Sunday, June 16, 2024

Apophatic wonder ... or why I want to share a beer with Aquinas

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven … and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (2 Corinthians 12:1, 4)

‘The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.’
These words—and their source—should make me stop in my tracks, shut down my computer and never write another word. They were uttered nearly 750 years ago by Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest mind of his or almost any age.
He had written commentaries on Scripture, Aristotle and other philosophers, produced his own philosophical works, addressed a host of disputed theological subjects and was deep in the process of producing his Summa Theologiae, his great work of systematic theology, writing at a furious pace.
But he never finished it. He stopped, December 6, 1273, put his pens in a drawer and never took them out again.
And why? Because at mass he had seen or felt or experienced something so great, so transcendent that he looked upon the 100 or so works he’d produced and judged them as so much straw, worthy of being cast in the fire, even though his works influence Christian theological thought in significant ways to this day.
I have no idea what … exactly … he saw, nor do I understand most of what he wrote. He is beyond me. But I do not for a moment imagine that his experience is different in kind, only in degree, from the apophatic wonder that graces the souls of millions who have known the immensity of a great love filling them with the Wonder who transcends all thought, language and human capacity for understanding.
Apophatic wonder is a knowing that goes beyond all thought and sensation, beyond light and limits, beyond darkness and brilliance, beyond sight and seeing, yet as real as the tears in your eyes and the fullness of Being within your own being.
I had not thought about Aquinas in years until this past week while viewing Facebook videos sent to me from several sources. I watched what I could stomach from several well-known speakers, men who have sold millions of books to Christians around the country and the world.
But I soon stopped because I was struck by the nauseating marriage of arrogance and self-congratulatory narcissism that characterized the speakers, so terribly pleased with themselves as they blithely dismissed the ‘benighted’ positions of other Christians whose understandings differed from their own. It was the kind of preening display that makes those outside the church rightly recoil in disgust.
Entirely missing was any shred of humility about themselves and the human incapacity to grasp divine mystery. I could discern nothing of the grace that touched Aquinas on that December day, to say nothing of poorer souls and weaker minds like mine, who have seen and felt and known the Wonder whom language cannot capture and before whom all thought falters and falls silent into a truer worship.
St. Paul said he considered everything else in his life as crap (I am cleaning up Paul’s actual word), compared to knowing Christ. His accomplishments, his reputation, his learning—all of this was mere waste, he wrote, compared with deep, mystical knowledge of God in Christ.
He had no words for what happened to him when he was caught up in the ‘third heaven.’ All he really knew was that he had known God revealed in the depth of his own being. After that, nothing else much mattered except knowing this One, this Wonder, this Love who strips away all our pride and presumption and fills us with gratitude for life and love and every good gift of God’s own giving that graces our existence.
And lest you imagine this is all beyond you, really, who has not been knocked out of their apathy by the beauty of creation, the wonder of loving and being loved, the grace and gift of waking up alive in this world and wondering, how is it that I am, that I am alive, here and now? Who has not had the experience of feeling thankful, not for any particular reason but … just because?
Apophatic wonder, a holy gift, a knowing beyond all knowing of the Love who is beyond everything we can imagine, yet right here and now, making every word of mine feel like ‘so much straw.’
But I take joy in my failed attempts to name the Unnameable and look forward to sharing a beer with Aquinas. We have things to talk about.

David L. Miller

Monday, June 10, 2024

In search of home

Looking at those who sat around him, Jesus said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Mark 3:35)

I think I want to start a house church … or participate in one that would have me.

It’s not just that I am no longer at home in church life as I have known it, nor that I sometimes despair of ever finding it again. I am moved by something I see in Jesus’ eyes.

I imagine his expression as he speaks, the tone of his voice, the tilt of his head, the glint in his eyes, and I meet a man, a soul I know, however poorly or in part, and I fall in love as when, as a boy, he touched me again and again with a love I knew nowhere else.

These days, or at least this day, I feel his hunger, an unrequited longing like the yearning that unsettles my heart, especially as Sunday morning approaches and I have no place I truly want to go.

What I’d like to do is gather around a cup and a loaf of bread in someone’s living room or at a picnic table in a park. We’d sing or at least croak out a song that opens our hearts, pray a psalm and listen to a story of Jesus. Then, talk. Just talk about what we see and feel as we watch him and listen to his voice, sharing whatever hopes or pains, joys or sorrows he stirs in us.

Perhaps we’d share where we have truly loved during the week and where that seemed impossible for us, knowing that each time we have loved or struggled to do so we have known him, his Spirit, awake in our mortal bodies. Then, we’d break bread and share the cup the way he told us to do.

All this is to say that I want what Jesus wanted for himself.

His longing is obvious as he surveyed the sea of faces pressing near to see and touch him. So often misunderstood, reviled and rejected, he looked into their eyes; he felt the hunger of their hearts, and he knew: Here are my brothers and sisters, my mothers and fathers. These are my people, heart of my heart.

Repeating his words, feeling their texture on my tongue, I cannot miss the love he felt for these searching souls, who hungered to know the One from whom all good and graces flow like rays from the morning sun.

When he was with them, he was truly home, and that’s what I want.

I want to gather around a loaf and a cup and look into the eyes of souls who want to know the love of Jesus. I want to be with hearts who know that living this love, however poorly, partially and with myriad failures, is still the very best occupation of life. I want to be with brothers and sisters who are just as restless and just as needy for this Love as I am.

Then, I’ll be home.

David L Miller

 

 

Thursday, June 06, 2024

In praise of flesh

For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (Mark 12:25)

Tell me, Lord, what is the first sacramental moment of the morning? Is it when I inhale my first conscious breath of the day? Or maybe when I see the pale, gray light of predawn through the sheers on the bedroom window?

Perhaps it is when my feet feel the coolness of the floor as I stumble to the kitchen to make coffee, or when I open the balcony door and the sweet breath of a new day embraces my face and wakes my heart.

Or, just maybe, it is when I hear Dixie open the bedroom door and shuffle down the hall, half awake, eyes mere slits, not yet ready for the light of day. Meeting her half way, I take her face in my hands, one on each cheek, as she looks up and wearily smiles, our silent eyes joined in a love for which I will never find words.

For a moment, we stand there, kiss, and she folds herself into my arms, body-to-body, flesh-to-flesh, knowing this is the only way we ever want to start the day, vaguely aware of what we cannot stomach to say, knowing …  this is not forever despite our fondest desires.

Love, yearning, loss, joy and wonder in an unspoken moment starts the day once more, our souls aligned with a current of love that precedes us not by light years but eternity.

All this—the breeze, the morning light, love’s embrace—all if it is ours through the wonder of being flesh, bodies, through which something more than physical sensation touches our souls, stirring awareness that knowing and being this love is the very thing for which we are made.

We are children of the Love who is and was and will always be, even though we won’t be, at least not in this bodily state. Beyond this life? I have no crystal ball, no mystic vision except of the Love for whom all my attempts at naming are but an infant’s babble.

But I think, no, I’m sure, Christ smiles on my babbling, not with indulgence but delight, which is why I still keep trying, however vainly, to put words to what the heart feels and knows beyond knowing. I think God is amused, which, all in all, is a pretty good reason to keep writing, keep trying.

But I wonder about Jesus’ words concerning those who rise from the dead. I’m not sure I want to be like an angel in heaven when my time here is done. I like being a body and feeling all those things that speak love to my heart, all those moments that awaken a love beyond any I thought I’d ever feel. They fill me with the assurance of love’s holy eternity.

Putting the best construction on Jesus’ words, maybe the angels live in rapture, feeling everywhere, in everything and every moment what I know when I hold my beloved’s face in my hands. Maybe their angelic bodies feel this love not just for this one or that, but for everyone and every blessed thing God has made.

If that’s what Jesus has in mind, I guess that’s okay with me, but I never want to lose the soul-to-soul connection that happens in the hallway every morning. Body-to body, flesh-to-flesh, it’s an intimation of eternity.

David L. Miller

 

 

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Broken open

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ (Mark 14:26)

Sunday morning dawns and longing stirs my soul, an emptiness and desire to do the thing I most miss about being a parish pastor: the soul-satisfying sweetness of breaking a piece of bread from a loaf and placing it in the empty hands of people I knew and for whom I greatly cared.

The script for this was written long ago. ‘The body of Christ,’ I would say. Over and over again, ‘The body of Christ broken for you,’ repeating the words until the last person in line was fed and the remnants of the loaf returned to the table.

Some looked me in the eye as I spoke; others looked at the floor or their empty hands, avoiding the intimacy others craved. All were fed, and I … most of all (or so my heart seemed to say). For, I was privileged to speak the words of the Heart whose greatest joy is to be broken open and given away to the likes of us—no matter who we are, what we have done, how far we have fallen or how our lives are going.

I was giving away the Love who doesn’t ask those questions. God only knows, we all need it. And I felt immense joy because the words opened my heart.

Even on days when my heart felt dry and emotions failed to flow, even when I was putting the bread in the hands of someone I knew didn’t much like me, just saying the words and breaking bread opened my heart to love in spite of myself. All of us together were sharing a great and holy mystery that is true whether you happen to believe in it or not.

The mystery? Just this: Like Jesus whose joy it is to give himself away, our joy and fulfillment of heart is found (or finds us) exactly when our hearts are broken open and we love without asking questions—loving the person across the breakfast table, loving the hurting souls we see on the evening news, loving the hum of a billion cicadas serenading our every waking hour, loving the lives we are given and even the lives of those we don’t like.

In recent days, my heart has felt dry, my morning prayer distracted, my meditation empty and my petitions half-hearted. God has seemed far off and my soul devoid of warmth and consolation.

It happens. It happens to great saints and mystics and to relative lowlifes, like me. And every time it does, our distressed hearts, hungry to feel one, enclosed in the heart of Jesus, begin to doubt or even despair of knowing the love we crave, the consolation that allows our hearts to breathe free and sing.

But we need not despair. Consolation returns. We need only to stay open, to let life touch and move us.

Over morning coffee, I told my beloved, Dixie, about a digital message I’d received from someone I met once, nearly 25 years ago, while leading a retreat. I described what she was doing, nearly 80 now, but still riding her bike and getting pledges to fund a world hunger ministry.

Before I knew it, tears of joy were in my eyes, my heart broken open because I loved telling the story about the Love who lives in her heart for hungry people. Telling the story, that same Love cracked the hard crust around my heart so I could feel, once more, the Mystery of the One who loves and lives in us.

My heart awakened, I felt again what it means to be truly alive, one with the joy of Jesus.

David L. Miller

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The view from here

Then [Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. (Mark 9:36-37)

I see her almost every morning. I think she is five, maybe six. Today, she wears a bright gold jumper over a navy-blue blouse and black leggings. Her dark, Pakistani hair is tied atop her head and wrapped in a scarf a little lighter than the blue of her blouse.

Hand-in-hand with her mother, she crosses Chase Avenue toward the corner to meet the school bus. But she doesn’t walk. She skips and jumps and floats and bounces. And day-to-day, I sit here on the balcony with my coffee and stop my reading or prayer or whatever I am doing … to watch her.

It’s a pretty good way to start the day … because I fall in love with every skip, bounce and jump.

How can I not? She loves life. She loves holding her mother’s hand and waiting until the bus ferries her away to school. She loves what awaits her there, and her every move sings a love song for the life into which she has been born.

Seeing such joy could awaken wistful longing for the innocence and joyful expectation one loses along life’s way. But I feel none of that. Nor do I wish to return to the age which she now enjoys.

An immense wave of love and gratitude washes over me as I witness the love of life that is in her. Touched by love’s presence in this most mundane of moments, my old heart is liberated to embrace the day, even as she does.

Once more, I am reminded that the world is a very sacramental place. For, the Love Who Is … joyfully takes myriad forms (like the smiles of children) to break open our hearts that we might feel the heart of God within ourselves. It is right then, amid joy and perhaps tears, our imperfect little lives glisten with Love’s own beauty, eternal life filling our hearts, freeing us to be who we really are.

I suppose this is enough to glean from one common moment, but there is yet another sense, an awareness that the love in this precious child, and the love awakened in me, and the love of her mother who walks her across the street are one great love, and we are all in it. And every once in a blessed while, for reasons we don’t understand, we are awakened just enough to see and feel and taste heaven’s sweetness.

The Apostle Paul suggested that no eye has seen nor ear heard nor heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. But sitting here on my balcony, I have a pretty good idea.

David L. Miller

Sunday, May 19, 2024

An (almost) old man’s dream

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. (Acts 2:17)

I don’t know if I am old; 71 pushing 72, is that old? I don’t think so. Hiking in the woods, my heart doesn’t feel old at all. Sometimes I run, not terribly fast—or far, but filled with elation nonetheless, especially when the trail narrows and greenery surrounds, a lush, leafy canopy filtering the sun and water squishing beneath my boots from recent rains. I feel more like 12 or 13 … or maybe 9 or 10, filled with the joy of simply being, my heart singing a wordless song born of the angels at Eden’s dawn.

Walking there, the Spirit breathes through every leaf on every tree and bush as spring greens everything around, including me. And I am glad just to be. This joy may be the best prayer we ever know on this side of forever.

I wonder, O Lord, was something like this your great dream when, through myriad eons and millions of multifarious processes, you brought forth life on this tiny blue-green ball?

Is this what you wanted for every Adam and every Eve who would ever be, each graced with the privilege of drawing sweet breath and knowing the splendor of human touch, flesh-on-flesh, our bodies able to see and taste and smell, tracing the textures of forest and flower, finch’s flights and cardinal calls, all of which are there, waiting for me, just outside the window where I write?

It's a good dream, Lord. I like it, and on good days I feel it. And on my best days, I pray that your holy dream may come true … for everything everywhere … that the shroud of hate and death that covers the world and its peoples may evaporate like the morning mist under the embracing warmth of a love which has neither beginning nor end, the Love you are.

That’s my dream, which is not mine at all, but yours, except you draw me into it and allow me to share it with you. A pretty good gift, I think.

Sometimes, it makes me cry a little because I feel it so deeply in this heart you have given me, a heart that is either old or young, depending upon the day and hour. And sometimes I am depressed because your dream seems impossible, a far-off fantasy for frightened minds unable to admit that the world will go on and on as it always has, in all its confounded cussedness—egos clashing, powers colliding and crushing the weak and vulnerable, them that’s got getting more and them that’s not never knowing the graces for which you created them.

Still, the dream never dies. It lives in me as it lives in you. Accept these tears as my prayer of thanks, assuring me that you refuse to let my heart grow cynical, cold and hard.

Just keep breathing into us, Holy One. Let us feel your holy dream of all becoming one, joined in one great love. And to whatever extent our words and lives can make your dream come true, for heaven’s sake, help us do it.

And Lord, for our sake, too.

David L. Miller

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Nothing days

 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. On that day you will ask nothing of me. (John 16:22-23a)

I long for nothing days, days when I neither want nor need anything. I speak not of food, drink and shelter but of soul satisfaction, the holy contentment of sensibly dwelling in the atmosphere of love as ubiquitous and embracing as air, each breath a sacrament filling my lungs, expanding my heart and moistening my eyes with the joy only love can bring.

There may have been great saints and mystics who enjoyed such days, but most typically they speak of moments that come and fill everything in them before fleeing, leaving the memory of divine sweetness that spoke to them of another world, another time to which we all actually belong.

St. Teresa spoke of moments of union that lasted no more than the length of a single “Our Father … .” Ignatius Loyola often climbed to the roof of the Roman house where he lived his last two decades and looked into the starlit sky, whispering, ‘O Dios.’ Over and over again, ‘O Dios.’

Yes, O God, I would know you full and complete, but I am flesh and blood and mortal and everything my heart knows of you pales in comparison to what my soul wants and needs to arrive and know the wonder of what I was created to know and be. So it was for Ignatius and for me and for every human being still capable of feeling the hunger of their own soul.

We have pain now. The pain of living in a world where the Love God is seldom has its way—and never fully. The good suffer, the unjust prosper, sudden illness, outrageous fate and tragedy hover over our beloved.

Then, too, there is the inescapable pain of incompletion, as we feel the insufficiency of everything attainable. Always, we want more because we are created for the More God is, for Love’s holy completion in our own hearts and the heart of the world.

But we are seen, always, by the One who is Love, and times appear when the senses of our soul are quickened to feel and know the wonder of Love all-surrounding, moments of breathing this holiness into our lungs until it fills every last, lost corner of our being.

Let’s call them ‘nothing moments’ when there is nothing more to want or ask because we have the one thing our soul always needed.

Heaven’s door swings open affording a taste, a vision of the world to which we belong and for which we so often long. Even the most fleeting glance of this vision awakens boundless gratitude for the holy privilege of being a human soul, capable of knowing the great Love who sees us, always.

Grant, O Lord, this grace to us all.

David L. Miller