As someone who craves the luxury of time and space that can only be found in solitude, I find it incredibly exhausting when I’ve been “on” for long periods of time in my rather gregarious and relational life. As I like to put it, “I need time to think with my own brain.” It was one of those times when my whole day had been filled with people, busy schedules, meetings, students, family…and I admit, I was lingering in the quiet of my upstairs bathroom longer than usual, and far longer than my (then preschool) daughter cared for. Suddenly, she burst through the bathroom door, excited to tell me something amazing that she had just encountered. My first response was to draw the line, “Honey…wait outside. I need my privacy.”
Her big eyes looked up at me, puzzled and confused. “But Mom” she said, “I am your privacy!”
We’ve laughed about that story for years as one of our classic mother-daughter moments. But, I think about it a lot, actually. The child, still not totally differentiated from her nurturing parent, cannot fathom that there could be any possible need or desire for separation or even what that would look like: I am you, and you are me. Eventually, I am me and you are you, and we relate to each other as individuals. It’s a very (admittedly Western) well-established pattern in developmental psychology. Individuation is a classic lesson we each learn as we mature, develop and find ourselves becoming the objects and agents of our own lives instead of a fused part of our caregiving system. Eventually, when it all goes well, we learn how to reconnect deeply with others without having to be fused. That requires trust, vulnerability, and the hard work of relationship building. But, it is a goal most of us strive to attain.
But, on this first morning of Lent, that story came to my mind and made me reflect differently on the lesson within, and to ponder a bit more over this idea of proximity around which I am reflecting and writing during this holy season.
I wondered: when was I that small child in my relationship with God?
At some point, psychologically and perhaps theologically, I didn’t have to contend with the socially promulgated idea of a distant and separate God way out there, with whom I was somehow trying to figure out how to be in relationship. That social message came much later, filled with our human traps of judgment, rules, and obedience to authority. But, I hold out the possibility that in the depth of my own creation and development, there was and is a depth of unity with the divine in which I came to know that I am so fully known and so fully loved that the idea of “privacy” is, actually, ridiculous.
Later, when my spiritual and intellectual development formed as it does for all of us, I realized I was an independent human being full of agency and free will. I could differentiate. I could understand what this “privacy” thing meant, and seek it out, and crave it. I could use it as a shield, hide behind it, keeping at arm’s length whatever it was that I didn’t want others to see, or what I didn’t want to see myself. I could say: You can come this close. But not here.
It occurs to me today, that God’s desire for God’s people…and very specifically, God’s desire for me…is to build comfort with that deep proximity to divine love and grace. It is that return that God seeks, even when we have spent a long time developing ourselves as the individuals that we are capable of being. Proximity involves the intentional, deep giving up of my own privacy, the unlatching of the boxes of stuff in which I pack what I don’t like into, the laying bare of who I am with transparency. It’s terrifying, and liberating.
How can I be proximal with anyone else, if I cannot be proximal with God, in whose image I am formed and so wonderfully made?
So, on this Ash Wednesday I draw near to God and in so doing, I must necessarily draw near to myself and unpack some of what I have stashed away in the safe-keeping of my thoughts, my fears, my anger, my hurt, my humanness. All that stuff I like to hide behind…it’s time to drag it out. I feel reluctant, but there is also an urgency. I want to set it on fire, to have it burn away and disappear like wafts of smoke drifting off in the wind. It becomes like ashes, a reminder of all that separation and individuality that we so desire. Until, that is, we catch a glimpse of just how powerful the oneness of divine love and grace can be. This is the urgency to return.
Back to that story of my daughter: I remember giving her a hug and telling her: I love you. I didn’t care nearly as much about my privacy as I did about her.
Love is the receiving end of our return to proximity.
Holy One, you are my privacy. In proximity, I return to you.
For meditation and reflection: Psalm 139:1-18
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.