A Parable, A Ballad, and some Metta

Yesterday was an embarrassment of riches.  At noon I attended our Weekly Manna gathering where two students were the presenters.  That was followed by a talk on G.K. Chesterton sponsored by the law school’s St. Thomas More Society. Later in the afternoon I had a productive meeting with some members of the Project of Mindfulness and Contemplation, on whose advisory board I sit and which sponsors the lovingkindness (metta) meditation I lead biweekly on the St. Paul campus.

At Weekly Manna, the students opened their talk with the Parable of the Flood, with which many people are doubtless familiar.  (It it reproduced at the end of this post.)  They sued the parable as a jumping off point for talking about the surprising ways we encounter God – and how important is it not to have preconceived notions of how God may appear to us.  In fact, God is often present to us in the form of other people – as we are the face of God to others.

The parable is also an important reminder that faith in God does not mean sitting back and allowing God to do all of the heavy lifting.  Rather, God expects us to participate in his work as well – to grab the ropes and climb the ladders he gives us.

Our Chesterton speaker spoke about many of the themes of Chesterton’s writings, particularly using his Ballad of the White Horse as a way to explore those themes. I found much in the talk worthwhile, including the speaker’s discussion of what it means to talk about cultivating a culture of life.  But what I most was drawn to was his discussion of the eyes with which Chesterson saw the world.  Like anyone to whom we give the label mystic, Chesterton had an acute awareness of God and of God’s gifts.

In an essay on Chesterton, Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, wrote

Chesterton tells us the things we already know, only we did not know that we knew them. The difference between him and us is that he is trying to give us the same vision he has, what Father Wild calls his “contagious happiness and inner peace…he was imbued with a kind of unpretentious beatitude that tended to convey itself to those around him.” He is trying to share his sense of wonder, his thankfulness, his joy. And the source of all these things is God.

I think our speaker did a wonderful job of conveying what it means to see as Chesterton did, using the example of the wonder with which the speaker’s six-month old views everything he sees.

All in all, a lot to reflect on – including my gratitude at working in a place where we have such varied opportunities for reflection.


Here is the Parable of the Flood:

A man was trapped in his house during a flood. He began praying to God to rescue him. He had a vision in his head of God’s hand reaching down from heaven and lifting him to safety. The water started to rise in his house. His neighbour urged him to leave and offered him a ride to safety. The man yelled back, “I am waiting for God to save me.” The neighbour drove off in his pick-up truck.

The man continued to pray and hold on to his vision. As the water began rising in his house, he had to climb up to the roof. A boat came by with some people heading for safe ground. They yelled at the man to grab a rope they were ready to throw and take him to safety. He told them that he was waiting for God to save him. They shook their heads and moved on.

The man continued to pray, believing with all his heart that he would be saved by God. The flood waters continued to rise. A helicopter flew by and a voice came over a loudspeaker offering to lower a ladder and take him off the roof. The man waved the helicopter away, shouting back that he was waiting for God to save him. The helicopter left. The flooding water came over the roof and caught him up and swept him away. He drowned.

When he reached heaven and asked, “God, why did you not save me? I believed in you with all my heart. Why did you let me drown?” God replied, “I sent you a pick-up truck, a boat and a helicopter and you refused all of them. What else could I possibly do for you?”


Exoteric vs. Esoteric Versions of Religion

The current issue of Commonweal contains an article by Luke Timothy Johnson titled Dry Bones: Why Religion Can’t Live Without Mysticism. Johnson opens the piece by suggesting that the “great religious battle of our time” is not that between believers and nonbelievers, but the battle within religious traditions between exoteric and esoteric versions of those traditions.

In simple terms, for those for whom the terms are unfamiliar, the exoteric focuses on religious law and seeks to form a “community publicly obedient to divine command,” whereas the esoteric is more concerned with “the inner experience and devotion of the heart.”

There is a tension betwen the two, and Johnson points out that the monotheistic religions “have not found it easy to reconcile their exoteric and exoteric sides.” Nonetheless, this is clearly a case of both/and, rather than either/or. While there will always be tension between the impules toward the exoteric and the esoteric must coexist.

This is assuredly true of Christianity. Our faith as Christ’s disciples is meant to affect who we are in the world and thus, the world in which we live. So our faith can never be simply about luxuriating in our prayer experiences with God. A purely esoteric religion can not be called Christian. On the other hand, if all we are about is the external trappings – the rules and the public rituals, we eventually get “dry bones,” to use John’s title, and no real transformation.

The challenge the, is to keep these two impulses in creative tension, to see them not as opponents seeking to vanquish each other, but as complementary forces that need each other and must work together.

A Worldview of Marginality

I once saw on television a film called Overboard. In it, Goldie Hawn plays a spoiled rich wife who treats all those she views to be below her (pretty much everyone) with disdain and disregard. When she loses her memory after falling overboard her yacht, she ends up living in squalor with someone she has treated badly in her past life, gradually falling in love with him and creating a loving home for him and his three boys. After she recovers her memory and is once again aboard her yacht, troubled about what to do with herself, one of men working for her says to her (as closely as I can remember the dialogue): “Madam, most people see life from only their own station. You have the distinction of having had the chance to see things from a second, different vantage point. What you choose to do with that knowledge is up to you.”

I thought of that in connection with a book I brought to read while I’m here at St. Ignatius Retreat House in New York, Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s, Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice. DeYoung uses the lives of Dietrich Bonhoefffer, Malcolm X and Aung San Suu Kyi as examples of what he calls mystic-activists, “leaders whose activism consumes them yet is deeply rooted in their faith and in the mystery of the divine.”

One of the hallmarks of these mystic-activists, DeYoung suggests is a worldview from the margins, the ability to look at society from the perspective of the marginalized (what Bonhoeffer called “the view from below”). A worldview of marginality, he suggests, “makes it possible to hold several different perspectives and so gain a more complex and sensitive way of seeing, unavailable to those with only one point of view. The sociologist Charles Willie defines marginal people – those capable of viewing life through multiple lenses – as those “who live in, between, and beyond” boundaries of race, class, etc.

This ability to view life through multiple lenses is crucial to reconciliation and peace. DeYoung quotes Willie’s observation that “marginal people unite the clans, races and other groups in society and help them reconcile their differences” because they have “the ability to go beyond one’s boundaries and see new patterns and possibilities.”

The worldview from the margins is not something valuable only for a few. It would help us all to develop the ability to see things from more than our own point of view. If a worldview from the margins is a hallmark of mystic-activists, then let us all be mystic-activists.

Knowing the One to Whom We Belong

In connection with my preparation for a retreat I’m giving on the theme of Praying with the Mystics, I’m re-reading an piece by Brother David Steindl-Rast called Thoughts on Mysticism as Frontier of Consciousness Evolution. The piece is as good as I remembered it and I was particularly struck by the following words:

“We have to rediscover God from within. And there we discover God as the one to whom we belong. That is all. Before we know anything about God, we know God. This is true for every one of us. We know God as the one to whom we belong.”

Absent an experience of God, an experience of communion with the divine, God is only what other people tell us. And if God is only what other people tell us, we can only know about God, which is a lot different from (and a whole lot less meaningful than) knowing God. As Steindl-Rast goes on to say, we can profit from the experience of other people, but that can not substitute for own own experience.

This is why, as Steindl-Rast suggests, all religious traditions start from mystical experience.” Although the word “mystic” scares some people (they think mystics are strange or special people, somehow different from the rest of us), the term is properly applied to anyone who has had a deep and abiding awareness of the presence of God, a direct and personal encounter with God, with the love of God.

We can talk about God all day long, but absent that personal encounter, we can never know God as the one to whom we belong.

[Note: The Steindl-Rast piece appears as Chapter 7 in Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution (ed. Stanislav Grof).]