When Jill, the kids, and I lived in Roanoke, Virginia, we were frequent visitors to the Busch Gardens amusement park in Williamsburg. Griffin loved the roller coasters; Eliza loved the water rides; and Jill and I enjoyed the European themes. We could visit England, Italy, and France without ever boarding an airplane.
The park was always crowded, and the year we visited during spring break it was crushingly so. Eliza was five years old. She was very small, and as we walked through the park, her hand in mine was feather light. There is one spot in Busch Gardens that forms a bottleneck, funneling a huge volume of people through a relatively narrow archway as you approach the miniature cars, an area both our kids loved. That spring break, as Eliza and I passed through the arch, suddenly the feel of her tiny hand in mine disappeared. I looked down, and she was not there. In the crush of people and movement, she was gone. Time stopped. The workings of my imagination went into overdrive, considering a dozen panicked possibilities in a split second: She had been taken. She had been trampled. She had been erased from the earth. My complacent bliss turned, in an instant, into fear, confusion, and an unfamiliar sense that I hadn’t a clue what to do next.
Eliza’s smiling face emerged from the crowd one second later, and I picked her up—thank God—with a bear hug of relief. If you are a parent, or if you have ever loved anyone in your life, you know how I felt in that moment, when Eliza’s tiny hand was drawn from my grasp.
I don’t recall experiencing anything akin to this emotion since that day years ago, until—and I do not offer this as a joke—the lead up to Tuesday’s presidential election. For a time, I suspected I was being privately histrionic or overwrought, until other people starting coming out of the woodwork to share their similar emotional responses with me. People on the right and on the left, both Trumpeters and the “I’m with Hillary” army—and the broad swath in between—feel as if something precious, something held perhaps too lightly for too long, may be about to slip from our grasp. We wonder if we’ve been too complacent in our bliss. We are anxious and confused, and, depending on Tuesday’s outcome, we don’t have a clue what we’re supposed to do next.
I’ve been thinking on the word “bliss” lately. When Sister Joan Chittister was here for the Faith and Reason Seminar in mid-October, she reminded us that the Beatitudes, which we read on this All Saints Day, rightly refer to our bliss. We usually read “Blessed are they…” with the idea, either conscious or subconscious, that the “blessing” refers to some reward in the next life. “Bless-ed” becomes “blest,” and the Beatitudes are then categorized as the hope of heaven. “Blest are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God” is interpreted like the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, as if to say, “In the great hereafter, the poor will receive heavenly riches. In the end, it’s all going to be o.k. for them.”
I certainly believe and hope it will be, but that interpretation lends us the excuse to be complacent, to say of that long list of people, both good and bad, included in the Beatitudes, “We need not worry about them. God will take care of it all eventually.”
Sister Joan pointed out to us that this is a gross misreading of the Beatitudes’ intent. “Bless-ed,” an etymological study quickly reveals, is best interpreted “blissful.” And that casts a different light entirely on the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are all about, regardless of the circumstances we experience, where we find our bliss.
Matthew’s Beatitudes focus on our spirits, while Luke’s (which we read today) focus on our bodies, but this truth holds in either case: Our anxieties, our hungers, our tears, our struggles in this life are also those very depths in which we most often discover, to our utter and complete surprise, that we tap into the well-spring of God. It is in those experiences that, even through our pain, we encounter bliss, that “peace which passes all understanding,” as St. Paul calls it.[i] It is in the belly of the whale, at the bottom of the sea, we recall, that Jonah sings his salvation song.[ii] When all else is stripped from us, God is there, waiting in love. There we find our bliss.
But neither does this bliss, this peace, this resting in the heart of God intend to lull us into complacency. Immediately after sharing the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us what the encounter with God’s deep grace compels us to do: Do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you. Give to those in need, and do so with gratitude for the blessings you bear. Be kind, and be merciful. Our own deep need, which leads to our own deep bliss, compels us to identify in solidarity with the grave concerns and needs of others.
This is not merely a posture we are to slip into on Sunday mornings. It is a way of being in the world. It changes how we see ourselves and how we see others. The Christian spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says that this shift in our understanding is “the movement in which we become less and less fearful and defensive and more and more open to other people and their worlds.”[iii]
To end where I began, in this election season, we fear that our complacent bliss is slipping away. But Jesus tells us insistently that we have found our bliss in the wrong places. Our bliss is not found in our material things, or our societal privileges, or our nation’s military might, or the presumed superiority of our political opinions. Our bliss, the deep peace that endures through all dangers, all uncertainties, all election cycles, finds its source in our connection to the God of love, and that eternal bliss leads us to deep compassion and concern for all of God’s people in this world.
We should start there, before we vote, before we obsess over the election results that pour in on Tuesday evening, and surely before we react to whatever new world we find ourselves in on Wednesday morning. God’s bliss is not featherlight. It bears the weight of glory, and it cannot slip from our grasp, come what may.
[i] Philippians 4:7.
[ii] Jonah 2.
[iii] Nouwen, Henri J.M. Ministry and Spirituality (Continuum: New York), 246.