6 Easter Year A 5-25-14
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Acts 17:22-31; Ps. 66:7-18; (I Peter 3:13-22); John 14: 15-21
Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard; who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip. AMEN.
As many of you know, I spent most of the last week on my annual silent prayer retreat at the monastery of the Society of St. John Evangelist on Memorial Drive. Even though there was more coming-and-going than I usually experience in this precious week of prayer, still I had the experience I always have at the monastery. It’s an experience of sinking into the quiet, only music in liturgy to stir up the silence, and reading aloud at meals (this time, a book about the remarkable abilities of BIRDS!). No chitchat. No broadcasts. It’s an experience of being held in the prayer of a whole community, renewed every three hours or so in the services of the daily office and daily Eucharist, with God’s word opened and explored in a constant tidal rhythm each day. We’re not trying to sustain our relationship with God on our own, but rather are joining a great unending stream of prayer, like the eternal procession of the Charles River outside the guesthouse windows. Being at the monastery on retreat is an experience of internal freedom: freedom to read and think and gaze at the world without the to-do list dragging our attention forward and outward. It’s a time to pay attention within ourselves without distraction. No need to posture or construct one’s persona in any way. No need to persuade anyone of anything, or recruit anyone to anything. (But lots of room to care about many, many people, whose faces bubble up into prayer, sometimes accompanied by tears of fellow feeling or joy.) Cell phone (mostly) off. Screens (mostly) blank. Heart and mind tuned to a slower, gentler frequency, a frequency that allows for probing but kindly self-examination and forbearance, for discernment, for weighing and balancing what’s important and what’s not, for letting oneself be little and inconsequential on the great stage of life without feeling badly about it. Time opened up to let the regrets creep out from the little backwaters to which they’ve eddied in the general busyness and get addressed, and for things rejoiced in to have their full appreciation.
Mind you, on the monastery brothers’ side of the ledger, this grace-filled atmosphere of prayer and freedom is full of effort, as they design, preach, and lead the services, learn the music, welcome and attend to the guests, keep the building and gardens tranquil, inviting & clean and the (delicious) food arriving at table, and in and through it all, provide spiritual direction in person and on their website. But for me as their guest, being at the monastery opens a time inside me and outside me that liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop would call a “laetissimum spatium,” a “most joyful space,” a space in which to luxuriate in and expand into the baptismal truth that no matter what our failures and shortcomings, no matter the trials and tribulations of our daily lives and situation, we abide in Christ’s love in the power of the resurrection.
Lathrop was using that term, the “laetissimum spatium” in which to abide in Christ’s resurrection, not to describe a monastery retreat but to describe the fifty days of the season of Eastertide. A little history: the Church had been celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter from the mid-2nd century on, to honor the “pascha,” the suffering of Christ in his “Passover” through humiliating death to limitless life in the resurrection. By the beginning of the 3rd century, barely a half-century later, the Church had adopted the custom of holding open that “most joyful space” for the full fifty days from the Feast of the Resurrection, the same fifty days the Jewish people had celebrated between the Passover and the spring harvest festival called in Hebrew, Shavuoth, the feast of Weeks, and later, in the Greek of Hellenistic Judaism, “Pentecost.” This fifty-day period – a seventh of the whole church year – became known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, so that just as every Sunday is the seventh day of the week, the day of Resurrection, so the fifty days of Eastertide became the Sunday of the year, a whole SEASON of resurrection, like a whole season of being on retreat from “life as usual.”
And here we are on Day 36 of those fifty days of laetissimum spatium. our “most joyful space” of Eastertide. And my time in the monastery has encouraged me to hear Jesus’ discourse with the disciples in John’s Gospel for today a little differently than I might have, had I been motoring along in my life as usual. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever,” says Jesus. (“To be with you forever:” the word John uses is “abide,” an Advocate who will abide with us forever.) “This is the Spirit of truth,” he goes on, “whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” That word, “abide,” is the same one John goes on to use in the next chapter of Jesus’ discourse with the disciples, in which he advises them to “abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches…” [John 15:4-5a] And he goes on: “…If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” And “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” [John 15:10, 12] If we follow this swirling invitation to abide in love for one another and for Jesus, Jesus promises that we will abide in a laetissimum spatium, “a most joyful space.” He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” [John 15:11]
Of course, there’s a catch in there. The Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, will come and abide with us, even IN us. But the “world,” says John’s Jesus, cannot receive that Spirit of truth, because it neither sees truth nor knows truth. On my third day at the monastery, I finally made it all the way through the New York Times Magazine for the Sunday BEFORE last (yes, it’s hopeless, isn’t it?). At the back, I came upon a book review by writer Steve Almond for a little-heeded novel called “Stoner.” It’s a novel, he says, about “the life of an academic named William Stoner, a man forgotten by his students and colleagues, by history itself.” Stoner never rises out of his inconspicuousness. He’s “a dubious leading man, introverted and passive. He fails even to protect his daughter from the deranged whims of his troubled wife. The story of his life is not a neat crescendo of industry and triumph, but something more akin to our own lives: a muddle of desires, inhibitions and compromises.” [Steve Almond, New York Times Magazine, May 11, 2014]
Why would I burden you with this little story about such an undistinguished little man in the most joyful space of Eastertide? Because, in the language of John’s Gospel, “the Spirit of Truth abides with Stoner and IN Stoner,” though the world cannot see it or know it. Almond notes that Stoner’s unrelieved obscurity “makes it hard for some readers… to see that Stoner makes courageous decisions. The dutiful son of a poor farmer, he discovers the power of literature in college and pursues his calling. He labors to honor the mission of teaching and gives himself over to a passionate affair he knows will end in ruin…” [Ibid.] because “in his middle age he began to know that [love] was neither a state of grace nor an illusion…” but more “…a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.” [Stoner, by John Williams] With all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength… Though “…these events play out not on the grand stage of history but the small rooms of [Stoner’s] workplace and home,” Stoner learns from them to pay attention to his life. And that quality of attention, the kind of attention a monastery retreat invites is, says Almond, “the deepest lesson of “Stoner;” it’s what makes his life heroic. Stoner doesn’t shy away from his smallness. He abides. And love grows in him, moment by moment, day by day. It’s not a retreat but a poem in a literature class that creates the laetissimum spatium in which Stoner awakes to “the miracle of consciousness. The sky and trees take on an almost unbearable intensity. He senses his own blood flowing invisibly through his veins. His fellow students appear illuminated from within, and he feels ‘very distant from them and very close to them.’”[Op. cit.] How curious that Stoner’s awakening to his own soul, to the need to pay attention to his life, involves feeling this intense sense of connection. As John’s Jesus puts it in his circling fashion, “You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” [John 14:20]
But “the world,” as John’s Gospel puts it, doesn’t get it. Almond again: “…How shallow our conception of the heroic has become. Americans worship athletes and moguls and movie stars, those who possess the glittering gifts we equate with worth and happiness. The stories that flash across our screens tend to be paeans to reckless ambition…It’s not just that we’re all toting around omniscient devices the size of candy bars. It’s the staggering acceleration of our intellectual and emotional metabolisms: our hunger for sensation and narcissistic reward, our readiness to privilege action over contemplation. And, most of all, our desperate compulsion to be known by the world rather than seeking to know ourselves… If the ancient ideal had been to lead an examined life, the modern goal became to lead a life that was displayed… if you want to be among those who count… well then, make some noise. Put your wit – or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks – on public display. Otherwise you wind up like poor Stoner: a footnote in the great human story.
But aren’t nearly all of us footnotes in the end?” asks Almond. “Don’t the dreams we harbor eventually give way to the actuality of our lives? As a fictional hero, William Stoner will have to dwell in obscurity forever. But that, too, is our destiny. Our most profound acts of virtue and vice, of heroism and villainy, will [likely] be known by only those closest to us and forgotten soon enough. Even our deepest feelings will, for the most part, lay concealed within the vault of our hearts. Much of the reason we construct these garish fantasies of fame is to distract ourselves from these painful truths. We confess so much to so many, as if by these disclosures we might escape the terror of confronting our hidden selves. What makes “Stoner” such a radical work of art is that it portrays this confrontation [with the hidden self] not as a tragedy, but the essential source of our redemption.” [Op. cit.] The world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it neither sees truth nor knows truth. But if we abide in love, if we take the risk to pay attention as Stoner does, as one does on retreat, if we allow ourselves to go deeper into the truth of our lives, messy and disappointing and painful as it often is, without pretending otherwise, the baptismal joy and love of the resurrected Christ lies there, in the obscure bottom of that quality of attention.
All that we do on retreat at the monastery, all that we do in these fifty days of Eastertide, this most joyful space of the resurrection, is aimed at waking us up to our lives as Stoner wakes to his. Not to make them ready for prime time, quite the contrary: to let ourselves be precisely as human, as fallible, as perplexed and overwhelmed as we truly are, without shying away from that truth. Because, whatever the chattering, facebooking, sensation-seeking world says, we need not shy away. Jesus will not leave us orphaned. He has prepared a home in which we are invited to abide in our full humanity, loved, forgiven, encouraged, shot through with the divine creativity, the divine possibility, the divine at-one-ment, illuminated from within ourselves and surrounded by people – all people, no matter how fallible and human THEY are too – whom, like us, we discover may also illumined from within, with whom we are indelibly connected in love even as we remain our separate, unique and precious selves. Just as I experience this at the monastery, so the Risen Jesus is inviting us to discover it day by day in the laetissimum spatium of Easter, so that his joy may be in us, and our joy may be complete. AMEN.