Another Way of the Cross?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011 — Week of Proper 13, Year One

George Freeman Bragg, Jr., Priest, 1940

William Edward Burghardt DuBois, Sociologist, 1962

To read about our daily commemorations, go to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, 978)

Psalms 119:97-120 (morning) 81, 82 (evening)

2 Samuel 9:1-13

Acts 19:1-10

Mark 8:34 – 9:1

I usually read a passage like today’s as an invitation to embrace suffering and sacrifice. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” I don’t want to compromise the traditional understanding of the cross as a call of self-denial and willing suffering service, but it strikes me this morning that there is another experience that has some similar qualities.

When we become deeply engrossed in doing something that grasps our attention and challenges our skill, it is easy sometimes to lose our sense of time and even our sense of self. The social scientist Mike Csikszentmihalyi, who developed the concept of “flow,” asks people to recall activities when time stops for us, when we find ourselves doing exactly what we want to be doing, and never want it to end? He tells a story to illustrate.

“I visited my older half-brother in Budapest recently, Marty. He’s retired, and his hobby is minerals. He told me that a few days before he had taken a crystal and started studying it under his powerful microscope shortly after breakfast. A while later, he noticed that it was becoming harder to see the internal structure clearly, and he thought that a cloud must have passed in front of the sun. He looked up and saw that the sun had set.” (from Martin E. P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness, Free Press, 2002, p. 114)

There are times when we seem to disappear, our lives lost, absorbed in the moment. Sometimes it is with another person, when we are so focused on their story or their being that we give ourselves completely over to their circumstances or need. Sometimes it is when we are working on a task and find ourselves so challenged that the task takes us out of our self awareness. We give ourselves over to the moment and its challenge. Time seems to stand still. Oddly, there is usually no experience of positive emotion when we are so absorbed. When someone is “in the flow,” there is no one there to need the experience of pleasure. Maybe afterward, we might reflect on how satisfying or fun, or even ecstatic the activity was.

Seligman calls these moments “gratifications.” They are tasks that challenge us and require that we concentrate and use our best skills. We become deeply involved, sometimes almost effortlessly. We have a sense of feedback, that what we are doing is its own goal. We become absorbed, so engaged that our sense of self as separate vanishes. Seligman teaches a version of “The Good Life,” that urges us to discover and use our personal strengths every day in the main areas of our life to do meaningful acts that bring abundant “gratifications”.

Some of our teens recently returned from the Episcopal Youth Event in Minnesota. They had a lot to tell about. They loved being with a thousand other Episcopalian teens. They made friends. Worship was “awesome.” But they spent a lot of time talking about two service projects they engaged in on their return, one a Habitat project Kansas City, the other a fix-up, clean-up day at our campus ministry. In both cases they were doing hard physical labor that demanded considerable skill and concentration. They threw themselves into it. They worked for hours, but only expressed exhilaration. And, at the end, tiredness. It was great. It was fun. When questioned, they said, yes, it was like time stood still. They weren’t watching the clock, marking time. They got into the task so much that these usually self-absorbed teens became absorbed. At the end, they felt good because they had done something meaningful that helped others.

Maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to include such work as a form of taking up one’s cross, losing one’s life for Christ’s sake and the sake of the gospel.

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