We know that the familiar adage ends with the cheery adjective “fonder.” To feel the absence of someone we cherish does often deepen our love the longer we are apart. But absence may also make the heart grow numb or inert, grief-stricken or depressed, baffled or enraged. Absence can make the heart grow hopeless.
When I focus instead on the word grow, something shifts. The trajectory of our growth in God is through and beyond this kaleidoscope.
If the feeling of absence in our lives has anything to do with the purposes of God, growth will be its gift, but not in a way we can predict or even recognize. This has been the experience of many saints, whose patient endurance through the night of God’s felt absence has catalyzed their growth, not in fondness but in holiness. As in any relationship of true love, growth in Christ gives rise to many feelings. But it does not depend upon those feelings, and the presence of feelings we consider encouraging or consoling is not in itself a sign of growth, any more than their absence is a sign of stasis. Sometimes the opposite is true! Growth in God strengthens us both to treasure the joy of Christ’s felt presence, and to trust the slow, hidden growth called forth when we feel God is absent. This depth of trust is deeply challenging.
The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth always captures my praying imagination.
I see an old, tough woman suffused with the giddy joy of a young girl, the kind that visits mothers, grandmothers, and aunts at wedding receptions. In squeals of laughter, flushed cheeks and bare feet on the dance floor, a youthful radiance gleams from the young at heart.
And I see a young girl, centered, purposeful, and wise beyond her years, with a confidence and vision that are usually the gifts of chronological maturity. She declares words of passion and purpose about the true order of things in a voice that does not quiver. It is a strange combination of purity and precociousness, the kind that we glimpse in the old souls of certain children.
The Spirit touches the first with a buoyant exuberance and a cry of joy that begins deep in the belly. The Spirit touches the second with anchored assurance and a song that echoes down the generations.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like…
Sheep without a shepherd.
Students without a teacher,
Children without a parent,
Eggs without a brooding mother,
Warriors without a commander,
Citizens without a leader,
Treasure without a guardian,
Inheritance without an heir.
Characters without an author,
My first encounter with a true mountain range occurred at age sixteen. These mountains were the Austrian Alps, so it was quite the introduction. The summer moon was full, and their peaks were crowned with gleaming snow. Tears of pure wonder streamed down my face. God’s power was written in such large figures and I was so small, but in that smallness I felt significant. I fell to my knees.
My presence in that Austrian valley on that summer night was a wonder in itself. Months before, my high school chamber choir director had announced plans for the choir to go on tour to Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The price of the trip was unaffordable for me; paying my school tuition already entailed sacrifice for my parents. I took this news in stride, though as the school year progressed, it became clear that I was the only student in the thirty-member choir who would not be going, and my sense of belonging felt fragile. One morning, a telegram (of all things!) arrived at our front door with a cryptic, unsigned message. Someone wanted to pay my way, on the condition that they remain anonymous. The courier awaited my reply. I accepted humbly and gratefully… but the identity of this benevolent stranger continued to puzzle me for weeks. I suspected anyone and everyone. Everything took on the quality of a gift: a gift I did not earn and no longer took for granted. I had been honored by the generosity of a king in disguise.
There is a common physiological phenomenon that occurs to many people as their bodies cross the threshold from a waking state into deep sleep. An involuntary twitch of the muscles, called a hypnic jerk, wrenches the body awake. This is often preceded by a distinct sensation of falling that can be quite horrifying. Scientists don’t really understand it. It may be that our daytime motor control is exerting a last burst of effort for dominance as our muscles enter full relaxation on the cusp of dreaming. It may even be an evolutionary echo: our brain mistakes this necessary muscle relaxation for the experience of falling out of a tree, and sends a sudden flash of warning to the body. Whatever the cause, there is something deep, something primal in us, that resists relinquishing control as we approach the mysterious, nightly death of sleep.
In tonight’s passage from Acts, we hear about a boy named Eutychus and an unexpected fall. Eutychus falls asleep and falls to his death from a third-floor window. This tragic accident interrupts the bigger story with a profusion of small details. It happened “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread,” Luke writes. The furniture is different, but we have been here before. Paul breaks open the word in an upper room in Troas, just as Jesus did in Jerusalem on the night before he died, and again after his Resurrection. Paul’s destination, too, is Jerusalem. As the gravity of his self-offering becomes clear, the power of the Lord’s resurrection flashes forth within and around him.
I had no formal religious upbringing before the age of nine, when my family moved from a little suburb in southern New Jersey to a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a huge cultural shift – and culture shock – for all of us, from minor things (like learning I had an accent) to one big thing: we began to go to church for the first time. I had grown up on a rich diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Greek and Roman mythology – great story traditions that informed my play as a child. When I encountered the Bible and the story of Jesus for the first time, I took to it like a fish to water, in part I think because of the groundwork that had already been laid in my heart and psyche by those stories. The difference, of course, was that this particular hero was God, who desired a relationship of love with me, personally, and that there was a whole community of people living out this great Story, capital S. Learning that was hugely horizon opening and ground shaking for me. I was baptized when I was ten.
I am listening more deeply, more intently, and with a greater sense of urgency, than I have ever listened. I am listening to the lonely cry out for human touch and the holy cry out for sacraments shared. I am listening to words of joy and lament from the masked mouths of strangers and friends alike. I am listening to Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American people cry out afresh an old, old song of unspeakable trauma, yet refulgent with hope. I am listening to slow-motion sounds of collapse as political maneuvers falter and fail. I am listening to ice melting beneath the paws of the polar bear. I am listening to the inhalation and exhalation of breath, rhythmically reminding me that every moment is precious, and none is a given. I am listening to the heart of God beneath it all.
Are you listening? I hear you, even as I type this, and I know that you are. Somehow, I hear us, gathered in ourlistening. It is the sound of a single heart learning, re-learning to listen to the Word, and to the world.
In such listening, St. Paul heard creation groaning “in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In such listening, Elijah heard that “still, small voice” which was not to be heard in wind, earthquake, or fire. In such listening, Jesus heard the God he knew as Abba say, “This is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And he heard another call, to the darkness of Calvary.
If you’re hearing what I’m hearing, maybe we’re listening to the Church becoming more. In this place “within listening distance of the silence we call God” (R.S. Thomas) and within shouting distance of one another, we are finding something precious: a deep church. These are shouts of ‘Why?’ and ‘How Long?’ but also ‘Thank You’ and ‘I’m Here for You’ and ‘Amen.’ We’ve long stewarded this deep church in packets of seeds, but often planted them in seasonal gardens: a retreat here, a small group there, an afternoon of Sabbath rest. In this new place, we’re learning a different way. In between the unmaking of one world and the gestation of another, stricken in conscience, overflowing with questions, and wrestling with demons, we’re learning that spiritual practice, presence, and purpose are the seeds we need to survive.
Blessedly, history shows that these are the causes and conditions that make saints: Christians of depth. Moved by those pressures, we’re doing our inner work because it is the work to be done. We’re learning to pray one distracted word at a time, to meditate one distracted breath at a time, to measure our hours and days. We’re speaking the truth of what truly matters to us and listening to others do the same because none of us have all the time in the world, and we know it. The powerful among us are learning to listen to the disempowered without defensiveness or pride. We’re discovering how to abide like a planted seed in the darkness of impasse because our faith, our impossible “conviction of things not seen,” tells us that seeds were made to grow. We can’t go over or under or around the pain. And so, together, we are going through it, into the depths.
Jesus said, “Pay attention to how you listen.” Let’s keep listening to him, and to one another.
Yours in Christ,
Br. Keith Nelson
Celibate life can prompt some big, existential questions about the nature of human intimacy with God. When I look at the ring on my finger and imagine a similar ring on the (invisible) hand of Christ, I wonder: What does it mean to be invited to share an intimate relationship – the most intimate relationship — with someone who is so utterly mysterious?
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. These words from Matthew find a striking parallel in John’s gospel: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30
Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ [i]
There are some who listen and follow, who find her dwelling and hold her fast. But there are many in the broad places of the world who ignore her. The marketplace is for many things, but not for wisdom. They don’t bother to look up from their tiny screens. Nimble fingers text and tweet faster than hearts can pause and feel.
‘We played the flute for them, but they didn’t dance. We mourned, but they didn’t wail.’ [ii]
With each comment thread, the bitter bickering shrinks the circle. Wisdom has not played by the rules.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.[iii]
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! he cries, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing.’ [iv]
When the words of Wisdom finally find their target, the reaction is visceral. As one body united for the first time and the last, they cry: ‘CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!’[v]
Yet – Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.[vi]
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Or, in Luke’s version, Wisdom is vindicated by her children.[vii] In books such as Proverbs and Job, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, we encounter God’s Wisdom personified as a Woman of great gentleness and strength, offering food and drink, shelter and instruction, scorned by the masses but taking her stand nonetheless. In the book Sirach, the wise elder instructs a disciple: “Listen, my child, and take my advice, do not reject my counsel: put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds… For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”[viii] In the gospels of Matthew and John, we bear witness to a Spirit-led conversation between this multifaceted tradition of personified Wisdom and the early Christian experience of Jesus Christ. For us as for them, Wisdom is Jesus, the embodiment of all good things in Wisdom’s treasury and the incarnation of God, the source and ground of Wisdom. This Jesus is without doubt a Savior to be worshipped and an exemplar of how we are to act in the world. But he is also a Teacher of the heart, what today we are calling “inner work.”
The life to which Jesus calls us is essentially simple. In what does that simple life consist? The simple life – the life of the kingdom – consists in the abundant awareness that everything we receive is a gift that we did not earn or purchase; in the recognition that life itself is the first of all gifts; in the trust that our basic needs will be met; in the generosity that allows us to be the means by which God meets the needs of others; and in the capacity to surrender our inevitable craving for what we do not need.
Worrying is one behavior that leads to increased complexity of life, the labyrinthine complexity of misdirected anxiety. But this particular admonition not to worry is made more specific by a very clear statement: You cannot serve God and wealth. The incapacity to surrender our craving for what we do not need results in service to the wrong Master. And the tiny links in the chain with which that Master binds his unsuspecting devotees are worries. Restless hope of acquisition on the one hand, and undue fear for the security of what we have acquired on the other, results in a zig-zag of interior energy moving in the wrong direction: away from God.
As men who live under vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, we have committed ourselves to “striving first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” in a radical way. On an external level, this particular version of the Christian vocation entails much letting go and doing without: of spouse, children, a household of our own, and a significant measure of individual autonomy, to name only the most significant sacrifices. But as we know very well, these things comprise only the outermost concentric circle in a life of progressive dispossession for the sake of the kingdom. We discover whole hordes of interior possessions, guarded tooth and nail by dragons who feed on our thoughts. In short, we are tempted to worry all over again – perhaps even to justify our worry spiritually.