June 29, 2004
The eternal moment

Noah Millman has a neat essay about a Jewish custom I'd never heard of: counting the days between Passover and Pentecost. He employs a scene from Anna Karenina to argue that such boring daily rituals have an important place in spiritual life:

The death-bed scene, for me, loses none of its power with the knowledge that its truths are fleeting. This knowledge, rather, makes the scene all the more terrible, terrible in its realism. For the present is gone almost before it has been, and that is truer than the present truths. These three scaled spiritual heights in a moment: Aleksey is suffused with a true, selfless Christian spirit of forgiveness; Anna does recognize his saintliness; Vronsky is brought face to face with the un-Godly nature of his values, and is shamed nearly to death. This is all true, absolutely true. But it is a fleeting truth - "like grass which groweth up./In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth." The moment cannot be grasped and held and, if worshipped in Aleksey's manner, it is as much as to make it a false god, an idol. Anna is not so different from my Princip from the lengthy piece I posted some weeks ago - she has lived beyond her own tale's end, beyond the moment that, had she died in it, she might have thought she had redeemed her life. But she lived on, and she did not know how to turn this redemptive moment of deathbed repentance into a redemptive life.

The domestication of truth, levelling spiritual mountains and turning the soil for humble cultivation: this is what many "spiritual" people hate about religion. But it is religion's primary function. It is what turns mere experience into life, into something that may be counted, something that "counts." The omer counts the period between the two peak spiritual experiences of the Jewish people: the exodus from Egypt and the theophany at Sinai - two experiences that are, according to tradition, unique in the history of the universe, and two epiphanies that every Jew is to regard him or herself as having personally experienced. And how do we connect these peak moments? By means of the most mechanical counting - today is the eighteenth day, comprised of two weeks and four days, of the omer!

This reminds me of how the Lutherans I know are somewhat puzzled and amused by the evangelical emphasis on being "born again." Most of them were born and raised Lutheran, so the idea that you must have a Big Moment where you accept Jesus into your life seems vaguely insulting to their own experience. The tightly structured Lutheran liturgy that cycles from week to week and from year to year has a quality of omer about it, which I think gives many the impression that it cannot be spiritual.

But it is, as Tolstoy shows so well, very easy to drift off after a big spiritual event. The Internet Monk recently wrote an essay criticizing "transactionalism", in which he criticizes the Baptist focus on the one big decision:

It is my observation that the obsession with decisions in the form of a one-time transactions is largely responsible for vast numbers of professing Christians who ignore the reality of Christ. Believing that a prayer caused their name to be written in the book of life, they live with no reference to Jesus. This brings about more sermons on "total surrender" and overtures to legalism. I've listened to pastors agonize over the lack of discipleship in their converts, and wondered "Does anyone ever consider that the focus on decisions is bound to produce this dilemma?"

I think this rather resonates with me because some people have been wondering lately when I'm going to make such a decision. A few months ago Telford felt I was drifting and suggested that I become a catechumen. But whenever anybody pushes on me for that sort of thing is when I least want to do it. Doing a little more research, though, I realized I've basically already become a catechumen without exactly meaning to. I've been learning about Christian precepts, going to church, praying, receiving the sign of the cross etc. even though I didn't enter upon a formal course of it.

I think one underlying assumption behind Big Moment theology is that consciousness, especially conscious will, goes out ahead of everything else, so that you must make a willful decision on your destination before you get there. Sometimes, though, the will is the last thing to get on board. I remember sometime back Peter Nixon wrote that he felt he didn't choose to go back to Catholicism so much as something reached out and dragged him in; and I know the feeling. The will is more what keeps things going, step by step and day by day by day, the routine of church and blogging and study and service and so on. Dragged along I might be, but I'm not always in the mood for it, nor is anybody.

Posted by Camassia at June 29, 2004 05:07 PM | TrackBack


As usual, you have me thinking hard from a different angle about things. Two main points leap out at me from your post: one, counting each day and each moment as the opportunity or time to engage spirituality (rather than resting it on a Big Decision) and two, our will\'s unwillingness. What makes spiritual practice, especially with others, so powerful is that it\'s a practice--whether we want to or not, the coach calls and we get in the water. Overcoming personal intertia is one of the great difficulties in life and in spirituality. No one has an easy practice, although we look at some people who make it look easy and wonder, \"Have they ever just wanted to say no?\"

Thanks for the provocations! (And I\'m still chewing over the question of pre-destination...)

Posted by: Andi on June 29, 2004 10:27 PM

Thought-provoking post. Btw, happened across this yesterday from First Things:

"Yet even the deepest personal encounter with God can never be commensurate with the gift of salvation itself. An evangelical reporter is said to have asked Karl Barth, when he was visiting this country in 1962, whether he had ever been saved. 'Yes,' Barth is rumored to have replied. 'Then tell us about your salvation experience,' the reporter eagerly requested. 'It happened in a.d. 34, when Jesus was crucified and God raised him from the dead.'"

Posted by: TSO on June 30, 2004 08:08 AM

I tell this story often, but it is said of a certain canonized Roman Catholic nun (I don't remember which one) that one day she said to another nun in her convent, "Come, Sister, it is time for prayers."

The other sighed and said, "I don't feel like praying now."

She replied, "Ah, Sister, I have not felt like praying for years. Come, it is time for prayers."

Posted by: Tom on June 30, 2004 09:03 AM
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