Between Earth and Sky – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Br. Nicholas BartoliLuke 13.18-21

It’s interesting how many of Jesus’ parables involve the natural world. His Kingdom of God stories, in particular, direct our attention to the grounded realities of the earth as opposed to heavenward toward more transcendent realities. There are three parables about seeds, for example, including today’s humble mustard seed, so very tiny, lovingly planted in a garden’s fertile soil giving rise to long branches inhabiting a beautiful sky.

And like saplings striving upward we have within us a deep desire, something we yearn for, something we can’t often put into words, except to say the fulfillment of this desire would somehow be ultimately satisfying. I’ll just skip straight to the punchline here and say that this desire living in our innermost being is a response to God’s love for us, a desire planted with utmost care by God, a desire to return to a place of Holy Union with our Beloved.

Except, most of the time we don’t recognize the source of this desire, so we try to fill it with other things. Or we might recognize some part of the truth of this desire, but then assume that fulfilling it will look a certain way, focusing our attention on, say, the branches adorning the sky, while ignoring the earth in which the seed was planted.

For example, we might imagine the fruit of our journey with Christ to be the infinite peace and joy promised us, and so shy away from anything not quite peace or joy-like. Our attention might strain toward the transcendent, giving the immanent a wide berth, and we might focus instead on searching out wherever in the world that allusive peace and joy might be hiding.

That’s why spiritual seekers often gravitate toward the transcendent, and it’s why churches and other kinds of religious architecture often have features pointing skyward, just like the branches of the mustard tree. There is truth to be found in this heavenly inclination in the sense that there is a transcendent aspect of life, just ask Peter about Mount Tabor. So it’s natural to turn our gaze upward, maybe climb a mountain or two, desiring to be enlightened by the light of Christ, and awakened to the peace and joy we hear so much about.

Now, all this heaven-directed seeking certainly can make for an interesting exploration, and, at its best, could provide opportunities for personal growth, spiritual fulfillment, and deepening our relationship with God. On the other hand, an urgent striving toward something transcendent carries with it a significant risk. In 1984, psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypass” to describe the use of a variety of religious or spiritual beliefs and practices to avoid painful emotions or situations in life. In other words, we tend to prematurely believe we’ve arrived in what we think is heaven at the expense of not being nourished by what we still need to learn and experience here on earth.

And earth is where the tiny mustard seed gets its start, before it grows into a tall tree reaching ever toward the heavens. But even after it makes part of its home in the sky, our attention is drawn back to earth, to the ground of its being that makes all this growth possible. Maximus the Confessor, a 7th century monk and mystic, wrote a good description of spiritual bypass over 1,000 years ago. It reads: “Tie the leg of a sparrow to the ground, and no matter how hard it tries to fly, it will be fastened to the earth. In the same way, if your intellect tries to fly up to the mystical knowledge of heavenly realities but has not yet been freed of obsessive passions, it will remain tied fast to the earth.” Maximus is implying here that not only is it unwise to try to fly too soon, but that attending to our earthly nature is actually a critical part of any heavenly aspiration, and so in a way the distinction between things of earth and things of heaven just isn’t very helpful.

We can also talk about this in the language of light and darkness. For example, tonight is Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, a time immersed in a deep darkness preceding the light and hope of All Hallows Day. Halloween is about fear, but only until that fear is dispelled in the morning as we celebrate our union with all the saints, now victorious over death. The shadows and demons of Halloween, like the darkness within the earth, are essential to our journey to the other side, when we awaken to a new sun full of promise and glory.

Balancing this dichotomy and perhaps even seeing through it to something else entirely isn’t easy, but I think trees make exceptionally good teachers here, which is probably why Jesus refers to them so often. Sometimes, when gazing upon a tree I feel like an awestruck spectator of this dance of light and darkness. The roots are drawing nourishment from the dark places under the soil, while the leaves, high in the sky, drink light from the sun. And meeting somewhere in the middle is the fruit, the fruit of earth and heaven, drawing the two together as a beautiful gift.

In the same way, as children of God, we turn inward, into the depths of our soul, a place of both light and shadow, to find nourishment in perhaps unexpected places. That seed of desire the Holy One planted in our hearts so long ago finds purchase in our happiness, but also in our pain, suffering, and grief. We’re called to attend to these earthbound realities of our heart, because it’s only when the transcendent and imminent become one that we live as Jesus wants us to, as incarnations of God’s goodness in the world. So perhaps, if we find ourselves aspiring with some sense of urgency toward the transcendent or heavenly the wisest thing to do would be to simply wait, and just patiently rest in the presence of the seeds lying within the ground of our own being. That might mean encountering painful things, but as John’s Gospel reminds us, a grain of wheat must first fall into the ground and die, before it can bear fruit.

The transcendent, then, is not some goal to be attained, but one aspect of God’s reality and being. As created beings we have the honor of letting ourselves be the intersection of darkness and light, of earth and sky. And it’s a process, an ongoing transformation that never ends. And this is very good news, because it means that our own resurrection can begin now, and continues every moment we center our lives in Christ and surrender to God’s will. It means that the way of incarnation taught to us by Jesus is a continual balance between transfiguration within the ground of our earthly existence and transcendence within God’s heavenly Kingdom.  And as we realize that the deepest truth of our selves is this intersection, then we also realize that the peace and joy we’re seeking is not found in earth or heaven, but is with us now supporting both — peace and joy surpassing understanding lay within us, found in the fruit we bear when we’re open to both light and darkness, the mundane and the divine. And when we let ourselves rest in all there is, we bear the fruit of this union, becoming the peace and joy we’re seeking, and so sharing God’s beautiful goodness with the world.

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  1. James Doran on October 14, 2020 at 09:06

    I will be seeing trees differently from now on, trying to learn from their slow, graceful dance. Thank you.

  2. Julianne Lindemann on October 14, 2020 at 07:46

    Dear Brother Nicholas, this is beautiful and delightful, thank you. May we all come to understand the source of our longing for union with God as you do.

    • Susan Kuhn on October 14, 2020 at 09:21

      This is so awesome. Grounded. What we seek is at our fingertips. I am starting to feel some very painful parts of my life embody fresh energy. The humility involved in truly facing them, and the fact that so far I have not died or been locked up or disowned are ceasing to feel extraordinary…jusy God’s daily gifts. You help me (a) to recognize to that and (b) experience it as here and now (not seek to bypass it for the ethereal). God is always with us! You can’t see the big smile.on my face but it is there, pandemic or no pandemic.

  3. Dee Dee on November 12, 2019 at 19:32

    Br. Nicholas, Your description of the interplay between — and necessity of — darkness and light in the world and in our lives spoke to me today. Thank you for your insightful words.

    • Jane Dowrick on October 14, 2020 at 05:29

      Your reflection brings great clarity for me to the import of tending our earthly roots and I also appreciate knowing about spiritual bypass. I will soon share this with the EfM seminar participants I mentor. Thank you, BR. Nicholas

  4. Frankie Pang on November 12, 2019 at 12:43

    Thank you Br. Nicholas! Reading the daily sermons from SSJE is a wonderful way to start each day but today’s really resonated with me. Beautiful!

  5. Andrew Dorn on November 12, 2019 at 09:05

    Thanks for your reflection. It provides great perspective on the intent of our life on earth before we transcend and the experiences and development that are so important here, giving the mustard seed time to produce.

  6. Margo Fletcher on November 12, 2019 at 07:18

    Br. Nicholas, Thank you so much for this phrase: ‘the term “spiritual bypass” to describe the use of a variety of religious or spiritual beliefs and practices to avoid painful emotions or situations in life.’ I always find it confusing that a religion such as our is, that has at its heart a cross is so ready to skip mention of pain and suffering. So ready to claim St Paul’s fruits of the Spirit as those set on stone and demand high emotional expression as the indicator of true religion. It’s a denial of the fullness of human experience. A “Spiritual by pass”. I like this a whole lot. Thank you. Margo

  7. Eben Carsey, FSJ on November 9, 2017 at 16:45

    Thank you, Brother Nicholas. Your words are especially important to me given our experience on retreat last summer.

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