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Ecstasy (and in the meantime…)

You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.
You have waltzed with great style,
My sweet, crushed angel,
To have ever neared God’s Heart at all.
Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy to hear.
So what if the music has stopped for a while.
So what
If the price of admission to the Divine
Is out of reach tonight…

…Have patience,
For He will not be able to resist your longing
For long.
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to kiss the Beautiful One.
You have actually waltzed with tremendous style,
O my sweet,
O my sweet, crushed angel.


My friend Chuck and I meet once a week to study for the GRE.  We know we wouldn’t glance at a single analogy this summer without the accountability.  Even then, our plans to plow through a few more drills during our time together are inevitably amended for the sake of rousing discussion about theology and our vocations as educator-artist-theologians.

Last week we were musing about good theology–about the nature of it, the courage and creativity of it. I confessed to him how badly I crave to write something honest and beautiful like our favorite scholars and theologians.  Like Foucault, or Simone Weil.

“There are these rare moments of ecstasy when I’m playing with my band–” Chuck told me. He is a musician, and you would know it by hearing him mention a few words on the subject; you can hear it in the reverent tone of his voice. “These moments of beauty and ecstasy–I think they’re like the beauty of theology you’re talking about.” I nodded, encouraging him. “When I’m with my band I can’t force that, you know? It’s a combination of too many things–it’s the way the musicians are playing together that night, it’s the space, it’s the crowd and their chemistry with us.”

Remembering the rush of a great concert, I affirmed, “Yes, that’s what I want, and I know it is about more than just me. When I write I am working so hard, but God doesn’t always show up, ya know?  That energy and beauty doesn’t always come.”  I paused, and then confided to him, “We’ve been working on these applications to doctoral programs, Chuck, and I feel like there is so much riding on this performance. It’s like a show with an audience full of the most brilliant musicians, all of them scrutinizing you, expecting to witness greatness…”

“I’ve been at shows when the ecstasy didn’t come.  When the performance never reached that perfection,”  he told me. “But you know, I could tell how much the band wanted it. And sometimes that’s enough for a great show. It’s not the ultimate; it not ecstasy, but sometimes it’s enough for audience to just witness that hunger within you.”

Hafiz says that even when we do not dance so badly, and even when we waltz with tremendous style, God does not always appear there on the dance floor. This does not mean that God is not watching the beautiful dance, I am sure. “So what?” Hafiz says, writing so affectionately of this angel as she dances. So what? So what?  Perhaps the performance can be beautiful, even as her partner still pauses at the edge of the dance floor.

Perhaps I can create something beautiful, whether or not perfection takes me for a waltz today…

Watching You Dance

classes08On Thursday evening I looked over the balcony at Century Ballroom as my friends Katie and Frank danced to the final song of the night on the dance floor below. It was the last night of salsa before I head off to Boston, and the only night of the summer when the club hosts a live salsa band.  (I would have liked to think the special occasion was in honor of my departure, but I know it was simply a pleasant coincidence.)  Along with the best sounds the ballroom had heard all season, the live music brought out the city’s best dancers, which made for a night of both great dancing and fantastic viewing.  Of all the swift spins and fast footwork displayed by the evening’s talented couples, however, the most memorable dance, in my humble opinion, was that last one danced by my friends.

The three of us have gone dancing together at least once a week all summer long. And just as I, a clumsy beginner, went from counting out every step (1-2-3—5-6-7…) to moving unthinkingly along with rhythms I instantly recognize, so too had my more experienced friends improved their dance moves. While it was unnoticeable for me when I first began dancing, I have learned that a personal dancing style accompanies this sort of progress: when one attains a certain level of familiarity with the rhythms, steps, and moves, one’s personal style—which is often a reflection of his/her personality, training, and dance community—surfaces in his/her dancing.  Having danced with Katie and Frank for months now, I have gained a great affection for the idiosyncrasies of their styles.  For the neat steps of Katie’s three-count turns.  For the circular swing of Frank’s hands when he leads in open-position.  For the expressions on their faces when they concentrate during a spin sequence, or the sympathetic grins that occasionally break when someone acknowledges a partner’s misstep.

From the ballroom balcony, I treasured every glimpse of these personal tendencies. They were small, endearing reminders that I was not simply watching salsa dancing, but Katie’s salsa and Frank’s salsa.

While watching them, it struck me that I have experienced a similar affection for friends when we celebrate Mass together.  Having celebrated the liturgy for so long, we can engage it more naturally, less consciously, and our personal styles break through unthinkingly.  Some of us enter the sanctuary with particular habits, or gesture in unique ways, or recite prayers with more or less words. Not unlike salsa dancing, these small stylistic differences often reflect who we are, where we come from, and the community that most often surrounds us. I love noticing these little things because it transforms Catholicism into their Catholicism, our Catholicism—Frank’s Catholicism. Katie’s Catholicism.  They are reminders that, in such intimate, personal ways, Catholicism belongs to the people I love.

The basic steps are the same, but with time we all learn to dance them in our own way.

Image from http://blog.ratestogo.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/century-ballroom.jpg

Practicing Courage

Last night I went to the Century Ballroom in Seattle for a night of salsa dancing with friends. As I mentioned in a recent blog entry, salsa dancing is a new hobby and one I am embracing with the knowledge that I will endure a significant amount of frustration with myself and my (lack of) salsa skills before I enjoy the pleasure of confident, care-free dancing. I wrote that this might be good for me since I have missed out on a lot of hobbies that require a certain level of initial “failure” or weakness in order to reach a more advanced level of enjoyment.

I am grateful for all the comments you left in response to that entry.  I was particularly struck by  JD’s wise comment that questioned whether my intentional pursuit of failure is really a good approach to life.  I found myself thinking about this as I watched men and women step and swing around the dance floor last night.
At Century, most people rotate dance partners every couple songs.  Consequently, most of the evening is spent dancing with people I don’t know.  This has great benefits: it is a fun way to meet folks and a great opportunity to dance with partners of various styles and skill levels.  Oftentimes, these partners are generous teachers who go out of their way to teach me new moves and encourage me with their affirmations and smiles.  However, some partners are more accommodating of beginners than others.  Sometimes when dancing with a great lead, I feel embarrassed as he clearly dumbs-down his dance moves for me.  I shouldn’t be embarrassed by my skill level, but I really am sometimes.  I want to seamlessly move like so many of the stellar female dancers there.
Fears about my impending embarrassment plagued me as I stood beside the dance floor at the beginning of the evening.  I was more nervous than usual. I had a realization during my mental pep-talk, though: Courage, I told myself. Every time you step foot on that dance floor, it is an exercise of courage. Keep doing this, then courage–and dancing–will come more easily. It was then that I thought about JD’s comment and realized that my blog entry about practicing failure should really be about practicing courage.  About “saying yes” to opportunities with precarious, unknown outcomes.  That is a more sustainable approach to life than “failure.” I need to practice courage by lacing up my shoes and going for a run, even though it may be the start of the worst jog of my life; it could also be the best.  I need to be brave and step onto the dance floor because it, too, could be the best dance yet.
Aristotle’s virtue ethics are based on this sort of practice. Find someone who exemplifies courage, he charged, and do what he/she does. After living out courage through repeated, mimicked action, one will eventually embody courage for oneself, as a second nature.  St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises also play off of this idea: by establishing a discipline of meditating on the life of Christ, we will exemplify Christ’s way of life more naturally.
At the end of the night, I was grateful that I took a step–well, many steps–toward courage last night.  It ended up being the best night of dancing yet, and I felt how much I have improved since the summer began. So I’m going to keep practicing my dance moves. Practicing courage.