Sunday, August 6, 2017

Theosis: Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Transfiguration is attested in all three Synoptic Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as by the Second Letter of Peter.   While the Gospel of John does not include an account of the Transfiguration, it explicitly underscores the theological significance of the event in an important dialogue between Jesus and Philip.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  (John 14:8-12)

All four Gospels make the same point:  in seeing Jesus, we see God.  And in seeing God, we are empowered to become fully ourselves:  human beings created in God’s image.   Through Christ, we become united with God in the creative, life-giving work of love.

This teaching is at the heart of Christian faith.  It was expressed beautifully by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon in the Second Century, when he wrote that "The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God" (Against Heresies IV, 20, 7).  This vision of God is made possible through "the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself." (Against Heresies V, preface)

This is a great mystery, and it is astonishing to realize that God desires to freely share God’s life and glory with us!  God desires so much more for us that we can ask for or imagine!   How patiently God waits for us to wake-up to our desire for God, to become united with his will for us, which is true freedom and joy.   

In Luke’s account, Jesus brings Peter, James, and John up to the mountain to pray.  The three disciples struggle to remain awake, but in doing so see the glory of God revealed there.  This is the work of prayer:  the struggle to shake off our illusions and preoccupations, so that we can attend to God’s desire for us and our desire for God.  Prayer is the work of seeing God so that we can see ourselves as God sees us. Prayer is waking-up so that we don’t miss the point of being alive!

Prayer can be a struggle, much as attending to any relationship can be a struggle.  It takes effort and perseverance, time and attention, for a real relationship with another human being to unfold, to move beyond our projections and illusions about each another to that we can really see each other.  Genuine friendship is the fruit of such effort; accepting one another as we really are so that we can grow into the fullness of who we are meant to be. Real friends love each other, and they accept each other, warts and all, thereby providing each other the space and time to let go of those things that prevent them from becoming fully alive. 

St. Theresa of Avila describes prayer in much the same way.  She writes that “prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.  In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord . . . Oh what a good friend You make, my Lord!  How You proceed by favoring and enduring.  You wait for others to adapt to Your nature, and in the meanwhile you put up with theirs!”  (The Book of Her Life, VIII, 5-6)

Like any good friend, God puts up with us until we can see ourselves through God’s eyes: as objects of God’s loving desire, invited to share God’s life and work.   Prayer is the experience of God loving us until we can love ourselves.  Then God loves us some more, until we begin to love others as God loves us.  We adapt ourselves to God’s nature and so become like Jesus.

Good friends also listen to each other, deeply and patiently.  The voice from the cloud announces to Peter, James and John: “this is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).  The vision of God in the face of Jesus Christ also entails a willingness to listen to his voice, to internalize his teaching, not simply to venerate him but to follow him, to become like him.  How do we do this?

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Feast of the Transfiguration is a celebration of the chief end of human life:  deification or union with God’s will.  This is called theosis in the Eastern Church, a process of transformation through catharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria (illumination by the vision of God).   Theosis is not our achievement, but rather God’s gift to us, whereby we become transparent to the energia of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The practice of prayer disposes us to become willing to receive this gift, empowering us for service in God’s name. 

In English, theoria is translated as “contemplation.” Gerry May defines contemplation “as a specific psychological state characterized by alert and open qualities of awareness . . . contemplation consists of a direct, immediate, open-eyed encounter with life as-it-is.”  Contemplation as a psychological state occurs naturally and can be taught, learned, and cultivated.   May notes that when practiced over time, the psychological state of contemplation produces changes in brain function, with quite visible psychophysiological effects:

1 1.Increased clarity and breadth of awareness:  the experienced contemplative develops a capacity for more panoramic, all-inclusive awareness that includes stimuli that is normally screened out as distracting or irrelevant.  Thus more information is available for consideration.
22. More direct and incisive responsiveness to situations.  Since a greater range of perception is available, the experienced contemplative is more present in the moment and responsive to people and situations.  At the same time, she is increasingly confident in the mind’s natural intuitive ability, thus spending less time consciously thinking about what to do.  This combination of increased information and decreased effort makes for more immediate and efficient reactions.
33. Greater self-knowledge.  Mental activities that were previously unnoticed become visible; the unconscious becomes conscious, increasing understanding of thoughts, sensations, emotions, and memories.  Personal abilities and vulnerabilities are better understood and accepted.  Most importantly, the insubstantiality of one’s self-image is recognized, making one less vulnerable to a variety of existential anxieties.

All of this makes for a remarkable increase in personal power, but at the level of technique, contemplation is morally neutral:  it can be cultivated for great good or for great evil.  Contemplation becomes contemplative prayer only when it is directed toward a conscious desire for God and knowledge of God’s will.  This is also why, in the Christian tradition, the practice of contemplation is always done in conjunction with the cultivation of the virtues, especially the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. 

Here, we move beyond honing neurological responsiveness and personal power to cultivating a willingness to be open to God’s grace, embracing the vulnerability of friendship with God of which St. Teresa speaks.   Contemplative prayer is a willingness to embrace the vulnerability of loving and being loved.

In contemplative prayer, we reach the limit of what training and effort can achieve, and surrender to the healing and transfiguring power of God’s love.  We cannot make the vision of God happen.  We can dispose ourselves to become willing to receive it, to risk the vulnerability of love.  This willingness is risky.  In prayer, St. Catherine of Genoa heard God say, “If you know how much I loved you, it would kill you.”  How much love can we bear?  May argues that the only psychological determinant that correlates with our capacity for love is our willingness to accept the pain of love and the courage to bear it.  Love can hurt, but it also heals like nothing else can.[1]

In the Kontakion for the Feast of the Transfiguration, our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers sing,

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

In Christ, God willingly risks the vulnerability of love for the sake of life, for our life and the life of the world.  In contemplative prayer, we gamble on that same risk and surrender to this love.  We become truly ourselves: icons of God’s own love, united with God in the work of justice, healing and reconciliation.  For this, we were made.  Amen.

[1] May’s discussion of contemplation and the quote from St. Catherine of Genoa are found in Gerald G. May, “To Bear The Beams Of Love: Contemplation And Personal Growth” at 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Relaxing In God's Image

Curtil-sous-Burnand, France

Today is Trinity Sunday according to the Christian calendar.  It is a day to reflect on what God is like.  How do we imagine God?  The Trinitarian dogma – that God is a unity of persons in communion, a dynamic exchange of love that is creative, generative, and joyful – was the definitive statement of the early Church in its effort to describe God in the least inadequate way.  It is a valiant attempt to communicate the incommunicable, to seek truth in the only way possible with respect to language about God:  by refusing to resolve the paradoxes.  

That is all I’m going to say today about the Trinitarian dogma.  The less said, the better.  In the face of the Mystery of God, the most appropriate response is silence.  If we are going to talk about God, a more biblical approach is to tell stories.  And one of the best stories in the Bible about what God is like is the first reading we heard today from Genesis.

Usually, this story in the Book of Genesis is taken to be about the origin of the universe.  It is treated as a cosmological myth.  Well, it does contain elements of such creation accounts, but the story is more about God than about the world.  Like most stories about what God is like, it is implicitly a story about how we should live in the world given our understanding of what God is like.   And the message of this story is really good news, because its central proclamation is:  RELAX.  Chill out. Take it easy.  Rest.

Jewish commentators have been much better at picking up on this than have Christians.  We tend to focus on the “work” part of the story rather than the “rest” part.  We don’t pay much attention to the climax of the story:

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.[1]

God does not bless the other six days in which he worked.  God blesses the creatures – as intrinsically valuable quite apart from their use by humans – and the adam, the human beings, male and female.  But it is only the day of rest that is declared “holy.”  To be blessed is to be infused with the life-force, to be made fully alive.  Holiness describes being completely set-apart for or consecrated to God; reserved to be used by God, so to speak.   The seventh day is set apart so that creation can rest and so become fully alive in God.  

What does this story reveal about what God is like?  Creation is very hard work.  It requires a great deal of energy and imagination.  It also requires a certain capacity to go with the flow.  Creativity requires letting be, permitting things to develop, to emerge, to disclose what they are becoming.  This is not creation on demand.  It is creation by invitation.  God invites and trusts that the response will turn out to God’s liking: “Let there be . . .”  And, indeed, it turns out to be very good. 

God delights in creating and in creation, but God is not a workaholic, anxious about getting it right, worried that everything will collapse if God isn’t directly controlling things 24/7.  God is “necessary” in that God donates being to everything in existence, but there is secondary, contingent causality – real creaturely freedom – within the created order.  And God is OK with that.  You may believe it is difficult to trust God.  The real challenge is believing that God trusts us! God trusts us enough to take a break on the 7th day.  God trusts the ever-renewing cycles of nature, the rhythms and harmonies inherent in God’s work and the participation of the creatures in that pattern of work and rest. 

It is not our work that defines us, but rather our capacity to trust, to let go and let be, to relax into the loving intention of creation so that we can really live.  God created us because he thought we might enjoy it.   Israel’s faith, and ours, is inextricably bound up with this sense that we receive our identity, not from what we produce or acquire, but from our willingness to rest in God’s love, to trust that there is a benevolent intention beating at the heart of reality.

This Genesis story dates from the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon.  It is a story about preserving one’s identity, one’s humanity, in a hostile culture that undermines one’s capacity to trust and refuses the dignity of rest.  Keeping Sabbath is a way of resisting imperial claims to impose an identity that denies God’s image in us.  Keeping Sabbath is a proclamation of faith that there is a loving God who graciously donates being to creation, infusing it with life-force, so that we may share in the eternal play of self-giving love that is God’s own life.  This God stands over and against all imperial claims to power that would define us solely by our work and deny us rest.

Israel’s experience generated a sophisticated critique of ideologies that seek to define human beings by their work; which is, by definition, slavery in the broadest sense.  The Torah defines Sabbath observance more precisely as work stoppage – for adults, children, slaves, resident aliens, and even livestock.[2]   Cessation from all work is the means whereby the Sabbath is kept holy.  If we really trust that our identity is God-given and not a function of our own efforts, we can relax long enough to discover and enjoy the intrinsic dignity and worth of creation.

The sages of Israel appended a second “creation” story – the one about the Garden of Eden – to the first “creation” story in Genesis, that goes so far as to define work as a curse.  It results from seeking to make God into a rival, against whom we set our own efforts to know, produce, and acquire.  Rather than gratefully sharing and enjoying the fruits of an abundant creation, we experience the fear of scarcity and the burden of toiling in rivalry with others to secure our lives.  This is the consequence of refusing to rest in God’s love, instead defining ourselves by our achievements or our failures.[3]

What Israel struggled to resist was the reduction of all of life to the economic.  Politics, community, the family, and even the self becomes subservient to economics when production and consumption is the touchstone of identity and value.  It is a struggle we know well.  We’ve internalized the belief that we are what we own.  We are anxious to provide our children with “opportunities” for “success” – by which we mean economic success – keeping them even busier and over-scheduled than many adults.  What they really want is not more opportunities, but more time for relationships – with their parents, families and friends.  We trust in wealth to provide us with a security that can only be provided by community.  It is the breadth and depth of our relationships, not the size of our investment portfolio, that sees us through the tough times – including tough economic times.  And look at how wealth determines our politics, rather than the common wealth being subservient to the common good.  People exhausted by the rat race have precious little time or energy to act as citizens, and are far easier to manipulate.

Sabbath rest was thought to be so essential to human identity and sanity, that the Torah stipulates death as the punishment for profaning the Sabbath; whoever does any work on that day is to be cut off from the people.[4]  This sounds like a text of terror.  But, to my knowledge, this was never literally enforced. It was taken to contain a deeper truth:  If you don’t observe the life-giving pattern of work and rest intrinsic to creation, you will die.  If you don’t keep the Sabbath you will be “cut off from the people” – you will lose your identity and, for all intents, cease to be fully human.

Earlier this week, I had dinner with my family and a dear friend of our son, whom we’ve known since he was two years-old. We were talking about their freshman college experience and what life is like for their peers.  The scope of depression, eating disorders, self-harming behavior, and suicidality among their peers was shocking to hear.  These are complex phenomena, and individual cases are unique, but one factor they both felt was relevant was the sense that their generation lives with enormous pressure to achieve, a lurking fear of scarcity, and an insidious sense of inadequacy.  According to The New York Times, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50.[5]  This is the consequence of a culture where identity is defined by achievement, productivity, and consumption.  If we can’t compete, if we aren’t good enough, we numb out until we die.    

Observing the Sabbath is critical to our resistance to this Culture of Death.  It is in our resting, not our working or achieving, that we realize God’s image within us.  It is how we become fully alive and truly free.  In the Torah, we are told that “on the seventh day, God rested, and was refreshed.”[6]  Walter Brueggemann observes that the word translated as “refreshed” is the Hebrew word for “self” turned into a verb:  literally, God was “re-selfed” or got Godself back. 

When we are defined by achievement or failure, we lose our self.  We become so fearful, anxious, and driven that we are literally beside our selves.  Resting in God’s love, in the beauty, joy and wonder sustained by God’s creative self-giving, we are restored in the image of God, renewed in our sense of identity, power, and freedom.  Sabbath keeping is essential to the politics of resistance to a Culture of Death that seeks to reduce everything to economic winners and losers.

Refusing to be defined by work is a subversive act.  It asserts an intrinsic dignity and worth that cannot be quantified or managed.  It expresses a profound trust in the benevolent, abundant, and sustainable nature of reality, and a willingness to surrender ourselves to the care of God and others.  It recognizes that we do not need to “add value” to the world, as if the world and our existence in it were somehow insufficiently valuable; as if we could improve on God’s handiwork.  We don’t need to make the world great again.  It already is.  We are just too busy to notice.  If even God took time out to rest, why can’t we?  Maybe, just maybe, we are most like God when we relax and do . . . nothing.  

[1] Genesis 2:2-3.
[2] Exodus 20:8-11.
[3] The first eleven chapters of Genesis describe the unfolding of the consequences resulting from the refusal of Sabbath rest.
[4] Exodus 31:14-15.
[5] Josh Katz, “Drug Deaths In America Are Rising Faster Than Ever,” The New York Times (June 5, 2017).
[6] Exodus 31:17.