Wednesday, January 9, 2013

you give them something to eat

Come all you weary who move through the earth.
You've been spurned at fine restaurants and kicked out of church.
Got a couple of loaves sit down at my feet.
Lend me your ears and we'll break bread and eat.
                                                            (Dustin Kensrue)

We’ve been inundated with homilies here the past few weeks during this Christmas season, some of them very good, obviously, but there is a saturation point! I was scheduled to preside yesterday and had decided ahead of time that, especially since I had just preached on Sunday, it was time for everybody to have a day off. But then I saw the gospel of the day: Mark 6:34-44.

Somehow this gospel sums up everything I understand of what it means to be church and to be a Eucharistic people, what the authentic spirit of our missionary activity and apostolate ought to be. During my morning walk/run on the hill I was thinking about what I was going to say and I suddenly remembered that it was exactly this week 10 years ago that all hell broke loose in my head. I was still living here with the community at the time. The sex scandal had just broken in Boston, followed by the very inept handling of it on the part of the hierarchy and some very inopportune statements from the Vatican. I heard Bruno preach on this very gospel that week, and the next day I attended our Four Winds inter-religious Gathering down at Esalen Institute. There were some other issues going on with community and in my own life at the time as well, and something about the combination of those three things set off this perfect storm of agitation and discontent. Thursday of that week I had what we call a “desert day,” 36 hours of solitude. For some reason I had a weight bench in my cell at the time and some dumbbells. And I remember literally rolling up my sleeves, picking up one of the weights and saying to God, “Okay let’s go. What is it this time?” Looking back, it was clearly that week that was the beginning of my eventually moving out and spending ten years living away from the community in my experimental life up in Santa Cruz.

It starts out with Jesus seeking out the lost ones, Jesus had compassion on them––how I love this line––because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus has compassion on them. How many times I thought of that line walking down Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, or on Water Street on my way back from the gym, passing the courthouse and the jail and the AA drop-in house. Jesus was not ever afraid or reluctant to break his solitary ecstatic communion with the Father to go and serve. But it was always specifically to those who were sheep without a shepherd, the lost ones, the little ones. I think even when Jesus says I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and tells his disciples too only to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 10:6, 15:24), the accent is on “lost” not on “Israel.” Jesus was sent to all those who get left out, squeezed out, those who fall off the boat, under the radar. It reminded me of a great song by a young singer-songwriter Dustin Kensrue, from the Southern California band Thrice that I quoted above: Jesus went to all those who were “spurned at fine restaurants / and kicked out of church.” I think it’s brilliant to put those two images together, because so many of our churches and religious communities carry much more the spirit of fine dining and polite company, than the company of drunks, tax collectors, lepers and prostitutes.

But after Jesus gets them gathered there and feeds them first on the Word, his good news, he then wants to make that concrete too and feed them actual food too, because peoples’ bodies were always as important to Jesus as their souls. And I think it’s kind of funny that the apostles were going to send them away––again! And when they turn to him he says, You give them something to eat! That’s the line I heard Bruno reiterate several times in that homily ten years ago that went through me like David’s pebble in the forehead of Goliath, or like the opening of a third eye (literally, I felt it hit me right there, between the eyebrows): You give them something to eat! That’s what it means to be a follower of mine––you need to seek out the lost and give them something to eat. And don’t worry if there is going to be enough (they only had five loaves and two fish). This is a great Eucharistic image, abundance. The food just keeps on coming, ‘til in the end there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left over. Generosity breeds generosity.

There’s a great lesson here for us as a church and as a monastic community. How many people get left out of our staid, polite, safe spiritual communities? (How much does this apply to spiritual communities outside of Catholic churches too?) And they are like sheep without a shepherd. We’ll have to answer for that. Because we don’t shepherd them when they are like sheep without a shepherd, because we don’t feed them when they are hungry, they go off to someone else who will feed them. They’ll go off to other churches, ashrams, zendos, Sufi circles, and get fed, and sometimes fed well, because we may be too concerned with preserving some kind of a pure ethic or a pure cult. But they also may go off to places where they get fed poison too! We need to be wary of ourselves. I think this is some of what our new Prior General Don Alessandro Barban was getting at when he spoke to us last year about the “new barbarian invasion” in Europe that so many Europeans and church folks are afraid of, watering down the culture and changing the face of Western civilization and the church. “But we Camaldolese,” he said, “we love the barbarians.”

I love the image at the end of this gospel, the twelve baskets of broken pieces. That’s a great image for the church (maybe also for the monastic choir), “twelve baskets of broken pieces,” broken because we are fragile and wounded; but broken in the positive sense too, broken and passed out as food for the world. I often say I would never dare to change the official words of the Mass (especially now that we have this new translation), but if I could I would change the end too: “Mass is ended––now you go give them something to eat!”

Come all you weary, you cripples, you lame.
I’ll help you along you can lay down your canes.
We’ve got a long way to go but we’ll travel as friends
The light’s growing bright further on further in.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

an epiphany

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.
You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited...
(David Whyte, "What to Remember When Waking")
I’ve been sort of fascinated with this Greek concept of telos, for some time now, especially in my study of other religious traditions. The telos, as I understand it, means the ultimate end, the farthest goal, even beyond the proximate goal: what’s the ultimate end of life? What is the whole purpose of this thing? I always wind up back using the same examples: that the most popular forms of Hinduism, for example, say that the end of our life is for our selves to disappear into the great Self like a drop disappears into the ocean. And Buddhism shifts that a little bit and teaches that there is no self; not only does a human being have no self, there is also no Self of God either. There is just impermanence, just change, and the great release (nirvana) happens when we realize that. That’s the epiphany, you might say, that the Buddha had under the bodhi tree.

So how do Christians describe the telos? I think normally Christians would say that at the end of life our body to dies and our souls go to heaven. We’ve been having a series of lectures from a wonderful scripture scholar Scott Sinclair lately, and he has been addressing just that–-heaven and hell, “the last things.” Scott has mentioned this famous scripture scholar N.T. Wright several times, and Wright says a rather shocking thing. This has a kind of complicated anthropological argument around it that I won’t get into, but Wright says that this talk about a soul needing to be saved so as to go to heaven is hopelessly misleading: the end of Christian life is not for the soul to go to heaven, but for body and soul to be raised together in an eschatological reintegration––that’s what scriptures teach is our share in the resurrection. Or more broadly put, the end of life for the Christian is a new heaven and a new earth. Now, that’s shocking enough, but I think the Fathers of the church put it plainer yet, easier to understand but even more mind-blowing. St Augustine and St Basil, for example, say that the end of Christian life is for us to become God. Somehow even my soul going to heaven pales in comparison. We have an antiphon that we sing every day at evening prayer, which is just a reiteration of St Augustine’s own words––“God became a human child so that every child of Eve might become God…”––, and I always I think our guests are either not listening, or they are taking notes down to report us to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, because this is mind-blowing stuff that I never heard the priest in my parish say when I was growing up. But St Basil’s words are just as strong: “Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed, we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations––we become God.” I like to quote that while holding the Office of Readings in my hand, the official prayer book of the Church, to make sure people know that I am not making this up. And I also hasten to add two things: first, to keep us humble about this, there is a whole lotta emptying and dying that gotta go on in order for us to realize this; and secondly, I have no idea what this means––to become God––, I’m just a parrot echoing words I’ve read. But that may be the real epiphany. Maybe that’s the realization that struck St Thomas Aquinas dumb at the end of his life, or that led St Teresa into ecstasy, our participation in divinity. And I think that’s the epiphany that is supposed to dawn on us in the feast of the Epiphany, too. This feast isn’t just about Jesus. It’s unpacking that for us and showing us a little bit more about it.

The strongest image of this feast is the three wise men coming to visit this child bearing their gifts. They are symbols, of course, of the rest of the world, of spiritual seekers outside of the Hebrew covenant entering the promise, and of the Jewish revelation breaking out of its container. But the uniqueness of this event is not just in their visit. It’s also in the fact that they had their gifts to bring too, and that their gifts were received and accepted. This was an important detail for Abhishiktananda, by the way, in his dealing with Indian spirituality.) They came bringing their treasures and their treasures were received, along with their uncircumcised flesh. And just so, when people come to Christ or come to the church, they don’t have to leave everything of themselves behind nor the treasures that they have found in far-flung lands. Who they are, what they have offer is welcome, because (as St Thomas Aquinas taught) grace builds on nature.

On the other side of it, in spite of the Christmas card images we have of a halo around Jesus’ head, and maybe angels still hovering about, taking naps in the corner, what these men have come to see is nothing that special in one sense––a child, a boy, maybe by this time playing with his toys and making his first words. But this boy, for the moment at least, is a symbol all of humanity. It’s like when you put an ordinary object in an extraordinary surrounding––like a painting in a frame, or an earthenware vessel in display case in a museum, or Abraham Lincoln’s hat on display, or someone we know performing on stage in front of 10,000 people, or St Paul’s letters about leaving his cloak behind somewhere read in the context of a liturgy, or bread and wine placed on an altar––then the epiphany dawns on us: it’s just something normal but it is carrying an extraordinary weight of glory: those swatches of color on a page are a groundbreaking work of art; that clay jar is a pristine example of a breakthrough in function and design; that piece of clothing rested on the body of someone who changed the world; that child I heard practicing the violin for years is able to capture sublime sounds and captivate a huge crowd with them; these letters contain sublime wisdom about the meaning of revelation; this ordinary bread and wine are our link to Jesus who is our link to the Godhead. But the other epiphany about that bread and wine is that before they are symbols of the real presence of Christ, they are supposed to be symbols of the real presence of me, of us. Our ordinary lives are what gets lifted up and accepted––like the gifts of those visitors from the east––and consecrated and divinized and made into the body of Christ, so that “we may share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” And this child: the fullness of divinity dwells in him, this little seemingly ordinary boy.

The Fathers of the church, especially Peter Chrysologus, tie together three epiphanies, the three times Jesus is revealed (and the Eastern church still celebrates it this way), again as we sing in an antiphon: this visit of the magi, the Baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding feast at Cana. The other two both have water in them, and the wedding adds wine, too. I feel a little neglected that we don’t have any liquids in this feast, but we actually do, as at every Mass. First of all there are the waters of baptism; and then (again!) that moment when the priest pours the water into the wine to prepare the gifts for our Eucharist. As if it weren’t enough that these are ordinary gifts from our field and vine, to ensure that we remember we are part of what gets lifted up, pouring that drop of water into the wine: “… may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” May we pour the drop of water that is our humanity into the ocean of divinity that is Christ, but my drop of water doesn’t disappear––I become the wine and the whole ocean of divinity is somehow contained in each drop, just as our St Peter Damian taught that the whole church is contained in each member. Just as Paul says the fullness of divinity dwelt in Jesus bodily, in the next breath he promises, that you may come to fullness in him, and as John says in his Prologue we receive from his fullness life upon life. That is the whole point of the Word becoming flesh.

When I was younger I remember being involved in all kinds of liturgy planning meetings, and the operative question was always, “What’s the theme of the Mass today?” Or “What’s the theme of today’s readings?” It was usually something like “Faith.” Or, with little kids, “Be nice to everybody.” Along the way I got a little more sophisticated and learned that every Eucharistic celebration is a variation on the same theme; every liturgical celebration is about the Paschal mystery in its fullness, the passion, death, resurrection of Jesus. And then I learned that even to speak about the passion, death and resurrection wasn’t enough, we needed also to add in Jesus’ life and ministry on one end, but even more importantly to always mention, as is in our Eucharistic prayers now, the Ascension and Pentecost. And that last event––Pentecost–– really changes everything because that’s where we, the church, get involved. We also have to go that further step, and realize that every Eucharistic liturgy is about all those events in Jesus’ life plus “What does this have to do with me?” Hans Urs van Balthasar wrote that humanism isn’t naturally Christian humanism; it needs to be rooted in common adoration. But we stop short if we stop at adoration too, even at Christmas, even at the Epiphany. For the Christian, adoration is meant to lead us back to the human being, to imitation and discipleship, and discipleship is meant to lead us to participation, particularly participation in Jesus’ divinity. The ordinary gifts we bring, our very selves, are our gold, frankincense and myrrh that we lay before the Christ child, and they are accepted and lifted up and transubstantiated and made into the Body of Christ.

Let me quote and then paraphrase David Whyte again:

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

We are not troubled guests on this earth; we are not accidents amidst other accidents. We were invited, called to share in the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity. Our closing prayer today prays that “we may perceive with clear sight the mystery in which God has willed us to participate.” May this epiphany dawn on us.