The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
22 September 2013
Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Amos 8:4-7 (8-12)
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Recently a number of people have pointed out the earthy quality of my spirituality. Indeed, I was taken aback that anyone thought me spiritual at all. I am not often one for meditative prayer and quiet. I usually look to the world, into creation, into the hearts and minds of those others whom I encounter, whom I love, for comfort and strength, to help me make meaning of the greatest mysteries of life. I am not one who ponders obviously heavenly things on a regular basis and so the words of today’s collect, “grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly,” present a challenge for me. As I thought more about it though, I recalled the wise and beautiful words of the great French Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I remembered that Teilhard had once helped me find meaning in this question, had given me strength and courage to boldly affirm my spirituality, my earthy Christian spirituality.
It was Teilhard who had reminded me years ago when I first read his slim but profound volume, Le Milieu Divin that “matter is physical exuberance, ennobling contact, virile effort and the joy of growth. It attracts, renews, unites, and flowers. By matter we are nourished, lifted up, linked to everything else, invaded by life.”(1) Teilhard pointed out the central problem here:
I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that nine out of ten practising Christians feel that [our] work is always at the level of a “spiritual encumbrance” .... the general run of the faithful dimly feel that time spent at the office or the studio, in the fields or in the factory, is time taken away from prayer and adoration .... [On the contrary,] there is no need to fear that the most trivial or the most absorbing of occupations should force us to depart from [God]. To repeat: by virtue of the creation and, still more, of the Incarnation nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.(2)
“Nothing here below is profane.” Nothing here on earth is out of Love’s precincts and we can be bold in championing this earthy spirituality and affirm that it is in no way incompatible with the message of today's collect and of our readings.
Rather than set up the false dualism that suggests that earthly things have no value and that only the spiritual matters, we ought to ask about the relationship between the divine—God, Love—and what happens in the here and now. We ought to ask ourselves whether it is possible that in and through the earthly occasions of our lives we come into closer connection with each other, with the divine, with love itself? When we recognise that the world, the here and now, is the plane on which we act out our lives as the Body of Christ—the very body of God incarnate, his arms and legs, hands and feet, mouth, eyes, ears, and all the rest—we are able to practice the ministry of love that is the real work of God. It is then that we realise that all the occasions of the world matter profoundly and lead us to back Love.
There is no escaping the reality that we are physical beings capable of exercising our beautiful senses and feeling, capable of receiving love and loving deeply in return. This is who we are, that for which we are created. We are created to be in the world and to use the occasions of creation as a means of actualising and spreading the very love of God. This is the true nature of creation. In creation God’s love is being made new, made real, made present all the time.
All of God’s creatures participate in this process, but we humans remain the most complex of creatures, the most self-conscious and we have been given the extraordinary choice to decide between turning our gifts, our physical, embodied gifts towards love or using those same gifts in ways that nourish only the self, that seek power or control for its own sake. This is the choice of which the collect and the Gospel speak. To say that we can not “serve both God and mammon” is not asking us to make that dualistic decision to turn away from our physical realities—a reality I believe we seek to escape at our peril—and look only to the heavens. It is asking us to value love, relationship, the divine intervention into time and space in the Incarnation over the matter itself. It is calling us to be, in the words of the philosopher Charles Hartshorne, “conscious trustees for cosmic ends.”(3) We are being called to exercise our freedom and choose to orient our physical existence back towards the world to serve and enact the work of Love.
In the occasions of this world, in the world’s creatures and in nature itself, especially in our brothers and sisters who share our common humanity, we are able to perceive the divine. In each loving subject, we discern the divine in the unique, lovable, individuality that is not diminished in the connection with something bigger than ourselves. We can see in the beauty of this world—even in the beauty of objects or creatures that may seem on the face of it unattractive—the works of love, the hand of God, and understand this is what has endurance. We can understand in and through the impermanence and changablity of the created order that there is a continuity that abides even through change and death. The continuity is the unchanging loving purpose of God that runs throughout all the cosmos. This is that which does not fade away, this is what endures even as the objects and people whom we encounter on our journey move along and out of our lives, perhaps never to return.
What abides is the love that was created in the encounter and this has the power to change and transform us. It has the power to sustain us through the darkness and comfort us in the knowledge that we, too, are both deeply loved and have the power to be that love-bearer for another. When we cast our memories on the ephemeral occasions of the past, on our encounters in and through creation with nature, art, literature, music, and especially with those with whom we have found intimate connection and love, what endures is the love generated in those moments. What endures is the love of God that we felt, and indeed still feel, and know to be real. In this way those we love are connected to us, with us, eternally.
It is in the end, therefore, to the world that we look to find the divine. I have suggested to you before that the whole of creation can be seen as a sacrament. The whole creation can be seen as an expression into time and space of God’s love. Each occasion in the world opens up the possibility that God’s love will break through and change us into divine lovers. The Eucharistic Sacrament, in which we are about to share and which unites us with Christ and one another in a single body, is the archetypal sacrament, the sacrament of the Church that helps us to see all our other activities as sacramental in turn. Teilhard put it this way: “My life must become, as a result of the sacrament, an unlimited and endless contact with [God].”(4) I would venture to go further and say that our sacramental understanding of the universe allows to see life as an “unlimited and endless contact with” Love.
Because of the creation and Incarnation, because God engages us in the here and now, because God gives us the supreme gift that is the power to receive his love and in turn manifest his love into the world, because he gave us bodies with senses to perceive the divine love in every corner of our existence, we know that this ecstatic vision I have shared with you is more than a fanciful dream. We now know how true it is that we can not serve both God and mammon. We know that we are indeed called to spiritual things, into the heart of God, of Love itself, and that that call summons us back into the heart of creation, into the thick of life, into the midst of the City and that our call is to serve God, serve the cause of Love.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Ember Friday, 20 September 2013
1. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Le Milieu Divin: an essay on the interior life (London: Collins, 1957), 90.
2. Teilhard de Chardin 1957, 37-38.
3. Charles Hartshorne, “Foundations for a Humane Ethics: What Human Beings Have in Common with Other Higher Animals,” On the Fifth Day: Animal Rights and Human Ethics, ed. by Richard Knowles Morris and Michael W. Fox (Washington, DC: Acropolis, 1978), 168.
4. Teilhard de Chardin 1957, 116.
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume