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

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