Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Before I entered monastic life, I experienced the Ascension in both its scriptural telling and its liturgical observance a bit the same way I experienced a lay-over between flights. Why this seemingly unnecessary stop on the journey from Easter to Pentecost – and so close to our final destination? Jesus had risen. Why did he now need to go up still farther – to a Heaven I certainly believe in but did not (and do not) regard to be “up” at all? In the monastery, where scripture rains from above and seeps up from below until it gets inside you, it was clear that the Ascension meant more – much, much more than I had assumed. But it still felt like an irritant – a grain of sand that might produce a pearl – one day.
My relationship with the Ascension is now very different. I now delight to get off the Easter-to-Ascension plane, stretch my legs, and take in the breath-taking view before climbing aboard for the Ascension-to-Pentecost leg of the journey. I understand why lay-overs and way-stations are necessary on long journeys – and what they can do to shift the perspective of the traveler toward the terrain. I understand that “direct flights” in the spiritual life are available only to angels. I do not understand the Ascension, anymore than I can levitate – or fly. But I love the Ascension because I love the Ascended Christ and I sense now more than ever what his Ascension means for us here below.
Peace – as we ordinarily understand that word — is often very hard work. Whether it is the resolution of conflict between nations or ethnic groups, or an inward psychological disposition leading to deeper wellbeing, peace is usually work-in-progress. It is no secret that these two forms of peace are deeply interrelated. The crucial work of social peace (negotiating peace, organizing peace, facilitating peace, instituting peace) only maintains a superficial and tenuous harmony if there is no on-the-ground commitment to interior peace, the kind that changes lives from the inside out. Countless civil disobedience movements have demonstrated the power of non-violent action when it is steeped in spiritual intention and grounded in a peace that no oppressor can give or take away.
The peace of Jesus was a living, inner presence that challenged, changed, and empowered his followers to seek the peace “which the world cannot give.” This inner presence inevitably brought Jesus into conflict with the ambient culture of violent occupation around him. The religious leaders who benefitted from their quiet complicity no doubt had a very different understanding of shalom. Rather than a dynamic, empowering presence, “peace” meant maintaining a broken system with minimal disturbance to received tradition.
Jesus says to his gathered disciples:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Jesus, knowing that his death is imminent, bequeathes his own Peace to his inner circle, who will so desperately need it in the midst of the suffering and death about to break upon them like a tidal wave.
Like most of the sections of Jesus’s lengthy farewell discourse, this specific section is prompted by a question: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” The first part of Jesus’s reply focuses on the gift of the Paraclete or Advocate, the Holy Spirit who “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The gift of Jesus’s Peace is a highly related but ultimately distinct gift. And while the gift of Peace participates in the tradition of shalom as both greeting and farewell, this Peace is a promise of ongoing presence because it harkens to the gift of Peace inaugurated by the Messiah: the righteous rule of the “Prince of Peace,” which will be eternal.
Marianne Meye Thompson notes that in this Farewell Discourse of Jesus, the world is almost always mentioned in the same breath as the promised Holy Spirit. Similarly, Jesus here explains, “I do not give to you as the world gives,” immediately following his twice-repeated gift of his own Peace. While the term “world,” or kosmos, in John’s gospel is a bit elastic in its meaning, it takes on an unequivocally threatening character in John’s closing chapters. A dense energy of worldliness threatens to obscure or corrode the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The world “hates” Jesus’s followers just as it hates Jesus. Thompson sees “the world” in the Farewell Discourse as both the “source of opposition” facing the followers of Jesus and the “arena” in which their witness to the gospel must unfold. As such, it remains a perpetual challenge for the Church to grapple with in every generation.[i]
It is very easy to be seduced by a peace that is not Christ’s, but rather a false peace that is of the world. There are at least three forms this might take:
We often seek permanent, lasting peace in places we will never find it, or will find only provisional peace: a political party, financial security, a beautiful house, a romantic partnership, a career promotion, retirement, a new ministry, a denomination of the Church, our liturgical preferences, our physical or mental talents. The list can grow quite long. It sometimes helps to honestly assess the direction in which we are seeking ultimate peace. “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them,” writes the Psalmist, and there are endless variations on this theme in scripture. Horses? No. Chariots? No. Riches? Nope. All of these will fail us. If we look to provisional or temporal things for ultimate peace, we are likely to wake up itchy, restless and dissatisfied when they disappoint us. These paths toward peace are often onramps or runways toward the Peace that is Christ’s Peace. But our trust in these things is provisional because it is light, gentle, and acknowledges human frailty – others’ and our own.
We often seek to “build” peace with the hope of arriving at a lasting, permanent solution in the sheer strength of our own efforts. As a form of service to humanity this is a noble and selfless motive. But if we are not co-creating paths toward peace with Jesus, we are pursuing the world’s peace. Participating in the Peace of Christ requires a patience and a persistence that only Christ can supply. It demands an attentive eye to recognize where Christ’s Peace is already breaking forth as slow growth unassisted by our well-organized efforts, and asks only for us to bear witness.
We often wish, aspire, or pray to arrive at an interior peace that is a “once and for all” accomplishment. If we establish the right spiritual practices with the right frequency and depth, if we follow the right Rule of Life, if we say “yes” to every opportunity to be of service, if we worship God with deep enough focus and sincerity of heart every day, maybe we’ll reach a plane of permanent spiritual peace where we no longer swear in traffic or eat too much dessert or judge ourselves for our mistakes or make superficial assumptions about people. As far as I can tell, such a Peace does not exist this side of heaven. I do believe that the Spirit works in us a slow purification of the will that renders certain habitual sins a lot less interesting than they once were. But until then, I think that following Jesus opens us to receive his Peace in the midst of our flaws, not in spite of them. We hold the treasure of Christ’s Peace in clay jars, as grateful sinners.
As recipients of the Peace of Jesus, we have been given – in trust – the defining gift of Jesus’s now-and-future reign. Hearing Jesus invite me to make use of his Peace – a Peace already entrusted to me – changes my understanding of the adventure and challenge of peace-making in a very unpeaceful world. Making peace becomes consenting to Christ’s peace-making process wherever it is unfolding. Making peace becomes receiving Peace and being Peace. Only then can Christ use you and me to give Peace – a Peace which will remain his alone, but will change us each time we give it away, and each time we pass it around in our Eucharistic feast.
I give to you the Peace of Christ – a Peace which the world cannot give.
I give you the unshakable sanity and unflappable presence of Christ.
I give the Peace that saves you and me from all inner and outer persecution and from every stone the world may hurl your way.
I give you a Peace that will never falter or fade, and will carry you all the way Home.
The Peace of Christ be with you.
[i]Marianne Meye Thompson. John: A Commentary. p. 313.
“It is finished.”[i]
Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up.
And yet, we linger here where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.
The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay.
And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body.
And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.
For in the LORD’s hand there is a cup, full of spiced and foaming wine, which he pours out, and all the wicked of the earth shall drink and drain the dregs.
In the writings of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, as in the seventy-fifth Psalm, we encounter a cup that no one wants to drink. All tremble when God offers it. And for good reason. To “drink the cup of God’s wrath” is to imbibe the consequences of ungodly actions. Those who drink it stagger and fall down, overwhelmed by the awful knowledge of their sins.
These images of forced intoxication are harsh and terrifying. They feel punitive in the extreme. But to see this image from the vantage point of the prophets of Israel, to drink this cup is also to swallow the Truth. If we have developed a personal habit of avoiding or evading the Truth; if we have fallen captive to our culture’s prevailing tendency to do this on a national scale; if we have lied to ourselves or others; or if we have done things that feel untrue to our primary identity as God’s children; the Truth may very well feel harsh and terrifying. When God offers this cup to me, it inevitably feels like a confrontation.
The same God of Truth also offers the cup of blessing. For those who are living in the Truth, living for the Truth, to drink of this cup brings life and health, strengthening one’s intimacy with the God who offers it. This cup purifies the heart and prepares our thirst for more and more.
But what if this is the same cup? It is obvious that the biblical writers are using the image of God’s cup to convey a wide variety of different meanings. But might it be the case that, rather than selecting a different cup from a divine cup collection or even pouring a different vintage of wine for each guest, God offers God’s one cup – the offer of Godself? Might it not be that the disposition of the one who would drink of itis the variable here, and it is we – who can see so little of the vast and inscrutable purposes of God – who attribute to God a variety of motives beyond the one motive of saving Love?
Jesus was steeped in the tradition of the Prophets and in the prayer book of Israel, the Psalter. He would have known this variety of cup imagery in scripture quite intimately. When Jesus says to James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” he has just offered to his disciples a third prediction of the suffering and death he is to undergo at Jerusalem, as well as a prediction of his resurrection. This is a cup of Truth so pungent and bewildering that they have avoided and evaded drinking it at all costs. And in just a few short chapters, Jesus will drink from a cup for the last time with his gathered friends, saying “Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And he will go to Gethsemane and pray in the dark, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” The cup of Jesus is one cup. For him and in him, the cup of suffering is the cup of salvation. The cup offered to him and him alone by the hand of his Father isthe cup he invited his friends to share at their final feast. If James and John would drink the cup of blessing in the right hand of the king, they must drink all the Truth that that cup contains. And so must we.
The chalice of the Eucharist participates in the nature of all of these offered cups, which are the one cup – the offer of Godself. The bread and wine of the Eucharist are many, many things: food for our wilderness journey, medicine in this hospital for sinners, fruit hanging from the tree of the cross. But for me, a challenge – and some days, a confrontation– in receiving the Eucharist as frequently as we do is that the cup we drink also holds living fire. This image is especially prominent in the Eucharistic prayers of the Eastern Church, in which the bread is likened to the live coalfrom the altar that touched the lips of Ezekiel, and the wine a flow of living firefrom God’s throne. Such fire burns up sins, and sets the soul ablaze like molten metal. The heat that sometimes burns in my breast in response to this fierce gift finds poignant expression in the words of the Carmelite writer Marc Foley: “The deeper divine charity takes root in our hearts, the greater the guilt we feel when we hate or fail to love. The more we say yes to God, the more painful it becomes to say no. Nevertheless, we continue to resist God’s call to grow. Consequently, we feel trapped. We can’t say no, but we don’t want to say yes. We resent being put in this position.”
Each time we receive God into ourselves from this cup, we say yes– we say yesto the one who sensitizes our conscience, the one who sharpens our spiritual senses, and the one who turns up the light – and the heat – in our soul. The cup of Truth may cause us to stagger and fall down. But if we continue to drink from it – Christ promises – this loving confrontation will bring us to a miraculous and sober inebriation. We will know that fire can make its home in us, because our true nature is gold. The cup of his suffering – which is the cup of salvation – will bring with it each day a fresh opportunity to turn to the Lord and live. In this cup, we will know the Truth without fear, and the Truth will set us free.
Ask, and it will be given you.
But… what if it isn’t?
Search, and you will find.
But… what if I don’t find anything?
Knock, and the door will be opened for you.
But… what if the door just stays shut?
These are reasonable responses to this teaching of Jesus. The kind of asking, searching, and knocking Jesus is talking about summon us to a vulnerable stance. While we may recognize that vulnerability is necessary for any form of genuine connection, we will usually choose the least vulnerable way of getting our needs met whenever humanly possible. At its core, vulnerability is the experience of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.[i]What if I ask, and my request is denied – or even worse, met with a deafening silence? What if I search and I come up empty-handed, exhausted and looking like an idiot for investing myself in such a lost cause? What if I knock until my knuckles bleed and the door doesn’t budge? Thenwhere will I be?
These are supremely reasonable responses if we take our vulnerable human experiences of denied requests, fruitless searches, and closed doors and project them onto our life with God – particularly our life of prayer. These “what if” responses might cause us to entirely forsake asking, searching, or knocking for what we need. We might prefer always to pray for the needs of others. We might prefer to rest in a form of pseudo-contemplation that says, “Whatever youwant, God” rather than actively stay put in the excruciatingly particular vulnerability of our needs – until Godgives us the genuine freedom of contemplative detachment.
Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5,10
Mark 8: 14-21
All of the world’s major Story traditions contain epic cycles of creation, the flourishing of life, decline, death, and renewal. Myths – stories that resound with the ring of Truth, whether or not they are based on factual events – mirror the processes of nature and the work of time. These stories enlarge what is small but also condense what is vast. This process allows the storyteller and the story-listener to make meaning of the cycle – which would otherwise remain too large to handle. The portion that is visible to us at any one moment – birth, growth, suffering, or death – would overwhelm us with its magnitude. Stories sift, sort, and distill until symbols cohere from the chaos: the waters of a great flood; a boat designed by God; a bit of yeast; a single loaf of bread.
When decline and death become the predominant experience of a culture or group, these stories become vital life-lines to a sacred past. “We have been here before,” the people can confidently say. “Let us remember; let our remembering bear us forward.” Some of the Psalms are almost entirely sustained acts of remembrance. Foundational memories recorded elsewhere in the Torah are set to psalmody not to be redundant, but to place them in the mouths of each praying generation. Including ours.
For the people of Israel, there is a power, a force, a God outside of nature and time. “The LORD sits enthroned abovethe flood,” the Psalmist sings. The Holy One is transcendent.
The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Phillipians 2:5-11 & Luke 2:15-21
After the long months of a pregnancy and the exceedingly dangerous experience of childbirth in the ancient world, bestowing a name upon a child must have been a deeply cathartic action. Even today, in the midst of the profound uncertainty that faces every new life, the moment a child’s name is first spoken aloud in his or presence signifies a new beginning rich with specific potential. The act of circumcision that accompanied – and still accompanies – the naming of a Jewish male child reminded the parents of a larger reality holding their new child in being: the ancient covenant between God and Israel. It situated the child on an axis of meaning both horizontally, in relation to his ancestors and his eventual offspring, as well as vertically, as a frail human creature in relation to the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Under normal circumstances, this was also the child’s first major wounding: the first shedding of blood.
A Name and a Wound. A sign taken upon the lips and tongue, and a sign written upon the body. In any ordinary human life, these are gifts of inexhaustible significance. At the same time they are utterly common, shared by countless others. The Holy Name of Jesus and the first precious drops of Blood spilled from his human body have become fountainheads of meaning for the Church throughout the ages. But contrary to the impression we receive from so many Renaissance paintings, the inner significance of these events would have been entirely hidden to the casual observer. The cosmic task initiated by God through the angel Gabriel is now brought to faithful, obedient completion by Mary and Joseph. But though it was spoken by the lips of an angel, the name Yeshua was, after all, an incredibly common name. The act of circumcision enfolded him into the common life of the Jewish people. The eighth day after the nativity of this special child was a very special day in the life of his human parents. But it was an utterly ordinary day for everyone else.
There was a time before the web of language was woven
before the rope of words
before symbols, those fine, strong threads, were spun –
it was long, long ago, but you remember.
Arouse your ancient memory and inward beholding,
You Homo Sapiens, You Wise One, to behold:
Before the web of language, the rope of words or the thread of symbols, fine and
strong, there simply was the bare Thingness of the Thing that bears the name “Fire.”
Stoke the embers of recognition, burning deep in our primordial night.
Unforgettably, in our bones, the barest imagination of it
warms fingertips, summons blood, quiets the mind, enfolds the gaze…
or prepares the legs to flee.
But now, You Child of God, search deeper, touch the bedrock of being, and
recollect another Fire:
Before smoke or ash or kindling
Before the first hearth or altar
Before the first offering
Before pure and impure
there was a Fire you cannot see or touch but that you are made to long for.
Before wrath or fear –
Before mercy or love –
Before death or judgment or heaven or hell –
Before the beginning and after the end: there was this Fire,
The Unquenchable Fire in the Heart of God,
a God Who is Love.
Like a Beaten Bell
Praying in Place Thick and Thin
Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE
My best friend and I went camping in Utah a few months before I came to the Monastery as a Postulant in 2014. The trip was a pilgrimage into a landscape wonderfully strange to us as east coast natives. I use the word “pilgrimage” here in a less-than-conventional sense. Our holy destination was The Desert – both literal and physical, but also inward and spiritual. In the desert, we hoped to taste something of God’s vast, untamed power, just as Jesus did, and just as generations of saints have done from the ancient Israelites to the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt. Perhaps because our eyes and ears were opened by this intention, God came to meet us everywhere we turned. Every horizon held our gaze and enlarged it, beckoning us beyond that vanishing point where endless blue sky and rippling red stone merged. As we hiked about this desert paradise, we wept or fell silent or laughed in wonder, as unself-consciously as the shooting stars or lightning that flashed in the night sky or the rainbows that shimmered in the rare desert rain. At so many moments, utterly surprised by the Creator, we could have echoed the sentiment of author Annie Dillard, writing from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains: “I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.”
In 2017 I undertook a quite different journey, but one with some remarkable parallels. Our community embarked on a pilgrimage – in the conventional sense – to England and Scotland, to see some of the sites that have shaped the course of Anglican history and the story of our own community. We prayed our way to and from Canterbury and Oxford, Durham, Lindisfarne, and Iona, sites famed for their holiness throughout the Western Christian world. I felt drawn deeper into God’s heart through my encounters with all of these places, but the Spirit surprised me in a much humbler place: as we ascended, one behind the other, the winding staircase of our Society’s old Mission House in Oxford, to arrive at a final landing and duck through a modest door into the “Founder’s Chapel.” This is an attic room, converted into a small chapel, where the very first Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist worshipped, day by day. It is entirely unremarkable in its outward personality. If I hadn’t known anything about its history, I would have found it quaint, but not much more. But because of who we are – men whose spiritual forbears laid hold of a strange and special calling here, who sang and knelt and preached and probably laughed and cried here – it was imbued with a holiness that made us weep and linger in love and gratitude for what God has done for us. With my eyes closed, I could almost see and hear those first courageous men whose hearts were set on fire and whose lives were offered to the glory of God as they listened to a man named Richard Meux Benson proclaim what God had done for him, and what God would do for them, if they only let him.
Now, I mention these two experiences because each place – the soul-enlarging terrain of Utah’s high desert and that soul-enfolding room at the top of the Mission House stairs – was for me a thin place. This term, originating in Celtic Christian traditions, designates a physical place where the line between Heaven and Earth is thought to be “thin”: the wall is more porous, the veil more diaphanous. It’s a term that has been in the vocabulary of contemporary spirituality for a number of years, and there is a simultaneously delightful and maddening lack of agreement about just what it means, depending on whom you ask. Questions, my own included, abound. Why should this “line” or “veil” be thinner in some places and thicker in others? After all, isn’t God present everywhere and in everything, as the One “in whom we live and move and have our being”?
Words are such fragile, brittle tools to communicate our deepest, truest, most powerful encounters with God. When the curtain is pulled back and we glimpse a flicker or flash of a reality that is both wholly other and nearer than our next breath…well, a stammer or a song or a long lull of silence will do. Word’s won’t, except as shorthand (and oh, how I love words!). The term “thin place” is a shorthand that many find helpful for pointing to a place where encounters with God are prone to happen. Such places disarm us, draw forth a deeper quality of perception from us, strip us of our expectations, and simplify or still our galloping thoughts. Deep forest or rocky ocean coastline, darkened churches flickering with candles or wayside shrines clustered with cairns are among the world’s frequently acknowledged thin places.
Alternatively, some places may leave us feeling, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “bleared with trade, seared, smeared with toil.” We feel heavier of heart; we feel less connected to God and our fellow creatures; the whispered revelations of truth or beauty are barely audible. Many people feel a heightened sense of this “thickness” in places where there is little green space, silence, or natural light (as in many urban centers) or in places where there is unceasing visual and auditory competition for our attention (as in stores, airports, or anywhere a wifi signal can be found).
And yet, we are here. And so is God. Wherever here happens to be, the possibility of reconnection with God is as close as our next breath. My experiences of thinness in Utah and Britain did unfold because I undertook those journeys with the seeking heart and open eyes of a pilgrim. But while numerous thin places can be found at the beginning, middle, and end of pilgrimage routes, going on pilgrimage to a far-flung place is not necessary for an encounter with God in the million-and-one thin places of the world. One could make an argument that the whole world – created, redeemed, sustained, and groaning for the consummation of God’s mysterious purposes – is a single thin place bequeathed to God’s children. But until we can wrap our heads and hearts around that wondrous truth, the specific, small, and particular places our wandering souls encounter as “thin” must be for us “the House of God, the gate of Heaven.” In this way, they are not unlike sacraments. Without participation in those “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” the awesome reality we know intimately as God in Christ would be far too large to see, taste, touch, or love in a personal way.
Our own garden patch or dining-room table or the corner where our easel stands hold the redolent grace of awakened possibility that dwells in thin places. I have come to believe that the more consciously we cultivate relationship with these particular “thin places,” however humble and ordinary, the more well-equipped our praying perception becomes at noticing God’s presence in the unlikely and challenging places. The “thickness” we anticipate at the airport security checkpoint, under the humming fluorescent lighting of the hospital hallway, in the drab office cubicle, or in the lowly but well-swept tent of a refugee camp is slowly eroded to its thinness in God’s sight. Through our trust in Jesus, the thickness of the cross becomes the thin place of resurrection – while our feet are still planted on Calvary.
The ancient Celts seem to have revered many, many thin places – and Christians in Celtic lands followed suit – but this is probably because they had a predisposition to look for them. And, by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit stirring in our depths, so too do we.
Br. Keith Nelson
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
“It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”[i]
In her masterful study of the book Genesis, Jewish scholar Avivah Zornberg notes that this is the first statement uttered by God in the creation narrative that does not immediately bring something into being. It is a brief soliloquy, an aside, a window into God’s thoughts. God does not act upon this thought directly. He creates the animals, and brings them to Adam to receive names. Among them, “there was not found a helper as his partner.” In his commentary on this text, the medieval rabbi Rashi proposes that God knew this would happen. He imagines Adam, the Human,as the one who seeks yet does not find, as God presents the animals to him already in pairs. At the conscious, painful realization of his human aloneness, sleep overwhelms him. Like God, Adam has been great in this aloneness. He has stood vertically, upright, among all the animals who creep, slither, and swarm horizontally upon the earth. But in greatness, aloneness, verticality, he has known no equivalent Other. For this to happen, Zornberg writes, Adam “must, in a sense, diminish himself” and “come to know the rightness of a more complex form of unity.”[ii] He falls, horizontally upon the earth, as if under divine anesthesia. Eve comes into being.