It seems that our churches are going to have a new task soon. Actually, this task was always there as ‘old task’… The local churches, with the spirituality of their communities have the call to become resources ‘in regaining the real’. The ‘still images’ that our churches offer - statues and images of saints, the order of the the church, its peace and the order of liturgy - powerfully counteract the restlessness of our culture. Indeed, it is true, that among ‘madly flickering images’, in the constant flux of screens of the internet, it is impossible to acquire a stable identity. This stability through and in Christ what is at stake.
It does not mean that the technologies of the modern world should be undone. It does not mean that in the medium of the internet (as a new master-medium of history) stable identity is not possible. But it means that the human heart must declare and recognise a higher reality than the technical possibilities of our age. By stating that our heart belongs to the ‘kingdom of God’, is an important way of framing and putting a constraint of the powers that organise our life. If this submission to God does not take place, by virtue of its nature, our submission to the powers of the age necessarily takes place. Then, assimilation to technology cannot be postponed.
It is against this background of identity quest, that John Henry Newman’s sermon, Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness, comes strikingly alive. Holiness is that freshly understood category which severs us from the powers of our cyber-age. This desire, which can be instilled into us only in the church, connects us with what is real in human identity. Outside this desire to imitate God’s love, there is no stable identity. Without it there is no power to resist, to offer alternatives to the blind fates which our cyber world offers (forces upon us) through its non-divine algorithms. Facebook, google, ‘Cambridge Analytica’ shall be watching over us, instead of a genially liberating Divine Gaze. They will pulverise us into their desires, and their choices. Their Creed.
This task of regaining the ‘real’ stems from Saint Paul’s warning: ‘…The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but might through God pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thinking that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. ’
Newman’s homily is a fascinating read - about our Creed. He offers - from the distance of almost two hundred years - a resource in revaluating our identity both as Christians and as a church. He reflected in an age similarly shaken by the tectonic forces in culture. Actually, we can detect the emerging ‘cyber-reality’, the dawn of our present times, with the multiple options to create an identity outside God, regardless how lasting and real they are.
The two readings, again, like the two complementary wings of an altar. On the left, we can see the hazardous journey of faith, with its failures. We can witness to the disintegration of faith: part of the people become, literally, pagans. Through deportation, or through violence of war, they disappear from the scene of faith-history. On the right, we see Saint Paul’s life shared with the communities he visits. ‘Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us… We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.’
In our churches and communities, whenever we read the apostle’s letter, we have Paul as our guest. The same applies to all the sacred writers of the New Testament. Through the words we read aloud, we have the apostles, the evangelists, and the first Christians as our guests. In this welcome, they bring us life and strengthen our identity.
This exchange of words is also the way for us to live in real time, outside the time of idols. Actually, these encounters through the words of the Gospel help us to define ‘idols’ in the following way. Idols, idolatry stands for something that is attempting to remove us from salvation-history. Idols (try to find out what are those of our own age!) aim at severing us from that sacred history, which has a purpose (its telos) as ‘the Lord Almighty’. It seems that idols can be impersonal forces too, ‘trends’ in the natural flow of time in our culture. Thus, idols can affect us passively - however, with the same outcome. Forgetting of our sacred origin, and sacred destination.
‘And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with and an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.’ In one word: my guests.
Just as Saint Paul - and the Gospel with its focal point, Christ - is now our guest through reading him in faith.
The Second Book of Kings is like flying over the landscape of history. There is a monotonous repetition of kings with faith in the true God, and kings who gave in to idol worship thus bringing destruction to their people and themselves. When there is glittering hope that things can become stable and faithfulness in God steady then a total fall comes. It is a said journey, showing what we, humans are as history, staggering between genuine prayer and destructive idol worship (our achievements).
What happens to Zedekiah is heart-breaking. He is defeated by Nabuchadnezzar king of Babylon. ‘On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine prevailed in the city, and there was no bread for the people of the land. And the city was broken up, and all the men of war fled by night… and the king went the way toward the plain. And the army of the Chaldees pursued after the king and overtook him in the plain of Jericho: and all his army were scattered around him. So they took the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon to Rilah; and they gave judgement upon him. And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon.’
History, when we make a mistake at its crucial turning point is cruel. The birds eye view what the Bible offers on the human condition, does contain our present historical landscapes, too. May be, there is a similar siege to our cities and culture. May be, ‘Babylon’ is analogous to the threat of the ecological crisis which our idol-worship inflicted upon us.
If there is no conversion and change of heart (see the repentance of king Manasseh who was brought back from the exile to rule again in Jerusalem, 2 Chronicles 33), history is cruel. Though there is hope, but if that hope is not toiled for - the same cruel landscape of events will unfold. Without the rediscovery of the life giving power of the Redeemer, there is no change of the course of events. Babylon (the empire of consumption) is cruel, just as our self-created idols are. Spirit of Christ, awaken us!
I was always intrigued by the different forms of charismatic prayers. Particularly ‘the speaking in an unknow tongue’ puzzled me.
It seems, Saint Paul’s emphasis on the ‘rational’ dimension and on ‘understanding’, as the desired outcome of the process is highly enlightening. He insinuates (confirmed by his own practice) that there is a translatability between speaking in tongues and praying (and listening) with understanding. As he puts it, in the first case ‘For he that speaketh in an unknown language speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries… For if I pray in unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.’ In the second case, he ‘that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknow tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.’ Then, he confirms that there is a transition from the first into the a speech of ‘understanding’. ‘I will praye with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.’
If this transition is possible, surely, when the mysterious inner experience is turned into ‘edifying speech’, our newly emerged ‘understanding’ will preserve the experience of the mystery which has given an intelligible expression. I do believe that the presence of the two forms of prayer is thoroughly practical in the history of the church. If we slightly adjust the overtly individual focus on the ‘praying in tongues’, we find striking examples of the above synthesis.
Just as an example, John Henry Newman shows that in-depth prayer in the Spirit produces profound ‘understanding’. What we can see in him is how from ‘the prayer in spirit’, a mystical and rational anticipation of the church’s future surfaces. The mystical element in his prayer life is the prophetic anticipation of the future of his church and culture itself.
Now that he will be canonised by the Roman Catholic church, it would be worth putting his theology into our wider, Biblical context. He prayed and reflected in age of profound transition akin to today’s enormous changes. As his biographer, Meriol Trevor highlights, Newman emerged from a nation ‘profoundly disturpbed by the repercussions of the French Revolution and the birth pangs of industrialism.’ He ‘was born with the nineteenth century and died at the beginning of its last decade. He was to see the whole face of his country change, and he was one of the few who foresaw something of the century to come. Not that he as a prophet of event, but his profound insight into the conflict of ideas behind the transformation enabled him to forecast the trend things were likely to take. His was the century of evolutionary theories which shattered men’s idea of a static world, just as the astronomical theories of the sixteenth century shattered the image of a static earth, set between external poles of good and evil.’ (Meriol Trevor, Newman’s Journey, Collins, Fontana Library of Theology, 1974, p.11)
So what type of mystical and rational prayer emerged in Newman’s oeuvre? In the Pauline sense, in a changing world, his focus was the church itself. His focus was the whole of the life of the church. Seeing in context, his was a contribution to the collective body of prayer for the Church. Newman’s love for Catholicity, and linking his Church of England to the life of the Catholica makes most sense on this horizon. The individual dynamics of conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his refusal in his originating community are only the shell. The core is that mystical-prophetic concern to gain insight to the ‘future’ of the wider Christian community and share his vision of the need ‘to give the Articles (of Protestantism) a Catholic interpretation.’ ‘It is a Catholic duty that we owe both to the Catholic Church and to our own, to take our reformed Confession in the most Catholic sense.’ (Tract 90, Conclusions, p.83.)
Newman’s ‘journey of prayer’ is timing regardless of confessional boundaries. Paul’s programme on mystical prayer, and making the transition into ‘understanding’, is just as timely as it was in his age. Reality being merged with and altered by the emerging cyber realities, is a new Newmanian moment for re-thinking Catholicity and anticipate its future life. As Paul says, ‘Seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church!’ ‘Seek together’ with Newman’s heritage as an active resource for contemporary reflections on what is happening to us and our sense of the Catholick.
Reality has changed enormously with the arrival of our cyber age. It seems that the celebration of the new excitements and stimuli that the virtual spaces of the internet and social media bring is not really compatible with the nature of faith in the One God. The soul in this suddenly changed climate feels confused and exhausted. The permanent state of distraction into which she is forced is against the nature of fixing the heart on the one true essential, the oneness of God/Love.
Yet, are we left defenceless and alone with an unmitigated tiredness of the soul? The Psalms, these cornerstones of our daily prayer come to us with a striking redeeming power. They are the church’s own experience of a multi-layered-polyphony. The 150 Psalms are a graced alternative to the new diversity which bombards the human psyche from all directions. Praying through the graced polyphony of states of the human psyche, with all its wounds and joys, is that contemporary space from which to counteract our reality increasingly becoming groundless. The richness of divine responses to all forms of human need will strengthen us, in order to keep us in unity with ourselves. ‘Turn us again, O God: shew the light of thy countenance, and we shall be whole.’ (Psalm 80,3)
Controversial themes (Monday and Tuesday after Eight Sunday After Trinity; 2 Chronicles 26 and 1 Corinthians 11,2-end)
The Bible (when we receive it with the sacraments) provokes us. Facing its utmost realism, it wants to awaken us from the delusions of the age. I am surprised how ‘politically incorrect’ are its messages. If one reads the Bible continuously, under the discipline of the Lectionary and not by random, the contrast with the naïve and idealistic programs of the present status quo is shocking. One of the most appealing features of Biblical revelation is the distance it offers from our present. Actually, God’s word prompts in us an honest thinking about the powers of the age which govern our lives.
The first inconvenient message of these days’ readings is the relationship between ‘secular power’ and the sacred power governing organised religion. Uzziah, though he was a good king according to Old Testament standards (‘he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord’), his ‘secular power’ led to conflict with organised religion. He was a man of technology and engineering. (Though, it is telling that his interest in technology was mainly ‘developing arms.’) ‘And he made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal. And his name spread abroad.’
The interesting bit in the story is how his engagement with ‘military technology’ altered his character and relationship to power. ‘But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the Lord his God, and went into the temple of the Lord to bur incense upon the altar of incense.’ We should not overlook the disquieting historical parable when reading of the king’s ‘particular conflict’ with the priests of the Temple. He wants to do what the they do, namely, performing ritual duties preserved to the ordained priesthood. Uzziah entered the temple, and Azariah, the priest went after him, and warned him: ‘It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense; go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed.’
It is an alarming insight into what happens to power itself when it comes under the spell of military power and technology. Sooner or later it wants to interfere with the realm of the sacred and instil its own (transformed) ethos into worship. Why? That its abuse of power, and its changed nature by these external idols, might remain unnoticed… If Uzziah succeeds, he is seen by the religious establishment and the people as a pious king, who is on top of it is also powerful.
Christians should be alert about ‘what is saint’, ‘what is sacred’, and let the volcanic power of divine questioning erupt into their topsy-turvy age. Is it really a pure accident that political power encroaches time and again on traditional religious convictions and rituals? The ‘Uzziahs’ of the present age are burning piously the incense of a new canonisation when they speak and teach on gay relationships, same sex marriage, trans-gender agendas, information- and green technologies, etc. This progress, as all forms of progress, needs to be celebrated. And today’s Uzziahs are also celebrated as ones who ‘do the right thing.’ And soon the general synods of the churches will be burning the same incense of the new canon and will be internalising the same narrative.
Unfortunately, the stubbornly monotonous cataloguing of history in the Bible (1 and 2 Kings) is not user-friendly at all, and deliberately not. Christians must be on their guard and discern the emerging prophetic (sic!) hubris of worldly politics supported by the emerging new technologies and their industries. I honestly wonder how the ever increasing commitment to new arm races, trade wars, 5G technologies, and the new forms of entertainment and consumption can lead to the desire to ‘entering the sanctuary’, and finally, take control. One can envision, in the Biblical fashion, that on behalf of progress what will happen to those voices who resist. To paraphrase Roger Scruton, by the new architects of our age they ‘will be regarded as enemies, reactionaries, nostalgists, who are impending the necessary march of history. They are to be removed from positions of influences and power’ (Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope).
The controversy does not end here. Saint Paul’s 1 Corinthians 11,2-end, is another classic stumbling block. Readers of the Bible today are conditioned to have felt ashamed over the ‘sexist’ words of the Apostle. ‘For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman for the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame on him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given for covering.’
(The pairing of a new testament reading with an old testament one is a key here. In setting up the church’s lectionary, the function of the first reading is to rescue us from the immediate hermeneutics of this age. From the trans-historical perspective where God is reading the sequence of events of human history, the labels of political correctness are but flee-floating objects in a state of weightlessness.)
What if Paul’s words are not sexist at all but the profoundest insights into the ultimate dynamics of the human psyche? What if, instead, Paul indeed emerges as not simply the defender of the Faith, but that of our ultimate ‘human ontology’? His programme on the perspective of faith (a proper distance from the straight-jackets of the all time ‘political correctness’) is in defence of difference. Paul, actually, has been defending those polarities and distinct qualities of life, which keep life itself moving. There is a power-field of existence which is aimed at diversity and unity based on interrelated differences. Paul is defending a dialectic here, which needs to be safeguarded against homogenising powers. If the created poles of existence (manifest in the man and the woman for example) are melted into sameness, the impetus, the driving force, the desire for life is lost. The dynamic image of God becomes a static picture in us, an idle, orientation-less ‘dot’ of a past existence.
On the practical level, Paul is dealing with down to earth banalities. Women are women, men are men, without being lost to ideological explanations (‘sex is a social construct’, ‘everything is a process’, etc.) It is not about ‘possession’, who is ruling over whom, or what and who is constructed by whom. On these levels, Paul might be judged by the judges of this age to be politically absolutely incorrect. Yet, Saint Paul is a hundred percent correct about life itself, with capital L and capital C. It seems that unlike the new architects of our age, the constructors and licensed merchants of new (and yet un-liberating) utopias, Paul sticks to the desire of life. For, and let us be mildly apocalyptic, the ultimate stake of whether we judge Paul’s words ‘sexist’ or liberating, is this. If we act as beings created in the image of God, we don’t want to lose desire (Freudian, sexual, divine as you like it) for an existence based on life sustaining polarities. And this is despite the fact that that our culture has traded the desire for life for desire for artificial life. We are just in the midst of this process. Sadly, this is what always happens wherever people submit to ‘engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal’). It seems, no one is interested in the fact that our first world, the cunny people of Europe, inventors of high tech, illusionary and unsustainable ‒ yet worshipable! ‒ futures have lost, as a race, our ability for biological reproduction. And we are very good at unmasking this fact amidst the narcissistic celebration of consumption. Full stop.
That is why, the independence of the church in the ‘age of (homogenising) political correctness’ is the most timing issue surfacing in the continuous reading the Bible. In this age of newly ignited obsession with space-travelling, it can easily turn out that the real space-journey is between our present self, and our genuine, Biblical self, envisioned by God. To be more precise, this is the journey through our present emptiness towards the star of Redemption, when the Psalms reveal and teach us the desire to become our genuine self.
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!
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..