Monday, December 24, 2007

ascending and descending

(I got to preach for Christmas Mass down here at the hermitage––a real honor.)

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good tidings!
Is 52:7

And the monk goes back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands.
Tibetan saying

As many of you know, the geographical layout of Camaldoli in Italy is very striking and very instructive. Up near the top of the mountain is the Sacro Eremo, 15 cells surrounding the church, not unlike the layout here at New Camaldoli. It is a place of deep silence and introspection, and I got the impression when I visited there for the first time that this was the very center of our spirituality, this silence, this stillness. My lasting image of the place is of a cold day in early January, and the fierce wind blowing grey clouds over the top of the mountain, almost frightening, certainly awe-inspiring in its severity, the monks all huddled up in their cowls, heads lowered silently entering the church; the choir stalls separated one from the other by big arm rests; at vigils in the morning just the minimum of lighting by which to read the office books. Even though the lunches and dinners are in common there is a kind of respectful hush over everyone passing the food and rather whispering exchanges of conversation. They seem to be uncomfortable with the fact that meals were no longer in silence.

On the other hand, a mere 3 kilometers down the road lies the monastery. My first and lasting impression of that place is that it reminded me of my little squat Italian grandmother, with her arms out-stretched burying my head in her bosom as she squeezed me and sat me down to feed me. Perhaps it will come as no surprise that I have come to think of that as the “motherhouse.” Lunches and dinners are kind of a raucous affair, and there are always guests coming in who are greeted with loud cries and embraces and kisses on the cheek, and the phone is ringing, and there always seems to be an excuse for a little dolce at the end of the meal. In Romuald’s genius, this place was established not just to care for the hermits above, but also for the foresteria and the greeting of guests, and the antica farmacia to supply medicine for the sick, the fonte buono, the well that gives off this delicious mountain spring water, and up until today the monastery host’s countless pilgrims and conferences and retreats.

I must say I preferred staying up at the eremo when I was there; and yet every now and then I felt like I needed to sneak down the hill and at least have pranzo at the monastery. There was something so humanizing about it.

Why I bring that up is because I feel like Christmas is like a trip down the hill to the monastery, to my Italian grandmother.

Spirituality, especially monastic and contemplative spirituality, can be so heady, so lofty, so––if you’ll excuse me for saying so––so spiritual, and seem sometimes as if it had nothing to do with the earth or the body or real life. And I don’t mean just Christian spirituality. Spirituality in general, even yogic spirituality, which seems to be so concentrated on bodily postures and diet and breathing, can leave you with the impression, that it’s still all just about the atman, the spirit, and a total detachment from any bodily consciousness.

Bruno has been trying to tell us for years, but it is really starting to sink in for me, partially because now that my eyes are opened I am seeing it echoed everywhere, and I am especially seeing this year it in our celebration of Christmas. While we are busy ascending to God––climbing the ladder of monks, climbing the steps of spiritual perfection, ascending our ziggurats and seven-storey mountains to heaven––in Jesus, as Pope Benedict writes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, “God has revealed himself in his descending.” So, it seems to me, if we want to be perfect as God is perfect, we need to descend as well. This is the whole scandal of Christianity. We heard the beautiful hymn to the Word from the prologue of the Gospel of John today. It’s instructive to recall exactly what this philosophical concept logos–“word” had come to mean to Jesus’ contemporaries. For example for Philo (a Hellenized Jewish philosopher who lived from 20 BC to 50 AD) the logos was both the creative principle and divine wisdom, but he, like all the ancient Greeks always felt it was necessary to maintain the distinction between the perfect idea and imperfect matter. And that’s why the logos was necessary, he taught, because God cannot come into contact with matter. This what Christianity turns on its ear in claiming that God has come into contact with matter! Worse yet, God has become matter. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Ken Wilber writes about the difference between ascending and descending religions, and I think he would say Christianity is one of the ascending religions. He suggests that harmony is found in the union of the ascending and the descending currents, and not in a kind of brutal war between the two. “Only when Ascending and Descending are united … can both be saved. And those who do not contribute to this union not only destroy the only Earth we have, but forfeit the only heaven they might otherwise embrace.” (A Brief History…, p. 12-13) From my understanding, he actually just stumbled onto Christianity, because this is specifically what happens in Christianity, or at least what is supposed to happen––it is a union of the ascending and descending. While we are busy ascending to God, “God has revealed himself in his descending.”

We are always adding gilt banners and trumpets to Christmas, because otherwise the whole thing just seems too ordinary. Just a baby, just dirty diapers. At first I used to get annoyed about all the folderol, and then I started to think, yes, but why stop there? Why not gild everything!? Why not suddenly see how holy everything is? Maybe that’s what Christmas does––it gilds everything, let’s us know how holy everything is.

It’s not so much that I want to remind us to descend again while we are ascending; I more want to point out all the ways that we do already descend, and celebrate them such. I was thinking about my brothers here the other day, living this monastic life that could look as if it were a fuga mundi–flight from the world or contemptus mundi–contempt for the world or, even worse, a withdrawal from responsibility for the world in search of some private salvation. There’s a beautiful saying from the Tibetan tradition, that monks come back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands. Our founder St Romuald had a marvelous vision of white-robed monks climbing a ladder; but the other day as I was coming down the mountain from Avila I had a vision of white robed-monk climbing down a mountain.

...and in my vision I saw Benedict getting up at 2:30 in the morning to clean out the walk-in refrigerator;
I saw Raniero sitting in his office answering Christmas mail until nine o’clock,
and Daniel going to put warm compresses on Fr Bernard’s eyes.
I saw Emmaus turning everything he touches into a work of art.
I saw Bruno’s years of lectio and study turning into breath-taking homilies,
and I saw Robert after serving as prior for years now working happily in the bookstore,
and John quietly filing books in the library;
there was Zacchaeus with his warm hospitality to anyone who comes through,
and Fish running to town to welcome a vocation candidate and making sure there is a note and flowers to greet him;
I saw Michael making sure that all the work gets done around the place,
and Gabriel (after how many years?!) still trimming the candles and setting up the chapel for each liturgy
and Emmanuel on his tractor trimming trees and leaving oranges in my hatch,
Isaac making hundreds of candles
and Bernard still having the strength and desire to meet with retreatants,
Isaiah finding time to hear another confession,
Bede doing countless little unseen tasks,
Joshua faithfully doing the housekeeping day in and day out,
Jose-Luis bringing all of his infectious levity to everything he does.

And I knew that in them and in those actions, while they were ascending, God was revealing himself in their descending and the Word was being made flesh, coming back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands.

For our visitors too, I invite you to look at your own lives and how many ways you descend––in raising children, in caring for a sick relative, in making the long commute each day to work, in filing papers in and office or teaching young people, in plumbing and carpentry, in art and science, in cooking and cleaning. Not only is Jesus’ cradle already glowing now; the whole world seems to be glowing today, all of our mundane existences and duties, “our daily round and common task,” all glow from within because––because of Jesus’ birth––there is no distinction between the perfect idea and imperfect matter! While we are busy ascending to God, “God has revealed himself in his descending.” The logos is necessary not because God cannot come into contact with matter but because it is how God comes into contact with matter. The scandal is God has come into contact with matter. God has become matter! The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, with bliss-bestowing hands.

“In Jesus Christ God has revealed himself in his descending.” And not just at his birth. His birth was only the beginning of the long descent of his life, into the waters of the Jordan, into the heart of our existence, “emptying himself and taking the form of a slave,” even into the hell of our desperation and separation. As the Holy Father writes, so too our “ascent to God occurs precisely in the descent of humble service, in the descent of love, for love is God’s essence,” and is thus the power that truly purifies us and enables us to see God. And even if “the world” forgets the source and the reason for the season, this part of it they get right. They know it’s all about love, the love that purifies and lets us see God face to face.

It’s not that we don’t ascend anymore; it’s that we know while and when we are ascending that there is going to be a descent as well, and somehow that it gives a certain lightness to our steps, a knowledge changes the way we ascend, and gives more joy to the ascent. We know that we are not going to ultimately leave anything behind, like the bread and wine that get lifted up at the altar and gets transubstantiated. To the famous patristic adage, “God became a human being so that we might become God,”––which is scandalous enough––our brother Cassian liked to remind us that Johannes Metz added, “God became human so that we might become human.” As we pray at the preparation of the gifts, this Christmas day let us hope that we may “come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Even more, let us hope we can humble ourselves to share in the humanity of Christ so that we may share in his divinity, because that’s what it really means to be human, to participate in the divine nature, to ascend and descend, up the ladder and down the mountain over and over and over again.

christmas 07