Wednesday, October 11, 2017

TALES OF THE MYSTIC JOURNEY - JACOB



The tale of Jacob spans a large portion of the Book of Genesis, beginning at the death of Abraham in chapter twenty-five and technically ends with his death at the end of Genesis in chapter fifty.  For the purpose of this post we will concentrate on stories specifically related to his personal journey which extends from chapter twenty-five through chapter thirty-three.

What we begin to see and what we will look for in these tales are common markers indicative of the mystic journey that became established in the story of Abraham.  Admittedly, I am being selective in whose tale I am examining.  There are mystic elements to most every personal story in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. My intent in this discussion of the mystic journey is to look at those tales that provide insights into the patterns found in them and in the collective journey we share with them.

ISAAC AND REBECCA


The tale of Jacob is one of the most important stories of the mystic journey.  Jacob's entire life story is cast in a mystic light.  Like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca finds having children difficult.  Jacob's birth comes wrapped in a prophecy that was given to Rebecca.  He is portrayed as the product of a divine vision, a traveler on the path to Paradise Regained and the father of nation that furthers the fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham.

TWIN PRINCIPLES


Jacob is the second-born of twins; his brother Esau being the first.  By ancient tradition, Esau is Isaac's heir by birthright. Through Jacob and Esau, the writers of Genesis present two principles that shape human perception and guides human interaction; the feminine and masculine principles.

Esau and Jacob are not identical twins.  They don't look alike, sound alike, or think alike. They don't even smell alike.  They are dichotomous and are portrayed as polar opposites.  Esau presents the masculine principle, which reflects an instinct-based intellect.  On the other hand, Jacob presents the feminine principle which reflects an intuition-based intellect.  To further highlight these two principles, Isaac is said to favor Esau and Rebecca is said to favor Jacob.

In terms of mysticism, the feminine principle appears more operative.  This, of course, has nothing to do with gender identification or preference, but rather a way of perceiving and processing life.  Esau lives in and only for the moment; so much so, that he lacks appreciation for consequences of his actions and has little time for subtleties as these tend to interfere with an instinctual response his he relies on at any given moment. This is how he is able to survive in the wilderness amongst the wild game he hunts.  Tomorrow is nothing more than another today. His world is the world of the hunter and the hunted.  He sees himself as a rugged individualist, a manly-man, an adventurer, self-assured, and comfortable with his place in the world because he knows he is favored by Isaac.  As such, he demonstrates certitude and an impetuous demeanor that leads him to disregard what others are thinking and doing.  After all, when he receives Isaac's blessing (so he believes) they will be his servants.

Jacob, on the other hand, appears content with the moment, but Jacob possesses a subtle nature, one that is almost serpentine.[1] The writers of Genesis go out of their way to portray Jacob as being a somewhat effeminate boy, having soft smooth skin, soft-spoken, a homebody doing what most would have considered woman's work in his day.

ESAU IN A STEW

Jacob is a making a lentil stew when Esau returns from a particularly rough hunt which leaves him famished. Seeing the stew that Jacob had made, Esau demands that he is given some.  Jacob intuitively sees and seizes an opportunity to set the stage for obtaining Isaac's blessing and responds that he will give Esau some stew on the condition that Esau gives him his birthright. Jacob not only gives him the stew but also bread to go along with it. This is what a good servant would be expected to do.

Esau doesn't bat an eye at the request and being hungry agrees to get what he wants at the moment.  He doesn't take Jacob seriously and does not consider that others are listening to this exchange.  In fact, Genesis does not mention any witnesses to this event.  What it says is that "Esau despised his birthright."[2]

JACOB'S DECEPTION

Few today would take Esau's selling of his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew seriously.  Surely, he must have been kidding.  To make it a more damning case, Jacob deceives and lies to his father, Isaac in order to receive his blessing. Jacob impersonated Esau. And true to his serpentine nature, sheds his own persona and covered his skin with wool to make Isaac, who was blind, believe Jacob was Esau.

The writers of Genesis ensure that there is a strong case against Jacob that would span the ages. There is no justification for his behavior.  The fact that Rebecca received a prophecy indicating the ascendancy of Jacob is no justification for the means by which he ascended. The writers intent is to demonstrate that God's good will is worked even in less then stellar incidents.

ISAAC'S INTEGRITY

Isaac plays a relatively small role in Genesis, but a significant one.  The deception of Jacob reveals Isaac's integrity.  The most important moment in this twisted tale of family dysfunction is when Isaac refuses to give his blessing to Esau once Jacob's deception is revealed.  By any standard, ancient or modern, Isaac would have been justified in condemning and cursing Jacob, but he doesn't. In fact when Jacob flees the scene, it isn't because he fears Isaac. It's because he understandably fears Esau, a fear that will follow him along his journey to transfiguration.[3]

Isaac loves both his sons, but his blessing is not something he gives willy-nilly because it is a blessing of God he is only transferring - something given to him - an act of grace that cannot be requested nor denied once given. It is a sacred, holy act.  As saddened and as disappointed as he may have felt, Isaac knew that a course had been set that could not be changed.  Isaac's integrity reflects God's integrity - a willingness to live with and work through the serpentine twists and turns of the human experience.

DREAMS

Jacob is sent to seek a wife from his amongst his uncle Laban's daughters. It is on his journey there that he is awakened in a dream to the reality that he has embarked on a mystical journey to fulfill the covenant made between God and his grandfather, Abraham.

Dreams are one of the means by which one personally becomes aware of being on a mystical journey.  It is possible that we all have mystical dreams; that is, the dream or dreams that stick with us, that we don't - can't forget - dreams that guide us in some way or another - become touchstones that give meaning to certain events in our lives when they occur or after we sit down and try to make sense of something that feels oddly familiar, yet unexplained.   We may not know what these dreams mean at the time, but we sense a meaning to them that sometimes becomes clear decades later.  Most of us, like Peter, James, and John in the story of the Transfiguration found in the synoptic gospels, don't share them because, like their vision of the transfigured Christ, our dreams frequently do not make a lot of sense at the time. 

Jacob's dream at Bethel, however, has an obvious meaning.  It is making it clear that he is on a journey that was started by his grandfather, Abraham, and continuing with him.  Jacob's ladder or staircase is a clear reference to his being on path that ends in paradise regained.  The dream serves to embolden him with a sense of purpose that will see him through the twist and turns of life as he encounters them. In fact, I think it safe to say all dreams of mystical nature keep us engaged with life as its pathways unfold.

Jacob's dream has two purposes - a personal one for Jacob in fathering the tribes of Israel and a cosmic one.  Paradise regained sees fulfillment in the idea of Israel becoming a nation - and it is retained in the idea of all nations becoming blessed through it.  In other words, Jacob's dream is meant for all of us.  We are all caught up in the dream - the idea - of becoming that was given to Jacob at Bethel.  The mystical journey on this side of life is always about becoming, always about the journey.

PAUSE

In every tale of the mystic journey, we encounter what I have termed pause - a period of time - sometimes a long period of time when the journey is put on hold.  Sometimes pause is a matter of seconds, as in the case of Isaac. In Isaac's case, pause occurred when he was about to be sacrificed.   It is the moment just before transfiguration.  Isaac was transfigured from victim to one restored.

For Jacob, pause occurs when he seeks a wife, finds Rachel, and then is deceived by his uncle and soon to be father-in-law, Laban, into marrying Leah.  Jacob works for Laban seven years, on the basis that he will marry Rachel.  When he is deceived into marrying Leah, Jacob ends up working another seven years after marrying Rachel. 

 Much can be said about the apparent dysfunctional relationships that are threaded through these stories.  The point, I believe, in telling them is to say that they can become tools that shape us along the way.  In Jacob's case he becomes a man of integrity- a man of his word.  Even though he loves Rachel more than Leah he has children by Leah and her servant as well as Rachel's servant and Rachel.  Jacob prospers in his twenty years of service to Laban.  Laban becomes increasingly jealous with Jacob's success and it is time for Jacob to leave.  True to form, it is a dream in which an angel of God informs Jacob to move on with Laban in hot pursuit because Jacob takes what was owed him and it was plenty. 

 Laban, himself, is warned in a dream not to say anything to Jacob.  They meet and make a covenant with each other, then leave and live in peace.  The pause has ended and Jacob journeys towards transfiguration.

TRANSFIGURATION 

Jacob returns to his home turf where Esau and his tribe also live.  He wishes to live in peace in with his twin, but he knows that Esau has every right to seek revenge on him for stealing his birthright.  It is interesting that Genesis mentions in chapter thirty-two that Jacob is met on the way by angels of God.  There is nothing said about what took place in that encounter. What we are led to think is that the place where they met (called the Camp of God) is the place where Jacob will meet God.  Was Jacob being prepped for what was about to take place? 


In reading these accounts there are repetitive themes and events in all of the tales involving Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.  Isaac lies about Rebecca being his sister to avoid being killed, just like Abraham lied about Sarah being his sister on two occasions.  Abraham meets angels and so does Jacob.  Their similarities are like experiencing a repetitive dream and perhaps that's the point the writers are making - there is something large and mystical taking place here - that are shaping events – markers - telling the reader this is all one journey, just different pieces and players, but it is a collective journey – a shared journey – our journey towards transfiguration.


Jacob's transfiguration occurs in the darkness of night - a metaphor, perhaps, for the dark place he feels he is at.    When his servants return to tell him that Esau is coming his way with four hundred men, Jacob sends servant with copious gifts to give to his brother Esau in the hope of assuaging any anger or resentment he may have towards Jacob.  Jacob is in a state of panic and fears for the safety of his family.  Jacob separates himself from his family and Genesis says he was "left alone... ."  In the same sentence. Genesis says, "... and a man wrestled with him till daybreak."

 What are we to make of such an inconsistent statement?  Was Jacob alone?  Who was the man wrestling with him?  Where did he come from? 

The fact that there are no good answers to any of those questions lead us to the visionary - the waking dream - the mystical.  This was a personal moment for Jacob - a moment of transition, reconfiguration - a moment of transfiguration.  In some sense one can see this moment as Jacob wrestling with himself - his doubts, his deceit, his faith in God, and in his own ability.  He is weakened by the "man" who touches and wounds his hip, but Jacob finds the strength not let go of the man. 

Suddenly we find ourselves in an intuitive situation - that becomes inquisitive. The man asks Jacob to identify himself and when Jacob tells him his name, the man says, "You will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."  Jacob tells this unknown man in the dark, "I will not let you go until you bless me?"  

 This is such a heavy moment that one is tempted to psychoanalyze it, but there is a deeper mystical agenda being played out here because Jacob insists that the man he is struggling himself reveal his name and the man replies, "Why do you ask?"  The question that awakens Jacob's intuition to the situation.

Then the man blesses Israel (Jacob) and Jacob recognizes the man as God - "I saw God face to face and lived."  I would like to think that the face, Jacob ultimately saw in the dark was his own - the divine image of God as himself.

 It is noteworthy that the writers continue to refer to Jacob as both Israel and Jacob.  Transfiguration does not change us outwardly, but inwardly.  Transfiguration changes how we see the world and in seeing the world and those around us in a new reconfigured light - a transfigured light in which the transfigured appear altered also. 

The meeting between Esau and Jacob turns out to be a true loving reunion between twin brothers who ultimately are bonded by love and by recognition of their common journey through life.  Israel sees Esau in a different light.  Esau has been on his own mystical journey after losing his birthright and appear to have done well for himself. In the end, Esau, like Ishmael is blessed by God. Their lives are caught up in the mystic journey that we all are on.  The writers brilliantly include them as a side narrative to ensure that the we understand that Abraham's, Isaac's, and Jacob's journey is not an exclusive tale, but one that includes everyone.  Truly, everyone is blessed through the telling of their journey to paradise regained.

Jacob’s tale will continue, but the focus in Genesis will turn on Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph. 

Until next time, stay faithful.

 

[1] I see in Jacob the serpentine because the serpent is associated with the feminine principle, not as an evil force but one that is wise. Wisdom is subtle.   Genesis refers to the serpent in the Garden of Eden as being more subtle (code for wise) than all the other creatures.  The serpent approaches Eve because Eve, being the feminine principle archetype proceeding from the one unified creation of mankind, is approachable and intuitive – Adam, the archetypal masculine principle is less approachable and more concrete – not wishing to struggle or take issue with God.  Jacob is serpentine – seeing opportunity when to strike and when to bide his time.  He possesses an intuitive wisdom that will assist him in his struggle with God and man. 
[2] Genesis 25:34.  To say that Esau despised his birthright offers some insight into the possibility that Esau saw his birthright as burden he didn’t really want.  In fact, as this story plays out, one is given the sense that Esau, even though feeling cheated, is relieved when Isaac gives his blessing to Jacob. 
[3] There is a subtext to this story.  Esau takes Hittite wives who prove to be troublesome to both Isaac and Rebecca.  Eventually Esau chooses a wife from one of Ishmael’s daughters to make things better.  There is a sense in this side narrative that Esau does not want to fail either Isaac or Rebecca and therefore is relieved of the thought that he could disappoint them by not living up to the high expectations – Isaac’s blessing would entail. 




Sunday, September 24, 2017

TALES OF THE MYSTIC JOURNEY - ABRAHAM - Part II



ABRAM

Hebrew scripture presents a picture of genealogical continuity from our mythic first parents to the arrival Abram.  Doing so affords the prophetic promise of paradise regained a traceable linear path from prehistory to history, from a mythic past to an identifiable present.  With Abram, Hebrew scriptures enters into an identifiable and verifiable present.  We are presented geographical data that has its own history:  Ur of the Chaldees located in southern Iraq and the city of Haran near Turkey's southern border with Syria.

My intent in these posts on the mystic journey is not to review every aspect of a particular mystic's life as recorded in scripture, but rather to highlight certain events or experiences that reflect that nature of mysticism.  If unfamiliar with the story of any of the people I write about, I will cite the place in scripture where their story is found.  In the case of Abraham, his story is found in Genesis 11 through Genesis 25.

What must be kept in mind is that any discussion of scriptural mysticism is, like most of scripture, unable to be treated as history even when it references history.  While there is a likely oral tradition upon which these accounts are based, there is a stronger likelihood that they were written with a theological agenda in mind.  In other words there is no way of knowing whether the experiences that the patriarchs, like Abraham, actually occurred or what, if any, actual experiences they might have had.

What I find relevant in a discussion of the mystical journey in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is that the authors of these writings deliberately or intuitively included mystical experiences which can help one understand mysticism as a whole .

SPEAKING OF GOD SPEAKING

What is given as motivation for Abram to complete to go to Canaan is  God telling him that once there, God will make of him a great nation by which all the families of the earth will be blessed. He is also told he will  have God's protection; that those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed.

We are not told in what manner God spoke to Abram; if this was the first time God spoke to him directly.  We have no idea what is meant by God speaking.  Did Abram hear a voice? Was the message delivered in a dream?

When God speaks or appears to Abraham, the scriptures treat those experiences as real time events.  What I would add is that while these are events that to the mystic would feel in every sense real, the notion of time frequently is missing (as if it gets lost); that there is an other worldliness to these experiences that defies rational explanation in terms of our shared, common world.

What is crucial to remember when discussing the mystic journey as described in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is the promise of paradise restored as mentioned in my last post.  The journey, in many ways, is connected first to the notion of a promised land and later to a promised messiah.  By the time Genesis is being written, both notions are well established in the minds of its writers and readers.

The journey that Abraham and Sarah undertake is about the transformation of identity, from being a Chaldean to the founder of a Hebrew nation.  There is great paradox in the story of Abraham and Sarah.  According to Genesis, they reach what will become the geographic Promised Land in short order, but its not technically theirs during their lifetime nor during the life time of their progeny.  It doesn't take shape until long after the Exodus event, which will be the subject of a future post. Even then, it's existence proves tentative.

The entire nomadic journey of Abraham and Sarah can be cast in mystical terms, but there are four events that I feel can give us a feel for their mystical experience.  The first is the covenant story that is actually played out in two events.
 IN GOD'S GOOD TIME

With regard to Abraham, in particular, we are constantly being informed of his age.  I find this significant and unique to Abraham's journey, which he doesn't start until he is a childless seventy-five year-old.  It is at an age in which most people experiencing hearing voices and seeing visions would be suspected of being on the verge of dementia, especially, if pulling up stakes and starting a whole new life in a distant land.

What is unique about Abraham is that, as Abram, he doesn't question God's promise, but he begins to wonder how he will ever have descendants.  He rationalizes that his slave/servant, Eliezer will end up being his heir and descendant; as slaves often became close and viewed their masters as their parents and masters viewing favored slaves as family.  This possibility saddens him as "reality" sets in and he sees no possible way for him and Sarai to have children of their own. It is at such a moment that he has a vision in which God tells him he will have a son coming from his own body.

THE FATHER OF FAITH

Abraham does not question or argue this and as a result he is credited with being righteous in God's sight, but then comes the thought about the land he was promised - the ability to be the father of civilized nation.  While these may seem like questions, Abram does not doubt God, but rather is doubting his ability.   Abram is feeling his age and is thinking of his role in seeing God's promise come to fruition.   In language reminiscent of the Exodus, God says that he called Abraham from the land of Ur of the Chaldeans to be in the Promised Land.  This is about God-time, not human-time.

So that Abram "knows" that God will fulfill God's promises, God requires that Abram perform a ritual sacrifice of a heifer, a goat, and ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.  Abram divides each of the mammals in two placing their pieces opposite each other, but he does not divide the birds. There is no direct explanation as to the meaning of this sacrifice, but it appears to have a numerological significance in age of the mammals, their being divided and the two birds.

I won't speculate about those meanings here, but rather to say that the whole experience of the sacrifice and the vision seem to be one experience; that the lines between the mundane and mystical experience are blurred. That Abram actually sacrificed the animals and chased away the carrion birds seems plausible, but there is an other worldliness to the whole experience that says otherwise; that it is part of a greater vision.  Abram falling asleep as the sun sets is significant because he enters into the realm of darkness that is described as "a thick dreadful darkness" coming over him. 
This is a feeling that is recognizable as a hallmark of the mystical experience.  It is when the sun sets and Abraham is in the physical darkness of the planet that he see a vision of a smoking fire pot and blazing torch pass between the pieces of the his sacrifice with God informing him of the proximity of the and that his descendants will have.   In this state, God prophesies to Abram so that Abram will know. 

What about this extremely mysterious course of events give Abram a sense of knowing?  What has he learned?  What does he know?   There is no explanation given as to what these visions mean.

What I believe the writers of Genesis capture in their telling of this account is something indicative of the mystic experience.  While they set the stage for the yet-to-be telling of the Exodus story (God's informing Abram of the fate of his yet-to-be progeny), Abram is depicted as having a full sensory experience that leaves an indelible psychic mark on him which confirms his sense of knowing without explanation.  This is the birth of faith.

That is part one of the covenant story.  The second part occurs after Sarai gives Hagar to Abram to bear him a son of his own body, which she does.  The problem is that Hagar's relationship to Abram is that of his wife's slave and even though she bears him Ishmael, there is a sense that Ishmael is not a legitimate heir that a son born of Sarai would be, an produced by love, not command.

A LIFE PUT ON PAUSE

Abram is eighty-six years old when Ishmael is born and it is thirteen years after this that the second part of the covenant story unfolds when Sarai is 90.  During vision, God says that he will keep his promise of a legitimate heir and as a sign of their mutual covenant, Abram and every male in his household will undergo circumcision.

Then God changes the name of Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah to signify their chosen identity by God. In essence they are permanently transfigured into the bearers of a chosen people.  God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, which makes Abraham laugh because Sarah is ninety years old by that time.  Abraham is too old to laugh at God out of mockery, but rather to laugh at the timing of all of this - as if the whole of his life to this point was nothing more than a waiting period - a life put on pause until this moment.  We also see Abraham's great affection for Ishmael, in his desire that he would be his offspring.  Interestingly, God acknowledges this with a "Yes" on God's part but makes it clear that Sarah will bear him a legitimate heir. 

 THE THREE VISITORS AND THE ONE

Speaking of transfiguration, the story of the three visitors to Abraham's tent (Genesis 18) is a prototype to the story of the Transfiguration in the New Testament synoptic gospels.  This is one of most unique visionary moments in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  It is not presented as a vision, but its feel is visionary and it is reported as a shared experience by both Abraham and Sarah.  Visions have a reality about them that cannot be explained in rational terms.[1]  Abraham sees three men approach his tent and he immediately perceives "them" as God.  He addresses them in the singular and is responded by "them" in unison. 

Abraham's reaction is to invite them in (much like Peter's wanting to build three tabernacles).  He orders a feast. After they had eaten the three ask in unison where Sarah is and Abraham says the tent. then "one" of them said he will return to visit her when the time right and she will have a son.  Sarah listening to all of this laughed and the One asked why she laughed  and Sarah denied that she did, but the One said, "Yes, you did."  What is significant is that God in this little aside to the story is that God does not react to her lying about laughing.  God is not capricious, but rather possesses a determined will.

Then the One informs Abraham about the One's intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  In this account we see Abraham take on the prophetic mantel by appealing for justice.  In essence he becomes an advocate for the righteous.  He appeals to the One - to God - to spare these cities if there fifty righteous and then whittles the number down to ten. To which the One replies that he will and then this vision comes to an end. 

One could spend a great deal of time on this one experience of Abraham and Sarah.  It serves as a prototype for the Christian story of Transfiguration and the Annunciation of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.  It is not coincidental that Luke, a disciple of Paul, casts these the birth and transfiguration of Jesus in terms that resonate with this story.  Paul constantly refers to Abraham in his letters and shared a mystic bond with Abraham.  As tempting as it is to get into the theological meanings of that, I won't except to say that I have always found it odd that most Christian theologians have missed or ignored the obvious parallels between this story and the Transfiguration of Jesus.

SACRIFICE AND HOPE

One of the most poignant and hard to fathom stories in the Bible is the near sacrifice of Isaac.  Abraham is very old and Isaac is a young child who is able to walk and talk.  Genesis twenty-two says that God tested Abraham by commanding that he sacrifice Isaac to him as a burnt offering.  The thought of this to the modern ear is horrific to say the least.  Yet, child sacrifice, in ancient times was viewed as  reminder that humans were part of a greater food chain - that human survival was dependent on forces that cannot be seen but which must be sated from time to time.  Abraham comes from a culture where such extreme measures would have been accepted as a given. 

That God would demand Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate heir after waiting a lifetime strikes us as unspeakably cruel even when we know how the story ends.  From a mystic point of view there is a side to this story that is frequently overlooked.  Life can be unspeakably cruel at times and God is in those moments, just like he was with Abraham.  Genesis call this a test,  but we need to be cautious that we do not interpret "test" as a moral examination, but rather to be better understood as an exercise of faith. 

I'm prone to think of the near sacrifice of Isaac more in terms of a rabbinical/priestly story than a retelling of an actual mystical event.  Originally, I was not going to include a discussion of it in this post, but I changed my mind; in that, this story fosters an important attribute of the mystical journey.

Although Christian theology treats this story as forerunner to Jesus being sacrificed for the sins of the world on the cross and teaches this is the reason why God delays "his hunger for human blood"  to satiate "his" needs by the death of his "only-begotten" son.  I find such a connection simply erroneous.
If anything related to human sacrifice is to be derived from this story it is  simply the God has no appetite for it. Rather, this story is about the sacrificial nature of life and the mystical role of hope that is played out in it.

A unique feature of this story is that God is telling it (not literally, but rather literarily).  It is God who confirms that Abraham loves Isaac, his only son.  To make this a poignant story, we are informed that Isaac is at an age where he understands what a sacrifice is and what it involves.  The question young child Isaac asks his father is the same type of question any four, five, or six-year old might ask.  It tears at one's heart to hear him ask it, and writers of Genesis do this to perfect effect. What is equally heart-rending is Abraham's knowing response, "God will provide the lamb," by which we led to believe he means Isaac, and yet there is an intuitive side to his statement that is played out in this story. 

Abraham's faith is far from questioning God at any level; especially at this late stage of his life.  He knows beyond explanation that God's word is solid.  As he is about to sacrifice Isaac, God's angel stops him and a ram is found caught in a thicket, which is offered in Isaac's stead.  Abraham call the place, "God will provide." 

Life, itself, is a journey into sacrifice where we are required and many times are forced to give up things we do not want to give up. Such events are transfiguring.  Even when we can see no way out, there is hope caught in the thicket of the event regardless of its outcome.  Abraham not only lived by faith, he also dwelled in hope - "God will provide the lamb." Abraham's intuitive hope sprang from a deeper, truer place than what our human senses can provide.
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In Christian mysticism, as I suspect is true of Jewish and Islamic mysticism, the mystic tale of Abraham is essential in understanding the mystic journey we are all engaged in.  The apostle Paul constantly references Abraham's faith throughout his letters and makes the point that three affectual elements are required for making this mystic journey, and they are specifically found here, faith, hope, and love.   
Love is implicitly involved throughout these stories of the mystic journey that leads us to paradise regained.  Like Abraham we may not see the full outcome of the promise that is implicit in every being.  The journey involves faith as knowing without explanation and a willingness to let go in order to dwell in hope. 
Until next time, stay faithful



[1] Mysticism can be considered irrational when defined in the sense that the early twentieth century psychiatrist, Otto Rank viewed irrationality as possessing deep intuitive meaning that also finds expression in the arts and music.   Mystical irrationality is paradoxical in that the mystic understands the irrational aspect of the experience and is eventually able to express it in rational (frequently metaphorical) terms.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

GENUINE LOVE - A Homily


“Let love be genuine.”

Romans 12:9a

When I start preparing a homily that has a smorgasbord of topics to choose from like this morning’s readings, I began by identifying a line or two from each of our lessons that grab my immediate attention and then start writing. About a page into this homily, I realized a strong tug to stick with just one very short statement from today’s reading of Paul’s Letter to the Romans:  “Let love be genuine.” 
What struck me with the entire passage from Romans was how relevant its message is for us today.  There is so much happening in our nation and in our world that can be described as disingenuous that it is hard to see anything as genuine, much less, experience genuine love.

So the question I pose for our consideration this morning is what is genuine love and how do we express it in a world so divided and so desperately in need of it?  

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To explore an answer to that question, I want to share with you a story that I believe exemplifies genuine love in our divisive times.  After the events in Charlottesville Virginia, several news outlets interviewed a young man by the name of Arno Michaelis – You may have seen his interviews or heard him talk on the radio.

At age 17 Arno became involved in White Power movement that included skinheads and neo-Nazis. Arno knows something of genuine love because he experienced it from the very people he hated; people who showed him unbelievable compassion, in spite of knowing what he identified himself as, what he stood for, and what he believed at the core of his being at the time.  Today, Arno is a contributor to “The Forgiveness Project,” a project started in the United Kingdom that is devoted to making peacemakers in our world.  He is also the author a book, “Life after Hate.”   

On the Forgiveness Project Website, Arno recalled the singular moment that cracked open his hate-filled heart to shed some light on his made-in-the-image-of-God origins.  It was an encounter with a black lady tending the cash register at a McDonald’s who noticing a swastika tattooed on his finger said to him, “You’re a better person than that.  I know that’s not who you are.”  Arno said of that moment, “Powerless against such compassion, I fled from her steady smile and authentic presence, never to return to that McDonald’s again.” [1]  From there he experienced a continuing flow of compassionate forgiveness from the very people he hated until he his hatred melted away and he became a zealot for forgiveness and peace.

* * * * * * * * * *

We don’t know the name of that black woman, but we know who she is – a child of God who I believe knows she’s a child of God.   And if you know you’re a child of God, you consequently know all of God’s children, including a white supremacist with swastika tattooed on his finger. 

This unnamed child of God is the one who can teach us something about genuine love and I want us to spend some time with her this morning.  Her two simple, straightforward, and heart-felt remarks to Arno exemplify what Paul means by genuine love.  So using Arno’s experience with her, we can examine what Paul gives as applicable advice for life in our times.

I think it safe to assume some things about this woman that can be garnered from Arno’s description of her; by what he described as her steady smile and her authentic presence. 

What can be assumed is a person who holds a lot of love in her heart, who values goodness over resentment, who knows what it is to be loved deeply loved by others and who feels the depth of God’s love in her life.  I do not doubt that her life is lived as a constant prayer which comes through as a subtext in her comments to Arno.  The warmth of her presence reveals her as the embodiment of hospitality.  

I think it safe to say that what lies at the core of her being is a burning light – the light we would identify as the light of Christ – a light that melts the darkness away. I can say that even though I don’t know if she identifies as a Christian, she certainly exudes the Christ I know.  She is a follower of Christ by virtue of who she is.

I also do not doubt she knows deep pain and suffering because she could so easily pick it out in Arno, but she has come at it from different place than Arno had because of the love she has experienced in her life – an experience Arno didn’t have or had forgotten about.   In two sentences, she was able to become a blessing to person who would harm and persecute her. 

In her simple approach she both rejoiced and wept with Arno through the warmth of her knowing smile that wiped away the tears he had forgotten about. She was the personification of harmony; being at peace with her true self and the world we share. 

Above all she made room for God, including God’s wrath.  

It sounds harsh, doesn’t it – God’s wrath –  but I  maintain that Arno felt the heat of God’s wrath in that short encounter with this woman because he turned and fled the scene never to return to that McDonald’s again.

As Arno said he was “Powerless against such compassion.”  Making room for God’s wrath allows us the room to be compassionate. 

Her compassion literally scared the hell out of him.  

So he ran because he was faced with a force greater than any he had ever encountered – the force of genuine love.

We must remember that God’s ways are not are ways, neither is God’s wrath our wrath. [2] The wrath of God is meted out in God’s flaming love (some might say purgatorial love) for those who incur it; a loving mercy that burns away the darkness from a soul.[3] We mortals have no such restorative wrath available in us – our wrath only knows and ends in destruction.

Scripture reminds us to never let the sun set on our anger, because our anger will consume us and those around us if allowed to continue.[4]  There comes a time, and it comes quickly for the faithfully aware, when we must stand aside and let God be God, for only God’s wrath has the capacity to restore.

In our third reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that if we are to be his disciples, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.[5]   It is the emptying of one’s self of who we think we are – as Arno did –  and recognizing our true selves as the made-in-the-image-of-God beings we are – embracing our human roots as God’s on-going creation, as works of divine art shaped from the cosmic dust found in the very humus of the earth that God shaped us from. 

This is why Paul tells us to associate with the lowly – to those nearest our common origins – to those who have no use for pretense – who know best that life is a gift not to be squandered on the glitter of the moment – to experience with them the divine image we bear which is best expressed in the humility of our common forgivable humanity.

* * * * * * * * * *

We would do well to hold in our hearts this black woman who stood behind the register of a McDonald’s and cracked open the hate filled heart of person who lost his true made-in-the image-of-God self.  It is she who teaches us the power of genuine love.  In our troubled times, we need to emulate her steady smile and authentic presence and compassionately confront  those seeking to divide and infest our world with hatred:

“You’re better than that!  We know that’s not who you are! 

Come and experience the genuine love that awaits the genuine you. 

Come, taste and see the goodness of the God.[6]


* * * * * * * * * *
Until next time, stay faithful.





[1] http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/arno-michaels-usa/
[2] See Isaiah 55:8
[3] See Malachi 3:2. 
[4] See Ephesians 4:26
[5] See Matthew 16 - 28
[6] See Psalm 34:8

Sunday, August 20, 2017

TALES OF THE MYSTIC JOURNEY - ABRAHAM - Part I


LIVING THE JOURNEY

The journey of life is a shared experience whether one is sitting alone in a lounger reading a book, sitting on the floor meditating, or marching for a cause. We share this journey, at this very moment, with every other living entity in the universe.   We are all spinning through time and space together and there's nothing we can do to stop it.  Even the universe imploding offers no guarantee that this journey would end. The end of physical existence does not negate the possibility or the probability that life goes on and that the journey continues in another dimension or realm of being.

Life hints at life yet to be. 

What that means remains a mystery to me.  Life is always an act of faith - a walk in the dark with the hope of seeing light at the end of the journey.  Life after life would by extension be an even a greater act of faith; as an act of God's faithfulness in the creative beingness that is God. 

Who can know the mind of God? 

Faith is the only path that leads to God - not what I know, not what I believe, but what I am willing to encounter in the hope of being loved beyond all belief and comprehension.

I see this life as a mystic journey full of awe and wonderment; that is, when I take the time to still and remind myself of it.  There is much though that can distract me - much that can anger me, sadden me, and make me despair.

A ZEITGEIST OUT-OF-SYNC WITH THE UNIVERSE

The zeitgeist we are living in seems suddenly out of sync with the universe and has opened a door through which has emerged a perennial presence that is small-minded, willfully ignorant, ridiculously violent, and ultimately self-destructive.

There.  I said it - The distress and unease I feel over what is happening in my country and around the world.  I started writing on day where white supremacist groups and Neo-Nazis are marching in Charlottesville Virginia espousing hatred and fear on an unthinkable scale.   Since that event, I also can't help but think of oneness my wife and I feel with the victims of terrorism on the streets of Nice, France and Barcelona, Spain.  Like millions of others in the world, we strolled these same streets filled with the diverse beauty of humanity that is drawn to those beautiful, peaceful settings as we were when travelling in the Mediterranean two years ago.  My heart is simply sickened by such mindless carnage in all these places and all places throughout our world.  

It's a feeling that has prompted me to step back, take a deep breath, and recognize the obvious; that very little has changed with regard to human nature since the dawn of human history.  As much as I entertain hope for humanity (and I do) it is tempered by the sobering reality that we, as a whole, continue to rely on our  reptilian responses to any perceived threats to our survival, real or contrived. I am no exception to such impulses, which is another reason to write about them.   They must be recognized in one's self and fought daily.  This is especially difficult to do when reasoned intellect and civility is marketed as unfashionable, as it has from time to time throughout human history and as it is being marketed in the world, today. 

MIND THEORY AND MYSTIC CONSCIOUSNESS

The intellectual mind is readily subjugated by the instinctual/reptilian mind.  There is a safeguard for the intellectual mind which can give one pause before succumbing to one's instinctive inclinations. Reason invariably fails against an instinctive onslaught without the perspective of intuition (the broader picture).

The human mind is an exchange of three processes, but we tend to focus on the intellectual which makes us prone to ignore our instinctual impulses when they arise or the availability of intuition that can offer the intellect greater perspective by which to make rational decisions. I have written several posts about the reasoning (intellectual) and the instinctual mind, but very little about the intuitive mind.

In order to enter into a discussion of the mystical landscape we are traversing, requires one to take a closer look at the means by which we consciously perceive such a journey.  Mind theory is helpful in understanding mystic consciousness.  Mind theory, as I use it here, relates to our conscious perception that is the result of the intricate interplay between the instinctive, intellectual, and intuitive properties of the mind.  By themselves, instinct reacts to experience as it relates to one's sense of survival, and intellect defines experience as it relates to one's retained knowledge of experiences that came before.  It is intuition that distills these processed experiences into insight.

The capacity for mystic consciousness resides in all of us, but in an era in which we are blitzed by a variety of distracting sound bytes and video clips it can easily be ignored.  We need a transfigured perception of who we are in God and of the time and place in which we live to be at peace with where we're going.  We share this mystic journey with those who are present and  those yet to come. We also share it with those who have gone before.  Their stories have been handed to us as a guide to mystic path of faith we're on.

In pursuing this topic, I've chosen to reference the ancient scriptures I am familiar with; the Hebrew and Christian scriptures of the Bible.  To begin a conversation about the mystic journey, I  have chosen a wanderer who I consider to be the earliest recorded mystic in this tradition, Abraham.

BRIDGING THE MYTHIC TO THE MYSTIC

My reason in choosing Abraham as the starting place in biblical literature for a discussion on the mystical journey is that, although I consider the story of Abraham to fall into the biblical genre of legendary literature, Abraham personifies within this genre a simple man of extraordinary faith who seemingly has no desire to draw attention to himself. If anything he seems to avoid it.  He's is not a heroic figure in the traditional sense of heroic legends.   There is an everyday, everyman quality about Abraham that makes him a perfect example of a mystic traveler who becomes a bridge from the mythic to the mystic, from a general theistic perspective to a particular theistic perspective.

The clearest indication that one is dealing with a mystic in biblical literature is a noted change of a person's identity. Abraham begins this journey as Abram and his wife Sarah who starts out as Sarai.  The mystic invariably becomes a changed person who crosses a metaphorical step, crosses a bridge, or climbs a ladder that changes the person and that person's perspective of the world in which he or she lives.

In the Book of Genesis, the human story begins with our mythical first parents, Adam and Eve who experience an apophatic transfiguration from a vision of paradise ( oneness with God, with each other, and with all creation) into the vision of the our present differentiated and discriminating world, as destined to wander on a journey we recognize as mortal life.

I can't help but notice that almost every painting depicting Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden (the vision of Paradise) intuitively shows Adam covering his eyes - a vision lost to him.    In Masaccio's fresco, "The Expulsion," one is given a sense of disorientating despair that is depicted in Eve's face as the guiding voice of God becomes silent.  We will come back to the importance of God's silence in discussing the mystic journey.

Image result for masaccio fresco adam and eve

   
The Book of Genesis, however, keeps the hope of Paradise regained alive.  As Adam, Eve, and their immediate descendants venture further into the reality we now live, they retained the memory of what was lost in the form of a prophetic promise.  In discussing the mystic journey from the perspective of Abrahamic monotheism this prophetic promise is foundational; in that, it becomes an intuitive reference point that is experienced as a persistent sense of longing or beckoning the pulls one along the unitive path that is the mystic journey.

THE PROMISED LAND
We see this beckoning and longing for a "promised land"  as a promise out of reach in the life of Abraham, Sarah, and their immediate descendants.  They die before it is ever fully realized, and in many ways it remains unfilled promise.  There is something profound at play in the tale of Abraham, his descendants, and this foundational promise.  There are two tracks, two versions of this promised land: one that is fundamentally geographic and one that is mystically intuitive; one that is rooted in the mundane differentiated world and one that is rooted in a multidimensional universe that is paradoxically unitive in its multidimensionality - identified in scripture as paradise. 

In my next post, I will focus on the mystic vision offered in the story of Abraham.

Until then, stay faithful.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

TRANSFIGURATION

I started writing about transfiguration on the the Feast of the Transfiguration -August 6th. The story of Jesus being transfigured in front of his disciple, Peter, James, and John is found in all three synoptic gospels.  It is perhaps one of the strangest stories in the New Testament. According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story of Jesus's transfiguration is told to the other disciples of Jesus only after Jesus' resurrection.  Until then, it was a kept secret by Peter, James,and John. Another reason for its being unique is that it is explained in terms of a shared visionary experience by Peter, James, and John about the divine presence in Jesus.  For me, the unique feature of this story is not so much what it says about who Jesus is (the reason it is recorded in these  gospels) but rather the mystical attributes it reveals.

The account that captures its mystical aspect is the Gospel of Luke, perhaps the most mystical gospel of the four canonical gospels.  What lends it being a mystical experience is that it is told through Peter's account of it whose reaction typifies a mystical experience. One's attention is drawn to what Peter experiences.

That all three synoptic gospels record Peter's reaction is noteworthy.  Peter's response to "seeing" Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus strikes me as visionary intuition..  He never met Moses or Elijah before this experience and there are no introductions made by Jesus or God regarding who these other two men standing beside Jesus are.  Peter, James, and John "just" know.  

The delay in telling others about this experience also seems typical of those who have mystical experiences.  What seems so experientially certain at the time is hard to explain later, as there is no rationale one can provide for having such an experience, since even a basic sense time and place during such experiences can lose relevance.  It's only later, sometimes much later, that such experiences reveal their meanings and purpose and even then one tends towards describing the experience in what sounds to others as metaphors: "It was like... ."

In that sense, the story of the Transfiguration rings true as a mystical experience.  The Lucan account provides some significant clues to the event's mystical nature.   The context in which this experience occurs is during prayer.  Jesus takes these three disciples up mountain to pray, and Jesus is known for praying a long time to the extent that his disciples start falling asleep.  There is significance in this.  Both prayer and sleep can be considered liminal environments or moments.  They are thresholds between this time and place and another time and place, between the transient here and the eternal now.  It is in this liminal moment that Jesus is transfigured - seen and experienced differently - whose divinity (our) shines through.

MYSTICISM

Let's pause here to examine what is meant by mysticism.  I have been reluctant to talk about theism's mystical side, as it can be easily used to dismiss rational and reasoned explanations to various theistic theologies and dogmas which are themselves the products of rational reasoning and becomes an excuse for not explaining something with is touted as necessary to believe in order to be saved. In my opinion this is an abuse of what is meant by mysticism. Beliefs have very little to do with mysticism. In truth, belief is confounded by the mystical.

Mystery is a term that I use very carefully and would differentiate it from the mystical.  The term "mystery" undoubtedly gets wrapped into the mystical; as within the mystical there are things that are hard to explain in a purely rational or  intellectual manner, but I would caution that the mystical has its own explanations that proceed from experience and intuition; that are perceived as being mystical after the fact rather than before or at the time of the experience.

Like intuition, the mystical experience dawns on one.

This is the primary difference between intellect and intuition.  Intellect involves rational reasoning - figuring things out - knowing through reason whereas intuition is about knowing through experience and the imprinted feelings that result from such experience.   This is not to say that the intellect does not play a role in defining the mystical, it does.  The fact is intuition and intellect are in constant interplay with each other.

PROPHETIC PERCEPTION

Intuition is very much akin to the prophetic.  Intuition is a form of perception that awakens one's consciousness to something obvious once perceived that was not considered such in the  world of everydayness which appears mundane.  Intuition like prophecy grasps the ignored obvious, the multitude of meanings and applications that swirl in and around everyday situations that go largely ignored.  Once something is intuited it is hard to ignore its presence and application. One of the temptations that a mystical novice encounters is insisting that everyone needs to see and "feel" what he or she  experienced.  This is what prompts Jesus to say to his disciples on various occasions to tell no one.  They simply were not capable at the time to fully digest their experience. 

The mystical experience is largely a personal experience - a revealing of the divine presence in one's life. It only takes one such experience to be transformative.   That these moments are written about by a number of mystics occurs after they're digested and put it into language that can be grasped by the reader or the mystic's audience.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of several mystical experiences mentioned in the New Testament, Mary and Gabriel, Peter's dream  and Paul's vision on the road to Damascus are samples of other mystical stories.  The Hebrew Scriptures also contain references to the mystical experiences of Abraham, Sarah,  Jacob, Moses, Elijah and others.  Examining them, as such, is worthy endeavor as they provide a window into the intuitive nature of the mind in general and the theistic mind in particular.

In the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus we only hear of Peter's reaction to the experience.  We do not know what reaction James and John had, beyond one of fear/awe and silence. Peter wants to build three booths, reminiscent of Jewish Feast of Succoth, the feast of ingathering, which has apocalyptic overtones in this context.  In Matthew and Luke a cloud comes over them.  In Matthew the cloud is described as bright.  In Luke it overshadows them - hinting of them experiencing darkness and hearing a voice declaring Jesus to be the son of the voice, which we understand as being God.

When the cloud disappears, only Jesus is standing near them.  There is little doubt that if Jesus hadn't verified their experience they might have written it off as a dream, which mystic experience often feels like. The experience frequently leaves one with a sense of wonderment and questioning what just happened, "Is what I'm feeling now the point of the experience?"

The feeling in question frequently involves a sense of divine love,awe, guidance, and revelation. I suspect people have such experiences more than they let on, and most simply do not talk about them as they are hard to explain and don't make sense to someone who hasn't had the experience. They feel personal; an intuitive insight that is meant be played out rather than talked about.

In future posts, I will examine some of the mystical experiences talked about in scripture and attempt to relate them the mystical element expressed in the arts -  music, visual, dance, and poetry.

Until then, stay faithful.