Monday, January 22, 2007
And suddely understand
That you, Deep Night,
Surround me and play with me,
And i am stunned...
Your breath comes over me.
And from a vast, distant solemnity
Your smile enters me.'
(Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Vast Night")
Here's a secret - the dark side of life is our salvation. I wise old priest just told me this with most of his breakfast still round his mouth. Old in years and carrying the scars of many a struggle, sill weary with his fight with the bottle this beautiful imperfect man makes me smile and think every morning when we share a coffee and a story of two. So this morning his wise words were that unless we become aware (that darkness is our salvation) of this fact, we are doomed to beware of it.
In his famous poem, 'The Dark Night of the Soul', St. John of the Cross suggests that our spiritual journey culminates in a freedom that allows us to live beyond the 'imprisonment of our own obsessions'. At the end of the poem he expresses this by saying:
'I abandoned and forgot myself...
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.'
In my experience though it is not always easy for us to distinguish between a moment of dying and the moment of freedom given in new birth, and I think what my wonderfully eccentric friend was pointing towards was that our culture has a kind of collective blindness because it avoids the shadow side of life, and so consequently a pervasive loss of meaning ensues. He has gone off to walk his dogs now, though in truth I think they walk him...
For some reason this has got me thinking about epiphany, because this too has its dark side. I had a funny conversation the other day with someone whose theology is shall we say a little more to the right than mine. This person was talking to me about the 3 kings who brought wonderful gifts to the Christ Child. I couldn't help myself (I know I should try harder) but I said, yes but you know they weren't kings, and we don't really know how many of them actually travelled. They 'were' kings she replied, slightly indignant. What followed was a rather awkward bit of dialogue where I (without success) suggested that a better translation of the word 'Magi' was wizard or sorcerer, and that these strange visitors were probably more Tolkeinesque than we would like to recognise. Interesting isn't it that God should use a bunch of wizards (pagans) from somewhere probably around Baghdad to bring such important gifts for his son...a bit of a paradigm shift one could say.
I reckon Epiphany is a sort of paradigm shift. The long, slow history of Israel's relationship with God gave rise to advances in religion, gradually displacing polytheism and henotheism as the dominant models of the divine. It provided a platform for progressive political reckoning and drove forward advances in ethical reasoning, raising real concerns for truth and justice. But the framework in which it dealt with all these issues guaranteed that the solutions offered to the problems of human existence were so much wall-paper over the cracks of our godlesseness, sticking plasters over the wounds of our nature.
The cornerstone of Old Testament thinking thinking is obedience to a powerful lawmaker. Such thought builds an image of God that inspires awe and reverence - but fails to save us. It makes justice a matter of doing what you are told for fear of the consequences rather than doing what we should for love of our neighbour, and thereby undermines the very freedom that makes us human. And worse, it drives those who would be truly free to aim at the wrong goals. Sinful humans seeking to become like God become potent dictators with power and control.
So it should come as no surprise that, at a critical stage in the history of Israel, at the right moment, one man should turn the world upside down. God arrives, not with new improved laws designed to enforce a new way of acting human, but to demonstrate once and for all a new way, the right way, of being human. The lust for power is transformed into the commitment to service. Obedience to the law is replaced by integrity of the heart.
People making New Year's resolutions seems to reflect the desire for paradigm shifts in our individual lives. And we know how often they fail. I grew up with Dr Suess's 'The Grinch that Stole Christmas'. And I am still moved by the moment when that poor, twisted man stands on the mountain top, having achieved the pinnacle of his ambition, surrounded not by his own things, but possessing the property of all the people below. As the people arise with the dawn, and gather in the square, and sing for joy at the birth of the Christ-Child, something clicks. Epiphany happens. The Grinch's heart grew two sizes that day.
As a community, we still have our niggling problems but there are signs perhaps less dramatic than turning water into wine, but nevertheless signs of something new, paradigm shift, epiphany, call it what you will: Strange wizards from Baghdad bringing good news - our dark night of the soul becoming the very thing that sets us free......