The Perfect Moment
"Far off, like a perfect pearl, one can see the City of God," wrote Oscar Wilde from a prison cell. "It is so wonderful that it seems as if a child could reach it in a summer's day. And so a child could. But with me and such as me it is different. One can realize a thing in a single moment, but one loses it in the long hours that follow with leaden feet. It is so difficult to keep 'the heights that the soul is competent to gain.' We think in eternity, but we move slowly through time..."
I remember a period in my life in which I experienced an extended spiritual high. It began with a burst of illumination followed by a delicious afterglow that lasted many weeks. At one point I was out running errands on a Saturday morning, my heart overflowing with love for everything in God's creation. I was about to make a right turn onto the highway when I was cut off by a car turning left from the opposite direction. Although I had the right of way, the young woman in the other car apparently took offense. She slowed her car to a crawl on the entrance ramp, forcing me to brake. She made a rude hand gesture to signal her displeasure, then sped off. I was determined not to allow this incident to spoil my mood. But I found myself fantasizing about being a cop and pulling this woman over for violations of traffic law and decorum.
The problem with moments of illumination is always what happens next. Spaulding Gray did a funny riff in Swimming to Cambodia about his quest for what he called the Perfect Moment -- the pot smoker's equivalent of the City of God. One moment he was high on Thai grass, happily bobbing up and down in shark-invested waters in the Indian Ocean: "Suddenly, there was no time and there was no fear and there was no body to bite." The next moment, his companion, a powerful swimmer and scuba diver, nearly drowned. (In a sad postscript, Gray himself eventually drowned after he jumped from the Staten Island ferry.)
Something always comes along to spoil our Perfect Moment. Worse, we tend to horde those golden moments in our memory and to discard the less shiny ones. We fail to recognize that each moment of life, no matter how wretched it may seem, is in its own way perfect and is designed to bring us to perfection -- each moment of anger, each moment of exaltation, each moment of failure. The moments that follow with leaden feet are no less a perfect expression of the divine than those ushered in with the Hallelujah Chorus.
Each moment in life is a new lesson in love, but not love in the way we usually think of it. English translations of the New Testament fail to note that this kind of love is fundamentally different from the love we might have for a spouse or a friend. The Greek word agape is more about acceptance than affection. It conveys a sense of radical acceptance of the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be. The City of God gleams like a perfect pearl, seemingly far off. But there is still all that other stuff we must slog through. Acceptance means we neither reject it nor cling to it. We simply acknowledge it for what it is at that moment, without judgment of any kind -- and because there is no attachment, we are free to slog on.
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis.