Light of Life

Mary Magdala Community

“Light of Life” ©

Thoughts on the 1st Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

Thomas Merton’s final manuscript which he sent to the publisher just prior to his trip to Asia in February, 1968 was published this year with a foreward by Sarah Coakley.  It has been given the title, “The Climate of Monastic Prayer,” but it is not restricted to monks alone.  In this work, which is pretty much an extended essay, Merton says that the prayer life of the monk – and anyone who prays in the same mode – is set within a life of expectation that is fueled by dread.  This goes a long way toward understanding every monk’s legacy of heading out to the desert and to out-of-the-way places that continues to pull and tug at a certain level of isolation and solitariness.  This dread, Merton goes on to say, is shaped by each monk’s confrontation with two questions: 1) Am I ultimately living a lie?, and 2) How is it possible to have a relation with such a hidden, inscrutable God?

I can only imagine that today’s Gospel for this 1st Sunday of Advent fits into this type of expectation that locates itself in dread over the anguish, distress, and untimely death that accompanies this particular vision of the End Time.  Welcome to one vision for the start of Advent.

While we have not experienced anything close to such anguish and distress here in the north country of Wisconsin, nor are we in the dreaded desert, we do have snow in our yard from the most recent storm.  It is at least 4 inches deep and it’s a powdery variety of the white stuff now covering the ground and all the surrounding trees.  This winter wonderland makes it possible to play a new game with Connor, our 1 ½ year old Irish Setter puppy.  Here’s how it goes.  I make a snowball out of the powdery flakes and show it to Connor.  He jumps excitedly, as Irish Setters do, with the expectation that I will throw this white ball as I do the yellow tennis balls when there is no snow on the ground.  I throw, he fetches and brings the ball back (well at least until he gets bored.)  The hitch in this new game, though, is that a snowball made up of powdery flakes, when thrown into 4 inches of snow hits the ground and falls apart.  Connor runs after the white solid ball that has fallen to the ground but then he cannot find it after the drop.  That’s when I get the look that says, “What did you do with my ball?”

The point?  The point is that sometimes the solid things of reality and life fall apart leaving us to realize that in the end life is about the game and not the capture.

We live in a world that all too often presents life as a thing, which is OK because this material thing that’s called life requires food and drink, shelter and security.  But life is also spirit and that spiritual life requires love and learning how to love.

Where does one go to gain clarity that the spirit of life is so much more fundamental than the material things of life?  Well, Christians go to the One whose life was all about love.  Christ, whose coming to human life was clearly devoid of material realities (unless you want to quibble about his body that needed to survive materially) is the Real One – our model for real life.

Reality, like powdery snowballs that hit the ground and disappear, can easily fall apart.  The Spirit of Life, like the games we play, holds together.  In two weeks we will hear a familiar example that shows the value of life over things.  John the Baptist will say to the crowd, “I baptize in water, but the Messiah who is coming will baptize in the Spirit.”  As symbolic as the material reality of water is it remains just a symbol.  John recognizes that it is the Spirit who gives life.

The French philosopher, Michel Henry, points clearly to the awareness that life, in its spiritual reality of each individual, is the most real reality.  All material stuff is just symbol and metaphor.  That’s right even Oprah’s giveaway cars are only metaphors.  Henry calls this view on life – each person’s manifestation.  He means to show that events and experiences of life’s fullness enliven a person so much more than the material reality of things.  And the deeper a person travels into that fullness the more real that person’s life becomes

And now we come to Advent – this season of expectations.  Curiously, this returns me to Merton’s monk so full of dread.  Remember, Merton sees the monk’s life from out of the history of the original searchers who went to the desert to seek a desolate environment that could match the emptiness they so often experienced in their quest for the divine.  When Merton mentions the state of dread it’s then that he raised those two questions of the possibility of living a lie and searching for the hidden God.

Why would anyone want to put oneself through such dread?  I believe it’s because the wager is on the side of life as spiritual depth and fullness rather than on the side of material emptiness.

This Season of Promise invites each one of us to make our own wager on life – with all its connections to the Spirit that gifts us with community now and in the life to come.

At some point this winter – as certain as this is Wisconsin – we’ll get a snowfall with a better grade of snowflake than this most recent storm, the kind of flake that holds together when you make snowballs.  When I throw those better balls they will not break apart upon hitting the ground.  I expect that will make Connor very happy.  But until that happy time, I also expect that he will continue to chase after the disappearing snowballs because he loves the game too much  – which is what is most important, after all.

A Prayer 

Our God is our justice.  We offer gifts of bread and wine and see in our eating and drinking your Son, the Christ, among us; the Promised One whose miraculous gift is this saving grace of community.   Amen

A Litany for Wreath Lighting

Leader:   Emmanuel, we hold the memory of your life.  Jesus, have mercy.

All:  Jesus, have mercy.

Leader:  Messiah, we celebrate the ministry of your example.  Christ, have mercy.

All:  Christ, have mercy.

Leader:  Luminous Light, we are the grace of your presence.  Jesus, have mercy.

All:  Jesus, have mercy.

Presider:   The God of Promise fulfills in us the Messiah’s Way now and evermore.

All:   Amen.



2 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    Thanks, Joe, for your thoughts. I really recommend a further reading in Merton’s “Climate of Monastic Prayer,” in which he reminds those who will pray in a contemplative mode that the active life of common prayers, the Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist, objects of art, and the actual lived life-styles of monasticism worldwide all are in tandem with body and spirit. No Manichean, he, and neither am I. So, let me dispel your concern. My banner still reads phenomenologically, “To the things themselves!”
    I’m glad to see that Richard agrees in the coinciding of body and soul (spirit).. Take care, Jim

  2. Joe Burke says:

    The Universal Christ – meditation from Richard Rohr on the oneness of matter and spirit.

    Christ Is Everywhere
    Thursday, December 6, 2018

    Christ is the eternal amalgam of matter and spirit as one as they hold and reveal one another. Wherever the human and the divine coexist, we have the Christ. Wherever the material and the spiritual coincide, we have the Christ. That includes the material world, the natural world, the animal world (including humans), and moves all the way to the elemental world, symbolized by bread and wine. The Eucharist offers Christians the message in condensed form so we can struggle with it in a very concrete way. We cannot think about such a universal truth logically; we can only slowly digest it! “Eat it and know who you are,” St. Augustine said. [1] We are what we drink and eat, as any good nutritionist will say.
    Only slowly does the truth become believable. Finally, the Body of Christ is not out there or over there; it’s in you—it’s here and now and everywhere. The goal is then to move beyond yourself and recognize that what’s true in you is true in all others too. The Universal Christ permeates all creation including us. We are all the image and likeness of God!
    This recognition was supposed to be a political and social revolution. But Christians wasted centuries arguing about whether it was true at all! The orthodox insistence on the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist is merely taking the Mystery of Incarnation to its natural and full and very good conclusion. Here I am quite happy to be fully Catholic. “There is only Christ, he is everything, and he is in everything,” Paul shouts (see Colossians 3:11). This is not pantheism; it is the much more subtle and subversive panentheism, or God in all things.
    You and I are living here in this ever-expanding universe. You and I are a part of this Christ Mystery without any choice on our part. We just are, whether we like it or not. It’s nothing we have to consciously believe. It’s first of all announcing an objective truth. But if we consciously take this mystery as our worldview, it will create immense joy and peace. It gives us significance and a sense of belonging as part of God’s Great Work. We are no longer alienated from God, others, or the universe. Everything belongs. And it is pure, undeserved gift from the very beginning.

    Participating in Christ allows each of us to know that “I don’t matter at all, and yet I matter intensely—at the same time!” That’s the ultimate therapeutic healing. I’m just a little grain of sand in this giant, giant universe. I’m going to pass in a little while like everyone else will. But I’m also a child of God. I’m connected radically, inherently, intrinsically to the Center and to everything else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

20 − thirteen =