The Immortal Hazelnut

Julian with Hazelnut

I’m currently rereading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and this is from the Short Text (Elizabeth Spearing translation):

And in this vision [Christ] showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it.

The multiverse is the size of a hazelnut, and you couldn’t find me or yourself in it if you looked at it with the most powerful microscope on earth, and this is good news. As Julian continues a page later, “until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest. When a soul sets all at nothing for love, to have him who is everything that is good, then it is able to receive spiritual rest.”

There are times, in the thick of things, when I get overwhelmed and too close to the work I am trying to do as the pastor of two small churches. Despite being regular in spending time in Scripture and devotional readings and prayer, fairly regular in mindful silence, in journaling, in conversation with others, I simply lose perspective. And when this happens, I become less effective and more anxious, and it takes some time and effort to regain perspective and balance.

I stumbled into a miniature retreat on Friday in the form of an 80-minute drive to a meeting. I found that I needed to turn the podcast off and just start talking to God out loud. What I was looking for was God’s reminder, “This is who you are.” I’d name that in retrospect as the need for a renewal of calling. And I received what I was looking for, in this case the sense of “Do not over-identify with the churches you serve, their successes or failures or programs or hopes or fears or futures or lack of future.”

Who I am is A Person God Made. I can have great success, and that won’t make me more than that. I can utterly fail in every sense that you or I could consider failure, and that won’t make me less than that. Richard Rohr terms this understanding of personhood the “immortal diamond” (a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins, after Rohr puts a couple layers of Jung on top of Merton’s concept of the “true self”) to name what identity actually means in God. It’s part of the same whole that Julian once saw as a ball the size of a hazelnut.

Before and after all the voluntary and involuntary associations and relationships and places and works that I enter into, there is some eternal, inviolable identity which God has made from love and which God sustains in love. And that self has no fear, because that self still resides in the hand of God, who is Love, and there is no fear in love. That’s not something I need to know as a pastor. That’s something I need to know as a human being. Only when I know this can I enter fully and healthily into all those relationships and works I’m a part of. And only when I know this can I find rest.

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“forgiveness is not a legal action”

Alexander Schmemann on “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from his Our Father:

to ask forgiveness of this sin, means to acknowledge our disunity with others, and it implies an effort to overcome it, which already implies its forgiveness. For forgiveness is a mystical action that restores a lost wholeness so that goodness reigns once more; forgiveness is not a legal action, but a moral one. According to the law anyone who harms me must be punished, and until he is punished the law is not satisfied, but according to conscience the moral law does not require a legal satisfaction, but rather the restoration of wholeness and love, which any law is powerless to effect. Only mutual forgiveness has this power. If we forgive one another, then God forgives us, and only in this mutually related forgiveness of ours and the forgiveness from above is the conscience purified and light reigns. It is this for which man thirsts and searches at his very depths.

For indeed, man does not really need external order as much as a clean conscience, that inner light without which there can be no true happiness. Therefore, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is actually a petition for moral purification and rebirth, without which any law of this world is no help.

Perhaps the terrible tragedy of our times, of those societies in which we live, consists precisely in the fact that while there is much talk about legality and justice, while many assorted texts are cited, these societies have almost entirely lost the power and moral beauty of forgiveness.

Especially with the last paragraph, it is worth explaining that this book was originally a set of radio lectures on the Lord’s Prayer broadcast by Radio Liberty into the USSR (culled from 30 years of weekly broadcasts which Schmemann made). Yet “those societies in which we live” not only accurately describes the Soviet Union in 1980 but the United States in 2016. Far worse is that Schmemann’s words to a large extent describe American Christianity.

I find myself wondering how much of this is due to Protestant reduction of the reconciliation of all things in Christ to a mere legal transaction resulting in eternal salvation, benefits payable on (and not before) death. As easily as that can be packaged and preached, a courtroom drama is far from expressing the fullness of the Gospel. Even Paul, the main popularizer of that legal metaphor, experienced and spoke of the Gospel in much larger terms than any courtroom could hold, as in Colossians 1:19-22:

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.

To make the practical turn: preachers who are interested in proclaiming a Gospel that draws and then transforms people with its goodness, beauty, truth, hope, and love (to be clear, this is the only Gospel) have to stop taking lazy shortcuts in presenting the Gospel in narrow and shallow terms week after week. And if we don’t take up that challenge, then we bear moral responsibility when people don’t seem to grow spiritually or to find growth in relationship with God or to practice substantive peacemaking with their closest neighbors and family. A legal action cannot accomplish those things, but the power of the Gospel is the power of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–to do infinitely more than we can ask, think, or imagine.

Preaching the heights and depths of the Gospel destroys the shallow “gospel” of legal action in any contest of theology, Biblical faithfulness, missionality, or the pure practicality of transfigured lives and communities. Thanks, Fr. Schmemann.

Schmemann Icon

Contemplation and Its Discontents

My entry into contemplative Christianity was junior year of high school: J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Salinger himself was apparently some kind of Buddhist (or Buddhisht), and in that book Franny prays the Jesus Prayer on repeat after reading the classic Way of a Pilgrim. I followed that trail to Peoria Public Library, where I first learned both about hesychasm and about Zen Catholicism.

A couple years later I picked up Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain for the first time. I had never heard of Merton before, but I liked what the dust jacket at Walden Books at the mall said. The book may have changed my life. Some moderately extensive reading in Merton and on Merton since have given me some sense (I think) of what connections Merton was drawing between Christian contemplation and other contemplative spiritualities of the world, Buddhism in particular.

Still a couple years after that, a counselor introduced me to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s particular use of Buddhist meditation in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (set out best in his Wherever You Go, There You Are). Perhaps a year after that I read Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicles the meeting of several rabbis with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist religious leaders, for an historic interfaith dialogue in India. That book also introduced me to the concept of Jewish Buddhism.

Around the same time I was introduced to Transcendental Meditation (TM) in Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch, who has a thirty-year practice of the discipline going and described how it figures massively in his personal life and artistic process. The actual practice of TM is exactly the same as Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer.

In the last couple weeks I’ve read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, and I am halfway through his Immortal Diamond. Rohr’s books have the same tendency toward blurring difference, not only with other religious traditions but with Jungian psychology and 20th/21st century physics.

Conclusions:

  1. It is a commonplace among contemporary contemplatives (dating back at least to the turn of the 19th into the 20th century) that there is a blurring of religious difference and boundaries in general on the contemplative frontiers. For the most part, writers on contemplation not only describe the blurring but express the belief that it is a positive.
  2. This commonplace needs to be interrogated. Not all difference is illusory (and sometimes lack of differentiation and union are themselves illusory). Not all difference is negative. Some differentiation is necessary to love, to respect, to human relating, to human-divine relating, to peacemaking and reconciliation, and to honest inter-faith dialogue. (The 1968 inter-religious summit at which Merton died recognized this. Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus recognized this.)
  3. The practice of contemplation is a genuine Christian vocation and charism. Like most Christian vocations and charisms, contemplation is to some extent for all, but it is more important for some. It exists in every case for the blessing of God and all of Creation.
  4. This post is the beginning of several conversations, not the end of any conversations.

an Ash Wednesday poem

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

By Gerard Manley Hopkins
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.

St. Bernard Gets It

I think you’ll see why they call Bernard of Clairvaux “Doctor Mellifluus.”

This the prudent Virgin understood when to the prevenient grace of a gratuitous promise she joined the merit of her own prayer, saying: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Be it done unto me concerning the Divine Word according to Thy word. May the Word which was in the beginning with God be made flesh of my flesh according to Thy word. May He, I entreat, be made to me, not a spoken word, to pass unheeded, but a word conceived—that is, clothed in flesh—which may remain. May He be to me not only audible to my ears, but visible to my eyes, felt by my hands, borne in my arms. Let Him be to me not a mute and written word traced with dumb signs on lifeless parchments, but an Incarnate, living Word vividly impressed in human form in my chaste womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost.

Be it done unto me as it has never hitherto been done to mortal, and never shall be done to any after my time. “God diversely and in many ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets”1—to some in the hearing of the ears, while to others the word of the Lord was made known in signs and figures. Now in this solemn hour I pray that in my own being it may be done unto me according to Thy word.

Be it done unto me—not preached to me in the feeble strains of human eloquence, not shown forth to me in the figures of earthly rhetoric, not painted in the poetic dreams of a fervid imagination, but breathed upon me in silence, in person Incarnate, in a human form veritably reposing within me. In His own nature the Word needed not change, was incapable of change. Yet now graciously in me “may it be done according to thy word.” Be it done universally for all mankind, but most especially for me—” Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Saint Bernard, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent & Christmas: Including the Famous Treatise on the Incarnation Called “Missus Est” (London; Manchester; Glasgow; New York; Cincinnati; Chicago: R. & T. Washbourne; Benziger Bros., 1909), 71–72.

Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus

Death on a Friday Afternoon

The subtitle of John Richard Neuhaus’ Death on a Friday Afternoon is Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. Being a Protestant myself, I could not tell you what those last words are off the top of my head, but I can tell you that they are the seven final sayings (not single words, but sayings) of Jesus delivered from the cross, that they are drawn from across all four Gospels, and that they have been a vital devotional tool among Roman Catholics for hundreds of years. (I can also link to them.)

To structure the book, Neuhaus devotes one chapter apiece to each of the sayings, interpreting each around a single point. The result is truly a prophetic book. I call it prophetic intentionally, using a word that is overused and misused, because in this book the Jesus of the Scriptures, of human history, of the Great Tradition, of the Godhead, is proclaimed as the Jesus who speaks to our world today. These are the kind of words that Hebrews 4 describes as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We may not want to hear them, because we might get cut.

One very distinct message across the chapters which I did not expect to find here: Neuhaus believes that when we look deeply at Christ crucified, we will find in his suffering and death the hope of salvation for all. Here, Neuhaus’ understanding follows very closely on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? in arguing that love of neighbor and faith in a God who is love mean that Christians are on entirely solid theological and Biblical footing when we hope that Christ’s work will result in an empty Hell. This hope of universal salvation through Christ is raised repeatedly and strongly throughout the book.

Honestly, while Neuhaus’ legacy as a pastor and spiritual writer is forever (or maybe just for folks my age and older?) tangled in his political legacy, Neuhaus joined the Catholic Church in order to come under the authority of Christian orthodoxy, and his embrace of the hope for universal salvation through Christ is helpful to those sorting through that knotty-in-this-moment issue. That is to say, despite “conservatives” decrying Rob Bell’s 2011 Love Wins, which nudged us to imagine the eternal outcomes of the unfathomable love of God (my 3-part review of that book here), there were no peeps when Neuhaus, “conservative” champion, published his own popular audience book in 2000, writing forcefully,

Christians must hope that Hell is empty, that the mercy of God reaches also those who willed damnation for themselves, that God draws them back, despite themselves, into the heart of love. Balthasar writes, “Here lies hope for the person who, refusing all love, damns himself. Will not the person who wishes to be totally alone find beside him in Sheol the Someone who is lonelier still, the Son forsaken by the Father, who will prevent him from experiencing his self-chosen hell to the end?”

It is a question, but it is an inescapable question, that drives to the hope at the heart of the horror. If, as St. Paul says, Christ who knew no sin was made sin for us, can there be any sin he did not bear there on the cross? If the answer is no, as I believe it must be, then even the utterly forsaken one are not bereft of the company of the utterly forsaken one, the Son of God, and therefore not bereft of hope. Thus even the will to damnation is damned and thereby defeated by the One for whom and in whom damnation is not allowed the last word.

It is a powerful argument, because it makes those of us still unsure how to think of Hell within the love of God ask of ourselves, “Does the power of the cross fall short at some point?” It also make powerfully clear that from St. Paul to Jesus’ own words to other writers of the New Testament to theological giants including Aquinas and von Balthasar, there is some solid footing to hope.

Death on a Friday Afternoon, finally, is the kind of book that makes it harder for me to preach after reading, because I find my own words flogging the afflicted and leaving no one comforted in comparison. I recommend the book unreservedly, although it certainly (as you can see from the quoted portion) is heavy reading for many audiences.

I Gave Up Manuscript Preaching for Lent

On Monday mornings, I review my sermon video from the day before. (The churches I serve are 40 and 20 in regular weekly attendance, and I use the Zoom Q2HD in the first service, which is at the larger church. This is not some high-budget televised or even live-streamed thing, so don’t use the excuse that your preaching assignment is too small to be worth recording and reviewing. Regarding expense, the Zoom plus memory card was sub-$200, and I use a free video editor, a free audio editor, a free podcasting service which iTunes picks up and lists for free, and then post the audio on a free Facebook page, so even the smallest church can be sold on this investment in good preaching.)

My notes range from: “good emotions in announcements” to “energy ebbs at…” to “the sermon is too long because…” to “shave your face before next week.” For almost the entire time that I have been doing this (July of last year), I have been annoying myself with lack of eye contact, and months ago I realized that using a manuscript was keeping me from actually learning how to preach.

Transitioning off of manuscripts is a cold turkey process. Knowing that, I kept putting it off until some utopian week when I would have extra time to prepare and then make the jump. (N.B.: Those weeks don’t exist, and somewhere in my heart of hearts, I’ve known that the whole time.)

Finally, I picked up Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment by Fred Lybrand because it was really cheap on Kindle one day. It’s not a great book, but it is a great kick in the pants. And so I decided to give up manuscript preaching for Lent.

The thought of this scared me so much that I started a few weeks early, and I did it not just without manuscript but without notes at all. I hated the results the first week, and it was hard to believe it would improve, but I was committed. Consider how in Mario Kart everyone who is good uses the Manual Mode, but if you start out on Automatic, you will experience a dip in your abilities when you make the switch to Manual. I definitely experienced a dip going from manuscript to no notes. But…no one in my churches noticed (or if they did, it wasn’t any worse than any other dips I’ve had for other reasons).

This week, however, I think I may have preached better than I have ever preached in these two churches. Yes, I went long. (Quick! Can I modify Communion without messing up something important? No. Quick! Which verses of the closing hymn should we cut? The middle ones, for no good reason.) I also was so much more present to the congregation, and I can see it on the video. It was so encouraging, even as I already know enough about preaching that it is never going to be just up-and-up-and-up.

It’s Monday again. Better start sermonizing.