Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ And the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’ (source)
Becoming all flame…uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea with just a word.
Seems pretty impossible, doesn’t it? Pretty unbelievable.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been encouraging us to practice just being…”A tree gives glory to God by being a tree.” (Merton). We should do the same. Let the anxiety be and discover what else is inside you…Take a step back…breathe…get some context…And even though we’ve barely scratched the surface of that…now all of a sudden we’re supposed to be uprooting trees and turning to flame?
Surely, there are some steps in between “just be” and “uprooting trees!” What is it that we’re missing…is there some trick we haven’t figured out yet?
It is completely counterintuitive, but…no. There’s no trick…no hack…it’s actually very simple…Be fully present…be who God created you to be…Do your work…plow your field…tend your sheep…set your table…do what God needs you to do……and…that’s it.
It’s ridiculously simple…but not at all easy…
Sister Joan Chittister tells another ancient story of a disciple who comes to the master and says
“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” “Here,” says the master. “Ok, when will it happen?” “It’s happening now.” “But I’m not experiencing it.” “Because you’re not looking.” “OK, what am I supposed to be looking at?” “Anything…Nothing…just look.” “At what?” “Whatever your eyes light on.” “Do I have to look in a special way?” “No.” “But, I don’t get it.” “Of course not. To look you must be here. The problem is you are mostly somewhere else.” (Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p. 201)
To look…to see…to be…and be aligned with God’s will…to turn to flame…to uproot trees…you must be here…and the problem is…we are mostly somewhere else.
Anyone who has ever attempted centering prayer, or meditation knows the difficulties of reining in the “monkey mind”…the wool-gathering that starts as soon as you sit down… (insert internal monologue).
We are so much better at being somewhere else… “All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.” (Empire Strikes Back)…in the past…ruminating about past hurts, or triumphs…nursing grievances or treasuring glories…replaying the things we would have said…should have said… Or in the future…rehearsing the things we will say (when we get the chance), what we will do (once our cunning plan plays out and everything falls our way)…when our ship comes in…when we have enough…(money, talent…faith?)…(“Give us more” …”You have plenty.” We spend most of our lives replaying the past or anticipating the future; worried about someone or something outside of ourselves…anywhere and everywhere but right here…in the present. Never our minds on where we are…what we are doing.
The difference between not being here and being here, Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr calls the “first gaze” and “second gaze.” Because we are mostly not here, our first gaze…our “immediate response to most situations,” he says, “is with reactions of attachment, defensiveness, judgment, control, and analysis. I am better at calculating than contemplating,” he says, (and I bet you are too). The first gaze is all about…”how will this affect me? How can I get back in control of this?” (Contemplation in Action, p. 15). It’s about me…but ironically, since I’m not really here in the present, it’s really about an imagined me. A me I want to present to people. A false self.
The second gaze is the place I can get to eventually, when I am open, engaged and truly present…when I can see more as God sees…when I have more context…a longer view…when I can resonate with someone else and stand with and for another rather than protecting my little, false self.
We can see this shift from first gaze to second gaze happening in our readings from Lamentations…early on the poet laments the destruction of Jerusalem, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people…” naming the trauma…describing reality…grieving over things done and left undone. That is important…trauma must be named and lamented and grieved…And when it turns to rumination…when it threatens to pull the poet out of the present…they shift to a second gaze… “To recall my distress and my misery was wormwood and poison. Whenever I thought of them, I was bowed low.” (JSB, Lamentations 3:19-20). Rumination becomes toxic…And here’s the shift… “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, [God’s] mercies never end.”
Past traumas must be named and wept over…repented of…but very often, rumination on the past turns into dredging up shame…but shame is never from God. “God leads by compassion toward the soul, never by condemnation,” says Rohr (Contemplation in Action p. 19). God is in the present. God’s love is abundant in the present. God’s mercies are new every morning.
Dire things are happening every minute of every day, I know. And practicing being in the present…through prayer, or meditation, or contemplation…or taking long walks…however you do it…seems radically counter-cultural at best, and aggressively useless at worst. But being present is what allows us to accesses this second gaze, which is vital because as Rohr says, “Only the second gaze, sees fully and truthfully. It sees itself, the other, and even God with God’s own eyes, which are always the eyes of compassion.” (CA, p. 20).
What seems impossible is simply that Jesus (being the Son of God) starts with the second gaze…and Abba Joseph (who turned to all flame) has lived and practiced long enough that he is able to start there as well. The rest of us…if we practice grounding ourselves in the present and calling to mind the steadfast love of the Lord, which never ceases…new every morning…if we learn how to look…and see…and be here…be in alignment with God’s will… we will have that second gaze as well…eventually…and then, just imagine what God will be able to accomplish.