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Beguiled by Beauty: Abyss, Mystery and Wonder
June 28, 2020 Psalm 135: 1-3, 13-21
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
Throughout this Beguiled by Beauty series, we have been reflecting on the way our image of the Divine influences our image of ourselves and our image of others. When we think of the Divine as good, we are more able to see the goodness in ourselves and others and we actually are drawn more deeply into relationship with this sacred goodness. When we think of the Divine as angry or punishing, we tend to look at ourselves and others in terms of being “good” or “bad” “right” or “wrong” we see our life of faith through the lens of cause and effect and we are more cautious about drawing close to this holy being who might want to punish or reject us. We are learning in this series that how we speak of God matters
In today’s psalm, we hear repeated over and over again the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh which in her introduction to today’s scripture reading, Rev. Carla referred to as “Beautiful Name.” For the Hebrew people of ancient times and for contemporary Jews the name of God is so sacred that when it is written down, only the four consonants YHWH are used. Christians and others have added the vowels a and e to make the word for Yawheh or Jehovah but Jews would translate this word as Lord or Adonai using it to express God who is unknowable.
The other thing we heard in the psalm today was a caution against the idolatry. So sacred was the image of the Divine Being, the Hebrew people were forbidden to even make images to represent it. The second of the ten commandments reflects this when it says “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” a graven image being an idol. In its original context this criticism of the idols of the nations would have been directed at those in ancient Israel who did create images for their gods out of wood, stone or metal or in a relief carving on a wall.
For our purposes today, we might consider that an idol can be almost anything. Anytime we take a thing or idea and make it solid and immovable, anytime we worship something or become obsessed or inordinately attached to something that is temporal, we are creating idols. Money can be an idol, people can become our idols and even our religious traditions and concepts of God can become idols.
If every time you go to church, you sit in the exact same place, you might want to consider the possibility that you have made of that place an idol. If you are having difficulty worshipping God outside of the church, you might want to consider the possibility that you have made of the church an idol. We can even make idols of our cherished hymns and prayers, confusing them between being vehicles for experiencing the presence of God and God.
One of the things I hope we have been experienced in these Covid-19 days is that we can experience the sacred in many places and in many ways, even though I know that many of you are longing to return to experiencing God in this and other familiar places of worship. If that’s the case for you, perhaps this time is an invitation to experience God in new ways or to look for God in new places.
The point is that we can make idols of many, many things including our ideas of who and what God is.
One of my favourite prayers is titled “Not the God we would have chosen” by Walter Brueggeman in which he addresses God in this way:
We would as soon you were stable and reliable. We would as soon you were predictable and always the same toward us. We would like to take the hammer of doctrine and take the nails of piety and nail your feet to the floor and have you stay in one place. And then we find you moving, always surprising us, always coming at us from new directions. Always planting us and uprooting us and tearing all things down and making all things new. You are not the God we would have chosen had we done the choosing, but we are your people and you have chosen us in freedom. We pray for the great gift of freedom that we may be free toward you as you are in your world.”
Free, that is how God is in the world. Free and ultimately indescribable and never, ever fully known. And yet, we have been created in such a way that we are capable of a deep intimacy with Divine Goodness. In each and every one of us, there is a depth where our names run out and we meet a profound silence. We access it through our aching and yearning for this intimacy. To awaken to this bright-dark abyss is to be constantly hungering and constantly fed at the same time. It is a desire to dispossess ourselves of all the thoughts and ideas that create obstacles between ourselves and God.
My own journey into the bright-dark abyss has come through years of prayer and contemplation. Through the practices of Ignatian spirituality in which I have learned to pray both with scripture and the experiences of my life, there have come moments and periods of time, especially on retreats when I have dropped into what is referred to as wordless prayer, a place where my monkey-mind of thinking finally settles and I can just be. I know that many of you access that place through meditation in various traditions. I have also touched this place through a practice called Centering Prayer, which is almost entirely wordless prayer.
Dr. Wendy Farley whose book our series Beguiled by Beauty is named after, says that we can access this part of our being not just through spiritual and religious practices but anytime we enter into the kind of concentration and sometimes lack of concentration that takes us outside of our thinking and into what some folks might call “flow.” We can touch this part of our spirit through singing and dancing or through playing rugby or golf.
When we touch this part of ourselves, we touch creativity, we touch goodness and perhaps the most beautiful part of our being. When we touch this part of our being we find ourselves getting lost and it’s through this lostness we learn to trust God, not our belief about God but God, the great mystery close as breath yet far beyond our knowing.
I found myself this week, thinking a lot about someone in whom I have seen the kind of deep courage and trust that comes from believing in the great mystery that is far beyond our knowing. Brian Swimme is a cosmologist who I was first introduced to several years ago now at a conference. He was the first person to point out to me that we really and truly are stardust, made of the same stuff of the stars and therefore we are capable of doing what the universe is capable of doing. He is the one who revealed to me that we are capable of evolving and generating, self-organizing and giving birth to new realities in the same way the universe does all those things and has done for billions of years. So despite all the ways that we have messed up as human beings, according to Brian Swimme, we also have an even greater capacity to fix and make things new. We don’t always get things right or fixed or made new on the first go. We only need to look at human history to tell us that is true. But Brian Swimme’s trust and belief in the generative power of the mystery that created the sun and the stars and each one of us is so great, he believes and trusts that sometime in the next 100 years or so, we’ll figure out how to reverse the damage we have done to the planet and reverse or at least halt the damage we have done to one another as human beings. So he lives his life with a kind of trust and fearlessness I have rarely witnessed. He has gained that fearlessness through studying the stars, studying the universe and studying the ways the universe is made manifest in our humanity. And yet he is also someone who is completely at ease with mystery and unknowing. Perhaps that’s because he knows the more that we know, the more we know what we don’t know.
Wendy Farley says that we can always tell whether we are worshipping the divine Goodness or an idol of our imagination by the fruits of our worship. Love, compassion, social justice are fruits of a loving God. Cruelty, hubris, selfishness and hostility towards creation, great certainty about who and what God is all suggest that, whatever names we are using, we are worshipping an idol.
How we name and imagine God matters. It affects how we name and imagine ourselves and how we name and imagine others. Brian Swimme names us a place where beauty is being birthed. It comes from his understanding that the Universe is immersed in beauty and it is out of that beauty that we and everyone else is born. We are born in beauty and you and I are places where beauty is born. Thanks be to God.
Father Thomas Keating was a Trappist monk and originators of the method of Centering Prayer I mentioned earlier. He spent his life in contemplation and in teaching about and working towards a world in which all religious traditions would understand themselves as emanating from one source.
On his deathbed in the fall of 2018, 13 days before he passed and after 4 days without saying a word, he suddenly started speaking delivering what would be his final oracle. It included these words:
In the universe, an extraordinary moment of civilization seems to be overtaking us through the great discoveries of science and spirituality. We find ourselves in essentially a new and different place than ever before in history. It is a time of enormous expectancy and possibility. We are called to start, not with the old world contracts now that we know that they are lies, but with what we know is the truth as proved by silence and science. So I call upon the nations to consider this as a possibility, that we should begin a new world with one that actually exists. This is the moment to manifest this world by showing loving concern for poverty, loving appreciation for the needs of the world and opportunities for accelerated development. I make this humble suggestion that now arms making is of no significance in the world. It hinders its progress. This will allow and offer the world the marvellous gift of beginning, creating, of trusting each other, forgiving each other and showing compassion, care for the poor and putting all our trust in the God of heaven and earth. I leave this hope in your hands and hearts.”