Saturday, December 13, 2008

St Lucy's Day

It has been a difficult Advent at so many levels for so many people, yet the human spirit is indomitable.

Here in the UK after weeks of depression a kind of blitz mentality seems to be emerging. Yes, we're poor; yes, there is nothing but uncertainty; yes, the weather's miserable—cold, abysmally dark, wet with a stinging wind—on this day when we celebrate the return of the light (St Lucy's day used to fall at the solstice until the calendar correction of 1582), but there is an irrepressible mirth in the air.

The crowds are out looking and rejoicing, if not buying, and in the covered market holly and tinsel adorn every nook and cranny. The butchers there are in full holiday fig, with every kind of game hanging in the cold air—red deer, pheasant, geese, turkey, duck—and, today, a wild boar. The weather forecasters are becoming increasingly literary and it won't be long until one of them uses "light squibs" in his or her forecast (see below).

Today I came into the library as usual on opening, and as I sat down at my desk under the coffered and brightly painted ceiling of Duke Humfrey's, a brass choir started playing carols out in the Broad. As I write, at this very moment, the skies have opened and the rain has changed from a light drizzle to a torrent, yet the brass choir plays on undeterred, surely a metaphor for our times.

Paradoxically the message of Christmas, communicated through these carols—again as I write the choir is playing "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"—is one of silence:

The carol “It came upon the midnight clear” states the problem with devastating clarity, if only we will pay attention. “The world in silent stillness lay / To hear the angels sing.” For it is only in silent stillness that we can hear them, echoing the silent Word. This song has never stopped, the hymn tells us, but we are so lost in Babel, the kingdom of noise, that the prophecies concerning the nations go as yet unfulfilled. Instead, “Beneath the angel-strain have rolled / Two thousand years of wrong.” The trammeled poet then cries, “O hush the noise, ye men of strife / And hear the angels sing.” He knows full well that it is only when we learn silence that we are able to join the angelic chorus, to “. . . .give back the song/That now the angels sing.”

In this season of silence I am probably going to be out of internet range from December 21 until 6 January; the places I am going are somewhat Luddite. So please forgive me if I don't post again until Epiphany, though I will try to do so.

May all of you have a most blessed holiday season, and may light scatter the darkness before your path.


by John Donne

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition X

The Way of Tears

Tears are thus a sign of transformation, a sign of being in touch with deepest reality. They are a sign of willingness, and of God's working in the person. The first stages of the way of tears necessarily focus inward. But son there is a decided shift. As the emptying process imperceptibly takes place, compassion grows. This compassion grows because of the revelation of one's own wounds. These in turn are recognised to be the wounds of all humanity, and of all creation. The inter-relatedness, the coinherence of all suffering, all sin, and all joy becomes more and more apparent, and one's focus begins to shift outward. Isaac writes eloquently of this compassion:

"The burning of the heart on behalf of the entire creation, human beings, birds, animals—even all that exists; so that by the recollection and at the sight of them the eyes well up with tears as a result of the vehemence of compassion which constrains the heart in abundant pity. Then the heart becomes weak (lit. small) and it is not able to bear to hear or observe the injury or any insignificant suffering of anything in creation. For this reason, even on behalf of the irrational beings and enemies of truth, yes even on behalf of those who do harm to it, he offers prayer with tears at all times that they may be protected and spared; he even extends this to the various reptiles on account of his great compassion infused without measure in his heart, after the likeness of God."[7]

The healing of these wounds is not as the world understands healing, closure and scarring. Rather are these wounds transfigured by tears. By God's grace these wounds become united with Christ's. it is through our wounds that our kenosis takes place, and God's enters in. Our wounds thus kenotically united with God's are the beginning of our glorified body.

[7] Tr. Sebastian Brock; Miller, Ascetical Homilies, p. 82-83; Wensinck, p. 86.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Barking at Angels

Great Tew Combined Benefice
Advent Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some years ago, 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. It begins and ends with the ordinary: Christ in ordinary, as the genealogies point out, Christ descended from harlots, brigands and kings; the glorious Christ in his saints, the ineffable Christ the King, the humble Christ in the manger, the compassionate Christ manifest to the Gentiles.

The Advent 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 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.

For it is 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 immersed in the depths of this obscure stillness can we know, each of us in our own way, 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—and his manger—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 we and Mary realize the fruit of our essential virginity through which all salvation history occurs. The words that come after "behold" in the angel's message are explication for those 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 noise and 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.

But annunciations are profoundly dislocating events, whether to First Isaiah, to Mary, to the shepherds, or to us. As today's gospel tells us, there is no knowing when they might appear or what form they will take. Sometimes they manifest in our ordinary lives as the insights we all have now and again that make nonsense of the world as we have constructed it for ourselves. They are sudden; they take us by surprise, often in the least likely circumstances, and from the most unexpected sources. We may at first be incredulous; we may be shocked; we may be embarrassed. But when we finally realize that we cannot dismiss what has happened, when we realize that we can no longer ignore the evidence of 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.

Annunciations present us with forced choices: to choose whether we will flee in fear back into the old familiar prison-house of pain, walled in by dearly-held stereotypes and conceptual structures; or whether we will welcome the new birth in us, conceived by the Spirit, that will change our lives. By choosing to welcome this homely stranger, born of God in beholding, we learn to welcome the strangeness of our neighbour and, indeed, the strangeness of the unfolding truth of our selves. It is in this consent to behold that our fear is transmuted into love.

As we come to the manger, we bring gifts. Gospel accounts and legends recount a multitude of them. But there is one gift that all of us—high and low, rich and poor—share in common, one infinitely more precious to the Babe than gold or frankincense or myrrh; and that is suffering: the devastated suffering of those shattered by war; the sorrowful suffering of those who mourn; the anguished suffering of the abused; the hungry suffering of the poor and those who know their need of God; the hollow suffering of the rich; the interior suffering that is the simple longing that burns with beholding.

Behold in that dark cave the radiance of the Child; behold, and in that beholding, in that gentle, dazzling light, all else is forgotten, all that preoccupies and troubles us, all our pain and dismay, all our sin and guilt. We bring the gift of suffering and he takes it from us, transfigures it, giving us in return new life, the joy that no one, and nothing, can take from us.

Therefore in this, the 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 shadows and pain of this world, to announce tidings of great joy for this day and all the days to come.