But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.
1 Thessalonians 5: 4-6
On September 1 a piece by Benjamin Ramm in the Arts section of the New York Times related the controversy surrounding the restoration of the magnificent Cathedral in Chartres, France. The interior of the Cathedral as well as all of the windows and the art within have been cleaned of centuries of accumulated smoke and dust and so have been restored to something of its original state. As I read of the restoration, controversial in the sense that for years the “experience” of the Cathedral has involved the pervading darkness that has come to be associated in our minds with great Gothic cathedrals, I recalled visiting Chartres many years ago. While visiting we took part in a tour by Malcolm Miller, a long time guide and student of the Cathedral. At one point he asked us to use our imaginations and to re-conceive the interior in its sparkling original state. He referenced the description of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation, and he described what the experience would be at certain times of day when the sunlight radiated directly through the bright stained glass windows and reflected the colors throughout the sparkling white interior of the Cathedral.
For those who inhabited the town and the farms and villages surrounding the Cathedral and whose lives were characterized by struggle and poverty, entering it would have provided a strikingly sensate experience of the biblical description. They would know, more fully than merely cognitively, that they were, amidst the darkness of their daily lives, also children of the light. By entering the extraordinary beauty and light of this space, they would know first-hand that they were citizens of two worlds, and that transcendence was truly a reality for them.
For us who live in a highly secular age, there is not a compelling story, let alone experience, that sheds light on a tension that we know and experience no less than our forebears, that is, the tension of knowing that we have no lasting home on this earth. Because the traditional story had, over time, become distorted if not perverted into a means of maintaining power and the status quo over the poor and oppressed, it became rejected, largely justly, by those seeking to enhance the promise of peace and justice in this life and world. In our time, however, we are now beginning to question many of the outlines of that secular project. Humanity’s efforts to improve our lot as a whole and the desire for and sense of human progress which so animated that project are once again revealing themselves as intermittent and weak. It seems as if there is no human attempt to ameliorate suffering that does not also contain elements of power and manipulation. As we see in today’s gospel from Luke, there are demons that persist among us; evil as well as good runs through the hearts of all of us.
If once the religious or spiritual conflict was manifested in a tendency to escapism from the reality of this world, for us formed by a dominantly secular formation tradition, the conflict we experience is that of rage and frustration at our inability to transform the world as we believe it needs to be transformed. It is as if we are attempting to clean the Cathedral by means of a toothbrush and, thus, burning ourselves out at the futility of the project. Perhaps in some ways, the secular mindset is not all that different from the heresy of Pelagius. We are left to our own designs and confined, individually and communally, by our own limits.
This conflict and tension we experience both on the individual and on the communal and global levels. There is the experience of the current American President who felt such confidence in his own ability to find a way to provide healthcare for all of his citizens, until he actually engaged the problem, at which point he realized that “This is more complicated than anyone knew.” We all share something of this human pride and arrogance. In so many areas, we all think we have the idea that will make the difference, until, in fact, we attempt to apply those ideas to the actual situation.
In 1 Thessalonians we hear that most human beings are asleep, and those who are children of the light must remain “alert and sober” if they are not to fall into darkness as well. To be a believer does not mean that the conflict between the light and the dark dissolves for us. At every moment of our personal lives, as well as in our life of service to the world, we experience the conflict and tension between the light and the dark, not only in the world but in our own hearts. We know, as Thornton Wilder writes in Our Town, “that there is something eternal about every human being.” As the Gospel of John tells us: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17: 3) On the one hand, we know the light, the truth of eternal life in God; on the other, we live in a world that is finite and mortal in all of its aspects. The farmers and villagers of the vicinity of Chartres created a magnificent, almost unbelievably so, space where they could enter on a Sabbath morning and be flooded in their every sense with the light of eternity. Then, they would leave and for the remainder of their week struggle with the injustices and illnesses, the conflicts and the impoverishment, of their daily lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose commitment to justice in this world cost him his life, reminds us that “one does not ask eternities from life.” We human beings will never bring about the new heavens and the new earth. We must not ask that of life, but rather take “from life what life can offer.” We work in service of love, justice, and peace not for a result we can see but because it is in service to a truth that we know in faith. We, as the people of Chartres, must maintain in our lives a rhythm of prayer and action, of work and rest, of engagement and solitude and silence. We human beings do not like to live in tension. So, we can resolve the tension of the worldly and the eternal by seeking to escape the worldly or to escape the eternal.
A perennial question for me is how are there persons in history and in our present time who can maintain their “resistance” to evil and poverty and injustice over the long haul. Why is it that for most of us our engagement and resistance last for as long as we can stoke our anger, resentment, and rage, but then it dissipates into the “sleep” of not caring. It well may be that what is required of us is the effort to “stay alert and sober.” We stay awake and alert to the degree that we remain present to our deepest inner life. This is where the interior life and the “active” life meet. When our activity is the fruit of our unique enduring call, we are fully awake as we act. We do not ask eternities from life, and we do not fall prey to the frustrations of the ego. Rather, the love that we are, a love that is God’s gift to us, flows through us as a spring whose source is eternal. When we act only from our pride form, our own desire for glory, we very quickly discover that things are more complicated than anyone knew. We don’t have the solutions to the world’s sufferings and problems, but we can, in our own limited way, serve to heal and alleviate them. It won’t matter that they will always be with us. This is the meaning of the Cross. God is with us in our suffering; not hidden beyond it waiting for us to achieve the eternal by our own efforts.
But where it is recognized that the power of death is broken,
where the mystery of the resurrection and of the new life
shines into the midst of the world of death,
there one does not ask eternities from life,
there one takes from life what life can offer—
not everything or nothing, but good and evil,
important and unimportant, joy and pain;
there one does not frantically hold on to life,
nor does one throw it foolishly away;
there one is content with measured time
and does not attribute eternity to earthly things;
there one leaves to death the limited right it still has.
The new human being and the new world
one then expects only from beyond death,
from the power that surmounted death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Mystery of Easter, p. 19