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[This homily was delivered on March 2, 2013, at the Sunday Eucharist concluding a 4-day Silent Retreat on Contemplative Living with Mary Dwyer in Arnprior, Ontario, Canada.]
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water…My soul thirsts for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. - Psalm 63:1-3a
Is that not why we are all here? Yearning, this ache for God? Is this not what it means to be human? St Francis says: “What you are looking for is what is looking.” This very desire, this burning for God, is God, yet, we seek everywhere else.
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Mary shared with us her ‘koan,’ she received from Fr Thomas: “Consent to God’s presence is God’s presence.” It is in the very act of consenting to God within our life right now that God is fully realized. Yet how do we come to know this need? To turn toward God suggests that we are turned away from God. I need to know I am lost before I can be found.
This is the ‘Way of Tears’, the second baptism that St Symeon speaks about. Our first baptism is our initiation into the divine life, but the second baptism is every time we turn back to God, every time we repent (metanoia literally means to turn around). Turning around is the movement of the will, inspired by the tears of realization that we have spent our money “for that which is not bread, [our] labour for that which does not satisfy” (Isaiah 55:2)
For many years I belonged to a community inspired by and steeped in the Sufi tradition. In this community we invested much time and effort in spiritual exercises which focused on the nervous system and all kinds of practices which evoked a variety of experience and phenomena. Part of our practice was a way of prayer called ‘”turning”. You may be familiar with the “whirling dervishes” or seen pictures of this mode of prayer where a person turns rapidly on one spot with arms raised, head cocked, in a trance-like state – “a still point in a turning world.”
With much training and discipline one could learn “to turn.’” The sacred dance, when dervishes would gather together with their sheikh (shepherd, teacher) is called “Sema”. We would turn to chant or music and when the music or the chant stopped, the dervish would stop, and bow to the sheikh. It was beautiful.
On one occasion I was turning in great glory, ecstatically as the music played and the people chanted “Hu Allah! Hu Allah!” The moment came, the music ended. I stopped on a dime, and solemnly bowed…low, with great piety. But all I could hear was laughter. As I rose I discovered that the sheikh was not in front of me, nor to the left, nor to the right. My sheikh was directly behind me! Far from an honourable deep bow of respect, I had solemnly mooned him.
“Embarrassed” does not capture the depth of humiliation I experienced in that moment. I felt the blood rush from face, and I crawled back to the circle.
What a gift.
You see, what was revealed to me was how much I had invested in “being spiritual.” How much of my life was spent on how I appeared to others. I had blindly laboured in my need for affirmation and esteem. If you know anything about middle eastern culture, it is rude to show the bottoms of your feet to anyone, let alone your rear end to the elder or master!
It was a dazzling metanoia, a powerful “turning around” to the true source of life. All of the spiritual disciplines and feats of experience were just paper tigers compared to this transformative encounter.
But that is just a funny example. In my life, I have self-destructed in many ways, I wrestle with many demons, broken relationships, I have hurt people, I have acted with utmost self-centredness at the expense of others – again and again. And yet, it is the discovery that I am eating the wrong food, the awareness of my brokenness that is the gift of a greater metanoia, a turning around, a greater and deeper consent. The tears of my brokenness wates the garden of transformation: my stuff is God’s food.
This is not to say that sin is just OK. The fruit of sin is suffering: institutional, cultural, global – the suffering of this world. Ultimately, evil is the result of human beings turning away from God. It is human beings trying to quench their thirst at the wrong well, “spending money for that which is not bread, labouring for that which does not satisfy.”
At the heart of the war against evil, the front line of the battle against the suffering of all creation, where the rubber hits the road, is where the “denim hits the wood” – when in Centering Prayer, we put our butts on the chair. And we practice. We practice metanoia. Every time we say our sacred word, 10 times, 1000 times, it is a second baptism, it is another return, another consent towards God.
“Consent to God’s Presence is God’s presence.” Whether we are changing our life in a radical way, in how we live, dealing with our addictions, our relationships – repenting, turning away from ‘sin,’ is no different than when we turn away from a thought and say our sacred word…it is the same activity of the will, where we turn to God’s presence and action within. “Consent to God’s presence, is God’s presence.”
In our Gospel (Luke 13:1-9), a man planted a fig tree that bore no fruit and was going to cut it down – but the gardener said: “no, let me dig around it, put some manure on it…and wait and see.” It is our brokenness, the manure of our life that is the food of transformation, the opportunity to turn towards God, again and again in faith. If we were always perfect, loving perfectly, never in need, why would we ever seek God? For God to transform us into his heart, we have one task alone – to consent. We have the “stuff of life,” that helps us choose to turn to God. By turning away we turn toward, our thirst unquenched drives us to true water. It is our thoughts in prayer that are gifts we detach from, gifts because they allow us consent to God’s presence and action within.
I would close with this short prayer that Cynthia Bourgeault often shares that comes from the Nazi Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where some hundred thousand women and children were exterminated. When liberated at the end of the war by the allies, this prayer was found by the body of a child:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering––our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgement let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness. 1
Friends, this does not justify suffering, but invites us to keep turning to God, keep consenting, know you are loved, that forgiveness is given – and use every thought, and every fall, every turn down a wrong path, every thought to be an opportunity to return, to let God bare your fruit, to become the person you are being loved into eternity to be. It is our brokenness that God thirsts for, for it is in our brokenness that we turn to him. “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
Our broken body is God’s holy food... just as God’s broken body, is ours.
- Gregor Sneddon is the Presbyter at St Luke's Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario and the Coordinator for Contemplative Outreach Eastern Ontario.
1 Cynthia Bourgeault. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Shambhala (Boston, MA: 2008). [Quoted from Lynn C. Bauman, ed., A Book of Prayers (Telephone, Tex.: Praxis Institute Press, 1999), p. 36]. pg. 74.