I understand now that I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, “For the same reason I laugh so often – because I’m paying attention.”
Glennon Doyle Melton
FOR NOW WE SHALL SEE THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY; BUT THEN FACE TO FACE: NOW I KNOW IN PART; BUT THEN I SHALL KNOW EVEN AS ALSO I AM KNOWN
(I CORINTHIANS 13.12 KJV)
Rereading the Gospel narratives of the birth of Jesus in preparation for writing this series, I was struck anew by Elizabeth’s story (John the Baptist’s mother). Elizabeth feels a profound social, physical and spiritual ’disgrace’ because she is not a parent; she feels excluded from her community and isolated from her God. The subsequent miracle of John’s conception, despite Elizabeth’s age and circumstances, takes her on a new journey of intimacy into God.
Yet rather than deliberately seeking acceptance from her neighbours, she goes into seclusion. Elizabeth chooses to prioritise paying attention to her emotional and spiritual wellbeing, as part of her practical preparations before giving birth, over a false sense of communal and social belonging. She chooses silence. Elizabeth wants to know God in the same way she is known by God.
For her husband Zechariah, however, the opposite happens, he is struck dumb, unable to fulfil his social and spiritual function as a Temple Priest for the length of the pregnancy. Even when he was in the Holy of Holies, one of the chosen few to enter there, Zechariah did not recognise the Holy when it was revealed to him. When he emerged, mute, the congregation chose to interpret his dumbness as a result of seeing ‘a vision’, perhaps they thought he was silent because he was so ‘spiritual’. Initially Zecharaiah was terrified and overwhelmed to receive a visit from an angel full of prophetic announcements. However, he soon wanted to ‘know’ more: to know the details, to ask questions, to regain control of the story, to understand how the angel’s word might be trusted. He stopped listening to the Holy. He showed that whilst he may have had ‘ears to hear’, he had not heard.
how will I know this is so?
Zechariah’s cry, ‘How will I know that this is so?’ (Luke 1.18) is an utterly understandable human response. And yet I have a feeling it is not the response of someone who has any sense of God actively being present in his own life at that moment. For all his priestly duties and status, Zechariah is not prepared to accept God’s word. He is not prepared to wait and see what happens, which are characteristics of the way of knowingdarkly.
By wanting a different sort of knowing – more visible, more clear cut, more rational, proof of who God is and what God says God will do – Zechariah cuts himself off from the comfort of any sort of heart-knowing. By wanting a different sort of knowing, Zecharaiah self-sabotages any prospect he has of expressing a sense of wonder about God, about what he knows, and does not know, about how the Holy is at work in his own world.
blessed is she
It is left to Elizabeth to express wonder and gratitude, saying ‘blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’ (Luke 1.45). It is of great grief to me that I was unable to have children, and I do not understand Elizabeth to be either fulfilled or blessed merely because she had a child. Elizabeth is able to recognise ‘fulfilment’, wholeness, because she recognises that her seeing relied on her believing that she was a part of the whole of God’s story, even when she could not understand how the details might fit together. Perhaps it was partly this state that St Augustine was thinking of when he wrote, ’Faith is to believe what you do not yet see; the reward for this faith is to see what you believe’?
God knows I have a need to see and to know, because God is in the very midst of my story, with me. Seeingdarkly and knowingdarkly are the ways I can begin to communicate that I belong to God, because the very GodSelf is in me. It is part of my story too, that I am to give birth to the GodSelf; and I can do that by telling others how I am known. As Annie Dillard said:
You were made and set here
to give voice to this,
your own astonishment.
To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.
‘January 12th’, Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen
giving voice to astonishment. (iPhone image).