Posts tagged ‘body’

February 1, 2018

speech connects us so immediately and vitally because it is a physical, bodily process

Ursula K. Le Guin in “Telling Is Listening” found in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination:

The community created by printing and by secondary orality is not immediate; it is virtual. It can be enorrnous—the size of America. Indeed it may be literacy more than any other factor that has enabled or coerced us to live in huge nation-states instead of tribes and city-states. Possibly the Internet will allow us to outgrow the nation-state. Although the Global Village McLuhan dreamed of is at present a City of Night, a monstrous force for cultural reductionism and internationally institutionalised greed, who knows? Perhaps we shall soar electronically to some arrangement that works better than capitalism.

But so vast a community must remain more concept than tangible fact. Written word, printed word, reproduced speech, filmed speech, the telephone, e-mail: each medium links people, but it does not link them physically, and whatever community it creates is essentially a mental one.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” It is marvelous that we can talk to living people ten thousand miles away and hear them speak. It is marvelous that by reading their words, or seeing a film of them, we may feel communion even with the dead. It is a marvelous thought that all knowledge might be accessible to all minds.

But marriage is not of minds only; and the living human community that language creates involves living human bodies. We need to talk together, speaker and hearer here, now. We know that. We feel it. We feel the absence of it.

Speech connects us so immediately and vitally because it is a physical, bodily process, to begin with. Not a mental or spiritual one, wherever it may end.

…In most cases of people actually talking to one another, human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.

In human conversation, in live, actual communication between or among human beings, everything “transmitted” — everything said — is shaped as it is spoken by actual or anticipated response.

Live, face-to-face human communication is intersubjective. Intersubjectivity involves a great deal more than the machine-mediated type of stimulus-response currently called “interactive.” It is not stimulus-response at all, not a mechanical alternation of precoded sending and receiving. Intersubjectivity is mutual. It is a continuous interchange between two consciousnesses. Instead of an alternation of roles between box A and box B, between active subject and passive object, it is a continuous intersubjectivity that goes both ways all the time.

…Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.

…When you can and do entrain, you are synchronising with the people you’re talking with, physically getting in time and tune with them. No wonder speech is so strong a bond, so powerful in forming community.

…The voice creates a sphere around it, which includes all its hearers: an intimate sphere or area, limited in both space and time.

Creation is an act. Action takes energy.

Sound is dynamic. Speech is dynamic — it is action. To act is to take power, to have power, to be powerful. Mutual communication between speakers and listeners is a powerful act. The power of each speaker is amplified, augmented, by the entrainment of the listeners. The strength of a community is amplified, augmented by its mutual entrainment in speech.

…This is why utterance is magic. Words do have power. Names have power. Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.

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January 29, 2018

Honor all Matter and Venerate It

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As modern Western people, our dichotomized categories and preconceived notions about body, soul, matter, and spirit are tragically inadequate to the task of engaging with the full mystery and beauty of reality. Ancient people understood reality in ways that we have lost the ability to understand: its full dimensionality, interiority, and microcosmic qualities. As a modern myself, I’m not able to see just how far short our concepts come from being able to appreciate what is truly around us. Moderns have flattened the creation into just a few simple dualities such as: energy and matter, time and space, or (the ugliest reduction of all) supply and demand. In this simplified and demystified world, we’ve blinded ourselves to both the true beauty and meaning of the world outside as well as to the power of the same world as it also exists within ourselves. For human beings, the material world is supposed to be a powerful portal into the realities of life and beauty, into full communion with our Creator. Instead, we have lost this capacity, and we have allowed the material world to become a curtain that hides the rest of reality from our eyes. To undo this, requires long practice. However, there is also some value in trying to understand the categories of thought that blind our minds. This essay is my attempt to share how my own categories of thought have begun to shift.

Ancient Christians (and all ancient peoples in many essential ways) understood the world to be multi-layered, with simultaneous aspects of the same things coexisting within or across space and time. For example, stars and angels were often understood as the same thing but with multiple aspects: changeless cosmic bodies moving in a stately pattern according to the highest laws and mighty spiritual powers who are both conducting a sacred dance and waging a heavenly war.

The “heavenly hosts” made famous by English translations of the Bible have two distinct meanings: one is a reference to the stars; the other to God’s celestial armies, presumably of angels. Sometimes the two references seem to merge. In fact, the two meanings of the Hebrew phrase for “host of heaven” … reflect a probable association between angels and stars and planets in the Hebrew imagination. The heavenly hosts of stars, moreover, sometimes have associations of idolatry, since surrounding pagan nations were given to astrology and worship of the heavenly bodies. [Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, page 372.]

C.S. Lewis makes this same point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (chapter 14):

“I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”

“Golly,” said Edmund under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”

“…In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

It was no different within the earthly realm: a stream was also a naiad, and a tree was also a dryad.

Ancients also saw the world as microcosmic or structured like fractals, with the whole complex pattern recurring at progressively smaller or larger scales. The entire cosmos existed at multiple levels simultaneously:

  1. Many ancient philosophers as well as the Bible taught that each individual human person is a replica of the whole cosmic pattern, a particular union of heaven and earth, and a complete temple to God.
  2. Likewise, the tabernacle/temple is a miniature presentation of the entire cosmos.
  3. Finally, the entire cosmos itself is a temple modeled after God’s heavenly temple and throne room (with humanity as the priest and the divine image who makes God present within all of creation).

This kind of teaching is taken for granted throughout the scripture. For example, when Christ said that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:20-21). Ancient Christian authors also reflected often on this theme. For example, Augustine wrote:

These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are near me heaven, earth, sea. …Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? …Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves. …Where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? …What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it. [Confessions (Book X)]

Ancient people understood the heavenly realm or the spiritual world to be both inside and above the physical world or earthly realm. Each of these spatial analogies are true, and both are metaphorical. As moderns, we have only kept a distorted understanding of the idea that the heavenly world is “above” the earthly realm, and this idea only makes it easier for us to reject the relevance or the reality of the heavenly world. Ancients believed that the spiritual world was “within” all of the physical world because the spiritual or heavenly realm expresses deeper truths about us and our world. Heaven, as it exists inside each thing around us, can shows us how each thing is made and what each thing truly is (at the core of its being). Finally, these more essential realities are said to be “inside” because they tend to be “hidden” or “mysterious” to us. We cannot as easily see, take, and try to possess or control the heavenly realities that surround us within the material world. This presumption of possession and control is a terrible mistake that we make constantly as modern people. It blinds us more profoundly than anything else to the true beauty and value of all that surrounds us. Thinking of the world in simply material terms, we make the world less sacred, and we make is more easy for us to think that we can “have” or “use” the  things around us. As we try to “make use of” the material things surrounding us to increase our power and comfort, we become completely ignorant of the more powerful and uncontrollable spiritual qualities that are internal to these things. We utilize material things without realizing the spiritual death that we are bringing upon ourselves. We are like orcs chopping down trees while heedless of the ents.

Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers does an excellent job of unpacking the old idea of heavenly or spiritual realities being “within” all earthly or material realities. Although recommending the book highly, I am critical of his implication that the “internal” metaphor can be an almost complete explanatory category. Heavenly and spiritual realities are neither “above” or “within” in any complete or literal sense. Wink would agree with this, but his ideas rely heavily on the “‘withinness” of all spiritual realities.

One more way that we moderns have demystified the world is by splitting the world into material and spiritual realities that do not have any vital need to coexist. In the ancient mind, heaven and earth depended upon each other in a wide variety of complex ways. The spatial metaphor of “above” did teach that heavenly realities were more meaningful, substantial, or vital (“higher” in some sense). However, this idea of heaven being above the earth did not mean that heaven is in any sense distant from the earth. Heaven was always understood to be close at hand. We are in both heaven and earth at the same time every day, and heaven only becomes distant as a result of our own blindness and sin. Paul and other New Testament writers talk repeatedly about us being seated in heaven and carrying out vital activities in heaven at the same time as we are on the earth. We are clearly understood to be in both places. However, the heavenly Jerusalem still needs to “come down to earth” and be married to the earth in a wedding celebration that will heal the rift that has opened between heaven and earth as a result of our human rebellion and blindness:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” [Revelation 21:1-3a]

Earthly and heavenly realities are created to be complementary (as are material and spiritual realities by extension). Each aspect of the world offers something to the other. Earthly things are good and offer to us a relationship or contact point with heavenly things. Likewise, heavenly things are good and can show us the true nature and value of earthly things. As embodied creatures, our communion with heaven is clearly intended to be mediated by a right relationship with the material world (understood as the good and revelatory gift of God that it always is).

To regain contact with reality as a marriage of both the earthly and the heavenly, we must go back into the history of terms such as “body” and “soul” or “spirit” and “matter.” There are well over a thousand years of profound Christian writings (and even more importantly, practices) regarding a whole host of terms about our human abilities and parts. As just a few examples: heart, spirit, soul, body, strength, will, passions, flesh, and nous (“understanding” is a good translation, but we generally just don’t get this term today). Of course, these terms are all rich Greek and New Testament concepts, several with deep Hebrew roots as well. Regaining the good use of these (and several other such terms) should start with word studies, and these words have very physical (enfleshed) roots, particularly in Hebrew. Word studies are not abstractions, because language is always grounded in concrete metaphors from the bodily experiences of human persons. “Spirit,” for example is “breath” or “wind” in Hebrew, which is both remarkably tangible but also impossible to fully see or constrain.

To get at what “spiritual” and “heavenly” mean, it is critical to keep both the earthy word origins as well as the earthly target clearly in view. As the Lord’s prayer says: “on earth as it is in heaven.” As humans, our wholeness is primary, and we cannot separate any part of ourselves fully out from the rest of us or place any part of ourselves into competition with other parts. Ultimately, our spirit, soul and body are mutually dependant entities, and we must start with our bodily experiences as the basis of our spiritual lives.

Another fact that keeps the study of these terms profoundly practical and embodied (vs. abstract or theoretical), is that all of these terms were first developed and debated in the context of learning to worship and pray (by Jews and later by Christians). We don’t realize today that virtually all arguments over the technicalities of terms such as “will” or “nous” or over the human nature of Christ (as well as over trinitarian doctrines and the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures) were grounded in the daily practices of worship and prayer. Christ prayed “not my will but your will be done,” and Maximus the Confessor had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off because he insisted that Christ had a fully human will. Maximus was a scholar, but his scholarship was grounded in practices of prayer that imitated Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane as well as practices that relied upon Christ’s restoration of our human will to freely cooperate with the will of God. The emperor who ordered that Maximus to be rendered incapable of speaking and writing was actually the one obsessed with pure abstractions. He was intellectually offended at the idea of Christ having a human will. Maximus, however, was motivated by his own experiences of prayer and of striving to be unified with God’s will.

From my little reading in the monastic traditions (desert fathers and mothers), it seems that “nous” and “passions” are the two most seriously lost or misunderstood terms. I won’t try to write about “nous” other than to say that I think it has something to do with having our perceptions wide open to God’s presence. My focus hear, however, is the interrelationship of seeming dualities such as matter and spirit or body and soul. In this context I will say more about the passions, but first I must back up to talk about our bodies.

Monastics systematically subdued and trained their bodies in order to regain their bodies as an essential and powerful means for communion with their loving Creator. They loved their bodies and wanted their bodies back from the tyranny of the passions, and that is why they pushed their bodies to the point of ruination. A weak body that worked powerfully as a mediator and conduit of God’s presence in all of the created world (the original purpose of our bodies) was far more healthy and delightful than a strong body that was enslaved and insensible to God’s presence.

Saints bodies are precious to themselves and likewise precious to those who love the saint. Christ’s body, even dead, was precious to the myrrh-bearing women. Christ’s body, even dead, was a means of God’s presence and communion with us. This is why the Orthodox still treasure and honor the bodies and even the cloths of saints. Elijah’s mantle carried his holiness, and Elisha’s ancient bones brought a dead man to life. Even since God’s Spirit brooded like a mother bird over the surface of the primordial waters and ever since this Spirit indwelt the clay of our first parents, this Spirit has been deeply involved with material things. Our human bodies both make manifest God’s presence (as does all matter) and also bring that presence to us via all five senses.

Paul seems to use “flesh” to denote the desire for things other than God. “Fleshly” and “worldly” vs. “heavenly” in Paul’s writings are not actually about material vs. immaterial. Platonists and Gnostics despised material things. In Plato’s cave, the shadow world had to be left far behind. This is not the Christian message. God’s material creation is good, and it is a powerful tool for communion with God. Paul’s terms “flesh” and “world” do not denigrate the human body or the material world. “Fleshly” and “heavenly” indicate purposes or orientations (specifically, realms of power and authority), with the same good material things being subject to different purposes and powers. Material things are “heavenly” insofar as we allow them to mediate God’s presence and God’s communion with us. These same material things are “fleshly” or “worldly” insofar as we abuse them to serve as distractions, alternatives, or barriers to God’s presence with us.

In a similar way, “passions” (within the writings of the monastics) were not simply strong feelings or bodily desires. This term, again, has to do with orientation or purpose. Within a long and profoundly practical tradition of writing and teaching about Christian prayer, the “passions” came to mean all of the habitual needs and desires that we develop for anything other than God. Feelings that do not control us or draw us away from God are not evil. However, we tend to need much work to learn to desire God, and our strong desires are often cruel taskmasters that work against our ability to love and long after God. Death is sometimes called the greatest passion because all of our desires for things other than God lead naturally to death. Christ’s death is also called his passion. In a remarkable reversal, St. Maximus the Confessor argues that Christ turned death from the most powerful weapon against our human natures (threatening to destroy them) into our most powerful weapon against sin (setting free our human natures). Christ made our passions and death itself a means of our salvation.

At this point, I want to close with a series of reflections that draw primarily on my personal experience. I find that it is delightful and profoundly comforting to be able to recognize and respond throughout my day to Christ’s presence with us in human history—to be able to enjoy (with my own body) the material results (or relics) of his incarnation as a man among us. What I mean is to be able to venerate his image, his cross, the bodies of his ministers and saints, the chalice from which I receive his body and blood. The Seventh Ecumenical Council restored the use of icons to the church after sophisticated thinkers (who wanted to make Christianity as spiritually and philosophically tidy and impressive as Islam) had taken the icons away.

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Photo by Heather Mason.

St. John of Damascus wrote beautifully in defense of icons. Adam and Eve were the first icons (same word as images and idols) of God, and God told humans not to make any images of God because God did not want humans to replace themselves as the image of God. The tabernacle and temple were full of images. However, the mercy seat appeared empty (although filled with the fire and cloud of Spirit glory at key times), and the priest was the primary image or mediator of God’s presence. With Jesus Christ, the image of God in humanity is perfectly restored, and all images of the human Jesus Christ are images of God. Jesus Christ brings together the glory-cloud and the priest at His transfiguration. Also, all images of Christ’s saints are primarily icons of Jesus (including his living icons—us the church militant).

Now that Christ has come to live a perfect life among us, participating fully in our material existence, the only way to combat idolatry is to reverence, cherish, kiss, and adore every material thing that points to Jesus Christ (which turns out to be just about every single particle of matter that surrounds us). The only way to learn to worship the true God is to venerate all of the icons, images, and holy object that have been taken up into the celebration and worship of Jesus Christ over the thousands of years since his life among us. I love the line from Winks book: “We discover our body as ‘temple’ by going to a temple.” I would add that we also discover all of creation as a temple (it’s clear purpose throughout the Bible).

Here’s a little from St. John of Damascus (7th century):

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.

Even when we can’t see or feel it, we are blessed by having any small sign of Christ’s presence tangibly offered to us. Here is an extract from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (a short scene described from memory by Prince Myshkin, the title character, when he is pressed to suggest a subject for a painting):

There is a ladder to the scaffold. Suddenly at the foot of the ladder he began to cry, and he was a strong, manly fellow; he had been a great criminal, I was told. The priest never left him for a moment; he drove with him in the cart and talked with him all the while. I doubt whether he heard; he might have begun listening but not have understood more than two words. So it must have been. At last he began going up the ladder; his legs were fettered so that he could move with only short steps. The priest, who must have been an intelligent man, left off speaking and only gave him the cross to kiss. At the foot of the ladder he was very pale, and when he was at the top and standing on the scaffold, he became as white as paper, as white as writing paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden, and I expect he felt sick as though something were choking him and that made a sort of tickling in his throat. Have you ever felt that when you were frightened, or in awful moments when all your reason is left, but it has no power? I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…When that weakness was beginning, the priest with a rapid movement hastily put the cross to his lips—a little plain silver cross—he kept putting it to his lips every minute. And every time the cross touched his lips, he opened his eyes and seemed for a few seconds to come to life again, and his legs moved. He kissed the cross greedily; he made haste to kiss, as though in haste not to forget to provide himself with something in case of need; but I doubt whether he had any religious feeling at the time. And so it was till he was laid on the plank…It’s strange that people rarely faint at these last moments. On the contrary, the brain is extraordinarily lively and must be working at a tremendous rate—at a tremendous rate, like a machine at full speed. I fancy that there is a continual throbbing of ideas of all sorts, always unfinished and perhaps absurd too, quite irrelevant ideas—‘That man is looking at me. He has a wart on his forehead. One of the executioner’s buttons is rusty.’—and yet all the while one knows and remembers everything. There is one point which can never be forgotten, and one can’t faint, and everything moves and turns about it, about that point. And only think that it must be like that up to the last quarter of a second, when his head lies on the block and he waits and…knows, and suddenly hears above him the clang of the iron! He must hear that! If I were lying there, I should listen on purpose and hear. It may last only the tenth part of a second, but one would be sure to hear it. And only fancy, it’s still disputed whether, when the head is cut off, it knows for a second after that it has been cut off! What a thought! And what if it knows it for five seconds!

Paint the scaffold so that only the last step can be distinctly seen in the foreground and the criminal having just stepped on it; his head, his face as white as paper; the priest holding up the cross, the man greedily putting forward his blue lips and looking—and aware of everything. The cross and the head—that’s the picture. The priest’s face and the executioner’s, his two attendants and a few heads and eyes below might be painted in the background, in half light, as the setting…That’s the picture!

Since reading this passage, my life now maps in many ways to this prisoner on the way to the executioner’s block. I’m offered the little cross to kiss (in daily and weekly prayers and sacraments), and I’m recalled to life long enough to take one more step, to get up and move forward for one more day or week or minute. Although, in day-to-day living, I am only occasionally aware of my needs to this extent.

To close with a few images that resonate more regularly in day-to-day life, Saint Macarius (4th century) describes the human heart this way:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. . . . It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there. [The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homily 15.32]

Outside of ourselves, Chesterton has lovely passages about our “cosy little cosmos,” and how it should feel like a warm and welcoming home (rather than a vast and uninhabitable universe). Chesterton captures the idea of the whole material cosmos as conveying the presence of our Creator and Father in heaven. Gerard Manley Hopkins also does this remarkably in many of his poems (for example, when he describes the stars as our glimpse into the home of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows“). Finally, I’m reminded of Robert Kirk’s claim (in The Secret Commonwealth) that there is “no place nor creature but is supposed to have other animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure wilderness in the whole universe.” Taken together, these images of the universe from Chesterton, Hopkins, and Kirk suggest that the physical sciences of astronomy and atomic physics are both exploring the domains of human and angelic life. Madeline L’Engle is another author who makes this point that microscopes and telescopes both point into the realm of heavenly powers. This is the entire premise of A Wind in the Door, and Meg’s battle cry at the end of that story captures much of this:

Be caterpillar and comet,
be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
sea gulls and seraphim,
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim
(O cherubim)
Be!
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the flaming of creation

Even Disney Studios has given it’s own voice to this ancient understanding of our entire cosmos as the home of us and our ancestors:

Pumbaa: Timon, ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?
Timon: Pumbaa, I don’t wonder; I know.
Pumbaa: Oh. What are they?
Timon: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that, uh… got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.
Pumbaa: Oh. Gee. I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.
Timon: Pumbaa, wit’ you, everything’s gas.
Pumbaa: Simba, what do you think?
Simba: Well, I don’t know…
Pumbaa: Aw come on. Give, give, give… Well, come on, Simba, we told you ours… pleeeease?
Simba: …Well, somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.
Pumbaa: Really?
Timon: You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?
[laughter]
Pumbaa: Who told you something like that?
Timon: What mook made that up?
Simba: Yeah. Pretty dumb, huh?

There are no one-to-one corollaries between the material and the heavenly realms. The connections between “earthy things” and “ethereal things” work like language—like metaphors and the etymologies of words—with multiple clusters of association and with rooted histories branching back into the past. Scientific knowledge is wonderful. However, when we think of knowledge as the exploration of how matter and energy interact (or any other reductions), we impoverish our understanding of the world that we seek to know. True knowledge is always a form of love. The starting point, therefore, is simply to honor all matterfrom galaxies to nucleito love both their stories and their structures as beautiful and mysterious revelations.

We must regain ways of seeing and talking aboutGod (and all of God’s creatures) within all of Creation. This is simply learning to “pray without ceasing” during every type of work throughout our daily lives. This means learning to have a different consciousness of the physical world and of our own bodies. Our modern lives do not teach us this. Ancient prayer practices did teach this greater consciousness of ourselves and our surroundings. In addition, all of the natural processes of maturation and suffering (such as losing a loved one) still do teach us these ways of understanding. We simply have many distractions in our current ways of living. We have to move slowly but deliberately to recover these older ways of seeing.

When Christ ascended to heaven to be hidden behind a cloud (and enthroned beside God the Father in glory until his return), Christ was hidden from view like the sun—just veiled by the clouds. Many ancient hymns draw close parallels between Christ and the sun (reigning victorious from heaven and giving light to all). I often tell my children that Jesus is not far away. Although he has a glorified body in heaven that we cannot see, I emphasized that his heavenly body is “as close as the sun.” It is just hidden by clouds for now, not immediately visible but close at hand, still indirectly seen and felt. I also remind my children that the body and blood of Jesus are given to us in the chalice from the altar—as food and drink that we take into our bodies. We know Jesus Christ through many different things and in many different ways, including this sunlight and this bread and wine. His closeness to us is profound.

Note: here are two books that I felt were particularly helpful to me with some of this a few years ago:

  • The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken.
  • Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith.
  • I’m also drawing (very ineptly) upon my understandings of many other writers such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, David Bentley Hart, and Fr. Stephen Freeman.

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December 17, 2017

everything entered and lived in me

A wondrous change had passed upon the world—or was it not rather that a change more marvellous had taken place in us? Without light enough in the sky or the air to reveal anything, every heather-bush, every small shrub, every blade of grass was perfectly visible—either by light that went out from it, as fire from the bush Moses saw in the desert, or by light that went out of our eyes. Nothing cast a shadow; all things interchanged a little light. Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. My bare feet seemed to love every plant they trod upon. The world and my being, its life and mine, were one. The microcosm and macrocosm were at length atoned, at length in harmony! I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home—was to know that we are all what we are, because Another is what he is! Sense after sense, hitherto asleep, awoke in me—sense after sense indescribable, because no correspondent words, no likenesses or imaginations exist, wherewithal to describe them. Full indeed—yet ever expanding, ever making room to receive—was the conscious being where things kept entering by so many open doors! When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel. I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground-swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms. Life was a cosmic holiday.

Now I knew that life and truth were one; that life mere and pure is in itself bliss; that where being is not bliss, it is not life, but life-in-death. Every inspiration of the dark wind that blew where it listed, went out a sigh of thanksgiving. At last I was! I lived, and nothing could touch my life!

…The master-minister of the human tabernacle is at hand! Heaping before his prow a huge ripple-fretted wave of crimson and gold, he rushes aloft, as if new launched from the urging hand of his maker into the upper sea—pauses, and looks down on the world. White-raving storm of molten metals, he is but a coal from the altar of the Father’s never-ending sacrifice to his children. See every little flower straighten its stalk, lift up its neck, and with outstretched head stand expectant: something more than the sun, greater than the light, is coming, is coming—none the less surely coming that it is long upon the road! What matters to-day, or to-morrow, or ten thousand years to Life himself, to Love himself!

…I walked on the new earth, under the new heaven, and found them the same as the old, save that now they opened their minds to me, and I saw into them. Now, the soul of everything I met came out to greet me and make friends with me, telling me we came from the same, and meant the same. I was going to him, they said, with whom they always were, and whom they always meant; they were, they said, lightnings that took shape as they flashed from him to his. The dark rocks drank like sponges the rays that showered upon them; the great world soaked up the light, and sent out the living. Two joy-fires were Lona and I. Earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke; we breathed homeward our longing desires. For thanksgiving, our very consciousness was that.

…[T]hese were living stones—such in which I saw, not the intent alone, but the intender too; not the idea alone, but the imbodier present, the operant outsender: nothing in this kingdom was dead; nothing was mere; nothing only a thing.

…Novalis says, “Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.”

George MacDonald (Lilith)

January 18, 2016

honor all matter

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.

From St. John of Damascus (7th century, source unknown)

July 18, 2015

her face, and her whole body, were the answer

She even seemed (but that’s impossible, I thought) taller than before. And as my lie died unspoken she looked at me with something like mockery in her face. Her mocking looks had always been some of her loveliest. …She would not answer me. Her face flushed. Her face, and her whole body, were the answer.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis.

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July 18, 2015

as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet

My father always said when someone dies the body is just a suit of old cloths the spirit doesn’t want anymore. But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave, and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet. We worked a good while at putting things to rights.

…I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it. And then I said, “Look at the moon.” …My father said, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.”

From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

August 28, 2013

to love reality

Personally transcribed excerpts from “The Wisdom of Tenderness” where Krista Tippett interviews Jean Vanier in October 2007 for the NPR show On Being:

An ethics of desire is good news for us at a time when we have become allergic to an ethics of law.

Pleasure is not something which is just sort of fooling around. …It is the fulfillment of a desire in an activity that you are doing well. …I come back to the reality of pleasure. …Somewhere the deepest desire for us all is to be appreciated, to be loved, to be seen as somebody of value … not to be admired. When you admire people, you put them on pedestals. When you love somebody, you want to be with them. …The cry of God is also the cry of ‘Do you love me?’ …The cry of people who have been wounded, put aside, who have lost trust in themselves … is ‘Do you love me?’

The way that they can come out of that depression is the way we look at them, the way we speak to them. …Tenderness is never to hurt a wounded person. …Tenderness reveals that ‘you are precious.’ …Do not shock or do not hurt or do not wound people who are already wounded. …We have to reveal to them that ‘you are precious.’

We are very fragile in front of the future. …We are born in extreme weakness and will end our life in extreme weakness. …We are a frightened people.

From the point of view of faith, those who are marginalized and considered failures can restore balance to our world. …If you take time with people at the bottom of the pyramid, there are people who relate. What they want is … love, not power.

It’s a suffering body which brings us together. It’s our attention to the body. …What is important is to see that the body is well. …It’s to communicate to them through the body that they are precious. …As the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up. …What they were crying out for was touch. And also maybe what I was crying out for. What I would call safe touch. A touch which gives security and reveals, …the revelation that you’re special.

It’s a realization of how to create a culture which is no longer a culture just of competition but a culture of welcoming, where tenderness, where touch is important. And it’s neither sexualized nor aggressive. It has become human. And I think that this is what people with disabilities are teaching us. It’s something about what it means to be human and to relate and to celebrate life together.

Clearly for you community is a place of healing, community is a place of joy, but you also stress that communities are a place of pain.

To become human means to enter into a relationship of hearts. …I have no desire to have power over you. I don’t want to create mutual dependency.

People can be generous. Generosity can become power: ‘I am superior, so I can give.’ So generosity must … flow into a meeting. …We often believe that our identity is through power or through competence. But instead it is something else. It is to create an identity which is meeting. And meeting is the way we look at people. It’s not just a meeting. But also it’s about honoring what is weakest in the other. …In a true community, we honor the weakest. But that means that we are also honoring what is weakest in ourselves. And if we come back to what is despicable. It’s about our poverty. Even to honor our own poverty, to admit to our poverty. …Weakness can be despised or weakness can become the cement of our bonding. It’s because I’m weak, I can say I need you, I need your appreciation, I need your help. …Weakness is the recognition of who I am. …To be conscious of the anguish and to be conscious of the pain.

Jesus, …you are the most vulnerable of people. And my experience today is much more the experience of how vulnerable God is. You see, God is so respectful of our freedom. And if as John says, “God is love.” Anyone who has loved in their life, knows that they have become vulnerable. …’I stand at the door, and I knock. If somebody hears me and opens the door, then I will enter, and I will dine with that person, that person close to me and I close to that person.’ What touches me there, is God knocking at the door, not kicking the door down. But waiting, will you open, do you hear me. …We’re in a world where there is so much going on in our heads and our hearts. …We don’t hear God knocking at the door of our hearts. …What touches me the deepest is the realization of the vulnerability of God, who doesn’t oblige.

How can God, how can Jesus allow [suffering]? …I just have to honor what I don’t know. There are so many things that I can’t explain. Because explanation is something about headiness and what-have-it in the head. But the whole question is not to understand, but it’s to be attracted to the place of pain [see this song], in order to give support to those who are suffering. …If we try to know to much, it might cut us away from being present. And I believe that the whole mystery of pain, the mystery of people being crucified today, and sometimes being crucified by very good people but who don’t realize it. The whole question is how to be present there. …One thing I know, is that in degree, according to where I am at and how I am, it is vital that I be present to situations.

Conversion is a change of attitude. …In that person who was disfigured and smelt bad there was a presence of God. …If we listen to Francis, he said that when he went and saw these people and stayed with them, he was changed. He discovered a completely new vision of the world. Which was not to become … a knight and to be strong. …He discovered that in those who are the most rejected, there is a presence of God.

The history of L’Arche is the relationship between a vision or a principle and experience. What has experience taught us? …We’re all on the same search. …Sometimes you want to clutch onto principles. Yet experience is saying go further, go further. …The road to peace … can only lie with listening to each other.

Take St. Francis in the Middle Ages. He had a spirit of poverty. And in some ways, one can sense that the institution wounded that spirit. But yet if the institution wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be speaking about Francis today. …It’s very important … to go back and forth. There needs to be structures.

I’m part of humanity. …I’m part of that humanity … of the Hindus who are going to the temples.

If we could come together to hear the cry of the poor, to identify with the poor, we would be unified. …They would lead us to unity and peace.

We are going into a world where the imagination, the virtual, the long-distance, the things far away, appear as close but you can’t touch them so they’re not close. They are close to the imagination, but they are not close to the body. …So I come back to what we were talking about: the body, the incarnation, the bodiness. …So let’s come back to the reality of the small. …With their bodies, their broken bodies. …Yet it seems so small in a world where we are wanting to claim to be big.

The reality of every day is sometimes quit painful in its smallness, in a world where we are being pushed to pretend that they’re big.

We can’t change the world, but I can change.

What I’m learning … at 79 … is that I’m human.

You see, the big thing for me is to love reality. And not live in the imagination, not live in what could have been or should have been or want can be. Reality. And somewhere to … discover that God is present in reality. …That does mean to say that we’re just to be passive to welcome reality. You also have to know how to react in front of reality. …How to live that reality with my own body, my own weaknesses, my own need for greater sleep, …whatever it is, that ultimate reality which is death.

I like you doing it [interviewing], the way you do it.

May 22, 2013

Hell took a corpse and encountered God

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

From John Chrysostom’s Easter homily (c. A.D. 400).

November 13, 2012

faculty of wonder

There is a deep similarity between the union of the soul and body and the mystery of the family. In both cases we are in the presence of the same fact, or rather something which is far more than a fact since it is the very condition of all facts whatever they may be: I mean incarnation. I am not, of course, using this term in its theological sense. It is not a question of our Lord’s coming into the world, but of the infinitely mysterious act by which an essence assumes a body, an act around which the meditation of a Plato crystallised, and to which modern philosophies only cease to give their attention in so far as they have lost the intelligence’s essential gift, that is to say the faculty of wonder.

From page 69 of “The Mystery of the Family” in Homo Viator by Gabriel Marcel (1965).

April 14, 2012

the divine in him contracted to an ache

By Scott Cairns in his “Recovered Body” collection and recently shared here on the Huffington Post.

The More Earnest Prayer of Christ

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly
–Luke 22:44

His last prayer in the garden began, as most
as his prayers began–in earnest, certainly,
but not without distraction, an habitual…what?

Distance? Well, yes, a sort of distance, or a mute
remove from the genuine distress he witnessed
in the endlessly grasping hands of multitudes

and, often enough, in his own embarrassing
circle of intimates. Even now, he could see
these where they slept, sprawled upon their robes or wrapped

among the arching olive trees. Still, something new,
unlikely, uncanny was commencing as he spoke.
As the divine in him contracted to an ache,

a throbbing in the throat, his vision blurred, his voice
grew thick and unfamiliar; his prayer — just before
it fell to silence — became uniquely earnest.

And in that moment — perhaps because it was so
new — he saw something, had his first taste of what
he would become, first pure taste of the body, and the blood.

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