I was listening to a radio interview with a gentleman who runs a charter boat in Fiordland National Park. “There is a considerable difference between walking on the beach with shoes on”, he said, “and walking with shoes off. The latter enhances the spiritual feeling.” He didn’t want to get too explicit about what he meant by spiritual, and acknowledged that many people would pooh-pooh the idea. He concluded, “When you walk barefoot, with an open heart, on a beach or in the bush, something happens to your spirit.”
I’m reminded of the biblical story of Moses and the burning bush. Confronted with the power of the extraordinary and mysterious, that which burns but does not consume, Moses felt compelled to remove his shoes. The baring of his feet mirrored the baring of his soul. It symbolized removing a layer of protection thereby increasing his vulnerability. Receptivity to the spiritual often involves a degree of vulnerability.
Good Friday, or ‘Suffering Friday’ as I prefer to think of it, connects with our experiences in many subtle ways. It connects with our own experiences of pain – and not just physical pain. It connects with watching and being with those who suffer and die. It connects with the loud silence that the absence of meaning can bring. It connects with the vulnerability we may feel or have felt, and is never too far away.
Vulnerability did not inhibit Moses from disagreeing with his God. Spiritual vulnerability is not submission but the willingness to meet the metaphysical Other. Sometimes like Jacob at Peniel we wrestle with and are wounded by this Other. Sometimes we greet the sacred stranger and as the mist lifts recognise Him or Her as the friend we need. The divine otherness can be both threatening and redemptive. Like a kind fire that does not consume.
As I listened to the radio I mused about those experiences where the spiritual power embedded in the planet penetrates through protective layers into our very souls. I thought about the smell of dripping dense rainforest, the tingling sands of a seemingly endless beach, and the crescendo of crashing West Coast waves. The power of smell, sight, and sound mingles with mystery, vastness, and beauty. Indefinable heaven touches our earthly feelings, if we let it.
These spiritual feelings, these exchanges between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’, are not just about nature giving and we receiving. We are invited to participate, to enter into the wonder and magic of this bare soul experience, and even into its longing and pain. This spiritual interaction can be thought of as a song. But the universe doesn’t sing and we passively listen, nor is it an invitation to blend into a celestial chorale. Rather we are invited, like with a jazz ensemble, to improvise in our own creative way.
There is, as with Moses, a call to us. The song we hear in our soul is not passive, detached from the potency and sufferings of planet earth. It calls firstly to the pain within us. The gentleman in the radio interview spoke of clients breaking down in tears. The spiritual power reaches out to us and we can feel both our alienation from it and our yearning for it. Sorrow and hope combine like a love song.
Secondly, the song calls to our power. It speaks to that determination within us not to be overwhelmed by our physical limitations and health, financial pressure, and the commitments of work and family. It calls to that tenacious spirit lodged in each of us – a spirit that longs to see harmony restored in and between people, and between the planet and its populations.
Lastly, the song calls us to transcend our own needs for the needs of the whole. There is a piece of countercultural Jesus Zen that goes: ‘To find yourself you must lose yourself.’ We are reticent to lose ourselves, especially when so much of our Western world is geared to improving and fulfilling ourselves. We are reluctant to let go of what we want in order to consider the wants of all. Yet the paradox is that by transcending our personal desires we actually find the fulfilment we wanted all along. Unless more of us begin to care about the whole planet the world will go to pieces.
The Presbyterian experience of Easter is often summed up in one word: camp. Easter camps were a very formative time for many of us. They were a time to get away with people our own age, boys and girls, think about God and spirituality, do crazy things like get up to watch the dawn, and above all connect with the Spirit of God who is present in the earth and each other. It was a time of baring the soul.
At its best this is what the Easter long weekend can be, and not just for Christians. It can be a time of being with friends and family, of eating together, of uncluttering the soul from the usual rounds of work and pressure, a time of doing no-thing… And in the no-doing of things room is made for the soul to unfurl and be refreshed.
It can be a time of opening of the soul by travelling to a place apart, taking off our shoes, feeling the vulnerability of both ourselves and the earth, listening for the call of the spirit song, and then wrestling with its meaning. Bare earth, bare feet, bare soul.