Sunday, May 26, 2013
The Mystery of God
There’s a legend about a holy bishop walking along the seashore one day, trying to figure out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He came upon a young child, running back and forth between the water’s edge and a small bucket. The bishop watched the child for awhile, with growing curiosity, then asked, “What are you doing?” “Putting the ocean into my bucket,” replied the child. “But,” said the bishop with a laugh, “that is impossible.” “Not nearly as impossible,” the child said, “as your trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity.”
Humans have learned through the centuries that to understand or grasp the Trinity is simply beyond their ability. That doesn’t, however, mean that we can’t learn something about the Holy Trinity. Those who wrote the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed did so because they discerned that God’s most basic relationship to humankind expresses itself in a threefold way: God relates to us as Creator, as Redeemer, and as Sanctifier. The Council of Nicaea in 325 asserted that these three are all equally ways in which God is God to us, and they’re essential to understanding that God’s very essence is to draw all things into the unity of interrelatedness.
Today’s feast is really about the mystery of God who expresses Godself as Three. Someone has wisely observed that: “In Christian faith, a mystery is not something which fails to make sense. It is, rather, something whose sense can be discerned, and even stated, but never mastered or fully comprehended in its richness...not because of its absurdity or its incoherence, but because of its depth...” And so, this feast of the Holy Trinity is our celebration of the mystery of the Holy God, in all its richness. We stand in awe before the One Who Is. We join with the whole communion of saints and all angelic beings to praise God who is all Power, all Wisdom, all Goodness and Love.
Each of today’s texts, in its own way, provides some inkling of what this mystery is about. They especially help us to get at both the overwhelming, elusive otherness of God, by using words like “Creator” and “Father”; as well as at the intimate, comforting familiarity of God, by speaking of Jesus and the Spirit, though still in somewhat elusive language.
The first reading from Proverbs (8:1-4; 22-31) speaks of Wisdom, suggesting aspects of God’s life and being which are as yet largely unfamiliar to most of us. Here we encounter Holy Wisdom, in Greek, Hagia Sophia, who cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live...”, particularly the little, the ignorant, the helpless. Biblical scholars have puzzled over this personified Woman Wisdom, some identifying her as a figure of poetry, some as the principle of order in creation, some as a personified attribute of God.
The writer of Proverbs describes this mysterious Wisdom with many images. One could look at this as a sort of new creation-story, celebrating creation as a process of wise and delightful play and business and spiritual experience, all in one. Wisdom is like a little child dancing around a parent who is seriously at work, wanting to be part of it, wanting to “help” as children do, with delightful joy and laughter. “...I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race...” (8:30-31)
Thomas Merton, famous Trappist monk and writer who died in 1968, spent most of his last years reflecting on and writing about Holy Wisdom. He concluded that Wisdom, before all else, is Godself, not only as Father, but also as Mother, both at once, because this expresses the completeness of God’s Being and reality. Contrary to common misunderstanding among church people, this is a very ancient understanding of God, well-known in the early Church. Over thirty theologians, mystics, writers, and saints, including Saints Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Bernard, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Dante, etc., wrote about God specifically in these terms.
So, who is Holy Widsom? Merton says that Sophia/Wisdom expresses God’s Being: “not one of the Three Persons, but each ‘at the same time, are [Wisdom] and manifest her.’” Wisdom is also the “blessed sweet [pivot] point” of all being and nature, “that which is the smallest and poorest and most humble of all...” Likewise, Wisdom is unfathomable mercy, made visible in Christ’s becoming human, dying, and rising to new life. Christopher Pramuk says that Wisdom is “God’s love and mercy coming to birth in us.” God, as Love and Mercy, “shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty, our own nothingness (which Christ took upon Himself...)” (Merton) “She [Wisdom] is the Spirit of Christ but more than Christ. She is the Love joining the Father, Son, and Spirit that longs for incarnation from before the very beginning. She is Jesus our mother, and Mary, the Theotokos [the God-bearer]”, mentioned on p. 864 of the Book of Common Prayer. Wisdom is, according to Merton, our “true self”, “when we...allow Christ to be birthed in us, and so realize the hidden ground of mercy, creativity, and presence in our very selves, the mystical Body of Christ...” (Pramuk)
In the Epistle (Romans 5:1-5) Paul reminds us that we stand on the threshold of a sort of stairway leading to “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...through the Spirit that has been given to us.” In fact he says that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”. But first, Paul says, we have to climb the step of “suffering”. Much as we hate it and fear it, here the saying “No pain, no gain” definitely applies. Taking that step in hope, we find that it leads to a second step: “endurance”. And that leads to the next step: “character”, which then allows us to reach the step of “hope”, which, Paul notes, “does not disappoint us” because at that point “God’s love [God’s Self] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has [already] been given to us.”
Julian of Norwich, great 14th century mystic, says that “...before God made us, God loved us...in this love God has done all God’s works...and in this love our life is everlasting...In our creation we had a beginning, but the love in which God created us was in God from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this we shall see in God without end...” The Wisdom which is Godself teaches us that all our life is “a journey in love from God to God.” (Dr. Kerrie Hide) We have our being in going forth from God’s love in creation; we have our growing during our human life here below as we continue in an identifying relationship with God who is Love, in and through Jesus; and finally we have our completing in passing from this world, returning to God in Christ and in the Spirit of Love.
Finally, in reading today’s Gospel passage (John 16:12-15), bear in mind that the context is Jesus’ last sharing with the Apostles at a meal on the night before he suffered and died for humankind. He tries to prepare them for void which they’ll soon feel: “I still have many things to say to you, but... When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth...” I’m sure it must’ve sounded nice and hopeful to the disciples then, but what about on Holy Saturday morning? What a vacuum they must have experienced!
I’d venture to say that all of us, at one time or other in our prayer life, have experienced something like that loss, that sense of God’s not being there. The truth is: God can never be absent to us, really, or we’d simply cease to exist. Nevertheless, there are, for sure, times when we “feel” like God is absent. That feeling might mean a number of different things. It might mean that we feel that God isn’t meeting our expectations. After all, we do have monumental plans for our lives, don’t we?! Or it might mean that we’re actually experiencing a different form of God’s presence. How can that be so?
Sometimes God is present to us as silence/aloneness. Once in awhile when the grace of silence comes upon us, we realize that everything feels just right; we sit in quiet and peace, with no direction to our thoughts, no desire, no particular clarity about our place in the world. Just peace. Or, perhaps more frequently, we don’t find ourselves in a good place, burdened, as we are, with our inevitable failings and selfishness. We feel helpless and abandoned. We feel that everything is wrong with our world. Yet, even in the silence and darkness, deep down we may find an amazingly unexplainable peace. Someone has written that “God is the nail that splits our palms to break our grip on the world. He is an unfathomable darkness.”
Sometimes God is present as quiet, unassuming love. Novelist Timothy Farrington says that real prayer “...is a disappearance, a surrender to the embrace of deepening mystery, in darkness. In that darkness, finally, God alone is. And God is infinite surprise...” That, I believe, is what Jesus is trying to convey to his Apostles in John’s Gospel: that the Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit, though unseen, is the continuing presence of both the Father and of Jesus the Son, present here and now in their and our lives. The Spirit of Love invites us into a deep, direct experience of God among us, with us, and in us. In his book, The Go-Between God, John Vernon Taylor offers this amazing statement: “The Holy Spirit is that power which opens eyes that are closed, hearts that are unaware and minds that shrink from too much reality. If one is open towards God, one is open also to the beauty of the world, the truth of ideas, and the pain of disappointment and deformity. If one is closed up against being hurt, or blind towards one’s fellow-men, one is inevitably shut off from God also. One cannot choose to be open in one direction and closed in another. “
As the Father is the power responsible for creating us in love, as Jesus is the model par excellence of addressing one another’s needs through the power of self-giving service, so the Spirit of Love is Wisdom, Godself, empowering us to love constantly. God’s presence in our lives through the Spirit of Love is full of surprise. It’s not subject to any restraint; it breaks out in all directions. It doesn’t constrain or hold us back, but enables us to see with new eyes and new understanding, to be sensitive, caring, giving. It enables us to know the truth which sets us free. It enables us to be open to the beauty of the whole world. Imagine the implications of this for motivating us to discontinue polluting and wasting our air and water, timber, animal life, etc., and to not support others who do? for helping us to not allow children to be abused and maltreated? for helping us not to become enslaved by unhealthy and addictive habits? Wisdom/Spirit enables us to be open to all truth: to finally commit ourselves to become less lazy in learning and in passing on our heritage; to become more tolerant of other people’s viewpoints, even though we may disagree; to become less resistant to letting God’s Word work in our everyday lives.
But having said and having heard all this, having professed our faith using the Creed, which we’ll do in a few minutes, we find ourselves still standing in the face of the mystery of God, One and Three. We accept. We believe. But none of us can boast that we fully understand. Without ever abandoning our search to learn about and love God more, to make God more intelligible in human terms, perhaps what we simply need to do is what God does: to be in relationship within God, One in Three. We do it by relating to the secure, providing, protecting God Who is Parent; by relating to Jesus Who is the only reliable statement, in the flesh, of the real God’s honest-truth, so much so that you and I would stake our very lives on it; finally, by relating to the warming, comforting, helping, loving, yet unseen Present God in the deepest part of our spirits, the Spirit as available and pervasive as the air which keeps us breathing, and yet as elusive as fire. For those who believe in such a relationship, whether bishop or child, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t believe in such a relationship, no explanation is possible.
Borrowing words of St. Paul: “I pray that, according to the riches of [the Father’s] glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,... I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God...” (Ephesians 3:16-19)