Awkwardness is the space where interesting things might happen. It is the space where the hum and buzz of social convention is suddenly paused, where we are forced for a moment to contemplate the silence and creaturliness wherein – as apophatic theology points out – we might find the beginning of wisdom. What we feel when we feel awkwardness is the feeling of nakedness in the garden – we are exposed – and for a moment (or for some of us, many moments), the routine and business behind which we hide is stripped away. We are called upon to act, but there are no stage directions. We are called upon to speak, but we are not given a script. And so we stumble, and stammer, and try to gather the cover of business and routine and words more closely about our hearts. We fear we will be found out. We fear that when we are found out, we will not be loved.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in relation to some of my favorite spiritual texts. Particularly, I’ve been thinking about it with regard to the gifts of grace, that is to say, all the gifts God has bestowed upon us, including our very selves. To think of being given so much by God is the most awkward thing of all, because what can one do? One can’t pay Him back. One can’t reserve a part of oneself. And it is absurd to even think of trying to explain and defend oneself before the very creator who made us. We are at a loss because we are the recipients of gifts. God has put us at the centre, and however hard we try, we can’t escape from the givenness of things. The giftness of the world focuses like a spotlight on each of us, and it is awkward, because it means we have been seen. And we don’t want to be seen – at least not in that way, the whole way, with nothing held back. We may want parts of us seen, but not the whole. And so we stand in awkwardness before God – given everything, even the very good works we do – and are able to give nothing in return. Our awkwardness is a sense of gratitude with nowhere to go. To give so much to us seems a radical miscalculation. And so we want to do something, and hide behind the something that we do.
What texts am I thinking of? Biblically, I am thinking of the parable of the two lost sons, the prodigal and the other – the prodigal experiences such awkwardness when he thinks of his gracious father, and then, when he is ashamed to imagine himself in that grace, imagines he will go back and work for him as a hired laborer. He will come back as a mere servant, and his servanthood will be his cover. It is a way not to deal with the awkwardness of things. Except where it impinges on his service, the business of a servant is his own, not his master’s. But a father is different. With the father, there is awkwardness.
Similarly, I am thinking of Martha in the kitchen. It may not be that she doesn’t feel the same awe Mary feels toward Christ – but perhaps she feels it secretly, so secretly she needs to hide it. She has been seen, spotted – and it is too much to bask in the awkward exposure of it. Better to do. Better to work. They will not notice you doing. The safest place is in the centre, working and facilitating, because no one notices the workers. But Christ does, because this is what Christ does – he makes things awkward.
These are the Biblical texts, but there are two others. One is Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul. One of the central features of her story is a sense of grace achingly, intimately, embarrassingly profound – it is secret and awkward. Hence, Therese describes how she is “not going to give every detail. Some things lose their fragrance when opened to the air, and there are stirrings of the soul which cannot be put into words without destroying their delicacy.” This is Therese’s secret, awkward grace. For those scandalized by the radiant openness of this grace, she, like Moses, wears a veil, which is the typical reluctance of the saints (beginning with St. Paul) to talk about the grace – the gifts – that have been given them. And this veil is cut from the same fabric as that of the prodigal and Martha – speak less and distract them by what you do, and maybe people won’t notice the awkwardness of grace lying thick about your heart. But if they do, it doesn’t matter – the gift that is awkwardness – intimacy with Christ – is more than enough to make up for being found out.
The last text I want to talk about, and the one that inspired this post, is the last text in George Herbert’s Temple. “Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back.” Why? Because “guilty of dust and sin” – the presence of real love is the presence of awkwardness. And when invited to sit and eat, the speaker does exactly that thing we have seen in the prodigal and Martha, the thing that becomes a beautiful translucent veil in the work of Therese of Lisieux – the attempt to hide in service. “My dear, then I will serve…” The line itself is ambiguous – it is unclear whether it is love or the speaker speaking – and this is as it should be. The voice of the lover and the beloved speak in unison, and indeed the thing the speaker turns to to cover his shame and awkwardness before grace becomes at once the grace itself. Even in service we can’t hide, because the service itself is grace – and grace, whose name is Christ, is patient enough to wait until we accept love’s invitation to eat the feast before us. Love and grace are awkward – and it is awkwardness that binds us to Christ.