Sunday, December 23, 2012

incline the ear of your heart

Mary was chosen to bear Jesus because she kept her purity intact. Those who know understand that to be pure means to be completely adaptable, to flow with each moment, to be like a running stream cascading from the waters of life itself. The eternal messenger is always within, waiting to unfold the moment through the Word, and one day when Mary is recognized again, there will be a reappearance of the Christ, manifested in the outer world. Remember who Mary is.
Reshad Field, in the Essential Sufism

I was part of an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2011, mostly Jews and Christians, with one Sufi thrown in the mix. The whole idea was to visit each other’s sacred spots and to try to learn from each other about our various traditions. We spent the majority of the trip in the south, near Jerusalem, and then we went up north, visiting mostly the Christian spots. Our first stop up north was Nazareth, and on our first morning we all piled into the Basilica of the Annunciation. For being such a popular pilgrimage spot, it was a lot less touristy than I thought it would be, and it had very modern architecture. One of the features of the place is that there are plaques in honor of Mary all over the walls in the plaza and in the basilica itself from countries all over the world. When we were inside I happened to be walking with my friend Rabbi Paula, who was one of the co-leaders of the trip, and at one point we were standing in front of the plaque from Portugal that carried the title “Mary Ark of the Covenant.” And Rabbi Paula looked oddly at me and said, “What does that mean?” Obviously this is something very important to the Jewish tradition––and especially to a rabbi!––and here I was, having to explain to her how and why we had co-opted such a revered term for Mary. And so I launched into it as best I could, and if I recall, rather fast and furiously, the words just kind of tumbling out of my mouth, how I understood that we believe that there is an aspect of God that we call the Word, and that Word is the very principle of intelligence and intentionality in the universe; and as St. John explains it in his Gospel, that Word is not only with God, but that Word is God, like the Word that God spoke and all things came into being, as the Psalmist says, or the Wisdom that was at play at God’s side all the while. It’s what lies before all specific laws or dogmas, even before the Law as articulated in the Torah and the Ten Commandments––the covenant––, like the Tao that Lao Tzu says is before all virtues. And that Word is always being spoken to us, transmitted to us, but we can’t hear it in the sense of fully receive it. It’s in sighs to deep for words, as St Paul says, perhaps like the OM that hums beneath all created things. But we believe that Mary was a human being so pure, so receptive, that she was able to fully receive that Word, so much so that it became something in her; it took root like a seed in the garden of her womb; it took flesh in her, it became a baby, and she named that baby Jesus, in whom we believe the fullness of divinity dwelt bodily because he was that very Word made flesh. And so we believe that this is the new covenant, or better, the fulfillment of the covenant: this is what God had intended all along, for there to be no separation between heaven and earth, that we would share in divinity through, with and in the Word. And so Mary, pregnant with Jesus, is the ark of this new covenant, because she is carrying the Word-made-flesh inside her.

There was a guy on the trip who was a wonderful older man, a little less sophisticated than the rabbi, the minister, the monk, the Sufi and rest of the crowd, but totally fearless, and he was always saying things that were filled with a kind of childlike wonder. I didn’t know it but he was standing at my shoulder listening to my whole discourse, and when I had finished, and Paula and I were standing there nearly in tears over this moving moment, suddenly this guy busts out and says right into my ear, “You know I never thought of it like that. So this is kinda where the whole thing got started, huh?” And suddenly I thought to myself, You know, I actually had never thought of it that way before either. And I said, “Ya, you’re right. This is where it all got started, with Mary receiving the Word so deeply into her heart that it became something in her; actually it became someone in her body.”

In the Jewish tradition there is a type of literature called midrash, which is exegesis and commentary on scripture. Often its moral principles and theological concepts, but midrashim are also trying to explain the full meaning of the biblical law, and find the hidden or new meanings in scripture. Sometimes it almost seems as if some of the Christian scriptures started out as simply midrash on the Jewish scriptures. And we are one step removed: we’re trying to understand the Christian scriptures that are trying to understand the Jewish ones. And such is especially the case today. It’s as if Luke is doing midrash on 2 Samuel.

Our naming of Mary the new Ark of the Covenant is no accident. It’s not that very well hidden at all in Luke’s gospel. This Sunday we read the story of what we call the Visitation, when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John, who will be the Baptizer. And Elizabeth says that At the moment the sound of you greeting met my ear, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Not only does Luke use the same Greek word––skirtan––“dance,” for what John the Baptist is doing in his mother’s womb as the Septuagint uses for what David does before the Ark, but the whole layout of the story is strikingly similar. It’s almost as if Luke is purposely using the story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem as a literary framing device. So it is actually Luke who is telling us that this is the new law, the new covenant, and, as he does throughout the infancy narratives, telling us that this is the fulfillment, as Elizabeth says, of the promises of the Lord; and John is dancing before the ark that/who Mary is. So this could be seen as Luke’s midrash on 2 Samuel.

But there is also something interesting going on in the section we hear from the letter to the Hebrews today. The author to the letter to Hebrews quotes Ps 40, but actually misquotes it, or else purposely changes it. Psalm 40 says, Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but an open ear.  But here Hebrews says, Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me. So the ear has become a whole body, or the whole body has become like an open ear. I used to think that ‘body’ referred to Jesus’ body, and maybe it does, but it strikes me now that it could just as well refer to Mary’s body. Mary, whose whole body was a listening, a receptivity, an open ear––the ear of her body, the ear of her soul, as well as the ear of her heart, as St Benedict calls it, her spirit. This is why she could say, My whole being rejoices in God my savior. Her whole body was a vessel, not just her mind or her soul, nor some kind of disembodied spirit. This body of Mary is a living breathing blood-filled pulsing grounded vessel. Her sacrifice was her whole being, including her body. Maybe this is why Paul tells us, in imitation of Mary, to offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable, to God, your spiritual worship. The psalmist tells us, and the author to the letter to the Hebrews interprets for us: as fine as they are, ultimately God does not really want our ritual sacrifices and liturgical offerings, holocausts offered on the altar. What God really requires of us is what those sacrifices and offerings are supposed to symbolize. What Jesus’ ultimate prayer was, in the midst of the Our Father as well as in the garden of Gethsemane, is what God requires: Behold I have come to do your will. An open ear, a body offered up as a spiritual sacrifice, our whole being––body, soul and spirit available to be a vehicle, a vessel, an instrument. One of our monks the other day in our scripture study, what we call collatio, said this is what the yogis are trying to accomplish. I was quite pleased to hear someone else say that. Yes, that’s right: that’s what I think the yogis are trying to accomplish, that the whole person becomes a vessel of divinity.

This is the great turnaround, the extra step that most spiritual traditions are hesitant to take, all the way from classical Yoga through Christianity: that the body is not just a vehicle––though even that much has taken us a long time to accept, that the body is a vehicle. We tend to think in the spiritual life that we peel it off like a banana peel and throw if away (that phrase of Fr Tom Ryan that I like so much) so we can be ‘spiritual.’ But somehow this whole great story all the way from the Annunciation straight through to the Ascension is trying to convey something more to us yet: that not only is the body a worthy vehicle, an instrument, a hinge, as Tertullian would say––it is the field, it is that which gets transformed. My whole being.

And somehow this is the fulfillment of the promise that started out with the promise to Abraham. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, a little phrase that haunted Teilhard de Chardin, God will be all in all.  Jesus will say in reference to his own mother, Blessed are all those who hear the word of God and keep it. They/we each of us become arks of the covenant if we but stake our claim on this promise, that God will be all in all, if we offer even our bodies as spiritual sacrifices, though not something to be burned up and destroyed, but something to be transformed into a vessel and then transfigured, sharing in the promise of the resurrection, if we but offer ourselves up for that Word to take root in the ground of our very being. Isaac of Stella wrote that “every Christian is also believed to be bride of God’s Word, a mother of Christ, … at once virginal and fruitful.”

Saint Benedict says that the monk’s whole life should be a little Lent, but I always thought you could just as easily say that a monk’s whole life was a little Advent, watching and waiting, the vigil, the longing. I remember in a discussion I had once with a Buddhist monk, he said that for them the monk’s main practice was meditation––zazen in his tradition, emptying the mind and sitting. Actually they don’t even want to call it meditation in the Zen tradition; it’s shikantaza––“just sitting.” This is from the Shobogenzo of Dogen zen-ji (5–10):

One day Ejo asked, “What should we diligently practice in the monastery?”
Dogen instructed,
Shikantaza (Just sitting)! Whether you are upstairs or under a lofty building, sit in samadhi!”

Whereas, this monk said, the main practice of you Christian monks seems to be chanting the psalms. And I said, “No, I think our main practice is actually listening.” We even only chant the psalms so that we can hear them; we’re singing them to each other so that we can listen to them. Now, I am quite devoted to silent meditation as well, but I think that even that practice is about something more. As our master Romuald says, “Empty yourself completely and sit waiting.” So the listening presupposes a certain silence, but when we empty ourselves, we wait; while we meditate we listen, but ‘listening’ in the absolute broadest sense of the word, listening as a symbol of receptivity, like the receptivity of a fruitful virginal womb.  Hence, the first word of the Prologue to St Benedict’s Rule for monks is, Listen! But it’s a special kind of listening: he goes on, Incline the ears of your heart. It’s that same heart that Benedict tells us at the end of the Prologue to the Rule that we have to prepare along with our bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions (in other words, the Word); and then as we run on the path of God’s commandments (again, the Word), when they really take root in us those same hearts will overflow with the inexpressible delight of love. And I think it’s that inexpressible delight of love that is exactly the Word made flesh, the exuberance that is the dynamic behind creation, now happening in us.

I was happy to serendipitously run into the exact same sentiment in the writings of John Main the other day, specifically referring to the Christmas season.

For Benedict, the first quality we all require if we would respond to Christ and be open to his life in our hearts is the capacity to listen. The first word of the Rule is ‘Listen!’ And as you all know, this capacity is one of the great fruits of meditation, which teaches us that the condition of true listening is silence. We can only listen to the word spoken to us by another if we ourselves are silent of all words. (Silence and Stillness, Dec. 22)

So, silence ought to be the fundamental condition of our heart. We empty ourselves, and sit, waiting.

[1] OR, 40.

Friday, December 14, 2012

the pope's loafers

By virtue of the creation,
and, still more, of the incarnation,
nothing here below is profane
for those who know how to see.
                                    (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

We celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe the other day. I always say that she is “my favorite Mary.” I have a pushpin with her image on it pressed into the dashboard of my car. (There’s a song in there somewhere…) I suppose it’s from hanging around so many wonderful holy Mexican-Americans all my adult life, from my friendship with Pedro Rubalcava dating from the early ‘80s through school in Camarillo and living on the edge of Watsonville the past ten years. Nobody here at the monastery knew what pan dulce was. I told them you could get it at the gas station in Watsonville, and I often did.

I sang for Pope John Paul II in 1987, at my home parish in Phoenix, SS. Simon and Jude Cathedral. I had written some of the music for the event––it was a morning prayer service for clergy and religious. I remember that the place didn’t feel like it was our church anymore, with all the Secret Service guys running around, and TV cameras and lights, and we had been locked in the place for hours before the pope arrived. And then when he did arrive, it was amazing, electric, to be so close to this great man. I thought to myself he was the only person in the place who was comfortable. As a matter of fact it was one of the very few times in my life I have been nervous singing in front of a crowd––so nervous I couldn’t get the first notes out of my mouth. The pianist had to repeat the introduction! So we get through the whole service and the pope is about to leave, and I stand up to lead the closing hymn, I’ve got my arms in the air gesturing to the assembly, and suddenly the Pope is standing right in front of me with the bishop. He says, “I want to meet this beautiful musician.” And I, without thinking, just turned into an old fashioned Catholic; I immediately got down on one knee and kissed his ring. Then the strangest thing happened. I noticed that he was wearing a watch. And I thought, “What the heck does a pope need a watch for?” And then I noticed as I knelt down farther that he was wearing reddish-brown loafers, and I thought I wonder if he ever puts pennies in there? Of all the memories of that morning, that stays with me as the strongest––I was blown away by the fact that he wore a watch, and the he had penny loafers. That all this authority and influence had been invested in this man, and he was just a human being.

Another anecdote: there has been a lot of argumentation over the past years about the liturgy, as you know. And many folks are arguing that we need to make the liturgy more sacred, and one way to do that is to have more high altars, maybe bring back the communion rail, to make sure the priest is removed from the assembly and only people in cassock and surplice are up around the altar, and more candles and more rich vestments. The poor Holy Father right now seems to weighed down under layers of silk and finery and is practically hidden at St Peter’s by these six huge candlesticks and a large crucifix. And the argument that this is edifying for people, to see something so obviously holy. But I always think about my first experiences at Shantivanam, our ashram in South India, where we sit on the floor throughout the entire Eucharist, right near the simple puja stone and brass plate that is used for an altar, the priests and monks wearing only their khavi dhotis and shawls, in the simplest, humblest manner possible, and I gotta say, nothing could have felt more sacred to me than those first impressions of celebrating Mass there surrounded by coconut trees and cawing birds, and the sense of reverence of the people participating was unsurpassed. I feel much the same about our liturgies here, stripped down to a kind of Zen simplicity.

The reason I bring those things up is because I have this other strong memory of a talk I once when I was in seminary given by a woman who was a great lover of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She explained to us that of course there were people who doubt the authenticity of the whole apparition and even of the existence of Juan Diego, as is to be expected. But scientists have never been able to explain how that image appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma, which was made of cloth made from cactus fiber; and artists can’t figure out how those particular pigments in the skin tone could have been mixed in that day and age. But then she dropped a little bomb: she told us that a lot of what we see on the tilma was actually added on later. They’ve done infrared studies to prove it, and then there is just the flaking of the paints on everything outside of the main image. The original image seems to be just the rose colored robes, the blue mantle with the cintura of a pregnant native maiden, and the hands and the face. But all the other stuff––the moon and the tassel, and then the gold and the black line decorations, the angel, the orange coloring of the sunburst, and then the stars and even the white fresco background­––were added by human hands, some of it probably as late as the 17th century. All of that gives a more Spanish Gothic feeling to the painting. Actually through infrared study it seems as if even the hands were modified and the face was enhanced, to make them look a little more European, whereas the original skin tone is kind of an Indian-olive.

Then I consequently did a whole bunch of reading about it all myself, and even the most traditional Catholic sources agree that there were additions to the original image. Even though they are nowhere near as elegant as the original image, some people think that the additions add a human element that is kind of charming and edifying, that they accentuate the beauty of the original elegance, like “God and human beings working together.”

That’s valid, but I had a different response to that piece of knowledge. It’s almost as if the image didn’t look conventionally holy enough, just a picture of a pregnant native young woman in plain clothes. So they had to add the angel and the moon, all the gold and extra colors. Who would ever believe that this was holy without all that Gothic stuff?

But somehow that’s the point. The marvelous thing about the Incarnation, which we are about to celebrate, is just how close God comes, a god in dirty diapers. When I said that in my homily, one of the young guys who is here for his initial observership snorted with laughter, and he brought it up several times later in the day. I didn’t mean it to sound shocking, but it really is, I guess. Still, that’s it! Don’t they say something like that about Jesus all the time? Who is this guy? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Didn’t we see you in your dirty diapers? The gospels tell us that They were amazed that God could give such power to a human being. That is some of the gift of Mary: it seems as if whenever God becomes too distant and masculine and far away, and ironically even when Jesus, who was supposed to bring God so close to us, gets pushed too far away, along comes Mary to bring the compassion of God close again, like a nurturing mother would. But then we push her away too. It wasn’t enough for her to be a young pregnant peasant woman dressed in a simple tunic. People wanted to make sure she looked holy. As if there were nothing holy about Pope John Paul II’s red loafers and watch; as if sitting on the floor in south India weren’t as holy as a high altar at St Peter’s Basilica. In the midst of you is one you do not know. The wonderful, frightening, mysterious marvelous thing about God is how close God is, and how holy is everything around us––the ground we stand on.

There was and is a lot of nervousness about John Paul II’s emphasis on referring to Mary by such things as Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix. It seems to some as if she is being deified, divinized. I’m not so bothered by it. I love seeing a feminine presence so close to the throne of the godhead. But, isn’t divinization the point anyway? The Eastern Christian tradition emphasizes this more than we do––the end of the Christian life is divinization, but we say it right out too: May we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity. What I want to emphasize along with that, though, is never to forget that she is also one of us, she is also a pregnant native young woman. If we could stretch our theological arms that wide as to hold both of those things together, Mary’s lowliness and her divinization, then we would be able to grasp something of the fullness of the Christian mystery. We don’t have to add anything on to her, nor on to reality, in order to catch a glimpse of real holiness. As Teilhard wrote, "By virtue of the creation and, still more, of the incarnation, nothing here below if profane for those who know how to see."

three mountains

 (I'm living pretty much full time back with the community at Big Sur now, traveling a lot less. Though I usually only attend to this blog when I am on the road, I am teaching and preaching a lot down here, so every now and then if something really seems interesting I'll try to add it here.

Amid ten thousand streams up among
thousands of clouds, a man of idleness

wanders blue mountains all day long,
returns at night to sleep below cliffs.

In the whirl of springs and autumns,
to inhabit this calm, no tangles of dust:

it’s sheer joy depending on nothing,
still as an autumn river’s quiet water.
                                                         Han Shan

Last week Wednesday was the feast of Saint Sabas. I had to preach. I didn’t know anything about him, and since it was Advent I could have skipped talking about him completely, but when I was with the Poor Clares the day before I saw an article on him in the little book they had left out for me to read up on Saint Barbara, who they were celebrating that day. And something in Sabas’ story caught my attention. Similar to Romuald, it was after a family feud about some property he got disgusted with the world and ran off to join a monastery. This is 5th century Palestine, by the way. At still a very young age (18?), he then went to join another monastery under a great master named Euthymius, but then when Euthymius died Sabas took off again, this time to live in a cave on a mountain, at the foot of which lay a brook. As often happens, a group of disciples formed around him, enough to coax him out of his cave and off of his mountain, and he founded a monastery. He acquiesced to being ordained a priest as well and was named the patriarch of all the monks of Palestine.

I was struck by all those little details––the mountain, the cave, the brook.

The reason why it struck me especially was that the scriptures that we read for the Wednesday of the 1st week of Advent (which was his feast day) also mentioned mountains––Isaiah 25:  On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich foods and choice wines…; and then Jesus climbing a mountain near the Sea of Galilee in Matthew 15, and the crowds followed him, and he healed and fed them. So we had three mountains: Sabas’ mountain of solitude, Isaiah’s mountain of prophetic vision, and Jesus’ mountain of healing and feeding.

It’s notable how often the mountain, like the desert or other forms of solitude, appears as a significant locus for people on a spiritual quest, from Moses and Elijah, the Taoist and Buddhist hermit mountain poets of China, Muhammad on Mount Hira, the sadhus trekking to Mount Kailasha in the Himalayas. And here we have St. Sabas in that lineage as well. Our friend Chris Lorenc is a lover of the mountain poets of ancient China, and he’s given me two collections of them. That I quoted above was from Han Shan––“Stone House”:

Amid ten thousand streams up among
thousands of clouds, a man of idleness

wanders blue mountains all day long,
returns at night to sleep below cliffs…

Sounds beautiful! You can almost feel your blood pressure go down as you read it!

But, I wonder, is this the end? Or is this the beginning?

Sometimes this mountain becomes the place of vision, as it appears so many times in the prophecy of Isaiah, the mountain of the Lord’s house that shall be raised above the hills: the mountain to which every nation shall come streaming; where swords will be beat into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, and the boots of tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for fire; the mountain where anyone from any nation who calls the name of God comes, the mountain where God says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” So, perhaps the mountain of solitude can become the mountain of vision.

But then in Jesus it takes one more step as well. Either we see him coming down Mount Tabor, after appearing with the other mountain dwellers, Moses and Elijah, and healing someone as his first act after his Transfiguration. Or else we have him in Matthew 15, calling everybody else up there with them––not just the pure and elite, but the lame and the blind, the deformed and the mute, too––; and not just feeding them the rarified pure air of the lofty visions and prophecies, but instead coming down to earth by bringing his teaching down to earth, and feeding them actual edible food, loaves and fishes. Solitude and vision has given birth to compassion. There is a Tibetan saying that after the monk’s solitary retreat he “comes back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands.” That could refer to the trip from my cell to the refectory as much as great missionary work. It was that way for Sabas, whose solitude eventually gave birth to community, as it was for Benedict, as it was for Romuald, whose solitudes gave birth to communities of mutual love, schools of the Lord’s service, movements. They were all leery of what John Cassian called the pax perniciosa–the pernicious peace (ouch!); they heeded St. Basil’s warning when he asked, “Whose feet are you going to wash, hermit?”

So, maybe the mountain of what the yoga tradition calls kaivalya––which my Sanskrit dictionary defines as “aloofness, aloneness, isolation… the state of liberation”––has to give birth to the mountain of vision, an inclusive vision that is not anti-world; and then that mountain of prophetic vision needs to give way to the mountain of compassion so that it becomes incarnate, in imitation of Jesus. It would be well for us to reflect on our mountains, the personal mountain that we’re climbing as well as our communal mountain, and hope that our mountains of solitude and liberation will give birth to wider vision, and our vision would resolve itself in compassion.