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Passion for Pilgrimage – A. Jones

October 22, 2015

P4P 2The Christian spiritual journey is a pilgrimage to wholeness, a search for home that is in God.

The author explores the various parts of the pilgrimage home. Using literature, art, and biblical texts as illustrations, he explores our search for light and love, repentance, and forgiveness in the context of the Passion and Easter stories.

I have leant Jones’ books to various directees who became jaded with traditional Christianity. They feel refreshed to encounter stuff which is exciting yet still orthodox.

Quotations:

“Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, stupid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship, by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”

God’s will is that, when we finally reach our destination, no one will be left out. Charles Peguy wrote that, when we reach heaven at the end of our pilgrimage, God will ask this searching question: “Oii sont les autres?” Where are the others? The Easter promise of new life is for everyone. In this homecoming, everyone is included.

P4PLent plunges us into the wilderness to be tempted—or rather to acknowledge our present tuneless and storyless state. It is not accidental that what we most want to do, in times of stress, is to find someone or pay someone to listen to our story. Heal­ing demands that it be told, but we cannot make sense of our individual stories unless we see them as part of one great Dra­ma. When we live only by the clock and give up the call to dream, we get cut off from ourselves, from one another, and from God.

We are not, after all, a band of high-class pilgrims. Our com­panions are “excrementitious outcasts” (to use Jeremy Ben­tham’s phrase). We find ourselves in fellowship with what we most despise and fear. Why? So that we might penetrate the terrible mystery of how our “decency” is often purchased at the expense of someone else’s humiliation

The Sunday before Lent in the Orthodox Church is called the Sunday of Forgiveness. This sets the tone of the Great Fast of Lent. Tradition insists that a fast without mutual love would be a fast of demons. Three simple words sum up the spirit of our pilgrimage: Love one another. Lent is the time when the stark simplicity of these words comes home to us. We are called to love one another to the end, and without exceptions. Unless love is to the end and open-hearted to all, it is not love at all but a destructive force.

St. Basil the Great wrote: Do not limit the benefit of fasting merely to abstinence from food, for a true fast means refraining from evil. Loose every unjust bond, put away your resentment against your neighbor, forgive him his offences. Do not let your fasting lead only to wrangling and strife. You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother/your sister; you abstain from wine, but not from insults. So all the labor of your fast is useless.

These words set the tone for the whole Lenten season and put everything we do in the service of love. Fasting means refrain­ing from evil. If we are to be instruments in God’s hands against the forces of evil, we have to face our dread and our impotence in the face of it. Acknowledging our dread is a sound and firm step towards home.

“This essay shows nothing of the love of God!” He did not mean that it lacked pious thoughts but that its sloppy presentation betrayed a lack of passion.

Our way home is by way of the last place on earth, because that is where we have exiled the dregs of our wounded self. These rejected bits and pieces must first be gathered up before we can continue our pilgrimage. God’s passion for us is such that God wants every part of us to come home.

Our longing for enlightenment is one of the most dangerous passions of all. We can easily find ourselves imprisoned in the darkness of ideology or religious fanaticism. Doris Lessing wrote of the deadly darkness of ideology of her youth.

When I came to England, I found the Left could mean dull persons shouting at meetings, boring me to death with their egos. With words. Verbiage the more outrageous the less it meant. They hated art. In time, I came to fear that they hated people as well. Living lives of frenzied emotionality based on the sufferings of other persons in other countries about whom they seemed to care very little except to find them convenient for certain neurotic needs of their own.’

Our pagan society is an addictive society. We are addicted to security, to power, to substances and sex, to ideas, and to money. Spiritual maturity is a process of with­drawal from whatever dulls our pain and erodes our capacity for wonder. Listening to the pain of the world and responding in joy and wonder to its marvels are required of those who would enter the mystery of the Passion…. The secret shines through, if only we could see it. Living means giving. Resurrection is always preceded by crucifixion. It is the law of life. This secret is to be trusted and celebrated. If you want to live, give.

There is a Latin-American baptismal liturgy in which the priest takes the one to be baptized and plunges that person into the water and says, “I kill you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! And I raise you up to a new life in Christ!” Being a pilgrim on the journey home requires such a radical exchange. It is heart surgery. The heart of stone is exchanged for the heart of flesh. We are always being raised up into a wider and more inclusive fellowship.

If we are to enter the mystery of faith, we have to wake up to uncertainty (the place “between dreams”), which is a kind of dying.

Christianity easily degenerates into Christianism, and when it does it casts an enormous and destructive shadow. Hiliman uses the state of Texas as a metaphor for Christianism, the disease that is killing the soul, robbing it of its mystery and passion. Texas, for him, is the symbol of a prevailing psychopathy that is as present in New York and San Francisco as it is in Dallas. “Dallas … has the highest divorce rate in America. Its teenage suicide rate is two and a half times the national average. Ten thousand move here every year; the Sun Belt, the golden crescent, it is for the young, rich, determined, and powerful. It is not for the lost, the weak, and the handicapped.”
The trouble is that the sickness is largely hidden. The psychopathy is invisible because, in the short term, our sickness of soul pays off in material goods.
Now I live in Texas. People don’t worry there, – . . people don’t come apart, they just do it in the world and make money, too. Shoot your father, shoot your son, rape, drink—the whole family drinks—drive the car and drink, take this drug or that, buy, buy, buy, change your face, lift your breasts, buy some hair, different hair for different occasions. Put in a new heart. Bypass the heart—what a metaphor! If you get tired of something, move out or sell or go bankrupt. Divorce it. If you want it, marry it. Transvestites, transsexuals, trans-you-name-it. I will name it: transcendence. There is something religious underneath that makes them transcend all their conditions. And this upward push pays off in economic success.’
Our longing for transcendence gets corrupted, and our hunger for God gets confused and identified with our greed for material things. We get mired in “goods” even as we hunger for the Good. We choke on the garbage we accumulate. Imagining that we are fulfilling our dreams, we wonder why we are still hungry. Why doesn’t the aching in the heart stop? Why won’t the longing go away? It won’t go away until we find out its true object.
We have confused our need to be truly earthed and rooted in the here and now with the accumulation and consumption of things.
When they use the word “development” in Dallas, they mean property land-development . . . At the same time it’s all church-backed.
Fundamentalist. Do you see what I’m driving at? Psychopathic behavior is a fundamentalist behavior: taking fantasies literally and also confusing the literal and the concrete. Now this is just what the fundamentalist churches support: if your arm offend thee, cut it off. If your nose offend thee, get it straightened. Looking at a woman with lust is the same as doing it; doing it in the psyche and doing it in the street become identical. If they say “tuck in your belly,” they go out and take a tuck in it, surgically. If you need a lift, you get a face-lift. The metaphors become utterly concrete . . . .

Anthony Bloom, the Russian Orthodox archbishop in Lon­don, once observed, “Of course the Christian God exists. He is so absurd, no one could have invented him!” There is an important truth here. If you were to invent a God, you could do a lot better than the broken God of Calvary. Jesus reveals a God who is a victim. What kind of a God is that? In Jesus, we see a God who is vulnerable, a God who betrays himself into our hands. God is at our mercy. What is the use of a God like that? To add insult to injury, the Christian tradition claims that we are made in the image of this weak and vulnerable deity!

Holy Week culminates in a great conflict of love and trust that is played out in the heart of God. Holy Week is the Great Journey out of our private hells into the homecoming of new possibilities. Insofar as I am willing to enter into the mystery of this week, especially the Great Three Days at its end, I will learn what it is to love. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day are all parts of one single event. They are expressions of God’s love calling us home.

James Hillman suggests that for there to be any opening in the soul for healing and growth there has to be an admission of weakness and the breakdown of the Western ego.

“It’s only when that breaks down, when . . . you can’t get up and do it. When impotence happens and you can’t get on with it. When you feel beaten, oppressed, knocked back . . . then something moves and you begin to feel yourself as a soul. You don’t feel yourself as a soul when you’re making it and doing it.

This was precisely the experience of William James. In the spring of 1870 his dreadful experience of not “making it and doing it” caused him to discover his soul. Hillman goes so far as to say that today “we are living in a psychic concentration camp, in the sense that we are passively accepting the soulless world.”

The pilgrimage we call Lent places us in a crucible of love that purges away the trash and tinsel of our thoughts and feelings about God. We may even have to get to the stage of “hating God,” or, better, “hating” the idol we worship instead of God. What we worship is often a trashy (vindictive or sentimental, according to our mood and training) “God” made to our own specifications. We live in a culture that specializes in custom-built gods for personal use. Westerners have often been guilty of judging other forms of belief in other parts of the world in a supercilious way. Christians have denigrated non-Christians for worshiping many gods and for indulging in what looks like superstitious practices. But our pantheon is no less crowded and our behavior no more rational than that of other peoples. Lent is a time when I have to unlearn everything and try to see the world with unprejudiced eyes. My beliefs are corrupted by my need to look down on others. The various “dead ends” on the pilgrimage serve a great purpose. They are opportunities to see the trash and tinsel of religion and of the culture for what they are. “Hatred of God” may bring the soul to God through a passionate process of stripping away all that, prevents us from seeing clearly. The “unlearning” process begins by asking old questions with new vigor. Where is God to be found? How can God be vindicated? Is it possible to be free? The main issue for pilgrims is that of freedom. We want to be home free. We long for it. As we have seen, in order to be free we have to face our capacity for evil and acknowledge our longing for love. Both our capacity and our longing get us into trouble. But unless we are willing to face this kind of trouble we shall never discover who we are and what we are about. We long for a world where there is only certainty and no ambiguity. We want to be citizens of a clear and well-ordered kingdom, but the moral clarity of the basketball game only lasts two hours.

It is not accidental that the pilgrimage brings us to the point of resentment and even hatred where we are sorely tested and tempted. The place of tempting and temptation is, after all, where the followers of Jesus would expect to find themselves more often than not. The first action of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ adult life was to drive him into the wilderness. It is not only the preparation for an active and wonderful ministry, it is also the foretaste of the last journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus is led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan. He is in­volved in a struggle about freedom, evil, and love. What the story of the temptations is trying to teach us is that the theater of our becoming human is the wilderness that we dread. The three temptations correspond to human needs. When they are not immediately satisfied we grow resentful. Turning stones into bread for the hungry seems to be a miracle that would do no harm in a world where children are crying out for bread. God, however, does not respond to our longing for miracles of this sort. Something in me wonders why Jesus, when the devil showed him the kingdoms of the world and told him to take charge, did not lead a political revolution. The cry for a leader points to one of our deepest desires. We may not want to be in charge ourselves, but we dearly wish that someone was. A world in chaos needs a strong ruler. This deep desire of ours for an orderly world is rejected by God in favor of another Way, which leads us to a dark place of dereliction. God won’t even allow Jesus to be an unequivocal sign to the nations. The Devil goes on to suggest that Jesus throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. A wonder-worker would compel belief. We like to be on the winning side, and we want it to be obvious that we are with the winners. We don’t like losers. Being a loser might be catching. That is why we distance ourselves from failure. Jesus chooses to be a failure, chooses to follow a path away from easy solutions and the working of the kind of miracles that would compel belief. We follow him on another Way. Here we are in the week of Crucifixion. It is a time of transformation. Imagine yourself as a giant chrysalis, hard and brittle on the outside, waiting for the inner life to burst forth….. Our longing for miracle, authority, and mystery can easily be exploited by those who peddle magic, tyranny, and mystifica­tion. Think of your own temptation to be enslaved by what you perceive to be your needs. Think how open you are to the tyr­anny of some form of mystification.

The story of the Ascension of Elijah is about the passing on of life. It has its funny side in that Elijah spends a great deal of his time trying to lose Elisha, or rather to test him to see if he is in earnest about being a prophet. Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. In order to receive it, he has to take care not to miss the main event. “And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” To understand where the sources of life and vitality are we have to be like Elisha: expect great things from God as Mystery and be continually attentive.

We live in an age that is appallingly ignorant with regard to Christianity understood as a mystery. By mystery I do not mean something vague and woolly but rather an acknowledgment of the stupendous reality in which we live and move and have our being. …. The secret of life (which is the secret of Holy Week) is that life comes out of death. Learning to die is, therefore, the most important lesson we can learn. There is no growth without a kind of dying. Elisha saw Elijah taken up into heaven, and in his master’s passing caught a glimpse of his own. “A grain of wheat, unless it fall into the ground and die, abideth alone” (John 12:24). On one of the earliest Christian tombstones we read, “We must die while we live, unless when we come to die we shall be dead indeed.”

Hillman claims that the soul is born anew precisely at the point when it experiences its own impotence. You happen, you be­come more your true self when you experience a kind of break­down, a kind of death of the ego.

Dogma is sup­posed to lead us into the Drama of God’s love for us. Instead, it is made into a stumbling block. A dogma is the first word on a subject that serves as a platform to catapult us into mystery, not the last word of a definition that tries to circumscribe it. Dogma suffers from the same kind of nonsense to which the Bible is often subjected…. It is better to enter into the drama of God’s love than to wait on the edge until every dogma is properly understood. Dogmas are like the love letters that lovers keep and look at from time to time to remind them of the story that binds them together. Faith (which is prepared for, as we have seen, by our being open to wonder and awe) comes before understanding. Love doesn’t work that way. We fall in love and then spend the rest of our lives trying to explain to ourselves what happened. Sometimes we love unwisely, but that too contributes to our struggle to understand. I would rather be able to love fully and freely than to be able to define it….

the way people have used certain dogmas for their own ends. They have taken the bundle of love letters and quoted bits and pieces of them out of context in order to bully or embarrass others. Heresy is precisely the partial use of the love letters. The phrases that we like best become our unexamined assump­tions that are used to hurt others. For example, the love letters bear witness in many places to the importance of order in hu­man affairs. There is a “natural law” that allows love to run free. The “dogma” of natural law, however, was often applied to society in such a way that it frustrated and inhibited social change. The old hymn put it this way: The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate—God made them high and lowly And ordered their estate… The doctrine of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, for example, is about us. It continually challenges us with a vision of com­munity, of unity in diversity that stretches us to new ways to develop a humane and humanizing society. The doctrine of the Incarnation, the doctrine that God is here among us, means that God is to be found and seen in the flesh of all our sisters and brothers. The love letters insist that every human being matters. Such dogmas are explosive.

The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is about love and how it lives and moves in us. It is about Mary, God, and us. Dogma is about us. Dogmas about Mary are dog­mas about God’s falling in love with us. I can remember being gently reprimanded by a fellow student in seminary when I questioned his having a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in his room. “Mary teaches me about the humility of God,” he replied. When I see a picture of the Madonna and Child, I see a sign of a wonderful drama in which God makes himself weak, vulnerable, human, and available for my sake.

We have confused our need to be truly earthed and rooted in the here and now with the accumulation and consumption of things.

When they use the word “development” in Dallas, they mean property . . . land-development . . . At the same time it’s all church-backed. Fundamentalist. Do you see what I’m driving at? Psychopathic behav­ior is a fundamentalist behavior: taking fantasies literally and also con­fusing the literal and the concrete. Now this is just what the fundamentalist churches support: if your arm offend thee, cut it off. If your nose offend thee, get it straightened. Looking at a woman with lust is the same as doing it; doing it in the psyche and doing it in the street become identical. If they say “tuck in your belly,” they go out and take a tuck in it, surgically. If you need a lift, you get a face-lift. The metaphors become utterly concrete . .

The cross is surely the rock of atheism, yet believers find it the rock of faith. The believer and the unbeliever find themselves on the same rock. Judas and Ivan look at me with a sad satis­faction and say, “I told you so!” I look back and have nothing to say except, “Wait!” The cross is the rock of faith, but faith in a God we can scarcely imagine, let alone understand. If we want to understand a little of the mystery of the Passion we must be content to wait at the foot of the cross. That in itself can be hard work. Our culture is not sympathetic to waiting and watching by the dying and the dead.

In the end the Crucifixion is not a spectator sport. I cannot simply watch on the sidelines. Something bursts within me—revulsion, hatred, disappointment—but I am not left untouched. The cross, acknowledged or not, leaves its own kind of wound in us. It sets us voyaging inside ourselves. The world is a crucifix. The world is a tree. Its knotty entrails contain all my hatreds; its leafy branches, all my hopes. My homecoming is dependent on its loving purpose.

There is a scene in Frederick Buechner’s novel, Brendan, where a blind man, Mahon, teaches the monk how to play chess. Brendan, relates all the pieces and the moves they make to the Christian pilgrimage.

Save for pawns, Mahon said, the king was weakest of all. He could move any way he wished but only a step at a time. Yet he was the dearest piece even so, Mahon said, for the whole game hung on keep­ing him safe. Brendan told him Christ too is just such a king in his weakness, meek and lowly of heart and like a sheep dumb before its shearers. It’s ourselves above all we must keep him safe from, Brendan said, for with our dark ways we’re ever bringing woe upon him.’

The author of the Epistle to the Colossians writes, “You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3, Rsv). The “you” you worry about, the “you” you want to be in control, the “you” that is anxious and made frantic by conflicting desires—that manufactured “you” is dead! Thus the question shifts from, Did it really hap­pen? to, What does it mean? and shifts yet again to, What does it mean for me? The mighty events of the Great Three Days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day are for nothing less than the re-creation of the world. That’s what really happened! You and I “happen” in a new way. The Resurrection is a home­coming!

The theme of our pilgrimage has been summarized in the words “God has fallen in love with you and wants you to come home.” It is a homecoming that has been punctuated by trage­dy. But if the cross is God’s great tree, joining heaven and earth, then all that is tragic in life has a context and a possible mean­ing. There really is a homecoming. From the Christian point of view, tragedy is an important part of the story, but it is only a part. Tragedy is only a scene in a larger Passion drama. Dante called that larger drama a commedia. Our sinning and our fool­ishness, our hurting and our suffering are all part of the Com­edy of the Christian life, but they do not have the last word. The words of the creed, “He descended into hell” affirm that “there is no corner of God’s universe over which his love has not brooded” (F. D. Maurice).

To accept that life is a “comedy” involves a willingness to enter into the drama fully and take the consequences. Abelard recognized God in his own sufferings and realized that he was in the presence of One who demanded unconditional service. We imagine we can negotiate with God. We might as well try to negotiate with a volcano or an earthquake. Are we willing to be shaped and transformed by a power outside our control? Do we want to live? This is the question posed by the Resurrection of Christ. The question, honestly faced, uncovers our neurotic fear of life. We dread the thought that something or someone should so seize hold of the mind that we “might be carried away and delivered over irrevocably to an unknown and unpre­dictable fate. At bottom, it is the ego’s yearning dread of the Self.”4 This is a psychological way of talking about our longing for God and our dread of surrender.

The Resurrection is about our “yearning dread” of the “end” of our journey. All along we have had a companion on our pilgrimage who has been goading us with the Resurrection.

Our uneasiness has to do with our committing the sin of refus­ing to be fully alive. To be fully alive is not to be in total control of our destiny. To be fully alive is to grow up into someone we are not yet. To be fully alive means our realizing that the Resurrection is now. It means giving up the comfort of what Marie-Louise von Franz calls “the Not-Yet.” As long as I can go on convincing myself that this is not the time, that this is not the place, that I haven’t yet arrived, I can always slip out of a dif­ficult situation and make my pilgrimage an excuse for moving on. I do not want any form of closure or finality, because I would prefer “the phantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about.”

Franz Kafka called this continually aborting of new life on oneself “hesitation before birth.” He wrote in his diary for January 1922, “Hesitation before birth. If there is transmigration of souls then I am not on the bottom rung. My life is hesitation before birth.” Later he wrote, “Still unborn and already compelled to walk around the streets and speak to people.” The Resurrection is not, in the first instance, a puzzling doctrine over which to make an intellectual decision. It is an invitation to live and to live now. Our journey has, in part, been to teach how much we dread and long for this new life.

What John Cheever claimed about the proper function of writing can be said of the purpose of the believing community. “The proper function of writing, if possible, is to enlarge peo­ple, to give them their risk, if possible to give them their divin­ity, not to cut them down.” This is precisely the inner work of the Resurrection. It is the power of God giving us our risk, enlarging our hearts, and, thereby, breathing new life into us. That is why I rely on the Spirit’s marvelous working in novel­ists, poets, and other artists. John Cheever came to realize that his calling was to be an agent of the Spirit. “I think one has the choice with imagery, either to enlarge or diminish. At this point I find diminishment deplorable. When I was younger I thought it brilliant.”

An ancient legend recounts how the Devil tried to get into heaven by pretending to be the risen Christ. The Devil, being a master of disguises, took with him a contingent of demons made up as angels of light and shouted up at the gates of heaven,”Lift up your heads, 0 ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye ever lasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.” The angels looked down on what they thought was their king returning in triumph from the dead. So they shouted back with joy the re­frain from the psalm, “Who is the King of glory?” Then the devil made a fatal mistake. In every particular save one he was just like Christ. When the angels in heaven thundered, “Who is the King of glory?” the devil opened his arms and said, “I am!” In that act of arrogance he showed the angels his out­stretched palms. There were no wounding marks of the nails. The angels of heaven refused to let the imposter in.

Doubting Thomas suffered from the disease of the soul that we have identified as “hesitation before birth.” Like him, we withdraw from the peculiar pain of the challenge to live life to the full. Perhaps we fear life more than death? Who would not hesitate if living life to the full meant putting our hands into life’s wounds? Is the Resurrection, in some sense, harder for us than the Crucifixion? At least our little crucifixions are familiar to us. We know what to expect from them. If we are at all sensitive we can see the torn face of humanity. But I wonder what in me needs to be touched? What do I fear most? Crucifixion or resurrection? Am I up to bearing the glory of a new life? The Resurrection means trouble for us who are comfortable with being only half alive. What, then, in me needs to be raised from the dead? What part of you—long since rejected and for­gotten—needs to be touched and restored to life?

The young Mozart was driven to ask the same question of everyone he met, “Do you love me?” It is a question we silently ask all the time. I see it in the eyes of friends and strangers alike. Do you love me? It is a question about resurrection and new life. Our eyes soon glaze over so that the question is hid­den once more. Do you love me? This is the question of the Resurrection. Our daring to ask it springs from our longing. Our repressing the question wells up from our terror. It is the question of our yearning dread. The Resurrection becomes a matter of choosing each other, of choosing life over death. When the answer to the question, Do you love me? is No!—when we treat each other as merely givers or deniers of approval—we have sided with death. The Resurrection is bound to get us into trouble.

“‘Peace be unto you!’ And he showed them his hands and his side.” It is as if God in Christ is saying to us, “Hesitate no longer! Receive the Covenant of Reconciliation. Receive the wounding of my Peace! Receive the Resurrection! Receive your­self, ALIVE!” Easter is now!

Our misplaced passion for security is killing us. Think of the arsenals of death assembled all around the world in the name of global security. From our most intimate relations to interna­tional alliances, we wall up our hearts against the invasion of the Resurrection.

says a character in Eliot’s The Cocktail Party,

that to approach the stranger

Is to invite the unexpected, release a new force,

Or let the genie out of the bottle.

It is to start a train of events

Beyond your control . . . .

Isn’t this exactly what Mary did? She invited the unexpected. What a metaphor her pregnancy is! She becomes the container of the uncontainable. She is the womb of God. And, as such she is a model for both men and women (not just women) of the power of the energy of God working within us. When I encounter God, when I become pregnant with the divine, it is

like meeting a stranger. I am letting the genie out of the bottle. Who knows what might happen? I am sent on pilgrimage.

What does Mary tell us about ourselves? The Assumption of Mary affirms the status of all human beings as made after the image of God. If we remember that the doctrine is about God and God’s humility, graciousness, and availability, we will not get hooked into thinking that something is being pulled over on us and that we’ve been tricked into worshiping Mary. As one English Methodist friend of mine responded to his Protes­tant critics who questioned his devotion to Mary, “Why won’t you let me love her?” Why won’t you let yourself love her? In loving her we might learn to love ourselves and so love each other. Just as she is termed the Mother of God, so might each of us claim (after the ancient tradition that called St. James, the brother of Jesus, the Brother of God) that we are the sisters and brothers of God. This is what the love letters are trying to tell us. We can’t do better than that!

Is it any wonder that the Church has wanted to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus? No wonder the tradition honors her joys and sorrows in the rosary and struggles to find words to pay her due homage. The love letters are full of references to her. Wisdom says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prov. 9:1-6, Rsv). Just as Wisdom invites us to share in the banquet of God, so Mary, who nourished her son at her breast, invites us to share in the same wedding feast. Yet, she is “the daughter of her son” (as Dante puts it in the Paradiso) and is thus nurtured by the one she nurtured. Such is the econ­omy of love. We feed each other. We are even agents of the Resurrection to one another.

St. Brendan (in Frederick Buechner’s version of his life) exiles himself to a barren island. He is half mad with guilt. He has lost his way and is a “shipwreck of a man.” The pilgrimage has come to a standstill. Brendan is visited by St. Brigit who tells him to get moving. He fears to go where he is known because people only want to hear of his voyages, which, to him, amount to nothing. “Go to a place where nobody knows you then. Find a place where there’s folk who’ve never heard of your voyaging and all that. Bring Christ to them, Brendan, and in God’s good time perhaps they’ll bring him again to you.” Here is the mystery of exchange that I find in the love letters. I often find the very gift for which I long when, bereft of it myself, I try to give it to others. Brigit’s visit to Brendan’s remote island begins a healing process in Brendan. She knew that the gospel is for the shipwrecked. “Brigit called Brendan out of the grave that day as surely as ever Christ called Lazarus out of it. Perhaps it was the greatest wonder she ever worked.”3 What greater act of love is there than calling another from the grave? This is what God’s action in Jesus Christ is all about.

Mary is important because she was willing to be the instru­ment of God. In her, we see that (as Tertullian, the second-century theologian, said) “the flesh is the hinge of salvation.” Mary is important because Christianity is an earthy religion. It is based in flesh and blood and in bread and wine. It is ground­ed in the ordinary and the commonplace. Ironically, the Virgin Birth was insisted upon in the early years because there were those who said that Jesus wasn’t really human. He was some heavenly being. Mary was the guarantee that Jesus was really one of us. This crude insistence on the material is emphasized in the gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-59, Rsv). There are many ways of interpreting this, but what strikes home is the insistence on the material, on the here and now, on the necessity of throwing ourselves into life.

Think, for a moment, of Mary. She has just said Yes! to the baby, to the longed-for unknown. She contemplates the future stretching of her belly, and to her own stretching by the child that will be born. It is a common experience for mothers. It is a metaphor that others in our culture need to appropriate—both men and women. Giving birth is an ordeal, and we, pregnant with God, are to give birth to a new understanding of our

selves. We are called to assist at our own birth. I know of no greater adventure. I know of no other way to describe it but as an ongoing drama of resurrection. The love letters never cease to amaze me.

There is a legend concerning Judas Iscariot. Judas, having betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver, went out and hanged himself. After this, Judas found himself at the bottom of a dark and dank pit. He lay there on his stomach for a million years. (Since he was in eternity, he experienced “time” in his own peculiar way.) Slowly and painfully he turned himself over on his back and lay in the darkness for another million years. He then saw, or thought he saw, a faint light miles above him at the mouth of the pit. Something in him drew him towards the light, or was it the light itself that did the drawing? He couldn’t tell. With great difficulty, he stood up and began to climb. For years and years he climbed. Often he slipped back and had to wait a century or two to regain his strength to go on. As he climbed, the light grew stronger, and the closer he got to the mouth of the pit, the more Judas drew strength from the light. Eventually, after many aeons, he pulled himself over the edge and, much to his astonishment, he found himself in an Upper Room where a young rabbi was having a meal with his friends. The young rabbi came over to him, helped him to his feet and said, “Judas! Welcome! We’ve been waiting for you. We couldn’t continue the supper without you.”

human behavior depicted in the Bible. In Exodus (16:2-15) we read of the Israelites complaining in the wilderness and longing for the fleshpots of Egypt. The Israelites went in for a slow burn. They murmured. And God provided quails, and the Israelites made themselves sick! God also sent them bread from heaven, manna in the wilderness. They persistently missed the point that it was God who looked after them and loved them. They suffered from hardness of heart. What burned up the Is­raelites is what burns us up. We are consumed by our consum­erism. We think we are possessing and devouring things, and it is they that are enslaving and consuming us. There’s a bewil­dered look we sometimes see, out of the corner of our eye, on each other’s faces—as if to say, “With all that I have, I should be happy. Why aren’t I?” That look in our eye and in the eyes of others is the sign of the fire inside pushing us into pilgrimage.

“The indiscriminate welcoming of all people to the Supper of the Lamb is very threatening. The notion that everybody is welcome radically reorders the world.”

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