by Alexandra Mauney, member of First Church Greer; Columbia Theological Seminary Student under care of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry in Foothills Presbytery
My alarm clock is generally set to rouse me from my slumber at about 5:30 AM on weekday mornings. This waking time has become one of the cherished patterns of my daily life rhythms this semester: my first destination, naturally, is the coffee maker. I make a single cup of coffee, turn on a lamp, and peer out into the sleepy darkness of campus. I live in one of the seminary campus dorms and my apartment faces out into one of the more heavily trafficked areas of campus. I covet those early morning moments of dark stillness, when no one is stirring and the brilliance of the floodlights casts an eerie glow over all the familiar scenery outside my windows. This stillness grounds me.
Many mornings, I leave the comfort of my apartment and step out into the brilliant darkness, towards my car to go to the gym, or away from campus for a run. One recent morning, as I continued in this familiar pattern, this ordo of my morning life, I set off running during those mysterious minutes between darkness and light, just before sunrise. I set off running, feet pounding pavement, feet pounding pavement, stopped until the traffic light was green, and set out on the pedestrian path along the road. Suddenly I felt on my chest and arms the unmistakable sticky feeling of an unforeseen cobweb – or, as the case may be, the former presence of a cobweb, which had just then been transferred as filmy residue all across the front of my body. I stopped…brushed it off…and continued…feet pounding pavement, feet pounding pavement…
And then…there was another cobweb. And another…and another…and another. It was as if I was the first person to have traversed that path that morning, making me the object of attachment for all the nighttime toil of the Katie Kerr Road spiders. The cobwebs made their new home over the surfaces of my body and clothes, as I modified my morning ordo to accommodate this new addition. Feet pounding pavement… brushing away cobwebs … feet pounding pavement … brushing away cobwebs … I was hyperaware of how I must have appeared to onlookers beginning their morning commute.
I soon settled into the new rhythms of running and brushing and running and brushing, but the strange feeling, the sticky and clingy map of spiders’ labors, did not disappear, at least not yet. It did not take a giant leap of the imagination to calculate the possibility that dozens of tiny spiders were maybe crawling all around on the surface of
my body, burrowing away in between my shoelaces and in the crevices of my tank top. That wasn’t true, of course, but you know how the mind works. Where there are cobwebs, there are spiders. And so, I turned and headed towards home… Feet pounding pavement… brushing away cobwebs … feet pounding pavement … brushing away cobwebs…
The staccato rhythm of my morning ordo did not cease until I reached the steps of my apartment building, bypassing my usual post-run rituals of stretches and peanut-butter-on-Eggo-waffles, heading straight for the shower. It was only then, under the steady stream of water, with the lather of the soapsuds, that the cobwebs disappeared from my body. I kept checking to be sure they were really gone- what if those little tiny spiders from my morbid imagination have burrowed themselves into … no, really, Alexandra, they’re gone. The cobwebs are down the drain. Get on with your day.
But they weren’t really gone. Those cobwebs stuck with me for the better part of the day, at least in my mind and in the memory of my body. That sticky feeling, and the fear of the tiny spiders, and the memory of the residue and the running / brushing / running / brushing rhythm … they all stuck with me. I wasn’t quite the same, at least for that day, and the ever-so-slight alteration in my morning ordo was just significant enough to leave me feeling, well, ever-so-slightly altered.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
In Psalm 51, the Psalmist helps us to see just how “cobwebby” our sin can be. The Psalmist writes that his sin is ever before him, ever in front of him, and we can imagine it clinging to him like a spider web, the knowledge and reality of his transgression marking his body with the sticky residue of guilt and sin. We, too, certainly share his experience. The knowledge of our sin, or the knowledge of the sin that is present in the world, clings to us. All it takes is a cursory glance at the day’s newspaper headlines to be covered in the residue of the world’s sin.
Do we not long with the Psalmist for God to wash us – to wash the world – thoroughly of iniquity, to let us hear joy and gladness again, to let the bones that have been crushed rejoice? Just as my encounter with the early morning spider webs prompted me to head straight for the shower, so the Psalmist prays that God would wash him, would blot out that which separates him from God. We pray with the Psalmist that God would look away, that God would hide God’s face from us and wash us from our sin, would turn the shower head on the cobwebs that cling to us so tightly and restore us to a state of joy.
These cobwebs of sin mark the life of faith – attaching themselves to our very bodies – and they cover us all the way to the cross, where we are bound. We walk around brushing aimlessly at the sticky webs until they threaten to drive us mad. They come to bind us in the form of so many things: of our complicity in the violence and evil of the world – white supremacy, the degradation of the earth, the systems that keep poverty in place, apathy for those suffering in our midst – but also of our own doubt and confusion, as we ask with Mary Magdalene at the tomb of her Lord after his mysterious arising, where have they laid my Jesus?, wondering if the Christ to whose cross we have been bound will truly rise to conquer death. (Where there are cobwebs, there are spiders.) These cobwebs mark us deeply and invisibly, altering the ordos of our lives with such subtlety that we sometimes do not even know what’s happening.
Our Lenten journey in these 40 days draws us even more intimately into the perception of those cobwebby sins that bind us to the cross of Christ. Beginning with the heavy awareness of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, we bury our alleluias and put away our joyful postludes and walk with our sticky residued bodies all the way to the stripped altar on Good Friday. We have journeyed with our Lord, and we know that sin deeply marks our lives – we are confused, and sticky, and tired. With the Psalmist, we pray to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”
My prayer for myself and for the communities of which I am a part, as we journey toward the stripped altar, is that we might begin to recognize the network of cobwebs that are covering us. I pray that we might offer these revelations of sin to God, who is rich in mercy and is compassionate to forgive, and that we might begin the journey to repentance and restoration. I also pray that as God washes us of our sin, immersing us in the baptismal waters, that we might be moved to action on behalf of those with whom we live and work in community. After all, where there are cobwebs, there are spiders; but where there is water, there is grace. Thanks be to God for this gift of cleansing and renewal.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.