All the Life We Cannot See (and All the Death We Should Be Doing)

Recently my four-year-old son has become obsessed with all things Hamilton: the musical, the person, […]

Recently my four-year-old son has become obsessed with all things Hamilton: the musical, the person, the coffee table book I bought my husband and repurposed as a spontaneous gift for my boy, who flips through it daily and asks me to sing him the songs. He’s turned his older brother onto the soundtrack, which means we’ve switched from “Hakuna Matata” to “My Shot” and “Blow Us All Away.” (This is a win.) You should know that you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a preschooler rap as Hercules Mulligan or a seven-year-old pretend to be King George III, and if anyone corrects their lyric alteration from “oceans rise, vampires fall,” they will be answering to a very angry mother.

This morning on the way to school, just after the vampires fell and (spoiler alert) Philip died, I blasted one of my personal favorites, “One Last Time.” I’ve always enjoyed the tune, but the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate it as a metaphor for grace (funny how that happens). The melody begins with some foreboding piano chords before shifting into a hopeful sound with a breezy beat. Hamilton shows up, ready to “do” for Washington: “What do you need sir?”; “I’ll make Jefferson pay for his behavior;” “you’ll see what I can do to him.” Then Washington reveals the true reason for their meeting: he wants Hamilton to relax and have a drink with him. The song transforms.

I will never stop being shocked by the appeal of “doing” when it comes to both the spiritual and secular world–or my propensity to fall into its trap. I know we’ve all got something to prove, but the place where we should find rest and be able to cast our deadly doing down–the church–is often where we are issued the heftiest of marching orders, “life applications,” and instructions on how to best live for Christ. 

I’ll tell you how to best live for Christ: die.

(This is, by the way, the answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” and an excellent conversation ender.)

Upon recommendation from someone around here, I’ve recently taken up meditation in the form of the corpse pose, or savasana. For ten minutes every day (or at least those I can get away from the kids), I lie on my bed, palms up and eyes closed, and consider emptying my mind. That’s what meditation is, right? Sending those pesky thoughts on their way in search of clarity? Becoming one with what matters by welcoming clearheadedness? 

Well, I’ll tell you what my version of meditation looks like: about nine minutes of excessive mental hand-wringing followed by one minute of something approaching calm. I sort through my to-do list while berating myself for not being more Zen. I debate over whether to make or order my kids’ birthday cakes. I target the muscles I haven’t relaxed yet (they are many). Then, towards the end of all this flailing, I let go and engage with the vision I’ve been given lately during these sessions: that of being held as though by a gossamer net while the worries of my day fall through my unclenched hands to be caught by unseen ones. I am lifted from my concerns and fears into a plane of grace that reminds me of how little control I have, and in this moment I am brought ever closer to the face of God.

Weird, I know. It’s definitely not for everyone, but in a strange way it’s working for me, perhaps because of the weirdness, which is really just another word for “new to me” or “unexplainable to others.” This mystic, invisible stuff may be more common in yoga studios than churches, but I really dig it: not least because people much greater than I have gone before me to attest to its power. Julian of Norwich was a contemplative in the Middle Ages who, when she was thirty, prayed for and received visions from God that were so powerful she took to her bed and thought she was dying. 

Spoiler alert: she was not. But in this form of “dying,” she endured intense images of Christ’s suffering, love, and forgiveness that she went on to write about. I doubt Julian ever broke it down into corpse pose, but in bringing nothing to the table (or bed, as it were) save her own request for more of God, she was rewarded with a heart and mind full of him. And one thing I cannot get away from when reading her writings is how little we have to “do” when it comes to seeing God; if anything, we lie there dying while he opens our eyes to all that is unseen. Our coming to life is at his behest; we need only pay attention.

And this, to me, is what meditation is: not emptying our minds, but paying attention. Julian wrote:

Prayer is a true understanding of that fullness of joy which is to come, with sure trust and great longing for it…and thanksgiving is also part of prayer. Thanksgiving is a new inward awareness…

Attention must be paid.

This awareness–and all that naturally flows from it, rather than being instructed out of us by four-point sermons–is the ultimate “being” rather than “doing;” specifically, being held, which sounds a lot like beholding. This is the stripping away of what doesn’t matter that uncovers what actually does–meditation not as emptying our minds of everything, but filling them with meaning. Michelangelo’s chiseling away of the marble to reveal the angel only he saw within it; or Ben Folds’ assessment, as he writes in his memoir about the artist’s voice: 

I think it has to be about subtraction. It’s not a matter of cooking up a persona or style so much as it is stripping away what’s covering up the essence, what was already there.

Folds also writes–in a way that makes me hopeful about my own parenting–about his mother’s belief in him as a form of seeing what wasn’t there to everyone else. After a psychologist diagnosed the music-obsessed kid as developmentally challenged and recommended holding him back in school, Folds’ mother recognized his creativity as a gift:

She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination.

When we know, like Folds, that we are seen like this–our quirks and flaws superseded by our purpose, all of it wrapped in love–we are truly free: free to screw up, fail, fall, repent, obey, and love in return. This is the “I once was blind, but now I see” that constitutes amazing grace: hands empty and eyes open to receive what we could never attain or even see ourselves, so that we can relax, have a drink, and watch the song transform.


2 responses to “All the Life We Cannot See (and All the Death We Should Be Doing)”

  1. Luke says:

    I will say that song, along with a few others from the soundtrack, has always hit me right in the tear ducts. The grace aspect was not lost on me. Only because this great site has helped me learn how to catch it. This musical really is one of the great art works of our time. I always enjoy (yet another) good write up about some aspect of it. And it had been a year or more since I’d seen that video. So thanks for that.

    And while I can’t say I’m in any conversations in which the WWJD bracelet gets utilized anymore, the next time it does, I’ll definitely be responding “Die.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.