During my first year or so of seminary, a good friend and I had a running “argument,” which simply went like this: he would say, out of the blue, “scripture,” and I always would respond with “theology.” A gentle ribbing argument grounded in my affection for the seminary’s theology professor and because I lived and breathed theology—“faith seeking understanding”—St. Anselm’s definition that summed up my life; grounded in my friend’s love and knowledge of scripture . . . and grounded in the both of us being smartasses.
As a Master of Arts in Religion student, I had the option to take a theology class before the MDivs did; I started backwards, by taking Theology II first, with permission. I also took the scripture class with the MDivs. And theology is grounded in scripture, as my friend took loving pains to remind me. But theology was always first for me.
This past Thursday was the feast day of another of my theology heroes, Thomas Aquinas, who came to mind as I was thinking about the word “caritas,” which is the theme of the lovely anthem our choir sang this evening, Ubi caritas. Often, caritas is translated as “charity,” which then gets construed as “benevolent giving.” But I love Thomas’ definition—“friendship of man for God.” I’m going to leave aside a deep discussion of the rest of Thomas’ argument for this evening—his Summa is one heck of a rabbit hole.
Instead, I’d like to reflect briefly on this evening’s readings, in which we have examples of faith seeking understanding—Paul, who is trying to help those in Galatia understand this new faith, this new way of life and relationship with God; and Mark’s parable of the blind man combined with the question that Jesus asks of the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” That question still resonates with us as we seek, with faith, and sometimes without, what our relationship is with God. I think of St. Jack’s—better known as C. S. Lewis (feast day is November 22)—lament that friendship is a lost art.
Mark, Paul, Thomas, and other theologians through the millennia have written volumes on scripture, trying to understand. But as one who loves words and wondering and considers herself a theologian, I just want to say that in this moment as we gather in friendship with God and with each other, I don’t wonder, I know, here God is.
FYI, near the mid-point of his first semester of theology, my friend confessed that maybe I was right, that theology almost trumped scripture, almost. Friendship, what a gift. Just read scripture–David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. . .
is like trying
to hold a spark
from a burning
and I come home,
wreathed and warm, smelling
of charred balsam.
“That’s the thing about broken hearts,” he said, with a quirk of his lips. “They can be mended, made whole again.”
She smiled, and it lit the darkness.
“Why did you prostrate yourself during the prayers?” I ask my friend after his ordination into the priesthood a couple of Saturdays ago, as we’re walking to a pub for a celebratory beer (we are Episcopalians, after all). My voice is level (I think) as I ask.
“It’s an ancient practice,” he responds, “and besides, I could just lie there and listen to the prayers.”
“Oh. I know of prostration at other times, but haven’t seen anyone do it at an ordination before.” I can’t remember if I told him that it was my favorite part of the service and said that it had made me a bit teary-eyed, trying to be nonchalant, unwilling to show him exactly how much that moment meant, or if I did in fact tell him it was the most profound and intense moment of the service for me.
I’ve seen a number of friends ordained into the transitional and vocational diaconate, and prior to July 11, one ordination into the priesthood. At that particular ordination, I saw a visible transformation as the bishop laid hands on that other friend as he was clothed in priestly garb. An outward sign of inward grace, perhaps the Holy Spirit descending, the ontological change joked about at seminary—I don’t know, except that the sensation was wholly unexpected. That transition was transcendent in a sparkly, numinous way. And having experienced it once, I earnestly (and naively) awaited witnessing the same for this friend at that point during his ordination.
So the service begins after the procession, and my friend is in his alb, looking pretty much as he did when last I saw him at graduation in May. The Presentation goes quickly, and next is the Litany of Ordination–the prayers on behalf of the candidate. I fiddle with the Order of Service, crumpling the sheets slightly while looking for the right page, intending to follow along, all the while anticipating the big moment coming up later in the service. I could go on liturgical autopilot for a few minutes.
And then . . . as we stand and as the bishop begins, my friend is not standing, is not on his knees, but prostrate, his head resting on his crossed arms, and suddenly now is the transcendent moment, for me anyway, sans sparkles. I have no voice to join in with the rest of the body as they respond to the bishop’s petitions with “Lord, hear our prayer” or maybe it was “Lord, have mercy,” because tears have started down my cheeks. My heart was on its knees. . .
Frankly, for the longest time, I could not see how the posture of my body could affect my ability to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit or to discern God’s will for me. I knew my heart was pretty open as it was. On Maundy Thursday, after having been “banished” from my home parish during Lent (so that I could experience the wider Church as part of my discernment), and after having visited the Seminary of the Southwest’s campus, I stretched myself out before the cross, after the agape meal (a story in itself) at St. Luke’s in Cedar Falls. I tried to lay open my heart.
Those who know me know my weakness for the Fool, especially Nick Bottom, the ass-headed (figuratively and literally) rude mechanical of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the literary character whom I most love and with whom I most identify. (My love of Puck, the Trickster, is another story). In Act 4, Scene 1, Bottom’s otherwordly, I mean otherworldly, vulnerability brings tears every time to my eyes. His fumbling, earnest, unashamed attempt to articulate his participation within the body of fairies as he seeks to describe his experience with Titania, Queen of the Fairies, has wound itself around my heart: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”
In seminary, I could often be found stretched out in the breezeway, on the ledge of a brick wall, on the library floor, or even on the floor during class (I was roasted for my “planking” habit at Last Gathering the year I graduated). Reading assignments or research for my thesis, a notepad, pens, pencils, spread out around me when on the breezeway or in the library (scaled back slightly if in class). An arm served as a prop for my head, hand tucked under my chin—my favored learning posture. I eagerly read biblical scholarship, scripture, or best of all, theology.
Bottom mangles a quote from older scripture that Paul, that fool of fools, uses in his letter to the Corinthian house churches (1 Cor 2:9). Paul, who opened his heart again and again, to Christ and for Christ, writing of the body of Christ for the body of Christ. Did a part of him always remain prostrate on the road to Damascus?
. . . and so, there is my friend, lying prone, heart open, as he is prayed for by the rest of the body of Christ present that day in that place, in a human gesture of surrender and obedience as he becomes a priest. My own body stands, but my heart is aware of God’s presence, grateful for fools who are translated by, and who translate God’s love.
companion on my worry
stone seat, here and now
Right now, I feel like a ball. God has gotten me out of one of those machines you find near grocery store entrances–one of those little super bouncy balls, brightly colored, lots of fun, and hard to resist. I’ve been thrown and am now, well. . .bouncing. . .all around the room, striking first one wall, then the floor, then the ceiling, back to the floor, then the opposite wall. Words ricochet with me–ballein (Gk., to throw), parable, story, energy, restlessness, passion, naming, words, voice, peace. Question marks and exclamation points zip along, too. Maybe an Oxford comma.
How do you feel these words: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, NRSV)? I always feel such hope when a priest blesses me, blesses the people, with them at the end of the Episcopal liturgy. And I wait to be calm and still.
And then I despair (too strong a word, perhaps), at times because I go to a place like Parable, and I hear a voice suggesting that the people take a moment or two of silence and deep breaths in order to bring themselves to a place of calm and stillness, and I hear a man talk about calm and stillness and that, with practice, that place can be found, that pool of still water, deep and cool, with maybe a hint of movement–pavonine like sunset or sunrise–and I know that will not be me. . .I’ve taken the lessons of James T. Kirk too much to heart, even though I much hoped to be Spock.
And I hear words and assertions and they collide and ricochet with other words in my head that I’ve just read. And God has just used a stock pot again to get my attention–metaphorically, at least, this time. And I can’t be still; I don’t want to be, not with so much to ask, of God, of myself. Not when there’s so much. . .to see, to do, to know. So many voices to hear and to love. . .
Someone told me tonight (really last night, but, hey, my poetic license hasn’t yet expired) that he loves my passion, my desire to name things, my desire to see into the heart and name things, and that God loves that, too. The power of words. . . my passion–
I’m drawn over and over, desire and need pushing all else to the side, to a rushing, bubbling, clear (not without its flotsam and jetsam of trash and green blush of algae) creek–rushing eagerly, unashamedly to leave my dress shoes at the bank, to marvel as I step into the swift, cold current. Marvel at the glass-green deeps (yes, I know it mostly connotes the ocean depths) and the sand-gold shallows; marvel at the sensation of rapidly flowing water over my toes and swirling around my ankles as I make sure to keep my skirt out of the wet. Why agitation to sweep aside agitation. . .How do I name this desire?
What’s in a name, after all? Peace, by any other name. . .
I think I may have dropped the ball metaphor. . .
“The devil is in the details”–an old saying that popped up in various ways as I prepared my sermon for today. A difficult phrase for a detail-oriented person to hear. Theologians, psychologists, and pastors have weighed down today’s gospel lesson through centuries of worrying about the details. We can be easily consumed by details, whether in reading scripture, or in our daily lives. They can bedevil us, weigh us down so that we cannot see beyond ourselves.
We don’t have time today for details, and so I simply pray that we hear what’s at the heart of this reading: relationship with each other and with Jesus Christ. Through this brief story of Mary and Martha, we are reminded to let go of the details, at least enough to focus outside ourselves, to see Christ in our lives, in ourselves, and in each other.
The devil is in the details–when we focus on them to the exclusion of all else, we close ourselves off to Christ. Let us instead chose “the good part,” the part “that will never be taken away:” our connection with God’s love through Jesus Christ , our Lord and savior, who redeems us despite the details of our lives. Let us be present to Christ in our lives and in ourselves and to each other. Amen.
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"Beauty is the source of all things..." Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
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