Rains sweep across New Orleans this morning, preparing us for our first real cool front of the Fall. I am so ready for the cool. I am so weary of the heat and humidity down here in the swamp lands, where I have lived for twenty-five years. And that’s not the only thing bringing my weariness.
I’m just done with driving over the broken streets, no matter which way I turn. The ever more broken places are everywhere, even as construction crews tear up more thoroughfares with the promise of keeping them this way for years to come. Broken buildings line the broken streets of this city, even in the supposedly ritzy parts of the city like the famous “Uptown.” Drive past the mansions of St. Charles Ave. and then make a turn to get most anywhere. You immediately start passing brokenness.
On every single corner of our city we now seem to have our most broken people standing in desperate need, with the ever-popular cardboard signs and the scribbled messages saying, “Just give me something. Can’t you see how tragic my life is?” I haven’t yet seen a sign saying, “I just want some free beer and cigarettes. That’s all I am asking out of life.” But that would at least be honest for some of our most broken corner dwellers.
And my weariness is not just coming from the weather, the streets, or the broken faces on the broken corners. I am caught in the wheel of suffering. I have become stuck in that place where all the ugliness of life stands out, and the beauty has a hard time creeping through the cracks into recognition. It’s almost like there are two parallel universes, both standing in stark contrast to one another, and I have slipped over into the ugly one.
The wheel of suffering seems to be ever spinning around, and we find ourselves somewhere on it, if we are awake, closer to the beauty universe or drowning in the ugly universe. Lately, I have been sinking down into the latter.
When joy seeks to lift me I think of human trafficking, or the wars sprouting up all over the globe. On this side of the wheel it is very hard to allow the joys to offer their much-needed ballast and lift my spirits. Despair rules this side of the wheel, and hope seems like a luxury for those in denial, like only the elite 1% who are rich and can separate themselves from real need. I see the illusion as I write these words, but still, I am on the ugly side of the wheel.
There is another wheel at play in my psyche these days. This is the wheel of prayer. That’s right, prayer. Sometimes we are on the far side of the prayer wheel and there is no real connection to the divine at all. Any prayers are rote, tired and mistaken views of the holy launched into the void where no one seems to be listening anyway.
On the dark side of the prayer wheel there are mostly unconscious beliefs acted out without being verbalized. The actions say, “I know You are not really there so I guess I am on my own down here,” or “I wish You would make all this ugliness better but You don’t seem to get involved in real suffering these days.” Again, I know as I write these words that they are false, but it is how it feels on this side of the prayer wheel.
When I sit in community with other contemplatives, in one of our groups spread across this city, like I have for each of the last five days, my life is gently turning closer to the sacred on the wheel of prayer. Everything doesn’t start looking beautiful again. Instead I know I am not alone in seeing the ugly, or feeling overwhelmed by it all. Somehow the presence and stories of the other contemplatives helps me feel closer to the One among us. Both our silent contemplation together and our sharing of souls brings me close to them, and in that I seem to be nearer Presence.
Once again, I am being nudged toward Presence by the presence of the other travelers on this shared human journey. I am not there yet. I wish I was. But it seems being on this side of the wheel of suffering makes it hard to be on the best side of the wheel of prayer. My preference would be to tell myself, and you, that I have discovered the secret to mastering these interlocking wheels of suffering and prayer. But I would be lying. All I know right now is that that there are two wheels whose spokes are interconnected. The turn of each affects the other.
And so, because I am on the dark side of the wheel of suffering, I really need a turn on the wheel of prayer. I put my books down, and I stop writing this blog, and now it is time for one more turn of the wheel of prayer into inner stillness, my True Home. Join me sometime, ’cause I could use another friend to remind me how the wheel of prayer helps the wheel of suffering.