See what love the Father has bestowed on us
in letting us be called the children of God.
And so we are.
We are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed
we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.
(1 Jn 3)
I’ve been down with the brothers at New Camaldoli these past days for the holidays. It was a good time, albeit a little intense. The community is really feeling its fragility as some of the brothers get older and more frail, as they await a vocation candidate to come and stay (no one has for a long, long time), and especially as they said goodbye to Michael Fish, a dynamic and warm man who is taking a year sabbatical-leave of absence. My last act was to preach on Sunday, car packed, ready to go. It was the feast of the Holy Family. As I looked over the readings there were two saying that came to my mind. The first was this, something a friend of mine had written to me in a note years ago: “Experience tells us we cannot go out until we first come in.”
The simple and mundane truth conveyed in the feast of the Holy Family is that it’s all about relationship. The fact that Jesus was born into a family and submitted to the authority of parents, that it was in that context that he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor,” is very important. We human beings are made that way; even Jesus was. Abhishiktananda always pointed to Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan as the hinge moment in his development, the moment when he knew for certain who he was––beloved, chosen, power-filled Son of God. (If you’ve heard me speak before you’ll know this a common theme of mine.) And that knowledge became for Jesus power, power to go into the desert and face temptation, power to give his life in service, power to know that his real self hidden in God could not be annihilated even by the cross. And that is what family, friendships, community and church are meant to be––I’m sure of it––that place where we learn who we are, where we are told who we are, where we can look into the mirror of someone else’s eyes and they give us––us. And if we don’t get that during our formative years, we spend the rest of our lives looking for that mirror, and often in all the wrong places from exactly the people who cannot give it to us, until we find the right relationships, the right communities, the right friends who can do that mirroring for us.
There may be something ironic hearing this from someone vowed to the solitary life, but I’ve learned the hard way that relationship is not vestigial for anyone; it’s not a luxury, and it is still not something that can be done away with. There is some growth that only happens within relatedness. Our own prejudice for celibate chastity over marriage in the Christian tradition and for solitude in the monastic can actually wind up stunting our growth if it becomes an escape from the work of maturity that only takes place in relationship, in those sands of relatedness where our solitude and our prayer and spiritual development get ground fine. I’ve finally been reading John Donohue’s famous book on Celtic spirituality Anam Cara recently; he says that “When we love and allow ourselves to be loved we begin more and more to inhabit the kingdom of the eternal. Fear changes into courage, emptiness into plenitude, and distance becomes intimacy.” Our very image of God teaches us that, since we believe in a God-in-Three-Persons. Donohue writes beautifully about how the Christian concept of the Trinity is a the “most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy”; he calls it “an eternal interflow of friendship.” That’s what we think God is like, “an eternal interflow of friendship.” Through our friendship with Jesus––through, with and in Christ––we too “enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity,” he says; and “In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free…”
That last line leads me to my second point. In the embrace of this relatedness, “we dare to be free…” The second saying I kept thinking of was, “If you love someone, set it free.” (Actually I saw this on a bumper sticker attached to the back of a Ford pickup truck with a gun rack in the rear window once at it had a line added: “… and if it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and kill it.”)
There is something ironic but telling about the fact that the two stories we heard on the feast of the Holy Family this year were both about boys––Samuel and Jesus––who from the moment of their births somehow don’t belong to their families, who from the moment of their births are destined to leave their families behind almost as if they never existed. In the reading from the first book of Samuel we hear about Hannah consecrating the prophet Samuel and giving him over to the Eli as soon as he was weaned. The gospel story we read was about Jesus in the temple with the elders, having stayed behind when his parents were heading home and he gives Mary a little lip when he says, “Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house, about my Father’s business” I always wonder how Joseph felt about that. It’s hard not to remember Jesus saying that you shouldn’t even stop to bury your father if the call to follow the Lord comes, too; or that he hasn’t come to bring peace but that his message would set son against father, daughter against mother, etc.; or that his own real family was those who followed the Word of God rather than his blood relatives.
There are these moments (I know this as a son not as a father) when parents get that look in their eyes as if to say, “Who the heck are you? Where did you come from?” when they suddenly realize that the child to whom they have given birth and hearth and home, and whom they have reared is now a separate person, a surprise, a miracle of sorts, maybe greater than the sum of his or her parts. Both the going forth and letting go are difficult for everyone. And that was the death that both Hannah and Mary and Joseph underwent very early on.
I’m fascinated by theory about the chakras in Yoga, the seven psycho-somatic energy points in the person. There’s one teaching about the chakras that has been the particularly important to me: We start out low in the muddy depths of the inconscient, and then rise up to the level of generativity and creativity in our primary relationships. The fourth chakra, anahata–heart chakra, the place of selfless giving, is up in the chest where we would expect it to be, but we can’t reach it without going through the gut, through the belly. And that belly chakra––the manipura, which literally means the “city of the jewel”––is the place of courage, autonomy, standing on our own two feet, cutting the apron strings. Some traditions think that this is where the real enlightenment takes place, the hara of Japanese Buddhism, for instance. I like to think of it as the desert chakra, the place where we stoke the heat of in the fire tapas–discipline, the John the Baptist chakra. If we haven’t both accessed that lower energy in us and brought it up to the place of courage and daring to be free, then we can’t healthily reach the heart chakra, the place of selfless giving, what even some yogis refer to as agape. Without that courage and psycho-sexual maturity what we think of as our love might actually be mere dependence or co-dependence; what we think of as charity might actually be what C. S. Lewis calls the “passion of pity”––Mother Teresa was particularly hard on this; what we think of as our giving, our generosity, can actually be taking, our own need to be needed.
The conundrum of course is that we can’t have that solidity to go forth unless and until we have had that place to stand, the firm place that has given us to ourselves, a mirroring of who we are from a solid other. We’re not going to be able to go out healthily unless we’ve first come in, first gained our strength in relatedness. But once we find that place to stand, once we have looked into that mirror of who we are, it becomes our power to stand on our own two feet, to face the deserts of our lives, to dare to be free. However, our solitary path–whether it be in the cell or on the road––is not an end either; it too is a means toward greater love. That phase is going to end too, in a place where we learn how to love even more, with more purity, selfless, crucified love.
There’s something beautiful about St. Romuald’s suppleness that I was remembering here, too, the founder of our congregation of monks. It seems that he was a little reluctant to let some of his disciples go off to the hostile missionary lands (the origin of what we call the third good after solitude and community). But then he did let them go, and then he wanted to go himself. I didn’t mention it there at the hermitage but I was thinking too of all the men who have come and gone from there, how many times we have had to say goodbye. More than one person has commented on how the rotunda of our chapel is like a womb, and you know what wombs are supposed to do––give birth! We’ll never know how formative the time there was for someone, how much the community and that life formed and shaped and gave birth to something else. In the same way we never know what effect we have had on people who slip in and out of our lives: maybe we’ve helped to birth something/someone that we might not even recognize anymore, like parents say goodbye to their children, like teachers watch their students graduate, like mentors move to the sidelines while their disciples do even greater things than the master. Another inner strength is called for on the part of the one left behind, the strength of Mary, who treasured all these things––even the sorrows––in her heart; the strength of Joseph who remained in the silence into which he ultimately disappeared without a word or a trace, but for the lasting impact he had on the life and ministry of his ward, Jesus.
Both sides of these things apply to each of us in some way. We need to belong; we also need to provide belonging. Sometimes we need to go; and sometimes we need to let go. And all of this is somehow our poverty––the poverty of surrendering our autonomy to a greater belonging; the poverty and self-denial of putting someone else’s needs ahead of ours in communal life; the poverty of walking on water and taking risks to branch out on one’s own; and the poverty of watching a loved one walk away to his or her own life that may or may not immediately involve us any longer. That’s why we look to the Holy Family, to Jesus who walked through the desert and on the water, to Mary who treasured all these things in her heart, and to strong and silent Joseph, that we may have the courage to go when it is time to go, and the serenity to let go when it is time to let go; that we may be nurtured in our families and communities, and that we may in turn nurture each other in all our relationships, friendships, communities.