Friday, November 30, 2012

The Holy Land—Coming Home

It’s more than a week now since I returned to Dorset from the Holy Land, and I’m still struggling to put into words how the trip has affected me.

In Christian terms, the phrase “Holy Land” is usually defined as the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, occupied by present-day Israel and Palestine. It is a Holy Land, though, in very truth, the stone of it, pinned, as it were, to the centre of all that has been made… despite all the centuries of pain and loss, the brokenness, all the politics, the violence, occupation, dispossession; despite all the hope and all the longing, this place is holy in a way quite unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

None of this is to be understood on a historical, nor a cultural level. The encounters with what must be God himself in this place have been unlike anything I’ve felt anywhere else. This is an unmediated land, where the light falls inescapably between then and then, in the place of now.

I had expected a weight of history, a sense of passing cultures—Canaanite, Israelite, Roman, Islamic. I had expected to be startled by a sense of place, moved by memories in the density of stone. I had expected a new angle on the Gospels, perhaps some illumination of the Messianic prophecies they claim to fulfil. I had not expected to walk straight into God.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.’ Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’

Exodus 33.17-23

We read this passage as it appears in the Lectionary, and somehow we don’t (well, I don’t) expect such an encounter ourselves. And yet this describes exactly how I felt in some places in that Land.

It is easy, somehow, to see how the early Church Fathers came up with the doctrine of the Trinity. The presence of Christ is so strong in places such as Jacob’s Well, where he talked with the Samaritan woman (John 4.1-54), or the place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where he restored Peter (John 21). The work of the Holy Spirit was plain in incident after incident, in the continual illumination of Scripture as we read our way through our journey, pausing to pray and to read at each stop on the way. But there were times, too, especially in the two afternoons we had to ourselves in Jerusalem, when I was able to be alone, where there was a crystal immediacy that would, save for its measureless mercy, have overcome the little human consciousness as the sun overcomes the brief flowers of the high Judean wilderness. Even then, though, it was difficult even to know what one had known, for lack of words.

I know that for myself I can’t be the same man I was before this trip: that the ancient tales of pilgrimage, the sense that the Holy Land is a place one must visit at least once in a lifetime, have all come true. I’m aware that all this might sound like hyperbole to those whose faith is rooted at home, in deep relationships, the steady pattern of worship. It might seem hyperbole even to some of my fellow pilgrims, or at least like speaking of what should remain hidden, and I’m not really sure myself whether I ought to be so public with these inner things. But I do know that the opposite is true. We are often far too reluctant to speak of God as real, or of what is sometimes called mystical experience as if it were a present possibility for the ordinary Christian like me…

We can have ideas of God, but God is not an idea. We can dream of God, not to mention encounter God in dreams, but God is not a dream. We can hope for, long for God, but God is not wishful thinking. God is real, far more real than we are, and somehow, and for some reason beyond our capacity entirely to understand, he has made this beautiful, tragic, dusty place somewhere he will, if we are even slightly open to him, become to us as David Jones once said, the “actually loved and known.”

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Holy Land

Off on pilgrimage again, this time to the Holy Land. If I find the chance, I may send a post or two from there. Otherwise, see you all in a fortnight.

Pray for me…

Saturday, November 10, 2012

God is far closer than I had imagined…

Your True Self is who you are in God and who God is in you. You can never really lose your soul; you can only fail to realize it, which is indeed the greatest of losses: to have it but not have it (Matthew 16.26). Your essence, your exact “thisness,” will never appear again in another incarnation. . . .

You (and every other created thing) begin with a divine DNA, an inner destiny as it were, an absolute core that knows the truth about you, a blueprint tucked away in the cellar of your being, an imago Dei that begs to be allowed, to be fulfilled, and to show itself. As it says in Romans (5.5), “It is the Holy Spirit poured into your heart, and it has been given to you.” . . .

John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), the Franciscan philosopher . . .called each soul a unique “thisness” (haecceity), and he said it was to be found in every act of creation in its singularity. For him, God did not create universals, genus, and species, or anything that needed to come back again and again to get it right (reincarnation), but only specific and unique incarnations of the Eternal Mystery—each one chosen, loved, and preserved in existence as itself—by being itself. And this is the glory of God!

Richard Rohr, excerpted from Immortal Diamond: the Search for Our True Self (due for publication February 2013)

The Holy Spirit is the un-thought-of member of the Trinity. He is truly God, yet he is in each of us, the thread that binds us, the light in our eyes—in the eyes of every creature (Psalm 104.27-30).

We cannot touch or see the Holy Spirit, as we cannot touch or see the thisness of ourselves. There are no tests for the presence of the Spirit. Sometimes when we are least aware of it, the Spirit is working most strongly in us.

God is all, and in all. When we know this, when we have seen it for ourselves, we are changed (Galatians 5.22,23) and sometimes hardly recognise ourselves, almost as Mary Magdalene failed to recognise her risen Lord in the dawn garden, till he spoke her name (John 20.16).

I have found these recent days most strange, and the patterned light shifts across the things that are, like leaf-dapples in a summer forest. God is far closer than I had imagined.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Today, I had an epiphany

[In] finding your True Self, you will have found an absolute reference point that is both utterly within you and utterly beyond you at the very same time. This grounds the soul in big and reliable truth. “My deepest me is God!” St. Catherine of Genoa shouted as she ran through the streets of town, just as Colossians had already shouted to both Jews and pagans, “The mystery is Christ within you—your hope of Glory!” (1:27).

The healthy inner authority of the True Self can now be balanced by a more objective outer authority of Scripture and mature Tradition. Your experience is not just your experience, in other words. That’s what tells you that you are not crazy. That God is both utterly beyond me and yet totally within me at the same time is the exquisite balance that most religion seldom achieves, in my opinion. Now the law is written on both tablets of stone (Exodus 31.18) and within your heart (Deuteronomy 29.12-14), and the old covenant has rightly morphed into the new (Jeremiah 31.31-34).

Richard Rohr, excerpted from Immortal Diamond: the Search for Our True Self (due for publication February 2013)

Today, I had an epiphany. At least, I suppose that’s a reasonable way to describe it, since I can’t think of another word…

I was looking, as it happened, at one of those red emergency call pulls, a red nylon cord with a dangling triangular, red, translucent plastic handle, when I realised that God was in everything—not just in some theoretical, theological way, but actually, tangibly present. Not, you understand, that everything is God, but that he is there, as much as there is space between the subatomic particles of all matter.

More than that, God is at the very heart of all that is, living and true, alive—oh, so gloriously alive—and that that life is love itself. More than that, it is the love of God in Christ that holds us, saves us, builds a bridge between our frail and temporary lives and that measureless permanence that gives to the interstellar chasms their being, as much as to a little red plastic emergency call pull, and to me.

Paul says there is “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4.6) and that Christ “himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…” (Colossians 1.17)

That is how it was. I have read and re-read these words in the New Testament, and they have been only words. Today, in a small red plastic triangle, they were plain experience, nothing more.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Unforgettable and shining…

Conservatives look for absolute truth; liberals look for something “real” and authentic. Spouses look for a marriage that will last “’till death do us part.” Believers look for a God who never fails them; scientists look for a universal theory. They are all on the same quest. We are all looking for an immortal diamond: something utterly reliable, something loyal and true, something we can always depend on, something unforgettable and shining.

There is an invitation and an offer for all of these groups from John’s very short Second Letter, when he writes: “There is a truth that lives within us that will be with us forever” (2 John 2). But most of us know very little about this, so we end up as St. Augustine admits in his Confessions: “Late have I loved you, Beauty so very ancient and so ever new. Late have I loved you! You were within, but I was without.”

Richard Rohr, excerpted from Immortal Diamond: the Search for Our True Self (due for publication February 2013)

We are all in the same boat, to begin with. I can remember this quest for “something unforgettable and shining” almost as far back as I can remember anything. Like everyone, I assumed it was outside myself, but I did see even from my early childhood that somehow it was what “made everything work” as I described it to myself.

Thinking it to be outside myself, as I grew up I looked for it in science, art, chemicals, philosophy, sex – everywhere but within. To be honest, I was afraid of what I might find, despite the increasingly reckless experiments I tried.

Gradually, though, I began to find it: not through an increasingly desperate and extreme search for something beyond myself, but truly within, gently, quietly, through prayer and contemplation—not looking for “It” but looking for mercy, for grace; then “the truth that abides in us and will be with us for ever” found me.

It seems to me that only in simultaneously realising that the hollowness, the brokenness, the pain of the world are reflected in me, and that the only response to them is love, however apparently helpless and wounded such loving renders my own heart, that the “unforgettable and shining” opens at the heart’s own core, and reaches out to all creatures, every one.