Saturday, February 9, 2008

Glory Road

Yesterday morning, intending to leave my office to run an errand, I opened the door only to find my way barred by a postulant on a ladder. "Oh no!" I thought. "The revolution has begun! They're on the barricades! We're under siege!" In reality, she had climbed up there to clean the dusty corpses of moths out of the light fixture over the door.

Poor moths! They never learn. They die by the thousands in light fixtures all over the house, impelled by what Percy Bysshe Shelley described in a phrase now famous:

The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow.

I wonder, though, if the moths are not wiser than we. They perish in the realization of their greatest desire: communion with the light. I'm reminded of another often quoted stanza, this one by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every bush afire with God;

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.

This morning at Matins we read the passage from Exodus where Moses, intrigued by the sight of a bush that burns unconsumed, swallows the bait and finds himself with a whole new, unexpected, frightening life on his hands. He is one of the moths: from that moment on, he is plunged into God's "burning yes" to the liberation of humanity from slavery to the powers that rule the valley of the shadow of death. (The phrase "burning yes" is borrowed from Stephen R. Covey--see yesterday's posting). It consumes his life until he dies a very old man on Mount Nebo, looking out over the promised land. Although he had some acrimonious arguments with God about the whole thing along the way, he seems to have considered the land worth the burning. In contemporary language, we might say that he died fulfilled. (Or almost fulfilled: some of you will surely remind me that, in punishment for disobedience, he was allowed only to see the promised land but not to enter it. I wonder, though, if the punishment was not a reward in the larger schema of things. Joshua and the others still had years of slogging and fighting ahead of them before they could take possession of the land. Moses was given a shortcut, not to Canaan but to the real Land of Promise that lay hidden in Canaan's skin.)

Back at our own burning bushes, sitting round the bush plucking blackberries is certainly safer than hurling oneself into the fire. You get light, warmth, and a tasty snack. Nothing else changes.

I wonder, though, if the "will-to-meaning" so poignantly explored by Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning doesn't impel us into the flames, on the principle that a life worth living requires that we have something we believe worth the burning? This is Covey's point about the "burning yes" that enables us to say no to all the lesser invitations that can clutter our days into purposeless chaos. To have a dream worth living and dying for is the stuff of greatness. For Christians, it's the pull of the cross, that narrow gate that opens out into a quality of life and love we hardly dare even dream of.

In our second reading at Matins, we heard St. Irenaeus paraphrasing John's gospel: "I wish that where I am they also may be, that they may see my glory" (see John 17:24) See it, and share it: "I have given them the glory you gave me" (John 17:22). In biblical terms, the "glory" is the fiery presence of God in our midst, first made known to Moses at Horeb in the burning bush. We see it again and again in the Old Testament and the New.

To share in Jesus' glory is to leap into the fire. It is to become a part of Jesus' "burning yes". Like the moths, we will perish, but what perishes is not our true selves but the all-ruling ego to which we are enslaved, like the Hebrews in Egypt (see the posting The Valley of the Shadow of Death-I). Out of those ashes, the phoenix rises. In Christ burning with the presence of God, our true selves, the selves made capable of the love the gospel commands, burn greener.

The moths seem to "think" the hall light worth the perishing, though it's only plastic they've mistaken for a star. A good bucket of blackberries will earn us that pale sort of imitation "glory" we offer one another as a reward for achievement, but Jesus makes impassioned efforts to convince us that the gain is not worth the loss: " What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Matthew 16:26)

He does not lie to us. Like the moths, we will find that the fire we so long for will hurt. Our falsities do not lie down and die quietly. Still, I think somehow the moths have it right. The need for a star worth the time, the effort, and the sacrifice of those blackberries is built into us, as the need for communion with the light is built into them.

Lent seems a good time to stop and check that it's not just the hall light we're headed for. The Easter Exultet sings of Christ, the Morning Star. Christ, the light of the world, offers us no one-dimensional plastic surface, here today and gone to recycling tomorrow. As the gospel insists, Christ offers us instead the multi-layered and multi-textured reign of God, where there is no need for candle flames because God will be the light (cf. Revelation 21:23, 22:5). Which aspect of that rich reality becomes the star that draws us will depend on each one's story, call, personality, experience. There may be only one light, but it shines through many windows, as one the sun shines through the glorious windows of the great cathedrals and the cracked and broken windows of the poorest hovels. In no case, though, is it worth less than the price of all the blackberries in the world.

In every case, as the moths seem to know, communion with the Light is worth the burning.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

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