Distant Skylines: On Sanctification Through Change

I last wrote about how “it doesn’t always get worse” and about how sometimes we develop life-giving running rhythms in the back half of a race. For a person going through significant life change, I suppose “developing” was the perfect topic for me, for I’ve spend the last three months on a whirl-wind roller coaster applying and getting accepted into a grad program at Yale Divinity School. (More on that in a bit.)

Last year I quit my job as an English teacher, and this entire year has been one of learning to be flexible, and of learning to try to new things. One of the new rhythms I recently experimented with was fasting from social media and Youtube for the 40 days of Lent. Now that I’m nearing the end of this season of withholding, here is what I found:

  • I found I had more head space. Science tells us that it takes 30 days to develop a habit, and by the time I hit that 30-day marker, I realized that my daily routines and my emotional awareness were slightly shifting. I find that the white noise of social media gives me an illusion of being busy and having stuff (and people) going on. Removing the illusion is highly illuminating. It allows the “peak” sounds of your own mind and your own experience to shine through with greater intensity. Three things I noticed during my fast were (1) a hint of a greater tolerance for solitude (in other words, a few times I fully entered into a healthy kind of being alone, when I was alone), (2) tiny moments of writing inspiration (a few times I drifted off to sleep and some lines I could put in a novel someday danced around my head), and (3) a full awareness of my emotional state (me, reaching for my phone: “Am I feeling boredom? Sadness? Loneliness? Or do I really, actually need to look up the trailer to the documentary Free Solo?)
  • Second, I missed being creative. While mindless consumption of social media has great consequences (mood shifts after engaging, anyone?), social media content creation is about being creative, after all, and I missed being able to post snarky jokes, pretty photos, and theological wonderings.

Being off social media also allowed me to be more intentional with my schedule. I actually planned ahead to rent Free Solo. (You know the documentary, right? The story of Alex Honnold scaling for the first time the half-mile-high rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in a free solo climb, that is, rock climbing with no ropes?!) At the end, I wept like a baby. There’s something about the scene where he’s clinging to a ledge, there’s all those bugs flying in his face, and he says something like, “Imagine going to the worst Pilates class possible, and them making you hold the pose until you vomit, and if you drop the pose you literally die.” The film holds its own sort of artistic solemnity because viewers know he’s risking his entire life for a three-hour dream.

On the summit, his face shows simple joy, a simple smile, and a smiling and quiet response: “So delighted.”

There’s something about miles and miles of running that connects me to him. It’s endurance sports. It’s the connection of being part of a community where your life rhythms just don’t make sense to “normal” folks. Once he had finished the climb of his lifetime, he was asked, “So what are you gonna do now?”

“I’m gonna go hangboard.” He went into his van that he lives in and hung by his fingers which were stuck into a board, for…. strength training.

When I get up on a Saturday and go run 11 miles, I get it now that it’s a small sacrifice to the miracle that is the human race. It’s only a small sacrifice to the virtue of determination and discipline.

Anyway, if you want to watch a documentary that inspires you to find your dreams and to be true to yourself and never stop, and that also makes you weep like a hurt sparrow, watch Free Solo.

(I know that sentence sounds like crap, and maybe it is) but guys, I got in to Yale Divinity School. I don’t really know how to explain how deeply the last four months have touched me, and how they have been an absolute roller coaster of hope and turmoil and chaos and fear. I found out in December that I had everything I need to apply, so I simply went for it.

Why Yale?

I’ve been looking for grad programs that pair theological study with literature programs, and YDS happens to have a Master of Arts in Religion that pairs those two interests. And currently, YDS has some amazing literary folk (think: Christian Wiman and Marilynne Robinson). I applied, and I waited agonizing weeks to find out if I was accepted.

I visited YDS in February.

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Not YDS. Just undergraduate dorms.

On one hand it was so inspiring to be around such hungry learners. The entire earth holds such wonder for them. I happened to sit in on a chapel service (which, I had been warned varies in a mind-blowing gamut of Christian expression, from Episcopal liturgy, to Unitarian Universalist water services, to a joint service with the Yale Forestry people, featuring tulip-planting in your bare feet), but this time a young man preached for 10 minutes, and another young man sang the most beautiful solo I’ve ever heard to water the earth (a nod to a Grammy-nominated Gospel artist who happens to live near New Haven). The sun was streaming into the white marble-floored Marquand chapel, and it was a moment of beauty that brought tears to my eyes.

On the surface, I received an incredible welcome to the Yale community. The students I met were genuinely interested in the research work I hope to do with Mennonite literature for the sake of Mennonite literary education, and I had several conversations about how my work relates to other students’ areas of expertise.

More personally, it was incredibly exciting to see such laser focus in these adults who were studying all day long. It made me want to come home (to Lancaster, or to wherever) and to never stop growing. I was inspired to constantly redeem the time, to be reading and studying, preparing (for something, I’m not sure what).

On March 15th, I received noticed that I was accepted.

And not only did I get accepted to Yale Divinity School, I’m also turning it down.

For this fall at least.

Like I said before, I don’t really know how to explain how deeply the last four months have touched me.

“I have called you my friends,” yes, but you’re still the internet. So. I suppose I’ll just leave it like this: theeeeee most cathartic read on the internet this week has been David Brooks’s “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy.” The by-line of Brooks’s article states, “Our individualistic culture inflames the ego and numbs the spirit. Failure teaches us who we are.” In the article, Brooks erects two mountains, where mountain #1 is our career in which we achieve success and “win the victories the ego enjoys.” The second mountain is one in which we climb when we are thrown into our greatest adversity, when we find ourselves “falling, not climbing,” when we are navigating tragedies that “[make] the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important.” Brooks describes the kind of people who experience moral renewal on the second mountain – people who are not broken by these experiences, but rather “broken open.”

He writes, “The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do. They realize how lucky they are. They are down in the valley, but their health is O.K.; they’re not financially destroyed; they’re about to be dragged on an adventure that will leave them transformed. They realize that while our educational system generally prepares us for climbing this or that mountain, your life is actually defined by how you make use of your moment of greatest adversity.”

If I’m wondering a bit aimlessly at the base of either of Brooks’s mountains, it is because I realize that grad school for me is part of my first mountain, and as a 29-year-old (cough cough, for only four more days), I realize I need some time to hangboard, and hangboard with people before I finish my first mountain, parts of which may very well be free solo. If we’re still speaking metaphorically, I’m actually doing training climbs on my second mountain instead, right now. I have some great coaches, and most of my training right now looks like uncomfortable ice baths and deep tissue massage, a little hangboarding, learning new rope techniques, and also scheduling time for the hot tub and sauna. It’s quite revitalizing, actually.)

If you ask me, I don’t know how long I’ll be on this second mountain. Because timelines in second mountain experiences are a bit subjective, like those in spirituality, and those in relationships. Second mountains do not always have the objectives timelines like those that first-mountain career experiences have, timelines like those in a two-year grad program.

While the second mountain is new, I’ve found that what I’m experiencing and what I’m living is distantly familiar…. Like a skyline you’ve seen before, but in which you’ve never lived, a skyline that is not the green hills of home, but another sort of artistic beauty, one that pulls you out of yourself, and requires change.

I complained to my friend recently that I don’t like these changes. They HURT. And they are HARD.

She softly responded, “Maybe this is part of your sanctification.”

And she is exactly right. Which is the only reason that this uncomfortable disappointment is bearable.

“So is it hard not having grad school plans for the fall, then?” you ask. I’ll spare you. “YES.” It is The Big Thing That Didn’t Happen.

For the moment, I’ve been drowning my sorrows with the artistic delights of spring, like lawn-flavored reading of Carolyn Weber’s Surprised by Oxford, most of which I consumed propped up by my elbows under a curiously gray sky. Or like my friend’s performance at her choir’s concert “The Unknown Regions,” which featured a cheerful selection of death songs (including Schuman’s Carols of Death, lyrically informed by Walt Whitman, Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude, and John Rutter’s Requiem).

Another delight was inaugurating my birthday week by playing privileged host to the dearest and oldest of friends, roommates from Bible school in days of yore. These wives and mothers and I galavanted all across Lancaster County this weekend, experiencing its best bits.

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Cafe One Eight, Longwood Garden, the sauna, Rachel’s Creperie, Main Street Exchange, Fashion Cents, Community Aid thrift shop, and the driving range for golf. Did we leave anything out?

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Ah, yes, at length we sipped the bowl of friendship.

I will close with these lines from John Updike’s Seven Stanzas for Easter because they point to the sort of reality I’m seeking. If it is second-mountain self-awareness that allows me to more fully outline the cross, then I consider these lines as fuel for these new treks.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of
beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

May your distant skylines bring you ever closer to the real, lived truth of the Gospel.

Wishing you a Happy Easter from Shasta’s Fog.