Monday, February 11, 2008

By Our Wounds We Are Healed

Sermon for All Saints Convent, Oxford
First Sunday in Lent, February 10, 2008
Lectionary A

Happy Lent!

I love Lent, a clean desert wind blowing through my life, sand scrubbing off extraneous concerns that adhere to my mind. Not everyone thinks of Lent this way, of course, perhaps because the church's observance of Lent has changed radically over the centuries, not necessarily for the better.

Many of us have been conditioned to observe Lent as a time of thinking about ourselves along rather negative lines, an inheritance from our Jansenist and Puritanical past. We are immersed in doom and gloom, not to mention self-condemnation and self-deprivation. Our fasting seems to stimulate an appetite for gnawing at guilt and shame. This atmosphere is intensified by bloody crucifixes and liturgical dirges; a cappuccino of emotion with a froth of lament. But for the first thousand years of its history, this focus on sin and breast-beating was alien to the church.

Crude modern stereotypes of Christianity try to intimidate us: be good and go to heaven; be bad and watch out. But early Christians were not focused on heaven and hell; they looked for a new creation by means of the kingdom of heaven within. They sought to bring the good news of freedom from the strictures of law and its tyrannizing obsession with sin; they wanted the transfiguring silence of the kingdom to relieve the noise of a heedless world.

Their approach to sin was to acknowledge it with sorrow, but in the light of God. Tears of compunction were the mingling of repentance and joy, like honey in the comb, as John Climacus says, tears caused by unbearable mercy, not concentration on sin itself. Early Christians were keen psychologists: they knew that too much emphasis on sin simply gives it more power over us, while the gaze of mercy bridging the infinite abyss brings us to awestruck wonder.

The Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood describes the praying person, aware of his sins, who raises his mind to the jeweled crossbeam, where it is dazzled. He is stretched on the cross with the invisible Christ beyond all thought and experience, and it is through the union of his wounds with the glorified wounds of Christ that he moves to contemplation where the observing I/eye is no longer present, where he beholds the face of God. This beholding is signified by the aporia, the blank space, that occurs about two thirds of the way through the poem.

Sorrow is present in Fortunatus' great 6th century celebratory hymn to the cross. But while he tells us that Passiontide contained mourning, this mourning was formal, ritualized, and other-directed, a far cry from the spiritually unhealthy and inward-looking devotionalism that supplanted it.

There have long been rumours of so-called secret Christianity, and there is in fact a lot of evidence that suggests that for the first thousand years of its existence, Christianity was far more about the resurrection of the mind through the body in this present life than of the body alone in an afterlife. In the 7th century, for example, Isaac of Nineveh in the tradition of semitic Christianity uses the phrase "the world to come" to refer to the deepest realms of contemplation, not the aftermath of physical death.

The discrepancy between those who understand that Christianity is primarily about contemplation and the new creation that arises from its transfiguring power, and the more behavioural view that emphasizes heaven after physical death, can be accounted for in part by transmission of the tradition through those who actually did the work of silence and those who merely talked about it. While the two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, religious language and practice become distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which they emerge and to which they return.

The reason for this is that authentic interior work of the spirit is organic and focuses away from itself, while language can only ever be dualistic and self-referential. Religion is a series of metaphors about what goes on in silence, and its expression must continually refer to the work of silence from which its doctrines and practices are born.

However else Jesus may be interpreted, he is parable and paradigm of the work of silence. We can discern this interpretation not only in what purport to be his sayings in the gospels, but also in the writings of Paul. Anyone who practices meditation will instantly understand that the great kenotic hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 is an account of one-pointed meditation, and it is a revelatory exercise to go through the parables with the work of silence in mind, picking through the false riches of dialectic to find the pearl of great price.

What do I mean by the work of silence? It isn't complicated. As that 14th century misogynist, Jean Gerson, remarked, even women and idiots can reach the highest levels of contemplation. Anyone who watches their own mind at work realizes that there are ways to get beyond the chatter of thoughts into deep silence, sometimes so deep that the observing I/eye disappears. Far from being reserved to an imaginary elite, this disappearing of the observing I/eye happens to all of us many times each day; it is part of the normal functioning of the mind. But precisely because the observing I/eye is absent, we usually aren't aware of it, unless a noticeable period of time passes by.

The work of silence is not about silence alone but about restoring the balance of silence and speech. Deep, transfigurative silence takes all the signs by which we live and mutates, shuffles and reintegrates them. Silence itself generates an energy that seeks expression in speech. In turn, the effort to find words for what has occurred in the silence generates an energy to return to it, so that speech may be yet further refined.

We can see this transfigurative silence at work in something as mundane as consigning a writing assignment to the silence and returning to the project a week later to find that when we sit down to face the blank page, it is almost finished. We can also perceive its work in the higher reaches of meditation, where all that we are and have seems to be forgotten as we come to a single focus, yet is returned to us healed, comforted and changed as we resume our normal round.

Each emergence from silence is part of a new creation. The response to this gift is wonder and gratitude, a sense of unworthiness, perhaps, that such mysterious and overwhelming grace is given to mere creatures. This sense of awe is a far cry from the guilt and self-flagellation that emerged from the Gregorian reform of the 11th and 12th centuries, a moment in history that also marks the return of Aristotle's writings to the West. The tortured crucifix arrives late in the middle ages, when the church was centralizing, clamping down on both clergy and laity, and using guilt and fear as manipulative tools.

There is a complex of reasons why the character of Lent changed, but the most important one is the loss of silence, for by the end of the 14th century the church had effectively suppressed silence in favor of dialectic, and a clichéd devotionalism that was tightly controlled by the clergy. There is nothing the narcissistic mind loves more than watching itself wallowing in its own feelings; and there is nothing tyranny loves more than noise, mind control and the rigid linearity of dialectic. We might say that in our age we are living at the dead end of dialectic. The antidote to this cultural dead-end is silence. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu likes to remind us, "If governments knew how subversive silence is they would ban it."

Let's go back to basics. Silence is normative. Humans have been around for about 2 million years, but we've only been talking for about 200,000 of those years, and we've only been writing for about 9 thousand years. Our core silence evolved as an essential tool of survival. The loss of silence and with it the loss of contact with our nature in every sense has been rapid and catastrophic. One can imagine stories such as that of the Garden of Eden being written by elders who see the devastating impact on ecology and culture by heedless lives lived without the discernment that is available only from silence. That Eden is about distraction from our core silence is an interpretation advocated by Irenaeus in the 3rd century. The notion of a "fall" does not occur in scripture.

What the snake did by starting the first conversation was to distract Adam and Eve from their gaze on God, so that they became disoriented. All the curses, the flaming sword and the like are fevered projections of minds that have lost their bearings. Poor old God just heaves a great sigh and makes them some clothes.

The story illustrates what happens when our outside and our inside have lost contact with each other. When we lose contact with our core silence, anxiety and mayhem result. During the first thousand years of the church, distraction, not sex or pride, was the worst sin; monks called it fornication. They knew that most important human task is to recover our undistracted gaze on God. The fact that we must choose, seek and work for it is what makes our second innocence more precious than the first.

Paul in today's reading sounds a bit scrambled, but what he is saying is this: As long as you are distracted, as long as you place all your trust in the world of avidity, of appetite, possession and consumption; as long as you are ruled by the thoughts and opinions of others, you are condemned to death by their judgement, which is not God's law. God's law bestows autonomy and integrity for the sake of our common life, and this law of love is found in the work of silence. By faith—the letting go of all images, thoughts and opinions in order to receive what silence has to give us—we are justified, that is to say, in the silence, what is dislocated and fragmented in us is realigned. In silence we engage the great mystery of the truth and compassion of God which we are given not for our selves alone, but to share with others.

When we are distracted from our core silence, each of us is Adam; when we are stretched beyond all our ideas, opinions, pain, anxiety and fear to return to silence, each of us is Christ. We relinquish our pseudo-life to receive something of our truth, which can emerge only when we have forgotten about our selves. And it is "this grace in which we stand..." this ever-deepening core silence from which we learn to live.

We might think of Jesus in today's Gospel as the Undistracted. In the desert, the devil tempts him by appealing to human appetites for food, power and approbation. But Jesus' gaze on, and engagement with the Father never wavers even as he sends the devil packing; and angels come and minister to him.

At the end of the 14th century, just as the light of silence was being snuffed by the church, Julian of Norwich wrote her luminous text, arguably the greatest Christian theological text ever written, not only because of its insight, but also because it overcomes the profound disconnect between the seamless and other-oriented world of silence, and the dualistic, self-referential world of language. In her dialogue with Christ, she asks, "What is sin?" But he courteously disregards her inappropriate question and directs her to "seek into the beholding."

Beholding is a dynamic theological word that we have sadly lost in modern translations of the bible, and without this word, we cannot understand it. Beholding signifies engagement with God at the level of being. God, who is beyond being, by the humility of his self-emptying allows his creatures, whom he holds in being, to hold him in being in the world and time. To show how much he loves us and is with us, God, the silent Word, organic and self-emptying, is willing even to be crucified in the dualistic and reflexive distortion of our language, the original lapsus linguae. And when we mirror his self-emptying by leaving dualism behind for the work of silence, we become like him.

Julian tells us that what we regard as sins are necessary to our life in God. Our sense of unworthiness empties us out, and this rich poverty enables the divine to enter in, to resurrect us even in this life. Therefore let us not turn away from this cleansing light, the light of beholding that transfigures our sins into the jewels of our heavenly crown. Let us not obsess over our sins, but bring them to the silence of mercy and transfiguration. Lent is the time to realize that it is by our wounds we are healed—and to rejoice.


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