There is something powerfully therapeutic in the poetry of Saint John of the Cross. Reading his stanzas one will understand that in these mystical poems there is far more going on than the re-centering of self on God. John’s mystical theology helps us understand what it means to live ‘externally’ to authentic life. The more we discover the personal presence of God within, the more we feel that staying outside our genuine life is something real. Actually, this collective ebbing away from our own flourishing (as individuals and as culture) is taking place right now.
The Spiritual Canticle is about the soul’s quest for her love, the divine essence. The purpose of Christian life is not striving for a generally understood afterlife or heaven. Rather, our quest is for union with God’ divine essence, which union needs to be initiated already in this life.
Naming God’s invisible divine essence, as our personal destination is crucial. The gap between us and the divinity prompts the soul to observe that life is short, and a good part of our life has vanished. Our soul needs to give an account of everything, of the beginning of our life as well as the later part. Recognising what is ‘wasted’, the missing and totally ignored search for God’s love is the first crucial step in realising how externally we live to ourselves.
Contrasting our soul with the ‘absolute’ is pivotal. The longed for divine essence sheds light on how we - our world - live outside real time, outside life-bearing time; outside real love and real truths. That is why rereading the ‘essence-focused’ mystics like John of the Cross is, literally, of vital importance. Without this sense of God’s Personal (‘essential!’) presence in the human person, one can live only superfluously. Without reconnecting with his divine essence - through desire - we are forced to remain outside our own history. Sadly, this seems to happen to us today. We (our culture) are detached from the driving forces of our own history.
Greek philosophy names this living externally to our authentic self as fate. Fate mercilessly governs all with force, depriving humans of freedom, the ability to alter the course of their lives.
If Christian mystical anthropology has something to say amidst our present dealing with the ecological crisis, the climate change, it is the need to see what is essential. Without a personal reconnection with the divine essence, without reigniting our quest for the very source of life, we will never be able to go beyond the surface. That is why John’s programme with his fellow mystics is the only way to go beyond fate. This entry from fate to life, John teaches, is the God within! ‘It should be known that the Word, the Son of God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is hidden by his essence and his presence in the innermost being of the soul.’ As Saint Augustine put in his Soliloquies, ‘I did not find you without, Lord, because I wrongly sought you without, who were within.’
I cannot help thinking that the Eucharistic ‘mystical’ theology of the Catholic tradition soon will necessarily have a momentum. At present, it seems, this is the only counter-cultural movement which reclaims reality at the very centre of the human being. I cannot help thinking either that a reappraisal of the great Marian appearances is coming. Saint Catharine Labouré, Saint Bernadette Soubirous − Lourdes, Fatima, Mejugorje are about far more than ‘popular religion’. Soon we will be able to see these movements as genuine power engines of our European civilisation. These apparitions of Mary, and the Eucharistic miracles, becoming intense again in the nineteenth century, were attempts to correct the rational, scientific and utilitarian excesses of the age, which have put our culture into the sarcophagus of fate. We should not cherish the illusion that it can be opened up from within. That is why, the mystics’ obsession with the union with the divine essence is so timely.
Today we celebrate a saint with a tremendous willpower. He acts in the power of his fore-runner fellow prophet, Elias. Actually, the whole of the prophetic tradition is about manifesting God’s will in a world where diverse forces (‘wills’) threaten God’s world with deterioration. ‘he brought a sore famine upon them, and by his zeal he diminished their number…Who broughtest kings to destruction, and honourable men from bed?’
John stands in the line of these powerful prophets empowered by God’s will. In a sense, he continues the witness to God’s unshakeable will. ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and low…’. And again, we see John’s irresistible power of honesty and courage. ‘Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptised of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to feel from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance.’
Yet, John shows the other side of this extraordinary power. This is the willpower of love, capable of bringing about and assisting the greatest transformations. ‘And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answered and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came the publicans to be baptized and said to him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed to you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.’
One should notice, however, that this tradition based on ‘the will of God’ has got derailed in a world when will-power as such, at all levels, has fallen apart? Previously confident identities, strong ‘will-powers’, politicians, gender-identity, rule-abiding - are all just ebbing away. There is no longer the clarity of ‘yes and yes’, and ‘no and now’, there is no sense of final truth or clinging to principles. The developed world is just being melted down by endless distractions and de-centeredness. It seems that our soft-floating world is refusing the ‘strong God’, or anything which affirms Unity over against diversity.
That is why it is important to see and celebrate in John the Baptist the power of a loving God. It can shake the world. But more importantly, the emphasis is on the transformation which this powerful love can bring about.
And there is a further level to this. The saints whom we celebrate point to a Power full of integrity. They point to God, as a lowing power, as ‘a cultural superego’, genuinely serving us. Yes, like any narratives governing a culture, there were times when it was judged as controlling or harsh, feared, even, ‘punishing’. The role of the saints, I think, is to clarify the nature of this power, centred on love and self-emptying for us to keep our culture alive.
One should have no illusions. Our ‘softened up’ culture, this age of totalized uncertainty, is in the grip of the most powerful forces. We should posit it as ‘the shadow superego’ of postmodernity. The disintegration of all diverse wills, like space-debris, are being united into a new power. This is like in Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey the malfunctioning HAL 900 robot, artificial intelligence, in control of the space ship. Now, this new cultural superego (of political correctness?) with an iron-will makes its own demands, like the punishing God of the old despised age. With an equally forceful will, it enforces the reverse of past constraints, inertia and order. Like a ‘bad’ superego, it punishes, controls, and disintegrates human action. Its main danger, from the Biblical perspective, it severs humans from the sense and commitment to ultimate truth(s).
What is said is too black and white? Maybe. But if we won’t find a way to reconnect with the power of our abandoned Loving God, there is zero chance to tackle with crises, like the looming ecological catastrophe, which would require unified action - unified will.
Let the voice of John the Baptist awake us into the missing will-quest onto God.
This is a very tragic story of the ark of the covenant. The book of Samuel gives an account of how the ark was taken from Shiloh to the camp of the Israel in order to help them in the battle against the Philistines. ‘Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.’ Tragically, it does not help. They are defeated and slaughtered, and the ark of the covenant is taken by the enemy.
The most moving part of the account is the relationship between the ark of the covenant and Eli. His sons, Hophni and Phineas, were killed in the battle. When he heard what happened to the ark of God, ‘he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck bake, and he died.’
There is something profound surfaces in this tragedy. This is not recorded, we have to use our ‘sacred imagination’ to see beyond the surface of history. The loss reveals a ‘oneness’, a spiritual merge with the Lord of the ark. Eli’s daughter in law, who gave birth to her child on this tragic day (her husband is among the victims) further confirms the depth of this relationship with the ark of the Lord. ‘And she named the child I-chabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken…’
So we are confronted with the living relationship to the ark of the covenant. The ark represented such a Presence, to Whom all the desires, yearnings, pains and hopes of Israel could be poured out. We can imagine how Eli loved serving in the sanctuary. It was a place where personal pains, unanswerable questions, could be shared with God. Eli’s heart was so one with the ark of the Lord that it stopped when he heard of losing the heart Jewish revelation.
It might be a distant parallel, but when visiting Mrs Gillings, who is on the sick list of our parish, she gave me a small pious work, The Letter from Heaven. The book is devoted to the work of Rebbe Nachman, a nineteen century Chasidic rabbi. I would like to see this brief account on personal prayer as insight into Eli’s relationship to the ark of the covenant.
‘I read in Hishtopchus HaNefesh that through prayer and conversation with the Lord, one can attain all that one needs in life, both materially and spiritually. The book shows that the main way to come close to the Blessed God is specifically through personal prayer and meditation. This technique is called hisbodedus (lit. ‘isolation’) which means to speak personally to God in one’s native tongue. Rebbe Nachman says that one who engages with sincerity in this practice, for at least an hour every day, will merit to speak words that literally have holy and prophetic spirit. Hisbodedus is a great virtue and a true and valid way to come close to God. Every person should set aside for himself a certain hour during the day for this practice. During this time he should speak out his inner feelings to God in the language he normally uses for conversation. The reason for this is that it is easier to express oneself clearly in the language in which one normally speaks. A person should tell God everything in his heart. This includes regrets about and commitment to change past behaviour or attitudes and requests and supplications to God to merit to come close to Him. One who cannot find words to express himself to God should cry out and supplicate about his having become so estranged from God that he cannot find anything to say. He should plead for God’s mercy and grace that He should look favourably upon him/her and open up his mouth to speak his heart to God. Every person, according to the inward pain of his soul, which is so far removed from God, should express this pain… All of the great Jewish Tzaddikim achieved their spiritual excellence solely through this practice. Happy is the one who sets aside one hour each and every day for serious introspection and hisbodedus and the rest of the day he will spend in joy and happiness.’
One can draw the spiritual conclusions of Eli’s story. There is a profound power in pouring out our life to ‘ark of the Lord of the covenant’, His Presence. His Tabernacle, in full power, is present in our churches.
The First Book of Samuel begins with Hannah’s yearning for a child. Her prayer for a son is only seemingly the centre of the story. Her desire for being blessed with life speaks as much of the community’s yearning as of her personal request. ‘O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life…’’
For the local Christian community, as well as for the church universal, there is a great lesson in this. Do we have the desire to be blessed with life? Do we have expectations from God, do we expect a ‘blessed’ change? Do we yearn for God, do we yearn for partnership with our Redeemer? Is there a thirst in us to be connected with God, for conversing with Him through Word and the Sacraments? Do we have a burning desire to engage with the Sacred (also in the sense as the meaning of life)?
In this culture of scattered (and necessarily vanishing) desires, our primary task is to keep the culture of yearning for God alive.
Karl Barth says (the twentieth century theologian of ‘desire’ for God, as it were) that the time between the messianic advent (Christ’s work among the first disciples) and the final apocalypse (God’s ultimate return at the end of the world) cannot remain empty! This ‘middle time’, we might say, is the time for our yearning for God. However, this ‘messianic time’, fuelled by our desire for God, cannot be left empty. Our task is to yearn actively: it is a time for living and acting in a way in which we ‘recreate’ the original richness of Christ’s working among us.
So if we feel a lack, a gap between us and God, it is normal. This is an experience which prompts us to recreate, re-live, and re-enact of the messianic ethos of the early church. We will be blessed with life, like Hannah. Jesus is experienced as present and active again!
The feast of Saint Barnabas may make us think about the ‘saints of the church’. In the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, though it is a ‘Protestant’ payer book, there is a surprisingly long list of saints. They are called ‘black letter saints’, they don’t have special prayers unlike the ‘red letter saints’, like the apostles.
The Church of England, just like the main branches of Protestantism, was not terribly keen on the veneration of the Saints. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession decries their role as intercessors, yet encourages us to see in them, as an inspiration, what grace had done in their lives.
My point is not lamenting over the terrible loss, what has gone with the ceased veneration of saints. (Which was definitely a long-term own goal for the Protestant churches, and one of the key factors in their present inability to ‘reproduce their numbers spiritually’.)
Our focus of attention rather should be the amazing vitality of the early church, via their saints. Saint Barnabas, the apostle, was one of the ‘saints’. Of the fervent company of the early believers, one only is singled out by name, Joseph, a rich Levite from Cyprus. He, ‘having land, sold it and brought the price and laid it at the feet of the Apostles.’ They gave him a name, Barnabas, ‘the son of consolation’. He was chosen for an important mission to the rapidly growing church of Antioch.
Let us not overlook how inspired and motivated the early joiners were. The apostles imitated their Lord, and the impact of their Lord was inspiring, and visible; ‘flammable’ way. It seems that the early church is just one single vibrant web of imitation. Passionate people, burning for their cause, were encountered. And this ‘joyful and passionate’ conviction in the Lord called for followers who, in return, became infiltrated with their burning passion.
In our age of numeric decline of church attendance, it is worth giving a thought to this dimension of ‘passionate imitation’. It seems that a rediscovery of the saints as moral and faith examples is timing. Christianity is a religion of imitation. From the beginning, it was about picking up the passion and the joyful life-style from concrete people. Simply seeing them pray, being compassionate - passionately. Theology, leadership courses, theory (and particularly not complying with the demands of worldly politics and culture) are not sufficient by themselves. We need to find the missing link between Jesus’ passion for the Father, His compassionate imitation by the early church and saints, and our uninspired hearts.
Our culture is about weakening the ‘yes’ in us to revealed religion. As a consequence, the human self is so distracted and fragmented that it loses itself. We can no longer commit ourselves to the Word of God in a disciplined way. The person still might be interested in ‘spirituality’, but no longer capable of regular worship, and all the toiling it entails.
How did we get here? Why don’t we pay attention to understanding this fall? For this is a great fall indeed; that of ‘the European self’. What Saint Paul says in Hebrews, should be equally disturbing for the individual and culture as well. ‘For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened [in Christ], and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.’ (Hebrews 6,4-7) We should have no illusion, on a daily basis, through the sin of distraction, we are drifting away from our truer, redeemed, self.
That is why Ascension (the Lord’s return to Heaven) and Pentecost are so important. They posit a vertical axis, piercing through our permanent fall. This liberating direction can reverse our free fall in the sin of forgetting the God of revelation. ‘For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God.’ (v.7)
That is why the thought of the day on Radio4 was so consoling. There is an Exodus from the culture of distraction! David Wilkinson (Durham University) made us focus on the Eucharist as a powerful resource. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said something which was shocking to his environment. The communion bread and wine is available to all, not just to those who are already committed Christians. Many opposed this thought by saying that sinners first must repent. But Wesley believed that the grace of this meal could change anyone who is open to it.
There is an alternative to the unopposed forgetting of grace! Ascension and Pentecost is a powerful reminder that there is a sphere above our present sleep. The ‘axis of grace’, as our lost orientation, is there if we make an attempt to speak the truth.
The above said puts the ‘holy communion’ into a fresh light. Today, more than ever, eating the body and blood of Christ, is crucially important. As individuals and as a culture we must go to this table. We receive communion in order to the speak the truth. In order to be able to speak the Truth.
It is, highly probable, is a Wesleyan moment in culture. The Eucharist must be offered to all, marked by the culture of forgetting. For ‘that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.’ (v.8) Without enabling the Christian self, our culture’s barrenness is perpetuated.
This is also a ‘monastic’ moment for the individual. Step by step, the moments of distraction, has to be switched off. Everyone can become a monastery. A place of prayer and desire for the power of the Communion which heals.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..