My soul is content,
as with marrow and fatness,
and my mouth praises you
with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you
in the night watches.
For you have been my helper,
and under the shadow of your wings
I rejoice. -- from Psalm 63 (RSV)
Some of you know about Cody, my charming but cantankerous geriatric dog.
One of Cody’s less charming, more cantankerous habits is pouncing on me in the early hours of the morning – sometimes 2:00, sometimes 3:00 – and insisting that I let him out…where he spends about 30 seconds doing what he needs to do, and then five or ten more minutes staring into the dark, communing with the spirits of the night, until I’m forced to go outside, grab his lead and reel him in, like a recalcitrant fish who's taken nonviolent resistance lessons.
Needless to say, it is sometimes hard to get back to sleep after these moonlit melodramas. So I spend a significant amount of time lying in bed, thinking.
Sometimes I’m thinking non-nurturing thoughts about my dog. Sometimes I do virtual landscaping; perhaps those of you who like to garden can relate. Seed and nursery catalogs get me geeked on virtual landscaping – rose gardens, fruit orchards, perennial beds – you can get pretty wound up lying there debating whether or not to train your imaginary Delft blue clematis up through your imaginary white climbing rosebush or let it ramble along your imaginary decorative split-rail fence.
Sometimes I indulge fantasies of what I would do if I had a limitless, vaguely defined source of money at my disposal that would allow me to live anywhere and do anything. (One early-morning fantasy involved a sort of spiritual bed-and-breakfast up at my favorite northern Michigan lake. Unfortunately, running a B&B requires…well…household skills. Dang.)
Sometimes I spin little soap-operatic vignettes about meeting a Special Someone in one of the about three – well, probably make that two – brick-and-mortar venues in my life where such a thing would even have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever actually happening:
“Oh, I’m sorry – you were going to take this Swiss chard.”
“No – you can have it. Really. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And certified organic.”
“It’s one of my favorite leafy greens.”
“Me too. I love to saute it in olive oil with some garlic, and then toss it with pasta.
“Me too. [eye lock; pregnant pause] Do you shop here a lot?”
(Okay; I’m never going to be head writer for The Young and the Restless. And what do you expect at 2:30 a.m. anyway -- Dr. Zhivago?)
But lately I've gotten back into the habit of using this quiet time, in the dark, to pray. On one hand I can feel somewhat guilty for relegating my most focused attention to God to this brief, expedient time -- what would a friend say if I rang them up at 3:00 in the morning and said, "Well, I was up anyway and didn't have anything better to do, so I thought I'd give you a call"? On the other hand -- what better time to talk to God than in the watches of the night? Monks know this.
Not fixed prayer; once it's lights out at my house, I can't bear to turn them back on before morning, and except for Compline I don't have the liturgy down by heart. No; this is my time for just talking, and just listening, to God. It's when I do the lion's share of my intercessory prayer; it's when I can best focus on each person or situation and lift them to God. And even when I'm angriest at or most estranged from or most confused by God, it's when God is most present to me, except perhaps for the Eucharist. And, ironically, there in the dark, there's nowhere to hide. No way to hide. No personas. No excuses.
What does hanging out with God in the wee hours feel like? Every once in awhile it's not so wonderful. I remember, one early morning, feeling God's displeasure. I had been flippantly unkind to someone earlier in the day but had forgotten about it until that moment; suddenly I was overwhelmed by a sense of disappointment that seemed to come from outside myself, and I became aware -- really aware -- of how that one rash comment had hurt the other person; I felt it, like a knife stab. There have been times when I've experienced what felt like God's absence; it's frightening, and it upsets me -- Where are you? -- but it doesn't last. Most often I perceive God as a quiet but very imminent presence; oftentimes almost droll, ironic; but still holy, still Other, still Someone whose claim on me fills me with a mixture of awe and humility. Who am I to have a conversation with God -- God -- in my room? Who am I to lie here offering God my endless lists of requests, and my kvetchings, and my sleepy, half-coherent Deep Thoughts?
But that's The Story, isn't it? A God who loves us not in an abstract, distant way but in an intimate way; not only in a collective way but in a personal way. A God who wants us, and who helps us to want God. This is the Law and the Prophets and the Gospel.
I told you, once upon a time on this blog, that my dog was my spiritual director. I was joking then. But...maybe the joke is on me.