I live in a township called Center. My house clings to the edge over what I have come to call, endearingly, “my abyss”—the plunging valley of the Raccoon Creek, just south of where it joins the Ohio River. And I drive a car called a Focus. Those three words together suggest an approach to life.
Some months ago in CGO I spoke of “The Void,” a helpful if daunting concept I have gleaned from James Loder’s The Transforming Moment. A recent first read of Annie Dillard’s For The Time Being has drawn my humbled pondering back to the Void. And I have been reading Heidegger lately!—“Dasein means: being held out into the nothing!” The meaningfulness and coherence of our lives sometimes seems suspended over, wrested from, vast reaches of…nothing.
I continue to believe that to experience the Void is to come face to face with our creaturely contingency, our utter dependence for our being on the independent being of the Lord Creator. But the point of the doctrinal association should not be to immunize us against at least some moments of sensing the Void. Heidegger suggests that apart from these rare moments, we become deadened to the disclosure of truth. But it’s not like we can manufacture such moments; all of a sudden they occur.
Last Sunday, returning from church on a cold sunny afternoon, I decided it was time to try a road very near my home that I had not yet explored in the three plus years I have lived here. Typical of Beaver County, the road started in the heart of civilization, meandered out along a ridge, past fewer and fewer homes clinging to the roadside backgrounded by sky and valley and far-off hills. A curving, precipitous descent brought me eventually to fall “in step” with the Raccoon Creek, darkly blazing in its mantle of snow and ice. My speed at no point had neared the limit posted on the only sign I had seen at the outset, but the gradual accretion of sags and potholes in the neglected and narrowing road slowed me to creeping. I was “walking” my car deeper and deeper into a hollow, determined to follow the road to its end.
And then I saw it: what seemed like a last-ever dirt driveway, and an enigmatic sign just ahead on the road roughly painted in bright blue: NO U-TURNS. At that point the road ahead called for off-road capability as it disappeared around a curve into the woods. Suddenly a sense of the Void spread over me from head to toe. I looked to engage the cloaking device on my little car as I guiltily executed the forbidden U turn. I crawled back out and up to what had once felt like civilization but now felt alien.
At home I got on Google Maps’ satellite photos to see where I had been with respect to the part of the valley I see out my front door. The photos show that I live one ridge away from that forsaken place! I crept to my fireside, shaken, longing for home and peace once again to descend. What am I doing here?? This city girl thought to herself!
I am convinced that we should not think of our lives or our knowing as anchored beneath us in bedrock, foundational certainties. Rather, we “de-pend” from something above. For those who live near Six Flags in St. Louis, it’s like the Batman, not like the Ninja: The cars of the Batman rollercoaster hang from the track, dangling the feet of its passengers helplessly and ludicrously above a spinning abyss. The certainty of following God is only God: By faith Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going, and the Bible calls that certainty! (Hebrews 11).
To trust oneself to the covenant faithfulness of the living Lord is to anchor above, to seek the riveted and riveting gaze of his face and the promise of his Word. Here is where my car comes in. One’s focus can be anywhere; but covenants of trust compel one’s focus to be overhead, not below, on the face of the lover: “My eyes are ever on the LORD, for only he will release my feet from the snare”! (Psalm 25:15)
How ironic yet right that this place on the edge of the abyss is called Center. Anchored above, with abyss below and encroaching, in God’s kindness one may live in peace and home, in the love and laughter of good friends, in the palpable gaze of the human beloved, in joyful work and service, patiently enduring times of darkness and grief. Dillard leaves her readers with the picture of a parking lot full of joyously dancing Hasidic Jews. Dancers “spot,” or focus above, and move lightly, gracefully, on their feet over the floor—because they center.
What that means fully I am still exploring. But centering is a quiet, confident, stillness in the middle of you that unleashes the edges of you interact artfully with the ever-changing surroundings. It is nourished, I believe, in present communion with God—or practicing the presence of God, as one well-known saint expressed it. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” (Psalm 23) “For in the day of trouble, he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock…” (Psalm 27)—focused, centered, at the edge of the abyss.
And “I will sacrifice with shouts of joy.”