Monday, January 28, 2008

The Valley of the Shadow of Death-I

For those of you who checked this blog on Sunday, January 28, and found something different than is now posted, let me explain: for want of time, I put up a hasty piece of reflection, unfinished and slapdash, for which I later repented. I've now transformed it into a 2-part reflection, the first part of which appears today.

The shadow of death haunts us as we read the scriptures. Psalm 23 invites us to pass through it, whistling bravely in the dark, as we look around to make sure the Shepherd is there with crook and staff. The Canticle of Zachary (Luke 1:68-79) promises a rising sun that will break upon us who live in darkness and death's shadow. On the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A (January 27, 2008), the first reading and gospel team up to paint a portrait of this sun in its advent (Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Matthew4:12-23).

To appreciate this daybreak, let us ponder first the night. The "people who walked in darkness" are named literally as the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali who lived in northern Palestine, in the area the gospel identifies as "Galilee of the Gentiles". The area had been subject to domination by successive invaders, a fact at which Isaiah hints.. In Jesus' day, it still included a large non-Jewish population. It was then, a land where Jews mixed fairly freely and frequently with those who were not people of the covenant--not unlike us, who live among and mix freely and frequently with many who do not share our Christian beliefs. Ours is a rich world, like an exotic bazaar filled with doors that open into enticing glimpses of silks and spices made by worldviews different from our own. In Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council challenged us to abandon the fortress of monolithic thought—a temptation rather than a reality even in the pre-Vatican II Church—for the marketplace, as Jesus abandoned the small safeties of Nazareth for the synagogues and markets of a wider Palestine. However, neither Jesus nor the Council advised indiscriminate shopping of the sort that fills our consumer homes (and minds) with all sorts of useless, ill-matched, and sometimes dangerous goods. The clutter of an unreflective syncretism casts its own kind of darkness over our inner world.

The early Christian world, reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict, held a strongly sacramental view of the world. Ancient Christians believed firmly that God was not only present but at work in all of creation, not just church interiors. A delightful book by Robert Louis Wilken, entitled The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University, 2003), captures in its subtitle the purpose of Christian exploration in those first centuries. St. Benedict might have attached the same subtitle to his Rule, had subtitles been in fashion then. Those early thinkers were courageous adventurers into the bazaars of a widely diverse Greco-Roman culture, but they went armed with that one single purpose that enabled them to choose wisely what they brought home and how they integrated it into their homes: seeking God’s Face. Theirs is a wisdom that serves us well in a world reminded by Teilhard the Chardin that the Word of God made flesh provides us with a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” to borrow from Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: "By virtue of creation and still more of the Incarnation, nothing is profane to those who know how to see." But to see, we need light. The shadow blinds us.

However, the deepest shadow is not the one cast by a cluttered world but the one cast by the truly monolithic realm governed by the great god Ego. There is no shadow quite so blinding. Ego imagines itself the ruler of all it can see, but in reality, it rules a narrow, cramped distorted domain no bigger than ourselves at our smallest. That domain is a prison disguised as a kingdom. C.S. Lewis’ now-famous reflection on love takes an unvarnished look at its dynamic: " To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket--safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will be become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell." (The Four Loves. Harcourt, Brace, World, Inc:1960. 169) The inward landscape darkened by the shadow cast by Ego, enlarged as the Wizard of Oz was enlarged by pretence and illusion, is indeed the valley of the shadow of death.

However, the gospel announces that we are not condemned to darkness: the Light has come.

See the next posting for the sequel!

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Work Impeded


It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Wendell Berry
(Collected Poems)

On January 13, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It's a moment of glory, isn't it? Jesus emerges triumphant from the water. The dove descends. The Fathers of the Church made much of that dove. The last time we saw it was in the story of Noah. Or rather, the last time we lost sight of it was in the story of Noah. After the rains, Noah saw only floods where the earth had been, but --ever a hopeful man even in the face of hopelessness--he sent out a dove in search of dry land. The first dove returned: it had found nowhere to land. Then he sent out a second dove. The second dove returned bearing an olive twig. (One strand of much later rabbinic tradition thought the Tree of Life had been an olive tree. That thought adds a real kicker to the story.) That dove no doubt appeared on more than one Christmas card in your mailbox this year, bearing the hope of peace. That dove is the one that figures in some of the patristic homilies about Jesus' baptism also. However, there was a third dove. That dove flew out and never returned. Noah knew then that creation the earth had emerged new-born from the flood. It was time now to start over. I like to think that it is the third dove we see descending on Jesus, the new creation emerging from the waters of chaos, like Israel emerging from the twin waters of the Red Sea and this very Jordan that bracketed the desert years when they were forged into a new creation, a new people. The dove is, of course, the image of the Spirit/Breath that hovered over the primal sea, bearing the word that would summon forth all created things. In the story of Jesus' baptism, another word is spoken: God claiming the Son. It is, indeed, a glorious story.

But not for long. In less than a month, we will celebrate Ash Wednesday. On the First Sunday of Lent, we will read the story that actually follows immediately upon the baptism in the gospel story: Jesus is driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan. The work is no sooner announced than it is impeded. The road is barred by the tempter, whispering that old familiar love song--"Come to me, come to me, I will lay at your feet power, wealth, glory...You shall be like a god." The script has never varied; only the wording has changed.

Life is like that. The warmth of Christmas is quickly succeeded by the frosts of desert nights. The angels leave, the shepherds go back to their sheep, the magi take off for parts unknown, the baby and family are sent into exile-- in Egypt, as a matter of fact, whence the young man "returns" at baptism, crossing the Jordan to claim the land of promise. On the day of baptism, the voice of God replaces the song of the angels, announcing that the promised messenger has come; the crowds replace the shepherds, wondering at what they have seen and heard; the magi don't show up this time, but the scribes and the Pharisees, the wise hearts of Israel, do. But the wonder is once again short-lived. The voice of God is silent as Jesus himself takes up the task of proclaiming the good news. The crowds grow fickle, one minute wanting to crown him a king, the next minute wanting to throw him over a cliff. The wise are uncertain that they have indeed found the one they sought. Many of them decide they were mistaken. There are no soldiers with swords going after babies this time, but there will be plenty of soldiers of one kind or another with blood on their minds as the story unfolds. And always there is the tempter, doing evil's utmost to undo the creative work of God, not in Jesus only but also in all disciples.

Wendell Berry's poem suggests that in the impediments lies the way that Jesus must follow, and we after him. Evil often defeats its own purposes. When the new life-giving impulses that arise from the moments of chaos on our lives are right, evil is waiting around the corner to block the way. The roadblock is the confirmation that we are on the right road. If we weren't, evil wouldn't care. (This is, of course, an overstatement: all serious decisions require discernment rooted in facts, because sometimes the road is blocked because it's the wrong one.) Moreover, in finding our way over, around, and through the impediments, we grow strong in our convictions and our creativity and our courage to carry them out. I am reminded of the familiar warning that if you very kindly assist the butterfly in its struggle to emerge from the cocoon by breaking the cocoon open for it, the butterfly may emerge, but it will be unable to fly. I like to imagine that only the butterfly with torn wings can fly into the sun.

Only the gospel-bearer impeded is strong, courageous and creative enough to sing.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Note: Wendell Berry's poem is no doubt under copyright, but it appears in several places on the web, so I have taken the liberty to reprint it on this website too. If there are objections, I will remove it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

From a Far Country

The magi, whose story we tell on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, came from "the East" to do homage to the newborn "king of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2). The Christian imagination long ago turned them into three kings, though the gospel text says nothing about number or royalty. Christian scholarship has suggested them to be astrologers from somewhere as far away as Persia or as near as Arabia or the Syrian desert. No matter: they were and are exotic figures, cloaked in mystery, who came from a far country do pay honor to the newborn Christ and then disappeared as suddenly as they had come.

If they came from a far country, how much farther is the country from which we have come to worship the Word made flesh. Our journey originated somewhere east of Eden, in the hostile land to which the primal human beings were banished after that unfortunate picnic on a menu of forbidden fruit (cf. Genesis 3). Aelred Squire devotes a chapter of his classic Asking the Fathers to "the land of unlikeness" in which original sin landed us after Eden. The chapter is not about geography but about exile from our own truth as men and women created to live in God's likeness. God, say the scriptures, has been laboring ever since to persuade us to come home again. The moment when we turn from worshipping at the ancient shrine of the great God Ego to worshipping the God enshrined in Christ marks a milestone on the long road back to where we belong. It's a fragile moment: we tend to come and go between one shrine and the other for a lifetime. But it's a decisive moment. We can, like the Magi, go back to where we came from, and sometimes we do, if only for a visit, but we do not go unchanged.

When we first arrive at the house where we see "the child with his mother" (Matthew 2:11)--whatever the shape of the house, whatever age our image of Jesus--we are not likely to produce gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, at least not if we come as adults. We may more likely offer, embarrassed, a rather shopworn heart, some tatty prayers that vanish as quickly as the smoke of burning incense, and plenty of reason for the mourning myrrh signifies. We are always astonished to find that the gifts are not only received but welcomed and cherished. It was only that old hissing whisper from Eden days that tried to convince us that only high class, undamaged goods are acceptable at that "throne". We may be persuaded to snatch them back again after all, but we will find them as great a source of delight to the One we want to honor every single time we present them again. The Receiver may even throw a party--as long as the giver is the first of the gifts (see Luke 15).

Every year, Epiphany reminds us that the journey is not over. We still have a ways to go on a road likely to be marked by all sorts of detours, backward looks, even times when turn back altogether and have to retrace our steps to the place of meeting. All that matters, really, is that we keep forging ahead. Because we are not headed backward to the Eden from which we like to imagine we came, an Eden of childhood innocence unmarked by tears or pain or struggle -- or the growth that demands all three. We are headed forward toward a place much farther than Bethlehem, which even Jesus left long ago for the road to Calvary. It is a place which will not even fully exist till all of us get there, or so we are forced to think from within the narrow confines of a reality defined by time past, time present and time future.

Whether or not the magi were kings, they were, as we have always called them, wise. Fittingly, then, they have left us a legacy not of material treasures but of wisdom gleaned from hard experience. They have taught us that we may have to travel a long way to get from the far country to the place to which the star is leading. They have taught us that the journey is worth the trouble. And they have taught us one thing more: to see the star, we have to be willing to travel in the dark.

Note: Aelred Squire's book, Asking the Fathers, was originally published by Morehouse-Barlow in 1973. A new edition was published by SPCK in 1994. I am under the impression that I've seen a more recent edition published by an American house, but I can't find any information to substantiate that.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga