Subtle Sacraments

Subtle Sacraments

By Paul Swanson

Loved ones are speaking their minds courageously. Loved ones are tweeting mindlessly. We scroll on. The screen is the communal fire we sit around for friendship, storytelling, and imagining a way ahead. Screens offer us connection and possibility. This new Promethean fire does not warm us without consequences. This same glowing screen lulls us into self-forgetfulness and spiritual malnourishment. Americans average 10 hours a day locked in a staring contest with a screen. All bets are on the screen for the win.

For now I am not glancing downward at my phone, but inward. Where should I cast my gaze? Elders are few, leadership is lacking, and the greedy political dogs don't mind if you wag their tails. Don't tell anyone, but a mystic who forgot he was dead dropped me a note that read, "From now on brother, we all stand on our own feet."* I step out the front door to be mentored by a bird on a wire. We need sacraments of a new order, not to replace the load-bearing sacraments of the lineages that hold us, but to don the contemplative robes knitted by our very souls. Subtle sacraments are waiting to be let in.

Subtle sacraments surround us. They are conscious movements within daily life to crack a window so the Spirit can blow where it will. Sacraments, ceremony, and rituals are necessary bedrooms for the soul to have a dalliance with the Divine; to remember itself to the whole, to reclaim its unique post in the unfolding Mystery. We must learn to drink in Mystery by concocting our own subtle sacraments with the chalice of our lives to enlarge our connection. So let's hold one another's gaze, toast our gleanings, amuse our misfortunes, and celebrate our subtle sacraments together.
 

When I get up in the morning I putter around the kitchen. I make coffee for my wife and prepare breakfast for the kids while I open up a window so a subtle sacrament can slip in. I put on an album in hopes of reaching their thirsty ears, stretching their spirits, and calling forth a grace not yet recognized. Yo-Yo Ma. Michael Franti. Gillian Welch. Greg Brown. All of these folks serenade our table while I fry up eggs or pour the cereal. This is a classic sacrament for members of the Kitchen Music Society of Sorrow and Delight. This past month I've lucked out. Clem Snide has been pulling up a chair to our morning table and sharing a melodious invocation.

More than once I have put the spatula down and wept into my eggs. There is a cosmic truth that emerges on this album and it blesses our breakfast. I yearn for music like this. Music that connects me to our rooted oneness while remaining grounded in everyday incarnational realities. Goodness, Mystery, death, and discovery with a side of toast. The album Forever Just Beyond by Clem Snide resonates over the morning, echoing the truths I've read from the pages of masters; Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Zen Master Dōgen, and John O'Donohue. An audible eternality enters through the linear time machine of routine and plops down for chat just between us kitchen mystics. A subtle sacrament.

Music is best served fresh without wordy indulgences that fail to capture its essence. Forgive my indulgence. The opening track 'Roger Ebert' relays the story of film critic Roger Ebert's dying words (quoted in the header) and the thin space of his departure. Ebert's turn towards death opened a window of liminality, dethroning perceptions absurdly crowned and discovering a "vastness that can't be contained". As a listener 'Roger Ebert' is the first step into a threshold of that vastness, and you journey through it in each song that follows until Clem Snide drops you off at home with the parting words,

"After we stumble
We'll find a part
Our story told
Please go and tell your own

Try not to tumble
The path is dark
And sometimes steep
Too steep for anybody here
But us with no choice
But to trust"


I fret about the lives of my children and which enchanted forests will be charred before they get a chance to build a tree fort in their thickets. It is a steep path that requires trust. So I spill the beans of God's naked frolicking in our midst. I teach them songs in the rhythm of their beating hearts. We process the suffering planet. We paint pictures of unicorns drying their laundry by the sun. We laugh at jokes that have never been told. We wipe away remorseful tears that follow acid tongue remarks held in arms of forgiveness. We are kind to a chicken who pecks at our toes and whisper sweet nothings to our tomato plants. I read them poetry while my spirit weeps. I play them Clem Snide's Forever Just Beyond to seed a vastness they can't even imagine.

I want to teach them how to see beyond the virtual, to see the Christ-soaked world. I want them to feel life vibrating from the nuanced kisses of the Beloved. When subtlety is lost, so is the sacramentalization of this life.


A question for you, dear reader, to raise at your breakfast table  Where do you see a window you can open for a subtle sacrament to slip into your day?