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.”

“Here, right matters.”

Riding upward on Fortune’s wheel (Paolo Manucci, pavement of Siena cathedral, 1504-1506)

“. . . their motives escape us like rites of an unknown religion.”

––– Gilles Deleuze [1]

 

At the end of the eighteenth century, the President of the United States, supported by the religious right and a wealthy elite, began to round up dissidents and throw journalists in jail. He garnered support for this assault upon civil liberties by stirring up fears about war and foreign enemies while dividing the country along the fault lines of self-interest and resentment.

The Vice President, deeply disturbed by this mockery of America’s founding ideals of liberty and the common good, tried to summon hope.

“A little patience,” he said, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. … If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.” [2]

So wrote Thomas Jefferson to a friend in 1798.

After watching this week’s Congressional impeachment hearings, I am trying hard to “have patience till luck turns,” but whether our nation can ever truly recover “the principles we have lost” remains an undecided question. The lawlessness of crimes, corruption and coverup appears to be more than a match for constitutional processes, at least so far.

“This is America,” insists Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. “Here, right matters”[3]  But the President and his allies are doing their worst to prove him wrong. It’s become so difficult to stay ethically focused in the blizzard of bad acts that is the Trump administration, with its distracting whack-a-mole of endless evils.[4] Words and actions which would have scandalized prior generations have been normalized into the banality of daily, sometimes hourly, experience. But during the past week, the House Intelligence Committee has extracted one particular crime out of the ceaseless flow, enabling millions of Americans to examine it in depth.

In the face of a mountain of damning evidence, Congressional Republicans cover their ears and shut their eyes. Their posturing at the hearings has been shamelessly mendacious and painfully childish. Whether their behavior is driven by fear, ambition, or blindness, they act under a malignant spell which not even a clear and present danger to Constitution and country can dissolve. Their motives escape us like rites of an unknown religion. They sleepwalk toward the abyss, dragging America with them.

“We are better than that!” cried Elijah Cummings earlier this year. And Adam Schiff, the chair of this week’s hearings, chose his late colleague’s passionate plea to be the final words of yesterday’s concluding session. So now we must ask: Are we? Are we better than that?

A foundational American myth has been the story of rebirth and renewal. Unburdened by the weight of the past, perpetually empowered to reinvent ourselves, we want to believe in our own agency, the chance to start afresh in every moment. No Old World fatalism shall deter our capacity to act. If there’s a problem, we’ll solve it. If there’s an obstacle, we’ll overcome it. “I know if we come together, there’s nothing we can’t do,” says presidential candidate Joe Biden, expressing a mandatory trope of American rhetoric.

Writing about American cinema, Gilles Deleuze says that it “constantly shoots and reshoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization.”[5] And in that sense our politics are like our movies. We watch in order to rediscover America. But, as Deleuze cautions,

 “. . . we do not perceive the thing or the image in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what it is in our interest to perceive, by virtue of our economic interests, ideological beliefs and psychological demands. We therefore normally perceive only clichés.[6]

Epistemology––the study of what we know and how we know it––is not just the domain of philosophical reflection. When 30-40% of Americans now perceive the world as a place where monstrous and murderous acts are somehow acceptable, epistemology is a political problem. Trump will be gone, sooner or later, but the toxicity of unknowing will take decades to dispel, assuming we manage to survive this perilous time with our democracy intact.

In yesterday’s impeachment testimony, foreign affairs specialist Fiona Hill warned Americans about the Russian strategy to destabilize western democracies:

“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.”

Hill went on to say, “Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”[7]

In other words, if America lives by the lie, it will die by the lie. If a deluded public loses the ability to distinguish what is imaginary from what is real, we are lost. The false narratives of others will be substituted for our own freedom of thought. Who, then, will rescue us from this “body of death?”[8]

This week, in addition to missing three days of rare and precious Northwest November sunshine while staying inside to watch the hearings, I curated a conversation about St. Paul at the Episcopal church of St. Barnabas on Bainbridge Island, Washington. We began with a pivotal passage from his letter to the church at Philippi:

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5)

These words were inscribed in large letters on the wall of the assembly hall in my boyhood school, and for six formative years, from seventh through twelfth grade, they were before my eyes at every morning assembly. Ever since, Paul’s invitation to a radically new kind of perception has continued to challenge my ethical complacency and disturb my spiritual sleep.

To have the mind of Christ, I believe, isn’t asking us to do a little better, but to be radically different, to make our center not the ego or all the assumptions and biases implanted by nature and culture, but something transcending our limited (and limiting) personal standpoint.

As Episcopal theologian Mark McIntosh puts it, faith becomes “a new cognitive framework . . . restructuring the mind and prying it open to the infinite, deathless reality of God.”[9] With the mind of Christ, we see with the eyes of the Compassionate One, the Merciful One, not only desiring what God desires, but becoming the very means of actualizing divine desire in the mending of the world.

In the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor said that “to have the mind of Christ is, in my opinion, to think in his wayand of him in all situations.”[10] In other words, when we “put on Christ” (to use another Pauline image), the question of “what would Jesus do?” becomes existential: What would we do? What will we do? It’s not simply a way of thinking. It is a way of acting and being.

St. Paul was an itinerant pastor to some pretty wayward and quarrelsome congregations, who, he worried, only “bite and devour one another” (Gal. 5:15). He repeatedly exhorted them to renounce partisan rancor and fearful self-indulgence, to let Christ’s mind be in them, manifesting itself in the way they live with each other, and in the way they exist to invite everyone else into Love’s dance.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If is it possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:9-18).

The gap between Paul’s exalted vision of communal life and the present reality of America’s broken public could not be greater. You don’t have to be a Christian, or conflate church and country, to see the wisdom of Paul’s words for our common life as citizens and neighbors. Our refusal to love cannot stand. Paul’s warning to his congregations is aimed at America as well:

Take care, lest you be consumed by one another. (Gal. 5:15).

 

 

I recently photographed the 16th-century pavement image of Fortune’s wheel in the cathedral of Siena in Italy. There are 4 figures riding the wheel; one at the top, one at the bottom, one going down, and one riding upward. I chose the latter for this post as sign of hope.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 94. Deleuze was describing the wealthy characters in the films of Luchino Visconti, but it seems an apt image for the inexplicable behavior of Trump’s political allies.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, June 4, 1798.

[3] Testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 20, 2019.

[4] This does not seem hyperbole to me. My post before the 2016 election, Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now, has proved all too accurate as far as it goes, but who then could have predicted children in cages, the pardoning of war criminals, the betrayal of Kurdish allies, etc. etc.? Just today I read that almost 10,000 premature deaths per year can be attributed to Trump’s gutting of EPA rules. As I said, endless evils.

[5] Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 148.

[6] Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 21.

[7] Fiona Hill, testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 21, 2019.

[8] “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

[9] Mark McIntosh, “Faith, Reason, and the Mind of Christ,” in Paul J. Griffiths & Richard Hutter, eds., Reason and the Reasons of Faith (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2005), 141.

[10] Maximus the Confessor (580-662), Chapters on Knowledge, II, 83, cited in McIntosh, 121.

Bushy the Squirrel: A Justice Parable

My father, an Episcopal priest and producer of Christian media, made a series of filmstrips called Parables from Nature in the 1950s. Based on a children’s book by John Calvin Reid, they retold the parables of Jesus using characters from the natural world. One of these was “Bushy the Squirrel,” inspired by Luke 12:13-21 (the Lectionary gospel for Proper 13, 8th Sunday after Pentecost). The illustrations were painted by Hollywood animation artists, and some of them are included here.

Once upon a time there was a squirrel named Bushy. He was a fine little squirrel, but as he grew older everyone began to notice a change in him. All he cared about was gathering nuts. Every day you could hear his voice ringing through the forest: “Gotta get more nuts! Gotta get more nuts!”

As soon as he stored the nuts he had found, he’d run off to find some more. “This is not enough. Gotta get more! Gotta get more!” Bushy was so obsessed with getting more nuts, he drove all his friends away. And when anyone came to his door collecting for the needy, he just said, “Aw, don’t bother me now. I’m too busy getting nuts.”

After a while, he had so many nuts, he needed a bigger place to put them. And one day he saw an old hickory tree with a big hole in it. It was perfect. But some woodpeckers had made their home in that tree. That didn’t stop Bushy. He kicked the woodpeckers out, and filled the tree with nuts.

Bushy’s neighbors had a hard time finding any nuts left for them to eat. But Bushy didn’t care. He had what he needed. The other squirrels were not his problem.

When winter came, Bushy relaxed in his tree, the happy owner of all those nuts. He didn’t have a care in the world.

Then one night, when he was fast asleep, a wind began to blow, and the wind was so powerful, it broke his tree in half and sent Bushy tumbling into the lake.

“Help me! Help me!” Bushy cried. Mr. Bear heard the shouts, and called the other animals of the forest to the rescue. Suddenly Bushy found that he was not the only person in the world – luckily for him! He needed the others and they needed him.

Bushy’s heart was changed by his experience, and he became a new squirrel, sharing everything he had with anyone who needed it.

The story of Bushy is like a parable Jesus told: There was once a rich man who had a problem. He had too much stuff and didn’t know where to put it all. So he built bigger and bigger storage units. But that didn’t solve his problem, because his appetite for acquisition could never be satisfied. “Gotta get more nuts, gotta get more nuts!”

So is Jesus trying to be Marie Kondo here? Is he offering a useful method of self-help so we can reduce our clutter and make our lives more beautiful and satisfying? Is that why he tells this story––to foster self-improvement? Or is he doing something more radical, more demanding?

What if Jesus had said, “This story is not about you––it’s about us. It’s a story about the foolishness of trying to live as though ‘I’ am the only person in the world. It’s a story about the foolishness of being oblivious to community.” Well, he didn’t say those words, of course. He just told the story, trusting us to have ears that hear.

A certain rich man’s lands brought forth bountiful crops. And he deliberated within himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I do not have a place where I may gather my fruit?”

He deliberated within himself” is a telling image of isolation, suggesting a self utterly cut off from other voices, other perspectives. And notice how he seems surprised by the size of the harvest. As a rich man, he would already possess considerable storage space. But this harvest is bigger than he ever expected or imagined. And when the Bible talks about abundance that is excessive and surprising, that usually means one thing: God is involved, showering down blessings.

A first century listener, steeped in the stories of God’s miracles of generosity, would have picked up on this. And they would have noticed that the rich man’s first response is not one of gratitude or wonder. Does the rich man thank the Creator for the miraculous harvest? Does he laugh in wonder at such a gift? No. His first thought is, “I’ve got a problem. Where am I going to put it all?”

Then he gets an idea:

“I will do this: I will tear down my granaries and build larger ones, and I will gather there all my grain and all my goods and I will say to my self, ‘Self, you have many good things stored up for many a year. Eat, drink, and be merry!’”

In a world full of hungry people, here’s a man who has more than he knows what to do with, and it never occurs to him that he could feed all those hungry people.

As hunger experts point out, hunger is not a problem of supply; it’s a problem of distribution. But distribution is the last thing on this man’s mind. He isn’t just ignoring other people. He seems oblivious to their existence. He is the perfect expression of rampant individualism – untroubled by any sense of interdependent community.

The story makes fun of his isolationism, by having him talk only to himself.

“I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have many good things…”

A narrator would say something like: “Then the man said to himself, ‘Self, you have many good things…’” Instead, the rich man takes over his own narration: “I will say to myself, ‘Self …” and so on. Do you see the difference? This guy doesn’t need anyone, even a narrator. He takes over the telling of his own story. He’s in control, totally self-sufficient.

Whatever the future may bring, he can deal with it, no problem. Just kick back and “eat, drink, and be merry.”

Isn’t this the ideal to which consumerism aspires? Those of us with enough money can acquire everything we need to be self-sufficient. The fundamental unit of our culture is not the tribe or the village, but the single family home. We each have our own rooms, our own food supply, our own car, our own entertainment center, our own set of tools and appliances, our own insurance policies.

The only reason we need to leave the house is to earn the cash in order to maintain the autonomy of our domestic units. If we get rich enough, we don’t even have to do that.

The whole trajectory of the consumerist dream is to declare our independence from the traditional supportive networks of extended family and neighborhood community.

Vincent Miller, a Catholic ethicist, points out that the cash demands of the single family home encourage people to act selfishly:

“Social isolation and the burdens of maintaining a family in this system make it unlikely that other people’s needs will ever present themselves. If and when we do encounter them, we are likely to be so preoccupied with the tasks of maintaining our immediate families that we will have little time and resources to offer. The geography of the single-family home makes it very likely that we will care more about the feeding of our pets that about the millions of children who go to bed hungry around us.” [i]

When we live in isolation from one another, when we fail to nurture the vital aspects of interdependent community, we minimize the ways in which we can either offer help or receive it. Even if we have all the goodwill in the world, we remain trapped within the cash-intensive demands of the consumerist dream. “Gotta get more nuts!”

Ideally, a local church can function as a support system for its members. If someone gets sick or has a family emergency, others in the community step up to provide meals and other forms of assistance. But this kind of support system is exceptional in a society based largely upon isolated autonomous households.

If you don’t have the cash to keep a roof over your head, there is no village to take you in. Maybe you have some relatives somewhere, but they’re probably scattered around the country. And they’re probably running on a tight budget themselves, and don’t have any spare rooms. We’re a long way from the traditional support systems of former times and simpler cultures. Just ask the homeless to tell you their stories.

In American mythology, this is the country of the Lone Ranger, the self-made entrepreneur, the hard-boiled detective with no attachments, or the trucker rolling down that endless highway, free as a bird––and lonesome as hell.

When vast numbers of Vietnamese refugees settled in southern California in the 1970s, they found American culture to be fatal for something they had always taken for granted: the supportive network of extended family. They had to learn, as one writer puts it, that the land of the free means “the perfect freedom of strangers.” [ii]

So Bushy the Squirrel, and the rich man with the storage problem, might be seen as the products of a consumer culture. They don’t need neighbors. They don’t need community. They’ve got everything they need close at hand. There’s nothing for them to do but eat, drink and be merry.

But then what happens? Just when Bushy settles in for a long sleep, a storm breaks open his tree and casts him into the raging waters. In the Bible, whenever something breaks open your neat little world, you can be pretty sure that God is in that storm.

But in Jesus’ parable of the rich man, God intervenes even more explicitly, not with a storm but with words. God speaks to the rich man. In fact, this is the only one of Jesus’ stories where God appears as a character within the story.

And what does God say to the rich man? “Fool!” God says. “Fool!” Now that’s something to wake up your prayer life––to hear God calling you a fool.

Do you remember the most famous use of the word “fool” in the Bible? It’s in the first verse of Psalm 14: The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  The fool is the one who denies God’s presence, who thinks he or she can grab the gift without acknowledging the Giver––or the Giver’s way, which is not the self-possession of me/myself/and I, but rather a ceaseless pouring out of self.

“Fool, on this night they will demand your life from you.
And all the stuff you have stored up, to whom will it belong?”

In an instant––“this very night”––the rich fool discovers that his autonomous life is not only unstable––it is unsustainable.

He had thought that life was a commodity that could be owned and held onto. But he discovers that God operates a very different kind of economy. God’s economy, which we call the Kingdom of God, is a gift economy, where everything is received and nothing can be held onto.

Everything is like the air we breathe. We take it in, we receive the life it gives us, and then we give it back again. Breathe in, breathe out; receive, give back.

A commodity-based economy is an attempt to hold your breath. You take possession of God’s gifts, you take them out of circulation, you lock them away where others can’t use them.

Whereas a gift always keeps moving from hand to hand, a commodity is grasped and hoarded. And to grasp and to hoard is to live outside of God’s economy, where the gifts are always in circulation, always being given away as fast as they are received. If you reject God’s gift economy, and try to live apart from the interdependent circulation of life’s gifts, you are in effect denying the Trinitarian reality––the eternal self-offering, the ceaseless circulation of gifts, that comprises the heart of God.

That is why the Bible insists that if you try to live as though you were the only person in the room, if you try to exempt yourself from interconnectedness and interdependence, from the need to both give and receive, then you are indeed a fool, trying to live against the way we are made to be as images of the divine reality.

The divine reality is a circulation of gifts. When you are oblivious to the presence of your neighbor, you are oblivious to God as well. When you deny communion, you deny God.

On this night they will demand your life from you.

Most translations use the passive voice: “your life will be demanded of you.” But the original Greek verb is in the active third person plural: “They will demand your life from you.” So who might “they” be? The plural language could be a remnant of archaic mythological imagery, a way of speaking about death as the operation of avenging spiritual powers. But this is not really that kind of story. It’s not steeped in old-fashioned apocalyptic imagery like the Book of Revelation. For all we know the rich man dies in his sleep, without any thunder from heaven.

But what if the “they” who demand his life refers to everyone else in the world, all those neighbors whose existence has been ignored by the rich fool? Other people didn’t exist for him. He took what belonged to his fellow beings and kept it for himself. Now they want it back. As the story puts it, they “demand” his life. Is this punishment, or just a realistic understanding of how God’s universe works?

The story does not have God say, “I will demand your life…” The man’s fate is not an apocalyptic intervention from heaven. It’s simply the way things are in an interdependent reality.

The rich man tried to live outside the way of things, outside the economy of God, and in the end it all caught up with him. In the gift economy in which we live and move and have our being, he discovered that you have to keep the gift moving. You have to give everything away, even your very life.

The parable ends with a question:

What will become of everything that you have stored up?
To whom will it belong?

The question is being posed to the rich man in the parable. But it is also being posed to us. To whom does our wealth belong? Not just our money and our stuff, but every good gift we have been given since God put us on this earth, including our souls and bodies, and every breath we take––to whom does all this belong?

In a country plagued with obscene economic inequality, where the rich and powerful will even take food from the mouths of children to gather more wealth for themselves, how shall we respond to this parable? How do we answer its disturbing question?

Maybe greed is normal now. Maybe selfishness is normal now. Maybe crushing the poor and killing the planet for profit are normal now. But Jesus came to tell us that such things are decidedly not normal––not in God’s world. And we would be fools to think otherwise.

In my father’s filmstrip, Bushy learns his lesson and repents of his selfish ways. Its happy ending was meant to encourage the children who watched it in Sunday School. But Jesus concludes the original parable more ambiguously. He leaves us hanging, without knowing the ultimate fate of the rich man.

I suspect that Jesus is inviting us to finish the story ourselves, to construct a happy ending out of our own actions, as we work together to create a world whose blessings are not hoarded, but freely shared; a world where no need goes unmet, and all God’s children can flourish and thrive.

God, bring that day closer!

 

 

 

[i] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture(New York, Continuum, 2004), 50.

[ii] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World(New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 88.

This homily for Proper 13, Year C, will be preached August 4, 2019, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The Mind of Winter

Bainbridge Island, morning (February 10, 2019).

This year’s winter has been intense across much of North America. Even here in Puget Sound, where snow is mostly occasional and swiftly gone, the drifts lie heavy and deep upon the earth. For those of us accustomed to the Northwest’s seasonal grays and greens, so much whiteness is otherworldly.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–– Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

Stevens strove to attain the mind of winter, where all the poet’s fictions, the “pathetic fallacy” by which romantics color the world with their own feelings, are stripped away, leaving only the bareness of uninterpreted bedrock reality. The tree without the seductive flutter of fresh spring leaves, or the gaudy makeup of autumn color. Only behold “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” No more delusions or illusions. A wind that is only wind and not the sound of our keening hearts.

Emerson also stood in that bare place, and in what Harold Bloom calls “the central passage in American literature…the crucial epiphany of our literature’s Central Man,” he experienced what he called a vanishing of ego: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” This pure transparency is itself a fiction – the self and its experience are still being celebrated––but it is a brave leap into the mind of winter nonetheless: to see the world as it is, not as we would have it. Let go of our scripts. Stop coloring the world with our desire. Wait without thought, without premature description, for the world to reveal itself in time, to say whatever it wants to say to us.

Although our images of an earthly paradise are painted with the colors of spring and summer, the blank expanses of the Polar regions have haunted our imagination with equal force. In Moby Dick, all that whiteness struck Ishmael as an erasure of everything familiar, revealing “all other earthly hues…the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods…the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls” to be “subtle deceits…whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel house within.”

Not everyone who journeyed to the regions of ice was as dour as Melville. Many were inspired by their experience of the sublime. Sir Ernest Shackleton, writing of his own harrowing sojourn in Antarctica, said, “We had pierced the veneer of outside things…We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.” But as the history of Polar exploration tells us, such knowledge comes with a cost.

When Amundsen dashed to the South Pole and back with efficient ease and no loss of life, the English admirers of the tragic Scott expedition, who had “died like gentlemen” in the heart of the white void, criticized him for making it too easy and missing the point of full immersion in the mind of winter. “Are these people mad?” was Amundsen’s laconic response.

Bainbridge Island, evening (February 10, 2019).

Literary critic Northrup Frye has described the yearly cycle in terms of mythic archetypes. Spring is dawn, birth, renewal – the realm of comedy. Summer is noon, the season of romance. Autumn is sunset, death, the sphere of tragedy. And winter is darkness and dissolution, whose theatrical form is satire -the naked truth unadorned by projection, uncolored by affection. The cold regarding gaze. And the implication is, “We won’t get fooled again.”

But we will, and that is the endearing nature of the cycle, the turning of the wheel that will take us through comedy, romance and tragedy all over again. We haven’t really forgotten our hard-won knowledge, our steely mind of winter. It’s just that life cannot––should not––be lived without the bright hues of our affections. And so we will keep risking illusion for the sake of the ecstasies that the unromantic Amundsens never taste.

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.