20 August 2014

Momentary Gnosis

Christ Embracing St Bernard, Francisco Ribalta
How, why, and how often does gnosis happen to us? 

Many of us have experienced a special moment of clarity, a rush of wisdom, or an encounter with the Beloved. We perceive these little epiphanies of gnosis in as many ways as there are people to experience them. The experiential and transcendent nature of gnosis defies definition.

For many Christians, the idea of gnosis is quite foreign, which is ironic because the word was used hundreds of times in the New Testament.  Furthermore, "Gnostic" is a term which came to be a catchall for practically every opinion that deviated from a literal interpretation of early scriptures.   It is therefore little wonder that few theologians have discussed how gnosis occurs.  

In a sermon* given by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, we see one beautiful attempt to describe this wondrous gift. And while Bernard was no Gnostic, he was a Christian who perfectly illustrated the fragile and momentary experience of gnosis.

If then, any of us, like the holy prophet, finds that it is good to cling close to God, and–that I may make myself more clear–if any of us is so filled with desire that he wants to depart and to be with Christ, with a desire that is intense, a thirst ever burning, an application that never flags, he will certainly meet the Word in the guise of a Bridegroom on whatever day he comes.  At such an hour he will find himself locked in the arms of Wisdom; he will experience how sweet divine love is as it flows into his heart.  His heart’s desire will be given to him, even while still a pilgrim on earth, though not in its fullness and only for a time, a short time.  

In this very touching passage, St. Bernard clearly speaks from experience and not conjecture.  If we pay attention to the language that he used, we will come to realize that he is relating nothing less than a momentary gnostic experience with the Logos and Sophia, the Word and Wisdom.  This is why it is always better to strive for gnosis and not Gnosticism, just as the Gospel of Philip declares that we should not strive to be Christians, but christs. 


*St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons, 32   

16 August 2014

A Prayer with the Prophet Micah

The Prophet Micah, Moretto da Brescia,1550.
Part of a good daily prayer life can include small readings on which to reflect and pray. In a general sense, this is what is called lectio divina. First we read (lectio), then meditate (meditatio) on the reading. Afterwards, pray (oratio); and finally contemplate (contemplatio) in light of your prayer. I keep this separate from my other prayers, which I say before lectio.

Sometimes I look at all the readings for the day during my devotional time in the morning.

This passage is from the afternoon (None) reading for today, and it comes from the very ancient words of the prophet Micah. (6:8)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

That reading sounds like enough to keep me busy, how about you? 

Sometimes simple practices like this can yield incredible benefits.  For me, the morning is the best time because it frames the entire day in its proper context. There are many resources to find readings, but I usually consult Universalis and the Johannite Liturgical Calendar.


13 August 2014

Per ardua ad astra: Through Adversity to the Stars

At St. Sarah’s Discussion Group last weekend, we reflected on the perception that often life’s most precious lessons are learned through adversity.  I've been trying to keep a personal journal of those discussions and what at least I learn from them, because they seem to be a valuable resource. That truth doesn’t make hard times any easier, but at least we can count on learning something that will last well beyond the immediate pain it inflicts.  On my desk sits a badge from the Royal Air Force that was given to me many years ago when I was in the Air Force Auxiliary. In lustrous gold thread, the motto urges its bearer onward: Per ardua ad astra, “Through adversity to the stars.” 

That motto can be applied to the current state of affairs the world round, because it doesn't take a Nobel Laureat to figure out that there is an unmistakable abundance of adversity.  One wink at the headlines and we become immediately aware of a hierarchy of woe, and the lamentable context that surrounds us at home.  

As we look around to our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, it can be very easy to slip into an overwhelming melancholy at the sight of their sufferings. Not all loss and pain is the same, but none of it is pleasant to witness in the eyes of those for whom we care. I’ve seen a lot of that lately, and some of it is probably a reflection of my own share of pain.

Anybody who has ever been the guardian of a dog knows what happens when the dog is hurt.  I remember one of my dogs was stung by a bee, and he yelped and ran into a corner, growling and baring his canines at me when I approached to help him. If I am honest with myself, I know that the animal in me reacts in very much the same way.  I might not bite, but I do the human equivalent.
Crucifix from Palazzo Madama e Casaforte degli Acaja

Yes, my fellow human beings and I are very good at rationalizing our pain, error and tragedy, by analyzing real injustices and pinning them on abstractions, scapegoats.  While we all know that there must be a certain amount of generalization to categorize and study the humanities and sciences, blaming conspiracies of injustice has a singularly dangerous effect. It jettisons personal responsibility, and lays our faults on the altars of history, social malady, or the institution of your choosing. Poverty, class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, you name it. If we think hard enough, we can blame a lot of things for our collective errors, but it always begins with us as individuals to act on them.     

Those of you who have followed In puris naturalibus for a while know that I am a lifelong student of history. When I look back on the piles of books which I have joyfully waded through in my general interest, my mind fills with examples of things that I should do and things that I shouldn’t.  Don't have a tryst with Cleopatra or Charlotte de Sauve. If Léo Taxil asks to join your organization, just say no, and if you're related to Marino Faliero, don't mention it on your next trip to Venice. Never debate Theology with anyone. Ever. And if there is one thing the grim-faced powers of this world don't like, it's a human with a healthy appreciation for mirth.  So yuck it up.

That's the best bit about reading history. We can learn from its mistakes without hurting others or ourselves.  Recounting history in its broadest sense, is the original purpose of myth, plays and novels. The mythology may not have been historical fact in the physical realm, but more often than not the drama which unfolds among the many pages of myth is very real, indeed. This is how I have learned to deal with problems near and far. This is me taking the curtain down and looking behind the puppet show to see the human hands that make them dance this deathly myth we call existence.

A couple of days from now we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, the day the Church has set aside to remember the Holy Mother’s passing to the realm of the Spirit.  A woman, a symbol, a blameless example; this bright and fearless God-bearer and her contemporaries knew real suffering.  A life of drudgery filled only with the light of her son and his promise to an ailing and decadent world of violence, misery and greed.  Not much has changed, and yet everything has been transformed. 

Every morning when I say my prayers, I look at Mary in bewildered awe, and I see that she and the anointed one to whom she gave life are truly a bridge for me to grasp onto.  Their pain was like ours; they could feel the loss of a beloved friend, and cry until their throats hurt. But the demonic thirst for blood is far greater than these everyday aches and pains.  Even though ignorance required a sacrifice, before their deaths, Christ and his Holy Mother showed a cruel and inhospitable world that there is a better way for us to live, and that is in the eternal Spirit of Love.  So, this Assumptiontide, I dwell in the knowledge that as painful as this life might be, we have been shown the way through adversity to the stars.


10 August 2014

Where is the Righteous Indignation?

Mosul's Cathedral Torched by ISIS

The persecution of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq has become genocide.  The self-proclaimed "Islamic Caliphate", rejected by the living inheritor of that title in Turkey, has torched the Chaldean Cathedral in Mosul and threatened death to any and all non-Muslims who will not pay their "tax" or convert.
Like many of you, my heart is in terrible condition.  I don’t suffer from heart disease, but my eyes have given me the ability to see the horrific violence going on in Gaza, Israel, Syria and now Iraq, yet again.  But there is a noticeable lack of interest in the plight of hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in “Islamic State” (ISIS) controlled Iraq.  “Convert to Islam or die.”  Some of you may have seen the barbaric executions of children, women and men at the hands of these self-proclaimed arbiters of “justice.”  I am wondering why all of you who have been posting for Gaza have nothing to say about Iraq.  It’s disturbing, and frankly disheartening.  For example, Oxfam International doesn’t even mention this crisis on their web page as of August 10, 2014 at about 7 o’clock p.m. US Eastern Time.  Why?

In a few months’ time, over one million people have been displaced by persecution in Iraq. In the past few days, 200,000 people have fled from the town of Sinjar. Around 50,000 Yazidis (members of one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities) are trapped in the mountains with no access to food or water. As many as 100,000 Christians have fled their homes as fears of an ISIS advance grow. 

So why is this our problem? The US-led war in Iraq is directly responsible for destabilizing Iraq.  The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Babylon, who is based in Baghdad, estimated that there were about 35,000 Christians in Mosul before it was taken by ISIS, down from 60,000 before the 2003 U.S. invasion. There are now none.

In such terrible times, we must focus our attention on the plight of all people who suffer.  So I ask you now to join me in supporting the refugees and other persecuted populations in Iraq. As some of you know, we at St. Sarah’s Parish AJC, dedicated our prayers and Mass last night to peace in the Middle East.  But we are reminded daily that divine peace and mercy is in our hands, too. 

Here are some things that you can do to help.

1. Attend Mass or religious services as often as you can, pray there, and pray for peace at home every day before you start your day.

2. Give generously to one of many agencies which are on the ground and have experience delivering much needed assistance.  These include: Fraternité en Irak, Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), Christian Aid, Catholic Relief Services,  Open Doors. 

3. Bring this humanitarian crisis to the attention of others in a respectful and loving way. 

To my sisters and brothers fleeing ISIS at this moment, no matter what religion they might hold, may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep and restore you. 


29 July 2014

The Three Gifts of St Martha

St. Martha, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
July 29th is the Feast of Saint Martha of Bethany, sister of Saints Mary and Lazarus, chef de cuisine, slayer of dragons, and all around powerhouse. But let's set aside the medieval myths about St. Martha for a moment and try to disengage our minds to find the spiritual meaning behind this incredible woman. 

Imagine that your brother or another close family member has just died.  The rush of thoughts and emotions which we naturally experience can be overwhelming, self-critical, and even judgmental of others. Could we have done more? 

In the experience of the community of the Beloved Disciple, the Johannites, just such an event took place, and it was probably recorded by the community because of its importance not only to the historical plot of the gospel, but to us in any epoch, at any moment, and in any country.  In short, it was important to tell this story because it is a human one.

Martha and Mary lost their brother, Lazarus.  They must have been devastated. In John 11 we see that Jesus takes his time–two days–to visit Lazarus, by which time Lazarus had already died. At this point, if I am honest with myself, I think that I would be very angry with Jesus for having taken so long to come.  I think that I would feel conflicted knowing that Jesus loved Lazarus, and yet he took his sweet time coming to his deathbed.  And this is where the marvel that is St. Martha comes into play.

We know that this story takes place towards the end of the life of Christ.  It was, after all, Martha’s sister, Mary, who would anoint his feet with precious spikenard and wipe them with her hair before the triumphant entrance to Jerusalem. But in a person who is as spiritually strong and attuned to the power of the Logos and Divine Wisdom as Martha, there is this intangible gift of insight–what we call gnosis–that through peace, establishes a certitude unlike anything that could be described in physical terms. 

When Jesus arrived, Martha called her sister, but she did not come, so we see a conversation unfold which tells us much about her spiritual insight. Instead of yelling at Jesus, demanding to know where he had been while her brother lay dying, she calls him “Master.” Even before Jesus raised her brother Lazarus from the grave, Martha showed an experiential kind of knowledge of his powers over nature. How do we know this?  She said quite plainly “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Even after Lazarus was dead, Martha rested in the knowledge that her brother could and would be raised from the dead.  There was not a single doubt in her mind, and we know it because such a loving and giving person would otherwise be devastated by the loss of her brother, and furious at his friend who did not come in time.

St. Martha rides Tarasque the dragon
So the first gift I see in St. Martha is that of gnosis.

The second gift that we see Martha give in the Gospel of John is hospitality. I know from my work in the parish that hospitality is a very big part of building community and friendship. By offering her skills in the kitchen and with entertaining, Martha provides a sacred space in community; a place which would enable Mary to anoint the feet of Jesus and afford him the chance to teach those present about the value of ritual and veneration, and how those relate to our charge to care for the poor.  Jesus’ lesson is quite clear: It is not an “either/or” question, do we make a sacred space and sacramentals worthy of the respectful veneration of the Logos Incarnate? Yes.  Do we take care of the poor?  Yes.  This is a critical “both/and” lesson that so typifies the message of Christ and the community which he inspires even today. The beautiful gift which Martha gave to us all came, this time, in the form of a dinner party at which the lesson took form.

The third gift that Martha brings us is discipleship. As we have seen, Martha is not a dreamy child, filled with blind faith in her sister’s mysterious friend.  Martha is a practical woman, a person who organizes meals and marshals resources. The Gospel of Luke even describes her as being something of a skeptic when she and Mary first met Jesus. Clearly she had a change of heart, as we see in her insight and her hospitality. After the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, this lively and tenacious skeptic would become one of the Myrophorae, the myrrhbearers. This is no small job description, because it was the myrrhbearers who first discovered Christ’s empty tomb, heard the angel’s voice, and were commissioned with the holy task of bringing the good news of the resurrection to the apostles. Martha can therefore be counted as one of the apostles-to-the-apostles, and thus by tradition, the Myrophorae have been treated as equals to the apostles.   No small charge at all.

Through the three gifts of gnosis, hospitality and discipleship, St. Martha shows us that we do not have to give up critical thinking to have a relationship and true knowledge of the Divine. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person, or fit into someone else’s idea of what a true disciple is supposed to look like.  St. Martha learned that the knowledge and love of God is best experienced through loving action. 

By many accounts, St. Martha left Palestine and settled in the south of France, along with St. Mary Magdalene, St. Lazarus, St. Maximin, St. Mary Jacobe, St. Mary Salome and St. Sarah the Egyptian. I’ll leave it to you whether you want to believe she rode and slew the dragon Tarasque.