August 12 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Ordinary 19
Texts: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
Theme: Some variation on the bread theme would be an obvious choice, but I'm going for something a bit bolder. My choice is "The Mystic Way", largely because the first lesson and the gospel cannot be understood otherwise than mystically, and even Ephesians can be understood as guidance for the purgative stage of the Mystic Way. And I am still engrossed in Evelyn Underhill!
Introduction. The great prophet Elijah, having won the gold medal in the Battle of the Bonfires, has now come crashing back to earth. Queen Jezebel has sent him a message threatening revenge, and he's done a runner. Exhausted, disgusted with himself, and wallowing in self-pity, he contemplates suicide, only to receive a very different message from a higher source. Paul turns from the heights of his mystical vision to the practical guidance of souls on the mystic way; and John continues his profound meditation on the image of Christ as the one who nourishes and refreshes us.
Background. Evelyn Underhill is best known for her magnum opus, Mysticism, but I am presently finding even more helpful another gem from her called The Mystic Way: A Psychological Study of Christian Origins. Basically, it is an overview of the New Testament from a mystical standpoint. The nub of her argument is that "John" (the author of the fourth gospel) and Paul were great mystics, whereas the other gospels were written by men of great gifts, but were not mystics. In her view, what the "good news" is about is that the life lived to perfection by Jesus in continual union with God has been made available to all humankind who will open themselves to the Spirit and journey along the mystic way through the classic stages of purgation (overcoming our self-centred desires – dying to self), illumination (receiving the Holy Spirit and being led into all truth), and union with God. This, she says, was true of the very early Church, and has been true sporadically ever since in various "spiritual revival"s; but during much of our history the general approach has been to leave all that stuff to special individuals (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, etc), while the rest of us try to believe the Creeds and behave ethically.
That summary does not do justice to the value of this work, but must suffice for present purposes. I have found her particularly interesting on the subject of St John's gospel. She says it is the work of a great mystic, astonishingly gifted both poetically and philosophically. She dates the book rather later than many scholars would, describing it as early second century. She says John almost certainly lived in Ephesus, was highly educated, and Greek was his first language. Above all, he was a great mystic who had passed through to the unitive stage. He was completely open to God through the Spirit: he had had many "mystical experiences", and that what we have in his gospel is his attempts to open our eyes to the Reality of the One we call God. In other words he is writing to us in our "physical" world to tell us that there really is a much greater reality, which we might call the spiritual realm, which he calls "life" or "eternal life", and which Jesus called "the kingdom of Heaven".
Again, that's a hopelessly inadequate summary of Evelyn Underhill's book, but I will limit myself to one example that may shed some more light on her argument. One of the great features of the first 11 chapters of the gospel is the wonderful dialogues between Jesus and an individual who fails to grasp what he is on about. Jesus is talking spiritually and the other person is mistranslating into worldly terms. Thus, Jesus speaks of a re-birth to Nicodemus who wonders how we can re-enter our mothers' wombs. Jesus talks of providing living water to a Samaritan woman who wonders how he can do that without a bucket. Underhill suggests that John has had these profound times of mystical contemplation, and in attempting to share them with others draws upon the Jesus tradition, gleaned from the other gospels, perhaps, and uses them to illustrate what he is trying to say.
Apart from anything else, her approach is to me one of the most convincing explanations I have come across as to why this gospel is so very different from the other three, even though it contains some of the same stories as they do. Like Paul, she says, John never met Jesus; but he has clearly met the Risen Christ in the Spirit. Perhaps in those encounters he has "discussed" with the Spirit of Christ the topics he deals with in these dialogues; or perhaps he has created these dialogues to illustrate his understanding of the work of the Spirit in the life of Christ's followers.
One more general point at this stage before turning to today's readings. Underhill's vast knowledge of mysticism and mystics is not limited to those within the Christian tradition. She has an amazing command of the literature in the Hindu, Buddhist and Moslem mystical traditions as well; and this enables her to point out an important distinction. She insists that Christian mysticism (and the same is true of the Moslem mystical tradition) does not end in individual "nirvana", but manifests itself in love and service of others. (She is quite scathing in dismissing some within our own mystical tradition who sought union with God for their own personal benefit, which she insists is a form of self-centredness that we are supposed to have got rid of during the purgative stage.)
Kings. This short passage is a wonderfully condensed summary of the mystic way. We find the great prophet Elijah in desperate straits. Having shown the mighty power of God in contrast to the powerlessness of the prophets of Baal, Elijah massacred his opponents. Not a good career move as the autocratic Queen Jezebel was their patron. She sent Elijah a message to the effect that he was now Public Enemy No. 1, and would be hunted down and executed. Elijah, very much back in the all-too real world, has run away and we pick up the story with him under a tree ready to die. In other words, he is at the purgative stage. He is face to face with his own powerlessness and inadequacy. He has withdrawn to the desert. He surrenders his life to the Lord. He confesses his sin: "I am no better than my ancestors" (presumably he had thought he was!). In abject poverty of spirit he falls asleep, or perhaps enters a mystical trance. Either way he encounters an angel, an entity from the spiritual realm, who touches him, speaks to him, and even provides him with hot bread and water. The recovery has begun: he eats and drinks, taking in this heavenly nourishment. But once is not enough. He falls down again, and the whole experience is repeated; but notice the extra words the angel speaks this time, "for the journey is too much for you". He cannot complete the journey back to God in his own strength; he needs to continue to draw sustenance from this heavenly bread and water. This is the basic truth learnt at the illuminative stage. That done, Elijah sets off on a journey of forty days and nights (think of the connections we can make with that period) until he comes to "the mountain of the Lord". He has reached the unitive stage.
Taking It Personally.
· This is a good passage for the prayer of imagination. Enter into Elijah's experience as much as you can. Feel his fear and exhaustion, as he realises that there is nothing he can do to improve his lot. But a fresh start is given to him, and he meets God.
· Can you recall an occasion in your own life where you were dominated by feelings of fear, or hopelessness, or inadequacy? Who or what got you through it?
· Continue to be very aware of this wonderful symbol of bread whenever you eat any.
· Have you had a "mountaintop experience" when you felt particularly close to God?
· Between the tree of hopelessness and the Mountain of God, where are you at this time?
Ephesians. After some of the marvellous visions of the big picture variety, St Paul brings us right back to the nitty-gritty; and in doing so gives us two things. First, here is a classic illustration of the work to be done by anyone who wants to start out on the mystic way. It begins with purgation. And secondly, in harmony with Evelyn Underhill's argument, he emphasises that the whole point of the life of faith is the benefit of others. We must abandon falsehood and speak truthfully "to our neighbours". We must not steal, but work honestly "so that we may have something to share with those in need". We must control our tongues and speak "only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen". Turning from the negative to the positive, we must strive to be "kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other". In short, we are to be "imitators of God...and live a life of love". Evelyn couldn't have put it better.
Taking It Personally.
· This is a clear invitation to do our own spiritual stock-take. Work carefully through the passage. Which part strikes you as most challenging?
· Notice verse 26 assumes that we will be angry from time to time: it's what we do in that state that he warns about. Does that help? (However, in verse 31 he tells us to get rid of anger, so perhaps it doesn't!)
· Notice, too, the reference in verse 30 to the Holy Spirit. Again, he assumes that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, prompting and guiding us along the way. To "grieve the Holy Spirit" probably means to "decline to follow his promptings". Are you aware of doing that from time to time?
· When you have finished your stock-take, confess your sins to God and be assured of his forgiveness. Is there anybody you need to forgive?
John. This is the third instalment out of five passages drawn from chapter 6 of St John's Gospel. Following Evelyn Underhill's approach, we can say that John found that one element of his experience of union with God could be described as nourishing or sustaining, the obvious symbol of which was (and is) bread. And so he has constructed this chapter to try to convey the richness of this aspect of his experience to the people in his faith community at Ephesus. First, he draws on the "Jesus tradition", finding the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand", and gives it his own take. Two weeks ago I drew attention to the rather strange interlude of the walking on the water. What has that got to do with bread; and if the answer is nothing, why is it in this chapter that otherwise deals exclusively with bread? Well, I'm still pondering, but here's a wild suggestion. Given that we return to the non-comprehension, material-spiritual confusion in verses 26 and 27, could it be that this interlude illustrates that the disciples are still at the point where they can only receive Jesus (let him into their boat) when he comes to them on the surface of things? They are not yet ready for anything g deeper?
Just a thought: back to today's passage. John clearly has the wilderness feeding in mind as he ponders the experience of being nourished or fed or sustained through the Spirit of Christ. Is Jesus then another Moses? In a sense, but Jesus is far more than that. Jesus is not just the medium through which God supplies bread to his people, Jesus is the bread himself. Where could such an extraordinary idea have come from? Answer, the Eucharistic practice of the Church that would have already been well established by then.
Three other things here. First, we have the classic misunderstanding between material and spiritual bread throughout this passage. Secondly, in verse 42 we have a wonderful example of how John borrows from the Jesus tradition and uses it for a very different purpose: see Mark 6:3, and Luke 4:22. Thirdly, in verse 43 there is the clever use of the idea of the people "grumbling among themselves", which immediately takes us back to the Israelites in the desert.
Finally, John gives us an "Underhill" clue in verse 45. Drawing on Isaiah 54:13, Jesus reminds us that one day everyone "will be taught by God" – that is, we will no longer have to rely on particularly gifted prophets and mystics. See also Numbers 11:29. This is the meaning of Pentecost, as Peter explained it in Acts 2, drawing on Joel's prophecy in Joel 2:28-32.
I rest Evelyn's case, and I invite you to take it personally.