Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, coined the turn of phrase “men of the moment” to envision the timeliness of SSJE’s life and witness. Far from being the traditional imitators of bygone days, we are to be “men of the present moment and its life.” What does the present moment invite? This question has informed our year of praying, talking, and listening with one another. We have also been in communication with friends and advisors who companion us.
Saint Augustine, the African bishop and theologian of the early 5th century, spent many years writing about God as a Trinity of Persons, a mystery which both consumed his attention and yet eluded his understanding.[i] So the story goes, he was walking by the seaside one day, meditating on the Trinity, how God could be One essence, and yet, at the same time, three Persons. He came onto a little child. The child had dug a small hole in the sand, and with a seashell was scooping water from the ocean into the hole. Augustine watched him for a little while and finally asked the child what he was doing. The child answered that he wanted to scoop all the water from the sea and pour it into the hole in the sand. Augustine felt impelled to correct the child. “That is impossible,” Augustine said. “The sea is too large and the hole is too small.” And now it was this child who was impelled to correct Augustine. The child said, “That is true, but I will sooner draw all the water from the sea and empty it into this hole than you will succeed in penetrating the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your limited understanding.” Augustine turned away in amazement, and when he looked back, the child had disappeared. Augustine had been put in his place, not a bad place, but simply in a place of recognition that he, too, was a child of God, a God whom he would mysteriously experience but never fully understand.
The situation is dire. Jesus’ life is coming to an end. In the verses immediately following this Gospel lesson, we learn of Judas’ betrayal, then Peter’s betrayal, then Jesus’ interrogations by Caiaphas, the high priest, and by Pilate, the Roman Prefect. And then comes Jesus’ crucifixion which Jesus fully anticipates and will readily submit. Which is his prayer. Jesus here is praying for protection – not his protection but our protection – and Jesus prays, “I speak these things… so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Joy in the context of suffering.
Joy goes without saying when all is well: the exhilaration of life and company of laughter, the wonder of life that is so palpable, the burdens of life lifted and whisked away like clouds. Joy – this melding of delight and gratitude, freedom and hope – goes without saying when the burdens of life are lifted, when the flow of life turns into a beautiful harmony or a consoling fragrance, when – to use the language of the psalmist – “when we have wings like a dove.”[i] Joy goes without saying when all is well and we experience the sheer freedom and bliss of being alive. But the weather, and the weather of the heart, changes. And that is where joy is such a paradox.
Jesus is speaking about joy in the context of suffering, that his joy may be ours, in our suffering. Saint Paul writes continually about joy: joy in the context of suffering, or in the aftermath of suffering, or in the anticipation of suffering. It is the same in the Letter to the Hebrews and in the First Letter of Peter: how the crucible of suffering becomes the wellspring of joy.[ii]
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told in great detail where the Apostle Paul traveled on his missionary journeys, a very detailed itinerary during just one season of his life. Why? The Apostle Paul has been traveling with Silas in Syria and Cilicia. They went on to Derbe, then met up with Timothy in Lystra, then to Phrygia, then Galatia. (Why? Because they could not go to Asia.) Then opposite Mysia, they attempted to enter Bithynia, (but were forbidden) so they went down to Troas… and then, because Paul had a dream, they set off to Macedonia… and on and on it goes. Why? Why are we given this endless travelogue? Three reasons.
The most obvious reason is the very reason we do this. If there’s someone we know and love who has been away from us traveling, we want to know all about it. “Where did you go?” “What did you see?” “Who did you meet?” “What impressed you the most?” We want to get current with people we love who have been away from us.
A second reason is that Saint Paul’s readers were an oppressed and persecuted minority. They needed the encouragement that their faith in Jesus was catching fire. If you are suffering, and there’s no immediate remedy for your suffering, the next best thing is to know you are not alone. So the story, this travelogue, is told for the sake of others’ encouragement.
Jesus’ arms hold new life. For many years, robins have nested on the wooden crucifix in the monastery cloister. This spring, for nearly two weeks, a mother and father robin have taken turns like a tag team “sitting tight” on the eggs, while the other mate searches for food. Once the eggs are hatched, the fledglings will leave the nest when they are ready for their maiden flight in about two weeks. Meanwhile, there is a great deal of waiting.
Waiting figures prominently in creation. The gestation and development of flowers and trees, of animals, fish, birds and human beings follow a cadence that resists being rushed. In a dark night, you may wish for the dawn to come soon; but, of course, it will come on its own time. We are waiting now for the resolution of the Coronavirus crisis; however for so many of us, that timeframe is beyond our control. Even if we are agents in the resolution of the pandemic – being health care workers, research scientists, government or corporate leaders, or among the countless numbers of people who, by their work, are making life possible for others – we still face an element of waiting for what is beyond our ultimate control. We are working, and we are waiting. We must be patient.
The English word “patience,” comes from the Latin patientia which is a “quality of suffering.” And suffering you are as you wait patiently, hopefully, sometimes desperately for a resolution. Patience also means dependence, exposure, being no longer in control of your own situation, being the object of what is done. Living life patiently is very difficult to do.
Living life patiently is not the only way to navigate life. Some situations we face in life just now require aggressive responses; however patience also needs to be an active word in your soul’s vocabulary. When the answer is not forthcoming, when something is not being resolved, when the door isn’t being opened, when someone is not acquiescing, when you have lost any sense of controlling your circumstances, there is also an invitation for patience. It’s “to wait, like watchmen waiting for the morning,” (Psalm 130).
Waiting is difficult. You may have a predisposition that you shouldn’t have to wait. But these days we all are having to wait. Pray for the gift of God’s power, provision, patience, that this huge trial we now face also be a time of gestation for new life beyond which you could have imagined. Pray for the strength you need just now to work and to wait.
“I waited patiently upon the LORD;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.”
Br. Curtis Almquist
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
This reading is from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, an ancient city in northern Greece. The letter was written in the early 50s, less than 20 years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is probably Saint Paul’s earliest preserved letter, making it the oldest writing in the entire New Testament. There is not yet a Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. There is not yet the record of the Acts of the Apostles. There are no Creeds. There is no ordination process agreed upon. So there is some confusion how to practice the Christian faith, with rivalry among those who purported themselves to be leaders.[i] Lots of conflict, resentment, and inexperience.
In this letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Saint Paul is rather tough. He tells them “to stop complaining.” He reminds them “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders.” If we were to take Saint Paul’s words – from 2,000 years ago – and overlay them on our own Coronavirus circumstances, we find some good counsel for life together during our own conflicted time. Saint Paul’s words are not a perfect fit for today, but we can glean some help:
I just finished reading a marvelous book, Dancing with Sherman. Sherman is a donkey. Ostensibly, the book is about donkey-racing with their human partners in the Amish-Mennonite country of Pennsylvania. Sherman is a real winner. In actuality, the book is about trust, the interdependence of trust woven into the whole of creation. The author, Christopher McDougall, writes that “donkeys operate on one frequency – trust. They do nothing on faith, but everything on certainty.”[i] Donkeys operate on trust, not faith. We have the capacity for both, for both trust and faith.
Trust and faith are related. They’re like cousins. Faith operates with the eyes of our heart.[ii] We read in The Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[iii] Faith… the conviction of things not seen. Faith in God is a gift from God, though it’s not based on evidence. Faith is a kind of inner knowing. Which is why so many people – even in the face of tremendous fear or overwhelming suffering, even now – have not lost their faith in God. Many people’s faith in God is awakened in suffering, which is such a paradox. In our opening prayer,the Collect for today, we ask God to “open the eyes of our faith” to behold God. The eyes of our faith is a kind of inner seeing, which can even be contrary to the evidence we actually see. Saint Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.”[iv]It was Saint Anselm of Canterbury who, in the 11th century, described the preeminence of faith as coming from the heart, not the mind: “faith seeking understanding,” he said.[v]
Psalm 71, appointed for today, speaks to a calamity. Psalm 71 is both a diagnosis and a prescription for those who suffer. The issue the psalmist confronts, specifically, is about the insecurity and vulnerability of old age and the fear of abandonment. But this psalm applies just as well if you are young and sick, or if you worried sick because of your own health and wellbeing, or because of someone else’s.
On the one hand, the psalmist has known the presence of God, stretching back to childhood, “my confidence since I was young.”[i] Because of this, the psalmist has reason to be hopeful about the future, “For you are my hope, O LORD God.”[ii] But this is not cheap hope. In such transparent candor, the psalmist says, “I have become a portent to many.”[iii]A portent is a sign or a warning that something bad, especially something momentous or calamitous, is likely to happen.” Old people are portents. Old people are like the canary in the coal mine. We all become old. I am old. Unless we die young or from some other tragedy, we all become old. It’s not your fault for becoming old. However, old people are often forgotten and dismissed. Old people often lose their voice – that is, the power to be heard by others – and then they lose their control to manage their own life and to choose where to go or how to be. At the very end of the Gospel according to John, we hear Jesus, at the very end of his own life, say, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”[iv] Old people can be terribly needy, inconvenient, even embarrassing. The psalmist knows about this firsthand. So do we.
But then we hear the psalmist find some equilibrium. With courage and confidence, the psalmist draws from life’s experience knowing God’s presence: “For you are my crag and my stronghold.”[v] A crag is not a sheltered cave. It’s quite the opposite. A crag is a steep, rugged mass of rock that projects upward and outward. A crag is a stronghold. If you were a rock climber, you would reach up to a crag to take hold, to keep you secure, to enable you to ascend. In a desert culture, where the land is endlessly flat leaving you exposed and vulnerable, you will find safety and perspective in height, in being able to ascend, lest you be laid low, powerless, and vulnerable… like you often are when you are old or when you are sick. A crag is a miniature Masada, the hilltop fortress in the Judean desert. In medieval times, castles were oftentimes built upon crags. So we hear the psalmist recite from memory, and with strength and comfort: “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold.”[vi]
And then, it’s like the psalmist “loses it.” The psalmist falls into despair. You know how it is when you feel vulnerable and needy. When you have thin skin. Oftentimes a little help and encouragement feels like a great help and encouragement. It’s transformative. For the moment, all is well! But then your mood can easily swing from cheer and confidence to despair and hopelessness, and then back and forth. Having just claimed God as a “crag and stronghold,” the psalmist becomes disconsolate and implores God, “Do not cast me off in my old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails.”[vii] In such transparent need, the psalmist cries out to God, “O God, be not far from me; come quickly to help me, O my God.”[viii]
The psalmist then expresses one last plea to God: “Now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me…”[ix] Feeling very vulnerable – either because you are old, or sick, or afraid you will be – is very difficult, don’t we know. And then something amazing happens for the psalmist, true to life. It’s like an answer to prayer. The psalmist is reminded of God’s presence and God’s provision in the past: “You will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.”[x] It’s a kind of resurrection-like experience, when the sun bursts through the clouds and health or hope returns. The psalmist’s concluding words are triumphal:
“You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me,
therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God…
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed…
My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,”[xi]
“All the day long…,” “all day long…,” until the cycle of fear and impending death returns. Death and resurrection, death and resurrection, death and resurrection.
1. In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
2. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.
3. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
you are my crag and my stronghold.
4. Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.
5. For you are my hope, O LORD God,
my confidence since I was young.
6. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you.
7. I have become a portent to many;
but you are my refuge and my strength.
8. Let my mouth be full of your praise
and your glory all the day long.
9. Do not cast me off in my old age;
forsake me not when my strength fails.
10. For my enemies are talking against me,
and those who lie in wait for my life take counsel together.
11. They say, “God has forsaken him;
go after him and seize him;
because there is none who will save.”
12. O God, be not far from me;
come quickly to help me, O my God.
13. Let those who set themselves against me be put to shame and be disgraced;
let those who seek to do me evil be covered with scorn and reproach.
14. But I shall always wait in patience,
and shall praise you more and more.
15. My mouth shall recount your mighty acts and saving deeds all day long;
though I cannot know the number of them.
16. I will begin with the mighty works of the Lord GOD;
I will recall your righteousness, yours alone.
17. O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
18. And now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me,
till I make known your strength to this generation and your power to all who are to come.
19. Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the heavens;
you have done great things; who is like you, O God?
20. You have showed me great troubles and adversities,
but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.
21. You strengthen me more and more;
you enfold and comfort me,
22. Therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing to you with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.
23. My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed.
24. My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,
for they are ashamed and disgraced who sought to do me harm.
[i] I take inspiration from Herbert O’Driscoll’s Finer than Gold; Sweeter than Honey (Path Books), pp. 150-151.
[ii] Psalm 17:5.
[iii] Psalm 17:7.
[iv] John 21:18.
[v] Psalm 17:3.
[vi] Psalm 17:3.
[vii] Psalm 17:9.
[viii] Psalm 17:12.
[ix] Psalm 71:18.
[x] Psalm 17:20.
[xi] Psalm 17:20-24.
The Beauty of Holiness
The Holiness of Beauty
Beauty is not a veneer. Beauty is not entertainment, nor a lovely distraction, nor the domain of the privileged. Beauty is essential for life. Beauty is of the essence of God. The psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29:2, 96:9). The worship life of the church is infused and informed by beauty mediated through all of our senses: what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps 34:8). In the Genesis creation account, God creates, and then God observes that it is all very good. In the fullness of time, when God takes on human form in Jesus, we experience the reclaiming of the original blessing in creation. It is good, very good.
Beauty is infinitely evocative. Beauty belongs to an ancient triad called the “transcendentals,” gateways through which all of creation both reveals and knows God. The transcendentals are beauty, truth, and goodness. Goodness relates to the will; truth, to the mind; beauty, to the heart, feelings, and imagination. The transcendentals are attributes of God and, therefore, of God’s creation. Beauty, truth, and goodness infuse one another, and each is a portal to God. We have been created in the image of God. Thereby, what is most important is not what we may say about God, but what God’s creation says about God. We have been created “to participate in the being that flows from God, and to manifest God’s beauty in the depths of our nature” (David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite,” in Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa, 112).
Beauty speaks to and through our senses and transfigures our mind, because beauty is magnificently ordered. Beauty teems with harmony, rhythm, the splendor of shape and form, evocative meaning, sometimes eliciting our enchantment and wonder, always connecting us with something More, its Creator. Beauty rightly liberates us from the narrow confines of our rational minds. The great Swiss priest and scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), spoke of the “theological aesthetic”: to perceive through holy people and holy images the objective glory of divinely revealed truth. Creation matters.
In our experience of beauty, we are enveloped in the signs of God’s magnificent presence among us, God’s immanence. Simultaneously, we are pointed onward to the attraction of God’s glory, God’s transcendence: God, from whom and in whom all has been created. Beauty envelopes us with its Source. Panentheism describes this. Not pantheism: everything is God. But rather, panentheism: everything is in God. All of creation is iconic: a window through which to know, reverence, and worship God. Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, recalls the elder monk, Zosima, telling the youngest Karamazov son, Alyosha, that creation is “an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part … the world a mirror of infinite beauty … beautiful as in the beginning of days.”
Beauty attracts, sometimes very powerfully. We can be smitten by what we find beautiful. However if we worship what we find beautiful – that is, if we give ultimate worth to what we find beautiful – we will be disappointed, and we may get lost. Beauty, to be experienced most wholly and freely, needs to be experienced in the context of its Source. What we find beautiful is participating in the glory of the Creator. We, as creatures, have been given the inspiration to be makers or re-makers of beauty (John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, 48). Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Spanish friar and priest, writes of this longing for the beautiful, whose beginning and end is in God. In life, what we are first attracted to are God’s creatures, and they say, “‘What you are looking for is not here, but God has passed by, scattering beauty as he went.’ What attracts us in creatures is something of God’s beauty. The creatures are honest: they tell us plainly that they are not enough to fill that hole in our hearts” (Cantico Espiritual, can. 4 & 5). What we find beautiful is always a participant, a creature, not the Creator.
Beauty can be a very powerful channel for healing. When life has been ravaged by pain or loss, by disorder or distress, by chaos or fear, the experience of beauty can be a very balming, calming, re-ordering channel for re-righting our soul. On occasion I will be invited to listen to someone speak about the distress and debris of life that is infecting their soul. Their experience of life is death-dealing, and they are disconsolate. For these dear, suffering souls I am not inclined to suggest a tough spiritual exercise. I more often send them to a museum, to a flower shop, to a concert, to a delicious meal, to a wildlife park, to a pool of water, to a playground to watch children, to a forest or mountain. It’s to reacquaint them with what they’ve forgotten, what may have been lost or stolen from them: that amidst life’s sometimes appalling suffering, chaos, and death, life teems with beauty. Beauty is so weighty; the experience of beauty will very powerfully rebalance the fulcrum of our life. The great German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), said: “A person should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What do you find beautiful? Beauty is worth attending to; you are worth attending to beauty.
The Anglican theological tradition is sacramental, that is, we recognize outward signs in creation as channels of God’s inner work of grace. How splendid it is to order our prayer and worship with a generous splay of beauty. Very gracious. The psalmist sings to us: “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 96:9). Beauty is not functional; beauty is redolent and transformative. Beauty is worthy of our attention as we order both our corporate and personal prayer. Beauty may be a very large instrument in our lifelong conversion to Christ. As we read in the Letter to the Colossians, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible … have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). Beauty is of the essence of God, in whose image we have been created. Pray your life beholding the beauty of God that surrounds you and fills you.
All suffering is God’s punishment for sin. This was an underlying belief in Jesus’ own day. Suffering is a divine payback for wrongdoing. Jesus confronts this notion. When he encounters a man blind from birth, Jesus is asked rather rhetorically, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”[i]
So why is there suffering? How many there are, the sources of suffering. Some suffering we clearly do bring onto ourselves because of how we are practicing our life with too much of this or too little of that, of deceptions and bad decisions, sometimes which turn into a tsunami of suffering. Yet when Jesus is asked the source of this man’s blindness, Jesus is not formulaic. He clearly says that suffering ipso facto is not a sign of God’s judgment or rejection. Jesus teaches that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good.” Jesus says, all of us are “children of [one] Father in heaven.”[ii] God’s love is indiscriminate.
So what do we make of suffering? We clearly cannot avoid it. Study history; read the newspapers; recall your own life. Clearly, there is no escape from suffering until life is ended. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, suffering has a prominent and paradoxical place in our lives. Our theology hangs on the cross. Jesus tells us that if we want to be his followers we must “take up our cross” and follow him.[iii] We will be presented with the cross. It will happen, and probably more than once in our lifetimes. We either face our cross, or we flee from it, but this is Jesus’ way for us: the way of the cross. The cross is an instrument of suffering before it becomes the way to life.