God is with us whether we notice or not...

NOTE:  Here is part of my weekly note to my congregation - with additional amplification offered at the close.  At the end of each week I share a brief reflection along with reminders of prayers and programs.  This week's note evoked another part to my on-going series re: a spirituality of NOT wasting our time.

This week our small "Meeting God at the Movies" group watched Kieslowski's "The Decalogue - Part One" together on Wednesday evening. It is a challenging and harrowing retelling of the first commandment:  Thou shall have no other gods before me.  The director, a product of both the collapse of communism in Poland and a lapsed Polish Catholic spirituality, wrestles to show how people deal with suffering when they no longer have faith in technology, progress or religion.  To say that his conclusion is grim understates the truth.  This film is saturated in grey.  It is consumed with social and personal despair.  And it is one hundred and eighty degrees from most Hollywood melodramas.  With subtlety and quiet tenderness, Kieslowski suggests that God's presence is always with and within us whether we recognize it or not.  Further, he observes that God weeps with us and shares our agony in hard times, implying that no matter what we feel or think, we are never truly alone. 

I mention this film - and our subsequent conversation - for two reasons. Everywhere we look there is suffering - and if we are observing any spiritual practices during Lent we will be seeing it afresh.  Think of the chaos that has erupted in North Adams after the closing of their hospital for people throughout the region. Or cast your eyes in the direction of Ft. Hood where, once again, a soldier has turned his weapon upon brothers and sisters in arms as well as himself with more senseless deaths.  From Afghanistan and the Crimea to Subsaharan African and the Americas, suffering is writ large for those with eyes to see. And, at the same time, there is the presence of the Lord bringing the beauty of each day to the just and unjust alike without any participation from us.  There are acts of kindness breaking out, too in the most unlikely places from the most unusual people.  

As we enter the closing weeks of Lent, we are asked to seek out a sense of paradox:  we acknowledge both great agony alongside tender compassion.  Like the mother of our Lord, Mary, the best we can do is hold all these things in our hearts and ponder them without complete clarity of their meaning. All we know for certain is that they draw us closer to the mystery of the Cross.  

Most of our culture doesn't think about the Cross of Christ - in this season or any other - we're too busy, too frightened, too addicted, too distracted, too uncertain and too offended.  Like the apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians:  The Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being made whole it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Some will demand signs (proof) while others will seek wisdom... and to them we look to Christ crucified knowing that God's foolishness is greater than human wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. 

That is why over and over again during Lent we are asked to step back from our ordinary activity for a time to make room for the Cross of Jesus.  As contemplatives in a stressed-out society we are encouraged to take "a long, loving look at reality."  To notice the suffering and the beauty, the pain and the hope, the presence of God in creation and in human history.  

Both aspects of God's presence are vital for mature people of faith:  I do not
believe that God is limited in history to human activity. Not only would that render God not God, but it would discount creation itself. It would denigrate a spirituality of Sabbath as well.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes the whole point of Sabbath is to help us trust that God is God.  If we can learn to practice letting go and trusting that creation and politics and all the rest of our realities can continue without us for 24 hours, then maybe we can extend this trust beyond the Sabbath.  Maybe we can learn to live with uncertainty and mystery rather than assume we can understand everything and control it, too.  
Sabbath spirituality, it seems to me, invites humility. It is counter-cultural, it is post-modern and it is paradoxical.  It is also the only way I know how to hold both suffering and beauty together as equal realities.  It is the only way I know how to honor both the light and the darkness, the full and the empty, the cataphatic and apophatic theologies that point to the Via Positivia and the Via Negativia.  How does Jesus put it:  doesn't God make the sun shine upon the just and the unjust alike?  Or in an equally paradoxical insight, the opening words of St. John's gospel tells us that in Jesus the Word of God became Flesh.

Here is one of the places where the wisdom and spirituality of the Virgin Mary becomes essential. My hunch is that many in the Reformed tradition, who have no working intimacy with the way of Mary, find themselves addicted to the quest for "answers" because we don't know how to "hold ALL these things in our hearts together to ponder them." The wisdom and methodology of science and rationality have become idols for us (as Kieslowski points out in his film.) Thus we think that Mariology is merely medieval and superstitious. The tender, paradoxical Virgin who gave birth to our Lord scares us.  The energy of the Theotokos - Mother of God - baffles us because what does Mary do but contemplate, hold seemingly opposite realities together in her heart and trust the Lord profoundly? 

At the end of her son's life, with Jesus on the Cross, she doesn't find answers to the questions she's been wrestling with all her life.  No, all Jesus tells her is: woman, behold thy son.  Mother, take THIS in, too.  Contemplate it. Live with it in tension. Trust that the wisdom of the Cross is both stronger and wiser than all the alternatives.  At the end of Kieslowski's first film, after the rage and despair of a grieving father causes him to topple a make-shift altar in a church causing candles and wax to fly everywhere, the camera moves to the icon of the Theotokos - the Virgin and Child - as the scattered wax drips and dries. As the lens zooms closer, it looks as if the Virgin is weeping.


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