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)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Cranberries: A Meditation on Exodus 34:29-35 and Revelation 22:1-5

As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.
—Exodus 34:29 (NRSV)

Cranberries: low-bush cranberries, to be specific. Easily overlooked, trodden underfoot, they spring back from their bed of Labrador tea, unbruised and unhurt. Growing with blueberries and crowberries, they provide some of the loveliest patterns of colour in nature.

Seeming to prefer southwest and west-southwest slopes, when they are half-ripe their brilliant scarlet against the blue-silver of new spruce growth, the autumn hues of bearberry, or the grey of reindeer lichen, they remind you of—well—Christmas, of the silent land waiting for the blanket of snow to come. As they ripen, and their scarlet transmutes into a darker purple-red, they become harder to find. Once made brilliant by bright sun, their subdued colour is now made visible by the more subtle light of high clouds or the sheen of mist and rain.

Cranberries. I’ve been living with cranberries for a week, now, gallons of them. To be out in the tundra amidst their prodigal abundance makes me glad that I have to pick them on my knees. I go out with my backpack, some gallon jugs and the berry rake. When I find patches where I can use it, I feel rather like a small bear, clawing with my wooden paw through the vegetation, putting the harvest into containers instead of my mouth.

Slowly the jars fill, and slowly my backpack gets heavier. Late one sunny afternoon, I brought my haul back to camp to clean them, rolling them down an inclined frame on which a piece of blanket is stretched, whose rough wool catches the bits of leaf and lichen that inevitably have been picked with the berries. They rolled down onto a flat tray, the scarlet punctuated by the odd blue or crow berry.

When the tray was full I looked at it, as if for the first time, and caught my breath. A phrase from Psalm 34 leapt to mind: “Look on Me and be radiant...” I picked up the tray of radiance and set it on the bench outside the cache where the slanting light made them glow ever more deeply from within.

One of the most wonderful things about working at Camp, no matter what the weather, is to see people come in day after day with this same radiance shining from their faces. They arrive at Camp tired, stressed out, travel-weary, even a little suspicious, perhaps, if it is their first visit, not knowing quite what they will find here, what the people or the experience will be like. But quickly the quiet magic of the tundra takes hold: a caribou against the horizon, a bear cavorting amongst the willow, a wolf at its kill, tiny spring flowers still to be found among lingering snow patches, a pair of ravens soaring overhead, calling, calling, the cloudy drape drawing back from the mountain to reveal its glory.

There is a humility that attends on greatness, the greatness of opera singer Marian Anderson who, amid all her triumphs and honours, said that the best moment of her life was when she was able to go home and tell her mother that she no longer had to take in washing. Humility is the ability to recognise the real priorities, to see clearly through all the clamour and power games, the glamour and the sycophants.

But humility under a more subtle aspect is the gift that cranberries and the wilderness give us, in the radiance that captures us, and which is reflected in our faces. It is most present when we are least self-conscious, when our awareness is focused outside ourselves. And it is, above all, a gift, as the cranberries are themselves a gift.

The invisible trace of the divine love that creates and sustains lingers in all things, and becomes manifest through this radiance, no matter how muted it may be. The ability to see it depends on the gift of humility, which is contemplation, purity of heart, poverty of heart, peace, all rolled into one, the single virtue of which the paradoxes of the Beatitudes speak, though we may, and even perhaps should, not call what is so simple and natural by such exalted names. Yet it is precisely because the deep content of our faith has been detached from this simplicity that it often seems so irrelevant.

It is precisely these sorts of commonplace cranberry events that underlie the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The psalms are full of such references. And not only to the natural world, but also to the profound effect that the natural world has on us and what it reveals of our psychology and character. The phrase from Psalm 34 is an example. The complete line reads, “Look on Me and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed.”

For in the light of this radiance, all else is forgotten, all that preoccupies and troubles us, all our pain and dismay. It is not that they are cut off or taken away but, as the contemporary philosopher Erazim Kohàk has remarked of such landscapes as this, our pain becomes part of something larger than ourselves, and is transfigured.

In this way, we realise concretely what the ancients knew perhaps better than we do, an insight preserved more in Eastern Christianity than the West, and that is our participation in the divine nature. This participation is exemplified by Moses, whose experience on the mountain and its effects is one of the biblical passages most frequently cited by mystical authors; and this same transfiguration has been promised to all of us, as summed up by the sublime vision of John's revelation.

Or, put more simply: only love can recognise Love. It is only because we bear, each one of us, each fragment of creation, the trace of the divine, that we can speak of love, that we can want to love and receive love, that we dimly can recognise that the hunger that cries out from every human heart can be fed by this radiance alone. In his book An Evil Cradling, which is a modern Dark Night of the Soul, the former hostage, Brian Keenan, describes the moment when in the despair of his solitary confinement he was given an orange. Starved as he was for fresh fruit, he could not eat it but only contemplate the wonder of its colour, its form, its radiance in the dark.

Thus our growth into God is not a matter of rejecting the things of creation but rather plunging into their deepest heart, allowing them wholly to draw our attention. Amor meus, pondus meum said St. Augustine. Love draws everything to itself, and this radiant love is the source of all true fruitfulness.

Weavings, May/June 2003

Monday, September 11, 2006

Terror and the Idea of America

Web posted Monday, September 17, 2001, Juneau Empire

My Turn: Amid a failure of leadership


It has been shocking and sad to hear people stating that they are willing to sacrifice civil liberties for security. Security such as they seek does not exist. The search for this chimera is a sort of mentality that leads to tyranny and fascism. And there are many people, not only Americans, who see the outcome of America's recent, failed election as a fascist takeover.

My own thoughts about the cause of the East Coast catastrophe are somewhat contrary to those who cry for vengeance, and the sabre-rattling coming out of Washington. My viewpoint is influenced by the fact that I lived in Europe for 13 years and spent time on the West Bank before the first Intifada. It is not surprising that the terrorist attack occurred nor that it came when it did.

There is terror in the world at the thought of so much power - economic, nuclear or otherwise - in the hands of what is perceived by many as such an unsuitable, unsubtle, uncomprehending and self-absorbed country as America. This terror is intensified now at the thought of how our country might strike blindly in anger after Tuesday's events to start the last war of the world.

America needs to look at her attitudes and her policies, especially her foreign and economic policies. She needs to try to understand other cultural points of view at a deep level. She needs to learn to reflect before she acts. She needs to examine not only how she has forced changes on others over the last quarter century, but how she herself has changed, indulging in the glorification of illiteracy, isolationism, violence, drugs, alcohol and arrogance - for Americans are perceived abroad, however stereotypically, as arrogant, insensitive, narrow-minded, unthinking and utterly selfish.

I returned to Europe in April for six weeks, and the question on everyone's lips was this: How could America possibly have allowed our educational, electoral and governmental systems to fail so completely as to allow the present incumbent into the White House? There is a direct correlation between the announcement from the Supreme Court that Bush was to occupy the office of president and the steepening slide of the stock market, not to mention Tuesday's attack on New York and Washington.

Bush's trip to Europe did nothing to change European perceptions. He was and remains an embarrassment to us and to the office he holds. Each of his warlike pronouncements raises the level of alarm worldwide and increases the possibility that we will be attacked again. He has done untold damage to international relations and to America's economy.

Most important of all, he is perceived as weak and inept, an empty house, and his weakness has made the United States seem laughably and grimly vulnerable.

It is no surprise that the terrorist attack has come at this particular moment in America's history. We are in the midst of a failure of leadership and a failure of the institutions that lie at the foundation of the idea of America.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Time Transcending Time

Interpenetrating our universe in time is God's no-time, which is all time and transcends time. The Christ event is not a breaking into history but a breaking open of history, to show who God is and how God acts throughout creation from eternity.

We wrestle with the first and second comings, but they are one. it is the God of the burning bush who is born in the straw and does not consume. The apocalypse begins with creation. We say, "Maranatha, come quickly," but Christ indwells and transfigures the creation now.

The prophets and apostles knew this spaciousness of sacred time and wrung it from their language in an effort to break us free. Isaiah proclaims, "Thus says the Lord, 'Behold I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create, for behold I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.'"

And the Letter to the Ephesians: "In Christ God chose us before the world was founded...made known to us the hidden purpose—such was God's will and pleasure determined beforehand in Christ—to be put into effect when the time was ripe, namely that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ."

Release from the tyranny of time enables us to break through perspective in our solitude. It is in solitude and silence that we hear and utter the ineffable Name of the One who uttered Being. God is, therefore I AM. The word and the Name are one. And we can neither hear nor speak with words at all, just as Jesus had to use parables to describe the kingdom of God, just as the liturgy of the Eucharist is cosmic shorthand, just as these words are foolishness.

'The Fire of Your Life: A Solitude Shared' forthcoming, Seabury Press, January, 2007