patience

This year I am giving the Triduum reflections in the Monastery guesthouse. Below is the last of three reflections. You can read my reflections for Maundy Thursday here and for Good Friday here.


It is often true that painters, novelists, poets, and gardeners are much better at proclaiming the good news of God in Christ than theologians, philosophers, and ministers. Why should that be? For one, artists first ask “what” not “why.” They examine form, color, texture, smell, line, movement. They hone their sight so that, eventually, they are able to see the luminous hidden in the fabric of the created world.

Take this poem by Ross Gay, called “Patience,” an appropriate topic for Holy Saturday:

Call it sloth; call it sleaze;
call it bummery if you please;
I’ll call it patience;
I’ll call it joy, this,
my supine congress
with the newly yawning grass
and beetles chittering
in their offices
beneath me, as I
nearly drifting to dream
admire this so-called weed which,
if I guarded with teeth bared
my garden of all alien breeds,
if I was all knife and axe
and made a life of hacking
would not have burst gorgeous forth and beckoning
these sort of phallic spires
ringleted by these sort of vaginal blooms
which the new bees, being bees, heed;
and yes, it is spring, if you can’t tell
from the words my mind makes
of the world, and everything
makes me mildly or more
hungry—the worm turning
in the leaf mold; the pear blooms
howling forth their pungence
like a choir of wet-dreamed boys
hiking up their skirts; even
the neighbor cat’s shimmy
through the grin in the fence,
and the way this bee
before me after whispering
in my ear dips her head
into those dainty lips
not exactly like one entering a chapel
and friends
as if that wasn’t enough
blooms forth with her forehead dusted pink
like she has been licked
and so blessed
by the kind of God
to whom this poem is prayer.[1]

I don’t know a better hymn to the beauty of God’s creation than this one, or a better encouragement to the kind of objectless waiting that Holy Saturday invites us into. Today we are a people between. The fellowship of our last supper on Thursday has been stripped from us. We have made our way to the foot of the Cross that shatters all meaning even as it proclaims our inseparability from God and one another. And we have not yet, not fully, been resurrected as the beloved community.

A few years ago one heard the popular refrain “we are a Resurrection people,” and its sister slogan “we are an Easter people.” While these phrases speak to the truth of God’s redeeming work, it might be closer to our experience of being human to say that we are a Holy Saturday people.

We are a people between, a people baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, but still waiting for the final consummation of our salvation, for the full resurrection of our bodies and the body of this groaning creation we call home. To put it another way, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We live in the middle phrase of our declaration of faith. Christ is risen, yes, but we are still waiting for his return in glory.

Today, of all days, we need patience. But perhaps, just maybe, that patience could be a kind of reverie, a kind of sloth or sleaze or bummery, if you please. Perhaps that patience could encourage in us a new way of seeing the world, a new way of contemplation.

What is contemplation? In the popular imagination contemplation involves sitting still, often in a dark room, often lit by candles, shadows dancing on the wall, lost in visions of nirvana. In the popular imagination contemplation is an escape from “real life.” But in actuality, contemplation is not an escape from life, but a way of entering life more fully. If you can’t find God while scrubbing the toilet, you won’t find God in church or anywhere else, for that matter.

There is no big bang today, no dramatic events, no Cross, no tomb, no betrayal. There is only emptiness, which is to say there is unlimited space to breathe, to look, to wait, to be. The seed of new and abundant life is planted, and beneath the earth of our bodies it germinates. But it will not bloom until tomorrow.

As we wait for the final blossoming of the Resurrection, we have the opportunity to practice seeing the world with new eyes. We have the opportunity to see ourselves with new eyes, too. Like a poet or a painter, we can practice seeing the divine life hidden in plain sight. In the silver brown flow of the river as it makes its slow way north and then south and then north again; in the spicy sweet smell of the geranium leaves; and in the warm satisfaction of a nap.

There is no greater guide to contemplative sight, to my mind, than the novelist Marilynne Robinson. In her second novel, Gilead, the narrator John Ames is nearing the end of his life. In a letter to his young son, he practices seeing the world for the shining garment that it is:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one to shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.[2]

As we wait, as we watch for the resurrection of Christ, as we immerse ourselves in this beautiful world we might find that, like Ames, it’s difficult to imagine any reality putting this one to shade entirely. We might begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, we’ve gotten this whole salvation thing backwards.

Perhaps, the Resurrection is nothing more and nothing less than the revelation of the wholeness and holiness of this great bright dream of procreating and perishing. Perhaps the light of Easter morning, when it comes, will simply and profoundly reveal that we have been reborn already, that this great big broken exquisite world in which we live is already an empty tomb crying out in praise to its creator.

What if the brokenness, the shattering, the fragments of our lives are, in their human beauty, already magnificently transfigured into the resurrected body of God, which, after all, still bears the marks of the nails and the gash of the spear?

Too often we have the sense that holiness and wholeness are something to be attained, some far off reality that will one day, if we’re just good enough, be given to us by our withholding parent of a God. But it’s just possible that we have, without our knowing it, already entered into wholeness. It’s possible we were born with it, that we’ve never actually been without it. It’s possible that our experiences of brokenness and fragmentation are integral to wholeness, not barriers to it. Humanity and divinity breathing together, like lovers, closer than a kiss. “For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”

While we wait and while we watch, Christ descends into hell to break the hinges of its gates and to set free the souls of the righteous. As he does so, hell becomes a holy place, sanctified by the presence of Christ, its own kind of tabernacle. The boundaries between heaven and hell dissolve, separation ends, there is nothing left out of God’s work of redeeming love. As Thomas Merton told us yesterday, the gate of heaven is everywhere.

The 13th century Flemish beguine Hadewijch of Brabant captures this glorious dissolution:

All things

are too small

to hold me.

I am so vast

 

In the infinite

I reach

for the Uncreated

 

I have

touched it,

it undoes me

wider than wide

 

Everything else

is too narrow

 

You know this well,

you who are also there.[3]

Already, today, right now, as we wait and watch, the Uncreated bears us anew into the world, dissolves us, stretches us wider than wide. We can reach out and touch the Uncreated God, if we dare. We, too, can be undone. We, too, can know it. We are also there, already.

[1] Ross Gay, “Patience,” in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.

[2] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, pp. 56-7.

[3] Hadewijch, “All things are too small,” translated by Jane Hirschfield, in Women in Praise of the Sacred.


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