By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
Here in Southeast we travel just about everywhere by air. So much so, that we’ve all pretty much memorized the safety briefing at the beginning of the flight. Any one of us, I’m sure, could stand up and give the whole speech without notes: “Put your seatbacks and tray tables in the locked, upright position. This plane is equipped with six emergency exits. Your seat can be used for flotation. Red lights lead to white lights that lead to exits, etc, etc.” So we dutifully fasten our seatbelts, look around for the nearest exit and try to ignore the fact that we’ll soon be hurtling at 500 mph through the air in a metal tube 30,000 feet above the surface of the earth.
But the directive about how to put on the oxygen mask – ‘if oxygen becomes necessary, please put your own mask on first and then help those around you to put on theirs’ — is good counsel not only for how to survive a sudden in-flight decompression but for the spiritual life too.
I recalled the importance of first putting on your own oxygen mask when I read these words in a letter I received yesterday from my friend Carrie Bare, a lay minister with Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship. Writing about her time studying spiritual direction during a recent sabbatical, Carrie noted that,“It is quite possible to be very busy for God, without actually engaging with God and coming to know God more fully.”
That is such a true observation. Yet it calls for a certain caution, because even engaging with God and coming to know him more fully can become another way of simply becoming busy for God.
Which got me thinking about the waterfall directly across from where I live in Douglas. The acoustics of the channel between Douglas Island and the mainland are such that I can hear the sound of the waterfall whenever I step outside.
The roar of that waterfall is a constant background sound in the spring, summer and fall, yet I must admit that while I hear it all the time, it is easy for me to tune out the sound. I’ve only paused a few times this spring long enough to really listen to and appreciate the sound of the waterfall
Joshua Rothman, in a recent New Yorker article on the 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger , noted,” [Heidegger] believed that, before you could know the truth about things, you had to care about them. Caring comes first, because it’s caring about things that “unconceals” them in your day-to-day life, so they can be known about. If you don’t care about things, they will stay “hidden” – and, because there are limits to our care, to be alive is “to be surrounded by the hidden.”
The sound of the waterfall is always around me but its presence and beauty is only revealed to me when I care enough (or put aside my other cares and concerns) to notice it.
God, of course, is not a thing, yet the insight about the connection between caring and knowing, applies to the spiritual life. This seems to be what Jesus is getting at when he says to Martha in Luke’s gospel: “You are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.”
Too often in my life, it is not so much that I don’t care about engaging God or knowing Him, (although that lack of care, which the Desert Fathers termed ‘acedia’ is an ever present spiritual danger). Rather, am I so preoccupied with caring about other things that they crowd out my ability to be passionately attentive (which is what I think Heidegger means by caring) to the One who I most desire to know and be known by.
As Heidegger points out, our human capacity for caring deeply is finite and limited. This makes it even more imperative to be intentional about striving to be passionately attentive to God, who is never absent but is often hidden from me by my own inattentiveness and lack of care. I need to be careful to allow nothing to come before the one needful thing, which is to know the Lord and to listen to His voice.
This is why time with the Lord, spent in prayer or meditating on scripture or before the Blessed Sacrament or before His holy icon (or contemplating the sounds and sights of His creation, like that waterfall) has to come before anything else.
My own oxygen mask has to go on first, before I can help anyone else with theirs.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23.