Monday, December 28, 2009

coming in and going out

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.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

the arc of history

There is a creative force in the universe
working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil,
a power that is able to make a way out of no way
and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long
but it tends toward justice.
(Rev Martin Luther King)

There’s something sober about the season of Advent. That’s one of the reasons I am such a Grinch about Christmas decorations and music and shopping right after Thanksgiving––they take away from the sobriety of Advent. I tend to think liturgically, and liturgically we are not in the Christmas season yet. We are in the season of Advent. The weather this week has been perfect for it. It has been so chilly and foggy and overcast. Out in the woods my main source of heat is the fireplace, so I have had many perfect long Advent mornings with the weather keeping me indoors, a fire crackling all morning and part of the afternoon, inviting me to go inward as well. I’ve also been listening to the new Christmas album by Sting (forgive the commercial), which someone kindly bought for me. I’ve been describing it as “brooding,” and that is kind of what Advent is to me, a brooding season. It’s not somber in the penitential way Lent is; it’s a season of making quiet interior preparations. Just like at Mass during this season: the readings in the early weeks are a little dour, and the music is a little more low-keyed; we don’t sing the Glory to God, for example.

But then there is this third Sunday of Advent that is a little taste of sweetness and light ahead. It’s called Gaudete Sunday because the first word of the entrance antiphon in Latin is taken from the same reading from the letter to the Philippians that we hear today: Gaudete in Domino semper––Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! Priests are invited today to wear, not pink, mind you, but rose-colored vestments. It’s almost as if we are also invited to look at the world through rose-colored glasses today. We hear so much from the prophet Isaiah in this season, but today we switch to Zephaniah, and this marvelous optimistic passage filled with hope and promise.
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart!
Fear not, O Sion, be not discouraged!
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
you have no further misfortune to fear.

This is a specifically Judeo-Christian thing, this hope and promise. We are built on it. I often like to say that compared with other spiritual traditions that believe that time goes round and round in circles going nowhere until we escape, the Abrahamic religions––Judaism, Christianity and Islam––are built on this marvelously optimistic sense of time, a sense of time as a sacrament, a belief that time is going somewhere, and somewhere good at that. It’s going to the reign of God, to a time when God will be all in all in Christ.

President Obama often references a phrase of Martin Luther King Jr. during his speeches, and did so again this week when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, and that same reference stuck with me as I was pondering the scripture readings this week. The line of Dr. King’s is this: “The arc of history is long and it bends toward justice.” In an earlier speech he said it another way: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it tends toward justice.” This is an optimism rooted firmly in the Bible, in prophecy, and is somehow the core of what Advent is supposed to inspire in us again.

It’s not always easy to believe that though, is it? In this day and age, when many people are still facing the dire circumstances of the economic crisis; when we are involved in two wars; when we see violence and terror all around us: it’s not easy to believe that we are going somewhere good, or that the arc of history is tending and bending toward anything good.

The command we hear today is to rejoice. It’s in the imperative mood. Rejoice! That’s an order, because in some way it’s a choice. And rejoicing, choosing to rejoice, will be our strength. We don’t rejoice because we are strong; faith tells us that in our rejoicing we are made strong; in our hoping we are given hope; in our loving we are filled with love. And you know other than that, the weird thing is the demands are not that lofty: what does John the Baptist tell his followers? Simple things: take care of the hungry and the naked; he tells tax collectors simply to stop cheating. He doesn’t even tell soldiers to stop fighting; he just says, don’t extort, don’t lie, and be satisfied with your wages. Paul is even simpler: The Lord is near: be kind! Rejoice, and be kind. It’s as simple and quiet and boring as a seed falling into the ground, so is the Word of God that comes to us wanting to take root in our humble broken silent available hearts.

Advent is not only about being optimistic concerning the world in general. It’s also optimism also about ourselves, our personal development and our own growth toward God, the arc of our lives. I had a friend who told me he used to get up every day and say, “Is today the day Lord? Is today the day you’re going to shatter my blindness? Break through my deafness? Is today the day I’m going to finally give myself to you?” That’s why there’s something good about the quietness of Advent. Alongside all the images that we hear in the Christmas carols later about Jesus being born in the stillness of the night––that same stillness is what we are supposed to be cultivating inside of ourselves. That’s our poverty, that’s our virginity, our chastity, this inner quiet that is a tapping into the stillness and peace, the quiet darkness that is the essence of our being, that’s where the strength and the hope come from that are the root of our rejoicing. It is that inner stillness––our inner stillness––that will save and transform us, and thus transform the world, as opposed to the power of evil, which is so gaudy and noisy. I think we are often more cognizant of evil in the world specifically for that reason; it’s more apparent because it makes so much noise. While Satan is knocking down big buildings, we will be blazing thousands of well-worn paths between humble cottages.

“Rejoice! You have no more evil to fear.” Let me quote the whole section of Dr. King in this context:
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in the universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long but it tends toward justice.
(MLK, August 16, 1967)

I don’t think that Dr King would mind if I do my own riff on his theme and say, let us realize that the arc of history is long––but it tends toward Christ and all that Christ is. That’s what Advent is about. The arc of history is long, and it tends toward our transformation and union with God.