My conversation with God is very often bedeviled by the kind of miscommunication taking place between the crowds and Jesus in this Gospel passage. In my experience seeking God involves a process of peeling back the layers of my expectations. It is only at the end of this circuitous and lengthy process of identifying and confronting my own expectations that I am anywhere near ready to hear something other that what I have been anticipating hearing.
In the ancient prayer known as the Regina Coeli or prayer to Mary Queen of Heaven there is a passage which in the traditional translation of the prayer goes something like this:
to thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we sigh, mourning and weeping, passing through this vale of sorrows.
Now this prayer is very close to my heart. It is one of the two constants, the other being the Lord’s Prayer which form the bedrock of my daily conversations with God. My love of the Regina Coeli dates back to my days as a spiritually enthusiastic youth. In those days I was what in the Church of England is referred to as a brain-dead Anglo-Catholic. In my late teens and early twenties the label brain-dead Anglo-Catholic fairly summed up what I appeared to be.
Alas, the enthusiasms and idealism based on certainty which marked this phase of my spiritual journey have long since dimmed. The current label that might better apply to me is brain-alive Anglo-Catholic. This is a more difficult space to inhabit. Nevertheless, despite the increasing use of my brain in my spiritual life, I continue to cherish the Regina Coeli prayer, no longer however, in its traditional rather florid translation. The increasing use of my brain in my spiritual life has led me to personalize the prayer’s wording. I have replaced:
to thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we sigh, mourning and weeping, passing through this vale of sorrows,
to you do we cry, children of Eve in exile, mourning and weeping, passing through this veil of illusions.
Illusion operates to allow us to only see what we expect to see. For the battle to expose my illusions forms the terrain upon which my spirituality is daily worked out. This change in wording reflects my growing awareness that in my conversation with God, its my expectation of what I want or need to hear and to have that forms a veil of illusion. Trapped behind this veil of illusion my experience of being a child of Eve in exile is only strengthened.
I am acutely aware that the way I experience and see the world is highly colored by this veil of illusion. In my seeking God, the place I need to start from over and over again is in the recognition that what maintains my experience of exile from God is my veil of illusion. A veil formed and endlessly maintained through the projection of my fear of deprivation and my craving for satiation.
A veil of illusion separates the crowds from Jesus throughout John’ Gospel. The passage we heard today typifies this and gives us a clear sense of there being two conversations going on simultaneously. The crowds having been wowed by his feeding of the 5000 demand to know from Jesus ”Who are you? Are you the celebrity who can meet our needs?” Jesus’ response to them is to ask in turn “What have you come for?” And so the two conversations unfold along parallel lines. The crowd talks about their craving to be endlessly fed with free bread, motivated by the perpetual fear of being hungry. To their questions Jesus responds with God’s invitation to become truly satisfied by bread that does so much more than fill the belly. It’s the bread that gives life. And what is more Jesus identifies himself as that bread. Eventually this frustrates the crowds so much they turn on him and we will hear more of that next week.
Are we able to use this passage to reflect upon how our own fears and cravings drive our desire for relationship with God and our membership of the Church? As people shaped by an American culture entering the first phase of the 21st Century it should not surprise us to discover that at one level there is little that differentiates us from the crowds following Jesus in John’s late 1st Century Palestine. At this level human nature remains remarkably consistent across the flow of history. However, the themes that universally echo across generations in specific historical and cultural contexts take on particular intensity in our time.
It has been an interesting week in which we have witnessed the Chic-fil-A fiasco, a rather unpleasant reminder that we are a society where Christian faith continues to be perverted into perpetuating hostility towards expressions of difference. We also witnessed the death of Gore Vidal, that great apostle for the toleration of difference. Gore Vidal provoked enormous hostility from the political Establishment all his life. He was a particular kind of prophet hated by establishment classes everywhere, i.e. an insider, one of them who exposed their corruption and hypocrisy. Strangely enough, a common theme links these two events. In the week of Gore’s death we yet again have been witness to a dramatic example of the use of executive power and the corrupting power of money to promote the prejudicial dynamics of exclusion and violence, dynamics against which Gore protested all his life.
Perhaps the core characteristic which marks the current operation of American culture is the intensity of two particular illusions. Why is it that in the midst of the most prosperous society the world has known the illusion of scarcity increasingly drives our fears? We have religious leaders who present salvation as something rationed to the professing elect as if there is not enough to go around. Why is it that those who are so sure they are saved cannot feel secure in their salvation unless they can identify those who are to them clearly not saved? Girardian ideas of scapegoating and sacrificial victims come to my mind.
We continue to vote for politicians who promise us what can’t be delivered thus reenforcing a specter of scarcity and using it to frighten us into keeping them in power. If there is not enough to go around then I need to vote for the politician who promises to either deliver more to me and my kind or allow me and mine the means to grab what I need before others take it away from me.
One illusion inevitably gives rise to a second and in some ways its counterpoint. Going hand in hand with the illusion of scarcity is the illusion that our needs require to be satiated. This results not from the experience of having enough of what we need, but from the belief that we need more and more and more of what we need – hence there is never enough. This is a dynamic I will explore further in the Fall.
The illusion of scarcity is a fear. The illusion of satiation is a craving. Both projections hide God’s invitation. Both perpetuate our experience as children of Eve in fearful exile in a world of sorrow. These illusions are mine and they are yours. If we can begin to explore our illusions and peel their layers away one by one, perhaps then we can become open to God’s promise.
The promise is contingent on our courage to faith. To faith is what it says in the Greek. This sounds odd in English where we speak of faith as possession, something to have or not have rather than an action, something one does. Perhaps the Greek comes closer to the English sense of trust. Trust is something we have the courage to do or pull back from doing through lack of courage.
Jesus identifying himself as the bread of life is God’s invitation for us to trust, rather than fear. If we truly begin to hear this then we discover that satisfaction results when we can give up the illusion that what we need is to be satiated. Freed from the illusion of living in a world of scarcity we begin to discover that there is not only enough for all, but what we are promised by God will be sufficient for us.