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Ten Thousand Miracles – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas BartoliJohn 15.9-17

As you listen to these words there are ten thousand miracles, at least, within easy reach.

Easy, if only we accept Jesus’ invitation and abide in the Love of Christ. Then, God’s Truth dawns upon us, and we taste the peace and joy of Christ surpassing all understanding. And with Christ’s joy within us, and our joy would be complete. You would think it would be an easy sell for Jesus, since it’s hard to argue with the appeal of complete joy. After all, we’re all looking for happiness. In fact, right there in the Declaration of Independence it gives as a self-evident truth that we’re all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, examples of which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we’ve come up with limitless ways to pursue happiness.

Maybe in the pursuit of happiness we pursue an iPhone X or the latest smartwatch. Or maybe we have our eye on a new 65-inch, 4K, Ultra HD, Smart LED television. Or maybe a new car will do the trick. Getting a new job could bring us happiness, or perhaps an exciting new love interest. Maybe losing ten pounds of fat will bring the happiness we seek or adding ten pounds of muscle. Our smile filled with freshly-polished, sparkling white teeth might make us happy, or getting a new haircut, or just getting rid of the grey. Maybe a new theology or a new kind of spiritual practice will bring happiness to our door. Or maybe the next self-help book will be the one, the one that uncovers the “secret” of happiness. And then our pursuit will end, because we’ve found it, we’ve caught this elusive creature, happiness.

But here’s the problem with all this pursuing of happiness: it’s based on a false premise, namely that there’s something we have to do, something we need to have, in order to be happy. In truth, the joy Jesus shares with us doesn’t work like that. It’s a joy with no cause, with no prerequisite, and it’s already here.

Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest who wrote and spoke a lot about this. He described how we’re so often asleep to the reality of God’s Kingdom within, and how waking up from that slumber reveals the truth of Christ’s peace and joy in which we already abide. In his book, Awareness, this is what he has to say about happiness:

“True happiness is uncaused… You say to the awakened person, ‘Why are you happy?’ and the awakened person replies, ‘Why not?’ Happiness is our natural state. Happiness is the natural state of little children, to whom the kingdom belongs until they have been polluted and contaminated by the stupidity of society and culture. To acquire happiness you don’t have to do anything, because happiness cannot be acquired. [And do you] know why? Because we have it already. How can you acquire what you already have?”

De Mello continues by calling on us to wake up into a new kind of awareness, an awareness enlightened by the Light of Christ, letting us recognize the peace and joy of God’s Kingdom within and around us. Jesus describes this as abiding in God, and although something as simple as “abiding” sounds easy, it seems difficult for most of us. But why would this be so? Why, if we’re already immersed in this uncaused and complete joy of Christ, surrounded by miracle after beautiful miracle, do we so often not notice, apparently content to remain asleep instead? And why, even when we suspect this is the case, does it seem so difficult to accept Jesus’ offer, and just rest in God? Well, de Mello alluded to part of the answer when he, in his typically blunt way, mentioned the stupidity of society and culture.

We live in a world overwhelming us with the message that happiness is a thing we need to pursue; that peace, is a thing to be acquired. And we buy into this lie, forgetting what we knew as children, that God’s peace and joy are ever-present, without price, and not commodities at all.

Now, sometimes, when we do purchase that iPhone or the new TV, we feel a brief sense of relief and happiness, as if we can rest now. But did the iPhone or the TV, or whatever it was, cause the happiness? No. We feel this brief happiness because for a moment we’re free from the desire for the thing we just acquired. And ironically, it’s the attachment to that desire itself that veils the natural, ever-present joy of Christ. The desert Fathers and Mothers of our tradition knew this back in the 3rd century. It’s nonattachment that’s the key, not acquiring the things we’re attached to. Unfortunately, we’re addicted to attachment, and to pursuing the things we believe will “make” us happy. So, even if we get a brief taste of freedom after our latest pursuit seems finished, we stay on the attachment train, looking for the next thing that will give us the peace and joy we already have.

Now you may be saying to yourself, well, I’m not addicted to iPhones or new TVs or whatever else to make me happy. And that may be true, but this endless pursuit can be very subtle. For example, we might feel, somewhere so deep inside that we’re not conscious of it, that we can be at peace and happy only if we feel safe enough in the world. And so, we spend a great deal of effort and energy searching for a safety we can never find. We can never find it, because the search itself distracts us from the truth: namely, the only safety that will ultimately satisfy us, resting in God’s embrace, is already ours. We’re are already there just by being here. Or perhaps a secret part of our self believes that we can be at peace and happy only if we prove we deserve it, by what we accomplish in the world, or even just by thinking the “right” things. Except, this also distracts us from the truth: we don’t have to prove anything, we don’t have to do or achieve anything. We just have to let ourselves abide in God, as God abides in us.

And, even if we accept all this, it can still be very difficult to let go of all the beliefs we have about needing to pursue peace and joy in order to somehow attain it, to get the next object of our desire, to be safe enough, to be good enough, etc. We have spent most our lives defining ourselves as a person in the world based solely on our attachments and beliefs, defining ourselves as separate from the Holy One and somehow needing to achieve wholeness again. Our egos love this, it’s the ego’s job, and the ego does not want to be out of a job; it will hold on desperately for its life.

This is what makes the path of Jesus so difficult, the path of self-emptying, emptying ourselves of our selves even to the point of death. What eventually dies is the way in which we identify ourselves with all those attachments, desires and false beliefs so that we can begin to recognize our True Self in Christ. And this can be terrifying, because relative to who we might think we are, it feels like we’re becoming nothing at all. Paradoxically, though, if we embrace the nothingness on the other side of all our attachments, we find the peace and joy of Christ beyond all understanding. It’s beyond all understanding, because it’s not a thing to understand. Underneath all those attachments and beliefs, we are the peace and joy we seek, because we’re made in the image and likeness of our Beautiful Holy One.

Writing on the nature of beauty, Kahlil Gibran writes, “Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face. But you are life and you are the veil. Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.”

As you listen to these words there are ten thousand miracles, at least, within easy reach; ten thousand miracles bringing us complete peace and joy. But, is there some secret to realizing this, to waking up and abiding in Christ, seeing this marvelous Truth? Some secret to lifting the veil we are to see the miraculous light of Christ’s beauty in all there is? Well, if there is a secret, it would be one hidden in plain sight. Because it’s just this: you are the miracle.

You are not who you think you are; you are not your desires, attachments, or beliefs. You’re not what you possess or how you look. You’re none of those things. You are both much less and much more.

You are the image and likeness of the Holy One. You are aglow with the infinite beauty of Christ’s light. You are the miracle of God recognizing God’s self in all there is. You are the wonder of seeing the world through God’s eyes, where even the smallest mote of dust tumbling in a sliver of sunlight shares the dance of creation. You are the Light of Christ unveiled to the world just as that Light is unveiled for you through the world. You are God’s all-embracing Love and God’s infinite Beauty. You are the boundless Peace and Joy of Christ.

You are. You really just are.

As you listen to these words there are ten thousand miracles, at least, within easy reach… beginning with you.

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1 Comment

  1. Ruth West on May 10, 2018 at 23:16

    Thank you for this thoughtful sermon.
    This brings to mind a time when I, as a young bride, visited our local priest/pastor in tears because my husband and I had had a spat. He enquired as to what I desired in our relationship. Blubbering and sobbing, I replied, “I just want to be happy.” He explained that happiness is a by-product of service. We went into the church, and I had my first formal confession. He assigned me penance, which was to memorize the 13th chapter of I Corinthians. He further explained that joy and happiness are not the same things.
    I have learned through the years the wisdom of his admonition. “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” I see joy as a deep product of love, even when one is sorrowful. I see happiness as a temporary expression, much more shallow and elusive. May God bless you, dear brother, and grant you the awareness of being the joy and peace about which you have preached in this good essay/sermon.

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