Dancing with Time: An Advent Prelude

Time is our choice of How to love and Why.

–– W. H. Auden[i]

 

Every December, as we approach the border between the years, I think a lot about time. Where did the last twelve months go? How will this year be remembered? What will the New Year bring? How will I ever find time––or make time––to breathe during the holiday rush?

Then there are the big questions. What am I meant to do with the gift of time? How much of it is left? Does time have any purpose or meaning? Is it going anywhere?

The season of Advent, beginning this Sunday, is all about time.

  • We recall the past, pondering the Scriptural history of humanity’s deepest longing and desire, and celebrate the coming of the One in whom “the hopes and fears of all the years” converge at last.
  • We look to the future, when Creation will one day correspond to the purposes of God: the broken mended, wounds made whole, tears wiped from every eye––and everyone gathered into Love’s eternal dance.
  • And we attend to the present, alert for the signs of God’s self-revealing in every moment. The world is saturated with divine appearance, and the practice of Advent is to keep watch and stay awake.

But time is tricky, elusive and complex. It takes many forms. In The Myths of Time, London priest Hugh Rayment-Pickard posits four distinct modes of time.

CATASTROPHIC TIME is devoid of redemption or meaning. It is going nowhere fast. The world feels dark, empty, terrifying. There is neither purpose nor hope nor beauty. It’s a state of utter depression: time has no goal, and everything is sinking into the abyss of nonbeing.

Catastrophic time extinguishes every impulse to rise up and live anew. It is hell’s “darkling plain,” where there is “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”[ii] Most of us have experienced this temporal condition––even Christ in his cry of abandonment––but it’s not a place you can stay for long.

APOCALYPTIC TIME shares with the catastrophic a deep disillusionment with the projects of human history. The apocalyptic view knows the mess we’re in: “genocide, ravenous capitalism, grotesque inequalities, world-destroying technologies and competing fundamentalisms.”[iii]

And it looks to God alone for deliverance, as in this lyric by Leonard Cohen:

If it be your will, let your mercy spill
on all these burning hearts in hell,
if it be your will to make us well…
and end this night,
if it be your will.[iv]  

Yes, the world is broken and wounded in ways that seem beyond human remedy. Still, we hope: God is coming to save us. We don’t know how, we don’t know when, we don’t even know what. But we believe, trust and hope that in the end God will “end this night” and “make us well.”

PROPHETIC TIME shares the apocalyptic sense of crisis and judgment, but it doesn’t leave all the work to an outside, transcendent agency. We ourselves are invited and encouraged to become the hands and feet of God, the visible embodiment of divine intention. The prophets don’t just wait for God’s future to arrive like a package from Amazon Prime (expedited shipping available!). They point to the Now as the place where “every heart prepares him room,” where we all can join the work of repairing the world as well as our own broken and unfinished selves.

The prophetic sense, like the apocalyptic, longs for a better world; but it insists on our own participation in the process of revolutionary transformation. We don’t just sit still until the Kingdom comes; we go out to meet it.

The source of so much positive social change, the prophetic understanding of historical time as an unfolding of divine purpose may at times overestimate human potential and underestimate human sin. It can leave us disillusioned when our efforts go awry or the world fails to improve in a timely manner.

KAIRIC TIME differs sharply from both the apocalyptic and the prophetic. Instead of looking to the future end of time and the completion of salvation history, it devotes all its attention to the profound depths of the present moment, to what the Greeks called kairos: the epiphanic Now, charged with meaning in its own right, whatever its connection to a larger ongoing story.

Kairic time is the domain of the poet, the artist and the mystic, who know how to find what T. S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.” But in fact it is available to us all. We only need the discipline to wait until it shows itself, and the attentiveness to be fully present and receptive when it comes.

As the 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing recommends:

“Be attentive to time and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. God gives only the present, moment by moment.”[v]

The Incarnation is in one sense a validation of kairos, because it shifts the crucial moment of history from the end of time to the middle: God comes into the midst of world and time, giving the divine presence fully, holding nothing back. Therefore we can find “God-with-us” in every moment, if we pay attention and stay awake.

But kairic time, like the other modes, has its liabilities and limitations. We can be so swept away by the beauty of the moment that we become insensible of the suffering all around us. We may grow so enamored of our own experience that the demands and tasks of a shared public life fade into insignificance––the world out there is “not our problem.” Living in the moment can be enlightenment. It can also be escape.

Does any single mode take precedence over the others?
Or do they all have gifts for us?
The fact is, we live and move and have our being
in all the temporal modes––sometimes simultaneously.
And each of them calls us to respond in a particular way:[vi]

Apocalyptic: Renounce and resist the things that bind us to the ways of violence, greed and death, and wait upon the surprises of God with faith and hope.

Prophetic: Prepare ourselves to make room for God’s coming, offering our energies and our choices as visible signs of the dawning Kingdom.

 Kairic:  Stay awake for the revelation in every moment.

“My times are in your hand,” says the Psalmist.[vii]
What would happen if we could realize this in every moment?
This Advent, may your own dance with time be full of grace.

 

 

Related posts:

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

The World’s End (An Advent Manifesto)

 

[i] W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), 297.

[ii] Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach.”

[iii] Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 99.

[iv] Leonard Cohen, “If It Be Your Will,” on Various Positions (1984)

[v] The Cloud of Unknowing, q. in Hugh Rayment-Pickard, 92.

[vi] Even catastrophic time may contain a gift. Good Friday is the prelude to Resurrection.

[vii] Psalm 31:15

Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds to all, according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day, but met in their houses for the breaking of bread, sharing their food with glad and generous hearts.

–– Acts 2:44-46

 

In November of 1972 I participated in an Episcopal Church project to engage with American communal movements in a process of dialogue and mutual learning. For three weeks in the snow and cold of New England, five people and a couple of dogs wandered the back roads of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a 1953 school bus with a rebuilt, unreliable engine. Amid occasional breakdowns and blizzards, we visited a series of communes, ranging from an upscale geodesic dome to an isolated farm with neither plumbing nor electricity. The nights we spent on the bus were cold, and we were one dog short!

As people of faith, committed to watch the horizon where divine intention meets human possibility, we wanted to learn from the modern pilgrims who were making their exodus in search of a new society. What did they hope for? What had they learned? Did their utopian experiments in communal living bear any resemblance to the gospel message?

The Rev. Bill Teska, the priest behind the project, saw in the communal impulse an apocalyptic rejection of the political and economic structures which have been so fatal for both love and justice. The communards, he believed, were saying NO to this world for the sake of something better.

“By thousands, and tens of thousands, they are walking out of this world into a new one. . . In their capacity of standing as living examples of communities whose lives are ordered according to values entirely different from, and in many ways opposed to, the values of this world, the new communes fulfill for our society the same role which monasteries have performed in past centuries.”[i]

Exploring new worlds isn’t for the uncommitted. The trash bin of history is full of failed utopian quests. Even in Eden, there is always a snake or two. And the work can be strenuous. The transformation of consciousness is as daunting as the reformation of society. Every exodus feels the gravitational pull of the “Egypt” in its rearview mirror. But the biblical God has always encouraged the risk-takers: Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

And as Teska wrote at the time about the redemptive hope shared by both church and commune: “The future which the communards envision is one in which triumphant and transfigured Humanity reigns in Love.”

That was many years ago, and I have no idea whether any of those collectives still exist, or to what extent they made a difference in the lives of their members or in the world around them. But I have never forgotten their idealism––or their courage. Blessed are the pure in heart.

At a fairly new communal farm in Maine, I asked someone how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” he said. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”

In the Plymouth Colony of Puritan immigrants to Massachusetts in 1620, only half made it through their first winter. The ones who survived threw the famous feast of Thanksgiving legend in the fall of 1621, with some combination of European wheat and native corn. About ninety locals––the Wampanoag people––showed up for the potluck, which included some deer meat but no turkey. They outnumbered the immigrants by two to one, but everyone seemed to get along. It would be an example too little followed in the years to come.

However tragic the subsequent history would prove, the early Puritan immigrants idealized their story as a great communal experiment, a chance to revise the tired narratives of the Old World in “a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.”[ii] In that sense, the New England communes we visited in 1972 were heirs of that Pilgrim vision. Liberated from the structures of the past, they hoped to forge a new kind of society and perhaps a new kind of humanity.

But America has always had its dissenters from the glowing narrative of a new people in a new Eden. As Alexander Hamilton would grumble in November of 1787:

“Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses and the evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age?”[iii]

In an America now ruled by a billionaire oligarchy, a raging lunatic, and an unprincipled Congressional majority verging on treason, Hamilton’s cynical doubts would seem to carry the day. The utopian dream of the Pilgrims, or the 1970s communards, has no where to take place in a land so polluted by ignorance, hate and greed. From sea to shining sea, where is Eden now?

For those of us who still dream of a just and loving society, this is a winter of the utmost testing. Many may wither in its icy blast. And yet, come what may, I still believe in divine imagination and human potential. God has a better idea than our despair.

This eschatological idea has been described with biblical eloquence in a poem by Judy Chicago.[iv] May it be sacramentally reimagined at every Thanksgiving feast, and then fulfilled in fact through our daily prophetic acts of compassion, justice, and hope:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

 

Related post: No Place Like Home

 

[i] From a report on the project, written in Advent, 1972, by the Rev. William J. Teska, Eleanor Leiper Hall, and the Rev. Jim Friedrich.

[ii] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 71.

[iii] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers No. 6, “Concerning Dangers of Dissensions Between the States.”

[iv] Judy Chicago, “Merger Poem,” 1979.

Applauding the Saints

Jeremiah, portal of Moissac abbey on the Le Chemin de St. Jacques (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At least once in our lives we have dreamed of becoming saints… Stumbling under the weight of the contradictions of our lives, for a fleeting moment we glimpsed the possibility of building within ourselves a place of simplicity and light.

–– Carlo Caretto[i]

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentments? Did I forgive? Did I love?

–– Henri Nouwen[ii]

 

On the Feast of Pentecost in 2001, I attended the papal mass in the densely packed outdoor plaza of St. Peter’s Basilica. As the grand procession made its way toward the altar, the assembly began to applaud. While the sound of one hand clapping may induce a spiritual state, the sound of many hands can be jarring in a worship setting, at least for contemplatives. Pope Benedict XVI, never a happy-clappy man, called it “a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”[iii]

But Rome has a long tradition of applauding the pope as he enters for mass, and this day was no exception. However, this papal entrance was unique, for there were not one but two popes coming up the aisle––the reigning pontiff, John Paul II, but also the mortal remains of the beloved John XXIII as well. On the anniversary of his death (June 3), John’s body was being transferred from an underground crypt to a more public location under the altar of St. Jerome in the basilca’s central nave. But for the duration of the mass, it rested by the outdoor altar in full view of the assembly.

John XXIII died in 1963. When his original coffin was opened after 38 years, his body was found to be remarkably intact. It was dressed in red and white pontifical robes and placed in a glass coffin designed to block UV rays from the Roman sun. His face was protected by a wax mask, displaying the smile which had once dissolved the gloomy severity of a fortress church.

The living pope got his share of the applause, but the most affectionate attention was directed toward the “Good Pope John,” who would be canonized as a saint by Pope Francis in 2014. John’s humility, humor, and love of the poor were striking qualities in a pontiff, but he was best known for initiating the landmark reforms of Vatican II.

John XXIII famously said he wanted to “open the windows” of the Church so that fresh air could blow through its stuffy rooms. So it seemed to me a clear act of divine whimsy when a sudden gust of wind swept through St. Peter’s Square at that Pentecost mass, blowing the caps off the heads of cardinals as we chanted the Creed.

Ironically, John himself discouraged the custom of applauding him or any other pope in church. In templum Dei, he said, the focus should be on God, not ourselves. While we may want to celebrate the saintliness of exemplary persons, the true saint always deflects such praise. Not I, but Christ in me, they tell us.

This deflection is not an act of false humility. Saints are too busy chasing God or serving others to check their spiritual Fitbit. Saints never know that they are saints. They only know that something absolutely essential is calling them, and their life becomes the record of their response.

The first officially recognized Christian saints were the ancient martyrs, who took Christ’s “lose your life to find it” in the most literal sense. As Thomas Becket says in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the martyr is one “who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God––not lost it, but found it. . . . The martry no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.”[iv]

Although physical martyrdom is still a widespread occurrence around the world, self-sacrifice need not be lethal. Most people engage in some sacrificial practices for God or neighbor, but few of us take it as far as the asceticism so vividly imagined in Don DeLillo’s novel, The Names:

“Go naked in a scatter of ashes, stand in the burning sun. If there is a God, how could we fail to submit completely? Existence would be decrease, going clean. And adding beauty to the world, Kathryn might say. To her the spectacle had merit even if the source was obscure. They would be beautiful to see, leaning on staffs, mind-scorched, empty-eyed, men in the dust of India, moving to the endless name of God.”[v]

The late medieval mysticism of Marguerite of Porete was steeped in this kind of radical self-emptying. What she called the “annihilated soul” (âme aniente) has “neither what nor why”–– it wills nothing, knows nothing, possesses nothing. Such utter evacuation of ego makes space for the Divine to dwell. The Soul, she said, “was created for nothing other than to have within the being of pure charity without end.”[vi] This was a forbidding, perhaps impossible spirituality.

Ecclesiastical authorities repeatedly warned Marguerite to stop circulating her troublesome ideas and writings. Nevertheless, she persisted. Certainly the outspokennes of a free-spirited woman was enough in itself to disconcert the male hierarchy. But the radical nature of her mystical spirituality seemed a very real threat to the stability of Christian community. Imagine a congregation of annihilated souls trying to manage the mundane duties of parish life. What happens when the church needs a new roof? What do they teach in Sunday School? Would a visitor feel welcome––or terror––at the liturgy?

Marguerite was burned at the stake in Paris on June 1, 1310, “the earliest recorded death sentence for mystical heresy in Western Christianity.”[vii] While we abhor such an outcome, we may share the underlying concern about a spirituality of utter self-negation. Few of us are called to “go naked in a scatter of ashes.” If this life is a gift and not a prison, shouldn’t our spiritual practice affirm and embrace the blessings and epiphanies of embodied existence?

“Your Enjoyment of the World is never right,” wrote 17th-century Anglican Thomas Traherne, “till evry Morning you awake in Heaven: see your self in your fathers Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys.”[viii] Traherne is miles from Marguerite of Porete, yet they both share the one thing common to all the saints. They turn their faces Godward.

“I ought therefore evermore . . . . to remember God, and aim at His Glory as my Supreme End. When I forget Him I walk in Darkness, when I aim at myself it is in vain Glory.”[ix]

Tomorrow is All Saints Day. We will remember and celebrate the great company of our ancestors and mentors in the blessing way. We will praise their godly qualities, be inspired by their examples, and take heart from the fact that they were and are “just folk like me”[x]––forgiven sinners, “stumbling under the weight of their contradictions” yet keeping their eyes on the prize.

Yes, we applaud their sanctity, but listen! Our applause is being drowned out by a mightier sound. The company of heaven returns the compliment. While we make our own stumbling way deeper and deeper into the Mystery, the saints are now applauding us.

 

 

Related post: For All the Saints

 

[i] Robert Ellsberg, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Practical Lessons in the Life of the Spirit (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 29.

[ii] Ibid., 146-7.

[iii] Joseph Ratziner, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 198.

[iv] Quoted in Martyrs: Contemporary Martyrs on Modern Lives of Faith (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 4-5.

[v] Don DeLillo, The Names (New York: Vintage, 1989), 92.

[vi] Joanne Maguire Robinson, Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 78, 83.

[vii] Ibid., 27.

[viii] Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations I.28-29, q. in Denise Inge, ed., Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2008), 125.

[ix] Ibid., Select Meditations III.75, in Inge, 262.

[x] Lesbia Scott, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”

Falling Leaves and the Fate of Mortals

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly; and even now,
while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure. . .

–– Collect for the Sunday closest to the Autumnal Equinox

 

The Book of Common Prayer has a collect, or gathering prayer, for each Sunday of the year. Many of the collects reflect the themes of their liturgical season, but only one of them seems to make an explicit connection with one of the four natural seasons. At the beginning of Autumn, when leaves will fall, flowers wither, and birds depart, the Church prays that we who “are placed among things that are passing away” may not be “anxious.”

The origins of the prayer are, in fact, not seasonal, but political. It was composed when the stability of the late Roman Empire was under threat by barbarian invaders. Inspired by the text of Colossians 3:2 (Set your mind on things that are above, not on things of earth), it reflects the sense of the world as we know it coming to an end. When all that defines us is being swept away, what is the enduring rock to which we can cling?

With perfect brevity, the prayer sums up the spirituality of Autumn, the season of loss and letting go. In a year when my best friend, my father-in-law, and two nonagenarian mentors have all passed away, the season’s metaphorical message seems acutely personal. No matter how dearly we cherish the colors of fall, they are the prelude to decay––“the hectic beauty of death.”[i] Outside my window, the katsura’s golden cloak and the maple’s scarlet finery will soon lie on the earth beneath naked branches. It feels like loss.

Katsura and maple trees, Bainbridge Island, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In January of 1842, Henry David Thoreau suffered two bitter deaths, both terribly premature. His older brother John cut himself shaving on New Year’s Day and died ten days later of tetanus. He was 27. Two weeks later, Waldo Emerson, the endearing five-year-old son of Thoreau’s great friend and mentor, came down with scarlet fever. In three days he was gone.

In her revisionist study of America’s iconic naturalist––Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau–– Branka Arsić sees his life’s work grounded in deeply personal experiences of loss. His private grief led him to contemplate the “perpetual grief” in nature, as matter continuously mutates from one form to another, and find in it, as Arsić argues, “an “endless/formless mourning that recreates as it grieves.”[ii] Through his close observations of natural processes, Thoreau came to understand death and loss as the means of life, and not its annulment. Decay and decline are not deviations from a normally healthy state, but an integral, inevitable part of the performance of mortal existence. As he wrote in his final essay, October, or Autumnal Tints:

“Will not the land be in good heart
because
the crops die down from year to year?
The herbage cheerfully consents to bloom, and wither,
and give place to the new.”[iii]

The growth and decay of New England leaves became a presiding image for Thoreau’s reflections on a world where passing away is a necessary part of an enduring cycle of renewal. Published six months after his death, his concluding work celebrated the autumnal cycle as a mirror of the human condition:

“It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! How gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!––painted of a thousand hues. . . . They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die.”[iv]

Vermont, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Autumn: A Season of Change, Peter J. Marchand similarly concludes that there is “as much life as there is death in the browning of meadows and the drying of leaves. . . .” 14

For the apparent disappearance of many plants and animals, autumn is often seen as an end. But the seasons are part of a continuum, a revolving process of birth, death, and renewal—and if such could be said to have any beginning or end, then fall could just as well be viewed as a beginning. . . . The seeds of another season have already been planted—sown on the wind and the wings of birds and the coats of animals to find new life in new places. Another generation is already awakening in the wombs of the great mammals. And in all the hidden sanctuaries of autumn—in the crevices of dormant trees, in the cold safety of piled leaves and decaying logs, in the sediments of stream and pond bottom—myriads of insect larvae are beginning their incredible metamorphic journey into spring and adulthood. Energy is flowing and nutrients are circulating. These are the processes by which nature’s bounty is reinvested in a burst of new growth, reproduction, and dispersal, to arrive at yet another autumn and another season of change.[v]

 

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

But if this cycle of perpetual renewal frees us from the burden of mourning the fall of every leaf, what about the “falling-sickness” of our own mortality? What will become of me when I fall into the arms of Mother Earth? Do I simply decompose into primordial materials for the making of some entirely new form of future life? Is my unique consciousness swallowed into eternal anonymity, like a raindrop in the sea? Or is there an “I”––with identity, memory, personhood––who survives the transit into whatever’s next?

Arsić understands Thoreau’s “I” as dying to any sense of persisting identity, so that there is no essentialist, interior self to maintain its distinctive subjectivity in an afterlife. Rather, the whole universe is alive with thoughts and relations which re-occur in new ways and inhabit new forms. What survives are the thoughts and experiences, the presences, which are not the possession of separate, autonomous individuals. The universe as a whole is doing the thinking and being, not any of us in particular. Or as Arsić puts it in her twist on Descartes, “where there are thoughts there is no ‘I’.” The sovereign self surrenders to the greater flow of consciousness whose source is beyond the self.[vi]

We tend to think of ourselves as an “I” who surveys the world from a protected tower. But what if we are not so insulated from the things and presences in which we live and move and have our being? What if, like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur[vii], “I” am spellbound and possessed by external objects, no longer a private isolated self but a receptive convergence of the multiple sensations of a world saturated with communicative presence? When Thoreau, in taking a walk, felt himself “grandly related” to everything he experienced, he became what he saw, in a world where every object is alive and returns our gaze.

“Hence,” writes Arsić, “Thoreau can not only say that he is interested in thoughts that the body thinks but he can also risk a more startling claim: ‘All matter, indeed, is capable of entertaining thought’ (Journal: c. Fall 1845). Contemplation, then, is not something brought to matter by the mind; rather, in Thoreau’s account, all matter is treated as contemplative, alive, and thoughtful.”[viii]

This takes us pretty far into the philosophical weeds, but have we also wandered away from Christian orthodoxy? The “resurrection of the body” implies that the unique particularity of every human being will be re-membered by God on the Last Day. Personal identity will not utterly vanish into the All. Heaven will not be a congregation of amnesiacs. Something of our embodied being––our stories, our relationships––will have a future in the economy of God.

However, Christian theology also admits a radical discontinuity between this life and the next. We do not share the ancient Greek conception of immortal souls who simply shed their physical bodies to carry on in eternity without interruption. For there to be resurrection, there must first be annihilation. “So death will soon disrobe us all of what we here possess.”[ix] As St. Augustine said, to climb up “through my mind towards you who are constant above me. . . I will pass beyond even that power of mind which is called memory.”[x] If memory means “the story by which I define myself,” that’s a lot to let go of. How many of us are really prepared for such radical surrender?

If we are truly made in the image of the self-emptying God, then our insistence on maintaining the self as we know it only exacerbates the distance between human and divine. To overcome that distance requires a complete letting go, like the last autumn leaf, and falling into the no-thingness from which all are created.

Resurrection is then, in effect, a reprise of creation ex nihilo by the Love which “breaks, creates, and re-makes all meaning out of nothing.”[xi] Whatever it turns out to mean that God will be “all in all,” does it really matter how much of our individual construct of self survives the transition to the “other side?” When we are truly lost in wonder, love and praise, will self-consciousness matter, or even exist? Will it be important that “I” know that “I” am the one who is immersed in divine Being? Or will my former, earthly identity be rather beside the point in the interdependent, intertwined dance of God where we belong so completely to one another?

None of us will be shouting “Hey, look, it’s me!” in heaven.
We won’t even be shouting “Hallelujah!”
We will have become Hallelujah!

Vine maple, Washington Cascades, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

To enter the abyss of God, says Catholic theologian Caitlin Smith Gilson, is “no longer to be the self that knows itself and its God by separateness, for there would be no separation and thus no knowledge of difference or identity in God.” Her argument resolves into a prayer of surrender:

You are the source of my most genuine wants,
and I wanted to be nearer than difference
and therefore I surrender to You
who desire my genuine desires
emphatically and inexhaustibly
more than I can ever want.
You desired me and I desired You
and we desired a union
closer than philosophy and reason
and even faith
could give.[xii]

 

 

 

Related posts:

Leaves

A Tender Doom

 

[i] Martha McCulloch Williams, “What Saith September?” (1892), in Peter J. Marchand, Autumn: A Season of Change (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), 14.

[ii] Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016), 379.

[iii] Henry David Thoreau, October, or Autumnal Tints (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016), 37.

[iv] October, 89.

[v] Marchand, 135-6.

[vi] Arsić, 316.

[vii] Walter Benjamin adopted the 19th-century literary image of the flâneur (“stroller,” “saunterer”) as an image for the modern urban wanderer who loses himself in, or is possessed by, the impressions his world offers to him. In The Arcades Project (1999, p. 449), Benjamin cites an example of self-dissolved-into-world from Flaubert: “Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”

[viii] Arsić, 310.

[ix] “Evening Shade,” a shape-note hymn, text by John Leland (1792), The Sacred Harp, #209 (Bremen, Georgia: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991).

[x] Confessions X, xvii, q. in Caitlin Smith Gilson, The Philosophical Question of Christ (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 209.

[xi] Gilson, 211

[xii] Ibid., 207, 213.

“Stations of the Cross” and the Cinema of Sacrifice

The First Station: Maria (Lea van Acken) and the priest (Florian Stetter) in “Stations of the Cross.”

 

I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale . . .  Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.”[1]

–– Gregory Peck, discussing his role in Moby Dick

 

What Gregory Peck said about playing Ahab could be said about playing “fools for Christ.”[2] Are we crazy enough for the role? Do we have what it takes to trade the wisdom of the world for the folly of God? Just how seriously do we take the call to follow Jesus? Will we only try a few baby steps, or are we prepared to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn?”[3]

In an unsettling essay about those who renounce ordinary human experience to explore the frontiers of the divine, Jean-Yves Lacoste stretches St. Paul’s image of the holy fool to the breaking point. Embodying in explicit practice the concept that the here and now of earthly life is not our ultimate destiny, the holy fool demonstrates that “life true to his essence cannot be lived without a literal refusal of all worldly dwelling.” His extreme form of ascetic renunciation manifests the essential homelessness of the human condition:

“The spectacular marginality of the human being who refuses possessions, a place to live, and so on, does no more than express in particularly concrete form the marginality that in any case affects anyone who wishes to subordinate his worldly being to his being-before-God.”

Understood in this way, spirituality is subversive and dangerous, putting not just our habitual complacency, but our fundamental at-homeness, into question. If we are finite beings making pilgrimage toward the Absolute, we are defined by non-possession. We don’t entirely belong to the here and now. To the world––and to many (or most?) believers––this is madness. We prefer a God who makes us as comfortable as possible where we are. But for Lacoste, the destiny of the fool in Christ “becomes intelligible only in the light of another destiny, that of the crucified one in whom and by whom God restores peace between humankind and himself.”[4]

In his 2014 film, Stations of the Cross, German director Dietrich Brüggemann literalizes this premise in the story of a 14-year-old girl, Maria, who comes to understand her own vocation as the sacrifice of her earthly existence for the sake of another. But Brüggemann and his sister Anna, who co-wrote the script, do not make it easy for us to accept or identify with Maria’s story, because on the surface it shows us a naïve adolescent misled by the bad theology of an abusive religion. We recoil at the reactionary teachings of the priest and the cold rigidity of her mother’s piety. We want Maria to make healthier choices.

Many critics have taken the film to be a critique or satire of fundamentalism and dogmatism, perhaps even an attack on belief itself, though many of the same critics also admit to being moved to tears. But the non-judgmental respect of the filmmakers for Maria, and the disarming purity of her passion for God, won’t let us dismiss the film as just a cautionary tale (“Kids, don’t try this at home!”). And, as the Bible’s less attractive stories have shown[5], God is sometimes known through means which transcend and overcome the given conditions of the narrative. As Rilke said, every story has God in it––even a story about religion gone wrong.

The formal structure of the film is part of its strange beauty. In 110 minutes, there are only 14 lengthy shots (no cutaways to different angles), each one corresponding to the devotional sequence of the Stations of the Cross. So Maria’s imitation of Christ’s passion is not simply an existential choice. It is a pattern to which she finds herself conformed by a power beyond her own devising (script, director, God). She does not define herself as a purely autonomous being; she is drawn and driven by an Other. She only exists to play this part, or to consent to let it play her.

The sense of inevitability is reinforced by the fixed position of the camera, which almost never moves (there are only three exceptions to this, each very purposive). The long takes (the first Station exceeds 15 minutes!) and unmoving camera not only induce a contemplative consciousness in the viewer, but make an ontological statement about the boundedness of the human condition: we operate within given limits of space, time and mortality, as well as the confines of our social constructions. Each of the film’s fourteen shots is a self-contained world. There is no cutting away to see something else. This conveys a sense of destiny, of givenness, while at the same time making everything within the fixed frame worthy of our utmost attention. Every word, look, gesture or action matters.

The First Station (Jesus is Condemned to Death) sets the course for the entire film. [Spoiler alert: If you want to view the film with innocent eyes, watch it before reading further. It is currently streaming on Netflix.]. Six young students in a Confirmation class are seated around a table in a tableaux evocative of the Last Supper. The priest stands in the center (Christ’s position in paintings) to deliver a kind of Farewell Discourse, a final pep talk before they go off to be confirmed.

The priest has youthful energy and conviction. He is no bloodless cleric boring a restless room of teens. He has their full attention. But the content of his teaching begins to make the viewer cringe: Vatican II was heresy, the pope has turned his back on the true faith, and most Catholics now live in mortal sin. “The devil has entered the church,” he says, “and strolls around in it whispering his lies.”

Given the sorry state of church and culture, the priest exhorts his charges to renounce Satan and all his works, including popular music with its demonic rhythms, the vanity of caring about your looks, and the trashy seductions of mass media. Be “warriors for Christ,” he tells them. Defend the faith, resist tempation, and save the souls of your schoolmates by word and example.

And the heart of Christian practice, he concludes, is sacrifice. Having asked his class to make a list of things which give them pleasure, he invites them to start letting them go, one by one, in a kind of perpetual Lent. When class is dismissed, Maria lingers to ask a question. “Can I make a sacrifice for someone else? Like, someone who is ill?. . . What if I wanted to sacrifice my whole life, like the saints?” Uh-oh. A good pastor would hear an alarm go off in such a moment, but this priest tries to defuse her question with generalities (“There are  many ways you can give your life to God”). However, the viewer senses that Maria is moving toward the abyss. She has been condemned to die to this world.

So she takes up her cross. On a walk in the country, she tries to sacrifice the beautiful view by closing her eyes. In gym class, she endures the mockery of her peers by refusing to exercise to rock music. She struggles against her feelings for Christian, a sweet Catholic boy who is drawn to her. She endures the cruel hectoring of her fanatically pious mother, renouncing the self-assertion of adolescent rebellion. But her most fatal sacrifice is her own body. She chooses to suffer the chill of winter by not wearing a coat. She descends into anorexia. Her health starts to fail.

The stages of her “passion” are correlated with the traditional Stations in striking ways:

Jesus falls for the first time (3): Maria lets herself become interested in Christian. The scene is innocent and charming, but there will be no room for teen romance as Maria walks her lonesome valley. She clearly is drawn to him, but later she will protest, “You live in a world of TV, Facebook, and people who’ve sold their souls, who are dead in the middle of life. . . . If you really like me, then go away.”

Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (6): After being horribly treated by her mother, Maria is weeping uncontrollably at the dinner table while her family pretends it’s not happening. Bernadette, the warm-hearted family au pair, is the only one who reaches out to Maria. She offers her a tissue, and the weeping subsides.

Jesus falls for the third time (9): Maria, kneeling for confirmation before the bishop, whose ancient face and gold vestments suggest a medieval painting of God the Father, faints. Her body falls out of the film frame into invisiblity.

Jesus is stripped of his garments (10): Maria, her back to us, sits on the examining table of a doctor’s office with her blouse removed. With drooping head, she remains passive as her mother stubbornly resists the doctor’s call for medical intervention. Maria’s frail and vulnerable figure, utterly still amid the battle of wills waging around her, is a heartbreaking image. Then Bernadette enters quietly to put a coat over Maria. She wraps her arms around the suffering girl like the father embracing his Prodigal Son in Rembrandt’s painting. The two girls remain in that pose––an icon of compassion––for the rest of the scene.

Jesus is nailed to the cross (11): Maria lies in a hospital bed, with Bernadette sitting beside her. A nurse brings food, but Maria refuses to eat. When the nurse leaves, Maria tells Bernadette that she has chosen to sacrifice her life so that her 4-year-old brother, Johannes, might get well (he has never spoken, and the doctors suspect autism). Bernadette says she is going to tell the doctors about Maria’s death wish, so that they will intervene. When she exits the room, Maria feels as abandoned as Jesus on the cross. “Don’t leave me!” she cries. There is no answer.

Jesus dies on the cross (12): After receiving communion in the presence of her mother and little Johannes (like the mother of Jesus and the disciple John at the cross), Maria flatlines. The medical team rushes in to attempt resuscitation, pushing priest and family aside. The camera follows the latter in one of its rare moves, so that we no longer see Maria, who dies outside the frame. She leaves the image, where she has been on camera for the length of every scene so far, just as she leaves the world. And the moment she dies, the mute Johannes speaks at last. “Maria! Where is Maria?” Is this the miracle that authenticates Maria’s sacrifice? The film doesn’t decide for us.

The body of Jesus is placed in the lap of his mother (13): In a funeral home display room lined with coffins, Maria’s parents discuss details with the funeral director. The mother begins to idealize her daughter, calling her a saint as if all her abusive scolding of Maria had never happened. And she insists that given the “facts” of Christian dogma, there is no reason to be sad. But suddenly all that certainty crumbles under the weight of grief and guilt. Her sobbing amid those stacked coffins becomes as unbearable as Magdalene’s hysterical weeping at the foot of the cross in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is laid in the tomb (14): In a cemetery, a man operates an excavator to fill an empty grave. The mourners have departed. The noisy machine is indifferent to any resting in peace. Christian, whom Maria feared was an obstacle between her and God, enters the frame to stand at her grave. Then the camera makes its final and most dramatic move, craning up until it looks down upon Christian, the grave, and the excavator from above. After a minute, the boy tosses a flower into the grave, then walks to the far side of the cemetery to gaze upon a landscape of ploughed fields. The camera pans away from the grave to follow him, and then tilts upward, away from the cemetery, away from the earth itself, to gaze upon the sky. If there is anything up there, we cannot see it. A thick layer of clouds blocks our view.

A film is more than its story or the multitude of audio-visual and dramatic elements comprising its life on the screen. A film is also what happens to us as we watch and later reflect. A story which offers unacceptable models of human behavior may stiil exert a powerful spiritual force. Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the masters of religious cinema, put this as well as any:

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.”[6]

In Stations, we see little we want to imitate or recommend. The priest’s teachings, the reactionary insularity and arrogance of his breakaway church, the mother’s abusive and unfeeling pietism, and Maria’s self-destructive behaviors are not things we want for our religion or our loved ones. Only Bernadette and Christian provide exemplary models for Christian living.

And yet, my soul was truly ploughed and harrowed by Maria, played so vulnerably by the gifted Lea van Acken. Maria lacked the language, the maturity, and the communal wisdom to fend off the religious extremism of church and family to find a more balanced expression of her desire for God. But like all saints, she was on to something and wouldn’t let it go.

Raymond Durgnat, writing about Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), another film about an adolescent reaching for transcendence without really knowing how to do it, wrote something that I think illuminates Maria’s situation: “She still hasn’t found what she hardly knows she wants, and she fears she never will, but she still won’t settle for not having it. She rejects a soul-destroying future, so she’s damned; but in another sense, she’s saving her ‘divine discontent.’ So perhaps her rejection of a ‘soul-destroying’ future is the intention of saving her soul as best she knows?”[7]

Maria doesn’t quite know how to give herself to God, so she does it in what we consider a mistaken and tragic way. But there is no mistaking the authenticity of her desire and the purity of her will, which exceed all the distortions and limitations of her factual situation. For all the wrongness of her world and the choices she makes, her excessiveness is the quality which overcomes all the brokenness of her story.

The Fifth Station: Maria in the confessional.

 

In the Fifth Station, Maria is in the confessional. It is the only closeup of her in the entire film, but unlike most closeups, she is in profile, facing the grille between her and the priest, who remains unseen beyond the frame of the image. Maria gives an honest account of what her church considers sinful (“I had unchaste thoughts. I imagined Christian and me going to choir together, and him looking at me secretly and finding me beautiful.”) The priest listens carefully, but his responses are sometimes tarnished by a judgmental theology. However, the defects of the verbal exchange are overshadowed by the beauty of the visual image.

The intimate closeup of Maria gives us privileged access to her profound spirit of surrender. Like her Scriptural namesake at the Annunciation, she faces an invisible voice and responds with her whole heart. Whatever the priest says or thinks doesn’t really matter. He’s only a stand-in. The essential image is of a soul saying yes to the Mystery.

So is it enough to say I am moved by the intensity of Maria’s holy desire to reconsider the depth of my own spiritual life, without resolving the story’s problematic tensions between immanence and transcendence? Didn’t the Creator pronounce the goodness of the world? How much of it are we supposed to give up? How much self-emptying is enough? Something in me is drawn to the ascetic rigor of Lacoste’s fool in Christ, but in fact I live out the more Anglican way of loving this “sweet old world”[8] and not being so anxious to refuse it or leave it.

I have no plans to imitate Maria’s passion––or Christ’s, for that matter. But the questions about sacrifice posed by the Way of the Cross can’t be suppressed without losing something essential, as Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us in his parable about the boyhood of Jesus[9], whose restless and troubled spirit was a great worry for his parents. So they entrusted him to the care of the village sage, who met with him every day for a period of many weeks.

“What is troubling you,” the sage asked Jesus.
“I feel a pain I cannot explain. I roam the streets, wrestling.”
“Wrestling with whom?”
“With God, of course!. Who else?”

The sage gave Jesus medicinal herbs and taught him to calm himself with meditation. Every evening they had long talks about God. The sage assured the boy that God was not a consuming fire or an annihilating otherness, but a tender grandfather, with whom he could find loving support and a companionable peace of mind and spirit. God wanted only happiness for Jesus, not suffering or sacrifice. After a few months, Jesus was completely cured, and he grew up to become the best carpenter in Nazareth.

 

 

Related post: The Ten Best Religious Films

 

[1] 1998 interview, q. in William Grimes obituary for Gregory Peck, New York Times (6/13/03).

[2] I Corinthians 4:10

[3] Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, “Brownsville Girl”.

[4] Jean-Yves Lacoste, “Liturgy and Kenosis, from Expérience et Absolu, in Graham Ward, ed., The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997), 250, 261.

[5] The Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is the prime example.

[6] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 1987), 43.

[7] Raymond Durgnat, “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson,” in James Quandt, ed., Robert Bresson: Revised (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), 560. Mouchette is a troubled teen trapped in an oppressive world. In the end she lets her body roll down a hill by a pond, like a game. The third time we see her roll out of the frame and hear a splash. Then we see ripples on the pond, but she is gone. The film was originally banned in France because on a literal level it involved teen suicide. But more astute critics have read the ending as a strangely positive image of transcendence, with the pond as a baptismal gate into a larger reality beyond the world’s horizon. It’s more like an “ascension” than an act of self-destruction.

[8] Lucinda Williams’ song to a friend who committed suicide: “See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world. . .”

[9] The parable is in Kazantzakis’ memoir, Report to Greco (1965). I have reconstructed it from memory. I read it 50 years ago and it has stayed inside me.

 

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

Totality, August 21, 2017 (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

–– Henry Vaughan, “The Night”

I said to my soul, be still, and let the
dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

–– T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”

 

The day before the August 21 solar eclipse, I drove south to Oregon, east of the Cascades, taking dusty roads through pine forests and rolling grasslands to a panoramic spot on the center line of the eclipse track, far from the madding crowd. Only eight of us had converged there––from California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. A few more pilgrims joined our “Eclipse Camp” early next morning, but it remained peaceful and quiet as we awaited the mid-morning totality. It would be the first time for all but one of us.

Sunrise at Eclipse Camp, a few hours before totality (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

Most people have never seen a total solar eclipse. It’s a rare thing, and often hard to get to. The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it is also 400 times further away from earth, making the two spheres roughly the same size in our sky. So why doesn’t the moon block the sun more often?

For one thing, the moon’s orbit around the earth is elliptical, making it larger or smaller to the eye depending on its varying proximity to earth. Only at its perigee––its closest point––does the moon appear large enough to cover the sun perfectly. Another limiting factor is that the orbital paths of earth and moon are not perfectly aligned. Since the plane of the moon’s path around the earth is tipped with respect to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, the two orbits only coincide from time to time.

For this convergence of orbital planes to occur precisely during the new moon––the monthly phase when it sits between earth and sun––moon and earth must repeat a lengthy cycle of variations before everything lines up again. The average wait for a solar eclipse at any given point on earth is 375 years. Some places have to wait 4500 years for a recurrence!

Trying to comprehend all the variables of celestial motion makes my head explode. But picture the moon between earth and sun, casting a cone of shadow which culminates in a circular point just large enough to cover the sun in the eye of an earthling standing at just the right spot. If the moon isn’t at its perigee, the sun-sized point doesn’t quite reach the earth, so the eclipse, even if perfectly centered, isn’t quite total. A little bit of sun overlaps the edges of the moon in what’s called an annular eclipse. And if the moon’s orbital plane happens to be above or below that of earth’s orbit, as it often is, the cone’s shadow point misses the earth altogether.

In a total eclipse, the sun-sized tip of moon shadow sweeps across the earth at a speed ranging from 1000 mph at the equator to 2000 mph at the poles. The eclipse track is about 3000 miles long, varying in width from 167 miles to almost nothing. Since both moon and earth are in continuous motion, the shadow of perfect totality never lasts long: 7 minutes and 40 seconds at most, but usually much shorter. Where I stood in central Oregon it was 2 minutes and 5 seconds.

As both physical fact and potent symbol, the sun has long been associated with the divine: the life-giver and earth-blesser, “whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning.”[1] For the premodern mind at least, this was not simply a matter of metaphorical resemblance. There was a perceived continuum between visible signs and invisible realities. Just as the physical sun illumines and warms the earth, so the heavenly sun (God) brings the light of knowledge and the warmth of love to a receptive creation. And anything in nature that produces wonder and love may be said to have something of God in it.

In such a worldview, writes Dante scholar Rocco Montano, “theologians started always from the assumption that there is a sustaining will and that in fact God operates in the world of nature as perfectly and unceasingly as in the world of grace.”[2] So it is not surprising that the sublimity of a total eclipse, registering so powerfully on the senses, has had an equal effect on religious sensibility.

The Bible contains multiple visions of eclipse-like phenomena: the sun goes dark and the moon turns to blood in prophecies of cosmic distress. And when Jesus dies on a Friday afternoon, a sudden darkness falls upon Jerusalem.

On a more existential level, John Donne, from his Anglican pulpit in 1624, described the human condition as “wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied” until God should return “as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows.”[3]

Another 17th-century poet, Francis Quarles, employed eclipse imagery to convey his own experience of divine absence, which leaves him stumbling and lost in the dark.

Why dost thou shade thy lovely face? Oh why
Does that eclipsing hand so long deny
The sunshine of thy soul-enlivening eye?

Without that light, what light remains in me?
Thou art my life, my way, my light; in thee
I live, I move, and by thy beams I see. . .

My eyes are blind and dark, I cannot see;
To whom, or whither, should my darkness flee,
But to the light? And who’s that light but thee?[4]

The sense of eclipse can be cultural as well as personal. In the 20th century, Martin Buber famously lamented modernity’s secular disconnection from transcendence as the “eclipse of God.”

In his enigmatic 1962 film, L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”), Michelangelo Antonioni never shows an actual eclipse, but in the last 7 minutes, just when you expect the story of two lovers to be resolved, the characters fail to appear at their usual meeting place. In fact, we never see Vittoria and Piero again. They don’t just go missing. They no longer seem to exist. All that remains, shot after shot, is their meeting place and its bleak surroundings, virtually stripped of human presence and completely devoid of narrative, as though not just God, but humanity itself has been eclipsed, leaving nothing but an unsettling absence. As Antonioni described this strange ending, a world of soulless objects “has devoured the living beings.”[5]

Totality with red solar prominences – towers of hot hydrogen gas (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

But my own experience of total eclipse triggered no such negative resonance. It was, in fact, two minutes of pure wonder, like seeing the burning bush–– a visible experience in the physical world in perfect conjunction with a reality invisible and transcendent. For 125 seconds, when day turned to night and the solar disc, as in a film negative, became a black circle, I felt––well, pretty medieval, seeing God not only behind and beyond the natural world, but also embedded deeply within its material substance and temporal occurrence. What I saw seemed more than just a scientifically predictable conjunction of celestial bodies. What I saw was . . .

But here language fails me.

“O splendor of God,” wrote Dante after passing beyond the limits of space and time to gaze upon the eternal mystery, “grant me the power to tell of what I saw! (Paradiso xxx: 97, 99)[6] Whether the Dante who beheld the face of God was only the character “Dante” in his Commedia, or the poet himself reporting personal experience, is a never-ending debate among scholars. Whatever the case, his prayer rings true, not only for mystical adepts, but for everyone along the eclipse track who looked up with an open heart and a receptive mind to see the most awesome sight in the natural world.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept––which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (Paradiso xxxiii:121-23)[7]

When the last tiny sliver of sun slipped behind the moon, it was lights out. Although the ambient luminosity had been gradually diminishing into an eerie olive pallor during the hour prior to totality, the deepest dark arrived in an instant. Only the distant horizons beyond the shadow’s center retained a dusky glow, like a fading sky after sunset.

I recollect no thoughts from those two minutes, nor any awareness of duration. I can’t even account for my feelings, because my powers of observation were directed entirely, wordlessly, toward the pitch black circle––like the pupil of a great eye––with its mysteriously glowing corona. My camera was rigged to shoot automatically, leaving me free to gaze with my whole being. I remember shedding some tears, shaken by the overpowering, even numinous force of the experience. Until the sun peeked out again with a brilliant diamond flash, totality was a distinct interval of “absolutely unmixed attention.”[8]

Totality ends as the sun re-emerges with a flash. (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

When it was over, what lingered was the overwhelming sense that I had experienced both immanence and transcendence in a single image, its roundness like a sacramental Host lifted above the altar of the world. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem too much to claim that within the visionary interval of totality my deepest longing was met by an answering Presence.

Am I just romanticizing––or theologizing––a purely sensory experience of the sublime? It may be medieval of me, but I regard the immanent as a gateway to the transcendent, not its dualistic opposite. Though the divine eludes and exceeds all forms of knowing, God is still a communicator, and wants to be known in ways which are accessible to finite beings. I believe there is no clear separation between matter and spirit, but rather a continuum where tangible, sensory experience can lead us deeper and deeper into something larger and more hidden.

The mystics, exploring the farthest reaches of spiritual experience, describe a “night of the senses,” a “deep but dazzling darkness” where our ordinary ways of knowing are obliterated by the overwhelming excess of divine Being. Metaphysical poet Francis Quarles likened his own spiritual capacities to a candle. When the sun shines, his little flame is overpowered by the immensity of divine radiance. “I am thy taper, thou my sun,” he wrote. “Yet if thy light but shine, my light is done.”

Thy sunbeams are too strong for my weak eye!
If thou but shine, how nothing, Lord, am I?
Ah! who can see thy visage, and not die![9]

We can’t stare directly at the sun without going blind. Nor can we look upon the face of God without the linguistic and sacramental equivalents of eclipse glasses. But there are moments, the Incarnation being the supreme example, when the divine radiance consents to be eclipsed in order to be fitted safely to the human eye. Then we may gaze confidently upon its veiled beauty with open and adoring eyes.

Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso xxviii (c. 1445)

In the 15th century, Giovanni di Paolo painted exquisite illuminations for Dante’s Paradiso. In his image for Canto xxviii, Dante is kneeling to adore the divine radiance, with Beatrice floating behind him. One of the poet’s many terms for visual contemplation, vagheggiar, expresses perfectly my own engagement with the eclipse totality: “to gaze lovingly.” For Dante the sun is not veiled, nor does he wear special glasses. His is a uniquely privileged gaze. Nevertheless, each of us is invited to do the same: to gaze lovingly at the mystery of the world as our own capacities allow.

When the totality ended, I said farewell to my fellow pilgrims (passing the peace with hugs all around) and headed north on the long dusty road back to the highway. As with all transcendent experiences, “the night of meditation passes, the flesh revives, and the world’s day returns. . . The feeble spirit finds itself beclouded once again with dust.”[10]

My ride home (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

 

[1] From “Collect for the Renewal of Life,” Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), 99.

[2] Rocco Montano, Dante’s Thought and Poetry (Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1988), 372.

[3] John Donne, Sermon preached on the evening of Christmas Day, 1624.

[4] Francis Quarles (1592-1644), from “Wherefore Hidest Thou Thy Face,” in A Deep but Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Personal Experiences of God, eds. Lucy Lethbridge & Selina O’Grady (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002), 76-77.

[5] Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: Or, The Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 80.

[6] Paradiso trans. by Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007)

[7] Paradise trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics, 1962)

[8] Simone Weil’s memorable description of prayer.

[9] Francis Quarles, q. in R.A. Durr, “Vaughan’s ‘The Night’,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan. 1960), p. 36.

[10] Ibid., 39.

“Every common bush afire with God”

Weatherbeaten pines near the summit of Mt. Tallac.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…

–  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

August 6th marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that strange moment in the gospel narrative when the divine glory in Jesus is glimpsed by three disciples on the summit of a mountain. Scholars have puzzled over the strange mysticism of the story, an anomalous intrusion into the more historical tone of the gospel texts. Was it a misplaced post-resurrection story, or did the glory of heaven really blaze for a moment in an ordinary place on an ordinary afternoon?

Although some scholars locate the event on the higher, wilder summit of Mt. Hermon (9232’), tradition commemorates the story on the gently rounded crown of Mt. Tabor, a solitary knob rising 1500 feet above the Galilean plain. To the romantics among us, in love with the sublime majesty of high mountains, Tabor’s humbler setting seems an uninspired choice for a manifestation of the divine. Doesn’t the experience of divine presence require the less accessible, more transcendent heights of a Mt. Sinai, reached only with bleeding feet and gasping breath?

The lectionary readings for the Transfiguration don’t seem worried about the comparison. Sinai and Tabor are both remembered as summits where the divine presence was revealed to mortal sight. The gospel description of a cloud overshadowing the mount of Transfiguration is clearly meant to echo the theophany at Sinai. But the two mountains are in fact very different places.

Sinai is austere, barren, and forbidding, rising out of a desolate landscape that Deuteronomy aptly describes as “a terrible and waste-howling wilderness.” The mountain consists of 580 million year old red granite, overlaid by dark volcanic rock of more recent origin (ten million years ago).Travelers over the centuries have spoken of Mt. Sinai as “dark and frowning”, with its “stern, naked, splintered peaks.” One 19th century pilgrim said, “I felt as though I had come to the end of the world.”

For Moses and his people, its summit was wrapped in the Cloud of Unknowing, where human sight must become blind before it can see the divine light. It is a place apart, inhospitable to ordinary life and everyday knowledge. Its mystery remains hidden from the casual quest. “The knowledge of God,” said Gregory of Nyssa, “is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”

The Israelites were smart enough to know this. They stayed down in the valley where it was safe. Even there, the thunder and lightning around the peak made them shudder. The Exodus text says that just touching the edge of the mountain could kill you. So they were happy to let Moses go up alone. As one ancient writer put it, he “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the One dwells who is beyond all things.”

Medieval mystics said that on the summit, inside the cloud, Moses fell asleep in a supreme self-forgetfulness. Whatever he saw up there was beyond words, but the description of Moses descending is unforgettable: the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid to come near him until he had veiled his face.

This is a story about the otherness of God, the one whose incomprehensible mystery is utterly beyond our world, beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp.

In choosing Tabor as the site to commemorate the Transfiguration, tradition has invoked God’s less forbidding aspect. Tabor is what geologists call a monadnock, a native American word for “mountain that stands alone.” Resistant to the erosion that reduced its surroundings to a low plain, its solitary rounded shape draws the eye from miles around. Set in a fertile portion of the Galilee, it is adorned with grasses, shrubs, and groves of pine, oak, and cypress. Where Sinai is fierce and forbidding, Tabor is gentle and welcoming, pleasant and hospitable. Its modest scale and cheerful greenness made me feel at home when I climbed it nearly thirty years ago.

The attributed setting of the Transfiguration is very different, then, from Sinai; but so are the details in the gospel text. Instead of a dark cloud, there is a clear, bright light. Instead of an unspeakable mystical experience by a solitary Moses, there is a describable vision to which several disciples are witnesses. And instead of requiring a long and arduous pilgrimage to a distant place, the Transfiguration takes place in the familiar geography of the disciples’ home turf.

In other words, this gospel story is about the immanence of God, the presence of the divine in the very midst of our stories, not just at their remotest edges. We don’t have to leave where we are in order to find God. God can be found right here, where we are living our lives. Epiphanies come in unexpected places. God may be found in the humblest dwelling.

Recently I climbed one of my own favorite summits––Mt. Tallac, which at nearly ten thousand feet towers above Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada. When I was a child, we took family vacations at the lake, spending a week every summer in a rented cabin. While we rarely ventured far from the water, Tallac always loomed above us like a beckoning power, and even as a small boy I felt its summons. I was about ten when I finally made it to the top, and I have returned a number of times since. As a young man, I went up by moonlight to watch the sun rise over Lake Tahoe. In middle age, I ascended at sunset to view a lunar eclipse.

This time, there was no celestial display, and certainly no mountaintop theophany. The only words I was given at the top came from a conversation between two young women who were starting back down. As they passed me, I only heard one sentence: “Was she drunk at the time?” What could I make of such an oracle? On this hike, all my mountain revelations would turn out to be nonverbal.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” exclaimed Sierran saint John Muir, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” And on my 12-mile Tallac pilgrimage,  there were many windows indeed.

The journey up the mountain begins gently, along the banks of Glen Aulin.

Checker-mallow halfway up Mt. Tallac.

Jeffrey pine west of Tallac.

Wooly mule ears, looking west from Mt. Tallac.

A marmot at the summit.

Lake Tahoe from the top of Mt. Tallac.

More than halfway down the steep side, a view of Fallen Leaf Lake and journey’s end.

Anglican poet-priest R. S. Thomas described a natural epiphany of his own in “The Bright Field.” At first it seemed a common enough sight: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate a small meadow. The image quickly slipped from his mind as he went on his way. But in retrospect he realized that the gift of that moment had been “the pearl / of great price, the one field that had / the treasure in it.” If only he had been prepared to give it his full attention.

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

If only we too would turn aside from our headlong forward rush to notice the illuminations strewn along our way. As I made my descent from Tallac’s summit, taking a steeper, shorter return route to Fallen Leaf, I was less prone to dally. There were snowfields and rockslides to cross, and I needed to reach Fallen Leaf Lake before sunset. Halfway down I spied a magnificent corn lily nested in a thicket about twenty feet from the trail. In my haste I almost passed it by. But then my soul stepped on the brakes, and I turned aside to behold the miracle of its beauty. I waded through the brush for a closer look. Was it “only” a corn lily, veratrum californicum, or was it, as the poets and mystics say, an epiphany “afire with God?”

Corn lily on the southern slope of Mt. Tallac.

 

Related posts:

The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration