Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Living the Dream

When I was about seven years-old, my great-grandmother, Bess Caron, died.  She was 83 years-old.  We called her “Old Granny” to distinguish her from my maternal grandmother (her daughter-in-law), who no doubt appreciated being thought of as the young granny.  Old Granny had been a widow for more than half her life, and split her time living with her three children.  So, we had her for a third of each year, plus holidays when the extended family was together.

I don’t have many clear memories of Old Granny; more of gestalt, a felt-sense of her overall presence, radiating warmth and love.  She had a vintage fur coat that was almost as soft as her skin.  I’d fight with my cousins about who got to sit next to her in the backseat if she was riding with us, so I could cuddle up to that coat.  Being the oldest great-grandchild, I usually won!  That is how I remember Old Granny: being enveloped in the warmth of her presence.

When my parents informed me that she had died, I do vividly remember throwing myself on the sofa and weeping like only a bereft child can.   But that was pretty much it:  an explosion of grief, and then I was OK.  Children are remarkably resilient.  Thought to be too young for the experience, I did not attend Old Granny’s funeral.  But not long after she died, I had a dream. 

In the dream, I was in my grandparent’s house, where Old Granny lived part of the year.  I walked into the bedroom where she stayed – the last place I had seen her before she died.  I was, understandably, a little apprehensive about going into the room, but felt compelled to do so. 

When I walked in, there she was in luminous splendor, much as she had been when alive.  I can’t recall her exact words, but the gist of it was that she assured me that she was just fine and that all would be well.   What a gift that dream is!  I never had another dream about Old Granny that I can recall, but that one was enough.  It has lasted me a lifetime.   

Since then, I have sat with people as they died, attended and officiated at many funerals.  Having done so, I can’t say I look forward to dying, even as I recognize that it is as a sacred part of life.  But I can honestly say that since my dream, I’ve never been afraid of death.  I absolutely trust my Old Granny.  All will be well.

Now I suppose you could dismiss this as “only a dream,” as if dreams are not important; as if they are not a part of the fabric of reality, containing their own evocative power.  I’m not one of those people.  It seems to me that all truly creative experiences have a dream-like quality to them: containing a depth of meaning that can never be fully plumbed, a capacity to invoke their fulfillment in waking hours.  The vision that comes to us, dream-like, is no less real than the life it inspires while fully awake. 

My dream is that death is swallowed up by love.  It is a dream stronger than any of the nightmares I’ve ever experienced, far more liberating and generative in its consequences.  From it I’ve received, well, life – a freedom and joy in living here and now unburdened by the specter of death.  Death comes and goes, but life endures because love never ends. 

Now, it seems to me that part of the power of my dream lies in the continuity between the Old Granny I knew all too briefly in life, and the Old Granny who remains with me even after death.  My experience of her overflowed the boundary between life and death, you might say.  That is what the power of love is like.  Thus, it is that, however marked the discontinuity between her former and current mode of being, Old Granny abides in Love, objectively, and not just in me; this power is available to, and sustains, all things.  Even so, my dream remains a very personal one. 

The appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his death shares in this dream-like quality.  There is continuity and discontinuity between the pre- and post-Easter Jesus. Jesus really is present, but in a different way that is not immediately recognizable to his friends. 

Here, the dream-like experience of Jesus is collective in scope – he appears to more than one of his disciples – but it is time limited.  He only appears to them during a forty-day period following his death.  That was enough to last a life-time for those who saw him; enough to last in perpetuity for those who, as scripture tells us, are blessed because they believe even though they have not seen.  

We are in the position of having to decide whether to trust the apostles’ dream of Jesus, just as you must decide whether to trust my dream of Old Granny.  None of us knew Jesus in his lifetime, just as none of you knew my Old Granny in her lifetime.  But the dream lives on or, rather, comes to fulfillment in those inspired by it – those who receive the Spirit of Jesus.  

You may not have met Old Granny, but you can share in her spirit through me and pass it along to others.  So it is with Jesus, but on a scale and with consequences far more profoundly life-changing than those who receive the spirit of .my Old Granny. 

What I realize now, without in any way diminishing her unique dignity, is that what Old Granny shared with me is the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Love Incarnate, in which she participates even now.   What Old Granny witnessed to me, in her own beautiful way, is God’s dream for the Earth, the dream that Jesus made so very real: the power of love bringing the whole creation to its fulfillment, when all will be well.  Sin – all that seeks to separate us from love – and Death are swallowed up in Love, bringing life out of death again, and again, and again, until all things are made new.

How this is so is a great mystery, just as the origin of the universe itself is a great mystery.  As Thomas Berry observed, “The universe seems to be the fulfillment of something so highly imaginative and so overwhelming that it must have been dreamed into existence.”[1]  It is the realization of God’s dream: an emergent process moving toward an increasingly creative, diverse, complex, and self-consciously integral mode of life.  Death and resurrection is the deep pattern of the universe, it is how God’s dream comes to fulfillment.  This is the profound meaning of the apostle’s experience of the risen Jesus.  We are now conscious participants in the larger life processes of the universe.  We must choose to live God’s dream. 

We are living at a perilous time in the emergent process of the universe.  For the first time in its more than 4.5 billion-year history, the delicate balance of the fundamental life systems of the Earth are being undermined by human intervention.  We are living through a period of unprecedented species extinction and ecosystem destruction.  Our impact on the planet has been so profound that some scientists believe we have entered a new geological epoch:  the Anthropocene.  The scope of human ecological devastation has approached a geological scale, to the point that life on earth as we have known it is increasingly unsustainable.  We are turning God’s dream into a nightmare. 
In the Gospel of Mark, there is a longer ending to the Gospel that scholars have identified as a later addition of an editor or editorial committee.  This version is unique in that the risen Jesus gives the following commission when he appears to his disciples: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”[2]   Here, the implications of the good news extend to the entire Earth community.

There is a tendency to believe that the good news is for human beings only.   I grew up in a branch of Christianity that taught that salvation consists of believing in Jesus so that when you die, your soul would be whisked up to heaven.  Jesus will come again one day in a final mopping-up operation, to rapture the believers remaining on Earth before it is destroyed.  Doesn’t sound like very good news to me.  And it bears almost no relationship to what Jesus taught. 

The good news of Jesus is an invitation to wake-up and realize God’s dream for the Earth: a vision of justice, peace, and reconciliation in which human beings recognize, honor, and sustain the abundant life God intends on Earth.  This is the kingdom of God, doing God’s will on Earth as it is in heaven.  The focus is not on personal immortality, though that is not denied, but rather on the renewal of life for all beings.  In the final chapters of the Book of Revelation, a notoriously misunderstood scripture, God’s dream is of a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s home is on Earth with us.  It is a dream of abundant water and flowering trees whose fruit is for the healing of the nations.[3]  The root meaning of “salvation” is “healing.” 

We have been brought to this time to fulfill this specific commission, to share the good news of God’s dream with the whole Earth community, and to realize the dream together.  Easter, the celebration of the ever-renewing cycles of life, is a time to renew our commitment to fulfill this commission.  The great task of our moment in history is to adapt human life to the conditions and limits necessary to sustain the life systems of the planet upon which we all – human and non-human – depend.   The healing of the Earth would be very good news indeed.

This work will require a new collective dream experience, a vision of the possibilities for human flourishing in a mutually beneficial communion with the entire Earth community.  Such a dream is necessary to invoke the imagination and creativity of scientists, artists, engineers, teachers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and farmers, generating nothing less than a new way of living on Earth in fulfillment of God’s dream.  The dream is already here in us.  We have been given everything we need to realize it.   Let us choose to live the dream. 

[1] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 1999), p. 165.
[2] Mark 16:15.
[3] Revelation 21:1-5; 22:1-5.

Penthos: A Good Friday Homily

While I was on sabbatical last year, I spent a good bit of time studying Christian monasticism, especially the practices of the earliest monks in the deserts of 4th Century Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.  One of the things that struck me about these desert contemplatives was their emphasis upon the importance of grief in the spiritual life. They sought the gift of tears or penthos, a piercing of the heart that opens one to a deeper level of spiritual maturity.  They taught that the cultivation of an openness to grief is crucial to spiritual growth. 

A brother asked an elder, “What should I do?”  And the old man said to him, “We ought always to weep . . . “Let us weep,” Abba Macarius counseled his disciples, “and let tears gush out of our eyes . . .”[1]

We are told that Abba Arsenius “had a hallow in his chest channeled out by the tears which fell from his eyes all his life while he sat at manual work.”[2] He was thought to be an icon of holiness. 

Why this emphasis on tears?  Tears were considered a sign of honest appraisal of the self and the world, of our fragility and mortality.  They counseled weeping as a means of cultivating genuine feeling for the world and opening the heart to being transfigured by compassion.  Tears reconnect us to the world, breaking through the fear and illusion that alienate us from life and from one another.

The early Christian monks knew that tears could help break open the soul, kindling a deeper awareness of one’s vulnerability and fragility, and one’s capacity for intimacy with God and all living beings.  But opening oneself in this way required courage, a willingness to face one’s own fragility as well as the fragility and brokenness of the world.  It meant refusing the temptation to evade the reality of those bonds that connect all beings to each other, and embracing the reality of a shared world.  Weeping, when understood as part of a conscious spiritual practice, had the capacity to flood the soul with an awareness of the intricacy, beauty, and spiritual value of all existence.[3]

Penthos, the gift of tears, is both the doorway into life, and the sign that we are not only alive, but awake.  Tears cleanse the lens of perception so that we can see ourselves and the world honestly.  “In the world of feeling,” writes E. M. Cioran, “tears are the criterion of truth.”[4] 

When we refuse to acknowledge suffering and loss, we close ourselves off from reality.  We lose touch with vital sources of information necessary to respond appropriately, in ways that can bring about healing and restore hope.  We risk becoming indifferent; or, worse, positively cruel.  We can become complicit in the suffering of others, delighting in their misfortune, projecting our denial and fear on to them.  Here, the refusal to suffer becomes an expression of evil. 

In the Passion narrative, the fact that Peter wept bitterly after abandoning Jesus is a sign of hope.  This is penthos, grief that pierces the heart.  Peter acknowledged the truth of his failure, his lack of courage, making repentance possible.   Rather than hardening his heart, Peter wept, and that made all the difference.   Peter’s acceptance of the truth made the acceptance of forgiveness possible.  He could begin again.

Then there are the women:  Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus’ mother, weeping at the foot of the cross, weeping outside the tomb.  There is no denial of the depth of their loss, their shattered hopes.  They grieve their sense of powerlessness to prevent this terrible injustice; their faithfulness seems pointless, but they persevere.  This, too, is penthos, the refusal to sever the bond of relationship however painful it may be.  Later, it will become the source of their power as the apostles to the apostles. 

Jesus, we are told, “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death,” according to The Letter to the Hebrews.[5]  This is true even in the otherwise stoic Gospel of John, where Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus before the Passion narrative, rather than in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In all the Gospels, Jesus’ tears are the supreme act of penthos, an opening of the heart to embrace the suffering of the whole world. 

The penthos of Jesus expresses a compassion that transfigures suffering through the perception of God’s presence and power even in the midst of death.  It is an affirmation of the work of grief in the service of life and love.  The work of grief is not abstract.  It is rooted in particular places:  Bethany, Gethsemane, Jerusalem; and in concrete relationships with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, Peter, James, and John.  Yet, the greater our vulnerability to the particular; the greater our capacity to encompass the universal. 

The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus’ suffering as an act of submission to God whereby he was made perfect, becoming the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.[6]  Here, penthos, the willingness to be touched by the suffering of others and to suffer in solidarity with them, is placed at the very center of the meaning of the crucifixion.  It is not, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed in another context, that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.”[7]  Jesus’ submission to God’s will is reflected not in his suffering per se, but in his compassion, his absolute transparency to God’s self-giving love. 

In this sense, the cross is a symbol of perfection.  Here, Jesus is revealed as God Incarnate, the Center in which all polarities are held in a larger wholeness. In John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.”[8]  Nothing is excluded.  Everything is embraced.  This is the moment of revelation of God’s glory:  the love in which everything is held, nothing is lost; all is judged, all is forgiven. 

The earliest Christians interpreted the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection through the lens of Psalm 22.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the first line of the psalm is placed on the lips of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, invoking the meaning of the entire psalm.  It combines both prayer and praise, suffering and celebration.  

In the psalm, the protagonist experiences suffering at every level of life:  loss of bodily integrity, social ostracism, and abandonment by God.  Surrounded by evildoers who delight in his downfall and mock his dependence upon God, the protagonist is revealed as one of the anawim, the little ones or poor of the land.[9]  But God does “not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” nor does God hide his face from their cries.  God will hear his cry and deliver him.[10]  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of the nations shall worship before him.[11]  Jesus’ death and resurrection, as interpreted by this psalm, is as a call to the world to trust in God’s love and mercy. 

Our salvation, our wholeness, is found in obedience to Jesus, in becoming vulnerable to God as he became vulnerable to God.  The Center, the kingdom of God, is everywhere.  How do we learn to perceive it?  “Weep,” said, Abba Poemen, “truly, there is no other way than this.”[12] 

[1] Quoted in Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 75.
[2] Christie, p. 101.
[3] Christie, p. 77.
[4] Christie, p. 101.
[5] Hebrews 5:7.
[6] Hebrews 5:8-9.
[7] Isaiah 53:10.
[8] John 12:32.
[9] Psalm 22:26.
[10] Psalm 22:24.
[11] Psalm 22:27.
[12] Christie, p. 72.

Friday, April 14, 2017

We are one

I want to begin tonight with a true story.   All the stories I tell are true, and some of them actually happened.  This is one that actually happened.

One morning during rush hour, an unkempt, older man sat down at a Washington, D.C. metro station and began to play six Bach pieces on his violin.  He played for about 45 minutes.  It is estimated that approximately 1,100 people passed him during this time.

It took a couple of minutes before the first person tipped him a $1, but the woman never slowed her pace as she dropped the bill in the hat.  She never made eye contact.  A guy leaned against the wall for a minute to listen, then looked at his watch and hurried away.  No doubt he didn’t want to be late for work.  A three-year-old stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the man, listening intently, but her mother hurried her along. 

A grand total of six people stopped to listen to the music.  20 gave money, but few slowed their pace as they did so.  These 20 people gave $32.  No one noticed when he finished playing.  There was no applause, no recognition.  He was just some poor old man in the subway.  A trained monkey would have garnered more interest.

As it turns out, however, the poor old man was Joshua Bell in disguise, one of the world’s foremost violinists.  He had just played some of the most intricate pieces of music ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million.  Two days before, he had sold out a theater in Boston where tickets averaged $100 per seat.

What do you see?  Do you hear the music?  Do you recognize the beauty all around you?  Do you perceive the dignity of the people you pass by everyday on the street, riding in the bus?  How many other things are you missing?

What we choose to see, and what we choose to ignore, has consequences.  This is the point that St. Paul is making to the Church in Corinth.  When they gather for the Lord’s supper, they ignore the poor.  The rich bring their food and feast, while the poor go hungry.  They eat and drink without discerning the body.  Because of this, many in the community are sick, and some have even died. 

Paul is not suggesting that the rich are getting sick and dying as punishment for their failure to properly reverence the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood in the elements of bread and wine.  That is a theological problem of a later age.  Paul simply points out that poor people get sick and die when their needs are ignored by rich people. 

The theological and ethical problem is the failure to perceive others as intrinsically related to us, as constituting a shared identity:  it is a failure to see the other as one’s self.  The Body and Blood of Christ is perceived in the bread and the wine, but not in the bodies that gather to receive it.  To paraphrase the great Irish theologian, Bono:  We are not the same but we are one.  When we fail to recognize this, there are consequences. 

Tonight, we celebrate Jesus’ last supper with his friends.  During this meal, Jesus gives new meaning to the bread and the wine that are commonly shared at meals.  Grapes and wheat are staples of the Mediterranean diet – nothing much special about them.  Yet, through the fire of fermentation and the fire of the oven, there is an alchemy that transforms these simple gifts of the earth into signs of communion that nourish our souls as well as bodies.  Table fellowship is more than conviviality.  It is a recognition of the common humanity we share. 

In consuming these gifts, we also are reminded of our communion with the larger Earth community, of our dependence upon the ever-renewing cycles of nature that sustain life.  To these natural symbols, Jesus adds another dimension of meaning.  Whenever we break the bread and pour the wine, we remember Jesus’ death.  We remember the sacrificial love expressed in his broken body, his life poured out for us. 

The Greek word “remember” connotes more than the evocation of a distant memory.  It means making present to our experience – here and now – the effects of a past action.  When we share the bread and cup together, Jesus is made present in the sacrificial love we share together.  We see the communion – with one another, with the Earth, with God – that constitutes reality at its deepest and most meaningful level.  This seeing is life; everlasting life.  To ignore this, to fail to see, to be deaf to the music, is death. 

In John’s Gospel, the meaning of this shared meal is illustrated by the action of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  It strikes us as an odd, and oddly intimate, action.  It was servant’s work, women’s work, in Jesus’ time.  Any self-respecting man would consider such work beneath him. 

But Jesus isn’t too proud to wash his disciples’ feet.  We are not the same, but we are one, and our unity is reflected by our willingness to acknowledge our mutual vulnerability and responsibility to care for each other.  To quote Bono again:  We are one, but we are not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other, one.

The people in the Washington, D.C. metro station thought that they were doing the poor old man a favor by dropping a dollar in the hat.  They thought him fortunate to get their attention at all.  But, in truth, it was he who was offering a priceless gift – only they couldn’t perceive it.  He was carrying them, lightening their load at the beginning of a busy day. 

Life is always a two-way street.  It isn’t that I am obligated to help you, or that you are obligated to help me.  We get to carry each other!  It is our privilege, our joy to do so.  In so doing, we share communion.  We discover that we are one. 

This was true, even for Jesus.  He washes the feet of each one those disciples, even the ones that abandoned him and betrayed him.  Yet, they carried him, each one in their own way.  Judas forced his hand, requiring Jesus to reveal just what kind of king he was going to be.  Peter follows Jesus to the courtyard of the council: but that was as far as he could go, before denying he ever knew him and then weeping with shame.  The Beloved Disciple goes the distance, as do the women.  They carry Jesus to the foot of the Cross.  We get to carry each other.  One. 

We share bread and wine because we are one.  We wash each other’s feet because we get to carry each other.  No matter our differences, we each play a part in shaping each other’s lives:  whether with gratitude or regret, joy or sorrow.  Our lives are carried by rain and wind, seed and blossom, distant factory workers, school teachers, the bacteria in our guts.  Even the haters, who mirror our shadow side – they carry us too, and we them, however much we may wish to deny it.  If we were the same, we would not need each other.  We depend on so many, and so many depend on us. We get to carry each other.  That is what it is to be alive. 

This is the truth for which Jesus died.  He carried us all the way to the cross, and God carried him into the Resurrection, into us who now constitute his body.  We see the body, and Jesus is present with us again.  We are one, a unity that transcends time and space in the deathless love of God.  This love includes Judas and Peter, John and Mary, Donald and Hillary, you and me. 

Do you see the body?  Do you hear the music?  Will you carry me?  Will you let me carry you?  What we choose to see, and what we choose to ignore, has consequences.  It can make the difference between life and death.  We are one, but we are not the same.  We get to carry each other.  One.  Amen.