She was dancing at a fashionable ball. None was gayer or lovelier: her marriage to the most eligible man of her set was due within the week. Suddenly, in the midst of a minuet, she saw a vision of the world dying – for lack of prayer. She could almost hear the world’s gasping, as a drowning man gasps for air. The dance now seemed macabre, a dance of death. In the corner a priest, smiling and satisfied, discussed the eligibles with a matchmaking mother: even the Church did not know that the world was dying – for want of prayer. As instant as a leaping altar flame, she vowed her life to ceaseless intercession, and none could dissuade her. She founded a contemplative order of prayer – lest the world should die. Was she quite wrong? Was she wrong at all? Or is our world saved by those who keep the windows open on another world? [“The Nun of Lyons” – Creative Prayer -E. Hermann (1921)]
Danny called home on Friday night. It was strange because we had already talked to him earlier in the evening. Danny’s in New York City these days, pursuing some professional opportunities. He’s “bi-coastal,” as he tells me. He’s sublet his room at his apartment in LA and he is subletting a room in an apartment in New York City. Ah, the life of a struggling artist! Anyway, we had talked early on Friday evening about how things were going for him in the Big Apple, and we had been off of the phone for an hour or two when Mary Lynn’s I Phone pinged with a text message from him. All it said was – “I just had the most awful experience.” That was it; no details, no explanation, just the sort of message to get a mother’s instant attention. And so, after a frantic exchange of texts, we had Danny back on the phone.
It seems that he had gone down to a corner drugstore in his neighborhood and just as soon as he stepped through the door he was assaulted by what he called the most disgusting smell that he has ever encountered. It made him physically ill. And then he noticed that all of the clerks were bunched behind the counter at one end and all of the customers were clumped at the end of the aisles at the back of the store. As Danny began to assess his surroundings, he said that he became aware of a homeless man standing at the counter trying to be waited on. He was dirty and disheveled, but that was not the problem. The problem was gangrene. Wherever there was exposed flesh on this man’s body there was unmistakable appearance and odor of decaying flesh. That man was in real trouble, and the only response that the people who were in the store were making to him was revulsion, that and spraying aerosol disinfectant and deodorizer in his general direction. Danny was no less repulsed, but as he told us, he knew that this man was going to die if he didn’t get some help, and as Danny put it, he understood that this man, however disgusting his circumstance, was a fellow human being, “some mother’s son” as he put it. And so Danny eventually got out his phone and started making some phone calls to emergency services. He finally got to the right people, an emergency response team that serves the homeless when they are in crisis, but they told Danny that they can only respond when the homeless person is right there in sight. They would be glad to respond, but they were not going to go looking for this man, and sadly, by the time that Danny got to the right people, the man in the drugstore had moved on and that was the end of the story. But not really.
Danny is now empowered with some knowledge that he didn’t have before he walked into that drugstore on Friday night. He will know what to do the next time he is faced with this situation, and because I know my boy, I’m pretty sure that that he will be faced with this situation again soon. I suspect that every time Danny is in that neighborhood now, he has his eyes open for that homeless man; in fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Danny has already gone back into that neighborhood intentionally looking for that man so that he can try to get him the help that he so desperately needs. You see, what happened in that drugstore on Friday night not only opened Danny’s eyes, at a deeper level, it opened Danny’s heart. He’s had a “Nun of Lyons” experience.
Alan Jones, the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, describes it as a “stopping the world” experience in his book Soul Making (Harper 1985). He defines the experience as “receiving the salutary shock of a revelation,” a “way of breaking open a person’s consciousness” that results in them “seeing the world in a new way” (69). Biblically, this is what happened to Moses and the People of Israel when they were trapped at the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them, and the waters parting made a way for them where just moments before there had been no way (Exodus 14). It’s what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus when he got knocked off his donkey and wound up at the feet, and in the embrace of the Risen Christ (Acts 9). These experiences are terribly disorienting at first, but with time, they become profoundly renewing. They open us up to new possibilities with greater freedom and responsibility. As Alan Jones puts it: “’Stopping the world’ is an exhilarating experience. Just for a moment we have no choice but to see all of our dogmatic and philosophical baggage thrown overboard as we stand shipwrecked on an unknown island. There we are, naked, stripped of the fig leaves of our prejudices and presuppositions. …(All of) the really creative and free souls that I have encountered have been shipwrecked at one time or another. They have had their world taken from them and lived to tell the tale” (71).
I suspect that what happened to Danny at that corner drugstore in New York City last Friday night has the potential for being one of these “stopping the world” experiences for him; time will tell. What’s certain is that “stopping the world” experiences will break in on us all routinely. They are one of the ways that God gets our attention and proposes His plans for us and our lives. But as the familiar imagery of Revelation 3:20 makes clear, when God knocks on the doors of our lives, He always waits for our response. When our worlds stop, we’ve got to notice. It’s easy to distract ourselves from what God is doing, to insulate ourselves from what God is asking of us. We can so occupy ourselves with little luxuries, passing assignments and fleeting entertainments that we miss the moment of God’s visitation in our lives. And so, in the words of Fr. Louis Evely, I am constantly being challenged to remain alert and to pay attention, to recognize that every moment is an occasion for grace, a proposal, a call from God, an invitation for me to believe, and to trust, and to obey whatever happens. DBS+