Uncertainty

2009-6-25-lone-man-no-20-final-7-1-2009-500Today is the Feast of St. Thomas, the Doubter. It’s a heavy sobriquet with which to go through history: to be remembered, not by what you loved, or whom, but by your questioning, your uncertainty, your irresolution.

And the Feast, as we are supposed to honor it, resists that reading. The prayer for the day pleads for certainty and conviction: Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight.

It’s a natural-enough impulse; after all, most of us would rather have some confidence that we know what we are doing and why we are doing it, would like to hold onto our faith (in whatever form it takes) as a rock of stability in our lives, a rod and a staff that comfort us in our hour of need.

But what if that’s not what Thomas was about at all? What if he was about, precisely, uncertainty, about what it looks like to move forward faithfully when faith itself fails, when the situation in which we find ourselves is confusing or ambivalent, when we do not know the One Right Way?

Thomas actually appears prominently in two stories in Scripture. In the first, Jesus and his twelve companions were ministering across the Jordan, healing and teaching, when they receive word that their friend Lazarus is ill. Jesus waits two days, then announces he is heading to Bethany, where Lazarus has died. His friends warn him not to go, since the Jewish leaders were trying to kill him, but, when Jesus insists, it is Thomas who replies, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” (We’ll come back to that.)

The more famous story appears later, after Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus appears to the hendrick_ter_brugghen_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas_-_wga22166other disciples at a time when Thomas is not with them. When they tell Thomas, he refuses to believe them, saying, “I will not believe unless I see the wounds in his hands and touch the wounds in his hands and side.” And so, a week later, Jesus appears again, holding out his wounds to Thomas, who then cries out, “My Lord and my God!” — the first of the Twelve to proclaim him divine.

Traditional explanations have tended to emphasize that last proclamation, to see in Thomas an icon of what it means for each of us to encounter Jesus and emerge with firm and clear convictions. But I am more captivated by what preceded that encounter.

In both stories, Thomas confronts a situation of considerable confusion and danger, and he does so by seeking, at all costs, to follow Jesus, even into danger and pain. It is not clear that he or the twelve will survive the visit to Bethany, but he insists that they go, because that is where Jesus is going. And when the others tell him they have seen Jesus glorified, caravaggioThomas brings them back to the stubborn reality of woundedness, pain, and death. He insists on seeing, not Jesus’ image, but his body, and on going precisely to where that body is most in need of love.

It’s about as good a model for discernment as we can find, we who live in spaces of unclarity, who struggle to find the right path, we for whom the Word of God rarely appears in neon lights with a convenient flashing arrow: GO HERE.

We do not always know the One Right Way. We do not always — or even often –understand the actions of God. But we do know what mercy looks like, and we have Christ’s own promise that when we seek the least of his children, we will find him there. So  go to where the Body of Christ is in pain, and if we have no certainty to bring, we can at least bring our love and our questions, asking: What do you seek? Do you want to be healed? Where is Christ to be found in you? And so, with all due respect to the authors of our prayerbook, I will offer an alternative prayer for today, for Thomas and for us:

Grant us, Lord, in all our uncertainties, to seek your face, and when it remains hidden from our eyes, to seek out the places where you are wounded, alone, unfriended, or in pain, and to bring there, not our certainty, but your holy and life-giving questions and love, which restore us to ourselves and to you; through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and our Friend. Amen.

Late Advent

tvstaticWhen I was a child, we still had analog televisions. They were magical in their ability to bring faraway sounds, people, and places to life, but they were also a bit…unpredictable. From time to time, the signal would fade out, and all you’d get was a mess of gray static: black and white dots hovering stubbornly on the screen. Sometimes, by squinting, you could see the dim outline of a figure through the gray; at other times, nothing. Family members would get frustrated and try to intervene; they’d move the antennae, or stand beside them, or hold them, routing the signal through their own bodies. Sometimes it made a difference, but mostly, it was just hard to see.

There’s been a lot static this Advent, at least for me. Five times a day, I am immersed in the liturgy of the monastery, and the words and the chant move inexorably toward Christmas. Sunday, you could almost taste it, as we all chanted the angel’s words to Joseph, whose life seemed to be in ruins because his fiancé was with child, and not by him: “Do not be afraid to take  Mary as your wife. It is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child.”

And yet, all around the liturgy, and shot through it, our anxiety mutters and rumbles. “Trump” is heard often at the dinner table, and not with joy. Syria and Aleppo are lifted in prayer, every day. So are the hungry, the cold, those seeking for shelter, those struggling with heroin, those condemned to be executed by the state, those who are unknown to us, but in need of prayer. It seems hard to believe that in a mere week, we will be ringing in the birth of Christ, that all this anxiety will somehow pause for a few precious hours of joy.

If you’re feeling that way, too: don’t worry. Jesus was born at an anxious time, and most of the world did not even notice he was there. A few shepherds, a handful of wise men, but the rest of world went on, not knowing that their lives and human history had been changed forever.

And they still were. That’s the thing about Christ. He is.

Whether you are tuned in or 9680687spaced out, whether your heart is open to his presence or closed, he is Real, and the transformation that he brought into our world is working itself out with the slow, quiet inexorability of grace. We can choose to be part of it, or we can choose to stand aside, but God will win in the end. He already has.

And so, today, we will sing these words: O Root of Jesse, you stand for an ensign of the people; before you kings will shut their mouths and for you the Gentiles will seek: come and deliver us, and do not tarry.

Margaret

guentherLast night, I learned of the death of Margaret Guenther, a renowned spiritual teacher in our tradition who had been, for a time, my spiritual director. When I entered into relationship with her, I expected a rigorous and demanding relationship, to be held accountable to the wisdom of the great saints, to be recalled, without much slack, into the ways of Jesus.

What I encountered instead was a person of childlike faith, who, in spite of her great learning, approached God with an utter simplicity. She shared with me, more than once, a prayer that meant a great deal to her, and that I now share with you.

As she told it, she had been in surgery one day, and had been quite anxious about it. As she began to come to herself in the recovery room, the shards of grogginess slipping away, all of a sudden these words appeared: I don’t care if it rains or freezes; I am safe in the hands of Jesus.  Seriously! And those words became her mantra as she entered the rigors of old age: a child’s prayer lighting the way home.

She was not the only one to have this experience. It’s told of the great theologian Karl Barth that, when he was asked to summarize the many books he had written, he, too, reverted to a child’s text: Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

I am someone who tends toward the complex; I can take a truth and worry it into a dozen strands. But at its heart, the Gospel is something very, very simple: the love of God poured out for us, no matter what. And so, as we enter this new day, let us remember: I don’t care if it rains or freezes, I am safe in the hands of Jesus. I hope and pray that Margaret is, that she is now in the warm embrace of the One who told us to come to him as little children. That simply, that easily, shedding ourselves as much as that.

 

Whose gaze?

handsI have refrained from writing for some time now, deliberately. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is a qualitative change in our experience when we intend to publish something about it. We start to go through life with a split mind: with part of ourselves, we just go about the business of our day, but with another part, we are constantly thinking: “How will I tell this story, not only to myself, but to others? What is funny or interesting or insightful about it? What gift might this bring to others, or to their perception of who I am?”

To some extent, this is inevitable. We humans are storytelling animals, and from our  earliest days as a species, we gathered around campfires and spoke to one another, shaping a shared understanding of who we are and what makes us that way. The cave paintings that have been discovered in France, in Spain, in Indonesia and in Eastern Europe, all bear eloquent testimony that our ancestors worked to find their place in the world: How they were related to animals. How they were related to one another. These lascauxstories that we tell ourselves can be necessary and good. They can help us make sense of our lives, and, if we are ruthless in the telling, they can help us come to a more honest relationship with ourselves, one another, and our God.

But we live in the age of social media, and that natural impulse to shape our lives into story can too easily become distorted into a need to perform our lives. Last summer, I watched as a younger relative prepared her online presence. We were sailing, and she took some beautiful photos of herself and of her husband. Both of them are beautiful people, but that, apparently, wasn’t good enough. While I watched with the profound astonishment of a middle-aged woman confronted with the tech-savvy of the young, she logged into several apps and airbrushed the pictures: with one, she cleaned up her hair, lest it look tousled by the wind; with another, she made her teeth even more gleaming white. Then she posted the refined image onto Instagram, and checked obsessively to see how many likes she had.

There was nothing unusual in this; people do it every day. But it all went with the crafting of a persona, a virtual her which was not identical with the flesh-and-blood human being. And what she left out was as interesting to me as what she posted: she left out us, her family. The images were of two glamorous people enjoying a sailing trip, not of two people in community. It played perfectly into the prevailing narratives of our culture: individualism tempered by the unfailing support of a romantic partner, but never a community that included the old, the middle-aged, the less-than-perfect among us.

Well, that was a long digression. But I have been trying to enter into this monastic experience in way that was not performed, at least, not performed for you. I needed to experience this for myself and work myself into it before I could or would have anything worth sharing with anyone else.

pantokrator_serbian_chilander_agios_oros_13cent_detailEven Jesus struggled to work through this issue. The theologian James Allison reminds us that there is a pattern in Jesus’ ministry: during the day, Jesus was among the disciples and the crowds, teaching, healing, feeding, caring. But in the evenings or before the sun rose, he tended to slip away and be alone with his God. Allison suggests that he was reorienting himself from the gaze of the crowd to the gaze of his God.

It makes sense to me; all day long, people expected things of Jesus. They wanted him to be what they needed him to be, or what they conceived that he should be. But what he really needed was to be the person God made him to be, and so he would creep away from the crowds and pray to God, the best and truest mirror of himself.

And you: who are your mirrors? Who are the people who expect you to play a role, who might even become upset if you do not? Who are the people who restore you to yourself? How and for whom do you perform your life, and what is it like when you seize the gift and just live it?

 

After the rain

Two days of drenching rain have yielded to a glorious morning: soft air and a wild light and water dripping from every living thing. The fog which had obscured pretty much everything has lifted, and the world is still there! Here are some images to start your day: