Jesus as ‘Way’

[Sermon delivered at St. Mary’s Kerrisdale on May 11, 2020]

Readings

Ps 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; Jn 14:1-14

Preface

As some of you may know, in the summer of 2018, I was privileged to be able to walk the French Way of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. It is often just called The Camino, or Way. When you pass fellow pilgrims it is customary to greet each other with an enthusiastic ‘Buen Camino!’  The entire trail is over 750 KM, and I walked at least 700 in about 30 days. One thing I noticed as I walked was that there are at least two kinds of pilgrims: Those who were most excited about the destination, and those who were able to really appreciate each step of the journey toward the destination. The former pilgrims would wake up before dawn so they could get a head start. We would be awakened by flashing headlamps and rustling backpacks. They always seemed to be in a rush to get to the next destination. They wanted to make it to Santiago in record time. They ate quickly, they snapped hasty pictures at the sites, and moved on. The other kind of pilgrim was in no particular hurry to arrive anywhere. Often they weren’t even sure where they were going to sleep that night. Some weren’t even all that excited about getting to Santiago! They were just happy to be on the trail. This kind of pilgrim often stood transfixed before the changing scenery, the sunset, and the architecture or vaulted ceilings of the many ancient churches and cathedrals. They sat chatting on the side of the trail. They savored their food. And even though I was very eager to arrive in Santiago, I really tried to be more like the latter kind of pilgrim. I want to draw some parallels between this emphasis on Way and Destination, and our Gospel reading today where Jesus tells his disciples that HE is the Way. And that HE is One with the Father.

Introducing John 14

John 14 is a continuation of John 12 and 13, and it’s helpful to know what comes before what we’ve just read together. At the beginning of Chapter 14, Jesus says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” This is because Jesus has just alluded to his impending suffering and death on the Cross. He has broken the terrible Good News. In fulfillment of Jewish scripture, Jesus has come to Jerusalem as both triumphant King, and suffering Servant. Mary of Bethany has anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume and her own tears. Jesus takes a cue from Mary and models his servant leadership by washing the disciples’ feet.Jesus also predicts that Peter will deny him. Jesus senses that someone will betray him. After verse 14, Jesus goes on to promise the presence of the Holy Spirit. We can feel the disciples’ resistance to the reality of Jesus’s impeding suffering and death. On the other side of the Easter shore, we know the outcome. But for the disciples, what was coming must have been unthinkable.

The Way of Jesus

Early in the Chapter, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them with the Father. John has Thomas naively, but logically, ask Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” ‘OK, so there are enough rooms in the AIRBNB for all of us, but just to be safe, can you give us a Google Map before you go?’  Jesus responds with a bold and puzzling claim: “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We might be tempted to think that Jesus is talking about the church as an exclusive club one must join in order to get to heaven when you die. I have nothing against the Church, and nothing against heaven, but personally, I find this reading to be quite narrow. It is a reading that missing the contemplative riches of Jesus as Wisdom Teacher. So let’s dig a little deeper into this I AM statement.

First, a distinctive feature of the Gospel of John are these I AM statements. I am the bread of life; I am the true vine; I am the light of the world; I am the door of the sheep; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life. These statements would have immediately triggered his Jewish audience’s understanding of God. I AM in the Torah refers to Yahweh. For Jesus to say I AM is to identify himself with God. The Path is a Person. Jesus’s ‘Way’ is not Google Map to heaven. Whereas the Torah sees the Way as a Law to follow, Jesus claims that the Way is a person we can fall in love with. Jesus is God come among his people; Immanuel—God with us. Of course in the synoptic Gospels Jesus is much more muted in his statements of divinity or Messiahship. In John Jesus’s divine identity is on full display.  Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples. But it is not a physical destination as the author has Thomas insinuate. The time-place that Jesus is preparing is the HERE-NOW of God’s indwelling presence. The Kingdom of God is within as Jesus says elsewhere. Toxic Religion is susceptible to turning the way of Jesus into an instruction manual for evacuating earth, rather than an invitation into an experience of fullness.

The Little Way of St. Therese

Yes the Christian path involves morality, ethics, and sacraments. But at its heart is a Person. Thus our own spiritual lives should always be oriented toward cultivating a deeper and deeper love for God and what God loves, Creation. But the Way is not always the heroic way of moral perfection, suffering, or the asceticism of the great saints. You may know about the Roman Catholic saint and Doctor of the Church Therese of Lisieux. She was a French Carmelite who only lived to be 24 years old. She was admitted to her monastery at a very early age, and she was barely known when she died of Tuberculosis in 1897. But her writing on the contemplative path is the work of a true spiritual master. Saint Therese called her path the Little Way. Some of great Saints, her own namesake, Teresa of Avila for example, accomplished great things. But Therese was sickly and uneducated. She couldn’t possibly achieve all that these great saints had achieved. Thus she compared herself to a little flower among the great and showy flowers of the garden of the Saints. She wrote:

“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness.”

Every person has value just for being who they are. And every intention and act of love is a step on the Little Way. Each of these steps is progress on the Way to God. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis I have worried that I am not doing enough. I am not volunteering, I am not a care worker or doctor. But Therese assures me:

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

Yes, Jesus healed the sick, was a master teacher and suffered on the cross for humanity; but he also quietly knelt and washed his disciples’ dirty feet. Feet that carried them on the dusty pathways of Palestine.

Father and Son are One

Ok, now back to John. Jesus said he was going to the Father to prepare a place for his disciples and that he was the Way to the Father. Philip, annoyed that Jesus wouldn’t tell Thomas how to get to this mysterious mansion then asks: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” ‘OK, so if you’re not going to tell us how to get there, at least tell us what we are looking for!’  Perhaps a bit bluntly Jesus answers: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The path leads to the Father. I am the Path. Therefore I am One with the Father. In our Trinitarian theology, Jesus is the Second person of the Trinity. God the Father is Lover, Jesus is Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the love shared between them. Jesus is the Logos in John, the Word spoken by the Father from the beginning. The Father and the Son are one, they are a dynamic and mutually indwelling Cosmic Dance.

This is why we can speak of Christ as so much more than a single person in first century Palestine. There is a universal dimension to Christ that Jesus is pointing out by claiming to be One with the Father. The Apostle Paul never met Jesus. But he was in love with Christ. He is constantly saying that we are in Christ. How else could this be understood than on a cosmic scale? God spoke the World into Being, and thus all of Creation is a Word of God. Jesus is saying to Philip: Can’t you see the Father in me? Can’t you see the Father all around you?

Julian of Norwich’s Christ as Mother

Jesus used the word Abba, Father often. This is not because God is exclusively male; but because God is as intimate to us as a loving Parent who brings us into being and nurtures us to fullness. But today is of course Mother’s day, so I wanted to briefly honor a spiritual teacher who spoke of the motherhood of God and even Christ. We recently celebrated the feast of the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian, an anchorite, wrote unflinchingly of God’s Father and Motherhood. And extrapolating from Paul’s language of being IN Christ, she wrote of Jesus: “And our Savior is our Very Mother in whom we are endlessly born, and never shall come out of him.” While Jesus uses the language of journey and Fatherhood, masculine language, Julian shifts the analogy to birth and gestation of the soul within the cosmic mystery of Jesus as Christ.

The Journey and the Destination

So, in John 14 we learn that Jesus points the way to God with his very person. That human personhood, creatureliness, is fundamentally united with God the Father. If we were to read on, we would see that the Holy Spirit enables OUR fundamental unity with Father and Son. That the way up is also the way down. Down into the depths of our True Selves. That place where God is mothering us into being at each moment. Journey and destination are inextricably linked. The author of John represents Philip and Thomas as no nonsense kind of pilgrims on the Christian Way. They want to know how to get there, and what to look for when they arrive. But to me, just committing to be on the trail, is to already to be united with the destination.

On the day that I arrived in Santiago, I admit, I was excited for my long walk to be over. But I was also a little melancholy that it was all done. I was excited to stand triumphantly in front of the Cathedral at Santiago. The journey had exposed both my strengths and weaknesses. I had tried to appreciate the journey as much as the destination. But my journey didn’t come to an end when I stood facing the façade of the Cathedral. And in fact it didn’t begin with I set out from Pamplona a month earlier. The Way of Jesus is made up of the millions of tiny steps each of us take every day. The steps we take to be a little bit kinder to ourselves and others. The steps we take live a little more deeply from the place of awe and wonder. The steps we take to realize that we too are one with God.

Love in the Time of Corona Virus

[Sermon delivered on March 22, 2020]

Readings

1 Sam 16:1-13; Ps 23; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41

Dear friends in Christ, welcome to spring! But what an unprecedented and devastating way to start the season of resurrection. I hope you are breathing deeply, and loving even more deeply. Please take care of yourselves and let me know if there is anything I can do. 

Yesterday during the Quiet Day, I talked about the Desert as a symbol of the spiritual journey. Desert spirituality is a call to strip down our lives to the essentials. To sink into the mysterious presence of God. One of the early Church Fathers, Jerome said: “The Desert Loves to Strip Bare.” I love that! And spiritually speaking, that is what Lent is for. The Desert Ammas and Abbas believed they could find paradise through the harsh realities of the desert. It seems we are entering in a civilizational Lent. A dark night of the soul. A desert.

The very nature of our gathering [Zoom broadcast] speaks to the unspeakable strangeness of this global crisis. We are living through a devastating global pandemic that threatens the lives of millions, especially the most vulnerable among us. COVID-19 has “hijacked” our need for social connection. Only a demonic force could cause us cancel the Eucharist! In today’s Gospel reading we hear a chilling echo, of the question we are all asking at some level. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? ”Why is this happening?

In theological terms we are grappling with our own Theodicy. Reconciling the Goodness of God with natural and human suffering, pain, death and injustice. Perhaps some might say that famine, disease and war are signs of divine displeasure. Most human cultures have taken some version of this view. Bad things happen because Celestial agencies are displeased with humans, or simply being capricious. Yahweh sent 10 plagues as punishment of the Egyptians for oppressing the Hebrews. I read about one American Pastor who blamed Marriage Equality for COVID-19. There is an alluring but horrifying simplicity to this reasoning.

Or, perhaps we prefer to see God as a distant watch maker, who gets the universe going, and then steps back to allow natural laws to take their course. A pandemic is just the grit of the grinding gear box of evolution. In this view, COVID-19 is the product of a cold indifferent Nature. Slowly working its endless purposeless course. Our fate is sealed.

A more Gnostic view, might say that illness, sickness and death are the work of evil forces. These exist in themselves, in opposition to GOD and goodness. There is a cosmic battle between good and evil, and we must choose sides.

Perhaps you see this crisis as an invitation to reflect on the incompatibilities of our civilization with the flourishing of life? You may be seeing references to the “Revenge of Gaia.” Or “Ecological Karma?” The earth’s natural immune system is rejecting US. The earth has sent us to our rooms, to think about what we’ve done… (as one meme said).  We certainly cannot deny the ecological benefits of mass physical isolation. I am seeing stories of pollution clearing, CO2 levels plummeting, and birds and dolphins exploring the canals of Venice.

To be clear, I personally would never want to justify human suffering in this way, no matter what the ecological benefits. But some of our greatest nature writers have grappled with the stark fact that great beauty and immense suffering inevitably coexist in the natural world. Death and life are intimately woven together. Death is natural. Not to be feared. How else can change, evolution, growth happen? God works through evolution to bring about greater complexity, beauty. Earthquakes, tsunamis and disease are the inevitable byproduct of a living earth. In Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm and The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she unflinchingly examines the horror of death and suffering, a world that is so richly charged with God’s grandeur. Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them…”

Horrifying as it may be there is ultimately an evolutionary meaning behind death and suffering. God wraps their arms around both the beauty and pain of life. Life and death are part of a grand mysterious whole.

For some this is perhaps a favored view of the crisis. That as bad as it is, there is some opportunity hidden behind the chaos. If God doesn’t cause evil directly, God permits evil in order to bring about a greater good. For example, in 1665, Isaac Newton developed his theories of optics, gravity and calculus while in self isolation during an outbreak of Bubonic plague. Of course, this is not to say that God causes evil to bring about good. Many of us are talking about how this crisis has enabled the possibility of stillness. We are being called to a kind of global retreat. I was recently reminded of this quotation from Philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from [our] inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And perhaps this is the scariest part of the crisis for some!

There is much merit in these latter views. I often find myself fascinated with the ecological dimensions of death and dying. It is however, more of a Pagan view than an authentically Christian one. A theology of evil, a theodicy, in the Christian tradition, does embrace the beauty and pain of the world. Evil is not a thing that exists in itself, as in the Gnostic view. Nor is God a distant watch maker. God is goodness itself, not the whole that comprehends good and evil. Evil in this view is a deprivation of the Good. A negative space that does not exist on its own. In David Bentley Hart’s book, The Doors of the Sea, he writes that death and suffering represent a sort of world within a world. He writes:

“The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.” (60-61)

In Jesus, we have hope that God has ultimately defeated suffering and death. How far away that reality seems sometimes!  How dark is the glass through which we see! So, while I laud efforts to find meaning, to make the best of this crisis, might I also suggest that during this time of Civilizational Lent, this Desert time, that we stay a while longer at the foot of the cross. Don’t look away. This crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. Why should we do this? Because as Richard Rohr has recently put it, “for God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us….Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered.” The suffering of others is not just an opportunity for retreat. It is an opportunity to allow suffering to wound us so that God can reach us. And then we might be able to muster the courage to live out of a place of love. Jesus came to make the blind see and those that see to become blind. Who have we been blind to? Who are being pushed even further to the margins? We might be devastated to be fasting from the Eucharist. But as a theologian named Brian Flanagan writes, “In this time in which we are not able to encounter Christ in the assembly or the Eucharist, we always have the opportunity to encounter Christ in the vulnerable.”

God does not cause suffering, but draws goodness out it that the “works of God might be revealed.” What deeper reality are we being called to discover in the heart of suffering and pain? Let us not jump too quickly to Resurrection Sunday. To quaint contemplative purposes in the midst of global suffering. Let us seek to be God’s hands and heart in the world by serving, loving and even suffering. Com-Passion, means to suffer with. Let us not look away. Let us stay close to the Cross.

References

Hart Review: https://theologyandchurch.com/2015/11/10/david-bentley-hart-the-doors-of-the-sea-review-1/

https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/17/how-can-we-be-body-christ-when-coronavirus-closes-our-churches?fbclid=IwAR2pMi3CB6r0LJWAlz9GKnWktaDdFR856iwJ4atSw_RK5ArW7RWXxJFldCQ

A Spirituality of Light and Darkness

Homily delivered on Jan. 26, 2020 at St. Mary’s Anglican Church

Readings

Holy Eucharist: Propers 350; Is 9:1-4; Ps 27:1, 5-13; 1 Cor 1:10-18; Mt 4:12-23; Preface of the Lord’s Day

When I was a child, I would beg God to give me a sign! I remember lying in bed late one night and asking ‘God if you are there, turn on the lights!’ In today’s readings we hear Isaiah predicting that very thing.When God comes to dwell with his people, he will turn on the lights!

Isaiah is looking through the darkness of his present to the bright future of a restored Israel. Zebulon and Naphtali, referred to in the readings, where of course sons of the patriarch Jacob and tribes of Israel. Their territories were on the margins of Israel’s historic kingdom and often took the brunt of invading empires, until their utter collapse under the Assyrian invasion in the 8th century BCE. Their ruin and oppression would someday be undone says Isaiah. The tribes would once again be gathered.

Saint Matthew in this passage and throughout his Gospel, is trying to show his readers that Isaiah’s prophecies had come true in the person of Jesus. Jesus had been baptized by John and called God’s beloved son. In the previous verses of Ch. 4, he has just returned from his 40 days in the desert-wilderness. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near. By teaching the word of God, forgiving sin, and healing people Jesus was acting in the very person of God.

And, by calling his 12 disciples, Jesus is beginning the gathering of the lost tribes, as was promised. The long night of absence was over. The land was filling with the light of the Son!   The play of light and darkness is a powerful image throughout scripture. Today we read:

The people who sat in darkness

have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death

light has dawned.

We hear an echo of Psalm 23 don’t we: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Light is a powerful symbol of God’s presence, power and mercy. One of my favorite Prayers in the Bible, The Canticle of Zachariah, or Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) Zachariah says:

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The ministry of John and Jesus alike were great lights shining in the dark.  Now working with light and dark can be a very helpful analogy. Light is a symbol of wisdom, understanding, science. The Sun was often deified for ancient pagans. The Greek philosopher Plato used the analogy of light and shadow in his allegory of the cave to illustrate his theory of the Forms. Of course Jesus uses it himself when he says ‘I am the Light of the World.’ And as Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr suggests, “At the resurrection, Jesus was revealed as the eternal and deathless Christ…morphed into ubiquitous Light.” It is very common among the first Christians to be called the children of the light. Paul especially loves this analogy. The EnLIGHTenment was a cultural movement that sought to do away with the darkness of ignorance, and elevated human reason as a source of knowledge. We talk about The Light of Reason; or getting a bright idea.

For some of the Gnostic Christians of the second century, light and dark were in cosmic opposition. Good and evil played out in dramatic terms. I worry that we sometimes hold this (heretical) Gnostic view of light and dark, and neglect the spiritual depth of a view of light and darkness as complementary.

Psalm 139:12: Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one. On Mount Sinai, Moses encounters God in a thick cloud. In Deuteronomy, after revealing the Ten Commandments, Moses says to a gathered Israel: “These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness.” For the 6th century monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, darkness was just as useful an analogy for God as light. Rather than seeking the light of illumination, he taught to seek the Cloud of Unknowing. Meaning, all our language, ideas and theology about God is ultimately pointing to a dark mystery beyond our understanding.

In Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, the entire day of chanting and prayer is organized around what the monks call the HINGES OF THE DAY. Morning and evening. Just as in the first chapter of Genesis, the narrator says it was Evening and it was morning the 1st day…” Day and night are complementary. They each speak of God in their own ways. The glorious light of a summer day, and the flourishing of the good earth. The muted tones of dormant winter, and the subterranean fecundity of the soil. Each season has its own unique beauty, purpose and spirituality. Jesus was the light of the world. But he also relished in darkness. For example, the parables were a kind of dark teaching. They were spoken so that some would see but not perceive. They were shadow material.

Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite mystic believed that much of the spiritual journey is a noche oscura, or dark night. In the popular idiom, a Dark Night of the Soul is a hard time, a trial period. But it’s also so much more than that! For John, the spiritual life is about light, it’s about loving God, and deepening our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. And, along the way we get encouragement through graces, blessings, charity. What John calls Consolations. The spiritual life is also inevitably punctuated by periods of what John called Desolations. Times of trial, suffering, spiritual dryness, or even despair. But for John, these nights were signposts of progress on our path toward union with God. For John, the Dark Night is the quiet inflow of God into the soul. But the tricky thing is that the dark night might not feel like Presence.

We often feel the opposite, the apparent withdrawal of God’s presence. This is where we might be tempted to give up, lose interest or grow bitter. In her book When the Heart Waits (1990) novelist and spiritual writer Sue Monk Kidd suggests however, that most living things incubate, or gestate in darkness; whether it’s a seed in the ground or a fetus in the womb, biological organisms tend to mature in the dark.

The 17th century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre De Caussade has one of the most powerful images of this dark fertility: He writes:

“Do You [God] not give fecundity to the root hidden underground, and can You not, if You so will, make this darkness in which You are pleased to keep me, fruitful? Live then, little root of my heart, in the deep invisible heart of God; and by its power send forth branches, leaves, flowers and fruits…”

If we can learn to wrap our arms around both the light and the dark, we will be so much more equipped to enable the inflow of Grace into our lives.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes of our impulse for impatience: “[we] will run away from the darkness, and do the best [we] can to dope [ourselves] with the first light that comes along.” We are addicted to light: On our phone, in our cities, in our homes, and in our spiritual lives.In Mary Oliver’s poem The Uses of Sorrow she writes: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”

Now in case you are wondering, I am NOT saying that darkness is the purpose of spirituality. The play between light and dark is the process by which God enters more fully into our soul. Desolation in itself is not good, but its fruits can be. It is when we chose to love God through our spiritual desolations, through the dark nights that we are able to make progress. This spirituality echoes and reverberates with the Paschal mystery of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Night leads to day, and through Christ, death leads to resurrection. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’ points to this play between light and dark beautifully, he writes:

“Let [Christ] easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-crested east.”

I love how Hopkins uses the word Easter as a verb. He points to the slow process of death and rebirth that is somehow the only way to God. We must be born again, Jesus says to Nicodemus. We look to the east for the rising of the Sun. Jesus is the light of the world but to get to the light we must pass through the darkness of the tomb. And we bring our bodies to this mystery every time we take the Eucharist, and celebrate Easter. And even the resurrection of Jesus showed that a body could be both glorified, filled with light, and wounded at the same time. Light and darkness are not in opposition, they are in cahoots!

As a child I hoped that God would turn on the lights as a sign of God’s reality and presence. I didn’t realize that God was already with me, even there in the dark night.

A Gospel of Joy

Delivered Dec. 15, 2019, Gaudete Sunday, Third Sunday of Advent at Saint Mary’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, BC.

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Ps 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

I spent this week hunkered at my desk marking undergraduate papers. In a very real way, as a professor, I am assessing their value as competent students. Some students are gifted writers, others are…beloved children of God.  I try to be impartial and award grades on merit. But I can’t be giving out grades based on being beloved by God, now can I? I hate that part of my job! So, every semester, around this time, I also send out an email to all my students that reminds them that they are NOT their grades; that they possess an intrinsic value beyond anything my marks can affirm.

We live in a meritocratic culture. And that can be a very good thing. I want qualified people flying airplanes, and checking my heart. Our economy’s worth can be measured in metrics such as Gross National Product: the more economic activity the better!

Don’t we feel like that sometimes? The more we do the more we feel worthwhile.  Christmas time is often filled with to do lists. We preach a spirituality of productivity! Yesterday, after I wrapped up my marking for the day, prepared this sermon, picked up groceries, and even did some laundry, I felt pretty worthwhile and self-reliant. I felt happy.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete Sunday which means Rejoice in Latin. While it is true that Christianity can make us happy, it is joy that is at the heart of the Christian life. What do I mean?

While happiness is dependent on external conditions, such as good health, economic stability, loved ones, productivity, good grades, careers; joy, properly understood, is not necessarily dependent on these kinds of conditions.

One of the 20th century’s great spiritual teachers, Henri Nouwen, wrote that Joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.”

At the heart of the darkest time of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere, Gaudete Sunday is a reminder that the Gospel of Christ is a Gospel of Joy, even during the dark seasons of our own lives.

Isaiah

Despite what we might think, Isaiah was a man acquainted with joy. Isaiah was an 8th century BCE prophet during a very tumultuous period in Judah’s history. The northern kingdom had been scattered by Assyria, and Isaiah felt that Judah might be next (spoiler alert, they were). His preaching was mostly aimed at Judah, but he wasn’t shy about sticking it to the rest of the known world.

Isaiah decried injustice, immorality and especially idolatry. He was a passionate monotheist and believed the prosperity of Judah rested on their submission to Yahweh’s Torah, the Law of Moses. Isaiah has plenty of doom and gloom moments. For example, in Ch. 34 (just one chapter before our reading for today) he bellows: “Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood.” (This is definitely the makings of a great Heavy Metal song!)

But much of his apocalyptic (utopian, visionary) prophesy seems to be taken right out of his own garden. God began his relationship with humanity in a garden. The places that were closest to God in ancient Israel pointed to that original garden state. The tabernacle and the later temples were oriented and decorated as icons of the Gardens of Eden: the place where heaven and earth come together. Isaiah envisions a joyful time when God’s longing for heaven and earth to be together once again are realized.

I’ll be honest; I think it is entirely possible that Isaiah talked to plants. (Does anyone else talk to their plants? I do). Not only because ancient prophets were a little eccentric, but because his apocalyptic writing is saturated with the poetic, animate, joy of trees, flowers, and the land herself:

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.

This transformation of the desert into a garden, of predator into pet, of weapons into tool, of death into life, of sickness into wellness, of grief into joy, of poverty into wealth, is a persistent image of what the Kingdom of God might look like for Isaiah.

The use of the crocus flower here is also a beautifully appropriate image for an Advent-tinted joy. A melancholic joy that comes from not knowing when it might come to pass. As many of you know, the crocus is a spring flower. But some varieties blossom during the fall and winter. These understory flowers blossom when they do because they evolved to take advantage of the more abundant light filtering through the still dormant forest canopy.

Gaudete Sunday, is a late fall thaw, an image of the spring to come. A hand clap in the silence candle light of Advent. Just as Isaiah may have seen the coming of the Kingdom of God in his small garden, so we recognize that Holy Waiting for the birth of Christ is riddled with the joy of his eternal presence. God’s paradoxical already-not-yet-ness is a realized-incompleteness. It is the joy that persists through our happiness and even in our sorrows. Or as Franciscan contemplative teacher Richard Rohr puts it: “Incarnation is already Redemption, Christmas is already Easter, and Jesus is already Christ.”

James

James, the Brother of Jesus, who watched in horror as Jesus was tortured and then crucified, also probably touched the wounds in his resurrected hands and feet. James knew the depths of despair and the peaks of joy. James, like many of his contemporary Judah-ite and Gentile Jesus-followers, can feel that the long winter of Absence he has felt in his heart is filling with Presence. The cold, fallow, frozen ground of his heart is thawing. The crocuses are beginning to send up shoots.

“Be patient therefore beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”

Patience, like the farmer waiting for the precious crop. It is much like many of you gardeners waiting for the first signs of spring in these dark, rainy Vancouver winters. Even the hardest soil in our hearts can bear the fruits of grace. That fruit is joy.

Matthew

In Matthew, we hear Jesus reiterating the joy that comes with his Topsy Turvy Kingdom. Matthew was writing in the 80s or 90s CE. He was a Judah-ite who is on his way out of respectability with the established rabbinical communities. He was trying to show that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. Matthew is deeply concerned with showing that the person of Jesus fulfills the prophesies and visions we find in Isaiah. Whereas many of the sectarian Judah-ites of his day boasted of their status, Jesus invited his followers to find the Kingdom of God among the birds. In the seeds of trees. In yeast of bread. In the crocus in our front yards.

John the Baptist’s disciples came seeking some clarity. Are you really him or aren’t you? In classic rabbinic fashion Jesus deflects: You want a king? Go to the palace! You want a prophet? Go out to the desert! But if you want the Kingdom of God, have a seat. Yes, John is a great prophet, but he is also one of us! Look among the least of these, and you’ll find the kingdom there too! Stop your obsession with security and happiness and you will find joy! God has promised us a great transformation, and you are seeing it before your very eyes!

“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Understanding faith-healing in its first century context can be a bit tricky. Each of these conditions disease, poverty, deformity was explained as a natural result of sin, by the person or the parents of the person afflicted. To heal a person was not just to make their lives easier. To heal people was also to erase the social distinction that the keepers of the Torah thought they had over everyone else. Jesus says; the economy of the Kingdom does not run on privileged status. The kingdom of God is a gift economy. Its only raw material is grace. Its only product is joy.

There’s a funny thing about happiness, when we think we have what we are looking for we start to say, well now what? If you have ever seen a graph that tracks the correlation between economic wellbeing and happiness you know that it very quickly plateaus. GNP is a very important metric. But it has weaknesses: war, deforestation, and pollution all add to the GNP. The tiny Buddhist country of Bhutan has implemented something they call Gross National Happiness. GNH. They are asking: How can we build an economy that is a means to human flourishing rather than a growth machine (the logic of a cancer cell).

This is to me what Jesus seems to be saying throughout the Gospels, and here in our reading. Joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” During his short ministry, Jesus did many wonderful things. But he didn’t heal everyone who was sick, bring every death back to life, or feed every starving child. (He doesn’t today). Perhaps sometimes he just sat at a quiet bedside, or wept at a tomb, or went hungry with his poor friends. Joy is the fruit of the seeds of grace. Joy is the only product in the gift economy of Kingdom of God. At the heart of the darkest time of the year, Gaudete Sunday is a reminder that the Gospel of Christ is a Gospel of Joy, even during the dark times in our lives.

Look to the Trees

[Homily delivered at Eucharist for Vancouver School of Theology]

Gospel Reading

Luke 21:25-36

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

A recent headline: “South Florida scientists say we must act now on sea level rise.” According to the IPCC at warming of 2 degrees Celsius, sea level rise could be expected to reach a global average of 4 meters, affecting millions of people. Is Christ coming soon?

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

Another recent headline: “Ecological grief among mental health effects of climate change in Canada.” There is mounting grief at the loss of habitat and species, the rise in carbon in the heavens, if you will, and ecological refugees. There is anxiety about the future, or, Solastalgia, a neologism coined to describe the mental distress of a rapidly changing environment. Is the Parousia near?

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Despite current events, predicting the literal second coming of Christ is a losing enterprise. Many Christians have attempted to do so, and all have been wrong. Even Paul and the early Church were wrong about a literal earthly return. In today’s Gradual Psalm we sense what the Church must have felt after their humiliation at the crucifixion:

1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

2 O my God, in you I trust;

do not let me be put to shame;

do not let my enemies exult over me.

3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

They no doubt believed that Christ’s return was imminent—within a generation it was said. That Christ would humiliate their enemies and carry the faithful up into God’s kingdom perched at the pinnacle of the dome of the flat-earth’s heaven. Things didn’t quite turn out as they expected, but who could deny the sincerity of their hope as they watched the Romans mercilessly massacre and punish the community at Jerusalem. Jewish rebels held the city for nearly five years. And at the end of it, the temple was destroyed and nearly 30,000 zealots and Jewish civilians died in the siege of the city. The tiny Church must have looked to the sky until their necks ached. And yet, Christ did not descend in a cloud in power and glory.

Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

What is God’s power anyway? A cross. What is God’s Glory anyhow? Creation. During the season of Advent, we marvel that while God’s power and glory are eventually headed for the throne of the cross, they are first on display in a helpless infant lying in a manger.

When is the kingdom of God near? When there were stars to observe, and trouble in the world. Always. Earth and heaven are always connected. Our current ecological crises and their effects on the earth point to the coming of God’s Kingdom because they reflect our civilization’s brokenness. The kingdom of God is near, because the Kingdom of God is a topsy-turvy kingdom of outcasts and sinners, lilies and sparrows. Jesus said, the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, it is like cooking yeast. The Kingdom of God is within; it fits within the bounds of a single human heart.

And even in a world that is always on the brink, we can find that Kingdom in unlikeliest of places: the bud break of a fig tree. When everything around us seems to be falling to pieces, with Jesus, we look to the trees. Silent givers of life, they announce the Kingdom of God with their own silent liturgy, vested in the colors of the earth. Yet, summer leaves also point to winter branches. In the Kingdom of God there is room for growth and decay, joy and pain. God’s Kingdom, at least here on earth, is always filled with both.

It should not strike us as strange then that at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of the Church year, we are reading about the end things. Before the story begins, we are reading its conclusion. But in the topsy-turvy Kingdom, the beginning is the end; incarnation is salvation. Growing up, I always found the term “Second Coming” to be curious. Like a sequel to a classic film. But there can be no numeration to the Advent of the Word of God, who is eternally birthed from the Womb of the Father. He is always here, yet always on his way.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.

The term Holy Waiting is paradoxical, because we are always waiting, and Christ’s Kingdom is always already here. But our liturgical seasons are the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. They are the inhaling and exhaling of the Church. The summer foliage, and the winter branches. Advent is a season of inhaling. A season of pruning. Of letting leaves die. Of waiting for green shoots. Advent is a season of asceticism and spiritual training. A time to refocus. A time for stillness. A time for quiet. A time for sinking into the dark night of the soul. In a world that threatens so much pain, whether or not we win should not be the factor that determines our commitment to right action. We must continue to live lives of beauty and hope even through the dark seasons of civilization. That is why there are dark seasons in the liturgy. We must not look away from the world. We must look to the trees, especially that tree that is both an instrument of torture and a tree of life. A tree whose seed was planted not in power and great glory, but in the humble soil of the Judean countryside.

May the Lord, when he comes, find us watching and waiting. Amen.

The Seeds of Grace

[Homily delivered on June 30, 2019]

Readings:

1 Kgs 19:15–16, 19–21, Psalms 16, Gal 5:1, 13–25, Lk 9:51–62

One of my favorite things to witness is a seed sprouting. As a sometimes hobby, I have sprouted many seeds and acorns over the years, oaks and maples and even oranges. Sometimes I will save my apple and avocado seeds from the grocery store and sprout them in the window just to watch the miracle of life unfold. It is truly a wonder how something that seems dead can become a flourishing, striving and beautiful creature.https://d8cd9a86bf315c7362fdf88055adb73a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Every time I watch a seed sprout, or see a tree leafing out for first time in spring, I am reminded of grace. Growing up, I did not understand grace very well. It wasn’t until much later in my life as a Christian that the wonder of grace really sunk in. In our readings today, I think we find an abundance of God’s grace, and can see how grace, like a seed, is always patiently waiting for the right conditions to germinate.

In the first reading, from 1 Kings, we read about the call of the Prophet Elisha, who was chosen by God to be the successor of Elijah. Elijah as you may recall, was suffering from deep loneliness and depression over his encounter with Ahab and Jezebel and the Priests of Baal. So God invited him into friendship. As far as we know, Elisha didn’t do anything special to deserve God’s call. He also appeared to be quite well off (he had 12 oxen to slaughter). But Elisha gave everything away to follow God (after an enormous BBQ.) Each of us is called into relationship with God, through the scripture, through prayer, through the sacraments and through service.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul insists that the fledgling churches follow the Gospel as he has preached it, and not capitulate with those early branches preaching adherence to the Law of Moses as a pre-requisite to accepting Jesus as the Messiah. It is in this letter that we get Paul at his most fierce. Paul even recounts calling the Apostle Peter out to his face for hypocrisy.

Believe it or not, I would say that Paul’s fierceness comes from his experience of grace. This grace is what prompted Paul to preach a Kingdom which was germinated by Jesus through his death on the cross and resurrection, included both Jews and Gentiles. The comfortable, enclosed seed coating of law and tradition had been broken wide open, and something new was growing.

Paul is a master of paradox. So in his letter, he is insisting on Gentile inclusion, but he is not saying that the rules no longer apply to Christians. Rather than pointing toward a new purity code, Paul’s ‘Works of the Flesh’ in Galatians 5 are a way of calling out the Christian community from the world and into God’s Kingdom. These Works are the ways in which we routinely block out the light of Christ from shining into our lives.

In my own life as a Christian, for many years I looked to the Works of the Flesh as ‘the rules.’ Do not misuse sex, keep your thoughts pure, be honest, don’t abuse substances, do not manipulate people to get what you want, control your anger, do not fight, resolve conflict. Knowing the rules and attempting to keep them meant that God would love me and bless me. I assumed grace was like a reward for good behavior, or a band aid to be applied to the wound of sin after it had been committed. In this mindset, it was all too easy for me to start to believe that if I sinned too much, I didn’t deserve God’s love. That my wounds were too deep for a band aid to heal.https://d8cd9a86bf315c7362fdf88055adb73a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

That was a lie I have believed far too often in my life.

In Dante’s portrayal of Satan in the Divine Comedy, he is a massive, winged demon. But he is not surrounded by fire, rather, he is completely immobilized, frozen to the waist in ice. He is so self-absorbed that he no longer even notices the world around him. This is where Paul’s Works of the Flesh lead. They are how we get in our own way on our inevitable path toward the New World of God’s loving Kingdom. They are things that we try to substitute for God.

Paul insists that Christians are called to freedom. But how can a letter about freedom include a list of rules? This is where, as always, Paul returns to the Cross. Saint Thomas Aquinas mused that the beatitudes and the noblest human virtues were embodied on the Cross. The crucified Jesus was the icon of a free and happy man. But how can that be? Look at this cross. That is anything but freedom, he cannot move. That is anything but happiness, he is filled with sorrow. That is anything but pleasure, he is in excruciating pain. And yet, that is what fully surrendering to God looks like.[1]

The Works of the Flesh are not just broke rules, they are great obstacles that shade out the light of Christ. This is why Paul then goes on to name one by one, the green shoots that inevitably emerge from letting go of our sin, vice and self-absorption. The Fruits of the Spirit: Love, kindness, peace, goodness, self-control. These are the inevitable fruits when we allow grace to germinate in our lives. These are the harvest when we give our whole selves over to God. These are the fruits, and the seed is grace.

In the Gospel reading, we hear some very good excuses for not following the way of Jesus, for keeping the seeds of grace from touching the soil of our hearts. The Samaritans reject him based on past ethnic strife, others have more pressing matters to attend to, even very important matters such as attending to a funeral. We all have our own “well, first let me…”

One of those pithy one-liners of Jesus captures the pervasiveness of how sin gets in the way of our relationship with God. He says to the man who asks permission to bury his father before he would follows Jesus: “Let the dead bury their dead.” This curious phrase resonates well with what I think Paul is getting at in Galatians with his contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit. Like Satan in Dante’s hell, sin is a kind of spiritual death, stagnation and complete self-absorption.

Like the motif of the sudden call in scripture, there is no better time to follow Christ into deeper communion than right now. But like any seed, grace needs favorable soil to grow in, it needs light from the sun, and it needs nourishment. A life of daily prayer, attending to the sacraments are not merits we are saving up. Avoiding sin is not just ‘keeping the rules.’ The Christian life is the life of a humble gardener, preparing the soil of our hearts for the seed of grace. We cannot germinate the seed ourselves; but grace patiently waits. Like Elisha, like the Apostles, like the disciples who left everything to follow Jesus, all we can do is say yes to God’s call in each moment, and then watch in wonder as grace transforms the rocky soil of our hearts into the garden of God.

[1] I am indebted to Bishop Robert Barron’s work for this analysis of Paul and Aquinas.

Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul

Introduction

What do Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul have in common? From the Latin Adventus, Advent refers to the arrival, the coming of the Incarnation as a child. During Advent, we also reflect on the coming of Christ at the end of time and in our hearts.

Christians are an Advent people, but human beings are a now species. We want the light right away. Advent teaches us about the holiness of waiting. St. Augustine’s famous refrain that ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, oh God’ is echoed by the Advent call: Come, Lord Jesus!

Yet, there is another, perhaps deeper, meaning to Advent, the Latin verb Advenio means to develop. Thus Advent is also the slow ripening of God in each of our lives, even during times of apparent absence. For some time now, especially since my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I have wondered how a spirituality of darkness can contribute to our spiritual development. Our ability to trust times of spiritual dryness, or even trials to open us to God’s mysterious grace at work within our lives.

Darkness in the Liturgy

Darkness and light are also important aspects of the Daily Office, or Liturgy of the Hours. The prayers we say in the morning, afternoon and evening all mark time. The daily office plays with the hinges of the day, and the interplay between light and darkness. Physical darkness can be unnerving, or make it difficult to read, but it can have profound effects on our prayer life if we let it.

Another example from the liturgy of the Eucharist, why do many traditional churches orient along an east west axis? We face eastward during mass to anticipate God’s coming, Adventus. Mini-Advents each day, mini-Easters each week. The rising of the sun and its setting are essential sacramental signs of Gods promises. God comes to us in the Eucharist, and we anticipate Christ’s coming at the end of time. When we adore the Eucharist, we bask in the sun of Christ’s presence, and when we reserve the host, we dwell on his mysterious but hidden presence among us.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent is the liturgical season of darkness. But during Easter too, we play with light and dark as we enact the death and resurrection of Christ on Holy Saturday, light candles and stand vigil at the tomb of Christ awaiting his resurrection. The liturgy of the church is like a deep breath. Advent is an in breath. We are holding our breath for the coming of Christ. The Hero of the story arrives at the darkest hour of the year.

Darkness in the Scriptures

Darkness is commonly and clearly a symbol for folly and sin, and I do not dispute this. 1 Thessalonians 5:5 states, “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.” In the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus prayer said during Morning Prayer, (Luke 1:68-79) we read:

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Yes, light is a powerful metaphor for knowledge, understanding, presence, grace, wisdom and spiritual growth. And darkness can represent ignorance, sin, helplessness, evil and vice. So how can we possibly develop a spirituality of darkness? First, it is important to remember that metaphors are just that. And metaphors or whiteness and lightness have been used to devalue people of color. So there’s that. But there is also a deeper meaning to darkness than meets the eye.

Darkness and Knowing God

Because God is beyond human understanding, it can be said that God dwells in darkness. This will become very much evident when we look to the mystics, but it is also present in the scriptures. In Psalm 97:1-2 we read:

The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad;

let the distant shores rejoice.

Clouds and thick darkness surround him;

righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

Yahweh was often imagined as a cloud rider, and he dwelt among the clouds, enshrouded in mist. On Mount Sinai, Moses encounters God in a thick cloud. In Deuteronomy 5:22 Moses is speaking after he has recited the Ten Commandments. He says:

These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.

God delivered the law to the people of Israel shrouded in a cloud on top of a mountain. Of course, the mystics got a hold of these references and began to notice how they gave words to their experience of God as mystery beyond human knowing. Both clouds and mountains are powerful analogies for mystical encounter, contemplation and the spiritual life as a whole.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th or 6th century) was a major proponent for what we call Negative Theology. When all names are negated, “divine silence, darkness, and unknowing” will follow. Walter Hilton (14th Century) a British Augustinian monk, spoke of entering the ‘spiritual night’ on one’s path to God. And of course, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing (14th Century, Anonymous monk) developed his method of Christian meditation with the cloud of darkness at the center of his paradoxical understanding of what it meant to encounter God.

For when I say darkness I mean a lack of knowing: as all that thing that you know not, or else that you have forgotten, it is dark to you; for you see it not with your spiritual eye. And for this reason it is not called a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is between you and your God. (The end of Ch. 4.)

Nicholas of Cusa (15th Century), a German theologian spoke of mysticism as a learned ignorance. In his book The Vision of God, he often uses the metaphor of Divine sight and wrote that “Thou in Thy goodness dost let the blind speak of Thy Light” (XV).

The Dark Night of the Soul

When you hear the term Dark Night of the Soul, what comes to mind? In the popular idiom, a Dark Night of the Soul is a hard time, a trial period. But it’s so much more than that. The spiritual life is about light, it’s about loving God, and deepening our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. Along the way we get encouragement through graces, blessings and charity. These are what we might call consolations, signs of God’s presence. But we will inevitably pass through times where we also feel God’s apparent absence. These are called periods of desolation. It is what we decide to do with these times of spiritual dryness or darkness that determines whether or not the Dark Night of the Soul will benefit us spiritually or not. However, to be clear, I am not talking about God putting us through endurance trials, causing suffering, or punishing us for our sins.

The term dark night (noche oscura) comes to us from the exquisite poetry of San Juan de la Cruz, Saint John of the Cross (16th century). Juan was a reformer of the Carmelite Order who was enlisted by the brilliant Teresa of Avila. His fellow friars didn’t like the reforms, and tried to suppress them. Juan was brutally imprisoned and tortured by his confreres and kept in solitude in a dark room for many months. It was during this time of imprisonment that he penned the words his famous mystical poem, The Dark Night, which makes no mention of God of Jesus Christ, yet is packed with theological significance.

Juan has a reputation for being obtuse and austere. But Juan’s poetry is packed with sensuality and love for creation. He can also come across as dualistic, seeing the body as less than the soul. However, read in its proper anthropology, Juan sees the body and the soul deeply connected with God. He wrote: “The center of the soul is God.” And before we go on, let me quote the poem in full through John Frederick Nims’ translation.

 Once in the dark of night

when love burned bright with yearning, I arose

(O windfall of delight!)

and how I left none knows—

dead to the world my house in deep repose;

in the dark, where all goes right,

thanks to the ladder, other clothes,

(O windfall of delight!)

in the dark, enwrapped in those—

dead to the world my house in deep repose.

There in the lucky dark,

none to observe me, darkness far and wide;

no sign for me to mark,

no other light, no guide

except for my heart—the fire, the fire inside!

That led me on

true as the very noon is—truer too!—

to where there waited one

I knew—how well I knew!—

in a place where no one was in view.

O dark of night, my guide!

night dearer than anything all your dawns discover!

O night drawing side to side

the loved and the lover—

she that the lover loves, lost in the lover!

Upon my flowering breast,

kept for his pleasure garden, his alone,

the lover was sunk in rest;

I cherished him—my own!—

there in air from the plumes of the cedar blown.

In air from the castle wall

as my hand in his hair moved lovingly at play,

he let cool fingers fall

–and the fire there where they lay!—

all senses in oblivion drift away.

I stayed, not minding me;

my forehead on the lover I reclined.

Earth ending, I went free,

Left all my care behind

among the lilies falling and out of mind.

The Poems of Saint John of the Cross, 1989, Translated by John Frederick Nims.

For Juan and so many others, we were created from love for love, and created with a longing for God. But we get bogged down by addition, distraction, habits, vice, sin and ignorance. Or, we become attached to our consolations, our ideas about God. The Noche Oscura is then the process by which we are reunited with God through our progression along the spiritual path.

There are two stops on the way to union with God: Purgation and Illumination. They are not necessarily definitive, or final. It is a process of deepening. The Dark Night is the inflow of God into the soul. In the active mode we strive to purify our hearts, and detach ourselves from the vices and passions. In the Illuminative phase we receive wisdom, insight, consolations. As we advance in virtue, we might even get attached to our own rightness. Even our attachment to ideas about God, cane become idols.

Thus, during the Illuminative phase, we also see two kinds of ‘Dark Nights:’ the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. These dark nights are characterized by spiritual dryness or a sense of God’s absence in spiritual matters. They are not simply feeling depressed or sad, but reflect our attitude toward holy things.

These two dark nights are not necessarily a type of test, but a type of purification of the heart. After receiving the consolations of a pure heart, and an active prayer life, we need to learn how to love God for God’s sake, not for heaven, or warm fuzziness, or blessings. Loving God without reward is a way of purification that deepens our sense of God’s presence, love and grace. Both nights are about purification; both are about God’s grace.

But the tricky thing is that a dark night might not feel like grace. We often feel the apparent withdrawal of God’s presence. This is where we often give up, lose interest or grow bitter. But if we push through the darkness, we will feel more deeply his presence and grow into new ways of being. We are guided by God, even in times of apparent absence. We realize that we cannot do it alone. That we are in God’s hands.

Surrendering to the dark night of the soul, the dark night of faith, allows God’s grace to work in us, regardless of how well we think we are doing in the spiritual life. Desolation in and of itself doesn’t do anything. It’s choosing to love God in that desolation.

As Gerald G. May, a psychologist and spiritual writer argues in The Dark Night of the Soul, the process of our slow transformation happens in the dark because we are so adept at sabotaging our own growth and development. May writes, “Sometimes the only way we can enter the deeper dimensions of the journey is by being unable to see where we’re going” (72).

Again, I am not talking about indulging our sin, or ignorance or romanticizing depression, which many people struggle with. John and Teresa make a helpful distinction between oscuridad and tinieblas (both mean darkness). The noche oscura seeks to liberate us from spiritual tinieblas, the darkness associated with our rejection of God’s will and grace.

In many periods of my life I have simply given in to the tinieblas, to attachment, to stories about myself, to depression, to what Sue Monk Kidd calls our neurotic suffering rather than creative suffering. As I have recounted elsewhere, my Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago was among other things, a sort of dark night of the soul.

This is why I think Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul have such resonance. We really do feel something different between God’s absence and presence and we make it felt during the liturgy, but even the darkness God is present. One of the monks of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey spoke eloquently on the liturgical seasons and the dark night of the soul during my dissertation research; he said:

And that’s the lovely part of when you experience the cycle of the seasons, because you get to experience that, and you begin to more deeply understand when you talk about the ‘dark night of the soul’ what we’re talking about is appearance; because, see it appears that everything is so dark, it appears that Jesus is not with us, but he is. So the seasons to me are so representative, not just of life but of spiritual life, not just of bodily life but of the spiritual life, because in the spirit we’re never static. You go up or down that ladder you don’t stand on the rung. You have your spring, everything is so absolutely beautiful, and you come to your summer which is nice and it starts kind of drying out, but then you have the aging beauty of the autumn, and then you have the death of winter. But it’s not over, it’s not over, that’s not the end, there’s a spring that comes after.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the Lion, is not always easily seen by the characters. And some characters are too self-absorbed to see him at all. In A Horse and His Boy Shasta walking up hill alone after warning the king of an impending invasion of the Calormenes. Adam Walker paraphrases this scene well:

And being very tired and having nothing inside him, (Shasta) felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.

What put a stop to all of this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls….

…The Thing (unless it was a person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope that he had only imagined it….

…So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer.

“Who are you?” he said, barely above a whisper.

“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep… (Paraphrased by Adam Walker)

In what felt like Shasta’s darkest hour, Aslan was felt before he was seen.

Lastly, we must of course mention Saint Teresa of Calcutta who has been called the Saint of Darkness because of her experience with an intense dark night of the soul. Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa namesake, called her experiences of the dark night ‘nights of nothingness.’ However, Teresa of Calcutta’s dark night was extreme in that it lasted for nearly 50 years with only brief periods of respite. She wrote of this experience in her letters to her spiritual director, which only came to light after her death:

The longing for God is terribly painful and yet the darkness is becoming greater. What contradiction there is in my soul.—The pain within is so great…Please ask Our Lady to be my Mother in this darkness. The place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me. In the darkness…Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me?… The one You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark—and I am alone. Before I used to get such help & consolation from spiritual direction—from the time the work has started— nothing.

The Fecundity of Darkness

As I stated at the opening, another image that is quite appropriate to Advent, is the Advenio, the root of Adventus, to develop. In her book When the Heart Waits (1990) novelist and spiritual writer Sue Monk Kidd suggests that in addition to purification or preparation of our hearts to love God, the dark night can be likened to a kind of incubation. In fact, as she points out, most living things incubate, or gestate in darkness.

In the New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes of our impulse for impatience: “[we] will run away from the darkness, and do the best [we] can to dope [ourselves] with the first light that comes along” (New Seeds, 37, Kidd, 146).

Passing through a particularly harrowing dark night of the soul, Kidd suggests that we need to learn to live the questions and hold the tensions a little better. Learning to settle into the darkness just a bit more. Not as a kind of masochism, but as a kind of spiritual gestation.

This image of gestation is also evident in the scriptures. John 1:18 says that Christ was in the bosom of God from all eternity. This has also been read as the womb of the Father by many eastern Christians. In John 3 Jesus speaks of how must be born again:

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

All our lives we are called to give birth to our true selves, to realize our true nature, to accomplish our purpose in life. The dark night of waiting, is also the dark night of gestation. Romans 8:22-23 speaks of the whole of creation gestating Christ.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Eckhart von Hochheim, OP (13th Century) or Meister Eckhart spoke of becoming mothers of God ourselves.

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us” (Original source uncertain).

The French Jesuit Jean-Pierre De Caussade, SJ (17th Century) writes of allowing ourselves to sink into what he calls the “sacrament of the present moment.” And he has one of the most powerful images of the fecundity of darkness (because it’s about trees). He writes:

Do You not give fecundity to the root hidden underground, and can You not, if You so will, make this darkness in which You are pleased to keep me, fruitful? Live then, little root of my heart, in the deep invisible heart of God; and by its power send forth branches, leaves, flowers and fruits, which, although invisible to yourself, are a pure joy and nourishment to others (54).

Darkness and Resurrection

Darkness is not the end of spirituality, but the process by which God enters the soul. Desolations in itself is not good. It is when we chose to love God through our spiritual desolations, through our dark nights of the soul that we are able to make progress. This process of birth, growth, death and resurrection is at the heart of the dark night of the soul, and it is at the heart of the Pascal Mystery. In Gerard Manley Hopkins poem ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’ he writes of the death of some Franciscan Sisters in a shipwreck, and uses Easter as a verb. He writes: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-crested east.” Christ is coming; Resurrection is coming. Advent is about the three-fold arrival of Christ: As a child, at the end of time, and into our lives. The Sign of Jonah, who spent three dark days in the belly of a whale, was the sign of Christ’s resurrection and points to our own every day resurrections. (Matthew 12:38–41). Kelly Postle McLellan a Christian Yogi blogger wrote this Advent that “Our God does not look past, or avoid, dark and messy places. It is in those exact circumstances that God chooses for his Love to be born in the world.”

Lastly, I want to end with this hopeful yet challenging quote from Thomas Merton, in a Letter to Czeslaw Milosz. Merton was deeply concerned about the Viet Nam war, about nuclear weapons, and about the surge in racism and violence in the United States. In our own days, as we pass through what feels like a Dark Night of Civilization, A Dark Age, we can look to Advent and Easter for the long arc of history toward justice and life.

Life is on our side.

The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated.

In silence and suffering,

In the heartbreaking effort to be honest

In the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty),

In all these is victory.

It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness

To a light of which we have no conception

And which can only be found by passing through apparent despair.

Everything has to be tested.

All relationships have to be tried.

All loyalties have to pass through the fire.

Much as to be lost.

Much in us has to be killed,

Even much that is best in us.

But Victory is certain.

The resurrection is the only light,

And with that light there is no error.

(Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, Pg. 187).

Advent and Easter of deeply interconnected. They are the same Feast. Incarnation is Salvation. The Dark Night of the Soul is ultimately about light.