Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | The Sacred Ordinary

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, and though it bears the stain of the fall, those vast repositories of the sacred, and the accompanying declaration that it is very good, still remain.

I suppose it would be apt to start naming various natural phenomena – moonrises, mists on mountain peaks, forests in the rain – so that we could all feel charmed by the sublimity that raises nature, and us, above the effects of the curse for at least a moment. Many such responses have been made to statements such as Hopkins's, and rightfully so. But turn our eyes towards humanity, and it's difficult not to suffer instant disillusionment. People, for whatever reason, cannot seem to keep up the illusion of sinless perfection for more than a few moments. But the image of God remains, that spark of “it is very good” coursing through every person, whether a Mother Theresa or a Joseph Stalin. As the author Graham Greene captured it in The Power and the Glory:

“But at the center of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery – that we were made in God's image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard...”

Balm in Gilead

If anyone hasn't read Gilead, I recommend it highly. It recounts the story of John Ames, an old Congregationalist minister from Iowa who, near the end of his life, writes a series of letters to his son. The memories and reflections of a life dedicated in service to God flood the pages, raising questions, failing to answer them, with probing reflections on the immense significance of the insignificant. In one scene, the characters haul away the charred remains of a lightning-struck Baptist church, pausing for an unintentional moment of communion with ash-covered bread – the bread of affliction. In another, a group of pious young children, much concerned with the eternal security of a new litter of cats, proceed to baptize them with the full Trinitarian formula. In every moment, in every facet of life, the sacred is enmeshed with the material, waiting to burst forth at any opportunity.

Do you wish to find God? You're limiting yourself if you only go to a church. Certainly, you'll find him there, though his body may not be like you expect. They, like you, are still rough around the edges, striving to discover how best to love him and love others. Raise your hands in the worship, if you must, and talk afterwards about how you just didn't feel God that time. It happens.

Do you wish to find God? You'll find him in nature, to be sure. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. Grab your Phil Wickham album, go shout the lyrics towards the dusk sky, and have your mountain-top experience, but then come back to the hammer and toil on the hard high road.

Do you wish to find God? Go into your closet and pray, enter boldly the throne-room of heaven, plead before him, as you are commanded. But then come back out into the world, that broken, aching, glorious world. In all the great paintings, the Christian saint has his eyes open, it is the Buddhist monk who has his closed.

I suspect that many who wish to find God are not exactly sure what they're looking for. Or perhaps they're simply more focused on finding than on being found. Christianity, after all, is about God finding us. Seek and ye shall find, but only because God's revelation to the world is omnipresent and inescapable. How can we avoid finding the one in whom we live, move, and have our being?

“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't,” as Blaise Pascal says. I suspect that to be the answer of God's hiddenness. The sacred is enfolded in this material world in a way that is sufficient for those who care to take notice, but avoidable for those who do not. I think this is what Ann Voskamp struck on with her word for it – eucharisteo. The idea that the sacred is hidden within the bread and the wine is, after all, the centerpiece of communion.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

-G.M. Hopkins, “God's Grandeur”

Posted by Nick Barden

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