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Monday, March 20, 2017

Second Thoughts: My Bad (A3L)

"Waters of Life," sculpture at Chester cathedral.
Just when I thought I had exhausted what I would ever have to say about the Samaritan woman and Jesus, mystic Henri Nouwen, liturgist John Michael Reyes, and novelist George Saunders combine to throw me back into the cold waters of mystery and take my breath away with even more, sort of like the photo of this amazing sculpture 👉🏻 did.

I'm very leery of over-personalistic interpretations both of the scrutiny gospels and of the scrutiny themselves. But encased in this prejudice of mine is a gaping opportunity to oversimplify, throw babies out with baptismal water, and ignore important aspects of both story and ritual that are too important to gloss over. While I think it remains true that scrutinies are primarily concerned with social sin and structures of sin that provoke evil from us in ways of which we are not even aware, it is also true that scrutinies are celebrated to strengthen what is weak in us, and also have the explicit task of throwing the light of the gospel on the things we do, the way we act in life, so that we can see ourselves and our complicity in the sinfulness of the structures of civilization itself, so that we can be enlightened enough to turn around (i.e., repent) and start acting in the kingdom of God. Light and strength: these are the aspects for which I'd like to thank the above trio of spiritual gurus for reminding me that there are trees in the forest of insight. In fact, there are no forests without the trees. Let me be concrete.

In one homily I heard, the priest was talking about the thirst in the heart of the Samaritan woman, and quoted Henri Nouwen in a passage about loneliness from The Wounded Healer:
The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain... We easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know... that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence.
He didn't use all of that, but that's the idea. The church's preaching has pretty much over-personalized this gospel, and it might seem that invoking spiritual "loneliness" would follow that vector. But the way I heard it, and the sentiment was echoed by another homily that invoked Richard Rohr's well-known image of a "God-sized hole" in the human heart that can only be filled by the divine, the loneliness Nouwen praises as a gift is the human need for transcendence. We are never satisfied without a deep connection to a transcendent Other. A few of us find this in communion with one whom we recognize as divine, but I think that many more of us discover transcendence, at least in a nascent way, in connection with others, with the world of nature, in love. Once we are able to break out of the shell of our self-interest and become aware of relationships and communion, in short, in the experience of ecstasy, the loneliness begins to subside, and we tend to be drawn ever deeper into that network or matrix of divine presence that is the human family and the created universe.

It further seems to me that the formalization of this experience in the Christian community is the process of incorporation the culminates in baptism, confirmation, and eucharist. There are other ways to be connected and to experience transcendence to be sure, some for better (hooking up with a twelve-step program, for instance, joining a charitable or world-building organization like Doctors without Borders or the Peace Corps) and some for worse, like street gangs and nationalist organizations. I would judge the quality of the transcendence by the means to its goal. To the extent that the end of transcendence is self-gift, agapic love, it better satisfies the inner longing Nouwen describes as loneliness. To the extent that it defines itself not by a border between "us and them" but by a desire for encounter that goes ever outward and especially toward those unable to return the gift in kind, it is more genuinely transcendent. While these experiences may result in the growth and happiness of the participants, happiness is not their goal, but love. By not defining myself against others but as part of a grander "whole" that is all-inclusive and outward-bound, I find that the inner loneliness subsides.

For us, all of this has its origin and its destiny in God, just as the preface yesterday so beautifully stated:
"For when he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink,
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love."
God is, so God loves. God thirsts for love, so God creates. By Jesus's saying "I'm thirsty, give me a drink of water," Jesus pulls the woman in the story out of her ethnic and gender preoccupations even as he sets his own aside. Jesus knows that the divine fire is already burning in her because of her creation, and certainly because, the Jewish-Samaritan "narcissism of small differences" aside, she has learned the Torah as well, and wants to worship in spirit and truth. In this story of a micro-relationship between a woman and Jesus set at what might as well be the honeymoon suite at Hotel Yenta, the fourth gospel unleashes on the world a blueprint for peace and reconciliation, a blueprint which is being used to form and discern those who are being apprenticed in Christian life. The scrutiny celebrated in churches with catechumens this year wants to do exactly that: make them (and us) examine our "loneliness," and strengthen us to break out of our fearfulness and navel-gazing, claim the gifts we have been given to forge bonds with other people who need our gifts, and fill up that "God-sized hole" in our hearts with the God in whose image every human person has been fashioned.

Then I encountered a short blog post by John Michael Reyes, a liturgist and musician in the diocese of San Jose in California, in campus ministry at the University of Santa Clara. By the time I saw it, a dozen or so of my friends on Facebook were already lit up by his words, and by the end of the day nearly a hundred had read and delighted in his words. He began by posing the question, based on the gospel of the Samaritan woman, "Have you ever been so embarrassed that it paralyzed you?", he catalogued a series of events in his youth that culminated in depression and attempted suicide, became isolated and afraid. In this state, he found an echo of his former self in the woman in yesterday's gospel. False starts, false accusations, not being able to live under the scrutiny of the expectations of others. Seeing himself through the eyes of Christ allowed him to "come out" of the darkness he found himself in, and, like the Samaritan woman, he has been able through grace to work in initiation ministry and issue the same invitation to "come out" to others who seek fulfilment in Christ. He listens to the stories others tell about their lives, and helps them reinterpret their lives through the eyes of Jesus. Again, a different, more intimate take on the story itself, but it opens up the story in a new way in much the way that the Emmaus story does. Our personal story may have us arguing about our life in circles, seeing no particular trajectory or value in it. But when we say it out loud, and let Christ—including the Christ who is incarnate in the catechist or spiritual guide—interpret our story through the loving eyes and heart of God, our story is transformed and we find ourselves connected to the beating heart of the universe, and thus to others. Something new is finally possible.

Finally, over the last couple of weeks I had the extraordinary pleasure of listening to what might be the most wonderful book I've read in thirty years, since A Prayer for Owen Meany: I'm talking about George Saunders's luminous and compassionate novel Lincoln in the Bardo. On the off chance that you might take my advice and read this book yourself, I will not reveal plot points, no spoilers from me. But Saunders borrows the concept of the "bardo" from Tibetan Buddhism, and transforms it a little, to describe the place between death and "passing on" to whatever lies beyond. The Tibetan "whatever" is, assumably, reincarnation, but that doesn't seem to be what he has in mind. He seems to mean something like heaven, but for good reason he doesn't describe it in any detail, just in metaphor and promise.

The reason that it seems to appropriate here is that for the dead in the bardo, what is most precious is the illusion that they are still alive, and that they still may be able to get what they wanted in life an missed, or (in their cognizance) haven't achieved yet. What they want most is time to fulfill what is yet unfulfilled. And yet, each is so completely focused on what it is that they want that the perception of others in the bardo about them is that some element or elements of their appearance is exaggerated in a way that broadcasts, to their chagrin, what they don't have.

The entire novel takes place on the day when Lincoln's twelve-year-old son Willy is buried in a borrowed grave in a cemetery near the White House in February of 1862. It is Lincoln's shattering grief over the loss of his sweet son, the shambles of his wife's life, his horror over the first reports of the huge casualties of the battle of Fort Donelson and his mismanagement of the war that all come crashing down on the cemetery to interrupt the grousing and infighting among the dead at the cemetery. Based on the recorded visits of Lincoln to his son's grave under cover of darkness on that winter night, the novel imagines what the boy's spirit's journey might look like, how his love and his father's love might have impacted the souls buried around him, and how Lincoln might have been changed by his encounters.

For purposes of Lent, what interests me and what I want to tell you in the most general way I can is that what matters in the end is the ability to tell the truth about who we are, about acknowledging that we're actually dead, so that we can move on and embrace the possibilities that lie ahead of us. It is this truth-telling that enables us to get out of our dead selves and begin to do for one another, to begin to enter into relationships that are for other people and not focused on what we ourselves need.

For the souls in the bardo, what is actually the possibility of a different future appears to be death. And death it well may be, but it's the death of what passes for life among the dead. Stating it like that shows the contradiction for what is is: a doorway into life. This kind of change is not a fiction. Fiction offers us a metaphor for understanding reality, the world in which we find ourselves, the only world we know for certain, and the world Jesus was interested in changing. When he asks, in the story, the Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water, he shatters the silence and antipathy of centuries and generations. Chapter 8 of Acts of the Apostles (an episode of which we will hear on a Sunday late in the Easter season) will tell us the rest of the story: the Samaritans on hearing the preaching of Philip and others from the Jerusalem diaspora came in great numbers to faith in the gospel. A moment's risk at Jacob's well, a drink of water (one assumes) given to an enemy, opens up the way for the reconciliation of worlds.

Loneliness, paralyzing embarrassment, death masquerading as life and opportunity. Reyes points out, as others have, that we don't know the woman's name from the story. Why do you think that is? I suggest, as James Alison suggests about the "other disciple" with Clopas on the road to Emmaus, that it's an intentional omission, so that the person might be anyone. Anyone who, in this case, has a life whose false starts add up to six, or "infinite incompleteness;" anyone who is "paralyzed by embarrassment," or isolated by terror. Wherever we need to go to get away, the Seventh Husband, Mr. Right, is waiting there with flowers and chocolates. My story may not make sense to me, but when I hear the Stranger tell it, it sounds like a love story. A really good story. A story I belong in. A story with room for everybody. Suddenly, it seems my fear is transformed into something else.

Suddenly, all I can say is, "Let me tell you about someone who's told me everything I've ever done."