In the fall of 2004, I took my first 3-month sabbatical. Brooke and I were not yet parents. We were living in Colorado Springs and I was serving as the Associate Minister for Children, Youth, and Families. The focus of that sabbatical was to visit other worshiping communities near and far. The primary adventure was a solo trip to France and Scotland. In France, I spent a week with the Taizé Community and in Scotland I spent several days at the Iona Abbey. I have many stories to tell from that trip, but in this post I want to describe the moment I discovered I was a gnat.
The Taizé Community near the town of Taizé, France was established during World War II as an ecumenical community that helped shelter Jews fleeing Nazi occupiers. Following the war, the community members became more intentional about forming a place of worship and hospitality. To this day people, primarily young people, come from all over the world to become a part of this intentional community for a day, a week, a month, or more.
When you arrive at Taizé, you are welcomed by signs with the word “Welcome” in virtually every language. As you register, you are given a place to sleep, a small group to meet with, and a task to fulfill each day you are there. For three of the days I was at Taizé, my job – if you want to call it a job – was to go to a beautiful garden – Jardin St. Etienne – and remind people that it was a place of quiet. In other words, my job was to be a “shusher,” and to gently ask people to put away their hacky sacks and frisbees. My shift was 3 hours and that means I spent a significant amount of time by myself in a beautiful and quiet place.
I got so bored. I know, I should have been more appreciative and “spiritual,” but I wasn’t, at least not to begin with. I liked being there, but after awhile I noticed my brain wanting more stimulation. And yet it was my job to be there, so I remained, feeling restless and waiting for my shift to end. By the second day, I was not looking forward to going to the lovely garden for my shift, but that’s what I’d signed up for so I went. About a half-hour into it, I was overwhelmed with restless boredom. I now know that it was my ego desperately revolting against the lack of social stimulation. It was my normal consciousness wanting distraction. But I also sensed I was being summoned, gently coaxed into deeper waters, enticed into losing myself so I could find myself again.
I remember sitting on an old wooden bench next to a pond, aware of the breeze playing in the leaves above me and seeing their reflection in the still water. And in that moment, I decided to stop resisting. I decided to give in to the boredom and accept it. I decided to be who I was where I was and how I was. And when I did that, a new consciousness presented itself to me as if a transparent linen shroud fell from before my eyes that I had not noticed was there.
In this new conscious space, I couldn’t help but smile and marvel at everything. I looked around and realized that everything I could see was exactly as it should be, perfect exactly as it was. The pond and the leaves and the breeze and the bench and the hacky sackers and the birds and the mud and the grass and the buildings were all perfectly lovable exactly as they were. And when I thought about myself, I laughed out loud. I am nothing, I thought, and it was the most liberating thought I’ve ever had. With delight, I followed this path of blissfull nothingness. I am a gnat, I thought. No, I am dead gnat. Ha! I am a dead gnat eaten by a bird, then shat out and stepped on by a chipmunk, then scraped off on a rock that rolls down a hill and disappears into the water, dissolving into nothingness.
It was glorious. For a fleeting number of minutes, my ego was not in control, did not need comfort or affirmation. It was more than enough to be a forgotten gnat because I was surrounded by a love so much greater than my ego, so much greater than the sum of all egos, so much greater than any idea or plan, so much greater than existence itself. This love was what created, encompassed, and filled all of existence. To say that it was “enough” is too small a thing. It was, and is, everything, everywhere, forever.
The experience didn’t last. Intensely, it happened for about an hour. The visceral memory of it stayed with me for days. Eventually, it became more distant, but that hour in that garden haunts me still. I’ve come to understand it as a mystical experience of the Living God, a God who is so free from our human categories and common experiences that we rarely have anything like a direct experience. The human ego is too interested in control to have an experience of a God who is that free. And the self-centered ego would not be able to handle it if God were imposing Godself all the time. Therefore, I try to content myself with the few experiences like this that I have had. I try to have compassion for others no matter how they are experiencing life in any given moment. And I try not to take myself so seriouly all the time. After all, I found great joy when I discovered that “I am a gnat.”