Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Psalm 50
When I was about 8, my father, a native of a small Cycladic island and obsessed with the sea, would take me to Jones Beach for swimming lessons. Looking at the wild waves of the Atlantic frothing in fury, I was overwhelmed by dread. In between the lull of one white cap surging and the other, Baba forced me to float, the first step in the swimming process. But I would double up, contort and squeeze my stomach tight, which acted like a deadweight, the complete opposite of what was required to float. I was terrified of drowning. The sensation of heavy water pushing me down to the depths of which I had no control. I struggled within myself to trust the directive of my father—to relax on the water, to open my body like an open palm. The more I focused on my body and my fears of sinking, the less I was able to ride the waves. It was only when I trusted in my Baba’s hand, a thick, muscular working man’s hand, to a buoy me up, underneath the waves; it was only when I let go of my need to control my body and became one with the sea that I was able to allow the ocean to take me where in wanted. I was only able to swim when I surrendered to the sea. Even as the rush of rushing waves returned to assault me again and again.
The Governor of New York has issued a warning that we must be ready for a tsunami. What we have lived up to now will only get worse in the next two weeks. Understandably, I have freaked out. The terror of death confounds me—tightening up every sinew into chicken wire. I have made sure my will is in order. I am scrambling to find a priest to take a virtual confession. Mindful of death in my middle age, now I walk around with the hour glass of sand trickling at its last quarter inch. I believe that every day will be my last. Like a chicken without a head, I shed the virus of fear to my family around me. “Calm down,” my daughter says, “You are driving me crazy! Stop freaking out!” “Maybe you should smoke some weed,” my brother says. “You are not really a Christian if you are so full of anxiety and not trust. Your religion goes out the window when you face a crisis,” my older daughter digs in. “You are a hypocrite.”
My normal mode of survival is “flight.” To escape my self-prophecied fate, I rented a small apartment in the upstate NY college town of Oneonta.
I spent the day listening to the life of Saint Mary of Egypt whose memory we commemorate today, the 6th Sunday of Lent, and scrubbing, sweeping, scouring with a potent brew of cocktails of chlorine, Windex, Great Value bathroom cleaner and other disinfectants. The drive through Delaware County was deliciously beautiful. Even though the spring has not ascended yet, the birch trees huddled in their fantastic fractal frenzy against a backdrop of blue sky; cumulative clouds hovering over rolling mountains casting moving shadows over swaths of pine and fir; red barns sentinel against chestnut lines scratching in fine lines the receding majesty of green. It was utterly beautiful, not a soul was on the highway. I spent the day in silence and solitude. These wide open spaces humble me allow me to remember that I am nothing, have little control in the grand scheme of things. This is where I kick myself. It doesn’t really matter that I have not accomplished this or that, that I have fallen short of my dreams and grand expectations for myself. Because in the end, it wasn’t much in my control anyway. My life has manifested in its own course, and I must accept it for what it is. The anxiety over life comes from our need or rather delusion that we can control it.
Funny, when I do a lot of housework ,my mind roams through the backcountry that normally I do not tread, just like the drive through the mountains.
As I scrubbed deep the surfaces of the visible life, eliminating the dirt and grime and this invisible mortal enemy, I was overcome by a bittersweet peace that comes with acceptance. It feels like I am waving goodbye to my life (even though I do not know if I will survive this plague). I am so grateful for it. I have lived a long rich life. I know many people will lose their lives today and every day after that. However frail the human condition is, we must accept it as it is. We must have the humility to accept that certain things are beyond your control. The younger you are, the more you think you can control the circumstances of your life. The older you get, the more you realize the limits of your control.
Mopping the old carpet, another thought fluttered through my mind related to the gravity of simplicity.
By paying attention to the simple act of cleaning the nooks and crannies of a grease-filled apartment, wiping away dust, bringing cleanliness to what was filthy—it is this simple act that brings meaning. Indeed, the act of cleaning and organizing relegated to women throughout the ages has become a heroic feat in this battle against the virus. What was once devalued and meaningless is elevated into the highest act of courage. The minimum-wage cleaning lady, or the harried unpaid housewife, is more important now than the 5-star decorated general or the high-powered lawyer. The simple acts the women who have slaved at for millennia, putting things away, ordering and organizing, making sure life is livable—how infinitely powerful and valuable. In the end it’s not what we do, but how we do it that really matters.
With the tsunami coming, the grim reality of hundreds of thousands of deaths eminent, I try to relinquish control. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and my sin, for my sin is ever before me. I am trying to come to peace with my soul and the God in it. They say that prayer is the conscious presence of God in the deep heart, not just words rattled off the lips. Prayer is a condition of the heart. I am praying for this prayerful condition, so I can acquire it before it is my time to go.
I have always tried to escape in my life, never satisfied with what I am doing and where I am standing at the moment. I have been searching and wandering for a utopia that does not exist. I am starting to understand that what I am searching for is not some physical place, but a spiritual space. I think God has given me the wisdom to realize that right here, right now there is beauty, there is light. Heaven and hell can reside on the same pinhead. I am struggling with my fear and anxiety, asking God, to have mercy on my soul, and if it is my time to die, to give me the peace to accept it. That is all we want really, peace, isn’t it?
Strange, but this is exactly what the circumstances have been pointing to. This PAUSE allows for the reflection to find our peace. I am going to be alone in this house in the mountains. Away from my family who has refused to follow me. (Sometimes it is our very families that we need to separate from to find our inner peace). I’m going to use this experience of being separated from my family, just my soul and God, to see if I could endure the solitude. In a way this is enforced monasticism.
When I first entered the dilapidated cabin, window screens punched in, storm door rusty not able to open but half way, I shook my head and said, “No I can’t do this. I can’t live all by myself without anyone. I am going to die all alone in the mountains.” And then I entered into the space; in the solitude and silence I could hear God’s whisper: “Use this time as an experiment.” I will pray more here, I will struggle to be in communion with God more. I can manage the loneliness because I can be at peace with God in my heart. That’s all I need God. St Mary of Egypt kept quarantine for 47 years in the desert. She became saintly because she focused her attention on the Holy.
I will use this time to get closer to God; I will learn slowly to trust in God, really trust, not just when things go right. I will have to struggle with the dead weights of my fears and anxieties. I will have to learn to let go and trust in God, the universe, so I can float along its Will.
This is what we all must do now: surrender to the coming wave, float on the surface of the sea with our Father’s hand underwater, even if it is a tsunami.