TRAINING

Imagine as a cultivated Westerner being invited to attend your first traditional Noh program. As the hours of the long performance go by, you are presented with an extremely colorful progression of masked actors engaged in rigidly traditional portrayals of standardized characters, with dancers in gorgeous dress skillfully engaged in completely regimented movement, with singers vocalizing ancient Japanese poetry to the accompaniment of the single uncanny flute and the three driving drums.

What might you get from the performance?

Provided you are open to it, a certain sort of personal entertainment is quite possible from your time spent watching this extraordinary and uniquely Japanese art form. At the least, you might enjoy the experience of an aesthetic addition to what you normally derive from Western theater. You might appreciate the disciplined athleticism of the dancers. You might marvel at the spare stagecraft, and think of how it must have influenced Samuel Beckett. “Reminds me of ‘Waiting For Godot,’” you might whisper to your neighbor in the audience, also a Westerner.

But if you are honest, you would surely confess a shallowness to your experience, a sense that you were only responding to a few of the program’s most superficial elements – to the color, the movement, the extraordinary physical training involved – while missing out on almost all of what the performance has to offer to the native Japanese in the audience, or at least to those who are sophisticated in the meaning and history of their Noh. Not to mention its language!

The point if pretty straightforward. Our appreciation of an experience depends as much – or rather far more – on what we bring to it than on what the experience itself offers.

I’m often struck by how a painter – of the realistic type – can produce a perfect painting of, say, a bird. The skill is wonderful, of course, but what is prior to the skill is the painter’s eye, which has seen and recorded all the details of the bird that serve, when translated into paint, to yield the perfect image. The painter and I have seen the same bird in the wild – or the same house, or tree, or mountain, or cloud – but the painter’s glimpse is so much richer and fuller than my own. It’s humbling to realize how relatively blind most of us are to the world around us, compared to those who through training have opened their eyes to what the world puts on view.

Without adherence to Christ’s tutelage, heaven for most of us will be like a Noh play, or like the everyday robins that hop about the grass, looking for worms.

Christianity is not a set of beliefs. It is training. Training to appreciate heaven.

CREATION

What we call creation was God’s first act of self-sacrifice: it was the sacrifice of God’s solitude. If we think of it at all, we tend to think of creation as God’s gaining something: call it companionship. But thinking of it that way posits a lack in God, or a desire for something outside of God’s own perfection, and surely that is a mistake. What we are left to think is that the nature of God simply is sacrificial. Call that nature ‘love.’ And there being nothing other than God, love sacrificed itself.

God’s second act of self-sacrifice was the Cross.

A NEW CREATION

Without Jesus, God does not understand suffering, sorrow, or death. That is one side of the coin. The other is that God, without Jesus, does not understand joy or relief or friendship.

We tend to think of the work of Jesus only in terms of the accomplishment of something – Redemption? Atonement? Reconciliation? Salvation? But these are just words. – on earth. But his accomplishment was rather to incorporate earth into heaven, to enlarge and deepen heaven, to meld the eternal and the non-eternal into something new.

The God-man didn’t endure suffering and thereby remove it from us. He incorporated suffering into divinity, and thereby gave it eternal substance, gave it eternal importance. And so also of death and disappointment and all that side of the human coin; but we must also add the other side, the side of laughter and delight and birth.

If we are careful to remember that these are also just words, we may say that Christ sanctified life, and mean that he made it saintly, made it heavenly. He gave and gives life meaning.

But we must not forget that, in so doing, he made heaven earthly and accessible. That’s why we can pray. That’s why we can endure God’s presence.

God’s accomplishment, in Christ, was self-sacrificial, the way a marriage is sacrificial of independence. And in the same sense, it was and remains exploratory and daring and unpredictable.

GOD’S PROBLEM

We speak glibly of God’s omnipotence. We say with some Scriptural authority that God can do anything, although in a pedantic mood we might concede that what we mean is that God can do anything that can be done, thereby constraining God under the laws of logic while still allowing free rein under the laws of physics.

But there are many things Jesus could not do. He could not heal those who lacked faith in him (Matthew 6: 5); he could not save Jerusalem from the consequences of its folly, although he longed to do so (Mathew 23: 7); he could not instill faith in his followers (Matthew 8: 26); he could not persuade the scribes and Pharisees of the errors of their ways (Matthew 23: 13 et passim). The Gospels are as rich with things Jesus could not do as with the things he could.

Was this because Jesus was a man as well as God? No. It was the man-God revealing God. Was it because he could have done them, if he had chosen? No, he never has the choice.

God can only do what love can do, and love – we learn from Jesus – can only offer: it cannot compel. It can indicate, but not bind. It can sacrifice the self, but not the other.

To put this another way, God cannot act contrary to God’s own nature. God cannot think, imagine, hope or desire contrary to God’s own nature. And therefore, God cannot choose contrary to that nature. In this regard, any human child is more powerful than God.

That is God’s problem.

TRANSPARENT JOY

There are small things – small but universal – that spring from a deeper level than words, and therefore from a deeper level than understanding. Spontaneous smiling is an example. We all smile at the antics of babies, at hummingbirds, at memories shared with old friends. These things reach down, down inside us and engage something there, some transparent joy at the foundation of our nature, where wordy self-consciousness hasn’t yet usurped the place of God.

The Fall is not the death of that joy, but rather its desertion.

MY WORDS ARE LIFE

 

The meaning of waves is the ocean. That sounds like a poetic way of speaking, but it really isn’t. The concept of meaning is itself undefined, and there is no literal use of it to contrast with any other sort of use. We can inquire of the meaning of birds, or of a symphony, or of creation, or of an historical event with just as much legitimacy as we inquire after the meaning of a word.

The ocean births, supports, shapes, exhausts and reabsorbs its waves. Everything in the ocean is part of every one of its waves. Everything of all oceans past and future is part of every present wave. The meaning of waves is the ocean.

The meaning of what you say is your life. Your words are the waves of your life. This is not a poetic way of speaking, unless all language is poetry. Your life in all its complexity and contrariety births, supports, shapes, exhausts and reabsorbs your words.

We do not ‘understand’ the meaning of Christ’s words by acquiring their definition, nor even by fitting them into some community of other words, some body of doctrine. The meaning of Christ’s words is the life of Christ, which is life itself.

BLESSED ARE THEY WHO MOURN

We’re allowed to experience sorrow because it removes our shallowness, it deepens us to where we can begin to feel spiritual sympathy.

Sorrowing and suffering are not the same. They’re not even words from the same reality. Suffering is of the flesh, sorrow of the spirit.

Sorrow is a spiritual adjustment to the loss of a source of love and joy. Those who have never been loved cannot experience sorrow.

Blessed are they who mourn.