and now it is complete:
he must increase
and I must decrease.
Halfway through the retreat for the World Community for Christian Meditation here in Singapore. I have come to expect, and was certainly not disappointed this time, that the Singaporeans can really get things done, including turn out a crowd. There are around 200 people on the retreat, which we are holding at Trinity Theological Seminary. So far it is all being very well received, after getting past the initial session of them getting used to my American accent and too much information. They are especially appreciative of the music and have learned the chanting tone and even some of the Indian pieces quickly and eagerly.
Today’s Gospel was one of those signature lines of John the Baptist: This is my joy, and now it is complete: Christ must increase and I must decrease. I can hear the music of our Camaldolese antiphon. That passage gave me leave to talk a little about bridal mysticism in the homily, as John introduces Jesus as the bridegroom, and he himself is only the best man. It comes to us not just from the female saints such as Teresa and Therese but from the commentaries on the Song of Songs that go back as far as Origen through Bernard of Clairvaux, and of course even farther back to the Hebrew Scriptures that include not only that erotic love poem the Song of Songs in the canon but record the prophets such as Hosea and Isaiah referring to Israel as the bride of the Lord. It’s with the Song of Songs, though, that this espousal becomes understood not just as corporate but regarding each individual soul as well.
I suppose this is harder for men to grasp, the idea of being a bride, despite the commentaries of Origen and Bernard, but in a sense it is easier to grasp for everyone––including some feminists who prefer not to name certain attributes as “female” or “feminine”––viewed through the lens of a culture, such as this one, that would be so heavily influenced by Taoism. Instead of saying we are all “feminine” before God, we could say that at some point we all need to be yin as opposed to yang before God. We need to be passive, receptive, yielding, like Mary (how this image has become important to me!) who welcomes the Word in her pure virginal womb. How many times have I quoted Tao #10 in the past weeks?: Opening closing the gates of the sky; can you be like a woman?
But back to the really important point, how Christians, like Jews and Muslims, do not have much language for, using Bede’s vocabulary, “unity by identity” (aham Brahmasmi––I am Brahman), but more “union by communion.” The Trinity is our operative model, the love affair between the Father and the Son, which is the Holy Spirit. And we are invited into that relationship. Even there, the language of erotic-spousal love works also in relation to the Divine, and this we do hear from the mystics, disappearing into the Beloved, the lines blurring between lovers, which someone like Rumi learns teaches him about the Divine as well:
During the day I praised you, and I didn’t know.
At night I laid with you and I didn’t know.
I had suspected that I was myself
But I was entirely you––and I didn’t know!
John asks for no allegiance to himself any longer from his followers––I must decrease, he must increase. Don’t these words also apply to all of our relationships? At some point our love for anyone must reach the stage where it asks nothing in return, and we say of our lovers, our children, our friends, our students––I must decrease and he, she, you must increase. This is why Jesus urges us to give without asking anything in return. It is all a lesson in loving in general, the seed falling in the ground and dying and so yielding a rich harvest.
But somehow in that dying process, in that asking nothing in return, in our decreasing, our real self emerges. That is part of the rich harvest. So I want to hold these two things together in tension, that Paul says both “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” (Gal 2) the disappearing into the Beloved; and “my life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3). Perhaps these are two ways of speaking about the same thing: the first is “union by identity”: no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the second is “union by communion”: my life is hidden with Christ in God.
The “I” that must decrease is not our real “I,” our truest self. It is the “I” with which we usually identify, the false I that we project out to the world. Our real self is somehow already in union with God, hidden with Christ in God, but we keep identifying with and projecting our shallow selves, our shadow realms. That is what must decrease.
And the meditative process is all about that. Letting go of our identities and self-definitions one at a time, whatever we are clinging to, layers of our mask, accepting the poverty of stripping down ‘til we experience our real self hidden with Christian God. I must decrease so that he must increase and as he increases, my real self will increase as well.