I discovered very early, perhaps as early as age ten, that if I used my sense of humor in social situations, it took the edge off any feelings of apprehension that almost certainly came. In fact, my grab bag of social survival tricks held but two items guaranteed to stave off the unsteady nerves of my unpredictable youth: music and humor.
Anyone who discovers the power of off-the-wall humor early and the adulation that can come from it also learns that it can become very quickly like sand in the eye of one’s developing emotional life as well. When listening was advisable, I’d be making impressive bodily noises. When I should have been participating in something central to either a school project or family undertaking, I was too busy impressing strangers with jokes well beyond my ken. Usually this was because I’d learned them from the adults with whom I lived, moved and had my being.
The tools of musical ability and a facility with humor (often less than family-oriented!) provided a double-edged sword of likeability and courage for a youngster a little shy, and low on the self-confidence meter. However, they also became convenient places to hide from the gaze of those who simply asked to see the real me even in the midst of my fluttery guts, knocking knees and doubting mind. The same things that brought some measure of courage often stole my peace in the same act.
Concurrent with these adolescent discoveries was another, deeper, more elusive one. Into my limited youth-survival-grab-bag was added one more tool. Let’s call it historic-sacred-place revivification. When nerves or troublesome lack of self-awareness denied the inner solace I needed to survive, I’d look for old churches to be open (well, as old as something can be in Calgary, Alberta!) where I could sit and soak in their dank and musty mystique. Her stone cloak, sown in the fabric of singing, seeking souls who had also found their succor there would alight upon my shoulders. With her refracted light and symbolic riches she would whisper to me all I needed to hear. Sometimes I could almost hear the hymnic praises rising, feel the baptismal waters soothing another into Kingdom oneness, and taste the bread and wine mingled in their satiating salvific goodness.
In those places, I felt no urgency to tell anyone any jokes. There, I was one with…something. Someone? With myself. The ancient elements of God’s place, power and people united to present me new and alive to the world. I would forge back into the teeming wild refreshed and invigorated, often wiping my eyes still wet from mystified gratitude.
The Old Testament Jeremiah once proclaimed: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16 NRSV). Although old churches are no guarantee of the “ancient path,” they can help to guide us there. They did so with me. Too many times to mention.
I still fall into the same easy hiding places now at age fifty as I did then; with more sophistication, I suppose, and a little more nuance, understatement, and subtlety. But basically the same game of hide and seek. Now, however, upon seeing the face of God through sandstone walls dripping and heavy with the prayerful imprints of other saints whose corporate praises yet sing, I have learned to rest. To heed their hymning voices and, through their joyous sound, hide no more, but come out into the light where Someone is waiting.
How are you hiding from your own shadow in less than helpful support structures?
What ancient place or practice might be helpful for you to be found today?