In the Margins
I feel like some people are my friends, even though I have never met them nor talked to them. Some people in this category are very old---ancient, to be sure. One of them was St. Athanasius, as the Roman Catholic Church calls him. Athanasius was a fourth century bishop and theologian. He was the patriarch of Alexandria, that great classical city in Egypt which was the seat of learning and culture in the ancient age. Athanasius was archbishop of that city when the once unbelievable thing happened. The Roman emperor became a Christian.
This radical change from an empire that had persecuted Christians from the time of Jesus now joined the cause, as it were, and became an ally of the Christian Church. Many of us have questions whether this was a good thing, but nevertheless, Athanasius played a huge role in those times. And I came to know him so well because he was the focus of my doctoral dissertation. I felt like we became friends, but the only thing I had from his life were his writings.
A living person whom I feel like is my friend is the radio host and author, Krista Tippett. For some years she has been the host of the public radio program, On Being. Routinely, she interviews and engages well-known people about their lives, their faith and their spirituality. Oddly enough, she has made a living and become famous for listening. She has a gift for listening to another and then asking a trenchant question that leads to more reflection and some spiritual insight and wisdom.
I have listened to her podcasts, have read the interviews and been educated from the process. I enjoyed her first book, Speaking of Faith. She now has a rather new book out and I am reading it for everything I know it will bring me. She entitles this book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. I like her focus on wisdom. And I really appreciate seeing her talk about living as an art. In this sense we are all artists practicing our craft---living to become better and deeper human beings. Or if we are not doing this, perhaps we are wasting a precious God-given gift, namely, life.
I want to focus this reflective piece on a paragraph that comes very early in her book, the introductory chapter. She says, “I’m a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for the voices not shouting to be heard.” She confesses “my ideas have emerged conversationally, through a back and forth with graceful minds and lives.” And then comes the next sentence that I have come to associate with Tippett’s eloquent style. “I’ve come to understand the cumulative dialogue of my work as a kind of cartography of wisdom about our emerging world.” Cartography is not a word that you run into every day!
I felt lucky that I knew the word means a “mapping.” Cleverly, she says her book is a mapping project of the world’s wisdom. But let her words speak here: “This book is a map in words to important territory we all are on now together.” She has borrowed the image of a journey through a particular unknown territory called life. But we have a map. We have the wisdom of individuals to show us the way.
I add one more piece from the section. She claims that the book as a map of wisdom is “a collection of pointers that treat the margins as seriously as the noisy center. For change has always happened in the margins, across human history, and it’s happening there now.” I love the emphasis on the margins of our lives and of our culture. Most of life is lived from the center---what she calls the noisy center. It is the place of our routine, the normal and the obvious. But she suspect, the Spirit is more to be found on the margin---at the edge. It is there that a new thing is happening.
It is at the margins that change steals in upon us. It is on the edge that reform and, even, transformation begin their creative and re-creative work on our souls and spirits. To become a new creature, as the Apostle Paul says, or a true self as more contemporary spiritual writers describe it, we need to be aware of and sensitive to the marginal work going on in our lives.
It is in the cracks, with little nudges that mighty soul work so often happens. It has been true in my own life. And so I am expecting Tippett’s new book to offer voices and wisdom to which I can listen to continue my own transformational work to be the truest self I can be. Because I tend to be in control in my center, it is no wonder that God so frequently turns out to be a worker of the margins. Tippett’s insights from others no doubt will direct me to that outer, vulnerable place and space in my life.
As odd as it might sound, my quest is to become a marginal person. I want to be as marginally involved in my contemporary culture as I can. It is in the midst of our noisy centers that so often we sign a pact with the devil. It is to the edge I go. Real life will be found in the margins.