I have a favorite coffee cup, and it was lost for six weeks. I’d taken it with me to retrieve something from the closet where we keep our luggage and carousels of old slides, and left it, with two sips of wine—it is also my favorite wine glass—on the shelf, while I carried out my self-appointed task of, what must have been, great urgency. I am sure that if it had been filled with wine, I would have never forgotten it, and this one of the lessons to be learned from this experience. Never retrieve something from somewhere in the house with less than a full cup of wine as a traveling companion.
The other lesson has to do with doing what you can to rectify a situation without doing more than you can. I conducted a number of interviews, carried out two or three full scale searches, and a number of light reconnaissance missions, and sat thinking about the possible whereabouts of the cup for a couple of minutes on several occasions. I knew it was my fault, even though it occurred to me to blame the grandchildren, or a daughter, or one of the sons-in-law, I knew I couldn’t make any of the charges stick. I remembered as much as getting up with the cup and its two sips of wine and considering my options: leave it behind, chug it, refrigerate it, or take it along. I remembered taking it along. And, that was as far as memory would serve.
Well, those things constituted as much as I could do. Beyond them, I would not go, trying to do more than I could do, tearing up each room of the house, say, in the style of those mobster or FBI searches in the movies (Amazing, isn’t it, how the good guys and the bad guys are indistinguishable in the way they go about looking for something? Makes you wonder what one knows that the other doesn’t), or putting all family members on the rack or the water-board (Another amazing similarity between the good guys and the bad guys. What IS it that makes us think WE are good and THEY are bad? Particularly, when they are thinking the same things in reverse. You would think there would, at least, be agreement among the good guys and the bad guys about who was who). At any rate, I didn’t try to do more than was legitimately mine to do. After I did that much, I simply waited, trusting that I would live long enough to see the mystery solved.
My wife found the cup in the closet, with its sticky residue of evaporated wine, when she was bringing out Christmas gear to decorate for the season. I rejoiced and was glad. During the searching operation of the campaign, I looked carefully in places I don’t normally go, like the basement, but the luggage-slides-Christmas closet didn’t make the list. I don’t go there often enough to think of it as a place I don’t normally go. But, I did look on top of the hutch that holds the phone. I thought it was clever of me to think of that even though it wasn’t there. It was in the closet the whole time, it’s contents drying up, waiting to be found—as helpless as I was to hurry up the time.
There are no short-cuts, it seems. We can only wait it out. Making the necessary adjustments, accommodating ourselves to our less than optimal living conditions, acquiescing to the inescapable truth of how it is: “This is the way things are, and this is what you can do about it, and that’s that.”
When we wake up, this is one of the things we wake up to, the “is-ness” of the now, of the here and now, of this moment in which we are living. This moment is the staging area for all the moments following it. In this moment, we set the tone for the rest of our moments. This is the Karmanic influence of the present, in adjusting the drift of the past and moderating the direction of the future.
I avoided a number of possibilities for the future by not yelling at anyone for doing such a poor job in taking care of me. They must know by now that I cannot be trusted, and must be watched, and kept from shooting myself in the foot. What do they mean, leaving me to myself? Even when an event is clearly my fault, I can still find ways of blaming everyone else for letting me do it. And, the fact that I refrained from doing so out loud is to my credit. It also underscores the point that a number of futures are possible in any moment, and that the way we live in the moment creates the path to livable, or unlivable, possibilities.
After we have done what we can do, we wait. We do not try to do more than we can do. We cannot force short-cuts or willfully wrest the world of our choosing into being. Waiting is balancing, it is restoring the harmony between what we want and what we have. This is the work of consciousness, the work of awareness, the work of spiritual practice. It is the work of realizing how our interests impact, mesh with, and are altered or obliterated by the unfolding of circumstances. We may want to play tennis, for example, but when the Yellowstone caldera blows, it’s going to put tennis aside for a while. It is the work of consciousness, awareness, mindfulness, and spiritual practice to put ourselves in accord with the conditions and circumstances of our lives. This is the work of realization, balance and harmonization. It is the work that is required to find the Holy Grail.
Now, the missing coffee/wine cup wasn’t the real Holy Grail. But, then, there is no real Holy Grail. It’s a metaphor, don’t you know, for the heart and soul of life. It’s a metaphor for life itself, and for what has life, and is life, for us. In that, it’s like the manger. And, the work of finding it is the work of Advent.
Here’s how the work works: We are born into this world, and the world does not cooperate with us and the realization of our wants and desires and interests and needs. We have a problem. The problem is how to get what we need from the world in which we live. How to get our needs met. And, not only our needs, but our aspirations and dreams as well. We can imagine a better world than the world we can live in. There you are. The problem. How do we put ourselves into accord with the circumstances of our lives? That is our life’s task. Negotiating a settlement we can live with—coming to friendly terms with the circumstances of our lives.
And, those circumstances are always changing, developmentally and environmentally. We have to find the way from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age. From dependency to responsibility to dependency. Making transitions all the way, with the biggie being from life to death. And, while we are doing that, the external circumstances of our lives are doing a dance called the Chaotic Swirl. And, we have to find the way to life, to the Holy Grail, to the manger, through all of this. It’s enough to make you forget where you put your coffee cup.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. I think I might need to make a stronger connection between the Grail and the manger for you. It starts with you thinking metaphorically about both. Understanding both the Holy Grail (which came into being at the end of Jesus’ life) and the manger (which was there at the beginning) as being about the same thing: Life. “I came,” said Jesus, “that you might have life and have it abundantly.” John says, “What has come into being in (Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Jesus’ life from start to finish was about bringing us to life, here and now. Not after our biological death, but right now. The life and the light is about living properly aligned with God, neighbor, self and circumstances.
The whole point of life is to be alive. What’s the wasteland? It’s a place where people are living inauthentic lives. It’s the place where they are not living their own lives at all. It’s the place where people are living life as life is supposed to be lived according to the codes and norms and rules of their social group—where people are doing what they are supposed to do—where they are doing what they are told to do. Jesus was born into that kind of framework, as we all are, and he said, “What are you people thinking? Wake up, for crying out loud, and live the life you are capable of living!”
The manger and the Grail symbolize the life of the individual that is lived in right relationship with her, with his, circumstances. They are about waking up and living in right relationship with our lives. We don’t run to do that. We wait. We look. We listen. To see and hear what must be done. The season of Advent is a symbol reminding us of the importance of the place of waiting in the spiritual scheme. What are we waiting for? Christmas morning! Not for the gifts and presents that Santa brings to those who have been good little boys and girls, and not for the reenactment of the birth of one little boy who is said to have been especially good. Christmas morning, and the manger, are symbolic of the awakening, the realization, the enlightenment which comes to those who wait in the right way. And what does enlightenment do for us? What do we wake up to? This present moment right now and how we need to live in it in order to do what needs to be done in it. We wake up to what it means to be alive right here, right now.
Being alive in any moment means seeing the moment as a living thing in its own right. All our moments have a life of their own. Our moments are filled with possibilities and opportunities and choices and options, all of which have implications for the way life is lived. We cannot think that the moment is some lifeless rock that we can pick up and throw into the sea if we want to, without any consequences for anyone ever. We cannot think that our moments are ours to do with as we will. This is the spiritual realization.
When you have this realization, it is as though the Grail appears before you, and you have the chance you have been waiting for, even though you didn’t know you were waiting for it, and everything rides on how you respond, on how you live in the moment of your living. The moment can carry you to the Grail Castle, or it can dump you in the wilderness of you own making, depending on the choice you make in the moment, so you better know that you are making a choice. “Whom does the Grail serve?” “Those who serve the Grail!” What does it mean to serve the Grail? Answering that question requires us to dance with our gifts and our circumstances’ needs, between our interests and aspirations and dreams, and our circumstances’ possibilities. For whom does the Grail exist? The answer is “Not you, and not Not you”! We live in relation to our circumstances as a river lives in relation to its channel. Our concern is not for ourselves and our gain and our advantage but for what is needed in the moment. What does it mean to “do right by the moment”? That is what it means to serve the Grail! We do the right thing in this moment right now, not some other moment. We live in this moment, here and now, not in some other time, not in some other place. Life is not to be deferred, yet, we live not by grabbing the gain, but by doing right by the moment of our living.
No one is ever so awake in any moment that she, that he, can live as a robot in that moment. Nothing is automatic in being alive in the moment of your living. You cannot memorize some creed or some catechism or some book of confessions and meet the needs of the moment out of what you have stored in your head. Out of what someone else has told you to do. You have to be alive in the moment of your living and live out of your own spontaneity. It has to be you and the moment, not some book and the moment, not someone else and the moment.
Christmas morning is about awakening to the importance of being awake in the moment of your living, awake to the possibilities of the moment, awake to what the moment is asking of you, offering to you, awake to what is unfolding within your own self, awake to what is ready to be born within you, to come to life in you and through you into the world.