“When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”Matthew 10: 19-20
Today is the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr in the Church. The relating of his death in Acts includes the reality to which Stephen is witnessing. “But he, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Behold I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7: 55-56) It is little wonder that we so often reduce the mystery of the religious to codes of conduct and measures of propriety, that the merely ethical becomes the measure of humanity. For, our own spiritual awareness is at once both beckoning and terrifying to us. As we read the infancy narratives and take refuge in their familiarity and domesticity, we can easily overlook that the in-breaking of the Divine is terrifying. Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds, if they are to hear the rest of the message being announced to them, must first be told not to be afraid. It is finally when Stephen declares that he sees the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God that the crowd rushes and stones him.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry when they are taken to court for his sake, for they will be given what to say. At Christmas Eve mass this year, the former pastor of the church we attended quoted in his homily a theologian who, speaking of the infancy narratives said: “Our mistake is that while we are looking in a mirror, we think it is a window.” The sacred words are a mirror into our own reality, but we most often think they are representing an external historical reality. The birth of Jesus is an inner experience. And so too is the experience that Jesus describes to the disciples of being given what we are to say — and do.
If we reflect, most of us know the truth of the experience Jesus is describing. It may be at a moment with a family member or friend, or stranger for that matter, who is suffering and distraught and to whom, despite our own sense of insecurity and fear, we are able to utter a word or communicate a presence that is helpful. It may be in the midst of a work that is most important to us, that what comes out of us so far exceeds that of which we felt capable. It may be at a personal moment of great fear or stress or even dread, when we discover a ground or foundation that has a strength we thought impossible. For the most part, such experiences seem to be somewhat rare and sporadic, but they convey a profound and unforgettable truth nonetheless. That truth is that for all the time of our lives we spend in the mode of management and control, our being-in-the world is a living in the Mystery. The key question at the beginning of John’s gospel is that of the first disciples to Jesus: “Teacher, where do you live?” (John 1:38). Jesus’ answer later in the gospel is that he lives with his Father and so does only what he sees the Father doing.” (John 5: 19) Since this is the truth of his life, he can assure the disciples that they, as he, will be given what to do and say, if they are able to receive it.
An early Christmas gift I received was the Kindle version of a new memoir by the religion scholar Elaine Pagels entitled Why Religion?: A Personal Story. Despite her scholarly credentials, this is not an academic study. Rather it is an intensely personal and painful account of the incredible losses of her early life, first her child to disease and then her husband in a freak climbing accident. The day before her husband’s funeral she receives a visit in her New York apartment from Abbot Thomas Keating. After her children were asleep, he suggests to her that they meditate together, and so they spend over an hour in silence. As seen in the description below, Elaine Pagels has an experience during that hour that she describes as follows: “. . . as though waves of energy were coming toward me from various directions, like waves and ripples in an ocean, as though people were sending me energy; but I have no idea from whom they came.” Abbot Keating enters into the presence of a “distraught” Elaine Pagels without a worry about what he is to say or do. As Jesus responds to the disciples question of where he lives by inviting them to “Come and see.”, so Keating invites Pagels to enter into that place where Jesus lives and there to know the life that is his, and so our own deepest and truest life.
In The Republic Plato likens our ordinary life to that of persons who are bound in a cave, only able to see the shadows of reflection on the wall. For the most part, he believes, we do not really know who we are, of the light that exists just outside of the cave in which we are shackled. In 1897 Paul Gauguin in the midst of a deep despair resolved to kill himself. Yet, before attempting to do so (and failing), he feverishly worked day and night and in a month completed his famous work, D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. now displayed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Because he failed in his attempt to end his life, we have later personal commentary on the work itself and on his process of painting it. He described the process in this way:
“But there is also this question which perplexes me: Where does the execution of a painting begin, and where does it end? At the very moment when the most intense emotions fuse in the depths of one’s being, at the moment when they burst forth and issue like lava from a volcano, is there not something like the blossoming of the suddenly created work, a brutal work, if you wish, yet great, and superhuman in appearance? The cold calculations of reason have not presided at this birth; who knows when, in the depths of the artist’s soul the work was begun unconsciously perhaps?”
Gaugin describes how the most significant creative work comes from a place in or about us that is far beyond “the cold calculations of reason.” This is the place from which issues the work we have been given to do. As the citizens of Plato’s cave, we spend most of our days and expend most of our efforts working with and about shadows of reality. This is not because “the common, the ordinary, and the unspectacular” are not themselves real. It is rather that we are not present to them in their full reality. When Stephen expresses the fuller truth that he recognizes, those around him are furious because they are terrified. We kill the prophets and the martyrs because their recognition and expression of the truth of Mystery are threatening to us. And we repress the mystery in our own life and consciousness for the same reason.
So, the meaning of what we could call prayer and spiritual practice is the ongoing reformation and habituation of ourselves to the “more than” that suffuses all of our life and world. For many of us, the temptation we would be experiencing in going to visit a friend who was as deeply pained and distraught as Elaine Pagels would be to utter a simplistic or pietistic untruth about the death of her husband and son and her dark experience of the loss. We would do so because that depth of experience, of emotion as Gauguin expresses it, frightens us. Abbot Keating, however, is not afraid of the dark. He is accustomed to being with the darkness of life because he knows the extraordinary light that constitutes it. As Plato’s cave-dwellers must very slowly become accustomed to the light, so must we. And so, Keating invites Pagels to sit in the pain and the darkness, for what would seem to most of us a very long and uncomfortable time. He can do this because, he has learned over time and practice that, even in the darkness, “all will be well.” The pain and loneliness does not magically disappear for Pagels. Yet, she experiences the deep truth of communion, and feels the waves of energy coming to her from all around, from places and persons she does not know or recognize. The pain of her experience remains, but she now knows a different energy and way of being in the depth of her experience.
Pagels writes that Keating knew immediately what she was speaking about because “having spent over 50 years in contemplative practice, he seemed to inhabit such states of being and find them familiar.” Even in the course of this life, Keating came to live where Jesus lives. In his contemplative practice, he followed Jesus’ instruction to come and see. This experience does not remove us from the reality of our daily lives. In fact, it leads us to live and appropriate them all more fully. What it does do, however, is to allow us to live our experiences not closed in on themselves but open to the Mystery that is the ground of all life. There is an “energy” which precedes and suffuses all that we know and are. To live from the depth of our humanity is to know that energy, which we call love, as “common to all.” To become this fully human, however, requires of us that our eyes slowly become accustomed to the light. So, we must learn to spend time attenuating all in our lives that dulls our spiritual sight. This means practicing presence, which often first requires overcoming our fear of a love that, as Dostoevsky said, often seems to us “a harsh and dreadful thing.” For to really know love, we must be willing to relinquish all in and around us that we take to be love. We must enter into and so appropriate our lives in a way of solitude in which no one can follow us. Yet, it is precisely there that we encounter waves of energy from countless directions, the love that is at once both unique and common.
The night before the service, deeply distraught, I answered the phone. Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and spiritual father of the Colorado monastery, called to say that he was in New York visiting his sister. “Might I stop by for a visit?” Surprised and relieved to hear his voice, I said, “Yes, of course, Thomas; I didn’t know that monks made house calls!” When he arrived that evening after the children were asleep, he suggested that we meditate. When we did, his presence, like Theophane’s in the monastery chapel, felt like a deep anchor into the unknown. After we sat together in silence for more than an hour, I asked about something strange that happened during the meditation. “Thomas, I felt as though waves of energy were coming toward me from various directions, like waves and ripples in an ocean, as though people were sending me energy; but I have no idea from whom they came. What–if anything–do you make of this?” Before that time, when someone said to me “I’m praying for you,” I’d assumed that this was a vague gesture, a nod to good intentions, the pious equivalent of saying “Let’s have lunch sometime.” So that evening I was surprised, not having imagined that actual transactions might occur, as, in that extraordinarily susceptible state, I felt that they had. Thomas simply nodded and said, “Yes, that is what sometimes happens.” Having spent over fifty years in contemplative practice, he seemed to inhabit such states of being, and find them familiar.Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?: A Personal Story, p. 128