Friday, March 21, 2008

"What happened here was a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge it": Awareness (part 3)

(*SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen Pulp Fiction, I'm about to give away story elements. You've been warned.)

There is a great scene in the movie Pulp Fiction in which two hit men named Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are in the apartment of some young men who have recently stolen from their boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Jackson has just given his famous pre-kill monologue ("...and I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance...") and the two have violently disposed of the young men. What the hit men don't know is that there is someone else hiding in the bathroom with a .357 Magnum (a really big pistol). Terrified and confused, the hidden young man bursts out of his hiding place and into the living room with his gun blazing toward Jules and Vincent. He fires at the hit men until his gun is empty. The two gunmen, still standing and apparently unscathed, quickly examine their own bodies to make sure that they weren't hit, look back to the man holding the empty gun, raise their own pistols, and fire with significantly greater accuracy than their would-be assassin, killing him instantly. Now, Jules and Vincent are left to reflect on their recent brush with death. The following dialogue is what transpires next (I've cleaned up the language. This is a family-friendly blog. Also, this is transcribed from Quentin Taratino's script, not the final cut of the film):

Jules: "Did you see that gun he fired at us? We should be dead right now."
Vincent: "Yeah, we were lucky."
Jules: "That wasn't luck. That was somethn' else."
Vincent: "Yeah, maybe."
Jules: (examining the holes in the wall where the bullets landed) "This was divine intervention. You know what divine intervention is?"
Vincent: "Yeah, I think so. That means God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets."
Jules: "Yeah, man, that's what it means. That's exactly what it means! God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets."
Vincent: "I think we should go now."
Jules: "Don't do that! Don't blow this off! What just happened was a miracle!"
Vincent: "Chill out, Jules, this [stuff] happens."
Jules: "Wrong! Wrong. This [stuff] doesn't just happen."
Vincent: "Do you wanna continue this theological discussion in the car, or at the jailhouse with the cops?"
Jules: "We should be dead now, my friend! We just witnessed a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge it!"
Vincent: "Okay man, it was a miracle, can we leave now?"

You might laugh at me for this, but I think this is one of the most profoundly theological scenes in recent cinema. We have two men who experience exactly the same event, yet they have two very different interpretations of it. Jules has an openness and an awareness that Vincent lacks. In fact, if you choose to watch the whole film (which, I should warn you, is not for the faint of heart), you will see that this moment marks the diverging of paths for the two friends. They entered the apartment as two men on the same path, yet they leave differently.

I wonder how often we miss moments because we see the world more as Vincent than as Jules. Obviously, our moments are not as dramatic and violent as someone firing a .357 Magnum in our general direction, but we do have moments, nonetheless. Are we failing to see the divine in the midst of the daily? In his book, The Sabbath,the great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel explores the notion of awareness and our ability to blind ourselves to the activity of God in the midst of our most common of moments:

"What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time"(page 6).

In other words, when something has a profound impact on our awareness of God's activity, we don't remember the details for the sake of details, but they are burned in our memory because of the implicit significance beneath the surface of the moment itself. We remember a moment because of what it does to our soul and not because of the concrete details. He's saying that we can choose which lens through which we will view the world: we can see things as Vincent and grow dull to the reality of the moment, or we can be like Jules and embrace moments of insight. We learn later in the film that this moment will forever change Jules' life. This is not because someone fired a gun at him (we should probably assume that this has happened before), but because he, in the words of the character himself, "felt the touch of God." Jules' life will never be the same because his eyes are wide open to the activity of the divine in the daily (a paraphrase of another line in the film). Heschel says that this type of awareness and openness is a crucial element to a deeply spiritual life.

This awareness and insight begins with how we view God himself. In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, historian Thomas Cahill writes this:

"If one believes in a God who heals, then healing in itself—whether of the quotidian kind or of an uncommon and spectacular sort—will hardly seem inconceivable or out of reach. If one cannot conceive of such a God—of an ultimate Goodness at the heart of the universe—miracles are, both intellectually and emotionally, off limits" (page 213).

To put it another way, we could quote artist and writer John LaFarge: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, no explanation is possible."

My experience tells me that I will find whatever I'm looking for. If I choose to see the world through the eyes of Vincent, I will grow more and more cynical and unaware and dull to the greater realities that exist all around me. If I choose to to look through the lenses of Jules, I will see the beauty and the wonder and the art that exists in all things. I will see the activity of God in the midst of the ordinary.

I should say that I don't find this to be easy at all. I think it's much easier to be closed than to be open. It's much easier to be cynical than hopeful. There are several reasons for this, but I think one major reason is this: When I begin to see the work of God around me, I am faced with a frightening choice: "Will I choose to participate in what God is already doing in the world? Will my awareness cause me to live differently than I do right now?"

I would argue that awareness comes with new questions and challenges. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jesus told us that the way is narrow.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Awareness (part 2)

Several years ago, I was sitting around watching TV with my good friend Chris when his wife, Michelle, called. She was out of town visiting her parents.
"Chris," she said. "I need you to pick up my sister at the airport. She was connecting at DFW from South Bend, and her connecting flight was cancelled because of the weather. She's sitting at the airport right now. She's really frustrated and upset. Can you go get her?"
Of course, Chris is an excellent husband and brother-in-law, so we paused whatever it was that we were watching (I believe it may have been older episodes of The West Wing; none of that newer crap), got into his car and began making our way to pick up Michelle's sister Natalie (who, by the way, today is a nun in Tennessee. So, now anyone can legitimately call her "Sister Natalie"). I know Michelle didn't specifically ask me to go with Chris to the airport, but I just assumed that it was implied. I'm good for morale.
It was a late and rainy night in the metroplex and we were driving all the way from Burleson to the airport (about a 20 minute drive with no traffic). About halfway into our journey, we found ourselves behind someone who was driving erratically. He was speeding up, slowing down, and veering into multiple lanes. The two of us, having watched plenty of television in our lives to enable us to think as a law enforcement professional might, determined that this person was clearly drunk and driving (which we both hate). So, we became a perfectly equipped crime-fighting duo. We decided to follow the guy and call the police and alert them of this public safety issue. He was driving, so I dialed 911.
"Fort Worth Police. What's your emergency?" said the operator.
"I'd like to report a drunk driver who's currently on the road," I said with as much authority as I could muster.
"Where are you?"
I gave her the mile marker number and the direction that we were going. I also gave her the license number and model of the car in front of us.
"Okay," she said. "You're going to be out of Fort Worth soon, so I'm going to transfer you to the Hurst police."
She did. I had to give the new operator all of the same information. Chris was still on his tail. Because of the construction of the suburbs and city limits, we ended up being switched two more times to different departments: Bedford and then Irving.
Eventually, the operator concluded that they had enough information and that the Irving police would pick him up. Well of course, we had to see that. So, we continued to follow the perp.
At some point, he figured out that we were following him, because he slowed to a crawl and then instantly accelerated to about 90 miles an hour. Chris drove as fast as he could to try and keep up and was doing very well until we both simultaneously had a realization: Natalie was sitting at the airport.
This epiphany brought our pursuit to an abrupt halt and u-turn (thank God for Texas highways). In the midst of our playing some adult version of Cops and Robbers, we had gone well beyond the airport exit. By the time we actually found Natalie, it had been almost an hour since Michelle had called. Thankfully, she was very gracious and understanding (all the makings of a great future nun). She even laughed when we told her the story of our brief career in free-lance law enforcement.
Here's why I tell this story. When we left Chris' house, we had no intention of doing anything besides picking up Natalie and taking her back to the house. However, we were easily distracted and completely forgot why we were out on the road in the first place. I wonder how often we set out to do something yet become completely consumed with something else. I wonder how often God sets us on a path to do something and our distraction takes us miles away from God's intended purpose. Then, we complain that God didn't help us enough.
This goes along with my last post about awareness and allow God to "surprise me" in all kinds of ways. But I wonder how often God is waving his arms in one place and my mind is elsewhere. If that's the case, what am I so consumed with? It's probably nothing as noble as ridding the road of dangerous drivers. I would say that it has a lot to do with simple self-involvement. Many theologians and rabbis would say that narcissism and self-involvement are the biggest hindrance to an awareness of what God has to say to us. In his book God Was In This Place, And I Did Not Know, Lawrence Kushner says this:

“The great insight of religion is not that we can find God in everyday life; it is that finding God returns us to everyday life. Forgetting one’s self, making the self as nothing, gives us life beyond thinking and theology, beyond the incessant self-reflecting that renders us voyeurs of our own lives"(86).

The more able I am to lose my self, the more I will discover God and, paradoxically, the more like my true self I will actually become. Kushner is pointing out that so often we become so consumed with ourselves that we become spectators and commentators of our own lives rather than simply becoming aware of the source of who we are in the first place and living with that level of awareness. He's basically telling us that, to use the analogy of Chris and me, the drunk driver is me, and all I want to do is follow myself around and think about myself and comment on myself and have other people tell me things about myself when there is something bigger that I was originally meant to be pursuing. Kushner goes on:

“Living in ‘the presence of God’ does not mean that we have lost self-awareness; we are just too busy being alive to bother reflecting on ourselves. We are so focused on living that we do not have any leftover awareness to remind us that we exist. We are not aware that we are doing anything, because all our consciousness—even the part reserved for self-reflection—is busy being alive. We are so fully present, unbounded, and un-self-aware that we are not even aware we are present” (101).

The goal is not be ignorant of ourselves or in some sort of denial of who we are and what is happening with us. The goal is simply to live with an awareness of something greater. The goal, as he puts it, is to be fully present and aware that God is never absent. We are, quite simply, meant to be too busy being alive in the presence of a God who was in this place, whether or not we are aware of such a thing.

I've probably said enough about that particular book. Next time, I'll move on to something else.