The Voice That Calls us: A Reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday

The Good Shepherd (Asia Minor, c. 390; Cleveland Museum of Art)

The Good Shepherd (Asia Minor, c. 390; Cleveland Museum of Art)

The gospel image for today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is the good shepherd who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10: 3). Unlike the hired hand who cares little for the sheep, Jesus loves his flock. He will lay down his own life for them. And they in turn know exactly where to put their trust. “I know my own and my own know me” (John 10: 14). “The sheep that belong to me hear my voice … and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Sheep are not a part of my daily life, so I didn’t fully appreciate the metaphor until I visited a sheep market in Jerusalem in 1989. Starting at 6 a.m. on Fridays, shepherds would bring their sheep in trucks, vans and even the back seats of cars to a stone-walled corral to begin spirited negotiations with potential buyers.

Once the corral had been crammed with wall to wall sheep, I wondered how the different shepherds would ever keep track of their own. But it soon became clear what Jesus was talking about: I know my own and my own know me. Although many human voices were speaking and calling simultaneously, each of the sheep responded only to the distinctive voice of its own shepherd.

Our own shepherd’s voice can still be heard, calling us every time we open the Bible. The attentive reception of Scripture is a form of real presence. When the gospel is read in the Eucharistic assembly, or meditated upon faithfully, Christ speaks – not from the past, but addressing us now in our own present with words of challenge and refreshment: Turn your lives around … Follow me … Take up your cross … Don’t be afraid … Your sins are forgiven … Peace be with you … Love one another.

Countless Christians through the centuries have heard and answered the voice of Jesus mediated in this way through the written texts of Scripture. But are there other ways of hearing the shepherd’s voice? Does it still find ways to speak in the now, without the mediation of ancient texts? Or is the God who spoke long ago now wrapped in permanent silence?

In the first book of the Bible, God speaks directly to human beings. Although we are never given a location or visual description of the speaking God, the words themselves seem as naturally delivered as any of the human speeches in the text. In the second book, the divine voice becomes less “natural,” uttered mysteriously from a stormy cloud or burning bush. By the fifth book, divine speech is largely of the past, something remembered and taught instead of heard directly: “Yahweh then spoke to you from the heart of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no shape; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12).

By the time we reach the First Book of Kings, the God whose voice had thundered commandments to Moses is reduced to “a still small voice,” or more accurately translated, “a sound of thin hush” (I Kings 19:12). The voice of God has become the sound of silence.

Thereafter, God’s biblical speeches are secondhand reports from the mouths of the prophets. The whole narrative arc of the Hebrew Scriptures “from Eve to Esther,” as Richard Elliott Friedman puts it, may be described as a “step-by-step diminishing of God’s apparent presence.”[i] As Isaiah says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.”[ii] Or as the Psalmist complains, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”[iii] In the public, shared experience of God’s people, the face of God becomes hidden and the voice of God grows silent. God disappears as a speaking character in the Bible.

However, incarnational faith understands this not as a process of divine withdrawal from the world, but an ever deeper embedding of God within it, until the Word of God is delivered not in thunder and lightning, but in the ordinary human speech of the man named Jesus. It turns out that the eventual disappearance of the God of power and might was a way for God to draw ever closer to us, so that now, as Bonhoeffer said, “God is in the facts themselves.”[iv]

For those attached to a more majestic divine self-disclosure, this has made God much harder to see. As Pascal put it, “when it was necessary for [God] to appear, he hid himself more deeply yet, by wrapping himself in humanity. He was much more easily recognizable when he was still invisible than when he made himself visible.”[v] But for those with ears to hear, the still small voice may be heard every day from our neighbor’s mouth.

Still, I wonder. Can God yet speak, not just in sacred text or through the mouth of friend and stranger, but more directly? Is there still an audible Voice that calls us each by name? John Milton argued that God makes a “general vocation” to all “in various ways” but sometimes “invites certain selected individuals … more clearly and insistently than is normal.”[vi] His seventeenth century contemporary, George Herbert, described such a moment of address and response in his poem, “The Collar,” whose very title uses the sartorial sign of priestly vocation to make a pun about “calling”:

But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply’d, My Lord.

But as the word “methought” indicates, the experience of being addressed by God, undoubtedly a real one for the prayerful Herbert, was filtered through imagination, reflection and poetic language. We can’t assume it to be verbatim.

Three centuries earlier, English mystic Julian of Norwich, while gravely ill, had an intense visual and auditory experience of the suffering Christ, which she would later recount in the first book written by a woman in English. The book’s title, Showings, categorizes her visions as something received, not simply produced in her own mind. The things Christ said to her were not simply variations on gospel texts, but words never before heard, directed specifically to Julian.

As Veronica Mary Rolf has noted, Julian was careful to specify “which of Christ’s words she heard spoken distinctly within her mind, and which words arose in her mind ‘as If’ Christ were addressing her directly, according to what she understood to be his meaning.”[vii] Julian’s experience is compelling, and when Jesus tells her that “all shall be well,” who can say she was not hearing her shepherd’s voice?

“Jesus calls us,” the hymn says. “Day by day his clear voice soundeth.”[viii] How literally should we take this? Have you, dear reader, ever heard the Voice that calls you by name? I myself have never heard it in an auditory way, as an actual sound. But I can remember one particular occasion when, I believe, the Voice addressed me, simply and directly.

In preparation for my fiftieth birthday, I spent four days at the Taize community in France. The chanted worship was very beautiful, but something about the place left me ill at ease. Most people had come to spend an entire week, but I had only arrived on Thursday, missing out on the natural bonding process of the hundreds who had been together since Sunday. I felt like an outsider. And the prevailing European reserve didn’t exude any of the warmth I associated with religious retreat. As one of my British roommates told me, “Oh, you Americans! You expect everyone to smile and say howdy.”

For whatever reason, I was not having the uncomplicatedly beautiful experience I had anticipated. I felt disappointed. On my second night, the two-hour liturgy centered around a large painted Byzantine cross. All who wanted could draw near for a time of prayer and adoration. When my turn came, I leaned my forehead against the cross and prayed, “Well, God, here I am at Taize. It’s not at all what I hoped for. Now what?” I waited, not really expecting an answer. But then these words came into my thoughts, precise and clear like something given, rather than any halting formulation of my own: Stop looking for a gift for yourself. Look for the gift you can give another.

It was an awakening. Tears filled my eyes. Tongues of flame danced in the red votives around the cross. A thousand voices chanted in the German tongue of my ancestors, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray, watch and pray.” After that moment, everything was different. My remaining days at Taize were full of grace.

When the liturgy ended, I went out into the summer night. People were sitting in small groups on the lawn, watching spectacular bolts of lightning play across the far horizon. First the still small voice, then the fire from heaven. Theophany indeed.

[i] Richard Elliott Friedman, The Hidden Face of God (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995) 79

[ii] Isaiah 45:15

[iii] Psalm 22:1

[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1971) 191

[v] quoted in Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963) 326

[vi] De Doctrina Christiana, q. in David Lyle Jeffrey, ed., A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans) 815

[vii] Veronica Mary Rolf, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013) 262

[viii] Cecil Frances Alexander, The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation) #549

Footsteps and shadows: Inscribing our traces on the Camino

This spring I find my mind often returning to the Camino de Santiago. A year ago today I began my tenth day of walking: 140 miles down, 360 to go. But by then I had stopped counting. It was better – and less tiring – to be in the moment, to “cherish every step” as one pilgrim advised me early on.

When I run long distance, or backpack up a steep mountain pass, I try to apply the mindfulness of Zen walking. Don’t think about some other time, in the past or the future, when you are in a more comfortable state of rest. And stop wondering how far you have left to go. Simply be here now. Concentrate your attention on the physical act of lifting your foot, swinging it forward, setting it down. Take note of your breath. It’s not about forgetting the pain so much as accepting your present state of being-in-motion, not wishing you were doing something less strenuous or challenging.

When you walk ten to twenty miles day after day for over a month, this kind of attention becomes more automatic. Walking becomes what you do and who you are. As I wrote in one of my Camino posts, “Walking”:

The past week was spent traversing the immense agricultural plateau of the Meseta and Tierra de Campos. Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought; it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence.

I have noticed that I have fewer thoughts out here than I do at home when I run for an hour, or go on a week-long backpack. On the Camino, instead of a lot of thoughts, I simply have thought: not so much words or ideas as awareness. As Thich Nhat Hanh once put it to a walking companion who asked what he was thinking about: “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m aware of the sunlight.”

Macfarlane provides a memorable image of walking as a form of writing on the earth, with every traveler leaving his or her own imprint of dreams, stories and memories as they go. Centuries of pilgrims have been leaving such traces along the Camino, traces which now lie beneath our own feet every step of the Way.

The brief video clip records my shadow and footsteps leaving their faint traces: on the Meseta west of Burgos, on the 13th century bridge of Puente de Orbigo, and among the blooming shrubs of the Alto Predela, a high ridge west of Villafranca. I hope these few steps bring back happy memories for my fellow pilgrims. And for those who want to experience our cumulative act of walking in real time, just replay the 80-second video 11,000 times!

Just a dream? – Reflections on the Easter Vigil

Byz Res mosaic

On Holy Saturday in Jerusalem, an hour past sunset 26 years ago, I greeted the Resurrection with the Ethiopian community in their courtyard on the roof above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Processing around a small cupola representing the empty tomb, they sang and danced with torches and umbrellas. Their graceful, white-robed bodies and joyful faces were vivid icons of the risen life, producing in me a state of dreamlike wonder. As I later made my way through the deserted stone passages of the old city in search of the midnight liturgy at the Russian church, I fell into an apocryphal reverie.

I imagined the risen Jesus quietly reversing the steps of his Via Dolorosa, away from the cross, away from the mindless crowd now sleeping off its orgiastic fury, away from the city of betrayals and farewells, away from the awful time of trial. Going home. To Galilee.

Of course we don’t know how the Resurrection actually happened, nor do we grasp the concept of passing out of existence only to return the same yet different. Perhaps the closest we come is our daily rising from sleep, when it may take a moment before we remember who we are and reconnect with the continuity of personal identity that somehow survives the abyss of unconsciousness. Even so, there sometimes remains a strange sense that we have crossed over into a new space and time full of unimagined possibilities. We are not quite the same person who closed his or her eyes the night before. Behold, says Jesus, I make all things new.

The sublime intensity of Holy Week, culminating in the Triduum, or Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, can produce a similar effect on the faithful who make the long journey from the Last Supper to the first Alleluia. We not only learn something along the Way of the Cross to the place of Resurrection, we become something as well. When it’s over, we are somebody else. Forgiven. Set free. Made new.

As I said in the Vigil homily on Saturday night, “we have made an exodus from our tired old stories of death and loss into God’s new story of possibility and promise.” Any Vigil worth its salt will enable us to dwell for a few hours in the light of that new story, the light that penetrates our shadows with the bright splendor of God’s future. And when it’s over, we may wonder: What just happened? Was it only a dream?

One of the striking things about the Easter Vigil is that there is no single representation of the Resurrection. The gospel reading might describe dazzling messengers announcing it after the fact, but the event itself is never described in the text. The closest the liturgy gets to a specific resurrection moment is when the Presider launches the eucharist with a shout of Christ is risen, and a holy tumult is made with chimes, bells and drums while all the lights switch on to banish the darkness. But the victory of Life and Love is actually manifested repeatedly throughout the liturgy in symbol, word and sacrament, as well as in the faces and gestures of the assembly. The liturgy as a whole is an experiential analog of the Paschal Mystery.

Here are a few of this year’s many resonant manifestations for me:

  • The New Fire: It is always moving, after we have all been scattered from the bare and mournful church interior of Good Friday, to see how many return the next night to gather outside around the New Fire with expectant faces. Death has done its worst, and we have come to make our reply: Love wins anyway. I especially rejoiced to see the children, already dressed for the Ark story in their animal costumes, standing right up front with their floppy ears and shaggy coats. As St. Paul said, not just humanity, but the whole creation, eagerly awaits the day of renewal.
  • The Creation: “Once upon a time, human beings had no story. Only the gods did things worth telling.” So began the Prologue to our sacred stories, concluding with the discovery, by an ancient “tribe of nobodies” that their own lives were, in fact, part of something much, much larger. “Human beings had become a story told by God.” Then out of the darkness a voice said, “Let there be light!” Projected on a 15’ screen, we saw the first light of the creation, from Terence Malick’s film, Tree of Life, continuing with spectacular cinematic images of earth’s evolution up through the arrival of the birds. Then the film switched off and a monkey and frog entered to cavort among the assembly, until a flute sounded, and the musical “breath of God” turned them into the first humans. They straightened up, removed their wooden Indonesian masks, and became suddenly conscious of their own humanity. “Adam and Eve” were played by pre-teens, but when they cautiously crossed the gap between them to touch hands and connect with the strange and unknown “other,” they gave us a transcendent image far beyond their years.
  • The Red Sea: This central metaphor for the Paschal Mystery of “crossing over” from death to life was a complex interplay of live actors, projected images (documentary-looking Exodus images from DeMille’s 1927 silent, The Ten Commandments, plus Civil Rights footage from the Selma to Birmingham march of 1965), soundscapes (6 separate cues to mark different stages of the story), and dramatic theatrical lighting. After the Red Sea had been crossed, the narrator concluded by saying, “When the world says no, the power of God is …”. The Israelites, all played by children, completed the sentence by shouting, “YES!” The brave sound of those young voices will long stay with me.
  • “Hallelujah”: After each story, we sang a song and said a prayer to reflect the story’s themes. The last story, The Valley of Dry Bones, was followed by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with powerful Easter lyrics by Scott Lawrence. Our hand candles were relit as we sang: “no darkness can conceal the light within you … hallelujah, hallelujah…” All those candlelit faces, all those beautiful voices raised in song, said Resurrection as powerfully as anything else we did that night.
  • The Dance: At the end, following communion, we invited people to come out of their seats to gather in a great circle to dance. I had been warned to expect only a half-hearted response. Episcopalians are reserved, I was told. Dancing in church might be outside some people’s comfort level. But as we sang a couple of choruses of “I will raise them up” from the Bread of Life hymn, everyone did in fact rise up and come out of their pews. We joined hands, and off we went, circling and spiraling as we sang the Easter Troparion (“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”) and “Jesus Christ is risen today.” Resurrection wasn’t just something we heard about or thought about, it was something we embodied, something we danced. As Christ shows us every Easter, “I am the Dance and I still go on.” Amen to that! We proved it with our bodies.

When the Vigil was over, we each went our separate ways. The Vigil “set” was struck, like a circus tent, leaving behind little trace of what had taken place. Had it all – not just the Vigil but the entire Triduum – been just a dream, soon to fade in the glare of everyday life and ordinary time? Or had our extraordinary journey together, soaked in Paschal images, revealed something essential, enduring and profoundly transformative?

Whether in this year’s Triduum, in my Jerusalem Holy Week long ago, or in many other memorable traverses of the Paschal Mystery, I do believe I have encountered, embodied, and imbibed the core of our faith: Christ lives. Love wins. We shall be changed.

The resonant images and experiences of the Triduum have been planted deep within me, year by year. They may still have to struggle in my poor soil or compete with the choking thorns of my world, but as the collect-prayer for Thursday of Easter Week asks, “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.”

God, bring that day closer!

We are not alone

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

This cry from the cross is the most terrible verse in the Bible. God’s own Beloved, whose intimacy with God was so foundational to his existence that he could say “I and the Father are one,” here experiences the inexplicable loss of the Presence in which he has lived and moved and had his being. And God’s reply to Jesus is even more chilling: Silence.

Uncomfortable with this image of a Christ seemingly abandoned to the void of a godless universe, some have said that Jesus is merely quoting the first verse of Psalm 22, as though his piety outweighs his pain even on the cross. But Jesus was not just quoting Psalm 22; he had become Psalm 22. The Christ who was truly human had to taste even the most painful extremities of the human condition in order to redeem us fully. The one revealed to be God-with-us had to become, in that most bitter hour, us-without-God.

Have we not been there ourselves? Whether in the personal hour of trial when our own cries go unanswered, or in modernity’s cultural house of mirrors where the interventions of a loving God seems not only unnecessary but unthinkable, there are times when the Presence feels beyond our reach.

But as Paul says, Jesus became sin itself in order to save us from it (II Cor. 5:21). Sin is wherever God is shut out and we are walled in. And in making even the hellish absence of God as integral a part of his own experience as the intimacy of divine communion, Jesus performed the ultimate paradox: even when God seems most absent, God is yet present.

Good Friday means that whatever happens to us happens to God. From now on there is no place where God is not, for God has taken into Godself even the experience of separation and forsakenness. The Presence now includes the absence.

And we who have turned from God, or lost God, we who have cried out into the SILENCE, can yet live in hope. The One who died abandoned and bereft now keeps us company on our own crosses. As the Psalmist affirms with his possessive pronoun (“My God, my God!”). the relationship remains firm and unbroken even when God seems most mute and distant. We are not alone.