Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Barking at Angels

Some years ago during Advent, the Bodleian Library published a Christmas card that shows one of the miniatures from the Vernon manuscript. Even given the wonders of medieval illumination, this vignette is remarkable and amusing. It depicts the Annunciation to the shepherds, or rather to one shepherd on a hillside, who is shielding his eyes from the glory of the herald angel. Beside him, his cheeky dog is doing what good sheep dogs do: barking at the strange intruder. It is not difficult to imagine the poor shepherd, terrified at the vision, trying nonetheless to get the dog to shut up long enough to hear what the messenger is saying.

I often wonder if all the fretful, frenetic activity in our lives, especially in the run-up to Christmas, isn’t a human way of barking at angels, of trying to drive away the signs that are everywhere around us, calling us to stop, to wake up, to receive a new and larger perspective, to pay attention to what is most important in life, to behold the face of God in every ordinary moment. These signs press on us most insistently at the turning of the year, when earthly light drains from our lives and we are left wondering in the dark.

The church from ancient times recognized the spiritual value of this winter span of darkness and created in its liturgy what we might think of as a three-months-long Night Office, beginning with the Feast of All Saints on the first of November and ending with Candlemas on February second. This season is a vast parabola of prophecy and vision, a liturgical arcing of eternity through the world’s midnight.

The readings—particularly those from Isaiah and Revelation—do their best to subvert our perceptions of time and space in order to plunge us into the great stillness at the heart of things, the stillness necessary to make space for what is “ever ancient and ever new” to break through the clamor of our minds, to open our hearts to the Beloved, to annunciation, and to fruition. Eternity is our dwelling place even in time if only we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the heart to welcome. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” cry the seraphs, their voices shaking the foundations even as their ineffable wings fold us into the stillness of God.

Only in this stillness can we know that eyes are being opened and ears unstopped; that the lame are leaping like deer and those once silenced are singing for joy; that water is springing in the parched wilderness of our pain. Only as we are plunged into the depths of this obscure stillness can we know the wonderful and terrible openings of the seals and the book; the rain of the Just One; the heavens rent by angels ascending and descending; the opening of graves and gifts, of hell and the side of Christ.

Behold, he is coming with the clouds and everyone shall see him! Behold, the Lamb of God! Behold, the hour comes! Behold, I bring you good tidings! Behold, the Lion of Judah! Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling block! Behold, I am sending a messenger! Behold, the bridegroom comes! Behold, lift up your eyes! Behold, I show you a mystery! Behold, the tabernacle of God is within you!

Behold, thou shalt conceive! It is in the beholding itself that Mary conceives, and we also. It is in this self-forgetful beholding, this eternity of love gazing on Love, of Love holding love in being, that all salvation history occurs. The words that come after "behold" in the angel's announcement are explication for all who do not behold, who are still chained by the imperious noise of the world, chained to those who wield power and control by means of the fear of death. The Word yearns with the promises of God if only we will turn and behold, and in that beholding, be healed.

Annunciations are profoundly dislocating events, whether to the shepherds, to Mary, to First Isaiah, or to us. They are sudden; they take us by surprise, often in the least likely circumstances. When we realize that something beyond our knowing has happened, we may at first be incredulous or even embarrassed. But when we realize that we can no longer dismiss the evidence—the traces left from an encounter hidden even from our selves—we are filled with dread.

Annunciations leave us with a sense of strangeness for we cannot get our minds around what has happened. They cannot be circumscribed by concept or by the self-reflexive interpretation we call “experience.” They are too wonderful, they are beyond what we can ask or imagine, and in their wake life will never again be the same. Yet by welcoming this homely strangeness of God in beholding we learn to welcome the strangeness of our neighbor and, indeed, the strangeness of our selves.

Therefore in this world’s midnight, let us enter more deeply into stillness so that we may behold the herald angels. Let us be undistracted even if the sheepdog continues to bark at our side. Let us so plunge into this beholding that its silence and light will radiate even through our own darkness to illumine all the darkness and pain of this world, to announce tidings of great joy for this day and all the days to come.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Prayer as Service II

[Sermon given at Holy Apostles Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 20 October, 1985]

This past week as I drove across southern Utah and Wyoming, the high peaks were already covered with snow. The plateaus lay empty but for the skeletal snow fences waiting for the storms to bury their bones, and the howling blizzard to sing their Dies Irae. They seemed vast and lifeless. The cattle had been shipped in long lines of hurrying trucks and railroad cars; the few head kept for breeding had been brought down from the high country to shelter near barns stacked to the ridgepoles with hay. Stubble lay harsh and bleached under the angled autumn sun, and all the land was quiet as it waited for the snow that soon would blanket its every feature, freeze its fertility until another spring.

As the miles passed I couldn’t help thinking of our selves as that stripped prairie: our selves searched out and known by God, a sense of exposure and potential futility; sometimes, even, a sense that all that was once familiar and sweet is frozen, as we near despair that another spring will come when our service will take more tangible, visibly fruitful forms.

But it is within this very winter of our lives that we learn to know Christ our Sun rising on each day of our willingness to use our tears to light the divine fire upon the earth, our tears which fall drop by drop upon our hearts like sparks in the stubble; tears that melt our hearts and thus enable the Spirit’s pouring out through us, anointing the earth.

Often it doesn’t feel that way. Often we see our debility, our illnesses, our powerlessness to avert tragedy, our ageing as useless when in fact these are the times when we are offered an opportunity to render the most service by our willing powerlessness, our willingness to allow God to empty us of the self-consciousness that remains, now that the noise and distraction of activity is stilled.

This summer I was doing research in the tormented lands of the Middle East, and in one lecture was reminded again of the significance of anointing, the symbolism of oil with which we are so often touched in these times of being at the mercy of our bodies, events, and the hands and wills of others. The oil with which we are anointed is not only the symbol for burial: it is the anointing of kings and queens; it is the anointing of self-emptying that even now, if we are willing, can help bring eternity into time, to pull creation through the needle’s eye, into the kingdom of heaven.

So when we think of service, let us first think of this service of willingness, not willingness to do but willingness to be done to, to be handed over, to not know, to let go control, to be emptied so that we may be fulfilled and become the healing power of God on earth and in time.

We need not be in a state of physical incapacity: it is vital that we understand that we enter this willingness each time we hush the noise without and within us, and are still before God in wordless prayer, in the silence that wells up from our hearts and from which we learn to speak and to do.

This has been the immeasurable service of my Cistercian friend; this is the vocation, the privilege, the bounden duty and service, which each of us is called to render.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prayer as Service I

[Sermon given at Holy Apostles Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 20 October, 1985]

Some of you may know that I came to New Mexico from central California via Oregon—about a thousand mile detour, but a necessary one. I wanted to visit a Cistercian monk who has been very much of a spiritual father to me. He has been faithful over many years in helping my vocation unfold—indeed, as have two other Cistercian communities—but we had never laid eyes on each other. Since I had a few days free, and since there is no telling when I will pass that way again, I decided to visit him.

It was a wonderful meeting, and in the many miles that followed as we drove through the Columbia Gorge, across Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, I had plenty of time to contemplate his loving-kindness, and the immense service he has rendered to me and to so many others by his faithfulness to his vocation to prayer.

The texts for today all speak of service—service in forms we never expect; service that is there if only we have the eyes to see; service that does not do but is done by being.

In Isaiah we see the suffering servant, rejected, bruised, the image of the Crucified One who seems to fail but in his very failure defeats death. In the Epistle we are warned of the two-edged nature of the Word who has known us from the beginning, and that if we would serve we must be prepared to be naked and known, and must know our selves under the eye of this God who has become one of us.

Lastly, the Gospel tells us that the one who would be great is not the one who knowingly wields power but rather the one who will follow the Lord into full self-emptying, not knowing—and implicitly not really caring, because his or her vision becomes so fixed on God, self becomes so found in God, that comparison to others in some imaginary geometry of ‘achievement’ becomes entirely irrelevant.

There is a marked contrast among the images of suffering that today’s readings give us. On the one hand, there are the dramatic images of the suffering servant in Isaiah and the baptism of the apostles in the fulfillment of that prophecy. On the other, there is the bleak exposure, the awful nakedness of being known by the God whom we would love but from whom we often want to hide.

In 20th century America we usually think of service in terms of action. The readings today suggest something quite different. If the image of God in which we are made is one of a kenotic God, that is, a God who is self-emptying, then that is the vision of our fulfillment as human beings—a fulfillment that paradoxically is less and less important to us as it is realised.
We often think of God as the Creator, the one who acts, and thus we automatically think of our own worth in terms of action.
But sometime go through the New Testament and note the number of times not that Jesus acts but that he allows himself to be acted upon.

Let’s carry this image a little farther. What do we mean by the “will” of God? I have come to believe that what we mean is not that there is some linear track stretched out in front of us on to which we must groove our lives or perish: that would be the will of a god who is a tyrant and a controller, and would justify to our selves all our desires to have power and control. No, I think rather that it is possible to think of God in quite another way, and thus to know the divine will which is wondrously malleable, which is self-emptying.

The rabbinical tradition is full of astonishment that the glory of God could become so dense, so small, that it could fit between the cherubim of the ark. This is a way of talking about God’s self-emptying for the people and the creation. I think the God we see in Jesus the Christ in the glory of his Body nailed between two pieces of wood is our model of this total self-emptying.

Now, this model has often been misunderstood and mistreated. And we often think of the sayings about losing one’s life as referring to our state of mortality. I think we rather need to understand it as the death that we choose, the death of self-consciousness, the death of all our striving for power and place, the willingness to know our selves as God knows us, as starkly revealed as the Sandia mountains to the east of us; the willingness to be transformed.

As some of you know I have been working on the subject of tears [later published as "The Fountain and the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire"]. I’ve written the larger part of this new book, and like most books, its creation is full of surprises. At its heart I have discovered that the meeting of God's will and ours is the meeting of our mutual self-emptying in the mingling of God’s tears and ours: God’s over us, and ours not only over our sins but also, and more important, the astonishment of forgiveness and the glory in us It is in this other-directed gaze, the gaze away from our selves, that God is able to work out of our sight to transform us. And this is at the heart of our service: not so much in what we do but in what we are willing to be enabled to become.

This willingness is not passivity but, as T.S. Eliot has pointed out, costs us not less than everything. The story of the Garden of Eden tells us how eager we are to control our selves, to control everything and everyone around us, and ultimately to control God. To become willing to be transformed, to let go control, to allow the possibility—God’s possibility far beyond our knowing—is the most costly and valuable service we can render, and all our activity is useless without this entering of God into us, which God can do only as we are willing to be emptied of our lust for power and our self-concern.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions VI

[NB: these six posts were originally a talk given to a Benedictine community in the late 1980s.]

My experience, when I crossed the lines, was not without difficulty. It was fraught with and illuminated by conflicting attitudes toward the pain of our divisions within the community that nurtured me. But the discernment I received was nonetheless in the mind of Christ. My brothers-in-God refused to give me the slightest hint as to what the authentic shape of my life might turn out to be; what was important was the desire for purity of heart. They tested and affirmed me; they set me free; they encouraged and gave me confidence that I could take the risks as responsibly as anyone; that it was, in the end, in the fiery, loving mercy of God that I was staking my life; and this would mean the crucifixion that accompanies any refusal to bow to the pressures of political expediency at the expense of truth.

I have tried to pass on what I have received to those who in turn have crossed the lines into the space of my solitude, perplexed, sometimes badly damaged, seeking "to live only in order to receive mercy" uncompromised and undistracted, each in a unique way. Discernment, refreshment, counsel, humility, respect, shared wisdom: these arise from the grounding, the leavening, the transfiguration that spring from honestly acknowledging the pain of our divisions.

Inevitably, these experiences across the lines have changed my perspective and raised uncomfortable questions, questions that resolve into one: ought we to want to heal the pain of our divisions? Is this what Christ meant in the words recorded in John 17?

The journey into God has many way-stations, times and seasons, levels of understanding, perspectives. Or, to use a less linear image from ancient times, the resurrection is the same moment for all of us, for God is like the center of a sphere, and all time, which is the surface of the sphere, is the same moment for God. Sometimes we need highly structured religion and many words; at other times, by grace, though we can never relinquish the necessity of simple thanksgiving, simple petition, simple (and occasionally splendid) Eucharist, structures fall away, words and images dissolve into apophatic Silence and re-emerge, transfigured.

Over the years my initial enthusiasm for structural organic unity has waned. Human language is too inadequate, human thought processes and perspectives too limited, change too rapid, the temptations to expediency in service of power in religious institutions too great. For me, ARCIC, whose struggles have shortened the lives of some of its members, is more important as an icon than for its conclusions. Dialogue is essential; may dialogue across all religious lines never case. But the commitment to listen and to risk is more important than joint statements that are soon out of date, which may be ignored or rejected by those in power whose values and agendas differ.

The organic unity we seek, not only as churches but as human beings, is in the Eucharist alone, the sacrament of lived kenosis. In many churches in early Christianity, all you had to do was hold out your hand, no questions asked, to partake of the holy table. The Eucharist is to be shared among all who desire it as the "means to unity," in the words of the Roman Canon of the Mass; for we are sharing the Christ who is crucified by the wounds of our divisions, and through whose wounds we are healed. It was ever thus, if we read history, and always will be, if we understand human nature. Why not acknowledge the fact that our divisions reflect the reality of the human condition, the pain, paradox, and ambiguity incarnated and sanctified by Christ, whom we share as the medicine of life, not as a reward for good behavior or recitiing correct formulae?

The decline of the ecumenical movement at the institutional level has come not only from outmoded concepts of organic unity but, more tragically, from a major shift away from the repentance and humility that marked the early days of Vatican II, when awareness of the pain of our divisions was acute. I believe in those days officialdom was more open to the Holy Spirit, more open to the fiery anointing of penthos, to compunction for distortions of the Gospel, for competition and abuse of power in the name of a humble God, the burnings and the blood. It was for envy they crucified him; it was expedient that one should die.

Do we really want to heal the pain of our institutional divisions? Because it is through this pain that we receive repentance and compassion, that we find the deepest level of unity in hearts fed, broken and transfigured by the Wine of Mercy, the Bread of life, Christ, in whom all divisions cease.


Notes for all six parts of this article:

"...is greater than ourselves." The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, 1984: Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

"...softened by tears from stone to flesh." "...the lifegiving tears that come from a heart suddenly open to live and love." Benedicta Ward in Harlots of the Desert, 1987: Kalamazoo, Cistercian, p. 2.

"...efforts of Dr. S.P. Brock." See, for example, The Luminous Eye, 1991: Kalamazoo, Cistercian; St Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, 1990: Crestwood, SVS Press; The Syriac Fathers at Prayer, 1987 Kalamazoo, Cistercian; a forthcoming translation of the long-lost book II of Isaac the Syrian, which Dr Brock discovered in 1983, as well as numerous earlier publications. All of Dr Brock publications contain excellent blbliographies. Translations of Syriac authors have for some time been available in Latin, French and German.

"...putting on and taking off metaphors." St Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 44:2 quoted in The Luminous Eye, p. 44.
Ephrem, Faith 5:7, idem.

"...His majesty is but a tiny part." St. Ephrem, Heresies 30:4, ibid., p. 48.
"...with your names His own names." St. Ephrem, Faith 5:7, idem.

"...his monastic life." See for example, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller, 1984: Boston, Holy Transfiguration Monastery. [NB update, Nov. 6, 2006. A western Orthodox monk has objected to this remark. Evidently Orthodox monks are no longer trained this way in the West; perhaps my source (an Orthodox Bishop) meant that it once obtained and perhaps still does in certain monasteries in the East. In any event, Isaac's text would suffice if it were the only one available.]

"...ancient Christian communities." See my Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood,and Spiritual Maturity, 1988: San Francisco, Harper and Row, chapters 4 and 5 for a discussion of Syrian notions of virginity as singleness of heart, and Benedicta Ward's discussion in Harlots, p. 103. "The idea that a monk can 'keep' a virginity of body by his own prudent behaviour is here shown to be facile. 'Virginity', they say in this tradition, 'is restored by tears', and these stories show that in fact it is also created by tears. The only virginity for the monk is Christ. All are sinners, alienated from God, no one having virginity either by nature or by works.... In the baptism of water which is renewed by the tears of repentance, the monk receives Christ as virginity."

"...harlots of the desert." "Their decision to live only in order to receive mercy, was for them the beginning of a life, often a life of struggle to make real and actual the act of that mercy in their lives...it is not [sin] which condemns...it is the pride which cannot bear to have fallen and therefore cannot ask for forgiveness and mercy, that is the failure." Harlots, p. 6.

"...environment of silence." See the Swanwick Declaration, 1987, which affirms that the deepest unity is in the "silence beyond words" in which we become no longer strangers but pilgrims.

"...expediency at the expense of truth." St Ephrem, Faith 10:8, 13, Luminous Eye, p. 82.

"...to live only in order to receive mercy." Harlots, op. cit.

"...whom we share as the medicine of life?" St Ephrem, Virginity 31:3, Nisibis 46: 8, Luminous Eye, p. 77.

"...wine of mercy" [original is "Grape"] St Ephrem, Virginity 31:3, ibid., p. 77

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions V

It is one of the fruits of our divisions that organized communities have provided the fostering and validation for new forms of dedicated life across the boundaries of religion, and found insight into their own difficulties from visitors from "outside". For many of us, it has been across the boundaries that the most impartial, clear, and effective discernment, vocational insight, or psychotherapy has been available because, across the boundaries, there is no stake in the outcome, no knee-jerk reaction that attempts to keep someone on the straight and narrow of canon law, because canon law does not apply. It isn't always like this, but it can happen.

It happened to me.

Anglican communities, revived only 150 years ago, still seem to have a fundamental problem with romanticism and exterior validation: "Are we real religious?" many still wonder, nervously looking over their shoulders at a Tridentine or Victorian model, failing to realize that as long as this question is self-consciously asked, authentic religious life, whether in community or in the context of committed relationships and jobs cannot be lived. How can God accomplish conversion of the heart to more than we can ask or imagine if we continue to confine our selves to a template?

But I was telling a story.

To try to recover the insight of an ancient form of life and live it authentically in the modern world: nothing could be more threatening to an established order—especially when that form of life has no regular, controllable pattern, especially when it is necessarily at variance with a romantic template in the cluttered landscape of the modern world.

That such was my vocation, that is, that solitude is as necessary because of my inherent strengths and weaknesses as it has been discerned a divine calling, did not seem to the established order to be worth consideration. That, as it unfolded, I might have done scholarly research about it, or subjected myself to the most searing discernment I could find, or that there were others like me, quietly and responsibly undertaking the same quest, never seemed to cross the minds of the critics, especially the formal communities, within our church.

The communities, it has to be said, were threatened not only by the new solitaries, but also by warring among themselves, between the traditional groups, and the new ones that included married people and networked. At a peace conference a few years ago, both groups took an almost predictably expedient solution and focused their fears outward, passing a resolution that called for the new solitaries to be "controlled" by themselves as a safeguard against "bizarre behavior and aberrations".

After we got over the shock and the sorrow, it was hilarious. The new Roman canon law had been promulgated, and while in the past Anglican communities frequently had invoked the old canons (however irrelevant across the boundaries) to justify themselves, this time they chose to ignore the new.

[Update, 2006: unfortunately the Roman canons have been amended beyond recognition, and the Church of England and Episcopal Churches have passed legislation concerning solitaries that practically guarantees that the aspiring solitary will fail, or that his/her vocation will be twisted out of all recognition by the imposition of stereotypes held by those who haven't the slightest notion of what the solitary life is really about.]

Some of us were professed before the new canon law appeared, and were deeply thankful when we discovered that Canon 603 and, in some cases, 604 were virtually identical with what we had worked out quietly with our individual bishops under the influence, we had hoped, of the Holy Spirit. Some of us were not so lucky. There were bishops who panicked.

[Update, 2006: Some of us received no discernment and should never have attempted a solitary life. There were also bishops who were completely irresponsible who professed without discernment, and bishops who regarded solitaries as their personal playthings. Solitaries need bishop protectors who are not their diocesans, as it is most often the diocesans from whom they most need protection.]

All of us encountered uncertainty and competing claims to authority and authenticity. Most of us went across the lines for counsel and discernment that would not be influenced by the politics of our own church [the traffic went all ways from Roman Catholic to Baptist]. We were joined by others from different denominations that do not have the tradition of this sort of dedicated life, but do have the same hunger of the heart.

In the old days, of course, this was the way it was done. One consulted with the elders, Egyptian, Syrian, or Cappadocian. Bishops weren't in the picture. One simply went into the desert. One learned from the solitude.

But then, as now, for the established order, the desire for such simplicty was suspect, subversive; it all seemed too out of control, someone wanting a quiet life of prayer and solitude, to be left alone to get on with it, hidden and without fuss. It had to be organized; it had to be controlled. Otherwise it might become all too evident that without the solitude of the heart is that dimension of every Christian's vocation that leads to freedom in the divine mercy—without this solitude any community, family, church, monastery, becomes a counterfeit, a tangled mass of fears and dependencies and power politics.

Solitude, the solitude of the heart, in the midst of human brokenness gives clarity to think and act responsibly and kenotically in community, in creation, to relate to others with respect and humility, without fear or the need to dominate. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of saying, "If governments knew how subversive is contemplative prayer, they would ban it!"