Sunday morning I was enjoying a dip in the river with Rio and two kids from the neighborhood when I suddenly realized that people across the country were settling down into pews for their weekly sermon. In fact, just a stone’s throw away folks were bowing their heads in the Bynum United Methodist Church. For a moment I felt a pang of guilt — if I were really “good” I’d be right there with them.
But then I looked out at what was before me: Rio splashed while Glenn laughed. Caroline had just gotten off my back after a “dolphin ride.” The sun was glinting just right off the rippling water, and the trees and bushes beside the river were almost every shade of green. I took it in and felt it ping off the chunk of coal in my chest that sometimes glows amber.
My church is right here.
Later that day, I stopped by a friend’s house for some solo hang time, and we played a game of channel surf, skipping over the good stuff and alighting momentarily onto various bits of schlock. We stopped for a few minutes on a man who was sermonizing very unconvincingly from a thick and dog-eared Bible that he held solidly in his hands.
There are so many good books out there, I thought to myself, and that one isn’t bad. But how can anyone decide they have found the one true story?
Because I prefer to find sacred texts in the millions of lives and moments swirling around me. Divinity sure seems a lot more transportable that way: instead of having to be at a certain place at a certain time on a Sunday morning, I could be swimming in a stream. Instead of packing the same big book in my suitcase every trip I could bring Baca one day and Rumi the next, maybe no words the time after that, just the earth’s topography from thirty thousand feet my holy map.
I was once trying to help a man who had lost his way. I told him that the next time he felt really good, I mean really good, he should pay attention to where he felt it in his body. “In my chest,” he told me a few days later. “It feels like I’ve got a little bouncing ball in there.” Next I asked him to observe and jot down over the course of a week every time he felt that feeling: what had happened that had brought it on? A few days later he had a long list: sitting in church listening to a good sermon; helping a friend in straights; going bowling with his son; cooking a meal from scratch.
“Keep that list in your wallet,” I suggested. “When you find yourself sinking, do something on the list.”
The psychologist Dacher Keltner has spoken about the physiological roots of this feeling; he points that our body actually has a neural map to feel divine, alive, and joyous: the sensation travels largely by way of the vagus nerve, moving from medulla to chest (expansive feeling, slowed heartbeat) to throat (it often catches for a moment) to the eyes where tears often form the final gush of the rush. Each person’s specific response to joy has its own quirks, but Keltner’s point is that we are built to feel this feeling; our body knows what to do with it.
I felt the sensation strongly a few weekends ago at a retreat center where 100 people gathered to write and and share their truths. Prompted by good teachers, safe space, and mutual support, we wrote what came forth and read aloud what we’d written. This act was alchemical, and I got so used to my body’s joy-delivery system working that I felt a nasty comedown after I left that spot in the woods and entered my first florescent convenience store. I found myself chatting up the cashier as though he would be game for the same unveiling. He just raised an eyebrow.
This brought to mind leaving Burning Man one year; after spending eight days enmeshed in that carnival of free souls, where the supreme commandment is to be your true self, I burst into hot tears and irrepressible sobs the moment our car left the playa [desert] and hit the pavement. The challenge is, as one saying goes, to “keep the playa alive 365.”
But as I’ve reminded myself incessantly after such peak experiences: I vow to not reenter old parodies. Those moments of joy and transcendence stretch me to new places, and there’s no reason I need to return to the humdrum after my true drum has been struck with an invigorated rhythm. If the ecstatic moment lives and dies in the churches that evoke it, then I must return to those particular pews to taste it again. This can lead to an overdependence on the source of joy, be it an event, a substance, a lover, or a place — just because I felt divine at the river on Sunday doesn’t mean I will feel it so strongly when I return on Friday. The best I can do is find my wells, to visit them regularly with respect but not oversized expectations, and to be open to new ones, which often appear where I might not expect them. I prefer to think of church as a floating palace, one that changes form by the minute and yet is always an open eye away.