Icon by Robert Lentz
Song: “I Shall Not Want”
I love that song. I chose to sing it for today’s sermon a long while ago, before I knew either that COVID-19 would break out, or that last week's reading was Psalm 23. I love this song because it reverses the usual deliverance prayer. Instead of asking God for deliverance from difficult circumstances, from some problem outside ourselves, it instead turns the focus within, recognizing that our biggest problem is always our own response to difficulties.
I’ve titled this sermon “Be-closed and Be-seeking: The Soul in an Uncertain Time.” As many of you know, I began a ten-day silent retreat on Ash Wednesday, and I was there when COVID-19 began to make headlines in the U.S. So having no access to media, I was blissfully ignorant when on March 4th Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency over coronavirus. And yet on March 5th, God revealed to me what I was to give up for Lent—and indeed for all time—and it has proved pertinent.
What God wanted me to give up was the illusion of control. Notice I do not say “God wanted me to give up control,” because God made it clear to me that I’ve never been in control to begin with. Not that there’s anything wrong with making plans, taking precautions, setting goals, but the moment these “fill up the screen,” so to speak, we have left no room for God’s creativity in our lives. God brought me to understand that the opposite of control is not chaos, but trust. Not trust in any earthly outcome or person, but in redemption beyond what our eyes can see. Real chaos can only be conquered by love.
This practice of trust could be called a radical openness. An openness to the unexpected, to the raw experiences of life, to becoming a new creature that we might not be sure how to be. The one tattoo I have is a butterfly on my shoulder that I got at age nineteen with the quote in mind by Richard Bach, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly.”
This radical openness paradoxically only makes sense though within a radical closedness.
So here we are nearly to the end of Lent, and I would bet that no one’s Lenten intention was to give up leaving the house. Yet right now we find ourselves enclosed. Enclosed in our homes, with our pets or spouses or children, with our leftovers and leaky toilets. We may be beginning to feel constricted and trapped in negative emotions as well: fear, irritation, or grief.
This week I learned a word from the great Christian mystic Julian of Norwich: “be-closed.” Julian lived through a time of great plague as well, and there are paintings of her cloistered with her beloved cat—something you might relate to at present.
At age thirty, many years before she became an anchorite, Julian received a series of profound visions, or “showings.” Julian saw Christ as “the ground and head of this fair kind out of whom we all come, in whom we are all enclosed, into whom we shall all go.” And in her final revelation, she saw Christ also enclosed in us, in human souls.
Julian writes, “We are closed in the Father and we are closed in the Son, and we are closed in the Holy Spirit. And the Father is be-closed in us, the Son is be-closed in us and the Holy Spirit is be-closed in us.” When I read this, I imagine whol
istic Russian nesting dolls, zooming in endlessly to find that the largest contains the smallest, which contains the largest yet again.
As King David wrote in Psalm 139:
“You hem me in, behind and before . . .
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.”
God is permanent, immovable, enclosing. Our souls be-close God: enfold the eternal in mutual indwelling. Those who wish to flee from God will undoubtably find this fact of God’s inescapable presence unnerving and oppressive. I’ve been there. But now in this time of “social distancing,” I find it a great comfort that God cannot be distant. To know that if I feel that God is distant, it is because, as another great Christian mystic, Simone Weil said, I am “looking in the wrong direction.” If I am looking toward God, I have nothing to fear.
Julian of Norwich coined another word too: “be-seeking.” Christ came to her and said, “I am the ground of your beseeking.” She understood beseeking as a quiet and receptive form of seeking, “a gentle yet responsive movement into our soul . . . where in silence and stillness, we seek Christ our center.” This be-seeking is that opening into trust.
And so I believe it is God’s enclosing that makes the be-seeking possible. It is because we are contained in God, that we have assurance that when we become still, we will find God, and a God worth trusting.
In a letter dated June 2, 1940, from C.S. Lewis to his good friend Owen Barfield, Lewis invoked Julian’s famous line, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” The month before, Germany had invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands; Winston Churchill had just become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Lewis wrote, “The real difficulty is, isn’t it, to adapt one’s steady beliefs about tribulation to this particular tribulation; for the particular, when it arrives, always seems so peculiarly intolerable.” He goes on, “I find it helpful to keep it very particular — to stop thinking about the ruin of the world etc., for no one is going to experience that, and to see it as each individual’s personal sufferings, which never can be more than those of one man.”
This hearkens to another of Julian’s “showings,” in which she saw all the universe as a tiny object like a hazelnut, and was shocked that it continued to exist. She saw that it continued to exist for one reason: because God loved it. I keep this hazelnut by my bed, as a reminder of God’s sustaining love for every paltry, very particular thing—even myself. Perhaps you, during this time, would like to find a hazelnut or some other object; something to behold as a daily reminder that God is in this with you, that God looks with caring attention upon every lily and every sparrow. That we have the sort of God that does not boast in being vast and unbounded, but instead chose to painfully funnel himself into one vulnerable human form, that of Jesus, that He might be “God with us.” In Jesus we see God enclosed, God even facing death, a claim no less shocking 2000 years later.
It's been a hard week for the world. I’m one of the lucky ones. I can work from home and am still getting paychecks; I have a safe place to live and can take a walk in nature each day; I’m young and so far healthy.
Still the past week I felt anxious, so for escapism, I watched the trilogy of Maze Runner movies, since I’m a die-hard fan of the genre “gutsy teenagers versus the dystopian apocalypse.” In Maze Runner, nearly everyone on Earth has died out from a plague called “the flare,” that of course turns people into flesh-hungry zombies. Children are immune, so in the midst of the pandemic parents rush to give their children over to a guardian organization, which ultimately turns the children into medical experiments and seeks to harvest their bodily fluids for a vaccine. And in this scenario, Thomas, who grew up in “the maze” and of course likes to ask lots of questions, figures out what is happening and escapes, to face zombies, lightning, headhunters, and of course the quintessential near-fall from a rotting skyscraper. And I thought to myself, “You know, it really could be worse.”
But for all its Hollywood excesses, Maze Runner does put forth some serious questions: What makes life worth living? Is survival of the human race really the most important thing? Is losing one’s humanity to greed, self-centeredness, or fear really better than losing it to a virus?
Recently our president said he hopes businesses will be open again by Easter. That would be nice, but I think that’s quite a distortion of the meaning of the resurrection. We have to remember that Jesus didn’t resurrect on anybody’s schedule but God’s. According to Jewish tradition, the soul of the dead took three days to journey from attachment to its body on into the spiritual world. That means Jesus resurrected after it was impossible, after it was hopeless, after things had begun to rot and stink. He intentionally resurrected Lazarus in just the same way. And as for the dry bones Ezekiel saw, well, they had been dead a lot longer than three days!
I imagine our economy will resurrect sooner or later, as economies do. And that overall human health will stabilize sooner or later as well. But I think it is just as important to ask whether this global pain could prompt a resurrection even more difficult and important: a resurrection of the human spirit, of the soul of our culture so ill and threatened long before these maladies began.
We have right now an unprecedented opportunity for self-examination and prayer. A third of the world is now spending more time at home. People can spend these days any way they like, and many will waste them in agitation and even newfound vices. I would like to challenge you to spend these days be-seeking the One in whose love we are enclosed.
On my silent retreat, I asked several trees what they would do if this or that happened to them, and their response I imagined was always, “I would keep growing.”
I would like to end with these lines from Julian:
“God is closer to us than our own soul, for God is the foundation on which the soul stands. Our soul sits in God and in true rest, and our soul stands in God in sure strength, and our soul is naturally rooted in God in endless love. Therefore, if we want to have knowledge of our soul, and communion and discourse with it, we must seek our God in whom it is enclosed.”
Let us pray.
God, right now many of us feel trapped and uncertain. Help us to remember that we are not only enclosed by walls, but also by your presence. You are our shelter. We long for things to be different—for the suffering of the sick to end, and to connect with others beyond screens. In this longing, help us to remember to be-seek You, to use this time to deepen our trust. For as Julian said, “I trusted in God . . . and in that moment all my pain left me.” We pray for deliverance, not from loneliness, not from death, not from serving others, but from our own fear. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.