Monday, January 26, 2009

Hearing the Vision

Sermon for Little Tew, 18 January, 2009

[NB: I Samuel 3:1-9 is much clearer when read aloud from KJV. Modern translations—especially in this case—miss the interwoven themes, the layers and nuances.]

The story of Samuel runs a gamut of emotions.

The account of his conception, told in the first chapter of this book, is one of comedy and outrage. There is the fertile wife, Penninah, who, jealous that their shared husband loves Hannah best, taunts her year after year for her barrenness. There is Eli the priest's contempt for Hannah evidenced by his jumping to the conclusion that she is drunk when she pours out her heart before the Lord, begging for a child. In spite of all this persecution she does conceive, and so great is her joy and gratitude that she gives the child back to God to serve in the temple, accompanied by an abundance of other offerings. And finally there is the poignant scene between Eli and the child, Samuel, who bears a terrible prophecy to the old man who has been his mentor.

Among the inter-related themes in these early chapters of I Samuel is a commentary on what constitutes faith and faithfulness—the singleness of a heart that is empty before and receptive to God, the fecundity of interior virginity—that prepares us for the vision of God. We are made aware of these issues through the sharply drawn contrast between Eli, the priest, and his sons, and Samuel, the child oblate who will eventually take his place.

In chapter 2, comments about the goodness of Samuel and Hannah and a prophecy that Samuel will know the Lord's heart and mind are interwoven with the story of the crimes of Eli's sons and the prophecies against them. The sons' rapine knowledge of the women who come to the temple to pray is set against Samuel's growing into the knowledge of God in his heart. This opposition is an element of the sexual metaphor threading through these chapters, introduced in chapter 1 by Peninnah's mockery of Hannah.

In ancient times Jewish priesthood was hereditary. We are told that Eli's line goes all the way back to Israel's bondage in Egypt. But Eli has been weak and ineffective; he has failed to control his two sons, who not only are debauched but, far worse, hold God, and those who make offerings to God, in contempt. Their contempt for God echoes Eli's initial contempt for Hannah. So while our hearts may hurt at the exchanges between Eli, Samuel, and God, we cannot say that God is holding an innocent man responsible for his sons' sins. The father and the sons represent the dead end of a degenerate clerical process that has been at work for generations.

The consequence of clerical failure is brought to the fore in the opening lines of today's readings from chapter 3. In the first verse we are told that visions sent from God are few and far between. There is an echo here of the Book of Proverbs: "Where vision fails, the people perish." (Prov. 29:18) It isn't so much that God is not sending visions; it is rather that there are few people who are willing to dispose themselves to receive them, to know God's heart and mind. (I Sam. 2:35)

Temples are the work of men, not God, places busy with the domestication of the divine. To lay aside one's bustling self-importance, to find the time to wait on an undomesticated God in attentive and receptive silence can be hard work for a temple priest.

In the second verse of today's readings, we are told that Eli is going blind, a symbolic manifestation, perhaps, of the skewed nature of his priorities. It is a phrase that works both as a traditional Hebrew parallelism and an enlarging of the metaphor that ultimately shows us that what is meant by vision is obedient listening. Fortunately, God's revelation is not dependent on man-made temples or the clergy; the end of Eli's line does not mean the end of visions from God. Verse 3 tells us that the lamp of God has not yet gone out.

It is still burning even if Eli can't see it; he may fail, but it will never fail. The light of God is about to become manifest in the child Samuel, who is sleeping in the inner chamber with the Ark, a location that could be construed as a metaphor for Samuel's listening heart and his spiritual closeness to God.

But Samuel is as yet innocent of direct dealings with the Lord; until this moment he has never "known" the Lord, to use the verb indicative of God's spousal intimacy with the people. That is to say, Samuel has not yet heard the still small voice in the most intimate place of the heart. Knowledge of God will increase his single-hearted dedication and thus his virginity, in the Jewish understanding of that word.

The sexual resonances are picked up again later on in verse 19 when we are told that as a mature prophet Samuel never let his words fall to the ground; that is to say that he has become aware of the potent nature of words he receives in his heart; he knows that they must be used appropriately and with restraint, never wasted on trivial matters. He never allows his intimacy with God to be interrupted; he never allows his attention be distracted; he never uses his privilege as an excuse for material entitlement, as have Eli and his sons.

When God first speaks to Samuel we are made understand that "the vision" of God is a kind of deep listening. The root of the word "to listen" in Hebrew also has the nuance of obedience: so when Samuel first hears God's voice, he runs to Eli. This pattern is repeated twice more until Eli realizes that God is speaking to Samuel. Eli then relinquishes him to God. By this submission, and by his humble acquiescence to the terrible prophecy that will be given, Eli goes a long way to recover his own lost virginity.

Obedient to Eli's instruction, Samuel returns to the heart of the temple and opens himself to be impregnated by God's word and to repeat it faithfully, however difficult that may be. In the morning he emerges from the heart of God to open the temple doors from the inside.

A new era has begun in the history of the Jewish people. Samuel can offer hope to the people where Eli has failed, precisely because Samuel is not part of the temple priesthood. Centuries later the same will be true of Jesus, who can be the great high priest, the Christ, only because he, too, is not part of the temple system.

There is some debate about Samuel's name: it is often translated as "heard of God", for he was conceived after God heard Hannah's cries. Other translations suggest "hearer" or even "son" of El, or God. Samuel's name is linked to that most important of Jewish prayers, known by its first word as the Shema. It has the same root as Samuel's name: to listen and obey. "Hear, O Israel!"

God wants the whole attention of the people—hard enough for a prophet, but even harder for a nation. God wants a virgin people, that is to say, one that has an undivided heart as regards God. Sadly, God is to be disappointed: material sacrifices and idols, the pomp, intrigues and power struggles of hierarchy, are so much more entertaining. Worst of all, the people ask Samuel to anoint a king for them as a point of focus to replace the diffuse system of judges. Their lack of faith will lead to their destruction.

Perhaps the author is implying that Samuel personifies what Israel was invited to be but has failed to become. Samuel was born because God heard Hannah, whose faith made her receptive to God's word, and Samuel has continued her example of single-hearted faithfulness, receptivity and generosity. These events raise echoes of Isaiah 55:11: "... so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." Perhaps there is even a gesture towards the Garden of Eden in this story, a reversal of Adam's rib, and a rejection of distraction.

The end of Eli's line and the emergence of Hannah's are also echoed in Isaiah: "for my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
 so are my ways higher than your ways
 and my thoughts than your thoughts." [Is. 55: 8-9]

The link between single-heartedness and virginity is a very ancient one. Only virginity is fertile: the empty ear, the ready womb, the attending mind, the listening heart—these vessels of silence alone can give rise to something new. Virginity is something we grow into; our growth in aspiration and vision are reciprocal with learning to focus our selves, our souls and bodies, in faith. By learning to do this, we draw our lives increasingly from the wellspring of divine silence instead of the poisonous and noisy waters of modern consumer culture, a culture that fragments life—including our notion of virginity—into a sequence of commodities and negative aspiration, leading to despair.

It's appropriate that we have this story of Samuel at this season. However bleak we may feel, however uncertain about the new era in which we find ourselves, Epiphany reminds us that Christ offers us the same intimacy to know God's heart and mind as Samuel was given; the lamp God will not go out. It still burns in the silent listening and receptivity that open us to limitless horizons in every aspect of our lives. Light continues to emerge from the darkness; the silent Word still speaks to those who are quiet enough to receive it; the manifestation of transfiguration—in every sense—is available without price to anyone who is willing to do the work of silence, to be reborn in simplicity, to be "heard of God" or "hearers of God". We need only to empty our selves of excess and distraction by offering what seems to be our barrenness in listening hope.

Which is not a vain hope, for as the antiphon on the Magnificat for second Vespers of Christmas reminds us: "When all things were in quiet silence, and the night in the midst of her swift course, thine almighty Word leapt down out of the heavens, Alleluia."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition XIII

Becoming Prayer

In the way of tears we become prayer; we no longer labour under the illusion of prayer as technology. As Clément says, we are "offering the world on the altar of (our hearts)":

"The condition of space-time which gives rise to the beating of the heart, is no longer an endless prison, but a temple walled with light. The man "feels" (taking the apophatic meaning of the "feeling of God") the risen Christ, who is the face of the Father, in the light of the Spirit."

We do not pray, we are prayed. And only when the last element of creation has become transfigured through the tears of Christ living in humankind will tears cease.

But there is more. We must remember that these are not tears of sorrow only, but of both sorrow and joy. As Isaac says, "here is sweet and flaming compunction"; or, mixed sorrow and joy like honey and the comb, to use an image of John Climacus. Mixed because in this singularity we somehow come to know more and more (in the most intimate biblical sense) that we gaze upon the face of God (Matthew 18). The promises made for us in baptism are fulfilled in us by this new and unceasing pouring out of fiery tears through our life within the blessed Trinity, whose love has become the polarity in this unending exchange of kenosis. This is the baptism of tears. The dark glass though which we see is washed by tears that magnify the face of God as we gaze upon it. And the only sin of which we need repent is the turning away from this gaze.

We come to know that in this singularity we are brought to the freedom and possibility of the primordial moment of creation, pregnant silence of hesychia. We know then that water and fire are one, that our tears ignite God's fire upon the earth. Syrian literature and liturgies are full of this knowledge:

See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you!
See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptised!
Fire and Spirit in our Baptism;
In the Bread and in the Cup, Fire and Holy Spirit! [12]

We begin to see that tears break open our stony hearts, like alabaster boxes from which the oil of the Spirit's anointing is poured upon the earth. We begin to understand that our tears, like the water Elijah poured on the fire, ignite the baptism of fire which Christ has promised, salting creation with fire; that his apophatic fire breaks out from all things.

As we pass through the strait place, we not only are drawn, we become impelled by the gaze of Love into infinite possibility of transfiguration. We become outwardly oriented. We become self-forgetful: we become so found in God that self-reflection becomes less necessary and less possible. Our only security is the insecurity of listening unknowing, and then acting in faith on what is heard and given. Our prayer is being prayed. Our only perception is nonexperience. Our longing no longer seeks fulfillment, indeed, is no longer noticed as longing.

We have not touched in this article on discernment, or types of tears that have been identified through the ages, or the social and political implications of understanding that tears are at the heart of Christianity, and the ultimate hope of the world. But perhaps this does not matter, for in the end the way of tears and fire is a commitment not to have any way; not to have any way, that is, except God's way, which remain unknown until it is unfolded in the silence of mingled divine and human kenosis.

In the words of Isaac of Nineveh,

"From stillness a man can gain possession of the three [causes of tears]: love of God, awestruck wonder at his mysteries, and humility of heart. Without these it is unthinkable that a man should be accounted worthy to taste of the wellspring of flaming compunction arising from the love of God. There is no passion so fervent as the love of God. O Lord, deem me worthy of this wellspring! [13]

[12] "A Hymn of St Ephrem to Christ on the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit and the Sacrament" tr. Robert Murray, ECR 3 (1970), pp. 142-50.

[13] Unpublished translation by Dana Miller, Book II.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Audacity of Hope

Pray for President Barack Hussein Obama and for our nation.

Yes we did. Yes we can.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bye Bye Bush

Cheney is my washpot; over Bush will I cast out my shoe.

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition XII

Through the Glass Darkly

Tears, like Laughter, their near-twin, spring from polarity, the holding of two opposite ends of the continuum in the heart: knowledge of the sin and pain of life unredeemed on the one hand, and the vision of God on the other. The polarity is acute even (and perhaps especially) when the glory of creation and the achievements of humankind are at their best. Yet these wonders are beheld contrasted to the vision that is unfolding and the coming of the person into sacred time which is interpenetrated with and becoming the 'ordinary'.

The ever-narrowing prison of the attitudes of control, and our willing powerlessness, our poverty, our need of God, funnels to the point of despair, the 'strait place' through which we must pass into the density of the glory of God, where all laws break down, and everything is reordered. This strait place is critical, and the despair is not only the despair of coming to the dead-end of mere human reason and worldly endeavour to control, but rather the despair in which there is only God. Olivier Clément writes of it thus:

"What we must say to all those who are wounded by the 'terrorist' God is that basically what is asked of man is not virtue or merit, but a cry of trust and love from the depths of his hell; or who knows, a moment of anguish and startlement in the enclosed immanence of his happiness, and never to fall into despair, but into God. [9]

"For as Christ said to the Starets Silouan: 'Keep your mind in hell and despair not'. In the depths of hell the soul aspires to Mercy, and it is there that it finds itself to be loved. This is a permanent metanoia: the world ceases to be that of the 'me', which idolizes itself (and at the same time hates itself) to become the world of God, the apparently upside-down world of the Beatitudes and of Communion. Then we understand that suffering, hell and death are spread abroad by means of the 'powers of darkness' in our hearts; but also that Christ is the Conqueror of hell and death, and that this risen life, light and freshness of Spirit, can increase in us from ever greater depths, according to the measure of our faith and our humility, to make of us beings of wonder, and sometimes of blessing." [10]

Our passing through this suffering is thus not 'punishment' or 'penance' inflicted by a wrathful God for our sins, but rather an awareness that God is with us in the passage through this straight place, that God is suffering with us.

For, as Isaac of Nineveh insists,

The whole purpose of our Lord's death was not to deliver (or redeem) us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might become aware of the love which God has for creation. Had all this astounding affair taken lace solely for the purpose of forgiveness of sin, it would have been sufficient to redeem us by some other means [ . . . ] . What wisdom is God's! And how filled with life! [11]

In this singularity at the bottom of tears we find silence, we find hesychia.

In the silence of God—or as John the Solitary would say, the God who is Silence—we come to the timeless moment where creation and parousia intersect. Here is the wedding of heaven and earth. We come to know that each of us is a solitary, and that the true meaning of solitude is the mirroring of God's action, which involves gathering into Love the community of creation by our tears. And as we are emptied and filled with God's poured-out life, we become kenotic co-creators, artists engaged in God's sacrificial act:

"This is my way of helping to complete in my poor human flesh, the full tale of Christ's afflictions still to be endured, for the sake of his body which is the Church. (Col. 1:24 NEB).

[9] Olivier Clément, 'Purification by Atheism', Orthodoxy and the Death of God, ed. A.M. Allchin (Supplements to Sobornost 1 (1971), p. 243.
[10] Olivier Clément, "The Holy Spirit and Monasticism Today", Cistercian Studies xiv 4, p. 323.
[11] Tr. Sebastian Brock in "Isaac of Nineveh: some newly discovered works', Sobornost/ECR 8:1, (1986), p. 2.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition XI

Eventually we may become aware that there is simultaneous inward and outward movement. This dual movement is as impossible to describe as Heisenberg has shown it impossible to calculate the simultaneous speed and position of a subatomic particle. And we have to remember that while we speak in terms of phases and processes, theosis is one process occurring on many levels at once. Perhaps the closest we can come to imagining this process is a widening spiral. But geometry, and terms like 'perfection' and 'achievement' are not only inappropriate; they are contradictory to God's transforming of us.

In the depths of tears we find that our tears are God's. God weeps: and the will of God emerges from divine tears mingled with ours. God's willing powerlessness and involvement in co-creation extends to every moment and every eventuality, and the divine mercy pervades every suffering. God willingly suffers. That this semitic understanding has been retained through centuries of Chalcedonian and post-Chalcedonian conflict is astonishing. But it is implicit in both Ephrem and Isaac.

As we approach the depth of tears we come to a kind of crisis of rebirth, particularly in the first experience of tears, but also in each subsequent weeping. Every person experiences this sense of being pulled through density into newness in a different way. Isaac sums up this experience in a famous passage:

"Once you have reached the place of tears, then know that the mind has left the prison of this world and set its foot on the road towards the new world. Then it begins to breathe the wonderful air which is there; it begins to shed tears. For now the birth pangs of the spiritual infant grow strong, since grace, the common mother of all, makes haste to give birth mystically to the soul, the image of God, into the light of the world to come. And when the time of birth is come, then the mind will perceive something of what belongs to that world, like a faint perfume which an infant receives inside the body in which it has grown. Then, unable to endure what is unwonted, it (the spiritual infant) will set the body to weeping mingled with joy which surpasses the sweetness of honey. Together with the growing of this interior infant there will be an increase of tears. The stream of tears occurs when the mind has begun to become serene. I am talking about the flow of tears belonging to the stage which I have described, not that partial one which takes place from time to time. This consolation which takes place intermittently occurs for everyone who serves God in solitude; sometimes it happens when the mind is in contemplation, sometimes while reading the words of the scriptures; sometimes when the mind is occupied with supplication.

"But I propose to speak of that total kind, which continues night and day without a break, and by the sincerity of his behaviour, when the eyes become fountains of water for a period of nearly two years. This happens during a transitional period; I mean mystical transition. At the end of the period of tears you will enter into peace of thought; and by this peace of thought you will enter into that divine rest of which Paul spoke, rest in part, according to [our] nature.

"From this place of peace the intellect will begin to see hidden things. Then the Holy Spirit will begin to reveal before it heavenly things, while God dwells in you and promotes spiritual fruits in you. Then you will start to become aware of the transformation which the whole nature will receive in the renewal of all things, dimly and as though by hints." [8]

[8] Tr. Sebastian Brock; Miller, Asceitcal Homilies, p. 82-3; Wensick, p. 86.]

Amendment to St Lucy's Day

In fact, being a non-Roman Catholic country, England did not change its calendar until 1752.