Wednesday, August 13, 2008

abandoning the temple

Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight as they went out with the wheels beside them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew that they were cherubim. Each had four faces, each four wings, and underneath their wings something like human hands. As for what their faces were like, they were the same faces whose appearance I had seen by the river Chebar. Each one moved straight ahead. Ez 10:18-22

There was a wild reading today at Mass from Ezekiel 9 and 10. Before that vision of Ezekiel that I pasted here above, we hear all this anger, murdering, slaying, defiling the temple in the name of God––and we have the suspicion that Ezekiel’s own anger and frustration at being an exile is mixed in with God’s anger here. In some way we have to keep an eye on the development of Ezekiel’s own understanding of things as revealed by later prophecies too. But first of all what's incredible is this: God is abandoning the temple! And sitting on a nearby hill watching accusingly. It’s as if someone were to have a vision of the Blessed Sacrament flying out of St Peter’s and sitting on the Aventine Hill overlooking Vatican City. And why has the Spirit abandoned the Temple? Because of their idolatry…

James Alison will make the connection between this section of Ezekiel and Jesus’ own confrontation in the temple with the Pharisees in John 8, when Jesus tells them they are not really the children of Abraham because of their own actions and their refusal to believe in the new revelation that Jesus brings, the "good news of reconciliation." Alison points out the power of the words that end that chapter: that, just as in Ezekiel, Jesus “left the Temple.” God in Jesus becomes detached from the sacred bloodline. God has raised up a new kind of David who is a universal shepherd and sovereign, who excludes no one, just as Ezekiel will prophesy later in Chapter 34 (:23). In some way we could read Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel the same way (Mt 18:15-20), in which he is advocating going to the greatest lengths to heal any breach between people, to bring about reconciliation, to re-member the body. Even when Jesus says that we should regard someone who refuses this reconciliation as if they were "a tax collector or a Gentile" is not necessarily a way of cutting them off, but acknowledging that even their being of the same race and religion as us doesn’t matter without that unity of heart. One assumes the opposite could be said as well, as evidenced so often in the Gospels: if someone is of one mind and heart with you, even if they be a Gentile or a Samaritan or a tax collector or a prostitute, they are your family, because whenever, wherever two or three are gathered in this love, there I am in your midst.

In a sense that’s the outer sense, the radical inclusivity that Jesus is proclaiming and embodying. But there is an inner sense to it, too. I like to think of it as Jesus’ own relocation of the Temple. At the beginning of John’s Gospel he says, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again,” and John let’s us know that he was talking about the temple of his own body, and it is out of that temple that the life-giving stream will pour at the end of John’s Gospel in the form of blood and water. (Note here again the resonance with the prophecy of Ezekiel 47 that we sing during Eastertime: "I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple...") But that life-giving stream doesn’t just pour over us: it flows into us and then back out of us. That’s why St Paul and St Peter will tell us over and over––"God’s temple is holy and you are that temple!" And Jesus himself will prophesy in John’s Gospel that the same stream of life giving water shall flow from out of the believer’s heart! The temple has been relocated into the person of Jesus, and by extension now relocated into our own persons. Later Ezekiel himself will come upon this new knowledge in Chapter 36 when he prophesies “I will put my spirit within you,” and “I will give you a new heart.” These are also the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 that are given life by the inrush of the shekinah, the ruah.

Carl Jung wrote that he thought life seems to have gone out of the churches in the West, and as its next dwelling place the Holy Spirit appears to have selected the human individual. Perhaps he was having his own version of Ezekiel’s vision. But this should come as no surprise nor cause undo worry to us. What the great psychotherapist is stumbling upon, of course, is Christianity: “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us.” But perhaps Dr Jung did not understand what church really is anyway: not buildings, not the outer trappings, but living stones, as St Peter wrote, people who have this living water, this shekinah, inside of them, whenever, wherever two or three are gathered in the common bond of this one thing necessary––whether they be Gentiles or Jews; whenever two or three are united in the heart, sincerely searching together for this great I AM that is the ground of our quest––whether they be tax collectors or sinners. There I AM is in the midst of them.

Idolatry may not take the form of idols of silver and gold. But it could be that anything external that we worship over that internal dwelling of the presence of God, that one thing necessary, is an idol. This is why it is so central for Jesus to quote Hosea so often: “It is love that I desire not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not a useless offering.”

I think this is in some way the prophetic sign of the monk in this day and age, perhaps even especially of the solitary monk: that we ultimately can’t count on institutions, even the institution of monasticism, to hold us up. We are the ones who carry this fire under our robes, sometimes sneaking it out of the sanctuary and offering it surreptitiously to like-minded, like-hearted people, dis-enfranchised exiles we meet along the way. And tell them, “Don’t worry! Let the walls fall! It’s in you!” Even when the clergy commit heinous acts of betrayal, even when our sisters and brothers in religion or religious life fall into lethargy or lose their zeal, even if our monasteries get burned down by fire or slip into the ocean in a landslide, don’t worry: the Spirit dwells somewhere else, the real power has been placed in us, the law is written on our hearts. But the church is not an institution; it’s a body. Eucharist is not an institution; it’s a relationship with Jesus and with one another. And monasticism is not an institution; as our former prior general told me, it’s an energy. None of these things are their externals: they are containers of the internal dwelling of the shekinah, the spirit.

Nor will we be alone; in the most unexpected places, maybe among Gentiles and Samaritans and tax collectors and prostitutes, we will find others who have heard that still small voice, who have found the one thing necessary, who have understood the good news of reconciliation. This is the real basis for community. And when we gather, God in Jesus in the unity of this holy Spirit will be in our midst.