Memento Mori

St-Francis-Contemplating-a-Skull-by-Zubaran1“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” — Psalm 90:12

In the Middle Ages, many Christians practiced a spirituality summed up by the Latin phrase, memento mori: remember that you die. Our forebears figured that cultivating an awareness of death was the best way to keep themselves bracingly honest about life and deeply engaged with the world.

The proximity of death taught them that nothing is secure or permanent. The democracy of death taught them that power and privilege mean nothing in the grave. The finality of death taught them that on this side of the grave they might as well risk everything.

Such realism, they believed, was essential for grounding an authentic love for God and neighbor. But it doesn’t come naturally to us, we have to work at it. It’s an everyday discipline.

So, for example, if a medieval nun kept a companionable human skull in the alcove where she prayed, she was not being morbid, and she was not depressed by her daily contemplation of its unmistakable message. It ushered her instead into a realm of radicality, clearing her mind of the world’s nonsense and her heart of egoistic clutter.

In its shadow it seemed foolish to aspire to the unnecessary; it became easier to refuse ephemeral delights and savor lasting ones, easier to gain the freedom of soul to respond to the urgent claims of her neighbor. By a practice of discernment and detachment in the light of our common end–a practice of distinguishing impulses from needs, needs from wants, and wants from entitlements–she prepared her heart to offer the least possible resistance to the Holy Spirit.

She believed that Jesus asked her to live in such a way that when death came it had very little left to take from her.

She would be surprised that we find that notion grim. What she would find grim, as another writer has noted, is a culture like ours that considers the accumulation and protection of wealth to be so serious as to merit the efforts of a lifetime.

What she would find depressing is the way that the material things we collect and store away like cadavers in a morgue captivate our hearts.

The big question is why we don’t.

*****

Image: St Francis Contemplating A Skull, Francisco de Zuruburán, c. 1635

 

Terminal

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Last Ash Wednesday, my mother went to church to receive ashes and was told by her priest that she was going to die: ‘You are dust and to dust you will return.’

A couple of days later, a young physician with a too-loud voice told her the same thing—‘You have stage four metastatic cancer and at best eight weeks to live.’

It was six.

Pastors explain Ash Wednesday as the day the church reminds us that we’re mortal, that someday we’re all going to die. I used to say that too, but after last year it feels a bit too theoretical. Now I think of Ash Wednesday as the day we receive a terminal diagnosis: You’re dying now, and it won’t be long.

When my mother first got the news, all she could say was ‘Unbelievable.’ Over and over: ‘Unbelievable.’ So fast. She was ninety, but she felt cheated. So did I.

After a day or so of digesting the news, she told us that the only way she could do it, her dying, was if she took things one day at a time. It’s the way we’re all doing it, I thought to myself, except we try not to know.

She also told us she couldn’t do it alone. She asked us not to leave her. We didn’t. From the day she entered Hospice House until the moment she died, we accompanied her in round-the-clock shifts. We did it for her, but not just for her: she wasn’t the only one who couldn’t do it alone.

Tomorrow I’ll go to church and get a terminal diagnosis. I hope the minister won’t get all progressive about it, change up the old words to soften the blow, tamper with the truth and use flowers instead of ashes, or some such thing. It will ring really false to me after last year when things suddenly got real. I might get visibly pissed, and that would mess up the contemplative atmosphere.

Just give me my burnt cross of ashes and let me cling to it grieving for a while. In time I’ll come to. I’ll decide I can do it one day at a time. I had a good example. I’ll ask for the company I know I’ll need, and with any luck I’ll have it.

Christ, in whom I died to rise, will take it from there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give Up

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Image: God Clothing Adam and Eve, Book of Hours, William de Brailes

“’By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ And the Lord made garments of skins for the man and the woman, and clothed them.” Genesis 3:18, 20

Is this you? You get out of bed planning to be good, but your intentions fall apart before lunch. For all your striving, there’s still too much white space between your values and your deeds. Your life is littered with casual compromises. You rail against idols one minute, pledge allegiance to them the next. You skirmish with your demons, secretly relieved when they win. You’re the grass that flowers by day and withers by night, inconstant as the moon and, as an old hymn puts it, “prone to wander.” Whether purposely, haplessly, or a little of both, like Isaiah’s wayward sheep you go astray. You repent sincerely, and it starts all over again.

After they ate the forbidden fruit,  Adam and Eve found out they were naked and felt, for the first time, ashamed. They were probably scared too. They were about to abandon the Garden for a hard world in which nakedness is a big liability. But God, we read, was unable to let them go like that, defenseless and exposed. They were guilty, not unloved. So God makes clothes for them, personally bending to the task, original mercy for original sin.

It was the first mercy. It won’t be the last. God is relentless: the mercy never ends.

Lent is for repentance. One way to repent is to contemplate your condition, feel guilty and ashamed, and resolve with gritted teeth to become a better person by this time next year. (Good luck with that.)

Or you could repent this way: Contemplate the mercy that has always covered your shame and surrender to it, giving up not beer or Nutella or swear words, but yourself and all your striving. Let God be your holiness, your healing, and your hope.

The One Down God: Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

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TEXT: Matthew 13:13-17

Not every story about Jesus made it into the gospels. And not all the gospels tell the same stories. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary only in the gospel of Luke. Jesus turns water into wine only in John. And only Mark ends his account of the resurrection on a note of fear. Different communities prized different stories. So when a story shows up in all four gospels, you know it represents an early Christian memory that everybody thought was too important to leave on the cutting room floor. Jesus’ baptism is one of those stories.

We always read it at the start of the Epiphany season between Christmas and Lent. It’s a season of insight and revelation, when hidden things are made plain. All the gospel passages assigned to Epiphany’s Sundays shed a little light on the mystery of who Jesus is. As we watch him speak and act in these stories, our picture of him clarifies, and we catch glimpses in him of who God is and what God is up to in the world.

And sure enough, in Matthew’s version of the baptism story, we get a big revelation about who Jesus is. It comes right after Jesus wades out of the Jordan. The heavens open, the Spirit alights, and a voice declares, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I delight.’

But we also learn a little more about who God is and what God wills. There’s no thunderclap, bright light, descending bird, or James Earl Jones voice accompanying this revelation, however. To see it, we have to go back to the flustered conversation John has with Jesus in the opening lines. Did you notice it?

Jesus presents himself for baptism, but John doesn’t seem pleased. He doesn’t say, “Good morning! No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” He says, “I know who you are. Please go away.” He tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. “Me?” he says. “You want me to baptize you? You should be baptizing me!”

Why does John try to keep Jesus out of the Jordan?

The clue is in the kind of baptism John was offering. John was baptizing ‘for repentance.’ He believed the messiah had come. That’s why he’s preaching a message of urgent change. And, we read, crowds of people were coming to him, ready to repent of their sins, change their lives, and receive the appointed one.

They symbolized their willingness to change by immersing themselves in the river. They washed away their sins, they sloughed off their old lives, they left all that sorrow, hurt, and regret in the Jordan, and went away to live clean in the new age that was already dawning.

And now, here is that new age in person—Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah, the sinless one, God’s chosen person. But if that’s who he is, what’s he doing here lined up with sinners? Why is he asking for a washing? Isn’t he already clean? Besides (and here’s a second clue to the revelation), isn’t it humiliating for someone ‘high up’ like Jesus to be baptized by someone ‘down low’ like John?

John is the opening act, not the main event. The understudy, not the lead. The bridesmaid, not the bride. So how can an inferior baptize a superior? That’s not the way the world is arranged. You know that if you watch Downton Abbey.

‘Why you?’ John wants to know. ‘And why me?’

“Because,” Jesus answers, “in this way we do God’s will.” In this way everyone sees what God is up to. And what God is like. I go down in the river below you. You stand above me. You go one up. I go one down.

Ah! The revelation dawns. We know from the voice that speaks after the baptism that Jesus is God’s dear Son. But it’s when he submits to the baptism in the first place that we discover what kind of Son this Son of God is.

Who and what is the Son of God? He is one down, immersed in the river of human frailty and sin, turgid with tears and suffering, malice, carelessness, indifference, failure, and endless regret.

Why is God pleased with him? Because he gets into that water with us, side by side.

“Me, baptize you? God forbid,” says John. “You’re the messiah, the big shot of God. You should baptize me.”

“God forbid,” say all of us who spend most of our lives doing everything we know how to go one up, who fear being one down like we fear quicksand and the dark.

“God forbid,” says everyone who expects their god to act like one and lord it over the cosmos.

“No,” Jesus says, “we’ll do things God’s way. I’ll go down. With you. Where you are. In the deep. In the dark. Where all your hard stuff is swirling around. Where there’s the danger you could drown, the danger you could get lost and succumb to your despair. That’s where I’ll go, a sibling in your own flesh. That’s where I’ll always be. That’s how you’ll know that God is not against you. That’s how you’ll know you’re not alone.”

And so, Matthew’s story says, John consented and Jesus was baptized.

There’s another story in another gospel that sounds a lot like this one. We read it on Maundy Thursday every year. Jesus gets up from the table, pours water into a basin, and wraps a towel around his waist. Then, on his knees, he moves from one foot to the next, washing the dirt away.

He comes to Peter. Peter recoils. He tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. “Wash me? Not you! Get up! You’ll never wash my feet.” He’s frantic with embarrassment. Jesus is the Teacher, the Lord. Peter is the follower, the idiot disciple. This isn’t proper. It should be the other way around. Peter watches Downton too.

But Jesus says to him, “If I don’t wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” If you don’t let me serve you, you won’t ever really know me, or God. If you insist on proprieties, you’ll miss the gospel. If I don’t kneel before you, you may never know the converting grace of love.

And so, the story says Peter consented and let Jesus wash him.

‘The King and I’ is an old, dated movie. I’m showing my age just by mentioning it. And you’re showing yours if you remember it. But there’s a scene in that movie where Anna, the English governess of the Siamese king’s children, learns the protocol for being in the royal presence. No one’s head must ever be higher than the king’s. If he’s in the room and you’re taller than he is, you have to lower your head or stoop down so that his remains higher.

The king enters the room. Anna lowers her head. Then playfully—but also to show that he can—he lowers his. She lowers hers again. He stoops down. She stoops even lower. Finally he drops to his knees, and she has to go flat out on the floor. The point is made.

But now imagine that scene the other way around. Imagine a completely new protocol—the king has to go one down. No one’s head can be lower than his. He’s the one who ends up prostrate before the governess.

This is Jesus. And this is his God.

Over the centuries, many Christians have been embarrassed by this revelation, put off and dismayed by a God who stands in the sinners’ line, who bathes in our messes and kneels at our feet. We’re always trying to turn the one down God into a one up God, and when we do, we justify all sorts of pompous nonsense and bloody mayem in the name of God’s one up-ness.

But sometimes, some blessed times, we’ve managed to love the one down God. We’ve let ourselves be drawn into the sweetness of Christ’s humility, swept up into his kindness, his refusal to lord it over us, his eyes that look up at us and not down.

The have-nots have never had much trouble loving him, but even some of the privileged and powerful have fallen hard for his humble, hidden majesty. And when they have, they’ve found themselves in the Jordan, over their heads in human empathy and solidarity, immersed in a mystifying kind of joy.

I think of Francis of Assisi, the dissolute son of a wealthy merchant. He had an epiphany about the one down-ness of God while he was gazing at the figure of the abandoned Christ on the cross. It took Francis a long time—don’t believe all that medieval nonsense about instantaneous conversions—but eventually he fell head over heels in love with the poor and humble Christ. And out of that powerful attraction, he began giving away everything he had, and most of what his father had too.

This profligacy did not endear him to his proud and influential father, who was apoplectic at the sight of his privileged son one down among the leprous poor. But Francis was smitten by the one down Christ. He ended up a beggar among the beggars, a disowned and displaced man. He waded into the Jordan with Jesus and never looked back.

But Francis is probably too extreme an example. Not everyone who’s attracted to the one down Jesus ends up disowned and begging. There are many ways to have your heart broken open and your life re-humanized by the revelation of God’s humility. We each have to find our own way downward, as individual disciples and as a community of disciples. But one thing is true for everybody—if we feel even the slightest attraction to the one down God, we’ll eventually find ourselves in some discomfort, torn between the life we have now and the joy we sense is waiting for us down in the river with him.

I once had a testy discussion with a woman new to our church about the foot-washing that was part of our Maundy Thursday service. She was aghast at the thought of it. “Why do you do such a weird thing in this day and age?” she demanded to know. “We don’t wear sandals. Our feet don’t get dirty and need washing like they did in Jesus’ day.” Apparently she’d never distributed clean socks to homeless people. When she said ‘our feet’ she meant the clean healthy feet of people like her. “Furthermore,” she declared, “foot-washing is unhygienic, awkward, servile, and embarrassing.”

I said, “Your point?”

She said, ‘Well, all I know is you’re not touching my feet.’

But she surprised me. And maybe herself. She showed up, got her feet washed, and washed other people’s feet, too. Later, she confessed to a deacon that she’d wept when one of the oldest members of the congregation got on his knees kind of creakily to dry her feet. She also confessed she’d gotten a pedicure earlier in the day. I guess foot-washing is okay if your feet look good. I guess you can go one down as long as your feet are still one up.

But I’m not knocking her, believe me. It wasn’t a small thing for her to dip her beautifully lacquered toes into the Jordan with Jesus. Even a faint light in a great darkness is light. Even a slight unveiling can illumine the world, and maybe save it.

It was something, her little embrace of the distinguishing mark of a disciple: kneeling, one down. It was something, her beginner’s acceptance of the inescapable paradox of Christian faith: down is glory, lowliness is joy. It was something, that start, that little falling in love, that little baptism, that epiphany.

And on this day of Jesus’ baptism, I wish something like that for us all.

In Common

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“O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of humankind…” —O Come, O Come Emmanuel

On a visit to South India, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked to bless the Hindu kitchen staff of a big hotel. The occasion was the annual mixing of the batter for their famous Christmas cake. So, as instructed, the Archbishop poured honey into an enormous trough of fruit, said prayers, shook hands, and walked out into the searing heat, with “Joy to the World” blaring over the loudspeakers.

Christmas, it turns out, is one of the West’s greatest exports. The story is known and loved even in places where other faiths predominate–Shanghai, Mumbai, Dar-es-Salaam.

And why not? It features a clutching newborn child, and not many people on earth can resist offering a pinky to the clutch of an infant.

It may be the thing we long for most—to let go of our aggression and fear and whatever else there is in us that keeps us tied to violence, and bend over a child in shared wonder and gratitude. Perhaps this common longing is what the old hymn means by ‘the desire of nations.’

You don’t have to be a Christian to be deeply gladdened by a story of open, defenseless love. Even when that story comes draped in gaudy tinsel and bows, it touches something basic, something commonly human.

And that should make us think twice, even in a season of fear and woe, about ever giving up on the heart’s capacity for goodness and faith, however deeply buried it may seem.

Prayer

“O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of humankind. Bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our Prince of Peace.”

 

Divinized

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“The One who makes rich is made poor, taking on the poverty of flesh, that I may gain the riches of divinity. The One who is full is made empty, devoid a while of glory, that I may share that glory fully. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me?”—St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-391)

It’s an ancient theological question: Why did God become one of us?

Some Christians believe it was to fix a big problem—to pay the unpayable debt incurred by Adam’s sin. When he grows up, Jesus will bridge with his broken body the unbridgeable chasm our disobedience opened between us and God.

And if that’s what you believe about God’s purpose, you stand in a venerable stream of Christian tradition, and I won’t say you’re wrong.

I will say it’s not the only way to imagine why God took a body. There are other venerable traditions, and one of them says the Savior came to divinize us, to give us God’s own glory.

God emptied out to take humanity in. God stooped down to raise us up. God accepted limits to dissolve the limits that made it seem, tragically, as if God and humans are opposites. The mystery—the wonder—of the Incarnation is that we’re not.

In this way of imagining, what we wait for in Advent is not someone to fix us but someone to reveal us to ourselves. The gift on the horizon is not a grim course correction but a mirror, a gaze, a joyous shock of mutual recognition—there, the eternal resemblance, the beauty, the dignity, the shining, shining love.

Prayer

O to be the objects of so great an Affection! O this wealth of goodness! O this mystery that surrounds us!

 

Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582)

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The only portrait of Teresa from life, by Fray Juan de la Miseria. When Teresa saw the finished work, she is reported to have said, “God forgive you, Brother Juan, you have made me ugly and bleary-eyed.” The portrait is one of the many Teresian treasures housed in the convent of the Carmelite nuns in Seville, which Teresa founded in 1575.

THE LIFE of the Spanish Carmelite reformer, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), was a complicated adventure in a complicated world.

At a time when practicing contemplation could get you either the garrote and the stake, or a halo and a feast day, Teresa was a mystical sensation. She loved her God—and wrote about it–with an erotic passion that sent chills down the spine of watchful churchmen who worried that affectivity in the spiritual life was at best a confusion, at worst a doorway to heresy.

In a Spanish church serious about reforms but at dangerous odds about who should direct them and how far they should go, Teresa initiated one of her own, eventually splitting the  Order.

In a male-dominated culture, she was a woman who read, a writer who meant to publish, and a theological gadfly. In a society whose anxiety about reputation, bloodlines, and orthodoxy made moving targets out of personal safety, ecclesiastical standing, and social status, Teresa — born to a Jewish converso family — managed to neutralize and then overwhelm her detractors, ascending to the altars only 40 years after dying, a bona fide saint.

Even the most persevering readers with a passion for mysticism get lost in her vibrant, unruly prose—writings that are now regarded as some of the greatest in the canon of Golden Age literature. Making sense of her spiritual experiences — visions, voices, levitations and, yes, hot penetrations — is tougher still. It’s no wonder that some critics, for whom voices are a sign of mental illness and levitation a party game, call her the patron saint of religious pathology.

Teresa was, first and last, a soul in a progress towards God. And what a progress! That metaphor, in part a nod to the age of exploration in which Teresa lived, points to a life-long inner journey, as biographer Cathleen Medwick put it, “as full of wonder and terror as any ocean voyage through uncharted seas.” It took courage to navigate the soul. The dangers were real and many. Teresa’s battle to authenticate her religious experience with even the sympathetic and supportive men who guided her was ferocious. It left her physically ill and close to despair.

Life outside the “interior castle” was no easier. During the last twenty years of her life, in an era when only masochists traveled for pleasure, Teresa was constantly on the road founding and supervising reformed convents. The story of those foundations is a wild ride, a confusion of briefs, bulls, and competing obediences, a riot of real estate, fundraising, and ruthless intra-Carmelite politics.

Teresa gives us the story herself in her  writings, the Life and Foundations especially. The plot-twists and quirky characters in those relations make your head spin. Could there be a more sinister nemesis, foe example, than the princess of Eboli– a breathtakingly self-absorbed woman with a black eye-patch and a refined taste for betrayal who, following a disastrous stint as a nun in a convent she’d forced the Saint to establish, sent Teresa’s top-secret autobiography to the inquisitors to avenge the convent’s collapse after an exasperated Teresa ordered the remaining nuns to desert it hastily, it in the dead of night?

But the vivid personality of the evil princess cannot hold a candle to Teresa’s own — attractive, expansive, sociable, incisive, mordantly witty, shrewd and tenacious, possessed of a bottomless capacity for intimacy and an equally bottomless capacity for self-doubt and loneliness. She was a people pleaser whose loyalties were often to a fault, and yet she could be breathtakingly brave when push came to shove towards a necessary confrontation. Her relationships with men were always more satisfying than her friendships with women; yet she complained that no one really understood her; and in truth, at some point or other, nearly all her closest allies disappointed or disparaged her.

Single-mindedly resolute (“I have,” she said, “a very determined determination”), she bent many to her will, even God. A workaholic, she was famously restless, and yet longed for nothing more than a little cell where she could tell her beads. Pragmatic and always ready to deal, she could be at times vain, coy, and Clintonesque, yet she always strove sincerely for simplicity and a transparent conscience, hammering away at the centrality of truth (for her, a synonym for humility) in the life of the soul.

If she despised anything on earth, it was pretension, especially the ruinous aspiration to status, pure bloodlines, and wealth–or at least the appearances of wealth– which had wounded her own family and created legions of  proud but destitute nobility, many hiding the tenths of fourths of  Jewish blood in their backgrounds with false genealogies and gaudy coats of arms. A close reading of her life and writings reveals a running protest against the moral captivity  of reputation, honor, and shame, as well as the wasteful sidelining of women in the church and the no-win situation of  ‘new Christians, among whom she found some of her best allies and friends. She hated what Spain had become in the post-expulsion era–a society organized for deceit.

She was unswerving in hope while enduring monstrous headaches, stomach disease, and crippling depression. She came across to all who knew and loved her as alternately domineering and compassionate, fragile and indestructible, admirable and  inimitable. In her day, many believed her to be a vile menace to the Church. Many others believed her to be its shining savior. To this day, she pleases no one who clings piously to the belief that saints are actually holy.

I  adore her.