Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Braided Leather Cord: Pleasure, Desire, and Gratitude

Donald Schell has a meditation worth reading on the Episcopal Cafe blog: "The Braided Leather Cord." He relates his experience of climbing a rope while on pilgrimage in Ethopia to need for soulful people to integrate pleasure, desire, and gratitude. A few choice passages:

Just as the three strands of interwoven flesh - animals’ skins - made a lifeline and a way of ascent, the sixth century Syrian monks who built Debra Damo, despite their fierce asceticism, confidently wove Pleasure, Desire, and Gratitude into a line sturdy enough to carry us up into God’s embrace. Most Christians of that time braided this same line.


But who is trying? For a single sermon commending pleasure or desire, we’ve probably heard twenty urging us to give or share because we ‘should be grateful.’ We’re in the grip of fearful Christian thinking from those bitter centuries that came to mistrust pleasure and desire.


Our pleasure delights God. Both giving us our daily bread and giving us Christ the bread eternal please God because both ordinary bread and Christ our living bread delight and pleasure us. We’re all of us the prodigal welcomed home to a Great Feast in OUR honor and for our pleasure. Receiving God’s vast blessings with pleasure moves us (makes us want or desire) to offer God our thanks. We’re in bolder and more paradoxical territory than ‘It is right to give God thanks and praise.’


The joy at bending knee and hip for prayer was so exhilarating that I refused to hold myself back, so went forward to kneel at the rail to receive communion, even though I wasn’t confirmed and knew I was breaking the rules to receive. This was an altar call I welcomed joyfully.

Finally had desire unlocked what was frozen. Desire hadn’t let me rest, and in the end it moved me to a path I’m still pursuing. Gregory of Nyssa in his Commentary on the Song of Songs says that we are most like God in our infinite desire.


[That] Sunday [my wife and I] started ballroom dancing lessons. For three years we hardly missed a week. Week by week for three years, we danced our way to deeper understanding and love. Learning to dance together was as deep as any conversation we’d ever had.

There’s the three braid strand - pleasure, desire, and gratitude. I started this reflection with pleasure. Braiding, each is equally essential. I might have told other stories if I’d begun with desire or gratitude, but once braiding has begun, each is line is important in turn, and as Christians of the first centuries knew, together they carry us to Life. (source)

Rope is a powerful image. It connects and binds and somehow manages to be both strong and flexible. In some circles wedding ceremonies now include a "binding" ceremony in which an intricate knot temporarily binds the couple to each other. This resonates with me more than the "unity candles" that you sometimes see.

I've always enjoyed playing with rope, even though my mother was afraid I would hang myself! I consider knot-tying to be one of those essential skills everyone should learn, like cooking, sewing, or changing a tire. It's a practical skill that comes in surprisingly handy in the parking lot of Ikea or when hanging a vinyl sign on the side of your church!

It's a symbol we probably don't use enough in Christianity; consider that Jesus, that carpenter and friend of fisherman, probably knew more knots than most people, even in his culture. Ropes connect and give structure and allow us to move things and hold things. One of the things I find fascinating about St. Gregory of Nyssa's Church in San Francisco (the parish Donald co-founded) is the ropes that hold the oil lamps over the altar. They are thick, black, sturdy ropes that look like they could probably hold a person's weight. They go from the lamps to pulleys in the ceiling to cleats in the wall high enough to discourage kids from doing damage.

Anyway, that's what comes to mind when I think of ropes....


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