a new word

This Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. I had the responsibility to preach here at the Monastery, a responsibility that I did not relish, because I do not resonate with the themes of Christ the King. I ended my sermon with these words: “For myself, I long for a different word than king, a word yet to be uttered by human lips, a word that is more silence than speech. And I’ll pray for the ears to hear that word in the searching gaze of my human brothers and sisters, of the devastated and majestic earth we live on, and in the cave of my own heart.” (You can read the full text here or listen to the audio here.)

More and I more I find myself longing for a new word. More and I more I ask myself the question: “to what extent do the religious forms we have inherited facilitate our deeper movement into God, and to what extent do those forms hinder that movement?”

Our Founder writes beautifully in his Rule about the importance of silence to the Christian life. “Language conceals thought as often as it expresses it,” he warns, “and a wall of words can often hide us from each other. We must then cherish our times of silence; we must feel that this silence is a golden chain binding our hearts together.” (Ch. XIII)

We need to hear a similar admonition about the doctrines, liturgies, and forms of the Christian Church. They conceal the truth of God and creation as often as they convey that truth. So many of our images for God are stale and weighed down with centuries of meaning that no longer holds in our context.

The natural course of the world is that forms arise, endure for a time, and die and that the decay of those forms’ passing is itself food for the birth of new forms. This dynamic is obvious when you think of an acorn that falls into the leaf litter of a forest, grows into a large oak and, after a few hundred years, dies. That tree then decomposes, creating a rich humus in which new trees can grow and flourish.

Why then do we cling so stridently to doctrines, practices, and images that no longer serve? It seems to me that if we truly believe in the message of resurrection, we would do better to mourn the beauty that is dying away and to wait with hope for the new creation yet to be born.

I realize these thoughts are a bit abstract. The reason for that vagueness is that I am not clear myself on just what forms and structures and doctrines and images weigh us down more than lift us up. And perhaps that is because an image that may no longer serve my journey into God could be key to someone else’s.

Still, I do have the beginning of a list of questions and observations that form the basis of my own explorations at this time. Perhaps some of these, listed here in no particular order, will resonate with you as well.

  • Does the idea of original sin still serve us? Or do we recognize the inherent goodness of creation and humankind, a goodness that is perfected in Christ?
  • And if we do recognize that inherent goodness, how does that change the meaning that we make of Christ’s incarnation, passion, and resurrection?
  • Can we begin to celebrate that we are all inherently one with the created world, that God is at least as imminent as God is transcendent? Or, even, that God’s transcendence is God’s imminence?
  • How can we let go the trappings of empire that weigh down our understanding of God and God’s work? And specifically the image of God as King, slayer of the wicked, patriarch, and guardian of a privileged, exclusive community?
  • How can we open our canon of scripture so that we invite the experience of ongoing revelation to shape our communal expression and celebration of God’s creating and redeeming work?
  • Can we celebrate and welcome the softening and interweaving of religious and denominational boundaries rather than walling ourselves up in a solid-state religious identity?
  • How can we begin to reshape our eucharistic liturgies so that they are grounded in the intimate experience of Christ in the created world and so that they reflect the experience of God’s life within and all around us rather than reinforcing patriarchal, imperial, and hierarchical understandings of God?
  • Do we need so many words in our liturgies and scriptures? (As a brother of mine recently quipped, ‘I wonder sometimes if all these psalms give God a headache.”)
  • Can we allow the Church to die in the ways it needs to die?
  • Do we realize that the Church is and always has been and always will be too small for God?

As I say, I don’t have answers to these questions. And there are many, many more questions to ask. I do know that at the moment I am craving new life for our world and our church, new understandings of what it means to be a person in love with God in the world, new words for the holy.

I want a whole year of Advent, or perhaps a whole decade, or even a whole lifetime. I want a time of waiting, in silence, for the coming of God among us. I long to be surprised by the beauty and novelty of God’s emergence. I want to be stretched ever larger than I am, to touch the uncreated and, as Hadejwich of Brabant puts it, thereby to be undone.*

And so, as I said in my sermon Sunday, I wait for a new word, a word yet to be uttered by human lips, a word that is more silence than speech. I wait, and I watch.


*

All things
are too small
to hold me.
I am so vast

In the infinite
I reach
for the Uncreated

I have
touched it,
it undoes me
wider than wide

Everything else
is too narrow

You know this well,
you who are also there

Translated by Jane Hirshfield in Women in Praise of the Sacred

13 Replies to “a new word”

  1. Good morning Brother Aidan,
    I just listened to your sermon. I enjoyed it, and have decided I am more of a goat. Aren’t sheep the depiction of blind Following? Am I doomed to Heresy? I say that half joking. I also am nearly finished with Newell’s book, Christ of the Celts. There is a lot to ponder here and find it comforting to realize my discomfort with the old liturgies is not unique. I still yearn for connection to Jesus, (love?). I think the church is too confining and though I love many of the people in my church, the overwhelming feeling I get when I walk in the church is guilt. I feel like I need more time for silence. I’d love to go on retreat if I can find time. My husband is not on board with my spiritual quest. After two tours in Vietnam he’s done with religion. He will ask me where was God during that war. He becomes incensed when someone praises the Lord for being rescued from an accident and a child dies. I get it. But I still believe. I’ll continue reading Newell’s books.

    By the way, I love the new knitting project. That color is beautiful. Your still in love with cables!!

    Marlana

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    1. Marlana, you’d be more than welcome on retreat here at the Monastery, anytime you can get away. I️ certainly relate to the desire for more silence and more connection to Jesus and love. I️ can also relate to your husband’s feelings. Sometimes the God I️ hear people praising I️ have a hard time recognizing. I️ believe we all have to find our own way to God, and it won’t look the same. I’m keeping you in prayer as you move down your path.

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  2. I am moved what you wrote here, Brother Adrian. I already sent it to four friends. I also read the sermon. Thank-you for that. You have asked a powerful question: “Can we allow the Church to die in the ways it needs to die?” For those of us swimming around in the weary pools of parish life of mainline denominations here in the northeast, we must ask this question. Churches and their programming are full of things that make me think of this other line from your entry: “The natural course of the world is that forms arise, endure for a time, and die and that the decay of those forms’ passing is itself food for the birth of new forms.” Let me explain a bit of why I am resonating with your words. A few decades ago, there were a lot of women with enough economic security, coupled with a lot of extra time and various skills and trainings, who could spend their time and lend their gifts to church programming like teaching Sunday School, or Vacation Bible School, or coordinating massive suppers that marshaled the efforts of scores of people. As the middle class erodes before our eyes, and more people need to work long hours or two jobs to keep a semblance of their standard of living, and as ever fewer women stay home full time in possession of excellent educations and husbands who earn — church programming is gasping. Your words resonate. Can we allow the church to die in the ways it needs to die? What does church look like without a VBS or coffee hour? The remaining band of “good church women” who run all these programs are aging out quickly, or they are exhausted and irritable, and dealing with feelings of shame that they are not what their mothers were in terms of the quality and amount of service. (Yes, this latter person is me when I am not being more centered and conscious.) Does this make us bad Christians? I do not believe so. These thoughts may also apply to men, but I am thinking of women for the moment.

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    1. Yes, yes, and yes, Wendy! There’s certainly all the ministry and service opportunities that we need to rethink in our parishes. But I️ also think the dying bit goes much further than that. Fewer and fewer people are finding their experience of God in a stone church building. There will always be some parishes that thrive, of course, and I️ think that’s a good thing. But, why do we need to hold on to so much property, pour so much money into maintaining that property, and keep communities on life-support? Wouldn’t it be more graceful to help those communities mourn what has been or is being lost, and then allow something new to emerge? That’s where I’m at, anyway. Thanks for reading!

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      1. Yes, the question about property is also huge. I agree.
        It’s difficult, since we can become so intimately intertwined, psychically, with the spaces that have meaning for us. I still remember with sensory vividness the texture of the roof of the picnic house, the feel of the gray woolen carpets against my cheek when I would lie on (or fling myself onto) the floor, the feel of the bannister, at my childhood home. Similarly, the sound of the columbarium door closing on my father’s ashes at my childhood church; the dark wood of the nave’s ceiling; the sound of the creaking floorboards of that church’s undercroft over all those years of coffee hours and potluck suppers; the damp smell of the cement-block basement Sunday school rooms. So, the way I see it, we love our buildings – our places – as extensions of our bodies. I think this is why it is so hard to let them go.
        But your question stands. When can we let things go, and allow them to die?

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      2. Wendy, thank you for this insight. I have never thought of the church buildings as an extension of our bodies. But, of course, that’s exactly the way to put it. I do have so many sensory and tactile memories of my childhood church and of the many lives lived within its walls. That sense is even greater here in our monastic church, where generations of monks and guests have prayed five times daily for over a hundred years. And, as you rightly point out, bodies die, and how and when do we let that happen? Things to ponder…

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  3. Aidan, This is a beautiful reflection. My own sense is that people cling to the places, forms, words, and images in which God has come to them in the past. This is a way of honoring the sacred, but it can blind us to ways in which God is selling to come to us now. Perhaps a both/and approach is a way forward…

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    1. Yes, I think you’re absolutely right, Deborah. Of course a both/and approach is what’s required! That’s always the answer. I do think that part of what we as the church can do is to help people celebrate and, in many cases, mourn what was so that there’s more space to welcome what will be. A friend of mine recently asked “do you know if there’s anyone doing hospice work for churches?” What a brilliant idea!

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  4. I just responded to a post from a couple of months ago, and realize it should have been to this one! I love the conversation about buildings–there are certain prayers that, when I say them, I am right back in the choir stalls as a child, gazing at the window above the altar.

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