buildings,
each one dimly lit and closed for business, it seems.
I feel like a trespasser in someone else’s domain
and try to cover myself with innocence by asking directions to the way out.
An aproned proprietor steps to the counter and says,
“Go out that door. Lift the latch, and it will open for you.”
I move toward a simple door in the corner.
He calls after me, “Not that one.
Go out through the front door,
the door of the old Methodist Church.”
I find it, a double door, peaked and painted white,
all that remains of the entry into an old church building now converted to other uses,
and on the silver handle a little angel latch that, lifted, lets me out onto the street.
The crowds disperse, the terrain evens out into a road smooth and wide.
My stride picks up, now a faster walk, now a jog, now a run,
arms and legs swinging with each other, perfectly synchronous,
now nearing seventy,
no shortness of breath, no fatigue or pain,
only sheer joy at the running.
I was made for this, I know, for running fast – I can feel it deeply.
Rolling over green hills toward what lies beyond,
the road opens before me.
Emerson’s question still resonates. “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” The road beckons, and the little angel latch waits to be lifted.