In her novel, Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels describes history as the gradual instant, when we recognize that things have continued to move and change even without our awareness. Our personal recognition of change might seem sudden, but it isn’t. Looking back we see how proclivities of our own and other people’s lives have shaped what now seems extraordinary. In an interview, Michaels answered the question: How does history inform the present?
It’s a moral question. In moral terms, there is no before and after, then and now. How we live determines how we will act at any given moment. Our ability to do the right thing is not going to just suddenly spring from us out of nowhere. Our doing the right thing is like a muscle. Morality is a muscle and has to be used. Our doing the right thing depends on how we have lived before that moment comes to us. History is the gradual instant, the gradual present… In other words, there is a responsibility in daily life, in that daily life is what becomes history. It is the source of the formation of the huge event. It’s not separate from how we live every day. People always ask, “How could it have happened?” “How did this happen?” when, in fact, it’s not so hard to see how it happened. History erupts from the present moment.
Spiritual insight, rather than an epiphany, is also a gradual instant. We recognize, over the course of time, moments in our own lives and intersections with other peoples’ thinking and living that bring depth and meaning. I believe these encounters are not solely from our own lived experience but are also gleaned vicariously through circumstances of others’ lives, both real and imagined. Stories, in all forms, matter—we use bits and pieces of other people’s stories that generate abundance in understanding our own.
I recognize the gradual instant that erupts from the accumulative layers of spiritual reading and writing that I have practiced for much of my life. I’m not sure when or how I came to recognize the process of my morning routine as a ritual. Over the years, the order and substance of this contemplative time has both evolved serendipitously and followed specific patterns that I took from others, building a kind of spiritual muscle memory as Anne Michaels describes.
When I read Richard Wagamese’s introduction to his book of meditations, Embers, I brought my own history of scared mornings with me. The author explicitly describes his morning spiritual practice that I wanted to use to refresh my own. I, too, read from several texts each day that over time have moved among devotional, scholarly, contemporary and spiritual classics and include scripture reading. It is a gift when I see connections and gain insight woven in between these texts.
Wagamese capaciously describes his morning ritual. The silence, the warmth and scent of his cup of tea, the rising smoke of his tribal medicines, and the shadows of dawn echo the sacredness. I wrote down for myself his protocol that is steeped in his Ojibway ceremony. And even though I don’t have such a rich heritage in my own experience, there is enough that is familiar that provides a foothold for me to pay attention to the ritual, the ceremony of the routine that made a difference.
I need the ritual. What and how I read, the order of reflection and prayer, writing down my thoughts and even showing up are part of my morning routine. A ritual, according to Frederick Buechner, is the performance of an intuition, the rehearsal of a dream, the playing of a game. The ritual of my morning allows me to practice listening to God, even if I am not always able to sustain that listening throughout the day. I discovered an order of ceremony in Richard Wagamese’s ‘morning table’ as he calls it that offered me new possibility.
Now, in the morning, I make a cup of coffee using my manual coffee grinder and my red ceramic pour over cup. I hadn’t thought of this as part of the ritual, using these tangible aromas, tastes, warmth, and breath to call myself to the scared presence of morning. After a more intentional order of three readings, I close my eyes and intentionally ask what the readings have to tell me that day. After a prayer of gratitude for all the goodness that is present in my life, I ask to take the sacredness of this ritual into the day to perform the role the Creator has asked of me.
On that first day of my own morning table, I read from Embers that in silence, I reclaim myself and that “allows me to move outward into the clamor of living.” The Buechner reading for the day reminded me that the gift of now is a process of discovery rather than invention. The Psalmist (24) encouraged a pure heart that doesn’t get caught up in trying to craft the vision of my life, nor lifting up my soul to what is false— both my invention. The thread throughout these readings is one of discovering rather than striving to do or be something.
I use my gifts to discover this life, to sit back and watch it unfold. When I create stories about other peoples’ lives and even my own life, I am inventing not discovering. Discovery is when I interact in real time and see the good and the challenges and meet both head-on—with goodness—trusting God, myself, and other people.
Discovery is when I find that glimpse of beauty I need in life to always see something anew. Using the Psalmist words, may that beauty seep into my bones and my subconscious—where stories come from. May I discover that that nourishes me quietly and calls me to something more worthy than the distractions of the day.
I won’t suddenly have a miraculous life…or maybe I will. As I look back over my life one day, I will see the gradual instant. The moment after I realized the ritual of discovery, with gratitude, to be ready to do what the Creator asks of me each day. Truths come gradually and at the same time, in the very moment when they make the most sense. As I write this, I realize how concretely this understanding is at the heart and praxis of my new morning meditation.
Discovery instead of invention came as a gradual instant, not a sudden knowledge, but a gentle emergence from the memories and practices I’ve been doing for a long time. My recent day of discovery wasn’t so sudden and yet, it was an epiphanous moment. It was a gradual building of my capacity to make connections, to hear what I needed to hear, maybe even the voice of God.
For more than thirty years, I have shown up to this time of meeting God and myself. It was an instant of recognition or maybe an instant of being able to name for myself that
Life is grace, for instance—the givenness of it, the fathomlessness of it, the endless possibilities of its becoming transparent to something extraordinary beyond itself.