As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand, it isn’t God.
The line above is from Madeline L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. Of course, it’s really from Saint Augustine, but I know it as something Grandfather said once, in a moment when Leo got ahead of himself. L’Engle’s book, which is theoretically the story of a girl who talks to dolphins, is really a thick and nourishing stew of life and love and death and God, with poetry sprinkled throughout and the occasional dash of marine biology. My copy’s a bit tattered, with a lot of passages underlined.
This past Sunday, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. I did it accompanied by Billy Elliot: The Musical, courtesy of my iPhone, dodging tourists and bicycles to get up any kind of decent speed, while Billy struggled—in the clear tones of a boy soprano—to answer the question, “What does it feel like when you’re dancing?”
I can’t really explain it
I haven’t got the words
It’s a feeling that you can’t control
I suppose it’s like forgetting
Losing who you are
And at the same time
Something makes you whole
It’s like that there’s a music
Playing in your ear
And I’m listening, and I’m listening
And then I disappear
And then I feel a change
Like a fire deep inside
Something bursting me wide open
Impossible to hide
And suddenly I’m flying
Flying like a bird
Sparks inside of me
And I’m free, I’m free
Early Friends wrote prodigiously, quite possibly because no number of words will adequately explain the experience of opening to the Divine. We ourselves, today, don’t talk about it much, perhaps because we fear sounding crazy—I know I fear that, especially when I’m talking to non-Quakers—but the Quaker concept of ministry means opening up and letting God take over completely, and it’s scary and it’s vulnerable and it’s powerful and it’s messy and it’s not always safe and it doesn’t always make very much sense—it’s like forgetting/ Losing who you are/ And at the same time/ Something makes you whole… I’m listening, and I’m listening/ And then I disappear/ And then I feel a change/ Like a fire deep inside/ Something bursting me wide open/ Impossible to hide/ And suddenly I’m flying…
Or, to go back to what Grandfather said in that old, converted barn, surrounded by books that held the wisdom of centuries, As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand, it isn’t God.
I’ve spent the last five years engaging with what I cannot understand. Of course, along the way, there’s been plenty I can understand; at least in the beginning, I was far more comfortable with the analytical, and the work of intellect can come from God, too…but it’s an altogether different thing to burst wide open and fly…
This is the first of a series on travel in the ministry, rooted in quotations from A Ring of Endless Light. What it is to travel in the ministry…I won’t find words to explain it. When Billy reached the end of verbal language, he showed what it meant to live God’s plan for him: he danced.
I’ll tell stories.
They’ll be stories from Kenya and England and Tanzania and Peru and Mexico and Indiana and North Carolina and New Jersey and New York City and the church in Harlem that’s right across the street from my home. They’ll be tweaked a bit sometimes, the names changed always, to conceal identifying details, but they will be the stories—the lived experience—of travel in the ministry.
If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.