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!
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 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