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.

Thomas Merton the Forester

Looking out on the cemetery at Gethsemani Trappist Monastery

During All Souls/All Saints Days this year, I was lucky enough to travel to Kentucky for the annual Society of American Foresters conference. I was attending in order to deliver a short talk on the short history of monastic forestry, a topic that was included in parts of my dissertation. On the first day, I attended a field trip with the History and Philosophy Working Group. We visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, and then went to Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, the place where contemplative writer Thomas Merton lived from 1941 to his death in 1968.

One interesting fact that we learned was that during his very productive writing career, Merton was also the Abbey forester. As Forester, Merton would take the Trappist novices out to prune trees, clear dead branches, and plant trees. In the late 1950s, the monastery had been gifted hundreds of loblolly pine seedlings from the state forestry agency. Unfortunately, this particular variety was not very cold tolerant, and the first winter killed most, if not all of them.

The county also worried about fire in the area, and suggested the Abbey build a fire lookout. Merton, who was seeking a deeper vocation of silence, seriously considered manning the lookout as a quasi-hermit. However, the lookout was rather far from the Abbey, and when a monk-mechanic tried to teach him to drive, he wrecked the jeep within a few minutes behind the wheel. Merton was eventually allowed to live as a hermit on the property, but not as a fire lookout.

Despite Merton’s short lived career as a forester, and failed tree planter, he nevertheless gleaned deep meaning from the Abbey’s landscape. His nature writing is filled with references to the flora and fauna of the Kentucky hardwood forests, pastures and knobs. Though I have been to Gethsemani before, it was a great honor to return to a favorite Holyscape, where the life of a writer I deeply admire lived out his ideas and crafted his bold poetry and prose.

The Political Ecology of Green Space in Vancouver

“Why is everything in the woods with you people?”

–Cruella Deville, Once Upon a Time, Season 5, Episode 19

For all the photographs I take and writing I do about trees, forests, theology and walking, I must admit that I also love watching movies. Netflix has been a regular guilty pleasure for me, one I eschew during Lent (a great sacrifice!). I have watched a lot of shows, and I find Netflix’s original series to be mostly very well done, interesting and timely. One thing that I keep noticing in many of the more recent shows, is that the scenery and cityscapes are very similar to my own. It is no secret that Vancouver, British Columbia has become “Hollywood North” and movies and TV producers flock here during all months of the year to set their stories in our futuristic skyline, our gritty downtown eastside and Chinatown, or, our majestic forests.

Sometimes Vancouver itself serves as a substitute city for where the film is supposed to be based. Other times, the vast forests of our Pacific home are the setting of post-apocalyptic or fantasy concept films. Interestingly enough, British Columbia’s official tourism slogan is ‘Super, Natural’ riffing on the Supernatural. Major films and TV shows have taken advantage of Vancouver’s diverse settings: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Twilight, various X-Men franchises, Dirk Gently, Deadpool, Supernatural, Jumanji, have all been filmed in or around the Vancouver area. For a full list see this very long Wikipedia page.

I grew up in Southern California, a place that is also steeped in Hollywood imaginaries. Even my own neighborhood growing up even gave a nod to fantasy. The architecture and landscaping were mostly done according to the taste of the owner, not necessarily according to the region. We had country style homes with wrap around porches and horse corrals, sleek modern glass boxes, New Mexico style adobe and cactus gardens, and Spanish colonial style with evergreen pine trees or tropical ficus. Our backyard pool gave the impression of an alpine oasis, in the middle of a Mediterranean desert. Pine, palm or eucalyptus trees lined many of the streets so that we felt like we were in a land of eternal green and eternal summer.

And of course we kept our lawns pristine year round. Nature was malleable because we had the climatic flexibility and the water resources to adapt the place to our preferences and imaginations. And don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining! My neighborhood was a lush arboretum of vastly more tree and plant biodiversity than ever existed before settlers arrived. There were also many fruit trees as well: Pomegranate, kumquat, fig, loquat, persimmon, orange, lemon, apple and nectarine trees, all of which we enjoyed as roving bands of pre-teens.

Three shows that I have watched in the last few years have really got me thinking about the way our imaginations shape nature in a place like Vancouver which has world class natural beauty. Once Upon a Time, a clever mashup of just about every classic European and Disney fairy tale with a modern and overtly feminist spin. The 100, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series where the last humans fight to survive on a toxic planet among hostile rivals; and The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), a fascinating historical sci-fi drama that imagines a North America where Japan and Germany won WWII. However, an alternative reality which shows a different outcome to the war has been captured by a series of 16mm films which a small but dedicated resistance must gather at any cost.

Each of these series makes use of the urban and forested landscapes here in BC. But what is it about this landscape and our modern understanding of nature that makes British Columbia such a hotspot for sci-fi and post-apocalyptic themed shows? I propose that our modern understanding of nature as ‘greenspace’ is the imaginative descendent of our more overtly colonial-era notion of Terra Nullius, or, nobody’s land. The only way we could be convinced of a landscape’s authenticity in a film is if it holds a cultural significance that is stripped of its previously rich cultural meanings. During colonization and conflict between European powers, if land was understood to be unoccupied, it was annexable by the state. Roman law applied a similar concept to abandoned building or recovered slaves. It was basically a legalized version of finders-keepers.

Joseph Trutch was the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. He believed that First Nations peoples did not actually own the land, because they didn’t have the concept of private property, so it was fair game for settlers. Governor General James Douglas characterized indigenous people as “mere wandering denizens of the forest.” Douglas like virtually all settlers who arrived here, could not see just how lush with food production zones the place actually was. What they saw was unkempt, untidy and un-owned wilderness. This is why much of British Columbia territory remains ‘unceded’ today, because no treaties were seen as necessary in lands where no one lived.

As is commonly known, many indigenous communities were decimated by diseases even before settlers arrived in BC, but during their pre-colonial civilization, which had been more or less intact for 10,000 years. First Peoples held clan and kin-based usufruct rights to land as berry, salmon, hunting or other food gathering territories. These were for the most part demarcated and understood by First Peoples.

In fact, what the Europeans mistook for vacant wilderness, for Terra Nullius, were the neglected remains of deeply human-influenced food forests, pharmacies, woodshops and shore gardens. As disease swept over the region, traditional food production methods and zones became neglected. Before disease hit, massive old growth Western Red Cedars were used for cordage, canoes, and long house planks. Fire was used to keep trees out of hereditary berry patches and camas bulb gardens. Herring and salmon spawning sites were enhanced with tree branches, which created more surface area for fish to lay their eggs on. The local breed of Salish Wooly Dogs (now extinct) were bred for their hair, and packs of the adorable creatures sometimes occupied entire islands. In addition, Coast Salish and inland peoples actively cultivated groves of crabapple and hazelnut trees which were traded north to south making their way as far as what is now the Yukon Territory. And lastly, thousands of kilometers of coastline were modified to enhance clam productivity by carrying large rocks to the low tide mark so that steeper shorelines would eventually level out, creating more surface area for clams to breed.

In addition to their pervasive agro-ecological influence, for all First Peoples, the features, creatures and places of the land were alive with personhood, significance and story. These are not my stories to tell, but I can say that for example, many creatures such as orcas, wolves, frogs, ravens and bears were totems of family lineages, and were thus often portrayed on long house, shaman and village poles.

Prominent geological features, rocks and peaks were often understood as ‘transformer sites’, or sites where legendary people and creatures were either punished or rewarded by supernatural beings and consequently converted into the feature as it appears today. This is widely understood to be the origin of Skalsh rock (called Siwash rock in signage), located off the shore of Stanley Park. For geologists, the rock is a basaltic obtrusion of volcanic origin, which resisted erosion in the mostly sandstone foundations of the rest of the park. A large Squamish village was located in Stanley Park, and for Coast Salish peoples, the site commemorates the transformation of Skalsh by Xaays, a supernatural being, to memorialize the ideal of Fatherhood and the warrior. However, various nations have their own stories associated with this rock.https://0f3ff9c4e74044c30b05afb65c644e24.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Other places such as obsidian deposits are places where Thunderbird shot lightning from its eyes. Other sites are the very places where humans emerged from the watery chaos of their respective creation stories. The land was not the background of the human story, it was itself an actor bursting with uses, meaning and stories of its own.

This is what I mean when I marvel at how easy it is for us to see the forest as a kind of neutral space. Vancouver has maps with detailed streets and addresses, but forested areas are often blocks of monochromatic ‘green space.’ This simplified representation renders these rich places as essentially culturally neutral, primordially natural where we stressed out urbanites can come to relax, hike, run or walk our dogs.

If Once Upon a Time had shown a scene of Mount Rushmore, and claimed it was an ancient pagan shrine to unknown deities, Euro-North Americans would understandably balk unconvinced. That is simply not believable given what we know about the presidential persons whose likenesses are carved into the living rock of that monument. Yet, if Once Upon a Time flashes a scene with a Musqueam or Squamish Transformer site that is clearly identifiable within those worlds, we settlers see beautiful scenery. This goes for The 100 and Man in the High Castle as well. A post-apocalyptic landscape and an imaginary Nazi regime are just as believable in these forests to eyes that see only green space.

Clearly I too enjoy spending time in these beautiful places, and I have gotten to know their contours and inhabits to some degree during my 6 years in Vancouver. I have done this largely within my own Western scientific and religious paradigms, both of which have served me quite well. I am not seeking to fully enter into the worlds of indigenous peoples, or assume their significance. However, I would like to be better equipped to respect the rich cultural history of this landscape, just as I would if I entered a cathedral for the first time. While some sites should not be publicly known because of their sacredness, others could be more widely popularized through interpretive signs, greater cultural and historical awareness campaigns and bi-cultural place naming initiatives. And perhaps some of these shows could begin with territorial acknowledgements of the traditional territories where their heroes are winning hearts and minds.

Resources

Mass Grave

[In June, I started working part time at a Funeral Home. One of my tasks was to arrange all the cremated remains that have been left behind over time. It was baffling. Over 500 since the 1950s. I wrote this poem shortly after a long shift working in the Home.]

I’m standing in a mass grave.

Not one dug in the dubious cloak of night by the shovel of a tyrant.

A grave that is tucked away in the fluorescent catacombs of a funeral home.

I have been appointed to order these lonely parcels into chronological and alphabetical order—due diligence to finally put them into the ground en masse.

Shelf after shelf of neatly packaged cremated human remains—boxes just wide enough to grasp with one hand, but too heavy to carry for long.

I pick up one that feels empty and quickly realize that the box contains the remains of a baby.

There are many babies.

Weathered masking tape holds serial numbers that verify an identity, some with instructions—

Nephew will pick up. Brother in Germany. Hold for six months. Will pick up on April 11. Call family.

Most have names: Maude, Clive, Edna, Dorothy, Daisy, Stan, Bertha.

Some do not have names—Unidentified male, Vancouver. Unidentified Male, Burnaby. Unidentified Male, New Westminster.

This cubical congregation spans many decades—1955, 1958, 1972, 1978, 1986, 1998, 2004.

A weathered box from the 1970s leaks gritty ash from a corner,

It piles like an hour glass on an empty pine coffin I am using as a workstation.

Ash like any ash, dust like any dust;

And yet, attach a name and a big bang of images, ideas and personality expand outward like a tiny universe.https://39b423c66ac7a65eda56522bd404a654.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

I tape the box shut and put it in its new niche.

Silver fish swim among the disintegrating brown paper and masking taped cardboard coffins.

I scratch my arm and dead skin cells slough off, a slow cremation.

I breath in the trace dust of 500 lives lived and cough them out again.

I want to take them all home and adopt them as my own ancestors and friends.

Build them cathedrals and mausoleums.

Make biopics about their lives, extraordinary and ordinary alike.

Write biographies that will scandalize, or end up in free bins in the foyers of public libraries.

But my arms give out,

A fuse mysteriously blows,

I leave the boxes where they lay for another night alone together.

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.

Easter Desert

The soft patter of cool drops,

Christen forehead, neck and hands.

The earthy incense of the desert’s thirsty breath

As He opens his sandy mouth to drink.

Processions of Palo Verde and Mesquite still clad in their golden Easter vestments

Shout Alleluia! from the valley’s hillsides

And throw their spent petals into the Pentecostal winds.

Even the cacti are clad in their Sunday best.

Like my own spiny succulent heart—

Prickly and defensive most of the time

With seasons of extravagant

Openness and beauty.

April 29, 2019

A Dying Grebe

At the bottom of a steep flight

Of stairs that lead into the ocean,

Between a sandy cliff and the lapping tide,

I caught a red eye among the logs and silent stones.

Silent until the tide teaches them to speak.

I walked to the end of a small jetty and

Looked back at the amphitheater of the eroding cliffs.

The eye belonged to a small bird we call Grebe

In drab plumage. He struggled out of the rising edge of the sea

He knows so well.

He stopped below a beached and weathered

Log and sat silently, awkwardly and alone

On the cobbled, clacking shore.

That incessant

syncopated

chatter

Between sea and stone.

Two of my kind walked past

Without even noticing

That he was there.

I moved closer,

An arm’s length away.

I looked into that fierce red eye

And watched as his back

Rose and fell

In short resigned breaths.

I noticed broken flesh below his wing

Though I was too timid to touch

Him, worried that my

Touch would only make things worse.

I sit and watch water that is

Endlessly rising and receding,

Chattering with rocks that do not care

If they live or die

Because they will always be

Alive in the tiny flecks of body

That make up plankton

And shell fish

And seals

And herring

And clams

And eagles

And grebes’ red eyes.

This grebe, on the edge

Of the ocean he knows so well,

An ocean that incessantly

Speaks with the rocks

Beneath his wounded wings,

Stares at the coming fog of that dark ocean

Death he may not fully grasp.

And I, I sit stone still at the edge of the world and just listen.

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.

A Night for All Souls at Mountain View Cemetery

A tryptic panel for writing the names of loved ones we have lost

“And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”

–Kahlil Gibran

“When you see my corpse is being carried
Don’t cry for my leaving
I’m not leaving
I’m arriving at eternal love.”

–Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.

Introduction

I am always up for visiting a new church or religious service. So when I read the syllabus for a class I taking on liturgy at the Vancouver School of Theology, the assignment I was most excited about was the opportunity to visit an unfamiliar tradition’s worship service. As a professor of religious studies and world religions in Salt Lake City from 2011-2013, I have visited many churches, meeting houses, temples and synagogues. I have even studied the Vedas in a custom pyramid[1] with a front door that opens like the DeLorean from Back to the Future. (At the end of the service, I was casually handed a glossy illustrated manual about giving your partner the perfect orgasm).

After two weeks of trying to attend various Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that did not conflict with my current Sunday obligations at Saint James Anglican Church, I decided to write about my experiences at this year’s Night for All Souls[2], a thoroughly secular community art project put on by resident artists at the Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver proper’s only cemetery. The grounds buried their first European immigrant in 1886, and encompasses 106 acres, with approximately 92,000 grave sites and 145,000 buried remains.[3] It is a lovely place with views of the mountains, and gorgeous Victorian headstones among various elderly trees. In North American culture generally, there seems to be a difficulty talking about and dealing with death, and a lack of significant rituals within or outside traditional religious institutions. The artists of Mountain View Cemetery hope to change that. In the following I will reflect on my own experience at the multi-day event, its liturgical elements, and its potential for greater engagement with the religions.

Night for All Souls

The purpose of the Night for All Souls event is to engage the ancient holy days of All Saints and All Souls. The atmosphere is essentially post-religious, but the general public is invited to bring their own ideas and beliefs to the event and interact with several shrines and stations, where they can make art, candles, or write notes to their beloved dead. The website for the event explains:

“In many cultures around the world, the days at the end of October and beginning of November are considered an important time for honoring the dead in our lives. In our modern, urban, and relatively transient culture, traditional “village” customs have been left behind, though not the human impulses that led to these traditions. All Souls at the Mountain View Cemetery is a non-denominational sacred event, and an opportunity for people to share their own customs and experiences.”[4]

‘Many cultures’ and ‘non-denominational’ scrubs the event of any hint of an endorsement of the holy-days Pagan and Christian origins. Yet despite the inherent fear of mentioning the R-word, the residents are confident that the role of the artist is to create a safe container for people to bring what traditions they may have left to the space.

Samhain and Allhallowtide

In Europe, indigenous traditions developed with the cycles of the Northern hemisphere’s seasons. The festival of Samhain (pronounced Saw-win), marks the Gaelic transition from the harvest to winter darkness. It was a time when the veil between the worlds was thinnest, and the ancestors and faeries could move between worlds more easily. James Frazer, in The Golden Bough suggests that the date is less important to farmers than to herds’ people.[5] Some important tombs in Ireland are also aligned with the date of Samhain, which falls between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.

In Neo-Pagan and Neo-Shamanic practices, Samhain is the day for connecting with the ancestors, and visiting the land of the dead through trance. I am fascinated with this time of year, and European traditions around marking the passing of time. That is why, though I am not planning to attend this year, for the last several years I have attended Reclaim Vancouver’s[6] annual Samhain celebration which includes a circle casting, guided meditation, and a circle dance.

Of course in secular North America, Halloween (All Hallows Eve) is the most popular equivalent to this day of transgressive world bending. During Samhain and many other fall festival rituals that honored the dead, people would dress up as spirits or ancestors or saints or gods and go house to house in exchange for food, offerings, fuel for bone-fires or presents.

While today the Christian Triduum of All-Hallows-Tide, the Christian feasts of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, correspond with these feasts, they did not emerge directly out of their earlier Pagan equivalents. It was not until 609 that All Saints Day was designated to honor all the martyrs of the church and her Saints. Originally celebrated on May, or in April by the Irish, All Souls Day was not celebrated until the 11th century.

In North America, while Halloween is a popular secular holiday, the religious significance has faded. And while Neo-Pagan circles are reviving the pre-Christian traditions, North American Christians do not have a strong tradition of honoring and remembering the dead with festive celebrations. We often look to syncretic practices like Dia De Muertos in Mexico, Day of the Dead, as morbid, cult-like and strange.

My Experience at Night for All Souls

In order to get a close up look at the event I decided to volunteer. The opening night was on Saturday October 27. I was a tea runner, so I helped out cleaning and stocking tea cups for the Celebration Hall where there were tables to sit, and stations to make crafts, or weave small messages into a community tapestry. I also ran hot water out to the Chinese Pavilion where there was a shrine and bonfire.

It was quite beautiful to see families and people of all ages coming in from the rain for tea, sitting at tables and talking about death, dying, and the ancestors. They could look up ancestors buried in the cemetery at one station, or write notes to the dead that were later woven into a tapestry on the wall.

Out in the cemetery, there were station dedicated to missing indigenous women, those who had died by suicide and overdose, one to pets and one to infants and children; but as one of the organizers said, most of the shrines are not themed, because people are not defined by their death. There was also a large tryptic with candles, incense and a marker so that people could leave pictures and write the names of the dead. The event spanned over a week.

On Tuesday, October 30, 2018, I attended a choral performance by the Little Chamber Orchestra that Could, a Vancouver fixture that often performs at Cemetery cultural and seasonal events. The performance was “The First Stage” by Joelysa Pankanea, a piece that grapples with the sudden death of her mother to cancer. During the song, the choir elevated into heavenly harmonies, and breathy pauses signifying life’s last gasps of air. They were accompanied by a quiet marimba and upright bass cello. It was a beautiful performance, bare bones harmonies and poignant dialogue pointing to the tragic end of the composer’s mother. No matter how we dress it up, in art, or theology, death is the gritty, breath taking, sweat inducing price of knowing that we are alive. The event wrapped up on Thursday night with a closing procession, where a contemporary big band ensemble visits each of the shrines, each heavy laden with custom candles, messages and notes written to the beloved dead.

Secular Liturgy

What struck me about this event was how its form, structure and content were all referring to various religious and cultural markers surrounding honoring the dead and the saints, but all of the obvious religious symbols or references were nowhere to be seen. The event was “non-denominational” and thus participants could hold their own private views of death, but nothing in the art or setting or programming suggested what to believe about its finality or the continuity of life beyond. There was no Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The event was an open container for participants to fill however they saw fit. Many had abandoned religion, were immigrants from other countries now living in Canada. The sometimes trite, even trivial assurances of organized religion were absent.

Each of the familiar elements of a religious service were present: Music, procession, fire, candles, images, notes and messages hung from string and trees, incense, prayer flags, and of course shrines/altars. The one shrine that did feel vaguely religious, was, far from the main shrine, at the Chinese Pagoda in the North section, a bon fire for burning rice paper silver and gold bars to bless the ancestors with wealth and riches in the afterlife and ask for their favor in return. This practice, of offering the dead life like and practical items, cuts across Chinese folk religions, Confucianism and Taoism. Otherwise, participants were on their own.

I am very grateful for this event. I think all of us, religious and non-religious need more and better rituals and practices around death and dying. We need more frank conversations about the pain of loss, and more engagement with our grief, regardless of our theologies of an afterlife. Death needs to be brought out of the shadows. It is liturgy, even in this most stripped down and symbolically sterile examples, that can help us through this process.

However, despite my enthusiastic endorsement of Night for All Souls, I feel off about its overall lack of religious voices. I wonder how many people coming to the space would like to hear what actual religious traditions have to say about dealing with life’s most difficult truth. I applaud the effort and the art and the interest, but I want to see more religious people involved. Precisely because religious people, despite having rich theological and ritual traditions, still need help working through death, we all do, every generation does. I want to know how religious and non-religious people grapple with death and dying, what poets and scriptures they look to for solace, what networks they rely on when the grief is too much to bear; what communities bring them food when they are too sad to cook.

[1] https://www.summum.us/

[2] https://nightforallsouls.com/

[3] https://vancouver.ca/your-government/mountain-view-cemetery.aspx

[4] https://nightforallsouls.com/

[5] Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Forgotten Books, 2008. p.644

[6] http://vancouverreclaiming.org/