26 October 2007

"We're wonderful One Times One"

I read today a blog entry by someone talking about "studying about love" and "reading about union with God." I was struck by how important it is to be instructed in love by loving (and failing to love!), and to learn about union with God by allowing him to love us and falling in love with him in return; we learn about union by being estranged, reconciled, and united. Afterall, there are some things we only really learn about in the doing of them, and while I am a great student in the academic sense, I know too that there are simply some things that reading "about" really means postponing the doing of. Mysticism is a fascinating subject; so are eremitism and prayer more generally. But at some point, books fail. They are completely inadequate to the incommensurate experience of union with God --- to ANY degree at all, even the slightest inkling of such a state!

In this context, I was reminded of the line of a poem by e e cummings, "(and birds sing sweeter than books tell how)"! In fact, when I looked up the poem, which I had last read many years ago, there were a whole series of comments on the inadequacy of book learning in this matter of love, and also, a focus on the reality of the union of love. As the poet also affirmed, when we have experienced genuine union, whether that is with another person, or with God himself then, "(books are/shutter/than books can be)"! So, while I suspect e e cummings was speaking of falling in love with another person, there is no reason this poem does not refer equally well to contemplative knowledge of communion with God gleaned from prayer.

In fact, the rhythm and structure of the poem catch at my heart like Celtic fiddle music, and I am reminded of the joy captured by Charles Schultz and the animators that collaborated with him in his pictures of "the Snoopy Dance"! These always make me think how "right" they are to the experience of prayer, how well they express the joy which results from a life lived in light of such a reality. Once again e e cummings has said something better, with greater charm, spontaneity, and joy, than I could ever hope to.

if everything happens that can't be done
(and anything's righter
than books
could plan)
the stupidest teacher will almost guess
(with a run
around we go yes)
there's nothing as something as one

one hasn't a why or because or although
(and buds know better
than books
don't grow)
one's anything old being everything new
(with a what
around we come who)
one's everyanything so

so world is a leaf so tree is a bough
(and birds sing sweeter
than books
tell how)
so here is away and so your is a my
(with a down
around again fly)
forever was never till now

now I love you and you love me
(and books are shutter
than books
can be)
and deep in the high that does nothing but fall
(with a shout
around we go all)
there's somebody calling who's we

we're anything brighter than even the sun
(we're everyanything greater
than books
might mean)
we're everyanything more than believe
(with a spin
alive we're alive)
we're wonderful one times one

(From the Collected Poems, "1 X 1", or "One Times One")

This is who you are!

Icon of the Transfiguration

Throughout the last two weeks' readings Paul has been trying to speak to the Church in Rome (both ancient and modern!), and getting them to understand who they really are now in light of their Baptisms, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus and their incorporation into that reality. I was particularly struck by how he emphasizes, despite all his seeming equations between the old Adam and the new, our slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness, the power of sin and the power of grace, the old law and the new, just how truly different and incommensurate are all the things on the second side of these equations. Paul builds on equations where the second term is completely unequal to the first. He is not really building equations but comparisons of qualitative disparity. And this is what he really wants us to get: Who we are in Christ is a new kind of humanity. Paul's term is "a new creation," but how often do we really take this seriously?

When I was originally catechized I was taught the older theology of baptism that described the Sacrament in terms of the "washing away (of) the stain of original sin", or, "the restoration of our friendship with God," and the reestablishment of a state of Grace. It seemed to me that in Baptism, I had been restored to something very near the state Adam and Eve (not understood as a corporate identity) found themselves in in the Genesis narratives. When the newer theology of Baptism came to accent our being incorporated into the Body of Christ, and baptized into his death and resurrection, it added an important ecclesial and communal aspect to things for me, but it was not radically different than what I had been taught before. But Paul's theology is far more radical, I think.

In every case, with every one of his comparisons, Paul ends the discussion by emphasizing the qualitative difference between the old and the new. He says that "grace abounded all the more"; he says we are now the slaves or servants of God rather than of the lesser, though terrible, power of sin; he says that despite what happened in Adam, how much more in much greater measure is given (lives and reigns) in Christ Jesus, and of course, he says that we are a new creation, not simply the restoration of the old. How are we to think of this, and doesn't it sound elitist or exclusivist to suggest that in Baptism we are so radically remade as to become a new kind of humanity whose truest end is the Kingdom of God, and, in fact, life within the very heart of God?

First, in thinking about this new creation we become, let's be clear that Paul ALSO says that we remain at war within ourselves. There is the inner (or true) person, the person who truly exists in Christ and in the power of the spirit, and there is the "person" (the unverified, not yet made true person) who is still subject to sin, who does what she does not want to do, and fails to do what she really wishes. Paul is not unrealistic about our ambiguous existence in this world. Eternity has broken in on us, yes, but it is not yet all in all. God is not yet all in all. The yeast (to use another and non-Pauline image) has been included in the dough, and it is therefore a completely different dough than it would have been otherwise, but the yeast is not yet all in all. I admit, the analogy limps (I would be more concerned if it did not!), but it helps me think of the paradox that is involved here.

One of the newer readings of the Genesis narratives associated with theological reflection on the theology of original sin and the reality of Adam and Eve is diachronic rather than synchronic. It looks at Adam and Eve, not simply as corporate identities (another new feature of theological reflection on this whole constellation of problems), or as individual ancestors in the past, but as a reality which stands in our future, a reality which all human beings are called to, the seeds of which exist in the heart of each and every one of us. It is, in some way a different reality, a different humanity than we actually know here, an "evolutionary" leap, even while it is also consistent with who we are now. Except that this evolutionary leap is not accomplished by shifts in DNA as the shift from homo erectus to homo sapiens was accomplished. This shift is accomplished in Christ, in being baptized and living into his death and resurrection.

But, isn't this elitist? No, I don't think so, at least not so long as with Paul we ALSO realize that Christ's death and resurrection was for ALL persons, and that at some point God truly WILL be ALL in ALL. Every person is MEANT for this "evolutionary leap." Every person is called to this transformation, however it is to be accomplished. (For us Christians it has been accomplished in Baptism and continues to be worked out or realized in our lives on a daily basis, and in a conscious way through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a very great gift which allows us to walk through the world differently than those who do not know God as we do, but God is not constrained in this way and ultimately, in ways we may never even imagine, he will accomplish his purposes for each and every person that exists.)

Also it is not elitist because, of course, it imposes a tremendous responsibility on Christians to really BE who they are at the deepest core of their being, to really embody or incarnate this new humanity FOR others! Others will be brought to this new life in God only to the extent we do this credibly and cogently, only to the extent we, like Christ, live our lives truly FOR THESE OTHERS. (We call the Jews God's chosen people, and we call Christians today by the same title, not in an elitist sense, but in the sense that we are forerunners of something that will be extended to everyone through us. In the case of Christians, we are responsible for extending this new humanity to the rest of the world. One real betrayal of our "status" as chosen people (or as "New Creation") is to suggest or imply in any way that others are NOT also and equally called to this, and that we are not responsible for mediating this call to them with our lives.)

There are so many theological problems to work out and think through with regard to all this. But despite all of these, I think what is clear from the lections we have read in Paul's epistle to the Romans in the past couple of weeks is how qualitatively different he believes the new creation is from the old. We who are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, have also been remade, not simply restored to an older or more original wholeness (though this is also true, of course). This talk of being a "new creation" is not just poetry, or rather, it is deadly serious poetry which is also to be taken with a kind of literalness we often miss. When Paul says "how much more did grace abound" he is not merely saying God's love is extravagant; where Grace abounds all the more, something new comes to be!

We are a new humanity charged with the responsibility of embodying this in our world in an authentic way. We say of Christ: ECCE HOMO! And, unlike when these words were first spoken, we mean that he is TRULY or AUTHENTICALLY human. For us it is a proclamation, not a condemnation, something to be awed by and to wonder at, not a source of shame. The Pauline (and derivative) truth is that in him (and to the extent we are truly in him), this is who we are as well. This is the identity and vocation Paul is asking us to claim and incarnate as fully as possible in our world. A new creation. A new Adam. A new humanity. Not homo erectus, and not even homo sapiens, but homo Christus. This is who we are, and for the sake of the world and Kingdom, who we are called to be.

15 October 2007

Magnificat: On the song Which IS the Hermit

Theologians often think of the human being as a "word event," that is, we are responses to the words and being of others, crafted and shaped by those words and persons and creating ourselves (or being created) in response to reality around us. We can wander lost through the world, unformed and unknown, we can even impinge on others' lives without the dynamic of dialogue, or address and response, but it is only in response to another person's address that we actually have a personal place to stand, or that we come to be the persons we CAN be. More fundamentally, theologians recognize that we are each the answer or response to a divine word of address and summons spoken in the very core of our being. We speak of this reality variously: "God calls us by name to be"; "we have a vocation or call to authentic humanity"; "the human heart is, by definition, a theological reality and the place where God is active and effectively present in the core of our being", etc.

Of course, the definitive image of authentic humanity is Christ, Divine Word-made-flesh. Theologians reflect that each of us are called to be "Word made flesh" --- though not as definitively as that incarnation accomplished in the Christ Event, still with coherence and cogency, articulateness, truth, and power. Throughout our lives the incarnational word we are is shaped and formed, redacted and composed, in response to the Name or summons God speaks in the core of our being, and which ALSO comes to us (or is sympathetically sounded in us) in a variety of forms and intensities from without in the Scriptures, Sacraments, other people, nature, etc. And of course, it is also distorted and falsified by our own sinfulness, and by our defensive responses to the sinfulness and influence of others in our lives. While we are called to be joyful and coherent embodiments of the Word of God incarnated in our world, we are as often cries of anguish, snarls of anger, sobs of pain, and the lies of insecurity and defensiveness which so lead to the falsification of our being.

Ordinarily, of course, the responsive composition we each are is a mixture of true and false, real and unreal, coherent and incoherent, articulate and inarticulate, anguished and joyful. Only in Christ are we rendered more and more the response we are MEANT to be. And yet, deep within us God speaks the Name we are to embody, the vocational summons we are to incarnate in all of its uniqueness AS our own lives in this world. It is an unceasing, unremitting hallowing right at the core of who we are, and when we are truly in touch with this and truly responsive we become the Word event which God wills us to be. If, as Fr Robert Hale, OSB Cam, once remarked, it is true that "God sustains us as a singer sustains a note," then we are each called to become a song, a particular fiat witnessing to the grace (that is, the powerful presence) of God in our lives. God is the breath which sustains us moment by moment, and we are the song which embodies this breath.

The hermit's existence is paradigmatic of this reality. She really is called to be the song at the heart of the church. Birthed in silence and solitude, shaped by obedience to the Word and breath of God, exercised in the singing of psalms daily --the regular chanting or recitation of the divine Office, the reading of scripture both aloud and in silence, held in the heart of God and steeped in the formative rests of contemplative prayer and shaped by the stories of all those persons she holds in her own heart, the hermit moves day by day towards becoming the articulate and coherent expression of God's creative providence we recognize as a magnificat.

Of course, gestation and birth are both (or together) demanding, painful, and messy businesses. So is the composition of a truly responsive life. Those cries of anguish, snarls of anger, defensive lies, and sobs of pain we ALSO ARE, don't simply "go away" of themselves without the hard work of recognition and repentance. Healing, sanctification, and verification (making whole and true) is God's work in us, but it requires and involves our active cooperation. It is this dynamic that makes of the eremitical silence, solitude, prayer, and penance a therapeutic crucible or editor's desk where we are --- sometimes ruthlessly --- revised, redacted, and recreated. Evenso, at bottom eremitic life (indeed ALL christian life!) is a joy-filled reality; we incarnate the merciful love of God which heals and sanctifies, enlivens and sustains. We become a coherent articulation or expression of the breath and word of God spoken both in the core of ourselves, and in so many ways in our church and world. We ARE the songs which God sings in the heart of his church, magnificats of God's love and mercy sounding in (and out of) the silence of solitude.

12 October 2007

Hope: Shamelessly Persistent Trust

The readings yesterday were all about hope. In the first reading, there is a shift from the focus on our obedience to God such as we saw the day before when Mary sits at Jesus' feet to listen attentively to him and learn from him, to God's own attentive listening to his people. If we are going to be people of hope, we need to keep this image in mind. Ours is a God who attends carefully to everything we say, do, think, feel, need, want, and dream of. While he is completely different, or "wholly other" than we are, he is also intimately involved and concerned with all we are and do, and invested in more ways than we can describe in what we both are and are to become.

The psalm announces the theme of the lections explicitly: Blessed are they who hope in the Lord!! Happy indeed those who trust in God's loving attentiveness. Those who believe in God are people of hope. Hope is the hallmark of a faithful and faith-filled person.

In the Gospel we really do hear what it means to hope, and in particular, what makes living hope differ from a simple act of trust, and even more from an act of wishfulness. Two elements together in particular constitute hope. The first is indeed trust, not simply trust in God's attentive listening to our needs, but trust as well that he knows our needs better than we do ourselves. "Which of you would give a child of yours a snake when they ask for a loaf of bread?" and, "If you who are wicked know how to give good things to your children, then how much more does God know to give to those who ask him?" The second element, however is perseverence or persistence in turning to God with our needs (even if our own perceptions of them ARE limited!). Luke describes a shameless persisting in asking for what is needed, a persistence that goes beyond the bounds of good taste or politeness.

As I reflect on these two elements, it seems to me that they temper and condition each other. For instance, sometimes we are timid or reticent in what we ask God for; sometimes we are really disbelieving that our prayer can or will be answered or that God cares, or that we are worthy of his attention, and we fail to pour ourselves into our petition as deeply as we can or should. Perhaps we are afraid of disappointment, or perhaps we are simply embarrassed at our own neediness; there are many reasons that may constrain us, but in any case, often our prayer is more superficial than it should be, more "polite," more "civil," more restrained or tentative. Sometimes too we pray for a short period, but give up when we don't get what we have asked for. We pour ourselves out to God once or twice, or for a period of a few days, weeks, or months, but then we simply stop.

Other times we assail heaven with our petitions taking seriously the Gospel image that recommends we be truly shameless in our asking, that we do indeed importune God with our petitions and needs, but our prayer is not really hopeful, not really trusting in the way the Gospel recommends because we have forgotten that God knows what we need better than we do ourselves. It is this particular form of trust with its openness to God's faithfulness and wisdom that transforms our persistence from mere stubbornness --- or even obsession --- into hope, and from mere self-centeredness into prayerful (God-centered) openness to the future.

Today's readings invite us to a passionate and persistent prayer life, the prayer life of a genuinely hopeful person. When we truly ask for what we need, we place ourselves in God's hands, we lay ourselves "out there" to some extent. If we persist in this, over time we pour ourselves more and more into God's hands. And if we also persist in this while trusting both that God attends carefully and lovingly to us, and too, that he knows our needs better than we do ourselves, we allow him to give us what we need most of all, and what contains all other things within itself: God himself. Afterall, Luke's gospel is also very clear that what we will be given is God himself, that this is the true answer to ALL of our prayers, all of our desperate and persistent searching. In this kind of prayer, we are shaped, and so are our needs and desires, but in this kind of prayer we are also completed and all of our concrete needs and desires met --- for everything and everyone are also grounded in this God; they exist in him, and in him they will either be given or returned to us in due time.

04 October 2007

A missed opportunity, a moment of judgment

In today's readings, there was one of the most chilling images of judgment I have ever read. No, there was nothing about God's anger, or the fires of hell, or other dramatic and apocalyptic images of such scenes we so often imagine. Instead there was a picture of opportunities lost, of a word unheard, a response ungiven, an apostle unrecognized, and the brief ritual of someone looking on and shaking the dust from her sandals while saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you." How often does the worst judgment against us come in terms of our simple failure to recognize and respond in the present moment to God and the very best news we could ever be offered?

I imagine a village full of people going about their work, restless in all the usual ways people are restless, concerned in all the normal ways people are concerned in everyday life, busy in all the varied ways people will and must be busy. Most are completely unaware of the apostle who has shown up on their "doorstep" so-to-speak. They will never hear the words, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you today!" and they will not even be aware as the apostle leaves again, having shaken the dust from her sandals! Yet in that moment of unawareness, that "non-moment," judgment has come and gone, and indeed, even Sodom will not be in as much trouble as the one who has simply missed God's overture on this day. It is so easy to picture --- it is so simple, so quiet, so routine, so unremarkable --- yet, it is a moment of judgment (the Greek word KRISIS, or decision, fits SO well here). The image chilled me deep down precisely because of this complete ordinariness.

Contemplative life is essentially one of dwelling in the present moment (this is almost a cliche today, though most of the time I think people confuse it for being focused on today's agenda!). But really, it means being obedient (attentive and responsive) to reality in all the ways we can, and with all the levels of our being. We are ALL called to be contemplatives in this sense of the word (that is, we are all called to this kind of obedience, this kind of "hearkening"). Sometimes our attention can be drawn away from the Word being spoken in our midst by activity, worries, other voices we DO attend to. Sometimes, we refuse to dwell in the present moment because we are disproportionately concerned with past injuries or future hopes --- our own bitterness over how things have unfolded in our lives, and our own frantic efforts to cause something to unfold in the way we envision it! Sometimes we are afraid of the Word (or the silence it requires to be heard), and we have distanced ourselves from it with activities full of their own noise (reading, TV, music, computer, etc). Most often, our own hearts are simply so full and noisy that the apostle (or the One she heralds!) walks through unnoticed, her peace remaining unshared, leaving unrecognized footprints and small drifts of sand as tacit testimony to the awesome judgment passed on us in this moment.

In today's first reading the people of Israel (or was it Judah?) have to be urged to recognize that today (this very moment, in fact) is Holy, and they are commanded to turn from their sadness to rejoice in the Lord. Eventhough it was the reading of the Law itself which reduced them to grief, they were not really hearing what was being said, or at least not ALL of what was being said. Repentance for sin, grieving for the past, amendment of purpose, and planning for the future are important, and the Word of God certainly occasions these, but with God's Word comes real rest as well, genuine joy. It is a Word which allows us to rest in IT, a word which makes a Sabbath of our busy lives, and a place to be ourselves when we have been, and often seem unable to create, any other. Of course, such rest can sometimes never come, the place we so yearn for can be lost to us because of the preoccupations of our minds and hearts, the Word spoken within us goes unheeded --- empty of issue, void --- and becomes instead a Word of judgment against us.

What I think the lections from today suggest is that as momentous as such judgment is, it happens routinely, moment by moment, and in mainly undramatic ways. And that is what is so very chilling for me in today's image of this. I can imagine being addressed tonight (or right now!): "The Kingdom of God was at hand for you today, Laurel, and you were simply too busy to listen, too preoccupied to attend to it, too full of your own thoughts and concerns, too caught up in what was "important" (or frightening, or disappointing, or exciting, etc.) to even notice! I sent an apostle to you today --- poor, no special garb, no worldly status, in every way someone just like you --- and you never even saw her, much less gave her a hearing! You didn't even notice when she simply shook the dust from her sandals in judgment against you while still proclaiming the coming of My Kingdom for you!" More likely, despite the truth of all that, what I will hear when I FINALLY hearken is simply, "Laurel, I Love you!" (or just, "Laurel," said with unimaginable love) and there will be an accompanying sense of great (indeed, infinite!) patience along with an unabashed Divine joy that I have finally managed even this single moment of attention! It is the very same Word I more typically do not hear, the same word which turned to judgment on God's lips, in the face of my more usual deafness.

No, contemplative life (and I really am referring to all truly prayerful life) is not about peak experiences, ecstasies, and awesome insights (though it may certainly be sprinkled with these). It is about being truly present to the present moment and the One who is its source. Neither is judgment awesome in its imagery of anger, fire, and destruction; it is terrifying in its ordinariness, its coming to pass within us without notice, without drama, even without appreciable affect --- except over time, as death, chaos, and meaninglessness replace life, order, and meaning. Indeed, in light of such ever-present judgment --- as the psalmist reminds us --- "If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?"