Wednesday, December 30, 2009
There were no clocks in the monastery. When a businessman complained about the lack of punctuality, the Master said, "Ours is a cosmic punctuality, not a business punctuality."
This made no sense to the businessman, so the Master added, "Everything depends upon your point of view. From the viewpoint of the forest, what is the loss of a leaf? From the viewpoint of the cosmos, what is the loss of your business schedule?"
Terrific . . . so long as the liturgy starts on time!
I think my eleven year-old might just be the Master.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
- (Mark 13:1-2; cf. Matt. 24:1-8, Luke 21:5-11)
V. Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
R. For only in you can we live in safety.
- The Book of Common Prayer, p. 97
Whenever we place our trust in anything other than God to secure our lives, we make an idol of it. The essence of an idol is that it is an illusion: it purports to provide what it can never deliver. “National Security” is a commonplace idol in post-9/11 America, much as it was during the Cold War. In the Cold War period, the chief symbol of this idol was a nuclear warhead. It seems to me that the dominant symbol of idolatry today is the torture chamber.
Much as we were tempted to believe that “The Bomb” would keep us safe by deterring the Communist threat, so now we are tempted to believe that torturing our enemies will protect us from terrorist threats. Those who were unwilling to support the nuclear arms race were branded weak, even traitors. Similarly, those who are unwilling to practice torture are dismissed as naïve if not unpatriotic. Already, the Obama administration is backtracking on its commitments to undo the Bush torture regime, for fear that it will be held culpable for any future terrorist attacks on American soil.
As Christians who pray each morning, “Give peace, O Lord, in all the world; for only in you can we live in safety,” we are morally obligated to question the veracity of the national security ideology. Do we really place our trust in torture, of all things, to keep us safe? How can those of us who live under the sign of the cross possibly do so? Isn’t it an inversion of our deepest commitments, turning the meaning of our most important symbol on its head? That those who claim Jesus, who was tortured and executed by a global empire, as their Lord, would now think water boarding is a great idea, is more than ironic. It is a tragic betrayal of Christian faith.
Of course, none of this is new. In his own day, Jesus’ contemporaries claimed the temple in Jerusalem as the symbol and guarantee of their nationalist aspirations. They believed it was impregnable, the last bastion of protection for the righteous. Those who defended it could never be defeated.
In the face of this religious ideology, Jesus’ claim that not one stone of the temple would remain standing was outrageous. His conviction that the temple’s symbolic deployment to justify violence was idolatrous was an affront to both Roman imperial and Jewish nationalist pretensions, because it undermined the systems of domination, exclusion, and scapegoating on which they depended. If God could not be relied upon to legitimate national interests, then what purpose could He possibly serve? Do we really want a God who showers life-giving rain on both the just and the unjust?
Jesus offers an alternative vision of a God who is compassionate, and whose kingdom is signified not by inviolable temples or torture chambers, but rather by indiscriminate healing and table fellowship. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. I think we can safely say that rules out water boarding, attack dogs, and placing electrodes on people’s genitals. National security was not Jesus’ overriding interest. His ultimate loyalty, and ours, was and must be to a more inclusive and peaceable kingdom.
The truth is that nothing, and no one, can guarantee our security. The good news is that we do not need such guarantees in order to be joyous and free. We need only embrace our vulnerability and common humanity as God’s beloved children, and become willing to be compassionate as God is compassionate. Jesus never promised us a risk-free world. What he did promise is that the risks we take for the sake of the kingdom will never be in vain.
Jesus didn’t seem to have much use for the ideology of either Jewish zealots or Roman imperialists, or for the violence justified by each. What is the difference, after all, between a terrorist and a torturer? Those who trust in the idol of national security, eventually become what they hate. Idolatry always leads to death. The politics of fear inevitably leads to the construction of crosses – and enemies to crucify.
The seeds of compassion, by contrast, always bear new life; resurrection beyond the crosses created to provide the illusion of security. As followers of Jesus, let us renounce safety in favor of reality. Let us see beyond the false choice between terrorism and torture to perceive the blessedness of peacemakers, who are children of God. Let us have the courage to take up our cross and follow Jesus for the sake of God’s kingdom, and leave it to the likes of Pilate to justify torture for the sake of empire.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Teresa employs four images representing four stages of prayer. As we progress through these stages, we experience an increasing sense of love and a decreasing sense of self effort.
In the first stage, we pull water from a well. In the second stage, we employ a waterwheel to draw the water. In the third stage, the water is drawn from a nearby spring or stream. In the final stage, a gentle rain provides the water; the Lord “waters it Himself.”
Commenting on this image, Gerald May remarks, “I would say that increasing purity or experience [of divine love] is associated with decreased ‘processing’ by the mind. In wondering how the soul was occupied during the watering-by-rain, Teresa felt God say to her, ‘It dissolves utterly, my daughter, to rest more and more in Me. It is no longer itself that lives; it is I.’”(1)
Our sense of effort in prayer diminishes as our sense of self diminishes and our sense of God enlarges. In the first stage, we need a very strong sense of self to focus our awareness and let go of attachments, preoccupations, and illusions. It takes a lot of effort to gather this concentration.
In the second stage, while our sense of self diminishes, we may become acutely aware of the method of prayer we are employing (the waterwheel); preoccupied with whether or not we are doing it “right.” We may find ourselves in this stage for a long time, becoming aware that we are distracted and employing the method to refocus – coming back to our breath, reciting the Jesus prayer, using our sacred word as a touchstone, etc. We are conscious of when we are not praying, and of when we are praying.
Zen Master Sheng Yen offers a wonderful analogy here.(2) Normally, when we put on a pair of glasses we are just seeing through them. If we are continually conscious of the glasses, they actually become a barrier to perception. So it is with our methods of prayer and meditation. They are simply glasses, aids to perception.
By the third stage we have let go of thinking about the method and are simply praying; the water flows more freely as from a stream. We not only have relinquished our thoughts, but our thoughts about our thoughts as well! In this stage we are not conscious of anything in particular, though we may be acutely aware of everything.
In a sense, the final stage is the end of prayer because it is the end of the self; at least, it is the end of the self’s effort at discrimination. Perhaps we can say that there is praying, but no “I” who is doing the praying. It is simply raining love. For the duration of this unitive experience the subject-object distinction is transcended without being destroyed. It just is.
There is a similar progression in Zen Buddhist meditation, moving through the experiences of scattered-mind, simple-mind, and one-mind, to no-mind.(3) “Scattered-mind” is the state of being tossed to and fro by our mental preoccupations; first one thing, and then another. We are distracted by our thoughts, feelings, and sensations when we first settle down to meditate. In “simple-mind” we are recollected and our method is “working.” Our awareness is very focused or one-pointed.
“One mind” expands this awareness to encompass everything. “I” become identified with “All,” but there is still a sense of self operative. A Zen practitioner was blissfully in this state of “one mind” when his teacher discovered him hugging a dog on the street. The teacher asked, “What are you doing embracing this dog?” The student replied, “It’s just me!” In response, the teacher struck him suddenly and exclaimed, “What! You mean you still have a ‘me’ there?”
In the state of “no-mind,” by contrast, there is no sense of “me,” however large and encompassing that identity may be. One attains wu or emptiness, understood as the absence of attachment to self. Master Yen describes it in this way: “In Buddhism we often speak of the enlightened state as ‘no-self’ because we have no better words for it. What this phrase says is that, at this stage, existence does not rely on self, others, or anything. It is spontaneous, natural existence. Accordingly, one helps sentient beings. Not for the sake of self, not for the sake of others; one just naturally helps sentient beings.”(4)
The absence of self is not a kind of nihilism, but rather the necessary condition for spontaneous compassion to arise. Here, I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching that we must lose our life in order to gain it, in order to become indiscriminately compassionate as God is compassionate.(5) While the Christian and the Buddhist part ways in how they describe Ultimate Reality – for Christianity is a bhakti yoga, and gladly embraces personal metaphors of divine love – it seems to me that they come close to convergence at the level of lived experience of this Reality.
Where we also may differ is in our response to this experience. Master Yen says that “Bodhisattvas have no particular point of view. Like a mirror, they are only a reflection of sentient beings. They do not say, ‘I will behave this way or that way to help people.’”(6) The Bodhisattva, the enlightened one, gives expression to compassion by helping people to perceive the reality of their own condition. There is, however, no impetus to “help.”
The Christian is moved to “help.”(7) The question, however, remains as to what action is truly helpful. This is a matter of discernment. But it is not a question the Christian can avoid. Is it one that the Buddhist can avoid either? Not if contemplation-and-action is, finally, one movement in response to Reality. Compassion is not only reflecting Reality, but also working to ameliorate conditions that inhibit others from realizing their true nature.
(1) Gerald May, Will and Spirit, p. 202.
(2) Chan Master Sheng Yen, Getting the Buddha Mind, pp. 57-58.
(3) Yen, pp. 128-130.
(4) Yen, pp. 71-72.
(5) See, for example, Luke 6:27-36, 9:21-27, 15:11-32.
(6) Yen, p. 72.
(7) The parable of the Good Samaritan and The Letter of James come to mind.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Rosa and Drago Sorak, a Bosnia Serb couple living in the Muslim enclave of Gorazde during the height of the ethnic conflict there between Serbs and Muslims, discovered the light in a most unexpected place: Fedil Fejzic’s cow.(1)
It was a time of deep darkness for Rosa and Drago. Though they were Bosnian Serbs, they rejected Serbian nationalist propaganda and refused to align themselves with the Serbian forces seeking to occupy Bosnia. Even when the Serbian forces laid siege to Gorazde in 1992, they refused to leave their home. Their fellow Serbs considered them traitors. Their Muslim neighbors considered them enemies.
Life in Gorazde became a living hell as Serbian forces shelled the city daily, cutting off electricity, gas, and water. The death toll mounted and food became scarce, but the Sorak’s persevered. When their son, Zoran, was taken by the local Muslim police for interrogation, they remained with their pregnant daughter-in-law. Zoran was never seen again. Shortly thereafter, their second son, who fought with the Serbians, was killed.
Muslim gangs began to loot the city, harassing and killing their Serbian neighbors, forcing the Sorak’s into hiding on many nights. Then, five months after Zoran’s disappearance, his wife gave birth to a baby girl, but she was unable to nurse her. As the siege continued, food became increasingly scarce. The very young, the very old, and the very sick began to die in droves. For five days, Rosa and Drago had nothing but tea to nourish their new granddaughter. The infant began to die.
Meanwhile, Fedil Fejzic, one of their Muslim neighbors, was keeping his cow in a field and milking it at night to avoid being hit by Serbian sniper fire. Rosa Sorak reports that “On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door. It was Fadil Fejzic in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia.”
Eventually, Drago and Rosa also left Gorazde. They mourned their dead sons and never forgot the terrors visited upon them by their Muslim neighbors. But as they told war correspondent Chris Hedges, who recorded their story, “they could not listen to other Serbs talking about Muslims or even recite their own sufferings, without telling of Fejzic and his cow. Here was the power of love. What this illiterate farmer did would color the life of another human being, who might never meet him, long after he was gone. In his act lay an ocean of hope.”
“It is our duty to always tell this story,” Drago Sorak said. “Salt, in those days cost $80 a kilo. The milk he had was precious, all the more so because it was hard to keep animals. He gave us 221 liters. And every year at this time, when it is cold and dark, when we close our eyes, we can hear the boom of the heavy guns and the sound of Fadil Fejzic’s footsteps on the stairs.”
This is how the light of God, the power of love, breaks into our deepest darkness: in great humility, in obscurity, in barely discernible signs of humanity revealed in the actions of the most unlikely people. Fadil comes in the early morning, with the first rays of light after a long and painful dark night of the soul, to bring gifts to a vulnerable child. It is only this simple peasant, keeping his cow by night, who recognizes the sign and hope of humanity in this newborn infant. Drago and Rosa, like Mary in the story of Jesus’ nativity, are still treasuring this experience and pondering its meaning in their hearts.
Where do we locate the signs of light in this story? Surely, in Fadil, who like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, recognizes the glory of God in the sign of a child wrapped in bands of cloth and comes to pay homage to the new life she brings. It isn’t simply Fadil’s compassionate self-giving that is striking; we might expect as much among family and friends. It is the fact that he is a stranger, even an enemy, willing to risk reputation and the censure of his own people, which gives such brilliance to the light he brings. There is something miraculous about the light shining through the cracks in the walls that are meant to divide us.
Yet, it seems to me that the light shines in Rosa and Drago as well; from their side of the crack in the wall, if you will. Something in them allows them to be open to receive Fadil’s gift; in spite of the fact that he is the “wrong” nationality and religion; in spite of the fact that they have endured more than their share of pain and loss and despair. There is something of great power and beauty in their refusal to harden their hearts and cling to a sense of being victims. They have been hurt, yes; but they have not taken their identity from their pain, but rather from their continuing capacity for relationship with the other.
I think here of Joseph and Mary, stigmatized for being pregnant out of wedlock, poor and unable to secure a safe place to stay after a long and arduous journey. It would have been all too easy for them to be defended against these strange shepherds who disturb their uneasy sleep with unbelievable good news. There is something miraculous about the light shining through our refusal to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to us. Sometimes, the bare willingness to receive the support of another is enough to kindle a flame in the darkness.
What is most strange, and most like God, are the two helpless infants in these stories. What is the source of their light? What is it in them that draws Fadil and the shepherds, bringing together strangers and reconciling enemies? What is it about them that brings peace on earth, an end to the boots of the tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood? It is, I think, the capacity of their sheer vulnerability to evoke compassion.
This is the astonishing thing about the Incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus: that God should love us so much, desiring us to be reconciled with Him and with one another, that He would become utterly vulnerable so as to arouse our compassion and awaken us to our common humanity. It is the vulnerability of God, revealed first in the manger and ultimately on the Cross, that makes the light of the Resurrection shine all the more brightly.
Here is a great mystery: we bear God’s image mostly brilliantly in our being vulnerable as God is vulnerable. Were it otherwise, we could not be compassionate as God is compassionate. It is through our capacity to embrace our vulnerability – recognizing in it our common humanity – that the light of God shines most brightly in our lives.
This is the good news that Joseph and Mary and the shepherds welcomed when God came among them in such great humility. This is the source of the light that Drago and Rosa and Fadil were able to perceive in the midst of deep darkness. The Christmas story is our story, the story of how love comes among us with such power to light our darkness. Like Drago Sorak, we have an obligation to tell this story, so that every year at this time, when it is cold and dark, when we close our eyes, we can hear the boom of the heavy guns and – and – the sound of the footsteps of all the world’s Fadils on the stairs, coming to bear witness to the power of love.
(1) This story is reported in Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, pp. 50-53.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
In his book, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, Parker Palmer expresses this truth beautifully:
There is an intimate link between our capacity for risk-taking and our commitment to learning and growing. A risk is an effort that may not succeed, and the bigger the risk, the less the chance of success. So why would anyone take such risks? There are many reasons, but one of the most creative is that by risking we may learn more about ourselves and our world, and the bigger the risk, the greater the learning. If we do not value learning, we will not risk, and our actions will be limited to small and predictable arenas in which we know we can succeed. (p. 23)
I'm reminded of the definition of a dying congregation: a group of people who keep doing the same thing well, over and over again, with an ever-diminishing return.
If our congregations are "safe spaces" that never challenge us, never invite us out of our comfort zones, then we condemn ourselves to an ever-diminishing circle of experience that remains within our control. We become enclosed in a world that will never grow large enough to exceed our fears. We will keep trying to make God "safe," refusing to accept that a god subject to our control is no god at all.
Not many people really want to grow spiritually. It is much easier to remain comfortably ensconced within our illusions. But those who do hunger for reality, for the experience of God, aren't looking for someone to make them feel safe; they are looking for people who will accompany them in the risky venture of discovering the truth about themselves, willing to embrace their deepest desire to love God and all things in God. And there is nothing "safe" about that. Its scary as hell.
Its scary because spiritual growth isn't about achieving security or success. Its about embracing our failures and fears, riding them all the way down until we touch bottom and discover what Thomas Merton called our "hidden wholeness." We have to be willing to lose our life so that we can receive it. We must be willing to die so that we can live. Only when we are ready to embrace loss as well as achievement, vulnerability as well as boundaries, can we find the freedom to act without regard for outcomes. Only then will we have the courage to take off the masks. Only then will we live and love in truth.
Recently, a deeply faithful member of my community came to me and said, "I'm tired of being such a fake. I go through the motions of 'good works' but inside I just feel so empty. I'm so hungry and thirsty for God." I almost shouted, "Hallelujah!" Here was someone willing to confront reality, in touch with his deepest desire, willing to lay down his life (taking his identity from the regard of others) so that he could live (realizing his identity as God's beloved). To encounter just one such person is a miracle, providing a lifetimes' worth of encouragement.
That is what our churches are for - to bring us into the community of those who hunger and thirst for the One who can satiate us. It is isn't always pretty, and it certainly isn't safe. But it is real. And in the reality, in the roundness of our brilliant, shadowed lives, we will discover the fulfillment that comes to us, not as our achievement, but as the gift of an Other.
That is a risk worth taking.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Let's look first at the way Palmer defines these two terms separately. He says,
I understand action to be any way that we can co-create reality with other beings and with the Spirit . . . I understand contemplation to be any way that we can unveil the illusions that masquerade as reality and reveal the reality behind the masks. (p. 17)
While we can separate the two terms for purposes of analysis, in reality "contemplation-and-action" are experienced as one movement; a movement toward awareness that allows us to act with freedom and creativity. As Palmer notes, action without contemplation is mere frenzy. I would add that it also could be understood as addiction - compulsive behavior generating the illusion of control, completely out of touch with reality. Conversely, contemplation without action is escapism. It can be an expression of moral cowardice; a refusal to take responsibility for our lives.
Palmer rightly points out that life provides us with many opportunities to practice "contemplation-and-action." It is given to all of us, not just to ascetic virtuosos. I think of a friend who was crushed to discover his spouses infidelity. He came to see how narcissistic his partner had been throughout their marriage, and how co-dependent he had been. This stripping away of illusion was a contemplative experience born of becoming willing to see reality at is it, rather than as we wish it to be.
After an extended period of marriage counseling, the relationship ended in divorce. My friend continued therapy and worked on developing a stronger sense of self and appropriate boundaries, and is now happily engaged in a new and much healthier relationship. The new relationship is creative of reality, of the person my friend is created to become and the life God desires for him.
A willingness to be led by the Spirit into an awareness of reality is all we need to become experienced practitioners of "contemplation-in-action." Life lived with a bare minimum of such awareness is all the school we need. Palmer rightly rejects a preoccupation with contemplative techniques, as they can get in the way of the actual lived experience of awareness.
While I would agree with him about the dangers of preoccupation with technique, it has been my experience that a commitment to contemplative practice - a regular pattern of prayer and meditation - strengthens my willingness to have my illusions stripped away so that I can live in awareness of reality, and act responsibly and creatively. It isn't how we practice, but the actual willingness to practice that can make a difference.
I appreciate Palmer's way of breaching the false dichotomy between contemplation and action. As Gigi Ross notes in her insightful commentary on the story of Jesus' encounter with Mary and Martha ("Martha with the Heart of Mary," Shalem News, Winter-Spring 2006), we don't need to strike a balance between contemplation and action because they are not opposites. Action and rest are opposites, and that is certainly a balance we need to honor for the sake of our well-being. I agree with Ross that a "balance" between contemplation and illusion is not desirable. Being in touch with the deepest desires of our heart, our God-centeredness, is desirable whether we are at work or on vacation, engaged in demanding action or relaxing.
One final observation: in reflecting on "contemplation-and-action" I wonder if we might also speak of "contemplation-in-action." When I ponder Jesus' teaching and practice, so much of what he did and said was in the service of stripping away illusions so that people could experience the kindom of God as present reality. He acted so that we might see, and his vision opened up new ways of being in the world. Jesus' parables and his parabolic actions (healing on the Sabbath, engaging with women, chasing the bankers out of the Temple) were models of contemplation-in-action. His example bears witness to our heart's desire for integration and wholeness - and to the vulnerability and risk required to become free of our illusions.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Now, this is a really good thing; especially, considering that I have been married (in the Christian sacramental sense) for more than fifteen years! Yet, after all these years, it somehow took undergoing the process of discernment with the Diocese of Los Angeles regarding the election of their bishops suffragan to internalize this truth in a new and deeper way. This was one of the many gifts of my participation in the process - and undoubtedly the most surprising.
For years, I have teased my husband that were he to get hit by a bus, I would enter the monastery as soon as the funeral was over! I sort of felt as if I was married by accident, surprised by God to find myself married on the way to something else; as if marriage were in addition to my spiritual journey.
Now, I had been told by a spiritual director a decade ago that "God doesn't call us to competing vocations." I knew in my head that my marriage was part and parcel of my spiritual journey and its fulfillment, part of my calling to become more fully human in the way of Jesus. But I didn't really make the heart connection until the past six months.
What I realized anew was the way in which Andrew and I have become more fully human, more fully our selves, through the process of mutual listening and mirroring that is the heart of our conjugal spiritual practice. Something about the public nature of this discernment, and the way in which we both showed-up for it, allowed me to see Andrew as other than an extension of myself. I saw him as a poised, mature, engaging, centered adult with his own gifts and distinct personhood. And I really liked what I saw!
At the same time, I was humbled and gratified by the realization that I was able to show-up for this process with a sense of integrity, in part, because of the conjugal practice that has shaped me - that has made me more fully myself. Our marriage isn't about being complimentary, much less co-dependent, but rather about being more fully self-differentiated, alive, and present. And it is precisely on the basis of this self-differentiation that we are able to be more truly connected to one another - more in love in the best sense of that phrase.
So much of what I know about ordained ministry, I have learned together with Andrew. My "vocations" have been one life, one ministry all along.
Who knew that being a nominee for bishop would strengthen my marriage? Thank you, Diocese of Los Angeles, for this unanticipated gift.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I'm reminded of these lines from Anthony DeMello's Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations:
A Hindu Sage was having The Life of Jesus read to him. When he learned how Jesus was rejected by his people in Nazareth, he exclaimed, "a rabbi whose congregation does not want to drive him out of town isn't a rabbi." And when he learned how it was the priests who put Jesus to death, he said with a sigh, "It is hard for Satan to mislead the whole world, so he appoints prominent ecclesiastics in different parts of the globe."
The lament of a bishop: "Wherever Jesus went there was a revolution; wherever I go people serve tea!"
When a million people follow you, ask yourself where have you gone wrong. ("Religion," p. 73)
There are worse things than getting kicked out of the Anglican Communion.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Sunday, August 9, 2009
In our culture, there is a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and apprehension about anger and how we should deal with it. It is an especially difficult subject for many Christians, who often assume that feeling angry is a sin and that imitating Jesus requires us to be a doormat for the rest of the world to walk all over. The church is supposed to be a “no anger” zone where we learn how to be nice to each other; whether we want to or not. Here the repression of anger is the norm.
On the other hand, popular psychology has frequently taught us that we should express our anger. It operates on a “hydraulic model” that sees anger as a kind of energy that backs up and overflows our emotional reservoir, overwhelming us and others if we don’t get it out of our system. If you let it build up, you’ll explode, so vent your anger as it comes up. Anger is inevitable and you have to let it flow. Here the expression of anger is the norm.
And so we are left with very mixed messages about anger. My sense is that the Christian tradition and contemporary psychological theory are both much wiser and more subtle than either of their popular expressions. In fact, the ancient traditions of the Church, especially those derived from the astute psychological observations of the early monastics, anticipate much of the best of modern psychology. They agree on one fundamental point: anger is a choice. Anger does not have to be repressed or expressed. It can be transformed at its roots.
It may seem counter-intuitive to speak of anger as a choice. We can’t help how we feel, right? Feelings just “are;” well, yes and no. Human beings have a far greater range of freedom with respect to how we respond to the world than we want to admit, because it means that we have to take responsibility for our actions.
Consider, for example, a rather typical situation in which angry feelings arise. “Stella is standing in line at the bank. It is 1:20, and she is due back at her office at 1:30. She could make it in time if she is lucky and the line moves along. But things don’t go well. Two of the five tellers close their windows. ‘How dare they take a break when there are people waiting?’ she thinks. One customer is buying travelers checks. ‘Why don’t they have a special window for that kind of service?’ she asks the person behind her in line. The customer slowly signs each check as she cheerfully discusses her planned vacation. ‘Who cares about
“By the time its her turn at the window, at 1:29, she’s in a rage. Her heart is pounding, she is breathing heavily, her mouth is dry, her hands shake. She’s made at the stupid, slow patrons and the inconsiderate bank tellers. She’s mad at her boss for making her feel guilty if she’s even a minute late and resents her job for only allowing a one-hour lunch break. She’s angry at the restaurant for its slow, inefficient service and the undigested food she can still taste.”
“Stella’s anger is a physical experience. All strong emotions – anger, fear, excitement – trigger powerful hormonal responses that cause body changes. These responses occur automatically in [humans] and other animals and are an important survival mechanism.”
“While the physiological experience of anger proceeds automatically once it is triggered, getting angry is by no means automatic. Stella’s anger is triggered by things that she tells herself while standing line: ‘Tellers shouldn’t take breaks while people are waiting . . . They should have a special window . . . Who cares about
Our perception and interpretation of reality, our thoughts about our experience, give shape to our emotional energies in powerful ways. That perception is limited, and our interpretation can be mistaken; especially when, like Stella, we find ourselves operating from the stance that we are the center of the universe. We react to reality as we are – in bondage to resentment from the past or fears about the future – rather than reacting to reality as it is.
“Wrath is a reminder of hidden hatred, that is to say, remembrance of wrongs. Wrath is a desire for the injury of the one who has provoked you. Irascibility is the untimely blazing up of the heart. Bitterness is a movement of displeasure seated in the soul. Anger is an easily changeable movement of one’s disposition and disfiguration of soul.” St. John Climacus points out that our perception and reaction can shift when we move from an ego-
centric to a God-centric perspective.
I think he is right about this, though I’m not sure anger is an “easily” changeable movement. Deep-seated patterns of resentment and angry reactivity to the world can be very challenging, though not impossible, to transform. Abba Ammonas said, "I have spent fourteen years . . . asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger." Learning to deal with anger takes time and practice.
The Letter to the Ephesians provides sound practical advice in this regard. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up . . . be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, 29, 32)
First, be aware of how you are responding to your experience of the world. Angry feelings are not in and of themselves sinful. They simply signal a perceived threat or loss, whether physical or emotional, and prompt a response.
The issue is not anger itself, but what we do with it. We are admonished to be careful that our anger does not lead to sin – to the violation of relationship with God and other people – and that it does not “make room for the devil.” Anger that goes unchecked leads to the loss of freedom. When we are “in a rage,” we can not think clearly. We can not pray. We loose touch with reality, with a God-centered perspective.
It is this loss of freedom when overcome by anger that makes room for evil. This is what most concerned the early monastics of the Egyptian desert, who counseled practicing awareness of our thoughts so that we can acknowledge and treat disturbing feelings at their root, before we speak or act.
Be aware of your feelings, but don’t become attached to them. “Not allowing the sun to go down on your anger” means realizing that all feelings are transient. We don’t need to cling to them. We can let them go. Such non-attachment gives us the space we need to pray and talk with others about our perceptions and how best to respond.
Finally, we are encouraged to respond in ways that build up rather than destroy relationships, by being careful about our speech and action. Practice kindness and forgiveness in imitation of God, who has revealed his mercy toward us in the face of Jesus Christ. Such forbearance takes account of human imperfection. It doesn’t mean ignoring or excusing real harms done to us. It simply means refusing to be defined by those harms or to respond in ways that perpetuate cycles of rage and revenge. We can learn to respond with insight and compassion toward those persons and situations that threaten us.
St. Nilus of
If we look deeply into the causes and conditions that generate harm, seeing with God’s eyes, we are given the freedom in Christ to respond creatively. Anger is a choice. When we are able to choose otherwise, then we are indeed free.
 When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within, pp. 23-24.
 St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), Step 8: On Freedom From Anger and On Meekness.
 Sr. Benedicta Ward, "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 25-28.
 "153 Texts on Prayer", St Nilus of Mt Sinai, "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 127 - 135.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Hillesum was a Dutch Jew who died in the Holocaust. Discovering her story and Plekon's reflections on her life alone (which draws from Rowan William's meditation about her) is worth picking up the book. Here is a prayer found in Hillesum's writings from the concentration camp:
"You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, 'I shan't let them get me in their clutches.' But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms. I am beginning to feel a little more peaceful, God, thanks to this conversation with You. I shall have many more conversations with you. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You, and I shall never drive You from my presence. (12 July 1942) - Hidden Holiness, p. 32.
And then, Rowan Williams:
"Remember that for Etty, the self's 'safeguarding' of God is inseperable from that careful attention to what is given room in the self's encounter with itself: making space for sorrow without it being crowded out by anger or hate, is bound in with the self's hospitality to God. 'God is in safe hands with us despite everything,' she wrote, in September 1943. She died in November. To see that what matters is not that you are - in any easy sense - safe in the hands of God but that God is safe in your hands is to turn upside down in consolatory version of faith, to stake yourself indeed on an 'eternal covenant.'" - Hidden Holiness, pp. 37-38.
This isn't a book about saints as extraordinary people distant from us, but about the way holiness takes shape in ordinary people in both mundane and extraordinary circumstances - and how such holiness is God's gift, a gift sometimes barely perceptible in the midst of suffering.
Perhaps it is this "sheltering of God" that is God "sheltering us" by desiring to make of even the utmost limits of human suffering an opportunity to be drawn closer to him.
This is a book well worth reading and praying over.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
as Christ awakens our bodies
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly whole,
seamless in this Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous?
Then open your heart to Him
And let yourself receive the One
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ's body
Where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him.
And he makes us utterly real
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him, transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely
and radiant in His Light.
We awaken as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
Monday, August 3, 2009
This morning as we mark Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Freedom Day, we find ourselves in the midst of a cultural and political battle over marriage equality for same-sex couples. This conflict has been acutely felt by all of us in California. Like many of you, I was deeply disappointed by the passage of Proposition Eight and the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it. After so many years and so much struggle, I confess I was surprised to discover how hurt and vulnerable I can still feel in the face of blatant discrimination and relegation to second-class citizenship.
Heterosexual privilege – the notion that heterosexuals are morally superior to queer people and therefore entitled to a level of dignity and fundamental rights that queer folk are denied – a privilege enshrined in law and custom, is just as deeply rooted and intractable as sexism and racism. For too many heterosexual people, their sense of identity and security as persons is constructed over and against queer people. The reverse can be said of queer people too, I suppose, but the difference is that we queers don’t have the power to institutionalize privilege. We find it difficult enough to secure basic equality!
What is particularly ironic is that this heterosexual privilege is often justified in terms of biblical religion. The assumption on the part of many – both those who support and those who oppose marriage equality – is that the Bible is uniformly condemning of same-sex love. A few verses, often quoted out of context and with little understanding, are imposed as the lens through which we are compelled to read the whole of Scripture. I say that this is ironic because, in fact, the model of steadfast love at the heart of the biblical witness is in fact the love shared between two men. And it is this love which becomes the dominant image of divine love. It is God’s steadfast love for his beloved, David, a love that is homosocial and, indeed, homoerotic in its expression, that is the very model of God’s love for Israel and, later, the Church.
Listen again to the words of David as he laments the death of King Saul and of Saul’s son, Jonathan, in battle against the Philistines:
"Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions . . . How the mighty have fallen in the in the midst of battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." (2 Samuel 1:23, 25-26)
David’s outpouring of grief is the tragic climax of the greatest love triangle in the literature of ancient Israel: the tortured relationships between Saul, Jonathan and David. The love of Jonathan and David has often been remarked upon. In last weeks Scripture lessons, we heard the reading from I Samuel, in which David is first introduced to Jonathan.
"When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took [David] that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and belt." (1 Samuel 18:1-4)
In this passage, we see the roots of the rivalry between Saul and Jonathan for David’s affection. Recall that King Saul had already chosen David as his armor-bearer: “David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer.” (1 Samuel 16:21) In the homosocial world of ancient warrior cultures, the relationship between a warrior and his companion was one of fierce loyalty, courageous service, and tender intimacy. But Jonathan, the heir to the throne, also falls for David and enters into a covenant of love with him, seeking David as his own armor-bearer.
As the narrative quickly unfolds, David’s beauty and military prowess bring him great popularity with the militia and with the people. Saul begins to be threatened by David, but this threat isn’t just political. Jonathan, too, garners the affection of the people but perhaps what is even more threatening to Saul, he garners the affection of David. The plot only makes sense if we realize that Jonathan and David’s love unfolds against the background of Saul and David’s erotically charged relationship.
In his jealousy, Saul drives his beloved armor-bearer into the arms of his son, Jonathan. Saul becomes increasingly erratic, on one hand attempting to buy off David by offering his daughters as trophy wives, on the other hand attempting to kill David in fits of pique. He seeks to bind David more closely to him and, finally, to kill him if he cannot control him. But David escapes these plots, often with Jonathan’s help. We are told that when Jonathan secretly goes to meet David, who is in hiding, David “bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more.” (1 Samuel 20:41)
What is amazing, however, is that even as David falls more deeply in love with Jonathan, he never fully forsakes his prior loyalty to his former lover, Saul. Even when David has the opportunity to kill Saul – on more than one occasion – he spares him out of steadfast loyalty and love. We might even say his love for Saul, however dysfunctional, prepares him for his later, more mutual and fulfilling, love for Jonathan. In fact, when things finally fall apart, and both Saul and Jonathan are killed on Mount Gilboa, David mourns for both these “beloved and lovely” men.
In the end this love triangle proves unstable and destructive. David becomes king in place of Saul, but the price he will pay is the death of Saul’s heirs; except for one: Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth, whom David promised to adopt and raise as his own son. Yet, in important ways, David’s steadfast love for Saul and Jonathan endures and prepares him for an even greater love.
The character of God, Yahweh as he is named in the narrative, is imagined, too, as a warrior-king. He chooses first Saul as his armor-bearer, but proves fickle in his love and later selects David as his beloved. Interestingly, what strikes Yahweh about both of these men is their great beauty. We are told that Saul was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2) Later, Yahweh rejects the aging king in favor of young David, who is “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome,” Yahweh declares, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” (1 Samuel 16:12)
And just as we see David progressing in his experience of love and loyalty as he moves through his relationships with Saul and Jonathan, so, too, Yahweh, who is a rather capricious and unpredictable god at the beginning of the narrative, seems to mature in his capacity for steadfast love and loyalty as he moves through his relationships with Saul and David.
It is as if David, by learning how to maneuver through his tragic human love triangle, is enabled to woo and domesticate fickle Yahweh. David’s covenant with Jonathan – a covenant of mutual love and loyalty – is paralleled by David’s covenant with Yahweh – a covenant that is consummated, if you will, with David dancing in a naked frenzy before the Ark of the Lord in chapter six of 2nd Samuel. As Yahweh navigates his own love triangle with Saul and David, he becomes a different kind of divinity, one whose steadfast love for David will become the paradigm of divine mercy and faithfulness in the biblical tradition.
So the next time you see a bumper sticker that says one man plus one woman equals marriage, consider these great love triangles of biblical faith, and the way in which mature, loyal love, both divine and human, is imagined in the relationships between men. Consider the possibility that an understanding of same-sex love as a sacrament, a sign of divine love, may well find its justification at the very heart of biblical faith – and, here, we might recall the love of Naomi and Ruth as well, but that is another sermon.
As I imagine David mourning the death of his lovers, Saul and Jonathan, I’m reminded of the deaths of so many lovers in the age of the great pandemic. In his memoir, Geography of the Heart, Fenton Johnson writes movingly of the life and death of his lover, Larry, a victim of AIDS. Upon learning of Larry’s death, Fenton’s friend, Wendell Berry, wrote to him saying “The disorientation following such loss can be terrible, I know, but grief gives the full measure of love, and it is somehow reassuring to learn, even by suffering, how large and powerful love is.”
How large and powerful love is. Those who have mourned their lovers like David howling on the mountaintop – they know something about how large and powerful love is. They know what it can cost us, and they know what it can create.
Shortly after Larry’s death, Fenton found himself driving to Muir Woods with his mother, reflecting on their memories of Larry, of love, and of loss. And then, his mother, rural Kentucky native and Roman Catholic convert, said something that completely stunned Fenton.
“I always thought of myself as tolerant and open-minded. I grew up with people who were gay, though of course back then we didn’t use that word. I knew some people in our town were gay, everyone knew they were gay, but I didn’t think much about that one way or another. Just live and let live, that’s my way of being in the world. And then you told me you were gay, and I guess I’d suspected it all along, and I just prayed that you’d stay healthy and find yourself a place where you could be happy. I prayed for all that and I was glad to see you get yourself to San Francisco, to a place where you could live in peace and be yourself. I was happy about that, but it wasn’t until I met you and Larry and spent time with the two of you together that I understood that two men could love each other in the same way as a man and a woman.”
“This speaking,” writes Fenton, “is the sacred thing, the gift from the dead to the living.” From the death of his lover came the renewal of his relationship with his mother, bringing a new sense of intimacy, acceptance, and love. This was not the healing he was expecting, or even hoping for, and he never could have imagined what it would cost him. But even Larry’s death served to demonstrate how large and powerful love is.
If our burials are so moving, cannot our marriages be as well? If the death and grief of same-sex lovers can provide such a profound window into love, surely our lives and relationships can as well. It was true for David and Saul and Jonathan, and it is true for us today. Let our prayer be that of the psalmist: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49) And let us discover the answer to this prayer in the steadfast love of queer comrades. Amen.
 My reading of the Davidic narrative is taken from Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York: Continuum, 2005), pp. 3-66.
 Fenton Johnson, Geography of the Heart: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 233.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Truly, God and the whole world make it impossible for a man [sic] to find true consolation who seeks his consolation in created things. But he who would in created things love God alone, and who would love created things only in God, he would find true, just and unchanging consolation everywhere. – Meister Eckhart
Discernment is perceiving and responding to reality as it is “in God,” rather than to an illusion or projection. To love created things, including myself, “in God” is to love them as they are, and not as I want them to be. It is from within this stance of acceptance that we find the freedom to respond to reality in ways that are creative and life-giving. When we are, as Gerald May puts it, “in love” in this way, we find consolation everywhere, and God’s will is discovered with each breath, in each moment.
Discernment flows from this place of spacious, gratuitous, acceptance. Too often, I forget this and think that I have to “figure out” what God wants me to do so that God will be pleased with me, or so that I can manipulate God into fulfilling my desire. But discernment flows from receiving the gift already given, from satiety overflowing into life as we are given to desire as God desires, loving all things in God.
I take it that this is what William Barry means when, quoting John Macmurray, he states that “the universe is the one action of God, informed by one intention,” and that God has revealed that intention. God does not play hide and seek with us, or taunt us with guessing games. God’s consolation is everywhere revealed when we are “in love.”
When I remember this, I can let go the idea that if I only do X, Y, and Z God’s intention will be revealed. It already has been revealed. The question is whether or not I am ready and willing to perceive it. God’s one action and intention, as Barry points out, involves the work of human freedom. Discernment is the work of two freedoms, divine and human, and I can choose to become willing to perceive and participate in God’s intention, or not.
Our capacity to perceive God’s intention is a function of how free we are with respect to the present moment. Barry speaks of this in terms of our willingness to accept the past and to surrender to the future. I would prefer to speak of “consent” rather than “surrender,” but his point is well taken. If I am captive to the past or afraid of the future, willfully trying to control or manipulate my experience of reality, I will not be free to hear the Word that is being spoken in the present.
Contemplative awareness is the state of being free to respond to reality as it is, here and now. Such awareness is the “place” where discernment happens. We can best assist others with discernment by locating ourselves in this place so as to be available to listen to God with them. This sometimes requires attending to the ways in which we cling to the past or resist the future, so as to let them go. In any case, discernment is always about living in reality and responding to it in freedom and with compassion.
My prayer for our bishops and deputies gathered in General Convention is that their decisions emerge from discernment, and not simply debate; and that their discernment be rooted in freedom rather than captivity or fear. God already has revealed the divine intention in our Creation and Redemption in Christ Jesus: it is love, and love's consolation can be found everywhere. Even at General Convention!
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Blocking the flow of energy is a way of avoiding reality. Addiction is, perhaps, the primary expression of "blocking" in contemporary culture. The compulsive use of substances or activities (like work or sex) alters our awareness, dulls and narrows it, and undermines our capacity to integrate and make positive use of the experiences and feelings we seek to avoid. The relief is temporary, however, and leads ultimately to enervation and collapse, as the energy required to suppress awareness leaves one exhausted.
In my work with people recovering from addiction, they often find themselves initially overwhelmed by the energy of emotions long suppressed, but with patience they learn to become aware of the feelings and integrate them into their overall experience without having to be defined by them in a negative way. The learn to have feelings, rather than being had by them.
Holding on to emotional energy is equally problematic. We cling to anger until it becomes resentment; hold on to sadness until it becomes self-pity; become attached to our grief until it becomes despair; find ourselves defined by fears that lose specificity and become generalized anxiety. We can become attached to these feelings, holding on to them and taking our identity from them: "I am angry; I am afraid; I am sad." We become filled with their energy and are unable to make space for a more holistic response to life that holds in awareness joy as well as suffering.
Rather than blocking or holding energy, we are invited to release it. Contemplative practice is about allowing spirit in all its dimensions and expressions to come into our awareness, become integrated into our experience, and released back into the care of Holy Spirit. We do not have to defend ourselves or define ourselves over-and-against anything, but instead can simply observe and let go, observe and let go.
This is, at its heart, the teaching of Jesus on the Beatitudes: "blessed are the merciful, blessed are those who grieve" - we are blessed when we allow ourselves to be in the flow of energy, the exchange of love which is the very life of the Trinity. We don't have to block or hold "negative" feelings but can integrate them into our experience, glean what wisdom we can from them, without losing a sense of our fundamental identity as God's beloved daughters and sons.
This is "kenosis" - the self-emptying which Jesus expressed completely in his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension - allowing Holy Spirit to flow through him without impediment. It is this capacity for "releasing" energy that allowed St. Paul to make astonishing claims such as "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (Col. 1:24) Paul could accept and offer his experience of suffering in union with Christ's suffering for the sake of the salvation of the world. Paul could willingly make sacrifices for the building-up of Christ's body, the Church, because he did not need to defend his ego or preserve his status.
Blocking, Holding, Releasing. Becoming aware of how we impede and cooperate with the flow of Holy Spirit in the energies of our bodies and our world is one of the benefits of contemplative practice. With this awareness and the acceptance it brings, we can begin to make of our lives a free offering in service to God's mission of reconciliation and healing. "Releasing" is the shape taken by the gift of Holy Spirit in our lives. Its content is compassionate service. "Let go" and become free to love.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Note: I was part of the team that secured initial funding from the Arcus Foundation, which made production of this video possible. And the couple from Missouri featured in the video had their civil marriage blessed at St. John's. What a joy to see the fruit of our labor!
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions provides a panoramic history of the religious breakthroughs during the period that Karl Jaspers referred to as the "Axial Age." Chronicling the period from 900 BCE to 200 CE, Armstrong writes compellingly of the experiences of suffering and transcendence that gave birth to biblical monotheism, Greek rationalism, and the great traditions of India and China.
While she occasionally succumbs to the risks of oversimplification (impossible to avoid in a narrative of this scope), Armstrong does a good job of summarizing and comparing developments across very different cultural traditions. Her treatment of each tradition on its own terms, while useful, is not what gives this book its compelling interest. Its real value lies in its invitation to see each of these traditions in terms of the others, providing a (mostly) reliable introduction to comparative religious studies.
While one can certainly disagree with this or that point in her presentation, the attempt to promote inter-religious understanding is admirable and timely. I highly recommend this book as a way to begin a conversation with and about our religious neighbors - who are now just down the street rather than continents away. At the same time, you will come away from this book thinking about your own tradition differently, seeing things about your own tradition reflected in the face of the religious "other" that you would not otherwise see.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
If you were to ask me to describe Jesus’ ministry in one sentence, I would put it this way: "Jesus’ ministry was largely a matter of doing the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people." Even the most ordinary actions: picking grain, touching a woman, going fishing, sharing a meal, washing someone’s feet, became strange and amazing events because of the way, and the time, and with whom Jesus did them. Jesus had a knack for seeing extraordinary possibilities in ordinary life, in ways that were both liberating and threatening, depending upon your point of view.
Now most of us probably experience doing the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people as a recipe for disaster. I have to confess that I’ve had more than my share of such experiences, from the girl I took to my senior prom (need I say more?) to getting into a power struggle with my ten-year old about making his bed. Guess who won that battle? Most of the time, such events are harmless enough and we manage to survive. But sometimes, we are called to do the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people to bear witness to God’s love for each and all.
That is what Jesus did so often, and so well, that it got him killed. In Jesus’ time, much as in ours, there were powerful forces at work to make sure that people didn’t do the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. The guardians of social propriety are vigorous in their enforcement of the rules, making sure that people know their place and that public order is maintained. The forces of social convention are so powerful, so well internalized, that we often fail to even notice how they operate. So much the better for those who benefit from them.
In the midst of such a world, Jesus continually does the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. This rather curious business of washing the disciples’ feet recorded in the Gospel of John is a good case in point. In fact, in John’s Gospel it takes the place of the Passover meal, the institution of what would become Holy Communion, as the symbolic action that reveals the whole meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However obscure it may seem to us, this action of washing the disciple’s feet is crucial to our understanding of Jesus.
Washing his disciples’ feet was definitely the wrong thing to do, primarily, I would suggest, because it was an act of gender role subversion. Jesus’ humiliation consisted in his doing “women’s work.” Generally, commentators have interpreted the meaning of this action in terms of Jesus taking on the role of a servant or slave. That is true, as far is it goes. More to the point, however, is that Jesus takes on a female role. In all of the extant biblical and rabbinical references to the action of foot washing, it was done always by a woman as a practical act of hospitality for guests who entered a home after walking along dusty roads in sandals.
The English translation of Jesus’ action in the Gospel of John actually betrays a certain prudish reserve. The Greek text literally states that during dinner, Jesus took off his clothes, wrapped a towel around him self, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. This is a scene of tremendous intimacy and physical vulnerability. No wonder Peter responds initially by saying, “You will never wash my feet.” “Uh uh, I’m not going there!”
The physical vulnerability and humiliation of the Cross is prefigured here in the physical vulnerability and humiliation of a half-naked, gender-bending rabbi washing his disciples feet. For the community from which the Gospel of John came, it was this strange and disconcerting act of gender nonconformity that became the symbolic action par excellence of self-giving love. Jesus says to his (male) disciples in effect, “If you want to know what it means to love, you need to act more like women.”
My point here is not to promote traditional gender stereotypes about compassionate women and unfeeling men, nor am I suggesting that what it means to be a man or woman in 21st Century America is the same as what it meant in 1st Century Palestine. My point, rather, is that the liberation that Jesus offers in his death and resurrection entails freedom from bondage to the social constructions of “male” and “female,” as well as those of “slave” and “master” already transcended by the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt celebrated in the Passover meal. Our freedom to love and serve one another must not be constrained by social conventions of propriety. These conventions far too often serve to trap us in structures of sin such as racism
We need to hear the good news that God’s love shatters the bounds of social propriety to embrace the whole of humanity. Acts of humble service and hospitality to guests and strangers, even when such acts make us vulnerable to the chastisement of the guardians of social propriety, are part and parcel of what it means to love one another as Jesus loved us. This means defying gender roles or any other social expectations contrary to the New Commandment, that we love one another. Nothing is more important than the self-giving love that Jesus exemplifies for us and calls us to offer to each other.
Not only does Jesus’ love for his disciples entail vulnerability to charges of impropriety; it even embraces his enemies. Imagine what it must have felt like for Jesus to gently bathe the feet of Judas. How his heart must have ached to know that the love he offered so freely would not only be rejected; it would be betrayed. Now, perhaps we can imagine loving our enemies; at least enemies are known entities; sometimes, they are even honorable. But to love someone who betrays our trust, that is another thing altogether. And yet, we are commanded to love. Love is not a sentimental feeling, but an act of the will directed toward the good of the beloved regardless of whether or not the beloved “deserves” it. There is not one of us who is too good to wash another's feet. There is not one us who is so evil as to be denied such washing; not even Judas.
Tonight, as we fill these bowls with water and wash each other’s weary feet, we defy all kinds of notions of propriety. In so doing, we may feel uncomfortable, exposed, even a bit silly. Given the many messages we have internalized about what it means to be divine or human, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, rich or poor, undocumented or legal, stepping outside the bounds of what is considered “normal” can feel threatening.
We don’t normally wash the feet of people we know very well, much less those of strangers. Jesus calls us to go even one step further and wash the feet of those who have hurt and betrayed us. The lesson in this is that our willingness to love others through compassionate service must continually transcend the bounds of our safety zone. Jesus’ entire ministry was marked by the courage to challenge social norms that served as barriers to the expression of God’s love. His was not a juvenile flouting of the rules for the sake of self-expression, but a creative and challenging transvaluation of values for the sake of self-giving love. Jesus broke the rules for the sake of those oppressed by the rules.
This ritual of foot washing is an opportunity to examine the many rules, norms, and identities that we have internalized. Whom do they serve? Do they help or hinder me in following Jesus in the way of the Cross? Are they rooted in love, or in fear? As followers of Jesus, we are not called to be nice, or pure, or even politically correct. We are called to be holy, completely open to receiving and sharing God’s love; however foolish, vulnerable, and risky it may seem.
“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the religious authorities so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Feelings of sorrow and regret, however, are transient. We are not meant to remain stuck in them, for they are not the point of Lent. Lent is an opportunity to reorient ourselves toward freedom; freedom for the sake of giving ourselves over to our most passionate desire. Perhaps our real fear is not that we will feel bad, but rather that we will feel really, really good. It may be that what we really resist is being given our desire from God, discovering that there is so much more to life than we dared hope, forever preventing us from settling for anything less.
Lent is about getting in touch with our desires, and Jesus is teaching us something very important about desire in his discourse on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting in Matthew chapter six. Typically, we think of our desires as self-generated, something that we possess. We operate, as James Alison describes, as if
There is a blob located somewhere within each one of us and normally referred to as a “self.” This more or less bloated entity is pretty stable, and there come forth from it arrows which aim at objects. So, “I” desire a car, a mate, a house, a holiday, some particular clothes and so on and so forth. The desire for the object comes from the “I” which originates it, and thus the desire is truly and authentically “mine” . . . Since my desiring self, my “I”, is basically rational, it follows that my desires are basically rational, and thus that I am unlike those people who I observe to have a clearly pathological pattern of desire – constantly falling for an unsuitable type of potential mate and banging their head against the consequences, or hooked on substances or patterns of behaviour that do them no good. Those people are in some way sick, and their desires escape the possibilities of rational discourse. Unlike me and my desires. (James Alison, Prayer: a case study in mimetic anthropology, pp 1-2)
Now, this view of ourselves may seem reassuring, providing a sense of control, balance, and security. In truth, however, when it comes to desire we know that the difference between us and those people is much smaller than we’d like to admit. Our desires are far less rational, manageable, and serene than we assume. It is not that “I” generate and control my desires, so much it is that my desires make “me” into the person “I” am. But if “I” am not the source and arbiter of my desires, than who is?
Jesus provides us a clue when he warns, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) The danger here is that we allow our actions to be dictated by the social other. We are driven by the approval or disapproval of others in such a way as to constitute our identity as we internalize and imitate their desires. Again, to quote Alison,
“We desire according to the desire of the other”. It is the social other, the social world which surrounds us, which moves us to desire, to want, and to act . . . gesture, language, and memory are not only things which “we” learn, as though there were an “I” that was doing the learning. Rather it is the case that, through this body being imitatively drawn into the life of the social other, gesture, language and memory form the “I” that is in fact one of the symptoms, one of the epiphenomena, of that social other. This “I” is much more malleable than it is comfortable to admit. And even more difficult: it is not the “I” that has desires, it is desire that forms and sustains the “I”. The “I” is something like a snapshot in time of the relationships which preexist it and one of whose symptoms it is. (Alison, pp. 3-4.)
Something like this account of desire is implicit in Jesus’ teaching. He assumes that we are imitative creatures run by the desires of others, who are continually seeking approval in order to know who we are and what we should do. This is neither good nor bad in itself. It just is.
This description moves into judgment when the question arises: Whose desire are you imitating? For Jesus, the issue is whether or not you are seeking your reward from the social other, or from the One whom he calls “Father.” Jesus does not question the truth that we are given to our selves, that we discover our identity, as it is reflected back to us in the eyes of another.
Yes, but which other? We know there is a social other which gives us our desires and moves us this way and that. But is there Another Other, who is not part of the social other, and who has an entirely different pattern of desire into which it is seeking to induct us? That of course is the great Hebrew question, the discovery of God who is not-one-of-the-gods . . . (Alison, p. 4.)
Jesus reveals the pattern of desire of the social other, what is often referred to in the New Testament as “the world,” to be driven by fear, rivalry, greed, and violence. It gives rise to an identity, an “I”, that is defined “over-and-against” some other through a process of scapegoating. The crucifixion of Jesus is testament to the reality of the violent lie upon which the world – and the self – is founded.
This is what is meant by the Church’s teaching regarding original sin. Original sin is simply our complicity, willy-nilly, with the pattern of desire that we internalize from the social other. Original sin is lodged at the level of culture, rather than biology, and is transmitted through socialization rather than sexual reproduction per se, but St. Augustine’s basic insight is correct. This sinful pattern of desire is massively prior to our birth and is simply “the way of the world” into which we are born.
Jesus asks us, “From whom are you seeking your reward – from the social other or from God?” The problem with seeking the social other’s reward is that we will receive it, and then cling to it. We will become evermore drawn into the pattern of desire established by the violent lie. We will seek the world’s approval and we will get it; or not, but either way we will be defined in relationship to it.
Jesus seeks to free us from bondage to the world’s pattern of desire, by giving us to learn God’s pattern of desire, and to be willing to have that desire shape our identity. This is what it means to receive our reward from the Father who sees in secret, the Creator who is not in any way in rivalry with us or defined over-and-against anything at all, but rather in relationship to Whom all things are meant to be an expression of life-giving love.
Jesus invites us to detach ourselves from the world’s reward system long enough to get a taste of the desire given to us by God; to practice justice, generosity, and self-denial authentically, in the service of others, and not as a religious veneer to the violent lie. Prayer is the key to realizing this freedom.
It is through prayer that we become aware of our desires and can begin to discern the internalized voices of the social other that drive us. This is a practice of radical vulnerability, in which we allow God to gently sift through this pattern of desire and become willing to have it transformed into a pattern that conforms to God’s intention for Creation. Rather than living in denial about our desires, or struggling to renounce them, the invitation is to simply share them with God.
Over time, such prayer reveals to us the source of the inner voices that drive us, and as we begin to discover the extent to which these sources are rooted in fear and violence, as we begin to acknowledge reality, their power drops away of their own accord. We don’t have to renounce or resist anything. They simply lose their appeal.
We can trust this process because at the same time we are being given to know that “Another Other,” God, is holding us in unending and unrestricted love and that what we really, really desire is to be given our identity by this Love. We discover a depth of passion we never knew we had, a passionate love for God and for all things in God in comparison to which the world’s pattern of desire seems pale indeed.
All this is the reward from the “Father” who sees in secret, operating surreptitiously to undermine from within the world’s pattern of desire. The instruction to go into our room and shut the door when we pray is Jesus’ way of saying, “Detach from the world’s reward system, give yourself some space to detox from the addictive and destructive pattern of desire into which you’ve been socialized. Share your desires openly with God so that they can be transformed, and receive a reward far greater than you could ask for or imagine.”
Lent is a time to detox from the world’s pattern of desire. It is painful to discover the extent to which we have been run by a reward system that is actually killing us, spiritually and even physically. But this realization is the first step in letting go of this old way of being; a way of being for which we already have been forgiven so that we can become free to receive the pattern of desire that only God can satisfy.
This is the “treasure in heaven” about which Jesus speaks, which, unlike the rewards of the world, is incorruptible. When we are passionately in love with God, completely given to the pattern of desire shaped by this love, then we will have found treasure indeed, and will no longer be willing to settle for anything less.
During this season of Lent, we are invited to courageously explore with God the question: “Whose desire am I? Am I an expression of God’s loving desire, or am I an expression of the world’s fear-based desire?”
Whose desire are you?