Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Wounded God 6: The Cloud of Glory and Jesus' Ascension

That cloud—the one that “hid Jesus from their sight”—I’ve never thought that was really one of the white fleecy ones we see in the sky. Rather it was the Cloud, a cloud of Glory, like the dazzling radiance that shone from Christ when he was transfigured, becoming a cloud which enveloped the trembling eyewitnesses who were “afraid when they entered the cloud.” Such a marvelous cloud symbolizes and embodies the nearer presence of the Divine glory itself.

The Bible isn’t quite so literalistic as many folks think. Luke knows the symbol-code when he tells his tale the climactic end of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He knows that in the saga of Israel in the wilderness a cloud of glory settled, again and again, over and around the Tent of Meeting when Moses entered to converse with God “face to face.” As it did again when Solomon dedicated the Temple. Not that this Cloud is mere metaphor. Rather, “cloud” is an ecstatic utterance Biblical writers use for the actual feel of the divine Presence, at least in one of its aspects. Ancient Jewish storytelling even traces that Cloud back to the beginning of creation, interpreting the “mist” in Eden as Holy Wisdom, the immanent presence of God.

Entering into the Cloud

I sometimes wonder if I was touched by the outer edge of that Glory one night decades ago at a huge Pentecostal gathering in New York. The worship leaders were good at using devotional hymns and choruses to woo the huge crowd into a state of deeply felt devotion—a skilled liturgy of soul-opening, not the frenetic hype of some pentecostal worship. As we sang on, waves of ecstasy moved through the crowd like Wind was blowing through a field of wheat. Bathed in a cloud of radiant energy, there was a sense of a great Vastness opening above us and around us.

Since then that Cloud has crossed my path on more than one special occasion—at a (quite literal) mountaintop Eucharist with three hundred Episcopal college students doing Taize-like chanting, at a conference of Lutheran clergy on a week-long retreat reciting the many different names of God, in a quiet meditative prayer group which suddenly found itself plunged into the “silence of Eternity” — even at a rather secular 60s “encounter group.” The trust in that group had reached such a deep level that, with just one specially penetrating comment, a great, timeless Silence descended upon us all like a mantle, a vast cloud full of peace, joy and love.

So, when the Bible talks about that Cloud, my inner ears perk up, and I feel once more the writers were not just making things up, but trying their best to convey the feel of an encounter.

He “withdrew from them into heaven”

In those “clouds” that surrounded the groups I was in, there was not only “aroundness” but “aboveness.” The atmosphere “descended:” as if from above. That was the sensation: as if the ceiling disappeared—just as, in Scripture, God descends "from above.” And, in the story of Jesus’ exaltation to the “right hand of God,” the narrative says he went “into heaven,” and pictures the disciples “looking up.”

I know that, for the Biblical writers, this was not just a symbolic code, but science, too. The ancient world believed that the realm of God or the gods was “up,” on mountain tops, or in the highest heavens. This was not only the religious, but scientific model of the universe: seven or more rotating, crystalline spheres containing ascending realms of spiritual purity.

But I’m reluctant simply to relegate the Biblical narrative of Jesus' ascension to the realm of “ancient ideas” just because we now know that the architecture of the universe is different from the ancient science. I resist because of my experience of The Cloud, with its felt sense of vastness. And I wonder if, science to the contrary notwithstanding, there isn’t something true in the world-wide human experience of God being “above” (as well as “within” and “around”) — something that arises out of this felt sense of the world.

The "gravitational pull from above"

Since there is something so “uplifting” about that Presence, as if some magnetic energy is stretching us to our full height of soul and spirit, it’s not surprising that they think of the Source as being “up” and “above.” They symbolize It as the all-embracing sky, that cosmic Vastness which comes all the way down to the horizon and touches earth in an all-embracing circle. In her book on Christian mystical wisdom, Cynthia Bourgeault calls this felt sense of encompassing, stretching grace “a gravitational pull from above.” (The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart)

In the light of all this, here’s my version of the Ascension: Each time the risen Christ appeared to his disciples, he was more and more surrounded by that atmosphere of enlivening calm, joy, and love until one day he “withdrew from them” as Luke puts it, entirely into the Cloud, into God, “ascending” finally into the heart of God, becoming a universal presence, a major bass theme in the music of God’s presence in the world. "He ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things," as Paul puts it (Ephesians 4:10).

But, of course, human beings cannot remain forever wrapped in such clouds, “looking up” into such foretastes of the nearer presence of God. There’s work to be done, from taking out of the garbage, to raising children, to the healing, repair and building of a world continually damaged and deformed by what human beings do when they are devoid of the love that fills that Cloud.

Watercolor above: "Glad Day" by William Blake

Next week: Who gets to share in holy Spirit?

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Wounded God 5: What is this mysterious body?

Why are you troubled?
And why do doubts arise
in your hearts?
Behold My hands and My feet,
that it is I Myself.
Handle Me and see, for a spirit
does not have flesh and bones
as you see I have.”

—Luke 24:38-39

What is this mysterious body that bears the reality of the risen Christ? As the stories tell it, Jesus appears but is not recognized until their “eyes are opened.” He is suddenly “in their midst” even though the doors are bolted. He can disappear in the blink of an eye, but is real enough to be touched and even make a fire and prepare breakfast. Most importantly, his presence seems at once as real as flesh while being “living breath:” The first man Adam became a living being, but last Adam became life-giving breath (1 Corinthians 15:45)

The stories bear witness to something beyond ordinary human experience, but perhaps our own experience of the body can give us some clues to the mystery of the resurrection. On the simplest physical level, bodies display astonishing abilities we take for granted: self-repair, transformation of food into vitalizing energy, complex and fine-tuned physical performance, and the bio-electrical generation of a measurable energy field.

More than just flesh....

But human beings, throughout the ages, have experienced their bodies not just as flesh and bone, but also “temples of spirit.” Bodies shine with the ineffable but unmistakable reality of presence. There are persons whose presence fills the room when their body enters, radiating joy or enthusiasm, anger or depression. And everyone knows what it feels like when someone “turns you off”, even if the body is right there in front of you. Something subtle is withdrawn.

Certain people seem filled with such bountiful energy that they lift your spirits without touching you, or can send a veritable flow of warmth like a current through your body through their hands. Others are such a deep hole of neediness they can drain you of energy just by being nearby. And most of us know what it's like to feel someone’s eyes on us, even if we have to turn around to find out who is staring at us.

We hardly have a vocabulary for these unmistakable, but subtle realities, and fall back on “as if” language: “it was as if she lit up the whole room.” Perhaps we ought to risk dropping the “as if.”

After all there are hundreds and thousands (most likely tens of thousands and more) who will swear to you they can, on occasion, see bodies shining with light, just like the holy pictures of saints with halos in many traditions. Not only that, you can attend any number of workshops around the nation that will teach you how to see these “auras” (in spite of the skepticism of the majority of folks who have never investigated the phenomenon).

Then there are the stories of the liminal dimensions of flesh from all around the world: the bodies of Hindu holy men and Christian saints which do not decay after death, emitting the faint odor of roses; the rare Tibetan Buddhist lamas (in our own times) who, when dying, seem transformed into a rainbow of light; the Indian avatars, like the 19th century saint Sri Ramakrishna, who are literally transfigured before the astonished eyes of thousands of people and shine “with the light of the noonday sun” (as we are told Jesus did on a certain mountain top).

I know a priest who saw a radiantly shining monk in Massachusetts back in the 60s. And consider the eyewitness testimony of Motovilov, a disciple of the 19th century staretz Seraphim of Sarov. "It was as if my eyes had been opened, for I saw that the face of the elder was brighter than the sun. In my heart I felt joy and peace, in my body a warmth as if it were summer, and a fragrance began to spread around us." When the disciple confessed his astonished reaction, the saint responded, "Do not fear, dear fellow. You would not even be able to see me if you yourself were not in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Thank the Lord for His mercy toward us." (See St. Seraphim of Sarov by Valentine Zander)

Stretching our experiential boundaries

Why then (bodies being so mysterious) should we find the stories of Jesus’ transfigured and transformed Presence—so real it could be touched—incredible, as so many modern Christians do? I remember well my seminary New Testament professor making fun of St. Paul’s “baffling attempt” to explain “spiritual bodies” in 1 Corinthians 15. It was all based on “strange ancient beliefs” he found “unintelligible.” He preferred, as do most modernists, some sort of “spiritual illumination” to the vivid realism of the gospel narratives.

Having already been introduced to some of the world-wide lore about the spiritual dimensions of the flesh, I was uncomfortable with his modernist scorn 47 years ago. Today I’d suggest he follow a reading program in comparative mysticism and find a real Hindu yoga teacher who could explain to him the yoga tradition’s actual experience of the multi-layered “subtle bodies” that make up the human reality.

I had my own surprised experience of these subtle dimensions once during a three-year series of Polarity Therapy treatments—a combination of acupressure and “energy balancing.” The gentle acupressure touches set of a palpable flow of energy along the “energy meridians” described by Chinese medicine. All of a sudden I “saw” very clearly a column of intense white light running from head to foot through the center of my flesh. The experience lasted for ten minutes or more, filling my body with a sweet warmth and a kind of cleansing “breath.” "What is this?" I asked the therapist. “Oh,” she said off-handedly (using the language of her tradition's energy map) “that’s just your etheric body.”

Call it my imagination if you will. I’ll be more inclined to take you seriously after you’ve had three years of these treatments yourself, or really studied the world testimony to the higher capacities of the body.

The challenge of the stories

My faith doesn’t stand or fall on such experiences, nor on the every literal detail of the biblical Resurrection stories. I doubt they are exact videotape versions of what happened. But I do think they seek faithfully to put into narrative form an Encounter that contains, but far transcends, what we experience at the luminous edges of our fleshly existence. Jesus, whose body had already shown many subtle powers in his lifetime, had crossed a threshold into the spiritual dimensions of human existence and appeared to his beloved community in what Christians have called his "glorified body".

And the stories challenge us to wake up to the miracle of our own embodied existence, where flesh and bone already shine, at times, with the light that will be our sum and substance after we are "changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another." (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Maybe it's something like that column of white light I saw, and believe is still there in the deeper dimensions of my own flesh—and yours.

Next week: Resurrection Now