"I Have Much More to Say to You"
Lessons from a Love Story
For Sunday May 30, 2010
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31
"I have much more to say to you," Jesus told his disciples (John 16:12).
After three tumultuous years with Jesus, I imagine the disciples were exasperated by these words: "You mean there's more?!" But beyond exasperation, I'm sure they also felt a sense of expectation and even longing: "There's more to come. There's more to my story. I'm not stuck in past failures or present fears. What more does the resurrected Lord have for me?"
"I have much more to say to you." How so, when, and where? What is the "much more" promised by Jesus to his followers?
According to the church's liturgical calendar, the weeks after Pentecost are called "ordinary time." Lenten disciplines are long gone, Easter festivities have faded from memory, and now Pentecost is past. With no fasts or feast days, we're in ordinary time. But it's precisely in this ordinary time that we experience the "much more" promised by Jesus. The "more" that he promised is sometimes in the "less" of our lives.
The Latina theologian María Isasi-Díaz describes this intersection of the sacred and the mundane, the unexpected and the unexceptional, as "the daily thing" or "sacred ordinariness" (lo cotidiano). When you don't get what you want or expect, God gives you something more, something unexpected.
In Quaker spirituality, the ordinary takes center stage. With no creed, no liturgy, no sacred place defined by special architecture, no observance of holy days, no sacraments, and no professional clergy, Quaker simplicity revolves around silence, both in personal spirituality and in corporate worship. In the inner solitude of the human heart we meet the Lord of all time and space.
In the Celtic tradition, "thin places" are where the sacred and the profane intersect, times when the spiritual permeates the material. Thin spaces are the ordinary places and spaces of life where we sense God's extraordinary grace. Esther de Waal, a historian of Celtic spirituality, says that one of the gifts of Celtic life was that “it was a practice in which ordinary people in their daily lives took the tasks that lay to hand but treated them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality which lay beyond them. It is an approach to life which we have been in danger of losing, this sense of allowing the extraordinary to break in on the ordinary” (Nora Gallagher).
"Sacred ordinariness" requires a counter-intuitive and counter-cultural way of seeing the world. The Psalmist for this week reminds us that the God whose majesty extends throughout the cosmos is the same God who silences the mighty with songs of babes (8:2). Similarly, Paul urges his Roman readers to face suffering with joy instead of despair, for nothing can separate them from the love that God has lavished on them. They have every reason to believe that their hope will not disappoint them, contrary to external appearances (Romans 5:1–5).
Of course, there's a big difference between loving what God gives and longing for our own fantasies. The latter is a set-up for deep disappointment; whereas the former is a path to Christian maturity. Mature faith does not anticipate a pre-determined outcome. The British novelist and poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861–1907) captures such true faith in her poem After Saint Augustine:
Sunshine let it be or frost,
Storm or calm, as Thou shalt choose;
Though Thine every gift were lost,
Thee Thyself we could not lose.
The "more" that God gives to us, says Coleridge, is Himself in his intimacy.
"Pray not to this end," advised Evagrius of Ponticus (345–399) in his Chapters on Prayer, "that your own desires be fulfilled. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that 'Thy will be done' in me. In every matter ask him in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as he does."
Evagrius learned this lesson from painful personal experience. Palladius (c. 400) tells us that in his younger years Evagrius fell in love with the wife of an imperial official in Constantinople. "The woman loved him in return," writes Palladius, whereas Evagrius "wished to break off with the woman, who by now was eager and frantic, but he could not do so, so caught up was he in the bonds of concupiscence."
After a disturbing dream, the next day Evagrius boarded a ship for Jerusalem. There he met the famous Melania, one of the wealthiest women of her time, who was also deeply committed to the monastic movement. After a severe sickness that lasted six months, Evagrius "confessed the whole story" to Melania. She advised him to flee to the desert. Evagrius did just that. For the last sixteen years of his life one of the greatest and most refined Christian intellectuals of his day submitted himself to the unlettered Coptic peasants of the harsh Egyptian desert. Today he's recognized as one of the most distinguished practitioners and guides of the early desert fathers.
What did Evagrius learn in the desert? Among other things, he learned to set aside his own desires and to love the love of God. If and when we do that, he says, in words that echo the gospel for this week, "the Lord wishes to confer even greater favors than those you ask for."
For further reflection:
Cf. the hymn by George Croly (1780–1860), Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
and make me love thee as I ought to love.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies;
but take the dimness of my soul away.
Has thou not bid me love thee, God and King?
All, all thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
I see thy cross; there teach my heart to cling.
O let me seek thee, and O let me find.
Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh;
teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Teach me to love thee as thine angels love,
one holy passion filling all my frame;
the kindling of the heaven-descended Dove,
my heart an altar, and thy love the flame.
Image credits: (1–4) California wild flowers, spring 2010 by Bill Newsome.