“To Know and Be Known”
November 4, 2007
Here’s how it happens. You are just doing what you always do. Maybe you are walking down the street, hurrying on your way to work. Maybe you are loading up the dishwasher after a rushed breakfast, getting your children off to school. Maybe you are walking into a room where it has been your custom to show up for many, many years… a member of the board, the church, the local chapter of the AARP, dependable. Maybe you are hurrying out of the house, because you can’t stand it in there one more minute. Maybe you are walking into a bar, one where everybody knows your name, or no one knows it, no one at all. You are just doing what you do, without much thought, without much reflection, without a plan beyond the next 5 minutes or so.
Here’s the thing. You don’t like your life. You are not happy at the way things have turned out. The status quo is killing you. The work is killing you. The expectations of the people you love are killing you; the constant, nagging sense of disappointment is killing you. The opinions of your so-called friends and neighbors are killing you. You are surrounded by beautiful but ultimately untouchable and inanimate things, things you thought would define you and give you meaning and impact but which, in the end, only fill you with sadness. You can’t conceive how you managed to find yourself painted into this exquisite corner, but here you are. And you don’t like it. Some days you hate it, and even the love of your nearest and dearest has to hack its way through a dense and elaborate thicket in order to penetrate your rapidly hardening heart.
Let’s talk about your heart. Once upon a time, a long time ago, it was a living, beating thing… a soft animal, open, vulnerable, inquisitive, ready for what life had to offer you, ready for the next adventure. But something happened to your heart. Maybe it grew too accustomed to the ticking of the clock, and it began to think of itself as just another timepiece, a place to punch in and out of your many obligations, your many situations. Maybe it was ignored, and it got used to its solitary existence, peering out from between leaves of gold and rust, at a remove from the world. Maybe it was badly in need of protection after becoming scarred, bruised, or broken, and so you built a beautiful and strong fortress for it, to keep it safe, never to be hurt again, never to be touched again. But left alone to tick, or left alone to brood, or even left alone to heal, your heart took on an unexpected outer crust, a layer of thorns, briars, a dense forest of protection. That is the heart you carry around inside you. Hidden, seldom seen, seldom heard from. That is what beats inside you, as you move through your days.
So there you are, just doing what you always do, carrying around this heart, showing up here or there, or running away from this place or that person. And then, in an instant, you meet someone while you are hurrying down that street. Someone you’ve never seen before, some person with whom there is really no reason for you to interact, no reason that you know of, anyway. Maybe the name is familiar; maybe not. But there he is, this new person, and he’s looking at you. There he is, his eyes penetrating, even though you tried to glance away when you saw his glance coming. There he is, seeing you, even though you had tried to blend into the landscape, back into the cupboard, melt into the crowd, scramble up a tree. There he is. And there is no escaping it: the encounter.
What would you say about the encounter? Would you say that it’s like a sudden gust of icy wind that clears away an accumulated pile of sodden leaves? Would you say that it’s like the unexpected sensation of a patch of ice under your foot, simultaneously thrilling and terrifying? Would you say that it’s like the sharp scent of something new in the air? A new season? A new location, like getting off a plane into the unfamiliar sensations of a foreign land?
There he is, looking at you, and the icy wind is rushing through you and your foot is slipping and your mind is trying feverishly to place the face, the scent, the sensation. And he speaks. And he says the most absurd thing to you. He says, “Magdalene. Hurry up. Come here. Come down out of that tree, come out from behind that cabinet, come away from that dessert table, come away from that crowd. I need to come to your house today.”
And in the aftermath of the wind and the ice and the sensation, there is suddenly a great and potent silence. And you can hear your heart thudding, for the first time in a long, long time. You can hear your heart, as if it were once again a part of you, a living animal with its ears pricked up, listening. You can hear it in the silence, and feel it trying to explode from your chest with the most unfamiliar of all sensations: joy.
It’s joy. This person has looked at you, and, by God, he’s seen you. He’s seen you, and, in the name of everything that’s holy, he knows you. How is this possible? He knows you. He knows it all. He knows the crushing disappointments and the broken, fractured, fragmented heart. He knows the disappointing relationships, the rift with the children, the co-worker you can’t stand. He knows about the work that no longer excites you, and he knows about the dreams you’ve squashed in order to keep getting up morning after morning, in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. He knows. He knows. And for you to understand that, to know that you are known, brings a rush of relief and joy so unexpected, so piercing, it makes you dizzy. It brings tears to your eyes. It makes you stagger, just a bit, to find your footing. It makes you laugh out loud.
He wants to come to your house. He wants to come to your house. And so you scramble down out of the sycamore, you brush the leaves and twigs off your tweed jacket and pick the bark out of your stockings and your hair. You are still laughing. You are laughing at the absurdity of it. You are laughing at the shriveled lettuce and the marginal cheese and the partial six-pack of beer you know you will find in the refrigerator, because you know that lettuce and cheese and beer are his favorite foods! You simply know this. You are laughing because the last time you had anyone over to your house you cleaned for 3 hours, and you still ended up throwing things into a closet at the last minute, and the whole experience nearly put you in a neck-brace as you tried and tried to affect casual, carefree hospitality. And you are about to welcome this stranger… this penetrating, knowing stranger… you’re about to welcome him into your house and you’re happy to do it, you are thrilled. Because he already knows you. He knows you and he still wants to come. He knows you and it is evidently your lettuce and cheese and beer he wants to eat and drink. He knows you, and he wants nothing more than to be at home with you.
And you are laughing because now you see the looks on the neighbors faces, their… puzzlement, their attempts at politeness, while you know they are hissing under their breath, “Look. Look at that. Look at who he’s going with. Is he kidding?” And you know that, last month or last week or even ten minutes ago, you would have twisted your hands together with anxiety over their stares, over their disapproval. You know that you would have clenched your fists in anger over the hissing and the rudeness. But now, your hands are strangely… open.
Your hands are open. They are open and they are light. You feel that you never want to clench them together, that you never want to twist them together like that again. They are open. And they are inclined, not to hang on, but to let go. As you walk toward your house… your house, so filled with beautiful, disappointing things… you think of letting go. Just, letting go. You think of letting go, and it occurs to you: it’s easy. It’s easy, because now, everything has changed. You have been seen. You have been known. That icy wind has blown through you, and it’s shaken the crust off your heart. Your heart is beating, and you are wide awake and wondering. You turn to him, and you say, “My hands are open now. What can I give? Who needs something?” And he laughs, and you laugh together. And he says, “Oh, it is a day of joy in your house. Truly, you are a beloved child of God.”
And you walk along to your house, discussing the particulars… of what you can give with your newly open hands. The newly open hands of a beloved child of God. And when you arrive at your house… what do you know? There are the friends and neighbors, the loved ones. And suddenly you forget. You forget the disappointments and the pettiness. You forget the crushed hopes and the squashed dreams. You forget it all, because today there is a radiance abroad, in all these people, and it occurs to you: They too are beloved children of God! And now the laughter starts again, and it is hard to contain it. A feast has somehow arrived and been served. A banquet has somehow been provided, and here you were thinking you were the host. But you’re not the host. You’re the guest. All you need to do is to receive it, into your newly open hands and heart. And everywhere you hear the laughter that is pure joy And you think, yes. This is it. Beloved child of God, this is it. What joy: know and be known. Thanks be to God. Amen.