Sunday, November 27, 2011

Barking at Angels II

[from Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding]

Our God, heav'n cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heav'n and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign.
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

By contrast, it is a curiously contemporary phenomenon that the public rhetoric of religion employs words such as freedom and liberty even while it is taking away our sense of wonder, crowding our minds with insistent demands and obviating the possibility of any space for contemplation. Thus we are invited to think about our selves and our discontents, especially our fear, which locks us in time instead of gesturing towards eternity.

By associating God with fear, political and religious institutions encourage us to calibrate certainty by establishing rigid conceptual grids. We then try to force our selves and our world to conform to these templates, an exercise that ends in an illusory sense of control. This tragic search for security in exterior validation makes us hostage to what other people think, especially the opinions of those who seek to define the boundaries and content of our lives. Our anxiety is so great that even the fickle wind of chance cannot break our death grip on the wildly vacillating weathervane of others' opinions. This desperate clinging to convention can extend to being afraid to talk about God—or even to pray—outside of carefully scripted parameters, in spite of the fact that such denatured language can twist the thoughts, words, and intentions of our hearts.

Christianity stands in opposition to such closed systems. Its essential message is this: to 'free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death' (Hebrews 2:15). The fear of death can take many forms, most of which have little to do with what might happen after our bodies die. Rather, fear of death is a matter of the mind. It has everything to do with how we perceive and interpret our experience. Our self-consciousness generates anxieties that make us vulnerable to manipulation and coercion in every sphere of our lives, from the most trivial preoccupation with fashion to the fate of our planet. It is our consent to the exploitation of fear and uncertainty that makes us complicit in inflicting physical or spiritual death on our selves or others. Our fretful search or certainty becomes a search for numb complacency.

But faith challenges this complacency. Faith is not about suspending critique but exercising it as it issues from a silent space of love, a reality yet unseen (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is about finding security in insecurity, the realisation that unless we work hard to maintain a hole in the heavens by which the closed universe of anxiety is breached, the fate of everything in our created world will be determined by the human fear of 'death'.

The Christian antidote to the fear of death is summed up in Philippians 2:5-11, often known as the 'kenotic hymn'. Paul's preface is succinct: our problems originate in our anxieties. Their resolution, says Paul, is to 'Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . .' (Philippians 2:5, my emphasis).

Christ takes on the burden of our human self-consciousness but is never trapped by its anxieties. He never loses the clarity of his gaze on the Father, the secret exchange of love in faith. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament gather this gaze and all that it implies into the single word behold. Sadly this word has vanished from modern translations of the Bible and the liturgy, and with it has vanished the most important message that Christianity or any other religion has to offer.

Behold is the marker word throughout the Bible. It signals shifting perspective, the holding together or even the conflating of radically different points of view. It indicates the moment when the language of belief is silenced by the exaltation of faith as these paradoxical perspectives are brought together and generate, as it were, an explosion of silence and light. This silence holds us in thrall, in complete self-forgetfulness. Our settled accounting of ordinary matters is shattered and falls into nothing as light breaks upon us. Beholding is not confined to monastic cells; it is the wellspring of ordinary life transfigured.


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