Archive for February, 2011

Power Surges and Epiphany

One of the realities of rural living is that our electrical power is—shall we say—a little iffy?  As I understand it, when you live in an urban area your electricity usually comes from multiple sources and gets mixed in the grid before it hits your house.  There are redundant circuits as well as redundant protections.  When one of those electrical sources or circuits has a power surge or loss, you may experience a blip in your lights but normally the system can right itself without much pain and suffering in your household.

But here in the sticks, our power comes from a single source, strung on poles through miles of forested mountains.  In these forests are many big trees; and fat wet snow falls on those big trees, some of which subsequently fall on those lines.  Since the poles carry not only the huge wads of power in to the substation, but also smaller lines that take electricity out to rural homes, sometimes—times like this last week—trees fall and lines cross and transformers blow up.  Then the surge of power comes ripping down the wire with a big blue light show, blowing out computers, electrical panels, stoves, and—in this household—the controls and compressor for the geothermal heat.

In a stunning series of multiple power outages, we lost not only our geothermal heat, our electric boiler back-up and the smoke alarms, but also the surge protector at the pole and the two surge protectors built into the electrical panels.  Which, I suppose, means that those surge protectors worked, or at least in part.  After all, we didn’t lose the fridge or freezer or our computers.

Our friend Brian, the electrician, explained it to me one morning as we stood in the frigid back hallway, staring at the small black box with a hole blown in the side of it.  The surge protector is supposed to take all that extra energy and ground it into a bed of sand, where it dissipates.  All that big energy gets distributed out into something that can handle it.  That’s the key—it has to be able to handle it.

Now, epiphany, which fits better here than you might think.  I suppose that this word has been on my mind because, after all, the Christian feast of Epiphany—when the wise men show up in Bethlehem to see the baby—took place recently.  And this entire time, until the start of Lent on March 13th, is referred to as the Epiphany season.

One definition of epiphany is the sudden, intuitive leap of understanding, an all-of-a-sudden knowing: the blare of trumpets and flash of insight in the middle of mundane life.  An epiphany can also designate the appearance of a god; and hence, the feast that occurs on January 6th.  In the Western church, this is the joyous arrival of the Magi; in the Eastern church, the feast was initially associated with the birth of Christ.  Now the season includes the wise men but also Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration—other times when the God in Jesus was recognized.

In my experience, that first kind of epiphany—those sudden intuitive jolts—feel a lot like power surges.  I’m basically a short-cut girl, so I like this.  But it’s not always pleasant, to say the least.  I’ve had a few of those blasts in my past: in a therapist’s office 24 years ago when a few words changed my self-definition from normal drinker to alcoholic.  In seminary having a comfortable cup of coffee with my best friend George when I realized that I was madly in love with him.  Once, over a lunch discussion, morphing from an ordinary struggling minister into someone who was leaving her pastorate.

These epiphanies aren’t necessarily about the appearance of a god (George might want to argue with that one!) but more about the appearance of a hidden truth: the way that all the loose ends come together suddenly and definitively.  I live my life not knowing what I don’t know and then suddenly, BANG! I know.  Once I know, once some truth has come clear, there’s no going back.  And then I’m left to figure out what the hell to do with this new knowledge.

Which brings me to surge protectors.  What protects us from completely frying when a big charge like this comes down the wire?

If we are lucky, the gradual living of life has given us sufficient structure—sturdy character—that can act as a shock absorber in shocking times.  This is not the same as denial; this is the hard work of repeatedly absorbing and integrating suffering and discouragement.  This is learning to stand steady during the times when we want to throw up our hands and walk away.  With character, we learn how to deal with the (sometimes horror of a) new situation and grow, rather than burrow into the ground of deadening fear.

But sometimes, even with character, we get blown out to a place we don’t know how to handle.  We find ourselves walking in the dark wood, not knowing what to do next, not understanding how we can possibly go on.  Which brings me to another kind of surge protector: community.

When I figured out I was a drunk, I knew that I needed to stop drinking but had no idea how.  I had the great good luck that there existed a group of people who had sorted sobriety out, and who gave freely of their time to assist me.  Likewise, when I decided to leave being a pastor, I called on friends and colleagues who had been through similar transitions.

This works at the physical level, too.  This past week when we were shivering in the subzero cold, our friends and neighbours called.  They volunteered wood, warm rooms to stay in; when the electricity went back on, plug-in heaters to keep the pipes from freezing.  Community saved us, again.

There is also, I think, a third kind of surge protector—the voice of our unconscious, our soul—and following it brings us into a different relationship with the blast of power that’s headed our way.  This may be most obvious if we use the second definition of epiphany—the appearance of a god.

I can see how the two definitions of epiphany are related: why recognizing a god is considered a sudden and intuitive thing.  Maybe it usually is.  But the occurrence that we commemorated on January 6th was anything but precipitate.  While the appearance of the Magi must have felt all-of-a-sudden to Mary and Joseph—and Herod, too—for the wise men it was anything but.  There was no quick realization, no speedy denouement, nothing fast.  Just a long long slog down a long long road, hoping beyond hope that you weren’t making the trip for nothing, not sure where you’d end up or what you’d find.  From the example of the travelers from the East, it would appear that sometimes we do know what we don’t know, or at least we anticipate what we don’t know, hope for it, plan for it, structure our life as if it were true.

I’ve recently returned to John Tarrant’s book The Light Inside the Dark.  Tarrant, a Jungian psychotherapist and Zen Buddhist, is a profound and tender observer of the human condition.  What I stumbled over a few days ago speaks to the kind of epiphany that the Magi experienced, the appearance of the Divine after a tedious, faithful slog:

When we want to do something, we turn our hearts toward it and eventually a path opens.  Much of the preparation for the inward work lies in developing the intention to do it, (in) making it more important than going to a movie or being admired by our friends.  It is not enough to long for freedom—we must have a platform in daily life, a basis for the change.  Change itself is sudden, like harvest.  It is preparing the ground that takes time. (193)

It seems that epiphany—either that sudden, intuitive understanding, or the appearance of a god—can affect us in two ways.  It can spring on us like a power surge, blowing our circuits, or we can turn toward it in expectation and mystery.  The first way, the cost comes after the event as we struggle to understand and re-arrange our lives; the second way, we pay the biggest cost up-front.  It’s less dramatic, and leaves us open to self-doubt and possibly derision during that long waiting time.  But that’s faith, isn’t it: the preparation of the ground of ourselves to receive the unfathomable Divine.

One of the lines from the rubrics of the Catholic Mass says, We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our saviour, Jesus Christ. Your language and theology for this kind of epiphany may be different.  But regardless of the frame used, I expect that you long for that for which I too long: a surge protector that really works, the slow epiphany and the willingness to walk the long, tenebrous road with joy.