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Swan Lake – Br. Mark Brown

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“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” [1. John 3: 2]

There was a very fine film that came out a couple years ago that you may have seen: “Of Gods and Men”. It’s about a community of Benedictine monks at Tibhirine in Algeria who got caught up in the violence of war. The agonizing question for them was whether to leave for their own safety or stay in order to continue their ministry to the people of the village.

They decide to stay. One evening, sensing that they face grave danger, they have a last supper together. A good meal, some nice wine, and Swan Lake. The dialog and laughter fade, the clinking of dishes and glassware fade, and a recording of the stirring Overture to the ballet swells. The poignant opening theme in dark B minor played by an oboe over tremulous strings and a harp doing what harps do. Then the spine-tingling opening up into a major key—surely one of the most euphoric moments in music—a kind of musical transfiguration. Glory in 19th century Imperial Russian terms, which is pretty glorious.

The choice of Swan Lake struck me as an odd juxtaposition: what did French Benedictine monks in Algeria have to do with Tchaikovsky and tutus and swans and sorcerers? Was there any connection? An intentional choice by the film makers? Was it the sheer beauty of the music? Was it suggesting that the monks’ last supper was itself but an overture, an overture to death and transfiguration, resurrection? Who knows? In any event, Swan Lake is a tale of good triumphing over evil, redemption through love; death, transformation and apotheosis: themes very much grounded in Russian Orthodox Christianity.

The morning after this last supper we see the monks being led into the distance through the mist, never to be seen again. It’s a very moving film which I heartily recommend. “Of Gods and Men.”

A few weeks ago I heard exactly the same piece of music used in another production, this time a Broadway show: Billy Elliot. And a very fine show it is: lots of Broadway razzmatazz and a heartwarming story to boot. It’s about a little boy from the coal mining region of England who, against all odds and against all cultural norms, decides he wants to become a ballet dancer. And, with a lot of sheer grit, a big change of heart by his dad and some sacrificial giving by the locals, he’s on his way.

One scene in particular moved me very deeply and has gotten stuck in my head. It’s a kind of waking-dream sequence that uses the Swan Lake overture. We see Billy alone (almost alone) in the dance studio, beginning to go through the usual ballet class exercises. And, just because it’s a Broadway show, instead of holding a ballet barre for balance, he holds the top of a chair, twirling it balanced on one leg. And behind him, and unseen to Billy, we see a mature, professional dancer going through the same classroom routine and twirling a chair on one leg.

After a bit they begin to dance together. Little boy Billy dances with adult Billy, who he doesn’t actually see. Boy Billy swoops and swirls across the stage as if he’s flying lifted overhead by adult Billy. Then, to top it all off, a cable drops from above, Billy is fastened to the cable and then he really flies. And it’s Swan Lake all the while, spine tingling and euphoric.

So, why did I find this particular scene so moving, why has it lodged in my brain? There could be some personal resonance: I’m from a coal mining area and, against mid-western 1950’s cultural norms, I got it into my head to be a musician—I even dabbled in dance for a few years. And I played Swan Lake excerpts on the piano for ballet rehearsals and classes. But I think it’s more than that.

Here’s what I think it is: there is personal resonance for all of us, we’re all Billy Elliott, going through our rudimentary exercises in our child-like way–what we are to become has not been revealed (as 1 John puts it), and yet we live with this unseen presence, the presence of the larger, more mature self, the unseen presence of the new and true self. This new and true and completely healed and forgiven self already exists in the heart of God, this resurrected and transfigured and fully alive self—and it accompanies us as we make our way through this world. We’re often completely oblivious to this new being that we are becoming. But occasionally, sometimes we sense it—sometimes, like the little kid in the show, it even helps us dance, even helps to fly.

“When he is revealed, we will be like him…” [1 John 3:2] But Christ is with us already, even now, and in Christ is all that we are to become. That which we are to become animates us even now. All yesterdays and what was before them are in Christ; all todays are in Christ; and all tomorrows and whatever is beyond them are in Christ. The fullness, the completeness of our being is in Christ and Christ is in us. He comes to us as the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Truth about our own beings.

Some of you know about our Monastic Internship Program. This program is for young people who may not feel called to monastic vows, but sense the value of living alongside a religious community for a season of life. You may remember Tedi, Cassandra, Rob, Nancy and Ruben from last year’s program. We have three new interns this year, just arrived last week: Seth Woody, Andrew Sinnes and Waylon Whitley, whom you’ll enjoy getting to know.

We had a conversation a few days ago about what our hopes and expectations were for this year. I didn’t say much at the time, just that I hoped they would have the best year of their lives. I’ll be more specific now: I hope our new interns will learn obedience. (Did I just hear a thud?) Obedience is big in the monastic life. But by obedience I don’t mean “Aye, aye, sir; whatever you say, Br. Mark, sir!” There is actually very little of that in the religious life. I mean obedience in the original Latin sense of listening, deep listening, deep attentiveness. (The monks of Tibhirine came to a corporate sense of their need to stay put through deep listening: it was not a decision imposed by the abbot.)

“What we will be has not been revealed…” But, we can be obedient to this new being: we can be attentive even now to the unseen presence of our new humanity, our renewed humanity. Our SSJE Rule of life reminds us that “We are called to be obedient to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ.” [SSJE Rule, Chapter 12]

The vision is here, the dream is here, the unseen presence is here. What we are to become is dancing along with us even now, just out of sight, as we go through our rudimentary exercises in our childlike way. If we listen, if we are attentive, if we are obedient to this new, true self in Christ, it will lift us overhead and help us fly.

How will we recognize this unseen presence? He is present in Love. He is present in Joy. And in Peace. In Patience. Kindness. Generosity. He is present in Justice. In Forgiveness. He is present in Beauty. In Grace and Truth. And Gracefulness and Graciousness. And in singing and dancing. And in sunlight on rivers and in swans on lakes.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” [1. John 3: 2]

What we shall become is already here. May we all listen to him.

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12 Comments

  1. Christina on February 20, 2017 at 10:11

    A beautiful morning – perfect blue sky. A beautiful sermon. Thank you so much. I wept. Blessings to all the Brothers. Christina

  2. Michael on February 20, 2017 at 09:48

    To know a completely healed and forgiven self already exists unseen by me offers hope and freedom and a calming sense of peace. That’s a lot

  3. Jack Zamboni on February 20, 2017 at 08:24

    Thank you, Mark. I’m at a place in life where I believe God is calling me to something new, a further step towards becoming my true self as it is being formed in Christ. I don’t yet see clearly what that new something, that next step is. Your words about being “obedient to this new being: [being] attentive even now to the unseen presence of our new humanity, our renewed humanity” and the assurance that this is already present in Christ even if it remains for now out on sight are a great gift.

  4. Cecil. on June 16, 2016 at 01:43

    A lovely sermon which has caused me to think deeply, and to accept the thought of my forgiven and redeemed person; although throughout my 92yrs I have known, and felt, the presence of my Saviour. What a dance it has been!!

  5. Polly Chatfield on July 21, 2015 at 14:27

    What can one say but thank you, thank you for giving us a glimpse of the Beyond that is really beside us. before us, above and beneath us. Your words have such wings!

  6. John Gishe on July 21, 2015 at 12:04

    What a beautiful sermon!! I was especially touched by this line: “This new and true and completely healed and forgiven self already exists in the heart of God, this resurrected and transfigured and fully alive self—and it accompanies us as we make our way through this world. We’re often completely oblivious to this new being that we are becoming. But occasionally, sometimes we sense it—sometimes, like the little kid in the show, it even helps us dance, even helps to fly.” Thanks for the great insight!!

  7. Mino Sullivan on July 21, 2015 at 10:07

    Dear Mark, Thank you for this inspiring message. I so resonate with you that we do indeed carry within us the person God want us to be, or knows we are. In “Existential Psychotherapy,”book I read decades ago, Yalom, the author, tells the story of an old woman in the hospital, Although very ill she makes the rounds each day of the patients on her floor to console and cheer them. On her death bed, the nurse who tends the old woman, speaks of the embrace of love the nurse felt pouring from the old woman even as she died. I have never been able to get this story out of my mind, and somehow feel that this is the kind of person God is calling me to be.

  8. Missy Carter on July 21, 2015 at 09:47

    Beautiful imagery and music

  9. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas on July 21, 2015 at 09:43

    This sermon elicited tears of quiet joy. You evoke so vividly the deep, intuitive, open-ended awareness of our true self in Christ up ahead, just around the corner, present but unseen, leading the way. Thank you.

  10. Jeff Lowry on July 21, 2015 at 09:09

    As has been written already, Thank you for helping me understand obedience more clearly. Thank you to SSJE for giving young people opportunities by creating the monastic internship program. I wonder what road my life wouyld have taken had that been in place when I was in my twenties.

  11. N on July 21, 2015 at 07:18

    Like Marta e. (above), I am grateful for your definition of ‘obedience’. This was a lovely meditation with which to begin my day. Thank you, Brother Mark.

  12. Marta e. on July 21, 2015 at 06:29

    Thank you so much for a clearer interpretation of “obedience”.

    As a younger adult, I struggled with this for years, especially as a federal government worker as an attorney. Now, in my later years I still struggle with it, but working on a different plane, striving to understand and ” be with” a deeper relationship with God/Christ/Holy Spirit. Your meditation/Sermon was so comforting, like I could see “stars” of clarity and understanding.

    I only this weekend explored (again) the website for St. Margaret’s Society as I was there for a summer back in the early 1960’s as a camp counselor/swim instructor which made a deep and lasting impression on me. However, as an older person it is hard to see where I should/could form an attachment to a Community (living in Virginia). However, it s comforting for me to know that SSJE is close to their Community in spirit, as I enjoy and appreciate so very much the daily writings from SSJE.

    Thank you!

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