Thursday, September 28, 2006

Swimmer's Eucharist

[Written for a Wilderness Retreat in Alaska, c. 1988]

“‘Come swimmer...I am glad to be alive now that you have come to this good place where we can play together. Take this sweet food. Hold it tight, younger brother.’“ ("I Heard the Owl Call My Name", by Margaret Craven, p. 44.)

Too often we think of Eucharist as something that is done once a week, done by a person ordained to do something to bread and wine “up there” on the altar. Only now, after nearly two millenia of institutionally dominated Christianity, are we beginning to understand that Eucharist is a way of being that is celebrated and renewed in liturgical action. It is the offering is of our solitudes ("our souls and bodies") gathered in bread and wine where we meet and are renewed by Christ indwelling. For it is in solitude that we enter and explore our wounds through which the love of God enters and transfigures us; eucharistic solitude from which true eucharistic community is born.

Recent efforts to make liturgy more “relevant” has meant that, among other weaknesses, it has become deeply imbued with sentimentality, with pick-and-mix symbols which, whatever the power of their original meaning, have become dear to us simply because we can possess and control them, and use them to keep God at arm’s length. They distract us from our wounds and enable us escape from the costliness of direct relationship with God. They distract us from the transfiguring love we can receive only through our wounds.

These trendy symbols give us a kind of psychological permission to use religion as justification for continuing in spiritual immaturity, in co-dependence in our relationships, when liturgy should enable us instead to take responsibility for co-creation, to receive in our being the reciprocity of love with our indwelling and humble God.

Consider the symbol of the Lamb of God. Lambs are frisky, cute, soft and cuddly. They are thoughtless, easily panicked, and end up on our plates as meat. A lamb is a symbol that doesn’t threaten us. Whatever historical symbolic power it may once have had, today the image of the lamb speaks of a god who is frisky, cute and cuddly, who can be kept for a pet, and who ends up on the paten as a chaste white wafer. Whatever the lamb symbolized in the past, it isn’t a good contemporary image for the God who is willingly crucified for Love’s sake, because it gives us a picture of mindless weakness instead of intelligent and chosen powerlessness through which Love’s transfiguring power can enter creation.

A lamb isn’t a good symbol for us as God’s image, either. As a Trappist hermit once remarked, “If you follow the flock, you might end up a lambchop.”

In New Guinea, the church in its wisdom has seen fit to try to bridge the cultural abyss by translating the Agnus dei as, “O pig of God....” In New Guinea, the pig is the traditional sacrifical animal, and the people who live there are not nearly two millenia away from animal sacrifice as we are. But this image is not satisfactory, either, not only because we in the first world find animal sacrifice repugnant, but also because the inappropriateness of violent blood sacrifice—indeed, its destructiveness to true relationship with God—is one of the principal themes of the prophets’ and Jesus’ message. Animal sacrifice gives signals about a controlling god who needs to be appeased by taking life, and puts a dead thing as a safety barrier between us and this tyrant we project. The death of Jesus puts an end to blood sacrifice once and for all.

The humble God refuses to control, the humble God indwells and co-creates by enhancing life. The humble God in joyous, incarnate self-emptying chooses the cross, chooses it simply to show us the extreme to which Love is willing to go to show us how it sustains, indwells and co-creates with us.

How, then, can we find symbols that communicate this humble God to us, this God in whose image we are made and whose life we are invited to mirror? How, in a technological society where control is the highest goal and sacrifice is despised, where the price of life is hidden under cellophane wrappers, and the homeless haunt the streets?

One reason for hikes such as this is to remind us that the life of God permeates all creation, that we must be humble before it, serve and preserve it, because the principle that underlies the cosmos is one of sacrifice—sacrifice that is not annihilation but fulfillment. The sacrifice to which we are called is to embrace our mortality, creating a density through which the spaciousness of salvation is brought into being. Or, put another way, mortality becomes like the framework of a sonnet that causes our creativity to burgeon and flower into spaciousness beyond its narrow gate, a spaciousness that enhances lives that follow.

It is hard to find liturgical images for city-dwellers that communicate the principle of sacrifice that lies at the heart of things. In Alaska we are luckier: we have the indigenous tradition of salmon, the Swimmer who shows us life spilled out in fulfillment, life that joyously gives itself, life that flaunts its wounds and leaps ecstatically through the frame of mortality. Salmon calls forth our tears, tears of pain, longing and joy inextricably mixed within us, tears that anoint our wounds in Christ’s, still visible in resurrection, not covered over or hidden, but entered, offered and glorified. Swimmer is Eucharist.

But we cannot use the metaphor of Swimmer in isolation. Swimmer is only one creature in the Eucharist of interrelationships. Swimmer’s solitude bears fruit in community, not only with other salmon, but with Raven, Eagle, Bear, Orca, rocks, trees, moss, barnacles, kelp, plankton, fungus, fern and devil’s club—creatures visible and microscopic. Swimmer's life and death are essential to the life of the forest.

In the solitude of each creature is the spaciousness, the listening stillness where these connexions are made, and from which community receives its life. It is only in our solitude’s stillness that any metaphor can help open us to the delicate equipoise of God’s life indwelling the creation, and the importance of our choices, not only for our own planet, but for the planet’s collective choices that affect the web of the universe in ways we cannot know.

How blessed are they who know their need of God.... how blessed are we when we have to the humility to know that we need the life of the humble God expressed through creation; how blessed are we when we have the humility to know what we minimally need, when we confront ourselves with greed disguised as need—greed that threatens to extinguish much life on the planet. For when self-care and self-confrontation are held in balance within us, we are given the gift of self-forgetfulness, the gaze on God that causes us to flaunt our wounds, flinging our hearts through the stream of love pouring from ourself-forgetful God, and this is the end for which we are made.

“The whole life of the swimmer is one of courage and adventure. All of it builds to the climax and the end. When the swimmer dies he has spent himself completely for the end for which he was made, and this is not sadness. It is triumph.” (Ibid., p. 47)


Anonymous dFish said...

I keep coming back to this post, i guess not only for the sentimental reason that Margaret Craven's I Heard the Owl Call My Name, was the first novel i read and finished back in high school. It seems serendipitous though, buried in my subconscious, how the image of a self-forgetful missionary to a Native American community,is potently woven into the main thread of your thought and faith process that continue to invite me into my own solitude - Eucharist,self-forgetfulness, creation, and beholding the Eucharistic face of God. I can't write down every thought of mine. Sometimes, questions would even overtake me - why the attraction to the vision that seems so serious and lonely for a 30-something? Why free-fall?Why love the unknown? Anyhow - i am following you and still, every thought really just makes sense to me. I hope i could follow the call to solitude with your silent guide, or if there are collateral ways of doing it. Even joining the ECUSA 5 years ago (but then rejoined RC) still made sense to me because of the openness it afforded me now into your theology, or even equally important, of Bishop Rowan's holiness and depth.Consciously or subconsciously - Ravenwilderness has been re-orienting my theology in a lot more hopeful way.Ad Majorem Dei Gloria!

8:03 am, October 01, 2009  

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