On the Surface of the Deep
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 20, 2016
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (10:38-42; 11:27-28)
Last week we spoke of action, this week let’s talk about contemplation, the “Mary and Martha” of life.
Knowing about Jesus and knowing Him are not the same. Being a Christian and following Christ are not synonymous. Who is it we are actually following?
One of my dearest spiritual sons just returned from a trip to Mississippi where he went to visit a friend and go to a football game. There he saw something he had never seen before: a real live and growing cotton field. In many ways it seemed to him that he had traveled back into time. Very little seemed to have changed there. It made him wonder. How could it be that the white slave owners could worship a Christ who condoned slavery while, at the same time nearby slaves were worshipping a Christ who came to deliver them from slavery?
The answer is simple. We like to create Christ in our own image; a Christ to justify our lives, who thinks and acts like us, who doesn’t challenge our assumptions and certainly doesn’t question us or disagree with us or demand anything of us. In other words, a Christ we can ignore. So, how do we know who he really is? How do we come to truly know Him as He is?
Another of my spiritual sons who is very dear to me introduced himself at confession at the Antiochian Village Camp one summer about 15 years ago. I recall that it was a profound confession. Afterwards he looked at me and said something no one had ever said to me before. He said, “I want to know who you are.” That began a wonderful and intimate relationship that literally changed our lives. That is how we must approach the Lord – with infinite curiosity saying, “I want to know who you are.”
First, we must let go of our beliefs and concepts about him. Julian of Norwich addresses this from her experience, “Only in the falling apart of your own foundation can you experience God as your real foundation.” And then we need to wait patiently, quietly in this foundationless place for him to reveal himself in his own time. Relationships must never be forced, particularly divine ones.
Mary did this. She sat at his feet and listened. She did not say prayers, or ask questions, or discuss theology with him. She bonded with him in silence. This, Jesus proclaimed, is the one, needful thing. She sought to know him as he is.
“What do you see,” St. Symeon asks, “When you look within?” “Chaos,” Symeon replied to his own question. What is the solution to this chaos? Do not be discouraged or distracted by what you see. Stay there, breathe in and out and watch and try not to trouble the water anymore. “Soon,” he says, “a great space will open within.” It is a place of peace and calm. It is the place Mary discovered as she sat at the Lord’s feet and listened.
To follow Christ we must desire to know him as he truly is, not as we think or believe him to be, or worse, want him to be, like Pharisees, like Judas, and like Satan who tried to manipulate him to care only for himself desiring the false comforts of power and earthly glory, tempting him to betray himself, as we so often fall to the temptation to betray ourselves.
This path demands much courage and faith for it is the path of transformation. Priorities will change. The way we think, feel and act will change. This is why we resist. Change is hard and if we are comfortable as we are or imagine we are, then we will never take this road. We will resist the truth, preferring ignorance over communion.
“All my righteousness is as filthy rags,” the apostle cried when he encountered the Lord, just as Thomas Aquinas declared at the end of his life, “All I have written is straw” and retreated into solitude. This road is not easy. It is the Way of the Cross.
Here is a truth: spiritual growth is not by addition, it is by subtraction. We let go of what is imperfect, for what is better proceeding to what is perfect and we find it where we find him, inside. “God comes to us disguised as our life,” as Paula D’Arcy so beautifully writes and as Teresa of Avila says, “we find God in ourselves and ourselves in God.” This oneness is both joyful and sorrowful for it opens us to the joys and suffering of the world and once this happens, we can no longer look away. It becomes ours.
Don’t you feel the ache of the world sometimes in those lonely nighttime hours when the TV and computer is off and everyone is asleep, solitude comes crashing in and your heart begins to break, tears start to flow and you don’t even know why? It is the suffering of the world and the ocean of tears that lies hidden under the surface of awareness. In the stillness and quiet of the lonely night it is the Lord calling us. The mystery is this: Touch the ocean of tears and you touch the Spirit of God that hovers over the waters. He is making a new creation there. Gaze into the ocean and see. The face of God appears reflected on the surface of the deep. A new baptism awaits. The baptism of tears.
One more quote from Fr. Michael Plekon to end this, “Prayer does not drive us from the world or restrict our being, but in the contrary, it opens and widens our love, our service.”
Our mission is to welcome this transformation and translate it into the world. This is our sole purpose, to be faithful to Christ as he is and become ourselves, so utterly selfless that all we desire is to practice compassion and bring peace to our world.