Sunday, August 16, 2009

tending toward god

To live toward God alone
and to hold oneself in God’s presence.
To leave all to attain peace.
To choose silence for grasping the Word.
To be that disciple ever ready
for a word, a command.

To see the universe
in its true measure,
the universe as a point of light,
a mere grain of sand transfigured by Love.
To know that each thing is in God
precious and pure.

(from a French hymn in honor of Saint Benedict)

In the Roman tradition we celebrated a great feast yesterday, the feast of the Assumption. This is actually the second time I’ve preached on it at New Camaldoli, my home monastery, and hence this will also be the second blog I’ve written on it (see August 14, 2007, if you’re so inclined). My favorite description of the feast of the Assumption apparently comes from a little kid who was asked what the feast of the Assumption was and answered, “This is the day when we assume that Mary is in heaven.” Actually that’s not a bad place to start.

I’ve been reading Ilia Delio’s new book recently, “Christ in Evolution” and, though not only for that reason, become quite taken up lately thinking about evolution––not just the evolution of the material world, but of the evolution of consciousness, and spiritual evolution. (Of course hanging out at Esalen with David Steindl-Rast will do that to you as well.) I’m especially fascinated by how evolution has affected our understanding of Christ and Christology. And I was also thinking about the Assumption in the light of this evolutionary thinking. (All the quotes to come will be taken from Ilia’s book.)

In an older world-view and in an older theology, we tended to think that the world came forth from God perfectly formed, unchangeable, just as it is now. (Some even go so far as to suggest that even the fossils were created as fossils.) Of course Darwin turned all that topsy-turvy, and the debate still rages between evolution and creationism or intelligent design. Growing up a liberal Catholic, I never once heard anyone say that there was any conflict between theism and evolution. It was something like “intelligent evolution. Nor have I heard of any conflict from the last popes. As a matter of fact when theology gets a hold of evolution, we begin to understand creation not simply as “something that happened at the beginning of time but … rather the continuing relationship of the world to its transcendent ground.” In the hands of someone like Teilhard de Chardin, suddenly evolution is not just biological ascent, not just a movement toward more complexified life forms; it’s not merely an urge to evolve new and more complex biological forms: it’s a movement toward greater consciousness, the emergence of mind in the universe, and, more importantly for our purposes, it’s a movement of matter to spirit. There is mind embedded in the physical fabric of the cosmos and that consciousness is leading the whole evolutionary process to a culmination in the human spirit. This of course is where we meet the likes of Sri Aurobindo and more currently Ken Wilber. Christians sees Jesus as the apogee of that movement, the union of matter and spirit. Matter, which is alive with energy, evolves to spirit, and the human person is matter come to consciousness. Teilhard wrote that evolution tends toward an Omega point, and Christians call that Omega point “Christ.” (I was impressed to find out that Omega Institute in New York, that progressive think tank and center for human potential was named so for Teilhard.)

In other words, for this reason we can “assume Mary is in heaven.” If Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, as St. Paul says, was only the first fruits, that means that the resurrection is the anticipation of what is intended for the whole cosmos––which is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies––and our bodies are the second fruits. And Mary’s body is the first fruit of that second harvest.

It’s not the Mary did not die. This feast was celebrated as early as the 5th century in the East and in Rome, where it was known as the dormitio. We don’t necessarily claim that she didn't die, but that she “slept.” But by adding that she was assumed body and soul into heaven Christianity claims incredibly that her flesh was preserved immune from the corruption of the tomb. What this means of course is that another human being has shared the triumph over death, and is glorified after the pattern of Jesus; and thus she becomes the iconic image of the woman clothed with the sun in the book of Revelation, another sign pointing to Jesus who is in turn pointing the way to the Father. In other words, even death is not an annihilation. Just as “Jesus is not annihilated on the cross but lives in a radically transformed mode in the presence of God for eternity,” so what happens in Jesus also “anticipates the future of humanity and of the cosmos: not annihilation of creation but its radical transformation through the power of God’s life-giving Spirit.”

In other words, Christ having risen from the dead, we can “assume that Mary is in heaven.” We can also assume that we are meant to share this transformation, along with all creation.

The question remains, how? How do we make ourselves available to this? The readings from the vigil Mass of the feast make it very clear. First there is a reading from 1st Chronicles about the ark of the covenant, asking us to see Mary as the new “ark of the Word.” That is coupled with that shocking Gospel from Luke when Jesus says rather than blessed is the womb that bore him and the breasts that nursed him (Mary) but blessed is anyone who hears the word of God and keeps it as a treasure in the heart. Blessed are all those who are arks of the covenant, who make room in their virginal hearts for the Word. I’m on retreat with the monks right now and that tied in beautifully with what our retreat master, a beautiful old French Benedictine named Fr. Ghislain, said to us yesterday, about St. Benedict being and we monks needing to be disciples ever ready for a word, a command. (See the hymn above.) And even more, another phrase he used played right into my hand. We read the Magnificat, Mary’s canticle from the Gospel of Luke again as the Gospel. We hear that canticle over and over again, evening after evening, because we sing it for evening prayer every night in our tradition, so that we can barely hear it anymore. But suddenly it came alive again when I translated “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit finds its joy in God” to Fr. Ghislain’s phrase, “my whole being tends toward God.” This is the evolutionary movement in me, and it’s really love, it’s eros. My whole being is evolving toward spirit; my whole being is tending toward union with God if I but follow its tendency; my whole being, as St Basil wrote, is in the process of becoming God, whatever that means! This tending, this kind of evolving transforms my whole person––spirit, soul and body, and nothing is left behind, and my real self hidden with Christ in God is not annihilated, even at death, but enters ever more deeply into communion with the Divine who also leans toward me––who “looks upon his servant in her lowliness.”

This evolution is going on in us here and now, whether we are aware of it or not. And a feast like this urges us to be aware of it, to lean into our own tendency toward God who is leaning toward us, and to allow that evolution to take place in us ‘til we are assumed––spirit, soul and body––into the life Divine.

I know I wrote this before, but in this light it seems a propos to mention Aurobindo once again. As it turns out, his birthday was also August 15th, and when India finally won her independence, someone wrote to him remarking that wasn’t it wonderful that India should have won her independence on his birthday? He replied that it was even more wonderful that India would have won her independence on the feast of the Assumption when a mortal was assumed into the Life Divine, which he thought was the destiny of all humanity––that was the point of his integral yoga. He wrote:
The physical consciousness and physical being, the body itself must reach a perfection in all that it is and does which now we can hardly conceive. It may even in the end be suffused with a light and beauty and bliss from the Beyond and the life divine assume a body divine.
That’s a pretty good assumption, too.