1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Many years ago, I lectured on scientific subjects in various parts of the world, and I traveled more or less constantly. One night I sat in Hong Kong's airport waiting for a flight to California. I was too tired to read or write, so I simply gazed silently. Across from me sat a group of Buddhist monks. They were calm and collected, to be sure. But one aspect of their persons could not be collected or reigned in: it was the light they gave off. I do not mean that that their shaven heads and faces permitted a human warmth to be seen. I mean that they visibly gave off light with a radiance that was vivid. I did not stare, of course, but this simple, yet remarkable, fact preoccupied me. I sat there contemplating it. And I called it back to mind many times during the intervening thirty years.
With no bird singing
The mountain is yet more still.
The silent mountain Merton considers is the self — emptied of all noise, void of all thoughts, having banished all desires. As Merton writes,
"There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while ...
but they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the 'nothing,' the 'no-body'
that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time, but
the scavengers missed it because it was not their kind of prey."
In Leviticus we read,
We must remember the poor.
We must treat people fairly.
We must respect the property of others.
We must not rob of our neighbors of their dignity, honor, and peace in the community.
We must not seek to even the score but love our neighbors.
Like Zen Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity are disciplines designed to rid ourselves of all that is unworthy. The irony is that in the end there is no material trinket or passing impulse that we really want in our lives in the first place, not permanently. Certainly, we would not trade our friendship with God in order to cling to such debris. We don't want the chattering birds. What we really want is the ineffable and beautiful stillness which is inside us. As Merton wrote, "It was there all along."
At the bottom of this philosophy lies a theology, a belief that every human being, once he or she is emptied of all noise, impulse, and desire, is divine. By a process of subtraction, we see more — more of what we really are. And we have more — more of what we really wanted all along. And in the unsurpassed intimacy of our own selves, we draw near to God in a communion that Catholics call the beatific vision. We draw near to God, and we encounter an overwhelming radiance that refracts through us until we become radiant.
Many times I sat in the seminary's chapel for his celebration of the Mass. One could reasonably expect to see an exhausted, withdrawn man whose face was turning dim. Instead, his Masses were luminous, and, yes, he himself gave off light in those celebrations that began before dawn.
Several years ago, I attended a dinner in New England to raise money for a charity in Haiti. The gathering consisted of polite cocktail party chit-chat, dinner, and then a slideshow depicting the past twenty-five year history of the ministry. Nearly all of the pictures were of a nun who had built up this ministry for a quarter-century as its administrator .... inevitably as she had been the animating spirit of all that had been done down there. I did not know many of the potential donors who had been invited to this event. So, I enjoyed sitting back to watch their reactions to the slides. All through the showing I could hear them whispering to each other, "She's radiant!" And it was true. The radiance that shone off of her face after forty years of spiritual pilgrimage, through China, India, and Haiti, was vivid and obvious. Even a camera could capture it.
Exactly, what had happened to this woman over her lifetime? Well, she began seeking God as a novice at a convent at age seventeen. She had stripped herself of every worldly thing through the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And find God she did. Like the Italian priest and so many others, she was a saint, though not in the media's spotlight, nor a biographer's subject (though writers have inquired). She was a quiet, faithful woman who, in her fidelity drew near to her essential, divine person. And for this reason, she gave off a light that bespoke her inner peace. And it was that light that prompted tens of thousands of people to contribute for the care of the poor. For they saw her face, and they trusted that. She touched people very deeply .... deep down inside where God lives within them, or to say it more precisely where the-part-of-God-which-they-are lives. Our authority for this indisputable truth could not be more reliable: "I AM the Lord thy God. And because I AM Holy, you are to be holy."
And what is this holiness? It is what we already are, what we were born to be — clear, luminous, serene, and full of God's δυναμις (dunamis) or power.
If our consent to the debris of this world has dimmed our light, the light that shone from our faces as children, do not despair. The Lord reassures us. For the one who says, "Enough! No more of this life in the ruins!" there will be more mirth in Heaven than for ninety-nine saints who have no need to shake this world's dust off of them (Lu 15:7). So long as we draw breath, our true selves are there yearning to be free, yearning to be children of the light.
Today on Septuagesima Sunday, we begin a long journey toward a tomb.
We will travel as by night over rocky road.
We may be heavy hearted at times.
But through the door of that tomb,
we will encounter the Lord of Light.
He is waiting for us.
Claim the light, for nothing else is worthy of us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.