Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Seeing II

The next morning the crowd follows him, and Jesus tries yet again to teach them how to see:

"In very truth I tell you, it is not because you saw signs that you came looking for me, but because you ate the bread and your hunger was satisfied. You should work, not for this perishable food, but for the food that lasts, the food of eternal life."

It is significant that in the previous chapter, Jesus has returned to Cana where he changed the water into wine, a gospel that has ancient liturgical associations with the Epiphany. Here, Jesus heals the officer’s son, who is lying ill at Capernum. We can hear the exasperation in his voice when he asks, “Will none of you ever believe without seeing signs and portents?” And then gets to the pragmatic nub of the matter:

"I do not look to men for honour. But I know that with you it is different, for you have no love of God in you. I have come accredited by my Father, and you have no welcome for me; but let someone self-accredited come, and you will give him a welcome. How can you ever believe when you accept honour from one another and care nothing for the honour that comes from him who alone is God?"

This brings us to our situation today, both in the Anglican Communion at large and the Episcopal Church and this diocese in particular. Of what are we a sign? And to what do our visible signs point? To ourselves only? Or have we taken the form of servants and effaced ourselves so that we point beyond our signs to Love? Better put, to what kind of seeing have we dedicated ourselves and how have we taught others to see?

To whom have we given accreditation? The rich and the powerful? The celebrity guru? Or to those who clad in ordinariness have no glamour but rather the wisdom of the poor and a transparency through which the glory of God appears for those who can see it? Perhaps our perilous situation can be summed up by the story of the desert father Poemen who went to Abba Macarius, weeping, ‘Give me a word that I may be saved.’ But the old man replied, ‘What you are looking for has disappeared now from among us.’

In my correspondence and conversations, and everywhere I go, I hear the same words used over and over about the Anglican Communion in general and the Episcopal Church and the Church of England in particular: ‘flat’, ‘sterile’, ‘dead’, ‘finished’. One Anglican at Gethsemani Abbey summed it up by saying, ‘Why is it so profoundly different here? Why is this same liturgy so dead at home?’ This situation is all the more poignant because even many Roman Catholics admit that we have the better liturgy and language, and they have borrowed from us to the point that there has been legal action over copyright infringments.

We will have plenty of opportunity today and in future weeks to discuss what has gone so very wrong, and in the end it is not all that difficult to see, although it may be very difficult to swallow. Yet Abba Macarius’ mournful reply to Abba Poemen is not a counsel of despair. Let us remember another famous saying, in which the question is asked, ‘What is the purpose of our ascesis?’ And the old man answers, ‘The purpose of our ascesis is to fail.’ Let us never forget what a grace our sins and failures are, for they hollow us out, open our hearts to cry to God, and this cry mingles with his crying towards us, and this single cry of longing and pain becomes a cry of welcome and joy.

From documents I have seen, and the conversations I have had, it seems evident that this diocese, which is a microcosm of the Episcopal Church at large, is poised at a critical moment. It has a reputation for being a loving, caring diocese. It has been a leader in initiating programme, it has large plans for itself. Yet one can’t help but pick up a niggling sense of unease, that perhaps something is not quite right, or at least that something is missing. And there is additionally that great mass of humanity we keep reading about, hungry for the contemplative way of seeing. Often these people are in great disillusionment and suffering, much of it caused by the churches; yet, the churches seem deaf. Most of what I have seen and heard coming out of churches still speaks of programme, the bread that perishes. It almost seems as if the churches need to create as much distraction as possible to avoid having to do the real work of fostering contemplation, the bread that is imperishable.

The dilemma of the diocese is that of the individual human person, each of whom is a microcosm of the church. Continually we are presented with a choice between death and life. ‘Choose life!’ may be our immediate response. But we who live beyond the resurrection, know without question that to live in the vision of God as the time he has given unfolds before us, to be a sign of the bread that does not perish, to see and to help others see with the eyes of faith, to receive new life, more than we can ask or imagine, far beyond our ways and our ideas, means first a kind of death, a resolute and continual relinquishing of and turning from much that we have held dear, have struggled to achieve, have justified and taught. To quote a contemporary Carthusian, life in God

"... entails going beyond without end, a refusal to rest content, a thirst for the infinite that shatters the pious, safe idols we are endlessly making one after another. This is the desert.

"It is possible to live for years...occupied solely with the things of God, without even passing the threshold...for want of leaving an infantile world peopled with images, ‘spiritual’ pleasures, and words without end. An entire world that reflects only the multiple facets of our own self and our unconscious desires. It is this self that one risks adoring, and not God. We need images, sensibility, concepts, but we must know how to go beyond, to leave the surface to plunge into the silence of faith, the humility of solitude, the boundless infinity of Love."

"Get behind me, Satan! Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.

"The way of faith is a Way that is not a way. It is the mysterious world of the Resurrection. It is Christ, his death and his life. It is the Spirit who blows where it will. It is the Father whose infinite love cannot ever be circumscribed. Let us leave our selves to be borne by the Spirit towards the Father, ever renewing our abandonment in Christ."

Just before he died, Karl Rahner said that the gospel will have no credibility until each and every Christian is a contemplative. Unless the single-hearted contemplative search for the vision of God is the hub of everything, at the top of every list, the single criterion for every activity and programme—and activity should only be undertaken as the overflow of contemplation (it is often better not to act)—everything we do, however praiseworthy in itself, is merely self-serving, is merely patching an old garment with a new piece of cloth.

This is not an easy task and it must be undertaken with an uncompromising single-heartedness. There is no question that American culture today is inimical to contemplation, to this sort of commitment, much less living by this vision, seeing with these eyes. It stakes everything on what seems to those who have never risked the plunge into the unknowing of faith, an ultimate folly. But in theory, at least, this is what we are about. How we are to recover our focus, to find the courage to make the choices and commitments that can come about only through the commitment and fidelity of each human heart that waits on God in silent receptivity?

The great Jesuit church historian Aloys Grillemeier tells us that early Christianity was transmitted more by intuition than by argument. It was the heart’s vision that shed radiance through lives so free that they could not be coerced by the values of the world or the threat of death. To live this vision of God at this moment in America requires the same joyous preoccupation, which makes everything else fall into insignificance, which enables us to ‘give and not to count the cost’. And we must not fool ourselves that the deaths we will be asked to die, if we choose this path, are any less difficult than the passage through mortality that the first Christians suffered. If anything, it is more difficult.

Jesus the Christ has shown us that it only takes one person to begin profound changes in the world, but these changes do not arise from what is tangible, however good in itself, but rather from a relationship with God. We are to be like him, to be other Christs. It would take only one diocese to make the simple, joyful, and uncompromising determination to commit itself to contemplative seeing as the foundation of all that it does materially, to turn around the situation in the Episcopal Church, and the impact would range far beyond it.

Are we who are starving from having tried to live by the bread that perishes willing to make this choice? Are we willing to risk asking God to open our hearts utterly, to cleanse us with the fire of his Love, to fill us with himself so that we may love him with his perfect love, not knowing what that will require of us or how it will change us, to go forward with our hands open?

To ‘lead us, who know him now by faith, to his presence, where we may see his glory face to face’?

[Sermon given in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, 1995]


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