Exodus 33:18-23; Psalm 84
All of us here should have had the experience of being protected: of being guarded by someone’s act of kindness and care, of being held back or hidden or shielded or removed from something that would be too much for us to bear – too dangerous, too awful, too awesome for us to behold. Perhaps as a child, your being taken up into the safety of your father’s arms, or being pulled behind your mother’s apron, or having your hand held securely by someone stronger or more experienced or more confident, or your literally being pushed away from something or someone because this would have been too much to face or deal with or get out of alone… And so this act of protections was done for you out of love to save you, whether or not you could understand or appreciate it at the time.
Each night here in the monastery we pray Compline, the ancient monastic bedtime prayers to complete the day. There is a phrase on our lips that means more and more to me with each passing year, a phrase taken from the psalms:
Keep us as the apple of your eye.”
(That’s a yearning for God’s adoring love.)
“Hide us under the shadow of your wings.” [i]
(That’s a plea for God’s concealing protection.)
I think there is an innate need in life both to be enlightened and to be kept in the dark. There is surely a need we all find from childhood onward to grow in knowledge and skills and abilities, to gain experiences in life that shape and form us, to be educated in ways that equip us for our life’s work, even the need to become “streetwise” in ways where we were otherwise naïve. Enlightenment in life is a necessary, often a good thing, but knowledge comes with its own burdens. The great Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas, speaks of “the wound of knowledge.” [ii] There is often a hidden and weighty cost in the gaining of knowledge. Not long ago I was invited to listen to someone speak about their life, some things that they had never before spoken aloud, so they said. And at one point this person paused and asked me whether I would like to know more about some of these matters they were sharing? And I pondered for a few moments, “whether I would like to know more” about these things? And I said, “no.” I told them I was quite willing to hear more from them, if this person would find that helpful. But – to be quite precise with their choice of words – I was not liking this, not enjoying this, but quite willing and honored to be a companion as they cleared out a closet in their soul. I would call that my own experience of “the wound of knowledge,” something which I suspect all of us here know about. Knowledge is a very powerful thing… and once you know, you cannot not know and you will always carry it.
I think Moses was being protected. In the first lesson appointed for this evening from the Book of Exodus, we hear of the Lord ‘s saying to Moses what he will not know, what he will not see. And it’s not because there is some distance between Moses and God. To the contrary, it’s because there is such closeness that Moses is being protected. We have just heard how Moses had found favor in God’s eyes, that the Lord “knows Moses by name,” that the Lord’s presence will be with Moses and the people. And then Moses asks to know more of Lord: “Show me your glory,” he asks. And the Lord responds, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Moses here is being protected. Moses is being shielded from seeing the glory of God in a way that would be too much for Moses to bear.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word that signifies glory, kabod, implies the idea of weight, the weight of glory. The weight of something implies its importance. And there is something here of the glory of God that is too weighty or too blinding for Moses to bear. Moses is given only a glimpse of God’s back, and told to follow, which is what happens when you follow; you are behind. And I think that is often the way it is. We may look to the glory of the God, but we could not bear to face it. That would be too much. Rather we see traces of God’s glory left along the way, and we follow. I think it’s this experience of the vacuum left in the wake of God’s presence going before us, it’s that vacuum that leads us on. It’s the experience of God’s real presence, experienced as a real absence of God, that lures us. R. S. Thomas calls this the “Via Negativa.”
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
The Lord tells Moses to follow, a line that is picked up on Jesus’ own lips many centuries later. For you here who profess a faith in Jesus Christ, how are you experiencing his invitation to follow? How are you looking to the glory of God these days? Several things come to mind.
The founder of our own community, Richard Meux Benson, speaks of the grace of agnosticism, of what he calls “true agnosticism.” Father Benson writes, more than a century ago, “we must meet the agnosticism of the present day, which rejoices in putting God aside, with that true agnosticism which rejoices in simple absorbing love.” [iv] It seems to me that God is doing a work of love in everyone – those near and those far, those whom we love and call “friend,” and those whom we abhor and call “foe” – in all of these God is doing a work of love, and our role in this is to participate in the mirroring of that love. Which is to say that even in those miserable situations where we may be prone to see someone as repugnant, or stupid, or evil, or unworthy, or wrong, there is a child of God crying for help, no matter how inarticulate they may be. Life is invitational, an invitation for us to mirror the love of God. It all, ultimately, will be judged on the basis of love: our actions, our words, our lobbying, our interventions, our alliances, our understandings, will ultimately be judged on the basis of participating in the generosity of God’s love. Love should precede our understanding. You may know that wonderful line from William Blake: “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love….” [v] Everyone is ultimately a neighbor with whom God has intention of sharing eternity… and whom we, eventually, will come to understand. And in the meantime, until we understand, we love as we have been loved. Love precedes understanding.
Looking to the glory of God in this day: a second thing comes to mind. That the posture with which we greet each new morning is a posture of giving, of the giving of ourselves. It is possible to assume almost the opposite posture in life, namely, to go through life taking, and in the end this will add up to the taking of one’s life, which is suicidal. [vi] Life is not meant to be taken; life is given and it’s meant to be given away. Like with water in a well, for the water to stay fresh two things must happen. There must be an inflow of water through some underground tributary. But then, fresh water must also be drawn from this well. Water not drawn from a well will become bracken, and eventually its water source will dry up. I would say that God’s light and life and love is there for us in abundance. It is a very sure tributary. And it’s there to be drawn on and given away with a kind of reckless generosity. Jesus has come to give us life. And we have this life to give it away. Not cling to it, nor grasp after it, nor squander it, nor squirrel it away, but to share it abundantly. There is always more provision. Draw on it and share it. Life is not meant to be taken; life is meant to be given.
A third thing comes to mind as we look to God’s glory, and follow Jesus in this day and ago: to let go what is unbelievable. Charles Gore, the great English theologian and bishop (a graduate of the other great university in England [vii]) wrote almost 125 years ago, paraphrasing Jesus, how “the truth makes [the Church] free.” Bishop Gore could as easily be writing an Op Ed article in today’s Boston Globe. He speaks of how the Church can stand firm in her old truths and meanwhile “…assimilate all new material, to welcome and give its place to all new knowledge, to throw herself into the sanctification of each new social order, bringing forth out of her treasures things new and old, and showing again and again her power of witnessing under changed conditions to the catholic [that is, universal] capacity of [the Church’s] faith and life. [viii] For Christianity to have integrity and authority in this day and age, we need to participate with the Spirit’s leading us into the truth. The Spirit of God, ahead of us. We surely need to be grounded in the past, but if we have only the past to inform our living the Christian life today, we are living out of the archives of experience, real as it was. Christianity is not a religion of resuscitation. It’s a living faith, informed by death and resurrection, death and resurrection, death and resurrection. We need to let go what is unbelievable. We need to hand on more than we were given. There is a new thing afoot, and footprints are God’s, and God is up ahead of us. I would say that is true for us all, whether we live in a monastery or in town or in the country. There is a new thing afoot. And I can say, as someone learning to be a monk: what an adventurous and opportune time to be alive, to be a bearer of the light and life and love of a God who is belovable and believable.
And now, just a piece of history. Tristram. The name Tristram: prominent in France – Tristram, the King of Lyon, born around year 530; and then, in Arthurian legend, a Sir Tristram, a romantic who is on a quest for eternal love. There’s some interesting material… That the name Tristram has both a French and Anglo heritage is intriguing. But it would be a stretch for me to try to make various parallels with these Tristrams of old and our own Brother Geoffrey. But the one piece of legend and lore around Sir Tristram that does seem very true for now is the matter of the quest for eternal love. You, Geoffrey, are a witness of the love of God. How it is that God broke through to you, given what you had set of to be and do with your life, all the ports-of-call where you have lived and worked, all the other things that you could have done with your life, and done well, you end up becoming a monk, and a monk in the Cambridge on this side of the Atlantic. We, your brothers, are so aware of how your vocation has been tested to bring you this point of freedom and desire. And those of us who have been around for awhile know that the tests will not end with today.
The glory of God is being revealed in our lives here in our midst, as much of God’s glory as we can bear. God’s glory leading us on, inviting us to love, daring us to participate in the daily initiations to die and rise, die and rise, die and rise… You, Geoffrey, come to us as a living reminder of God who is up ahead of us, and doing a new thing. Who possibly could have predicted this day? I would say that God shielded you from what you were not prepared to know and embrace about God’s call on your life, shielded you until now. We join with you in giving thanks for so many people – your family, friends, teachers, monks and nuns – in companioning you on your way. All these people whom God has used to steer you here to this dwelling place, to abide here among us. I’m mindful of an old French proverb that reads “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.” For so much we give thanks to God in this day. And I’m certain that more will be revealed in time, in the fullness of time, what God has in store for you, Geoffrey, and for us in these days ahead as we seek together to give an authentic witness to Christ. Geoffrey, welcome home.
[i] From Psalm 17:8.
[ii] R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) was educated in Wales at University College , Bangor (1935), and ordained in the Church of Wales (1936).
[iii] “Via Negativa,” by R. S. Thomas in Later Poems 1972-1982 (Macmillan, 1984 ).
[iv] From Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson , p.251.
[v] William Blake (1757-1827), English poet, painter, engraver, and visionary mystic.
[vi] David Steindl-Rast, OSB, made allusion to “the taking of life” being suicidal in a public lecture, its location and date unknown.
[vii] [ Sic ] Bp. Gore was a graduate of Oxford and our Br. Geoffrey, a graduate of Cambridge .
[viii] From the preface to the first edition of Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation, by Charles Gore (1889). Bishop Gore (1853-1932) served as “Senior” (the Superior ) ) of the Community of the Resurrection from its foundation in 1892 until 1901, and was consecrated Bishop of Worcester in 1902.
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