Sunday, August 5, 2012

Heaven on Earth

Last night I entered the Reign of God or, more accurately, the Reign of God entered me.

I went to the party expecting good food, good company, and good music. I left the party having partaken in all of those things.  I also left with an enormous sense of well-being, a sense that God had given me a peek at what Heaven must be.

At the moment of my revelation, Thomas Merton's epiphany at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville came to mind:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers...  It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race ... there is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes.  If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all of the time.  There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed... 

-Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

My own moment occurred after we had shared a meal, a meal provided by both party hosts and guests, comprised of an assortment of splendid tastes, with many dishes featuring home-grown flavors.  We sat together in chairs gathered from the homes of those present.  Children were running and playing happily.  Adults were chatting contentedly.

And then the music began.

Many of the people who were at the party are musicians.  Before the meal, there had been some musical play.  After dinner, the music-making resumed.  Though I am a singer, I am shy when it comes to singing with people I don't know.  The insecurities kick in.   It took time and the urging of my sister before I tentatively joined the circle of musicians to add first the rhythm of the claves and then the harmony of my voice.  At first I cautiously and quietly hummed, oohed and aahed through a few songs, gaining more confidence as I did so. Finally, we sang a few songs that I know well and my reserve melted away.

Often when I sing, my eyes close, so that I am immersed in the music and only the music, not distracted by whatever sights might take away my attention.  As we sang "Guantanamera" my ears took in the other voices, the guitars, the percussion, and my voice freed itself from inhibitions.  The music was all that existed.

Eventually, I opened my eyes and that's when it happened.

I looked around and saw children of different ages and different races, free in the way children know how to be, running, laughing, playing between the playground and where the adults were gathered.  We adults had arranged ourselves in several groups, some eating, some monitoring the kids, some playing music.  Somehow we'd all ended up in this moment together, even if the country, state, or city we originally came from was far from where we were now. In the way that life moves us from place to place, even in this small setting, groupings of people were dynamic: someone would stop playing music to eat or talk for a few minutes; someone else would add a sound to a song and then move on, someone would move to check on the children or try out a hula hoop with them.  There were pauses between songs, but even when the music stopped, the scene was one of pure harmony.  

"This is what Thomas Merton must have felt."  Though it was a cloudy day, the sun shone through each person assembled there. "This is the Reign of God."

Kathleen Norris wrote about her notion of Heaven in Amazing Grace. A Benedictine sister had recounted to Norris a story of when her mother was dying.  The sister, in an effort to comfort her as she was dying, told her mother that she would see everyone she loved in heaven.  Her mother had countered with, "No, in heaven, I will love everyone who's there." Like Merton saw in a moment on a street corner, like the mother knew she would see in heaven, I saw in a moment at a birthday party the "secret beauty of their hearts ... the person that each one is in God's eyes."

Norris went on to describe a dream she'd had where a group was gathered around a banquet table so long she couldn't see the end of it.  She says about her dream, "Not much happened, as I recall.  But I woke with a sense of wonder at the grace of it all."  When I opened my eyes to look around me, not much was happening, but I felt that same sense of wonder at the grace of it all.

It was perfection.  It was not that any of us was less fallible than before; we'll continue fumbling and stumbling through our lives.  It was simply a gathering of love, of mutual appreciation, of mutual care, of a desire to be together in a way that somehow perfected us all for a moment and showed us, or at least me, what the world could look like in its best manifestation.

I thank God for moments of grace, for glimpses of the Reign of God, for slices of Heaven on earth. 

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