Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Don't Forget to Listen . . .

The Museum of Curiosity, live stream on bbc.co.uk/radio4 on Wednesday, March 26, 6:30 PM GMT, 1:30 PM EDT, 11:30 AM Pacific and 10:30 AM Alaska time, with John Lloyd (Spitting Image, Blackadder, Not the Nine O'Clock News, QI), comedians Bill Bailey and Alan Davies, cosmologist John Gribbin and Maggie Ross/Martha Reeves. You can also listen again for a week after the broadcast. Information at the BBC website.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter 2008

[From a sermon by John Chrysostom c. 400, in stanza form by Dn.Mark Baker, Internet Medieval Source Book]

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holy Saturday

Search: Minimata Photo

[This photo is copyrighted and cannot be posted.]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Notes: Liturgy in Truth: Transfiguring the Mind and the Heart

[1] See Matt. 17:4.

[2] See Gen. 28:17.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1977), 336. See Rom. 12:1.

[4]Julian of Norwich, Long Text, Chapter 19: ...'the inward drawith the outeward by grace, and bothe shal be onyd in blisse without end by the vertue of Criste.' Note to the Reader: there is no adequate translation of Julian's text, but reading the Middle English of the Glasscoe edition is no more difficult than reading a cell phone text message and uses the same skills. See Julian of Norwich: A Revelation of Love, ed. Marion Glasscoe, 2nd rev. ed. (Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1993).

[5] See Rom. 8:39.

[6]Julian of Norwich: A Revelation of Love , Ch. 13: 'Also I saw our lord scorne his [the devil's] malice and nowten his onmigte, and he wil that we doe so.' ['Scorn' in Middle English means 'ignore'.]

[7]Erazim Kohàk, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984).

[8] "You speak in my heart and say, 'Seek my face.' Your face, Lord, will I seek" (Ps. 27:11, BCP).

[9] See John 20:17. Bernard of Clairvaux insisted that the Ascension was the most important event in the Gospels and in the life of Christ. See Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: From Gregory the Great to the Twelfth Century (London: SCM, 1994), 176. See also V. Gillespie and M. Ross, “The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich” in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V (Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1992), 53–77.

[10] This is a composite translation of the NRSV and RSV.

[11] This ungrasping-outflowing is the meaning of the word "kenotic" often associated with this hymn.

[12] “For it is in the consciousness that experience is sifted and evaluated, where archetype and event are fired together and given figural shape.” S. B. Fanous, “Biblical and Hagiographical Imitatio in the Book of Margery Kempe” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 1997).

[13] Eph. 3:20-21.

[14] See Fraser Watts and Mark Williams, The Psychology of Religious Knowing (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[15] There is now a recognized psychosis that arises from deprivation of nature. See Bradford McKee, “Growing Up Denatured,” New York Times, April 28, 2005.

[16] See Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18. The author talks about consequence using the prophetic (and possibly ironic) rhetorical strategy of assigning the first person to God, but it is clear that he understands that it is not a vengeful God that will bring about disaster but the folly of the complacent. Out of that desolation the tenderness of God will bring us home (3:20).

[17] See John 3:24.

[18] Matt. 18:1-10.

[19] Holy Week seems to be fertile ground for liturgical aberrations. One of the worst I ever saw was at noon on Good Friday. A huge wooden cross was laid on the altar steps. Two women deacons in white albs snuggled into the spaces on either side between the upright and the crosspiece. Then they proceeded to anoint the cross with oil and stick rose petals all over it while Celtic harps tinkled in the background.

[20] Colloquial translations have their place, but that place is not in the liturgy.

[21] See 1 Cor. 1:18 and following.

IV Liturgy in Truth: Transfiguring the Mind and the Heart

Congregations need to ask themselves what they are about. Are they playing church? There is nothing inherently wrong with playing church, and there is even a sense in which liturgy is play. But play in the trivial sense of power strategies, stereotyping, and showing off will lead to internecine warfare far more often than it will lead to beholding. Church is supposed to be a vehicle that helps us along the road to God, not a playground for self-absorption, social climbing, and dressing up.

The point here is not to pass judgment but to suggest that we need to be ruthlessly honest about what we are doing. If a congregation wants to meet for a purpose other than beholding, fine, but say so. Do not waste the time of those who come to pray, who come for the liturgy of beholding that leads to spiritual maturity and the truth of God. [18]

When liturgy devolves from being God-centered to being me-centered, social strictures choke off the full range of emotion. Every service has to be “uplifting,” encouraging people to flee from their emotions and from intimacy with the unknowability of God or anyone else. In this milieu there is no dialogue with silence, nor space for it; no comfort for wounds or weeping. There is no room for the darkness, sin, and death inherent in the human condition, [19] or for the ancient liturgical rites of Holy Week that enable catharsis and the silence of transfiguration. Without death, there can be no resurrection.

The first few moments of a liturgy are usually indicative of what is to come. “Good morning” signals something far different from “Blessed be God” or “The Lord be with you.” This may seem like a trivial point, but the words and actions of the liturgy bypass the rational. Simply by coming to church we make our selves more vulnerable to the ambient forces at work around us, and we need to be very careful about what we expose our selves to.

While it is true that God provides manna in the desert, the twisted discourse that too often passes for liturgy is nothing less than catastrophic, not only to the immediate congregation, but more significantly to the transmission of the heart of Christianity. It is not simply that Christian culture with its profound ways of reading and listening is lost; there is a gradual erosion of the ability to engage these ways of knowing, the use of paradox, symbol, and gesture that have come down to us from earliest days. When we lose these ways of knowing, it becomes almost impossible to recover them.

If ever there were a time that Christian liturgical practice needed to stand over and against the prevailing secular culture it is now. There is nothing complicated about effecting change in our liturgies; it does not require programs or focus groups or notebooks or celebrity speakers or vast amounts of money. It does, however, require that we make some choices, both personal and corporate.

We need to recover silence and leisure in our liturgies. We need to learn how to be silent and how to communicate that silence silently. A congregation will be comfortable with silence only to the degree that its clergy are comfortable with silence. We need to recover silence in our lives; Sunday liturgy does not make up for a lack of silence and prayer during the rest of the week.

We need to relearn ancient Christian ways of reading and listening. These will tend to arise naturally as we recover silence, but in many cases there needs to be remedial work simply in learning how to speak slowly, clearly, and meaningfully without being artificial. Careless, hasty speech communicates careless, hasty religion and can destroy any liturgy, no matter how carefully it has been designed. Furthermore, disordered speech can be indicative of disordered life and raise anxiety levels in the listener. The reverse is also true. One group of slum children in the United Kingdom who were considered uneducable were able to turn their lives around by learning to read Shakespeare to cows.

But there is more. We need to be very careful about the choice of translations we use liturgically. [20] Christian texts are meant to fall upon the ear, the doorway of the heart where the process of transfiguration takes place. They are meant to be heard repeatedly as the year turns through the liturgical cycle. The sense of these texts is borne on the music of speech or chant to become an internalized concordance, a kind of prayer wheel that turns continually in the heart. The Scriptures, especially the Psalms, are meant to inhabit us so that a word or phrase appropriate to whatever we are doing can float to the back of our mind to serve as comfort or warning.

Listening is more difficult to learn, but is acquired organically as we become comfortable with silence and learn to speak from silence. Part of the education of listening (and the usefulness of formal liturgical texts) is paying attention to words, phrases, or parables that we don’t immediately understand. We learn to receive them, sit with them, chew them over, consign them to our working consciousness, which flows just below the level of everyday consciousness, so that we can be fed in the gaps by our internal concordance, often when we least expect it.

We need to recover the art of effacement. While there is theater in liturgy, sanctuaries are not personal performance spaces, and seeking into the beholding is not about watching yourself become an instant “mystic.”

Most of all, we need to learn to trust one another and our common humanity. Effecting this goal means learning to listen to those who are marginal, who are not members of the educated, social, or clerical elite; divine wisdom is given to the simple. [21] In addition, we need diversity in liturgy. We need different kinds of liturgies in different stages of our development and in specialized contexts. Yet no matter how simple or grand, contemplative or celebratory, the same rule of thumb applies: a liturgy will be effective only insofar as it is able to implement its own effacement. Every true sacred sign effaces itself.

Good liturgy welcomes us to the wilderness of beholding God in the truth of our selves. Only when churches are willing to stop grasping at self-perpetuation and create rites that gesture beyond themselves will they be able to fulfill their mission of helping us to realize our ‘onying’ in God; only then will they have a chance of becoming a means of transfiguration for us and for the world.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Rilke on Hope

[with thanks to Janet Atkins]

All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the water undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
and in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.

And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.

No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

III Liturgy in Truth: Transfiguring the Mind and the Heart

Sadly, for many churches, liturgy has become just one more program, one more commodity. The “liturgies” in these churches turn people toward narcissism and illusion instead of toward the truth of their divine nature. These churches seem to have forgotten that worship is precisely about being liberated from the prison of our own experience. Instead, their “worship experiences” present us with something we can grasp, that we can consume by reflecting on whether we enjoy them or not. Worship experiences do not encourage us to seek the face of God but rather to talk endlessly about whether or not they made us feel good.

In other words, what often passes for liturgy today leads us away from the truth we seek, not toward it. Such liturgy, so-called, is a contradiction of the way to God, of the central truth about divinity that historic Christianity has sought to express: that our life in God is not about self-preoccupation but rather self-forgetfulness. It is not a matter of whether liturgy makes us feel good or bad; good liturgy helps us to stop thinking about our selves at all for a time; it conveys us into a universe greater than we can ask for or imagine. [13]

Liturgy that gestures beyond itself toward silence and receptivity to the truth of God in our selves—transfiguration—affects us physiologically. It restores the linking of our sight to the ear of the heart, to our natural state in which all the senses come into balance and are integrated. This inner “ear” feeds the subtle senses that try to communicate to us the information critical to living our lives in truth. These subtle senses are tuned to perceive rhythms and cycles to an exquisite degree. They cannot function if exposed solely to the noise, mayhem, and linearity of contemporary urban culture. [14] We are only now beginning to return to an appreciation of how essential they are to our well-being. [15]

If you go out into the Alaska wilderness, these subtle senses come quickly to the fore. Your skin may report a change in humidity that can save you from being caught in a storm. The hair rising on the back of your neck can alert you to a bear hidden in bushes nearby. But these senses can help you only if you are listening, if you are paying attention. If you go out into the Alaska wilderness to impose your own agenda, you will die.

The same is true of the wilderness of God. It is not that God will strike you down if you don’t behave in a certain way. Rather, your spiritual senses will be dulled as your attention is turned from beholding toward the fantasy self, the image you are trying to present to other fantasy selves. In every moment we are given the opportunity to choose between this unreality and our substantial nature, our participation in the divine, and we must accept the consequences set in motion by our choices. [16]

Liturgy is an exercise in mutual beholding: beholding God and beholding one another through beholding God. If liturgical action elides into entertainment, or if certain individuals in the congregation (musicians, for example) want to use the sanctuary for showing off, or if any other agenda is substituted for liturgy, then Sunday morning is a waste of time for those who seek to worship in Spirit and in truth. [17] In such a situation coffee hour has more potential to be liturgical than a “worship experience,” for during coffee hour one at least has the opportunity of relating to someone else through words that arise from a shared silence.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Mud and Spittle

Sermon for St Saviour's, Bar Harbor, Maine
Lent IV, March 2, 2008, Lectionary A

Samuel is one of the great tragic figures of the Old Testament. In today's reading he is a mature man, but we first meet him as the sensitive young child who can still hear the voice of God while most others have gone deaf. But what he hears from God is terrifying: the coming destruction of the kind old man Eli and his wastrel sons.

It's a very dangerous thing to assume we have heard the voice of God. Often what we hear is far from the Word, caught as we are in the feedback loops of our own minds. By contrast, Samuel had the clarity of vision traumatized children often have, aware of the inevitable consequences of dysfunctional activity around him. To interpret the story this way does not diminish either its importance or the presence of God within it.

The prophetic vocation is often misunderstood: a prophet does not channel energy from a divine object or predict the future. A prophetic person is committed, sometimes against their will, to the purity of heart that is able to see through smoke and mirrors, that points to unavoidable consequences unless something is radically changed. Such a vocation is costly, and Samuel paid the price. But the price is not always a negative one.

The amazing number of people who braved the snow to participate in Bread and Silence at Hulls Cove yesterday suggests that the prophetic spirit is at work in Maine, that there is a movement toward clarity and stillness that is counter to the noise and narcissism that characterizes many institutional churches in other parts of the country, and much of the spiritual marketplace.

When we do the work of silence, we allow our concerns to fall away as our minds come to a single focus. It is the equivalent of having our eyes anointed with mud and spittle. Silence washes us in the pool of Siloam.

As we are bathed, what we have relinquished slips into a deeper part of the pool where the silence becomes transfigurative. Within this silence, all the perceptions by which we live—data, emotions, traumas, interpretations, what we call "experience"—are changed, and our lives are given back to us clarified, healed, a new creation.

This process can be put into religious language: losing your life to gain it, for example. But unless we understand what religious language refers to, where it comes from and what it is trying to do, it tends to deteriorate into slogans and clichés.

Religion is not about believing seven impossible things before breakfast; it is a series of metaphors about the work of silence and the relationship of silence to speech and behaviour. Religion and its language become bent out of shape if the people using the metaphors, making the rules and writing the doctrine do not practice silence.

One of the main reasons for this distortion is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the authentic work of silence, which is organic and focuses us away from our selves, and speech, which can only ever be dualistic and self-regarding. Religious language becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns.

Silence is normative for the human person. Humans have been around for about 2 million years. We only started talking about 200,000 years ago, and writing about 9,000 years ago. For most of our human existence our core silence enabled us to survive in the wilderness. We haven't lost this gift; it's the reason we are fascinated by wildlife programmes on TV, because as we watch the animals' core silence enable them to be at home in their environment and their relationships with one another, we are looking at our own lost nature.

Without silence we lose our humanity. Life and language become flat and one dimensional—life imitating not art but cartoons. Shared silence is essential to enduring relationships, and those that seem irrevocably damaged can often be reconciled by sitting in silence together.

But what is happening in the silence?

Anyone who observes their own mind can understand some basic things about it. The most superficial level is characterized by noise. There is the observing I/eye which comments on everything and can make us really miserable. There is the swirl of data coming in, which is distorted even before we register it at the second level of interpretation as "experience"—and it's important to remember that all experience is interpretation. There is something called "identity", a pastiche of what we surmise (usually wrongly) other people think of us, what we think of them, of ourselves and any number of other red herrings. In other words, in its ordinary state, this first level of the mind is a mess and it is out of this mess that we try to deal with the day-to-day world. No wonder our lives often seem chaotic. No wonder we have the urge to blot it all out.

But doesn't have to be this way. There are ways to get beyond the noise that give the mind enough breathing space to sort things out. In fact, forgetting the mind for a moment, if you can simply train your body to sit upright in a chair, perfectly relaxed and perfectly motionless for thirty minutes, you will acquire an unshakeable interior stability to which you can always resort.

To include the mind you can use any simple meditation technique, from counting exhalations to following a word into silence, allowing all expectation to fall away; resting in the breath and the single point of the number or the word. But meditation is only one way into silence, and only the first step. We also have to feed the silence with images and texts, with leisurely liturgy where sacred signs efface themselves, pointing always beyond.

We need to understand that the mind functions in a series of narratives, paradoxes and reversals. Religious texts are written with narratives, paradoxes and reversals that mirror this working of the mind. They reflect the fact that we have to forget in order to remember and we have to remember in order to forget. Scientific research has confirmed what all of us know anyway, that we have to "sleep" on what we learn. Whatever we've been trying to memorize won't seat itself until we've let it go out of conscious thought for a while. On the other hand, if we're recovering from a traumatic experience, we have to remember what happened, look at it objectively, and stare at it until it dissolves into the silence.

Or take the phenomenon of the word on the tip of the tongue. We have no chance of recovering the lost word, of breaking out of the feedback loop, unless we forget both what we can't remember and that we are trying to remember, and even then there is no guarantee it will be given back. This sort of forgetting without expectation or guarantee is a good example of what religious people call "faith" but it's operative in scientists too, no matter what they want to call it, for the phenomenon is universal to human beings.

In other words, there's part of the mind over which we have no direct control. We can access it only indirectly, but it will work for us in a positive way if we let it; the more we choose to use it, the more powerful its effects. Earlier I called it transfigurative silence, and it is to this silence that we need to consign our grief, our pain and everything else. In this silence, out of our sight, Christ comes most powerfully to meet us, and it is here that our wounds, like his, become glorified.

Today's Epistle and Gospel use the paradoxes of light and darkness, blindness and sight, knowing and unknowing to reflect the healing process I have just described. If we think we know the whole story, if we think we see a situation clearly, if we think we are sure we are enlightened, we are probably caught in one of those distorting feedback loops. This is particularly true when we are struggling with grief and pain. It is impossible to think our way through them.

The rational mind is limited by its desire to control, manipulate, and circumscribe, while trauma disturbs us at levels beyond the reach of rationality. We try to control the pain, when what we need to do is to relinquish our thoughts about it to the silence and rest there. The old familiar hymn, "Take it to the Lord in prayer" is precisely about this process. In fact, it's amazing how many of the old hymns describe and enhance the work of silence, if only we will pay attention. Realizing our shared nature with God is the work of poets, not academic theologians.

Pain is a reality but it is not truth, and the work of silence enables us to live the truth of our selves. It's hidden within our core silence. The final paradox is that we can never know our own truth, we can only live it. When we say to someone, "Don't be so self-conscious; just be yourself," we're saying, don't look at the construct we call identity, focus completely on the task at hand and let the chips fall. It's only when we look away from our selves that we can live our own truth; "who loses life shall gain it."

Over time, if we persist with the practice of silence, we not only engage the world from the depths and clarity of that truth, we become whole, autonomous, incoercible, and our own interior state ceases to be of much interest. The fear of death disappears. Pain is still there, but it becomes a bass line to the hymn the soul sings as it realizes its shared nature with God.

Early Christians were far more concerned with the resurrection of the mind through the body in this present life than of the body alone in an afterlife. They were not focused on heaven and hell; they looked for a new creation by means of the kingdom of heaven within.

They did not deny sin, grief and loss, but they held them in the light of God. They understood that in the work of silence, tears mingle pain and joy like honey in the comb, as John Climacus says. These tears arise far more from awareness of the unbearable mercy that enfolds our wretchedness than the wretchedness itself. Early Christians were keen psychologists: they knew that too much emphasis on what troubles us simply gives it more power over us, while opening our hearts to the gaze of mercy brings us to awestruck wonder.

We are approaching the darkness of Holy Week from which the light of the resurrection comes forth. The cross is in fact the first part of the work of silence, where we labor to ungrasp, to relinquish everything; to become blind so we can see, and deaf so we can hear, to rest in unknowing where true knowledge alone may be found.

As we are stretched ever deeper into silence we hear Jesus say, "Even in this moment, right now, right here on the cross, you are with me in paradise." We go with him to the tomb. He descends with us to our own hell and sets us free. In the depth of silence we are en-Christed with him. And there he turns our sorrow into joy, a joy that no one can take from us.