This morning, I had breakfast with a friend whose most important role in my life has been to show me the truth about myself. I'd been trying to explain to him, or perhaps to myself, why it seemed to me that I couldn't really maintain my spiritual life and live in the world at the same time. To illustrate my point, I mentioned Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil.
To grossly oversimplify for anyone who has neither read the book nor seen the movie, the main character is a woman married to a doctor, but having an affair with another man. Her husband is not enough for her; she has different values and aspirations. Her husband, after learning of the affair, takes her on a mission trip to a remote, disease-ridden part of China. It's intended as a kind of punishment, but becomes instead her redemption. She begins, ever so slowly, to open herself to the people, to find joy in service, to love those she would once have considered far below her station.
But could this sustain? I suggested not. My friend pointed out that in fiction, it did just that, but I persisted. Was that credible? Did he believe she'd have gone back to London and eschewed the society she once aspired to? Would we have found her playing the piano in an orphanage there?
He conceded that it did seem a bit contrived.
Well, there. That was exactly my point, and the problem with the world we live in today. There are too many distractions; life moves too fast. When life is stripped back to the basics, when we're in rural China in the days before modern medicine or sifting through the rubble in Manhattan, our cores emerge - we are closer to the people we were meant to be and happier being those people. But it does not sustain in everyday, modern, fast-paced, trivial times.
It was, I thought, an important revelation. It was clear in my mind what I needed, although not how to achieve it. Isolation, a different community--somehow to find a world more basic, where I could remember who I was meant to be. Wasn't that, really, what we all needed?
"It sounds to me," my friend said, "like you're saying that you would be better if only God would make it easier for you."
That wasn't, certainly, what I'd meant to say. I'd meant something very different, something about there being a world in which it was natural to be our best selves, and how we don't live in that world every day. Not, of course, that I'd believed it to be beyond our control: it seemed to me that we could always choose to opt out of the world we live in and choose the better one--the one we always hear isn't "realistic" in modern times.
What I hadn't believed was that it was possible to take that step without moving to the mountains or joining a convent or going to work with orphans in China. That it was possible to stay right where we are, to work at our same jobs and live in our same houses and maybe even fly to DisneyWorld and still make the simple choice to live in that better world where it's more natural to be our best selves. We are, after all, called to be "in" the world but not "of" it. And that must mean that we don't need a cleaner, more elemental place to let our better selves out.
That brought me almost full circle. Once again, I knew "what", but the "how" escaped me. The first half of this post sat for nearly a week while I alternately thought about how to end it and waited for inspiration. And then, yesterday, a strange thing happened. What looks like an answer came back to me in the most ironic form: My own words, written nearly two years ago and long forgotten.
For one of my other blogs, I sift through the search strings that bring people to all of my sites, and yesterday, I found this one: "list of things a Christian should do every day". Apparently, I'm the #4 result for that phrase, and it leads to a post called "The Essentials of Everyday Christian Life". Interestingly, despite that placement, I've never had a hit on that term or a closely related term before; I haven't seen or thought of this post since shortly after I wrote it.
So, in the end, I was reminded of several important things--not just the contents of this post, but the fact that on some level, we already know the answers. And, more importantly, that God is always willing to point us back to them when we lose our way, if only we're willing to listen.