19 June 2009

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart (and Feast of St Romuald!)

Today is ordinarily the Feast of the St Romuald, founder (after Benedict) of the Camaldolese Benedictines, but June 19th this year is also the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Thus it is a special day for me in several ways, for my former congregation was dedicated to the Sacred Heart and my present congregation (as an oblate) is Camaldolese. Further, my first real meeting with my former Bishop took place on the Feast of the Sacred Heart and I remember it with special vividness. Evenso, devotion to the Sacred Heart was not important to me; theologically it made little sense to me, and neither was it particularly appealing. It seemed to have to do more with the overly emotional or too-sentimental spirituality and private revelations of a 17th Century French nun, and less with the Jesus I personally knew and loved. Nor did it help that the usual pictures of the sacred heart were sort of garish and hard to relate to.

But this year I have spent some time on the notion of heart, on the idea that heart is defined theologically as the place within us where God bears witness to himself, on the startling idea that it is not the case that we have a heart and God comes then to dwell within it, but rather that the heart is first of all the place WHERE he dwells and speaks, loves, breathes, and sings us into existence moment by moment; it is therefore the "place" where we learn to listen or else close ourselves to this dynamic presence and power. More, it is also the broad or narrow reality which is created by that listening, or alternately by our refusal to hear and respond generously. It is, as I have written before, a dialogical reality or event which constitutes the very core of who we are.

Further, if you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that I have also spent time this year thinking about the hermit's vocation to love and the absolute imperative that our hearts must become ever wider as the dialogue between God and ourselves which constitutes that heart becomes deeper, more intense and pure, and more extensive as well. The struggle of the hermit to balance solitude with ministry is always a struggle to allow 1) the deepening of genuine interiority in solitary dialogue with God, and 2) to let the fruit and grace of this to spill out in the way God wills for the good of the rest of his creation. Finally, I recently (this week) lost someone whose long-patience and faithful love worked to heal me and empower my own capacity for love, and as I think about her life and work, I believe I have come to genuinely BEGIN to understand and appreciate the Sacred Heart.

We hear time and time again in the Scriptures, "If today you hear my voice, harden not your hearts!" The Greek words used for harden is the root of a medical term applied when tissue which has been wounded or injured in some way. It is the word we translate as "indurate" and it points to a failure to heal properly (or at least to return to normal), a subsequent lack of flexibility and sensation, tissue that has been damaged and never fully recovered having been replaced by scarring and simply by hardness. Unfortunately, I think so often this induration (or callousness) --- this hardening --- is precisely what happens to our own hearts when life wounds us in so many ways. We are hurt by others, by loss and bereavement, by failure, by betrayal. We are wounded precisely where we are most vulnerable and so we sometimes become both hardened against such injuries and wounding and less responsive, less vulnerable, and more fragile in the process. (Remember that fragility lacks vulnerability while vulnerability is a sign of strength and resiliency.)

And here I think is the key to understanding the Sacred or "pierced" Heart of Jesus. It is, precisely as it should be, the place where God bears witness to himself, the place where he summons Jesus into full humanity and responsive, loving existence. It is the center of Jesus' being, the event (for, despite my using the word "place", heart is really more an ongoing event than it is a place) constituted by the loving dialogue between God and man, the core of who Jesus really is in himself and of who he is for us. Further, of course, it is also a wounded heart, wounded in the mystical sense by the love of God as people like John of the Cross describe, but also wounded in the more prosaic sense of having been pierced by rejection, betrayal, cruelty, indifference, and the like. Yet, precisely because it is is the "place" where God's love dominates (that is, where that love is sovereign), where his creative and challenging Word is embodied ever more fully articulate, and where that Word is responded to faithfully in spite of all of the exigencies of life, it is a tender, flexible, strong and (for these very reasons) vulnerable heart untouched by induration or callousness. It is a heart which pours itself out for others even (and especially) as it receives the love and life of God ever-anew and more abundantly.

In many ways, I think, Devotion to the Sacred Heart is therefore devotion to what God desires to achieve and, in fact, does achieve on an ongoing, never-ceasing basis at the very center of ourselves; it is especially devotion to the One through and in whom this is achieved in a definitive way. Certainly it is devotion to a symbol of human fullness and that abundance of life which has the love of God as its center and driving force and to the Christ in whom that was exhaustively embodied. More, it is all these things in spite of the times and ways life wounds us and tempts to induration or hardness, inflexibility and callousness, and it is these things precisely for the sake of God, our truest selves, and our neighbors. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is devotion to a truly human heart whose very life blood is at the same time the Word and Spirit of God. It is devotion to the pierced heart which is also whole and tender, and lies at the service of mankind, devotion to one who loves without limit and embodies the Word and love of God without diminution or diffusion.

The Feast of the Sacred Heart celebrates God's love for us, a love which God offers without condition, and which he poured out without ceasing, kenotically and at his own expense -- not only in creation as he looked for one who would be a true counterpart, but as one who would therefore share it exhaustively with the whole of creation as well. It celebrates the embodiment of that love in a human life, and marks the vocation of each of us to do likewise. As well, it is a symbol of truly human love then, a love which flows through us and out to the world, out of our interiority in spite of our woundedness and brokenness, our callousness and fragility, but also out of our wholeness, our flexibility, and our strength in light of that love. Our God, in Christ, is the original wounded healer and I find that both immensely comforting and hopeful, as well as tremendously challenging. For that reason too, I find the symbol of the Sacred Heart freshly meaningful.

(Painting of the Sacred Heart by Salvador Dali)

14 June 2009

Clever as Serpents, Gentle as Doves

The following post is a reprise from last year. The Gospel for tomorrow is the same reading and since I have not been posting much I hope you will forgive me for putting this up again. I would like to rework it from the perspective of a new title, "Clever (or Sly as) Serpents, gentle as Doves" for I think that this is the kind of ethic we see from Jesus again and again: he traps those trying to trap him in their own reality and then offers them something new and better, all without aggression or hostility. For those thinking that Christianity offers us a kind of bloodless piety incapable of dealing with the world, a piety which makes doormats of disciples, this passage from Matthew is an eye-opener.

Throughout the past few days we have been listening to the sermon on the mount in bite-sized pieces. Today's Gospel (Matt 5:38-42) may be a bit more difficult to swallow than most. Our immediate reaction may be one of inner protest, a complaint that Jesus' demands are unrealistic, that they will lead to increased rather than decreased violence, that to act as he requires is destructive of self-esteem, human dignity, and even good social order! Throughout the sermon on the mount Jesus has laid before us the requirements of living as a light to the world and witnessing to the astoundingly patient and generous love of God. But today we are especially asked to witness to the dignity and inner freedom that results when we are loved with God's "everlasting" and unconditional love.

Jesus gives us three examples of what he means. Each one makes a shrewd kind of sense within the culture of his day. Each one involves a non violent response to some kind of oppression or injustice and each one involves a letting go of a "worldly dignity" (self-worth or dignity measured in terms of the world) while claiming a deeper identity and self-worth in Christ. Finally, each example is therefore marked by the peculiar freedom of the Christian, the freedom to act as the daughters and sons of God we are called to be despite the limitations and constraints placed upon us by life.

In the first example, Jesus tells us that if we are struck on the right cheek, we should turn the other cheek to our oppressor. Now in Jesus' day, to be struck on the right cheek implied a backhanded slap which indicated an unequal social situation and was understood to be an insult. A master might strike a slave in this way, or a child might be struck thusly, and in some cases even a woman might be. To turn the other cheek meant the person who had been insulted or demeaned (and who might indeed occupy an inferior social position) assumes the position of an equal and requires the oppressor to recognize this either by striking her again with the front of his hand or desisting entirely. In either case, the equality of persons is affirmed and the person struck witnesses to an inner freedom which goes beyond anything the world knows.

The second example is drawn from the law court. Jesus admonishes us that if someone wishes to sue us for our tunic, we should give them our cloak as well. Implied here is an image of someone powerful and possibly rich suing someone who is less powerful and poor for the shirt off their back. (Luke uses the term "robbery" when referring to this particular saying of Jesus.) What is envisioned is the powerful person reducing the poor one to a state of nakedness, but what is also the case in Jesus' image is that the one shamed in such an act would be the powerful person, not the one deprived of their clothing. The act of handing over one's cloak as well serves to reveal the venality of the one suing even while it witnesses to a greater inner freedom and deeper dignity than the world knows. To live from and of the love of God allows a kind of detachment from the more usual honor/shame categories which characterized Jesus' world, even while our actions unmask these categories as less than authentically human.

The third example Jesus gives involves the demand that if we are pressed into service and asked to go a mile, we should go the extra mile as well. This example was drawn directly from the culture of the day. Jews were often pressed into service by Roman soldiers to carry equipment and the like. The law allowed a citizen to be impressed into service for one mile, but no more than this. The practice caused all kinds of resentment and the development of zealotism with the threat of armed rebellion was a dominant reality as well. For a person to voluntarily go the extra mile demonstrated a capacity to resist evil (oppression) without violence even while he assumed the position of Roman peer. (Remember that if the soldier's superior's were to hear a citizen went the second mile during impressed service, the soldier was open to discipline. In this sense, the one who voluntarily goes the second mile could be said to gain a superior position to the soldier!) In any case, once again, the Christian is asked to witness to a greater personal freedom and more profound dignity than the world marked or knew.

As we have been hearing in so many of the readings since Easter, the challenge before us is to live lives of genuine holiness, not merely lives of simple respectability. If Jesus' examples shock us and ask us to imagine God's will for us as more demanding, more counter-cultural than we might often do otherwise, well and good! The key to understanding how truly reasonable these demands are is to recall they are not rooted in some abstract code of behavior or ethics. Instead we must recognize that Jesus has lived them out himself: he has turned the other cheek, given his cloak as well as his tunic, and gone the extra mile in ways, and to a degree which cause today's examples to pale in comparison. Likewise, by revealing (that is, by making known and making real among us) the God who loves us with an everlasting love, he empowers us to live our lives similarly. How ever it is we work out the application of these examples from Jesus' world in our own, we are being asked to witness to a love which goes beyond anything the world has ever known apart from Christ, and to demonstrate this with a freedom and sense of personal dignity which is deeper than anything the world can give OR take from us.

[Pictures are those of the prominence where it is believed the sermon on the mount was given, the church built on this site, and a view from the "mount" looking over the plain of Genesseret.]