Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Your task is not to seek love
but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself
that you have built against it.

I had to preach twice these days and it wound up that both times were about something that I have been thinking about a lot…so I decided to write it all down here and share it with you.

The other day we heard the reading from the prophet Hosea chapter 6, which ends with a poignant phrase––I can hear at least three different musical versions of it in my head: It is love that I desire not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than holocausts. This is a theme that crept into later Hebrew thought. Hosea had said earlier: Your piety dissolves like a morning dew! and it’s already evidenced in Psalm 50 and 51, for instance (the latter of which we actually used for Mass that day): You are not pleased with sacrifices; / burnt offering from me you would refuse. / My sacrifice a contrite spirit; / a humble, contrite heart you will not spurn. And of course the famous invectives of the prophet Isaiah, my favorite being from chapter 58: You say, ‘Why do we fast and you do not see?’ … Is this not the fast I choose: loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your home. Karen Armstrong would say that this is the Hebrew tradition waking to the perennial philosophy, the awakening to a sense of individual moral responsibility. And in some way it’s the core of the message that Jesus has for his co-religionists right in line with the prophets, trying to make sure that the “main thing remains the main thing.”

That reading from Hosea was paired yesterday with the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18) both praying in the temple, the Pharisee, convinced of his own righteousness was “praying to himself (!)” boasting to God about his righteousness and tithes, and the tax collector was beating his breast, saying “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Of course Jesus says that he, the tax collector went home justified because those who humble themselves will be exalted. It was kind of surprising to me that the reading from Hosea wasn’t paired instead with the call of Levi/Matthew, the tax collector (maybe it is somewhere else in the church year), because it is in that story that Matthew has Jesus quoting Hosea, when others around (the ‘righteous’) criticize him for eating with sinners, and Jesus turns to his critics and says, Go and learn the meaning of these words: ‘It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice…’ Of course what’s equally interesting there is that Jesus does not quote scripture exactly, as often happens, and the modifications he makes are always significant. He says ‘mercy’ instead of ‘love.’ Of course, we could say that mercy is a special kind of love. And that’s what we’re after; that’s what caught my attention.

We often think of mercy in relation to forgiveness, or else in terms of some higher creature having pity on some lower creature, like acts of ‘charity.’ But mercy is wider than that, it’s more like compassion. Note how Islam understands this and puts those two together: Bismillah ir-rahman, ir-rahim! A look at the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist will show you what I mean. John is preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins; if Jesus has any ritual it’s his open table––he eats with sinners whether they have repented or not. This is one of the things that confuses his co-religionists: he makes no issue of purity or forgiveness or their repentance before he hangs out with people.

I’m getting some of these ideas from Pagola’s book again (“Jesus: An Historical Approximation”). He points out that in contrast to the holiness code––“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”––Jesus radically transforms our way of understanding and living the imitation of God. He says instead, and again, it is always instructive when Jesus adapts the words of scripture–– “Be merciful just as your heavenly Father is merciful.” (In another place he says ‘be perfect’ but somehow that is God’s perfection––mercy.) It is God’s mercy, God’s compassion that we are supposed to imitate. And the meaning of this compassion/mercy––I go back and forth, as Pagola says translators do with these words––is summed up in the Aramaic word that Jesus would have used: rahamim means literally ‘bowels,’ or better yet it’s what a woman feels toward the child she carries in her womb, nurturing, nourishing, caring for. This is, of course, quite close to the Hebrew word rahum (not to mention the Arabic as above), which again describes “a compassion that comes from the bowels and involves the whole person.” The Gospel writers instead use a very unique Greek word when they speak of Jesus having compassion: splanjnizomai, which again means a feeling that comes from out of the bowels. So when they say about Jesus that he had compassion on the crowd––like when he sees the crowd of 4,000, or when he cured the sick, or when they ‘are like sheep without a shepherd’––it means literally ‘his whole body shook’ or even ‘his guts quaked.’

What I am getting at is, perhaps we could translate Hosea to read, “I don’t want your sacrifices, your rituals, your liturgies: I want your bowels to shake.” If our rituals, our sacrifices, our liturgies, our yoga, or zazen, our tapas–asceticism don’t lead to that, then they are like a morning fog.

But, God says, “I want your bowels to shake toward me as well as toward others!” This mercy-compassion has two sides to it. On the one side tremble before the Divine presence in awe of the merciful womb from which you came that is love without an opposite. And then loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your home. We should quake before the mystery of Divine love, who quakes in compassion for us (“who humbled himself to share––and immerse himself––in our humanity”), and then in turn we should quiver with compassion when we encounter others in need of something to eat, who are hungry, naked, lonely––‘like sheep without a shepherd.’

And then today I had to preach again (it happened to be the 62nd birthday of Shantivanam; we had ‘Western’ birthday cake for breakfast!). The guys from the formation house came over too and it was quite a festive liturgy. But they kept the readings of the day, and I am glad they did. It was that marvelous reading from the prophet Isaiah chapter 49 that ends with the unforgettable phrase, Could a mother forget her baby, be without tenderness for the child in her womb? Well, even should she forget, I will never forget you. Sometimes I think it is amazing that we don’t refer to God as mother as much as father, because we have all those words again in that reading. Before that beautiful closing line about the mother and the womb, Isaiah has already used the word rehem four times, referring to God’s love, and that is translated literally as ‘womb love.’ And then the psalm that was chosen to accompany those readings was Psalm 144, which sings over and over again the Lord is gracious and merciful, now using the word hesed, scholars say is that love which is beyond a mother’s love, if there could be such a thing.

This seems to me to be the very heart of the Abrahamic tradition, the revelation that God is mercy-compassion, ir-rahman ir-rahim, every surah of the Qur’an reminds us. The very nature of who/what we call God is this––rahum–mercy/compassion. So it is almost anachronistic to ask God for mercy. God is mercy, all God does is mercy, love-without-an-opposite. Maybe we could say with Rumi that “our task is not to seek mercy but merely to seek and find all the barriers within ourself that we have built against it.”

Again, it is a marvel to me that we don’t speak of God more as mother. Jesus is constantly showing a God who he calls Father but who acts like a mother, and Jesus himself, while male, is always showing a whole different, much more maternal side of masculine love. I was thinking of when Matthew tells us about Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, and he says, How often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings… As a matter of fact Raniero and I were remembering a beautiful retreat that our Fr Romuald (of blessed memory) on Jesus as mother, based on the writings of Julian of Norwich.

I told the guys too, thinking of the birthday of this place, Shantivanam, that I remembered my first visit to Camaldoli in Tuscany, the “mother house” (or “Mothership as some of our friends like to say) how after all my other monastic experiences––the traditionalism of San Miniato, the stoicism of Gethsemane, the relaxed austerity of Big Sur, the high church Cluniac sensibility of St Meinrad––the monastery at Camaldoli reminded me of my Sicilian grandmother with her arms out and a big kiss and a pot of tomato sauce on the oven. And I mentioned who the rotunda at New Camaldoli reminds so many people of a womb, and for me it is that too, New Camaldoli being the place that nurtured and gave birth to who I am today. On top of that I was reminded how Fr Bede loved this image of God as mother, and how he loved to stress union by communion and the mystery of love that was the center of the Christian mystical experience. And he for all his world fame and lofty theology remained a consummate guestmaster all of his life, welcoming visitors here and giving so much time to them as well. I hope Shantivanam and all our communities can ever strive to be this for a world so in need of this mercy.

Speaking of mother love, my days are winding up here now. Someone asked me what I was going to be doing at Shantivanam this time and I said, “Absolutely nothing,” because I was hoping to make this a retreat time after all the work and traveling of the past year (England, Israel, Italy and now southeast Asia). But I didn’t think it was be this much nothing, but I have been serious about giving my body a break to heal this hip injury. Amma Mary Louise has made life very comfortable and made sure that I was overfed (not what one would expect in India) with fruits and vegetables and eggs. I even get scolded for doing my own laundry and again if I walk too much or too fast. And she and I have had lots of opportunities for long conversations over breakfast in her kitchen and Eucharist together each afternoon (she herself is having trouble walking). So I have been well mothered myself. Now some work kicks back in. I have some errands to run in Trichy tomorrow, then JP and his group of 40 are coming Friday and Fr John Robert and I will lead them in a retreat until Sunday when I head out, taking the long way home re-tracing my steps––Chennai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and God-willing California on Friday the 30th.

Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim!