Holy Night

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (detail, c. 1438-1443, Convent of San Marco, Florence).

Today the virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is, in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, universe, when you hear it heralded: with the angels and the shepherds, glorify the One who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, while remaining God in all eternity.

                                                          ––– Preparation of the Nativity, Orthodox Liturgy

O Emmanuel (Dec. 23)

Climate March, Seattle (Eastertide, 2017).

O Emmanuel, 
you show us the face of divinity,
you reveal the fullness of our humanity.

Come: enable us to become who we are.

As Advent draws to a close, we speak the most impossible of divine names: Emmanuel––God with us. “How can this be?” wondered the young woman chosen to be the Mother of God. How can human flesh contain the Infinite? It is the profoundest of mysteries, and the how of it is beyond our grasp. But this much we are meant to know: Incarnation doesn’t just happen to God. It happens to us as well. 

In the Nativity, our humanity became a place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. As St. Paul put it, “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory” (II Cor. 3:18). Imagine that!

“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race,” said Thomas Merton, “though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race. 

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person],” he continued, “a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Confirmands at Saint-Sulpice (Paris, Eve of Pentecost, 2012).

O Adonai (Dec. 18)

Christ in Majesty, Basilica of Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, France (12th century).

O Adonai, 
ruler of time and history,
manifestation of divine dominion
to your chosen people,
may your presence be our burning bush.

Come: bring justice to the poor,
food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless
protection to the vulnerable
,
freedom to the prisoner.

For the ancient Jews, the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush was too holy to be spoken, so they substituted the word Adonai (“my Lord”) when addressing God in their worship. This became Kyrios in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. We still pray Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) in Christian ritual.

Will Campbell, the Baptist preacher who wrote The Cotton Patch Gospels, once asked, “What’s the biggest lie told in America?” The answer he gave was: “Jesus is Lord.” What would our lives––and our neighborhoods, our nation, our economy, our politics––look like if we really believed that the Lord of love and justice, the divine defender of the poor and vulnerable, is in fact the ultimate ruler of time and history? 

Adonai, bring that day closer!

Christ as Pantocrator (ruler of the universe) on the dome of the Katholikon, Hosios Loukas monastery, Greece.

Blinded by the Light –– An Advent Meditation

spectra III, an installation by Ryoji Ikeda at Venice Biennale 2019: “a blinding excess, rendering the space itself almost invisible.” (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart describes atheism as “a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd. . . [T]rue philosophical atheism,” he says, “must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”[1]

For the people of Advent, “a world proportionate to our own hopes” is too mean a thing. The mystery of the world and the destiny of mortals are too deep, too immense, to be contained by language or thought. They exceed everything we can ask or imagine. They explode our limited notions of what is real and what is possible.

Not for the people of Advent that “tragic absence of curiosity” so common in a complacent secular culture too busy amusing itself to consider the deepest questions of human existence. Advent people want to know who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going, and how long we’ve got. Most of all, we want to know whether we matter, and whether we are loved.

But are such questions answerable? Our thoughts and concepts only take us so far, like a compass pointing north. “North” is a pretty useful guide––until you reach the North Pole, where the very concept of north loses its meaning. Just so, the closer our thoughts take us toward the divine center, the less they are able to tell us.

At the end of The Divine Comedy, when Dante beholds the presence of God unveiled at last, words fail him:

What then I saw is more than tongue can say.
Our human speech is dark before the vision.
The ravished memory swoons and falls away. [2]

The mystery we call God is always beyond us. Beyond our grasp, beyond our language, beyond our sight. The mystics and great spiritual teachers sometime use the word darkness to convey their experience in close encounters with the divine.

But what they call the darkness of God is not so much a matter of cognitive deprivation, where divinity simply hides its incommunicable essence from finite minds and hearts unprepared to receive it. No, they say, the darkness of God is not deprivation, but saturation. It is not an absence of light, but an excess of glory, that makes our eyes become so dim to divine presence.

It sounds paradoxical––to be blinded by the light of God––but only paradox has the wings to carry us beyond the prosaic into the heavenly place where all contraries are reconciled. The metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, like John Donne and George Herbert, reveled in such holy paradox. Henry Vaughan, for example, wrote that

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. [3]

Was Vaughan just playing with words, or was he on to something? At this year’s Venice Biennale, I had a very literal experience of being blinded by the light in an installation by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda. What happened to me there is perfectly described by the text posted at the entrance:

“spectra III” consists of a corridor of bright fluorescent tubes. This all-encompassing installation bathes the visitor in light so bright it is difficult to see. Akin to a blizzard of data, the experience short-circuits our ability to process what we are seeing, and results paradoxically in a sensory wipe-out. Ryoji Ikeda sees this state of overload as opening the door to an experience of the sublime––a landscape of light too complex to comprehend. The installation functions in parallel to the experience of total darkness, yet inverts this experience. We are similarly disoriented but instead of an absence of light by which to see, there is a blinding excess, rendering the space itself almost invisible.

That’s exactly what happened to me in that corridor. I had never before experienced such a literal analogue to the blinding luminosity described by the mystics. It was truly a “deep and dazzling darkness.” Almost painful, to tell the truth. Certainly too much for my mortal eyes to take in.

It may seem paradoxical to speak of the darkness of God at the beginning of Advent, when we light candles against the lengthening nights, and pray for the “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light,” as if the soul’s journey were a straightforward itinerary from deepest midnight to eternal day. But as the mystics and poets insist, God-talk must be paradoxical to be useful and true. “God draws straight with crooked lines,” they say. God is the burning bush and the cloud of unknowing. You can’t have one without the other.

“God goes belonging to every riven thing,” says the poet Christian Wiman.

He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
 
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made. [4]

God is “apart” from what we know, transcendent to our empirical minds––minds which themselves keep God at a distance through our forgetfulness, idolatry, and egoism. And yet God wants to be near, wants to be known. God “goes belonging” to every riven thing: the broken, the wounded, the lost. God goes belonging to us all. And in so doing God’s own self is riven into the contraries of darkness and light, near and far, infinite and incarnate, present and absent, visible and invisible.

Advent’s great themes are seeking and waiting, hoping and expecting, longing and desiring. We go looking for God, searching for signs of God’s appearing.

Sometimes, in our search, we seem only to find darkness, silence, or absence, because we are looking in the wrong place, or in the wrong way. Or we are simply looking for the wrong thing, and need to be denied the fulfillment of inadequate expectations because they are too small or ill-proportioned to fit the immeasurable desire of God. For example, we might expect a well-armed conqueror instead of a servant and sufferer. Or we might expect an irresistible righter of wrongs instead of a helpless refugee child lying in a manger­­––or, these days, lying in a cage.

We were made to be in union with God, and our desire for that union is the deepest truth within us. We feel incomplete and unfinished without it. But our desire often goes astray and misses its mark, attaching itself to something well short of God. If our desire gets stuck on anything less than God, we will waste our lives worshipping the wrong thing,

In a 1967 film by Jean-Luc Godard, a well-dressed couple in a sporty convertible pick up a hitchhiker who tells them he is God. They are very excited to meet him. “Can you do miracles?” asks the man, “Can you make me richer?” His wife adds her own requests: “Can you make me young and beautiful?” And “God” replies, “Really? Is that all you want? I don’t do miracles for idiots like you!” [5]

One of the reasons that Christians worship together and pray together and learn together is to train our desire, so we don’t wait for the wrong thing, or hope for the wrong thing, or love the wrong thing, but always keep our eyes on the prize. Admittedly, God isn’t all that easy, and God is certainly not tame. As Emily Dickinson said, the divine “invites––appalls––endows–– / Flits––glimmers––proves––dissolves–– / Returns––suggests––convicts––enchants / Then––flings in Paradise––“[6]

Still, we are not deterred. Still, we cry Maranatha! Come, Lord, come! At least some of us do. There are those who don’t, for they think God is too invisible or too impossible to take into account. But isn’t that the point? Nothing we can see can save us. Nothing that is possible can rescue us. Paradox, paradox…

The human condition, suspended somewhere between the finite and the infinite, is a complicated puzzle, a question with no clear answer. As for the times we live in, Humphrey Bogart summed it up nicely in the film Beat the Devil:

“What’ve you got to worry about? We’re only adrift on an open sea with a drunken captain and an engine that’s likely to explode any moment.”

Is God coming to save us? As we know, that question is often answered by delay. Or worse, silence. We peer toward an uncertain horizon, looking for the One who comes with clouds descending, or at least for the comforting glow of dawn. But the horizon is hidden by what Nicholas of Cusa, a fifteenth-century German theologian, called “that obscuring haze of impossibility.”

And the darker and more impossible that obscuring haze of impossibility is known to be, the more truly the Necessity shines forth and the less veiledly it draws near and is present… I give You thanks, my God, because… You have shown me that You cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility appears and faces me.” [7]

I love Nicholas’ name for God: “the Necessity.” And I love his image of divine revelation as the moment when “impossibility appears and faces me.” The impossibility, the beyondness of God––beyond all knowing, beyond all saying, beyond all seeing––abolishes our limiting notions of what is possible, making a way where there is no way. O for that Night! where I in him may live invisible and dim.

All this talk of the darkness of God, the hiddenness of God, the elusiveness of God, may seem to run counter to the more affirmative language we usually employ in the liturgy as well as in the conversations we have together as people of faith.

We call ourselves God’s friends. We experience God’s closeness in times of gratitude and times of need. We see God’s hand in works of justice and mercy, and feel God’s Spirit in the reconciling and sacrificial love of human relationships. We meet God in Scripture, in community, in nature, and in beauty. We meet God in the poor, the vulnerable, and the dispossessed.

But sometimes God is hard to find or hard to perceive, and in those times we must speak the Advent language of not-exactly, not-here, and not-yet. That’s why the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent always has Jesus warning us to be on the ready. “Out with the old and in with the new! The world of the past is falling down, falling down. Whatever is going to happen next, expect the unexpected.”

Faced with the collapse of old ways and familiar certainties, where shall we look for God in the brave new world?

There’s a story about a man who dreams he is wandering among the labyrinthine stacks of the immense Clementine library in Prague. A librarian wearing dark glasses approaches him to ask, “What are you looking for?”

“I am looking for God,” he says.

“Ah,” said the librarian. “God is one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand volumes in the Clementine Library. My parents and my parents’ parents searched for that letter. I myself have gone blind searching for it.” [8]

We’re all searching for that word, that moment, that appearing. It may bring the holy blindness of the mystics, or it may bathe you in the gentler glow of illumination. God only knows. Either way, you will not be left comfortless. God goes belonging to every riven heart.

In this season of Advent, I invite you to contemplate the paradoxical depths of the divine, to immerse yourselves in periods of wordless prayer within God’s luminous darkness. Set aside your concepts and your dogmas, and wait in the stillness of unknowing for the Word to speak. The God who is beyond all language and beyond all knowing wants to disclose Godself to us, wants to give Godself to us. That is the divine desire––the siege of God at the gates of our heart.

Stay awake. Pray for grace. Do not lose faith. As Jackson Browne exhorts us in his great Advent song, “For a Dancer”:

Keep a fire burning in your eye,
and pay attention to the open sky––
you never know what will be coming down.

One last thing.

Paul Celan was a Romanian Jewish poet who survived the Holocaust. It has been said that his difficult poetry “is not willed obscurity” but “comes out of lived experience and is ‘born dark.’” [9]  Celan knew the darkness of hell, but he also knew another kind of darkness, a darkness which paradoxically contains the seeds of light.

His poem called “The Narrowing” [10] includes a stanza of four short lines that express the spirit of Advent people––the people who sit in darkness without losing faith in the light to come. In just 16 words, the verb “came” is spoken 5 times, like an incantation in response to our beseeching prayer, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” What comes, comes in the dark, but it brings a desire for light:

Came, came.
Came a word, came,
came through the night,
wanted to glow, wanted to glow.

 

 

 

This post was delivered as a sermon on the First Sunday of Advent, 2019, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

For links to other Advent resources: How Long? Not Long!––The Advent Collection

 

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 16.

[2] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso xxxiii: 55, trans. John Ciardi.

[3] Henry Vaughan, “The Night,” cited in Peter O’Leary, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 85.

[4] Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing,” in Every Riven Thing (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011).

[5] Jean-Luc Godard, Weekend (1967).

[6] Emily Dickinson, “The Love a Life can show Below.”

[7] Cited in Didier Maleuvre, The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 143.

[8] From “The Secret Miracle,” a story by Jorge Luis Borges.

[9] From Shoshana Olidort’s Chicago Tribune review of Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, cited on the Poetry Foundation website: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/paul-celan

[10] The original German title is “Engführung.”

“I Once Was Lost”: Rethinking Jesus’ Most Beloved Parable

Alexander Sokurov, “Lc. 15:11-32” (Prodigal Son installation, 2019). Sculptures by Vladimir Brodarsky & Katya Pilnikova.

 Life is a dialectic of dwelling and wayfaring, in the world yet not of it.

––– Erazim Kohák

I once was lost, but now I’m found.

––– John Newton

 

Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is the Bible’s preeminent tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. The welcoming father’s embrace of his foolish and errant son is a vividly concise summary of the gospel message: We can never be so lost that we cannot be found. We can never be so wrong that we cannot be loved.

Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, would be one of his final works. He was bankrupt, his style no longer in vogue. His wife and three of their children were long dead, and he would have to sell his wife’s grave to pay his debts. His only surviving son Titus, age 27, died of the plague even as the parable’s “lost son” was taking form on canvas. As Rembrandt struggled with his own sadness and despair, he created the most indelible image of mercy in the history of art.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1167-1669).

Father and son emerge from a world of shadows, for compassion is the light of the world which no darkness can comprehend. The arch formed by the father’s welcoming arms is echoed by the arched doorway in the background, showing love to be the true way home. And unlike most other artistic depictions of this scene, there is no happy glance between the reunited pair. The prodigal’s repentant posture delays the moment when their eyes will meet.

Kierkegaard wrote at length about the “infinite qualitative abyss” between God and humanity, a condition due not only to the uncrossable difference between finite and infinite, but also to the profound estrangement from the holy wrought by human sin. Given the magnitude of the gulf between ourselves and the divine, how could we ever be in relation with One who is so totally other? “The danger,” said Kierkegaard, “is that God becomes so dreadfully and irreconcilably Other to the self that one is swallowed up by the horror of this infinite qualitative abyss.” [1]

The modern solution to the gulf between human and divine has been to ignore (or forget entirely) the Holy Other and concentrate on the human situation in solely human terms, permanently severing the problem of earthly existence from the problem of God. How well that works is a matter of some debate, but for the faithful, such a strategy omits far too much of value. Exiling God from the world is not a solution for our own condition of exile.

The Prodigal Son under the melancholy gaze of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Woman” (1654) in Sokurov’s installation.

We all long to go home, to find the place where we are loved and known and welcomed, the place where all wanderings cease, and we can finally know what it means to dwell. But with the longing comes doubt. Is there such a place? Can we ever get there? And how will the journey change us?

For the unbeliever, human life concludes with annihilation. After our last breath––nothing. But the future of the believer may also be described as a kind of annihilation. As we draw near the absolute center of all that is, the egocentric self can no longer maintain its pretentious fictions. The really Real exposes our own unreality. The gaze of God is fatal to our illusions.

When Moses asked to see God’s face, God told him that “no human may look upon Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This crucial Hebrew text reflects an ancient fear of direct contact with the divine, whose infinite voltage could fry the circuits of finite beings. But the biblical God posed an additional, even greater threat: the penetrating gaze which sees us for what we are.

Day of wrath! . . .
What a great tremor there will be,
when the Judge is to come,
who will examine all things strictly  . . .
I groan, as if accused;
my face blushes because of my fault . . . [2]

Who among us is ready to have every story told, every failure examined, every blemish known? Therapeutic honesty is hard and painful work. Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal that “to see yourself is to die, to die to all illusions and all hypocrisy––it takes great courage to look at yourself.” And, he added, this “can only take place in the mirror of the Word.” [3]

The Christian goals of illumination and divine union must be preceded by confession and purgation. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Even the saints are not exempt; the best of them are brutally honest about their own incompleteness. St. John of the Cross, speaking from personal experience, said that the journey of faith “does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior.” [4]

This annihilation of self––“the living death of the cross”––is not morbid self-hatred (fixating on my sin is just another form of ego), but the abandonment of everything false or misshapen as the necessary prelude to profound transformation. The death of self becomes the beginning of Self.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies. [5]

In Rembrandt’s painting, the Prodigal Son presses his face against his father’s comforting body. He is still in the confessional stage, kneeling with downcast eyes, not yet daring to stand face-to-face with the one he has hurt so deeply. But consciousness of his fault is overcome by grace––the leap of faith which accepts the “impossible possibility” of being forgiven. Only by knowing ourselves as sinners needing mercy can we become aware of forgiveness. The eyes which were cast down by shame will soon be raised up to see the welcoming father face-to-face. “By surrendering its despair before God, the self becomes open to forgiveness: the gift from the divine which is the impossible possibility of coming to know oneself as one is known by God.” [6]

The Kierkegaardian surrender of existential despair in order to receive the gift of mercy applies perfectly to Rembrandt’s painting:

“Justice looks judgingly at a person, and the sinner cannot endure its gaze; but love, when it looks at him––yes, even if he avoids its gaze, looks down, he nevertheless does perceive that it is looking at him, because love penetrates far more inwardly into life, deep inside life, in there where life emanates, than justice does, which repellingly establishes a chiasmic abyss between the sinner and itself, whereas love is on his side, does not accuse, does not judge, but pardons and forgives.” [7]

The Return of the Prodigal Son, acquired by St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum over 250 years ago, has long haunted the imagination of Russian visual artists. In his metaphysical sci-fi film Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky returns his cosmonaut protagonist from the “far country” of outer space to the door of his childhood house, where he is embraced like Rembrandt’s prodigal. But his father, we have learned, is deceased, and his son remains somewhere out in space, light years from earth. Tarkovsky’s moving image of ultimate reunion with both parent and planet earth turns out to be only memory or dream. It is in fact “impossible”––which only deepens the desire to make it so.

The son returns home (in his imagination), from the closing scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972).

Another Russian filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, included Rembrandt’s actual painting in Russian Ark (2002), a meditation on Russia’s troubled history filmed entirely inside the Hermitage in a single 87-minute shot, with the camera moving through the galleries to encounter both paintings and people from different centuries. The pensive French aristocrat we follow from room to room stops for a long time in front of Rembrandt’s great canvas, silently paying homage to its power. For the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Sokurov himself returns to the painting, rethinking its themes with sculpture, video, music, lighting, a mirror, and various objects from an artist’s studio. His installation is called “Lc. 15:11-32,” after the biblical citation for Luke’s telling of the parable.

The sorrowful father in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”

In the first of two dark rooms, father and son stand far apart in the gloom. It is not clear whether they even see each other across the black abyss that separates them. Behind the father are two large video projections representing a world gone wrong. One shows a blurred image of a city dissolving in flames, like an apocalypse by Hieronymus Bosch. The other shows Christ sitting in a desert as soldiers enter with flame throwers to fill the screen with fire and smoke. We realize that not just the son, but the whole world has gone astray. Not even a divine father can fix it. Grace and redemption remain an impossibility in this terrifying darkness.

Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872).

The Christ in the video image is taken from a nineteenth-century Russian painting, Christ in the Wilderness (1872), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, whose humanized Jesus, unlike the serenely transcendent Savior of Orthodox iconography, reflected the revolutionary and questioning mood of the painter’s generation. In an age of religious doubt, traditional understandings seemed out of touch with experience. For Kromskoy, a self-assured Christ radiant with divinity was too detached from human suffering. “My God––Christ––is the greatest of atheists,” he said, “a person who has destroyed God in the universe and shifted him directly to the center of the human spirit and who, therefore, goes calmly to his death.” [8]

One of the video projections in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”.

But how calm can such a Christ really be, sitting now, according to Sokurov, amid the flames and smoke of our endless desert wars? He may be the “fellow sufferer who understands,”[9] but he appears to be as lost as the Prodigal Son, exiled to the far country of human sin. His inheritance of divine power has been squandered by incarnation. He may share our griefs––does he also share our helplessness?

In the vast first room of Sokurov’s installation, estrangement is absolute and unchanging. But beyond it lies a second room, like a small cave, where the abyss of sin and separation is overcome at last. In a sculpted restaging of Rembrandt’s painting, the lost son comes home to the father’s compassionate embrace.

In the second room of Sokurov’s installation, father and son are reunited.

Behind the figures there is a large mirror, whose reflected image repeats the scene, reminding us that every retelling of the parable is but a version of an original which cannot be grasped directly, but only experienced in the second-hand reflections of Luke, Rembrandt, Sokurov, and all the rest of us who engage Jesus’ story. The mirror’s surface is slightly wavy, and it sways slowly back and forth, producing a continuously distorted image, suggesting the instability and uncertainty of every interpretation.

The figures are reflected in a distorting mirror.

The mirror also includes the viewer, allowing each of us to know ourselves as witnesses to the impossible mystery of divine mercy. But such seeing does not always come naturally. While I stood transfixed in this cave of revelation, two young women entered. After a brief glance at the sculpture, they became absorbed with photographing their own misshapen reflections in the mirror, giggling at the funhouse gag.

In my mind, I judged their heedless frivolity, and the moment I did so I became equally blind to the meaning of The Return. I forgot my own prodigal culpability, my own need to kneel with downcast eyes. I forgot the unconditional nature of the father’s embrace. I had become the elder brother.

No matter, says the parable. The prodigal, the proud, the penitent, the foolish––we’ll all be gathered in eventually. And the conclusion of all our wandering stories will be a home of abiding welcome. The door is open. The feast is ready. Love is waiting. Come.

 

 

 

Related Posts:

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Venice Biennale 2019: “A wound in a dance with love”

 

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Simon D. Podmore, Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011), 8.

[2] Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), a thirteenth-century Latin poem about the Last Judgment and our collective plea for forgiveness. It became a traditional part of requiem masses, but its vivid images of doom and “wrath” sound jarring to modern ears accustomed to a kinder and gentler eschatology. However, when we consider the moral and apocalyptic implications of climate change, the notion of a “day of reckoning” when “nothing will remain unpunished” and “even the just can scarcely be secure” seems uncomfortably apt, as does the poem’s anguished cry for rescue and “the gift of forgiveness.”

[3] Kierkegaard Journal, cited in Podmore, 155.

[4] John of the Cross, cited in Hans Boersma, The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 184.

[5] John of the Cross, “The Dark Night,” cited in Boersma, 178.

[6] Podmore, 179.

[7] Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Podmore, 173-174.

[8] Ivan Kromskoy in a letter to a friend, quoted in Walther K. Lang, “The ‘Atheism’ of Jesus in Russian Art: Representations of Christ by Ivan Kromskoy, Vasily Polenov, and Nikolai Ghe,” I recommend the entire article for those interested in art and faith. It is found on the website Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn03/272-the-qatheismq-of-jesus-in-russian-art-representations-of-christ-by-ivan-nikolevich-kramskoy-vasily-polenov-and-nikolai-ghe

[9] Alfred North Whitehead’s famous description of God has provided a moving and influential image of a divinity deeply affected by human suffering, a God who takes our pain into Godself. Critics of such theology wonder whether too much divine power has been relinquished. Can a vulnerable God still save us?

“The Worm That Gnaws the World”––Trump and the Problem of Evil

Dis gnaws the traitors in the pit of hell (Inferno 34), Codex Altonensis, Pisa, c. 1385.

Trump will eat your soul in small bites.

–– James Comey

What could I say, what could I do to help this wounded creature whose life seemed to be flowing away from some secret hurt?

–– Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

 

In his timely essay on “The Psychology of Evil,” Frank Batavick summarizes M. Scott Peck’s diagnosis of evil as a personality disorder:

“Evil individuals programatically indulge in scapegoating, blaming personal problems or the problems of society on someone else or another class of people. That’s because the evil parties consider themselves above reproach and must deny their own badness. By lashing out against others and saying they see evil in them, they are able to transfer their guilt. Evil people are also unable to assume the viewpoint of their victims, and so they lack empathy for the hurt they have caused with their cruel words and deeds.”

Such “malignant narcissists” reject all criticism and repress all self-doubt. They cannot bear the pain of introspection. As “people of the lie,” they deceive themselves as well as everybody else. Their own will trumps all others, and they take no responsibility for the damage they do. As Peck put it, “It is said ‘neurotics make themselves miserable; those with character disorders make everyone else miserable.'” [i]

Our country was poorly prepared for such an “evil” person to be given the power of the Presidency. So far Trump has paid little price for defying norms and breaking laws. And his 10,000 lies (since being elected) go largely uncontradicted in the media, which simply repeat them without correction 65% of the time [ii], amplifying his corrosive disinformation many times over. Corruption, collusion, federal child abuse, a shameless war on the poor, the strangling of democracy, and the ravaging of planet earth are all met with a shrug by craven Senators and 40% of the electorate. Even our best-intentioned leaders lack effective means to contain the raging fires of fascism, tribal hatred, and climate suicide.

What’s going on now, what’s driving us all to the brink, seems more than one man’s “personality disorder.” It may be too late for therapy. We need an exorcism.

“The world of evil is so far beyond our understanding!” says Georges Bernanos’ fictional country priest. “Does the Monster [Satan] care that there should be one criminal more or less? Immediately he sucks down the crime into himself, makes it one with his own horrible substance, digests without once rousing from his terrifying eternal lethargy.”[iii]

Bernanos’ image of evil as an eater of souls, a black hole sucking everyone’s crime into its own “horrible substance” seems disturbingly apt for these times. None of us is exempt from its gravitational pull. Even as we resist its malignancy, we risk being tainted by it, feeding it with our own fascinated loathing. Gaze at it too long and your own heart turns to stone.

As Bernanos’ priest warns a young woman whose hatred for her father’s mistress is eating her own soul:

Who are you to condemn another’s sin? He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it. You hate this woman and feel yourself so far removed from her, when your hate and her sin are two branches of the same tree. Who cares for your quarrels? Mere empty gestures, meaningless cries––spent breath. Come what may, death will soon have struck you both to silence, to rigid quiet. Who cares, if from now on you are linked together in evil, trapped all three in the same snare of vice, the same bond of evil flesh, companions––yes, companions for all eternity.”[iv]

 

Eugène Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell (1822)

In the Divine Comedy, Dante finds the direct road to salvation blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, representing “the three dispositions that heaven refuses”–– incontinence (obsessive lust for one’s own satisfaction), violence (the will to do harm, but also mindless rage) and fraud (hatred of truth and betrayal of trust). His only remedy is the downward path into the depths of the human shadow, facing the condition of our fallenness with honesty and humility.

Aided by a wise companion (Virgil) and protected by the powers of heaven, he makes his harrowing descent into the underworld. Along the way, various monsters and demons try to hinder his pilgrimage. The Minotaur tries to bully Dante and Virgil, but it becomes so consumed with “inhuman rage” that it loses focus. “Run past him while he’s going berserk,” shouts Virgil, and the pilgrims slip safely by.[v]

Further down, the hybrid form of Geryon, “that foul effigy of fraud,” seems even more daunting. “Behold the beast whose stench afflicts the world,” warns Virgil. Geryon has the face of “a righteous man, benevolent in countenance.” These are qualities seen nowhere else in hell, but Geryon’s disarming smile is only a mask. His body is that of a serpent (the archetypal deceiver) and his tail wields the poisonous sting of a scorpion. In classical myth, Geryon “enticed strangers to be his guests, only to kill and eat them.”[vi]

But while Dante is left by himself for a time to converse with dead souls, his guide (we know not how) manages to tame the beast, who consents to carry them into hell’s deepest place. It’s a frightening plunge into darkness, with only the blast of air against the poet’s face to measure the speed of their descent. Recalling the tragic images of Phaeton and Icarus falling to their deaths increases Dante’s sense of panic. “I thrust my head forward / and dared to look down the abyss. / Then I was even more afraid of being dropped, / for I saw fire and heard wailing, / and so, trembling, I hold on tighter with my legs.”[vii]

Facing his fear of the beast and accepting the dangers of the downward passage enable Dante to continue. As Helen Luke insists in her Jungian interpretation of the Inferno, the journey toward wholeness requires us to embrace our shadow and hold on tight. “[I]f we have the courage to see the true menace, and will consent to be aware of our own frauds, then Geryon becomes our servant and will carry us down on his back that we may look upon the roots of evil in the [human] psyche.”[viii]

And what does Dante find at hell’s deepest core? He finds Lucifer, or what is left of him, forever stuck in ice of his own making (the bitter wind generated by his flapping batwings freezes the outflow of infernal rivers). His single head has three faces, each with a different sickly hue. The mouth of each face chews without swallowing the body of a notorious traitor. Everything about him is a wretched parody of the Divine. The three faces parody the Trinity, the freezing wind parodies the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, the eternal chewing parodies the eucharist.

This is not the heroic and colorful rebel of Milton’s Paradise Lost, but a virtually lifeless thing without mobility, speech or thought. The “creature who had once been beautiful” is reduced to “the evil worm that gnaws the world.”[ix] Virgil calls him “Dis”––not a proper name, but a prefix: “away from,” “split-off,” “apart from,” as in “dis-ease” or “dis-order.”

Gustave Doré, Dis frozen in the lake of ice (1861)

Dante scholars Charles H. Taylor and Patricia Finley “dis” the king of hell as the epitome of brokenness : “The figure at the center of the realm of darkness symbolizes what is most split off from consciousness; separated into opposites the ego does not conjoin, giving rise to the psychological splitting and the paranoia that are at the core of destructive pathology. . . Dis stands frozen at the nadir of Hell as the emblem of lovelessness, the coldheartedness at the core of our deepest failures to be human.”[x]

In Perelandra, C. S. Lewis gives a similar diagnosis of Satan as “no longer a person of corrupted will,” but “corruption itself, to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person; but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation.”[xi]

What does all this add up to? Although these various literary and psychological descriptions of evil seem chillingly on the mark with respect to our current political situation, the point is not to demonize Trump. He is doing a fine job of that without our help, and he is a symptom more than a cause. As Gandalf says of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know. . .”[xii]

And I make no claim for anyone’s innocence––not even the saints who “persevere in resisting evil.”[xiii] As Will Campbell has reminded us in his succinct summary of the Christian faith, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[xiv] Or as Pete Buttigieg, the most theological of the new presidential candidates, told Time magazine recently,

“This idea that we just sort people into baskets of good and evil ignores the central fact of human existence, which is that each of us is a basket of good and evil. The job of politics is to summon the good and beat back the evil.”[xv]

Good and evil are not usual subjects for political discourse, but we live in apocalyptic times. Souls are at stake, the human future is at stake, and to ignore the spiritual dimension of our current crisis only gives the advantage to the malignant shadow trying to consume the world. Night is falling, and it is time to put on the armor of light.

But as the Bible says in its most political book, the battle will not be won by our own violent replica of the devouring beast, but by the wounded Lamb of self-diffusive love.[xvi] Bernanos’ compassionate priest is an incarnation of this sacrificial archetype:

“Truly, if one of us, a living man, the vilest, most contemptible of the living, were cast into those burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner.”

But the priest is also realistic about the soul-eating alternative: “the sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.”[xvii]

Trumeau (detail), St. Marie de Souillac, France, 12th century.

 

Related post: Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk Into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Frank Batavick: “The psychology of evil,” Carroll County Times, March 23, 2017. https://www.carrollcountytimes.com/columnists/opinion/ph-cc-batavick-032417-20170320-column.html

[ii] Matt Gertz & Rob Savillo, “Study: Major media outlets’ Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day,” Media Matters, May 3, 2019. https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2019/05/03/study-major-media-outlets-twitter-accounts-amplify-false-trump-claims-average-19-times-day/223572

[iii] Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 144.

[iv] Ibid., 138-139.

[v]Inferno, Canto xii.

[vi] Robert and Jean Hollander, note on Canto xvii.1-3, in their translation of Dante’s Inferno(New York: Doubleday, 2000), 295.

[vii] Inferno, Canto xvii, Hollanders translation.

[viii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’sDivine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 33.

[ix] Infernoxxxiv.108 (Hollander).

[x] Charles H. Taylor & Patricia Finley, Images of the Journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 111.

[xi] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (1943).

[xii] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (London: The Folio Society, 1997), 162.

[xiii] From the baptismal vows in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[xiv] Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (1975). In a conversation following the killing of Episcopal seminarian and Civil Rights martyr Jonathan Daniels, Campbell was asked to sum up Christianity’s message in 10 words or less. His response indicated that simply pointing the finger at the evil of others did not do justice to the shared condition––and salvation––of fallen humanity.

[xv] Buttegieg, an Episcopalian, has also referenced Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet as model for serving the common good. Time interview is quoted here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/5/5/1855559/-Pete-Buttigieg-shut-down-homophobic-hecklers-then-got-support-from-a-surprising-sourceThe footwashing quote is here: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/04/07/pete_buttigieg_hypocrisy_of_evangelical_christians_supporting_trump_is_unbelievable.html

[xvi] In Revelation, a beast uttering “haughty and blasphemous” words makes war on the saints. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” everyone wonders. God’s reply is not an angelic army, but the Lamb offered since the creation of the world (Rev. 13).

[xvii] Bernanos, 164.

A fig tree and a burning bush walk into a homily. . .

Richard Misrach, “Desert Fire #81” (1984)

This homily for the Third Sunday of Lent is a double feature. The lessons from the Episcopal lectionary, Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13: 1-9, are not thematically connected, but I felt both stories demanded attention.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus and some other folks talking about the local news. It’s something humans have always done, shooting the breeze about unusual or dramatic events. We don’t expect our conversations around the water cooler or wherever to be recorded for posterity. But 2000 years later, we’re still hearing about some Galileans slaughtered by the Romans during a sacred ritual, and eighteen unnamed victims killed by a falling tower.

But there’s no film at 11. We are given no further details. Some scholars speculate that both incidents involved the Zealots, Jewish rebels who may have been killed by the Roman soldiers during acts of resistance. Perhaps some Zealots were staging a demonstration in the Temple when the Romans struck them down. They died in the very spot where animals were being sacrificed in an atonement ritual. The image of their blood mingled with the blood of animals sacrificed on the altar was a horrific mixture of violence and the sacred. People wondered, if the animals were dying for the people’s sins, for whose sins did those Galileans die? Could it have been their own?

As for the Siloam tower, could it have been a rebel stronghold destroyed during a Roman siege, another case of those who live by the sword dying by the sword? Or maybe it collapsed in an earthquake, a so-called “act of God.” Or maybe it was built by crooked contractors who used shoddy materials. Or maybe it collapsed for no apparent reason at all.

Whatever the causes of those tragedies, people wanted to make sense of them, so they could continue to live in a predictable universe where events have reasons and everything can be explained. If we’re unwilling to live in a universe of absurdity or blind chance, we need to know why bad things happen to good people. And one of the easiest answers is to say that maybe good people aren’t so good. Maybe in some way they get what they deserve, like people’s bad habits catching up with them, or our collective addiction to oil bringing the climate apocalypse down on our heads. Or maybe human suffering is somehow God’s will, even if we can’t say why.

Jesus quickly dismisses this kind of simplistic blaming of the victim. He says there is no simple correlation between sin and suffering. The victims of those tragedies were no worse offenders than anyone else. The problem of reconciling human suffering with the providence of a loving God remains complex and ultimately insoluble in human terms. Jesus recognized that. And 2000 years later, we are still puzzled by the question of “why?”

But Jesus was not that interested in a theoretical discussion about the problem of suffering. He wanted the people in that conversation to consider their own situation. Did they think their story needed to get different? Were they prepared to change their life?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What does Jesus mean by this? Without knowing the actual details of those ancient news stories, it’s hard to say for sure. If both incidents involved acts of armed rebellion, repentance could mean a refusal to participate in a world of reciprocal violence. Stop living by the sword, or else. More broadly, it could mean that we should stop describing the world as a place where God dishes out suffering or endorses any form of human violence.

Jesus could have meant many other things as well.  Renounce your self-righteous pride, and stop demeaning those who suffer as less good or less deserving than you are. Never presume your own innocence. No one is without sin, whether it’s personal sin or collective sin. The world’s troubles are not somebody else’s problem. Like it or not, everyone is implicated in a world of interrelated causes. And don’t treat life’s blessings as rewards for good behavior. They are gifts freely given by a generous and loving God, and you should receive them humbly and gratefully.

Stop trying to make the world controllable or predictable with simplistic explanations. Life is complicated and sometimes it’s sad. You can’t always have it go your way or have it make sense. You have to live by faith in love’s bigger picture.

In other words, if any of you think you can live in this world without grace, without mercy,
you have perished already.

Jesus ends this challenging conversation with a parable of mercy. A barren fig tree is taking up valuable space in a vineyard, sucking up nutrients and moisture needed by the grapevines. “Time to cut it down!” says the owner. But the gardener pleads, “Give it a little more time. I’ll add some fertilizer to help it along. That may make all the difference. If there’s still no fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”

That’s how the parable ends, but when next year rolls around, I suspect that the gardener will be telling the owner the same thing: “Just one more year. I know it can be fruitful. It just needs a little more time, a little more nourishment. A little more tender mercy.”

Now let’s leave that fig tree, and travel further back in time, 1400 years before Jesus, to see a very different kind of plant: a bush in the wilderness of Sinai—a bush which burns, without being consumed.

I saw a burning bush once, not in Sinai, but in the hills of Palestine. I was walking on a trail near Ramallah in the West Bank, when I saw a shepherd leading a small flock through a ravine below me. About 30 yards beyond him, a bush was on fire. I never found out why. But having imbibed the story of Moses since childhood, I could only experience this inexplicable reenactment with a sense of wonder. It was a gift, and I received it gratefully.

I heard no voice. For me, only the story speaks now. But for Moses, the voice came from the midst of the fire: “Moses, Moses!”

The Scripture does not tell us whether Moses is surprised, shocked, or frightened by this sudden intrusion of the divine into the routineness of a shepherd’s day, though we might imagine all of those things. All we know is that Moses responds as if his life were made for precisely this moment: “Here I am,” he says.

God calls, Moses responds. No matter how unlikely or uncanny this encounter between divine and human may be, no matter how unprepared Moses might feel for such a meeting, his whole being rises to the occasion. Before the voice even identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, Moses experiences the kind of recognition described by the mystics, an awakening to a reality so profound, so insistent, so real, that it seems to make perfect sense despite its utter strangeness.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote a poem, “Love after Love,” about the sudden recognition of your inmost reality, your deepest truth, which was there all along even though you hadn’t quite known it until it suddenly greeted you face to face:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. . .

That is what I think Moses must have experienced, must have suddenly known, when he heard his name called from the midst of the flaming bush. That voice, however uncanny and unfamiliar, also produced a sense of recognition. Oh! it’s you, isn’t it. It’s you. The one who knows me by heart!

And Moses, however surprised he may be to meet at last the stranger who has loved him all his life, consents to the encounter with his response: “Here I am.” That couldn’t have been easy, for the divine stranger in the burning bush was not the gentle presence in Derek Walcott’s poem. Whatever Moses knew about God, he believed that it was a fearful thing to look divinity in the face. Mortals were not wired to handle so much voltage. So while Moses listened to the voice, he was afraid to stare into the fire.

So what happens next? As we know from our baptismal covenant, when God calls our name, that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new life, a life where something is asked of us. Vocare––to call––is the root of vocation. To be called is to be given a vocation. When God calls us, it is to do the holy work of repairing the world.

That work takes many forms, as each of us must discover as we practice our own vocation in a world of such great need. In Moses’ case, his work was to speak truth to power, stand up to the tyranny of Pharoah, and lead God’s people out of bondage to the land of promise.

That was a huge and intimidating assignment. Moses balked at first. “Who am I to do such an impossible thing?” But God was insistent. When God gets an idea, it’s no use saying no. And there’s no turning back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Every time we gather in God’s house, the bush burns and the flames speak. We hear the voice of God, the stranger who has loved us all our lives, who knows us by heart, calling our name. But we don’t get to stay by the fire forever, gently warming ourselves in the loving presence of the divine. Mary Oliver’s poem, “What I have learned so far,” makes this point perfectly:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?

The poet goes on to say that our only choice is “indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.”

The voice in the flame is the voice that ignites us and sends us forth, to do the work God has given us to do. Some of that work seems feasible enough. As the Prayer Book says, “tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.” But some of the work of loving our neighbor and repairing the world can seems overwhelming, even impossible. When we hear words like “racism,” “mass killings” or “climate change,” we cringe at their magnitude. Like Moses, we are tempted to cry, “Who am I to make a difference?”

And what does God say then? Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

Okay, Moses says. But if we’re in this together, I need to understand something about who you are. I need to know your name.

And God says to Moses, “‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.” It is a strange and mysterious name, whose precise meaning has eluded translators, scholars and theologians ever since. Robert Alter, whose recently published and profusely annotated translation of the Hebrew Bible should be in every library, says that “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible rendering of the Hebrew. But he suggests that its linguistic ambiguities could also produce variations such as “I-Am-That-I-Am,” “He-Who-Brings-Things-into-Being,” and “I-Am-He-Who-Endures.”

But whether the preferred translation stresses the being of God or the doing of God, whether it evokes the eternal source and essence of reality or the ongoing providential activity woven into the causalities of time and history, God reveals to Moses that whatever happens in this finite world or in this transitory life, God is. God endures. God will be. God will be with us.

However dark the night of violence and death, however deep the waters of catastrophe, God is with us. The God who endured the cross and grave, the God who makes a way where there is no way, will share our journey and deliver us to the place of promise.

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. . .
[the] soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

This is not a prescription for passivity, as when people say stupid things like “God will take care of climate change, so why worry?” No. Passivity in the face of human sin and folly is not faith. It is complicity.

To those who are called and ignited by the Spirit’s fire for the work of repairing the world, God’s promise to be with us produces not passivity, but courage and action. Come what may, whatever sorrows, tragedies or defeats may await us: ‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Holy One remains, arms open wide, to welcome us to our abiding home, the loving heart of the divine mystery.

Or as Jesus put it, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

 

 

 

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