The Gift of Disappearing – March 14, 2021

When I was a teenager, something strange started happening to me.  At random times with no apparent connection, I would become very dizzy.  Things would start to look fuzzy, I would become really clammy.  And then I would pass out.  The first time this happened, thankfully I was at home.  My mother of course panicked.  But I came to quickly.  And I was able to convince my parents that I didn’t need to go to the hospital or the doctor.  I probably just hadn’t had enough to drink or maybe I was coming down with something.

The second time was a couple of weeks later.  I was playing tennis with my best friend.  And we were very competitive with each other – our tennis matches filled with smack talk and taunting.  And in the middle of one of these matches, the feeling descended again.  All of a sudden I had to sit down knowing what was coming.  And then I passed out again.  Not for long, but enough to scare me.  My friend, of course, suggested that I did it just because I was losing.  I just attributed it to getting too hot.

But after two experiences of passing out, I started to get a little paranoid.  I worried it would happen at any time.  I could easily get myself worked up, creating feelings like I was going to pass out if I thought about it too much.  But since my parents were not aware of the last incident, I knew I could get out of going to the doctor if I didn’t make a big deal of it.  So I tried to put it out of my mind.

During my junior year, I attended homecoming with someone I was very excited about going with.  I hoped that our evening would be the beginning of a new relationship.  The evening was going perfectly until it came time to crown the homecoming king and queen.  There were a lot of cameras flashing, and all of the sudden I felt myself going down.  The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the principal’s office lying on his couch.  Unfortunately, the principal had called my parents, and my dad was on his way to get me.  Not much of a romantic end to the evening having the principal tell your date that you were going home.  And this incident insured that my parents would require me to go to the doctor to figure out what was wrong.

Today, we consider the gift of disappearing.  When I think of this gift, I think of movies where someone has gone off on a wilderness adventure but does not return when she is supposed to.  Search parties are formed, helicopters fly over the places where the person is suspected to be.  When I speak of the gift of disappearing today though, I am not speaking of a physical disappearance – not walking off into the sunset never to be seen again.  Rather, I speak of the disappearance of the false images we build around ourselves, the false identities and labels which are imposed on us by others.  During our times of wandering in the Dark Wood, we can shed those false images as we recognize our true identity and disappear into that identity.

The gift of disappearing helps us to maintain a distance from unhealthy perceptions of ourselves.  These perceptions may be based on a house of cards built high on our own pride.  Or it can be a devalued image pulled from the depths of shame.  This gift allows us the grace to move through our lives more freely, to follow our true purpose, to recognize our inherent value, even when obstacles are placed in our way.  But, perhaps more than the other gifts of the Dark Wood we have explored, this is a gift few of us claim.  And if we do, few of us are able to utilize it well.

Our second reading this morning is a story that has been told in many forms, from many different cultures and areas of the world.  And I heard it told from a different perspective in a play I recently watched called “In and of Itself” by Derek Delgaudio.  The story goes that six men walk through a field and come across something.  They don’t know what it is, and rather than minding their own business, they investigate.  But all of these men are blind, and while they are all touching this thing they are all touching different parts of it.  So each one thinks it is a totally different thing.  The one touching the trunk thinks it is a snake, the one touching the tail thinks it is a rope, the one touching the side thinks it is a wall, one touching below thinks its legs are tree trunks, the one on top thinks the ears are fans.  They argue among themselves for quite a while, but after they communicate among one other they decide it is an elephant.

While there are many versions of this story, there is one thing all those versions have in common.  None of them have been told from the perspective of the elephant.  This elephant is standing alone in a field and all of a sudden, six guys come at him and start touching him.  And then they start arguing about what he is.  So they form a committee and come back and tell the elephant that they have determined what he is.  But, after all, these men are blind.  And what if they are wrong.  What if it isn’t an elephant?  What if it is truly some magical creature no one has ever seen before – with a snake for a nose, tree trunks for legs and walls for a body.  What if they convinced this creature he was just an elephant.  And what if he had no one else around who loved him and saw him for what he really was, someone who could say to him “Those men are all wrong.  You are so much more than that.”  And this magical creature in all its uniqueness is then convinced it is just like so many other animals walking around.

This happens to so many of us in our lives.  We are labeled by others, given identities which obscure who we really are.  This has happened to me many times.  Hurtful words which caused me to carry a sense of shame, mistakes which make me perceive myself as a failure, disappointments which diminish my ability to see the potential I possess.  Like those blind men and the creature they encounter, I have been told I am something by how others perceive me.  And those perceptions are difficult to shake, make it difficult to embrace the person I truly am.

But sometimes we are given experiences which allow us to shake those false images, and disappear into who we truly are.  In our first reading this morning, we heard the story of Zechariah.  Zechariah was a priest, a man chosen to serve in the temple.  Zechariah is chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.  This was a very big deal.  He is given what was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to stand in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred spot in the Jerusalem temple.  For the Jewish people, this was the most sacred place on earth.  It was the place where the ark of the covenant rested, above which the presence of God was thought to be enthroned.  Because it was so sacred, the Holy of Holies was entered once a year by a priest chosen by lot to attend to the altar and its furnishings.

While this would be a powerful experience on its own, Zechariah is said to see the angel Gabriel, telling Zechariah that his prayers have been heard by God.  That after years of being childless, his wife will give birth to a son.  That his son will do great things, that he will turn many people to God.  In that moment, Zechariah receives a new identity.  He will be known as the father of a child through whom the world would receive a powerful blessing.

But even though he sees this vision within the temple, Zechariah struggles to embrace this identity.  He looks for reasons within himself to reject it.  He was unable to shed the identity he had taken for himself – childless.  He is unable to accept that his situation could change, that he could have an identity different from the one he had always known.  So he asks, “How can I be sure of this?  My wife and I are very old.”

And this questioning leads Zechariah into a time in the Dark Wood.  The angel says, “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”  When we read these words, we believe that Zechariah is being punished, that his inability to speak is the negative consequence for his doubts.  But is that really what is happening here?

Think of what that time would be like for Zechariah, to go for nine months without speaking, being a silent observer of life.  Imagine the difficulties this would bring.  It would affect Zechariah’s service in the temple.  He would be unable to speak to his wife as she goes through her pregnancy.  Even everyday tasks would be significantly more difficult – communicating only through writing things down.  And the difficulties this would present would serve as a constant reminder of his encounter in the temple, of the new identity he was taking on.

But while it would present challenges for Zechariah, it would also present him with a unique opportunity.  Not being able to speak, he would have a significant amount of time to reflect, to reconsider how he viewed himself.  Being unable to project to others how he viewed himself, he was able to look inward.  And after that time of wandering in the Dark Wood, Zechariah is able to let go of his shame, his pride, and disappear into a new identity.  When his wife gives birth, Zechariah is finally able embrace the role he was given.

Like Zechariah, most of us struggle to ever get to that place, to let go of all of the things which weigh us down and disappear into the person we truly are.  Most of us either fall victim to pride or shame.  Pride tells us that we are better off when we live under our own power.  Shame tells us that we are unworthy, that we are not entitled to receive love as we are.  While these are two very different ways to view ourselves, they often lead to the same result – we limit ourselves.  With shame, we are limited by the perceptions of our families or friends, by our fears and insecurities, or by traumatic events in our lives.  With pride, we are limited by the instability which comes when even small challenges upset our high view of ourselves.  But, like Zechariah, sometimes our times of wandering give us a chance to shed those false images and to embrace who we truly are.

After my episodes of losing consciousness, I went through all kinds of tests.  And the doctors never found out what was wrong.  While there was some peace of mind knowing I didn’t have something serious, it always hung over my head that it could happen again. Whenever I would start to feel a little dizzy, or start sweating, I would worry I was going to drop to the ground.  Even now as I talk about it, there is a part of me that fears thinking about it will cause it to happen.

That fear is much like the way we live our lives when we don’t live into our true identity.  Pursued by shame, or emboldened by pride, we live in constant fear that the unstable structure on which we have built our lives will collapse underneath us.  Lacking a firm foundation of our true identity, we become disoriented.  But when we let go of the shame imposed by others or the pride we have constructed for ourselves, we are able to disappear into the person we are meant to be.

Today we tie a ribbon as a prayer that we will embrace the gift of disappearing.  That our lives and the direction we move will not be based upon our shame, our regrets, our pride, our even our joys.  But that all of that can disappear into our true identity, something constant, something that does not change based upon our circumstances. For it is then that we emerge from the Dark Wood rediscovering who we are, that we emerge into the world with a new sense of vision and confidence.