Crowned with Poverty – Sermon for Christmas Midnight

Dom Donald's Blog: 'Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, who crowns Christ' Merton

‘It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is his Human Nature. Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.

God enters into his creation. Through her wise answer, through her obedient understanding, through the sweet, yielding consent of Sophia, God enters without publicity into the city of rapacious men.

She crowns him, not with what is glorious, but what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.

She sends the infinitely Rich and Powerful One forth as poor and helpless, in his mission of inexpressible mercy. To die for us on the cross.

The shadows fall. The stars appear. The birds begin to sleep. Night embraces the silent half of the earth. A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road. A homeless God, lost in the night, without papers, without identification, without even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and entrusts himself to sleep.’

Thomas Merton’s prose poem, Hagia Sophia, daringly suggests that Mary crowns Jesus with something greater than glory and that is his human nature. But it is not just any kind of humanity that she bestows – he is born in poverty, at the margins of the world, in a place not meant for human habitation. He is born anonymously, hidden from view and welcomed only by a small band of social and religious outcasts – shepherds, whose physical marginality prevents their full participation in an observant, devout life. From that point on, Jesus never showed a preference for polite company! Always choosing those with dubious reputations or embarrassing bodies, social transgressors and heretics, collaborators and beggars, Jesus showed again and again what was clear from the start: God chooses what is weak and broken and makes his home there.

But why make this choice? Why not choose a position in society with some influence, some clout? Surely you can do more good if you’re on the top of the pile, from where you can distribute alms, sort out unjust policies, make a reasonable case to reasonable people. Does power always corrupt?

I think there are two reasons for this choice for poverty. One is that Jesus himself made it clear that he was sent to seek and to save that which is lost. It is not that poverty is somehow ennobling, but that it is an injustice caused, at root, by a willingness to see some people as of less value than others, as dispensable. God subverts this injustice at its roots by taking human flesh in poverty and thus identifying fully with those who are so often passed over, disregarded, excluded. In doing this, he invites us to find him there, at the margins of human society rather than at its apex.

The second reason is a more personal, more intimate one. God’s choice of being made known to us in poverty invites us to relate to him from our own place of poverty, of brokenness, of simplicity. When we look to our own woundedness, we find there one whose deepest desire is to heal us. Looking from the places where we are hurting also puts us in a position of trusting openness towards God. When we turn to God, not from a position of assured confidence, but from a knowledge of our need for wholeness, we offer a gift of great value, the gift of our honest, unadorned longing. We give to the humbled one the gift of our own humility. When we give to the one who emptied himself our own emptiness, he fills it with light and peace.

At this moment in our history, when we have been in the midst of a pandemic unlike any other that we have seen in our lifetimes, this startling message is more urgent than ever. First of all, God’s complete identification with the poor and marginalised urges us to find him there once more. The pandemic has exposed the inequalities of our societies in a way that we must not ignore. God takes his place in the food bank queue, not in the privileged security of the wealthy. How can we truly value those who have been devalued by our divided society?

Secondly, our urgent need for faith is never more real than in this time of uncertainty, anxiety and isolation. Again, this faith is not a matter of unshakeable confidence, of constant, sunny optimism, but of a humble trust, a simple longing, a desire to be made whole. In the messy fragility of a new-born baby placed tenderly in an animals’ feeding trough we see the promise of rest for our weary souls, peace and consolation for our troubled and grieving hearts, healing for our wounded bodies. For God has come among us and all shall be well.

Thomas Merton’s Desert

There are many faces of Thomas Merton, even if we are only looking at his considerable literary output: poet, mystical theologian, incisive social commentator, prolific correspondent, tireless diarist, inter-faith pioneer, gifted amateur photographer, translator and editor (Clement of Alexandria), writer of introductions (Fenelon), teacher and scholar of monasticism. This latter category may be one of his less well-known areas but is well represented in his excellent book of essays, Monastic Journey and in his more recently published novice conferences, where he shows an extraordinary and wide-ranging knowledge of early and medieval monasticism.

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Much better known is his excellent translation of a selection of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert. It’s a notable book both for its early popularising of the desert tradition and for its two prefaces; the one he wrote and the one that didn’t make it past the censors by the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki. The latter showed his instinct for what is now rather clumsily called inter-spirituality – the meeting of religions at the point where they concern the disciplined exploration of unnameable things in silence. The Suzuki piece did eventually see the light of day in a later publication, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, but for today, the anniversary of Merton’s death in 1968, I want to offer a couple of small nuggets from Merton’s published introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert which get to the heart of Merton’s approach to the spiritual life.

Speaking of the key desert notion of ‘rest’ or ‘quies’, Merton describes this as being:

Simply the sanity and poise of a being that no longer has to look at itself because it is carried away by the perfection of freedom that is in it. And carried where? Wherever Love itself, or the Divine Spirit, see fit to go. Rest, then, was a kind of simple no-whereness and no-mindedness that had lost all preoccupation with a false or limited ‘self’. At peace in the possession of a sublime ‘Nothing’ the spirit laid hold, in secret, upon the ‘All’ – without trying to know what it possessed.

Wisdom of the Desert p. 8

Merton was keen to demystify this way of being in the world and saw ‘rest’ as a less convoluted or exalted way of talking about ‘contemplation’, affording ‘less occasion for spiritual narcissism or megalomania.’ For the desert monks, quies was a state of inner tranquility hard-won in the daily struggles of the desert and carried with them into every action in life – in their manual work and most vitally in their dealings with other people. This tranquil and non-judging attitude towards others is a constant feature of the Sayings and is well-expressed in the following, as translated by Merton:

A certain brother inquired of Abbot Pastor, saying: What shall I do? I lose my nerve when I am sitting alone at prayer in my cell. The elder said to him: Despise no one, condemn no one, rebuke no one, God will give you peace and your meditation will be undisturbed.

Wisdom of the Desert p. 40

Although himself a restless person in many ways, Merton was also one who sought to foster quies through unceasing prayer, solitude and conversion of heart. On the day he entered his heavenly resting-place, we honour this latter-day desert monk who explored the place of tranquility within, the point vierge that is ‘stillness, silence, the virginal point of pure nothingness that is the centre of all loves.’

I am a Monk

I’ve written a couple of posts recently about the life and teaching of Fr Lev Gillet, who used the nom de plume ‘A Monk of the Eastern Church’. In the Western parts of the Christian world, we tend to have a fairly fixed idea of what a monk is: they wear habits, keep themselves to themselves and live in big old monasteries in a monastic community. None of these things was true for Fr Lev for most of his life. He did live in a monastery for a time and he did often (though not always) wear his clerical attire (though rarely with the monastic veil) but he lived a busy life, travelling around Europe and to Lebanon, leading retreats, preaching, reading in the famous old reading room for the British Museum, meeting friends… In what sense, you might ask, was he a monk? Is ‘monk’ in the Eastern church simply a synonym for ‘celibate’?

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To be a monk in the Eastern sense is primarily to be one whose life is give to prayer – alone with the Alone (monos pros monon, hence ‘monachos’) – and the celibate life is at the service of this primary call. Many monks do live in communities, large or very small, and some serve parishes. Monks who are chosen to serve as bishops continue their calling while serving the wider church as teacher, pastor and priest. So Lev Gillet’s monastic life was in no way compromised by his living in Notting Hill or Paris for it was an interior life devoted to the vision of God in purity of heart.

Thomas Merton discerned something very similar. Although he did live in a monastery, or latterly in a hermitage in its grounds, he insisted that the monk was primarily a ‘marginal person’ who has ‘broken through the inevitable artificiality of social life’. A monk was someone not associated with the establishment or hierarchy (desert monks were famously suspicious of clergy!). Merton saw that this calling could be followed by anyone, irrespective of their ‘canonical status’ and gained further insight into the inner nature of this way of living through his conversations with Buddhist monks on his Asian journey. For them, the monk’s journey deeper into the monastic life was not a matter of fulfilling certain training criteria but of the deepening of wisdom [please note, those selecting candidates for ministry…]. It’s also important to note that the word ‘monk’ is not gendered in this use and is, indeed, used of all monastics in certain Buddhist orders.

So for Merton, the calling to be a true ‘monk’ is open to anyone who, in their inner life, sits light to the expectations of social existence and conforms only to the image of Christ, the marginal one who, inwardly free from other ties, could be the universal brother. This seems to me to be a calling worth embracing and living out in as many different ways as there are people willing to respond to it.

No Dialogue Without Conversion

Today is the anniversary of the death of Charles de Foucauld who, in many ways, opened up the path to the possibility of dialogue between Christianity and Islam. On the face of it, Charles’ life was not one marked by success: in his lifetime he saw no new monastic foundations and no new followers, and his death, though in many ways a martyrdom, remains something of a mystery. But after his lifetime, his example did inspire many to follow in his way of utter simplicity, universal fraternity and faithful ‘hiddenness’. Indeed, his influence extends to Pope Francis, whose latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, owes much to the spirituality of Charles.

In the realm of dialogue with Islam, which is surely one of the most vital works of inter-faith understanding in our day, Charles’ influence on one of this dialogue’s most significant pioneers, Louis Massignon, is immense. Charles’ approach was one built on fraternity, but also on the fundamental necessity of conversion. Indeed, his own conversion to a fuller embrace of the Christianity of his birth was directly a result of his encounter with Muslims. Although his desire in living among the Tuareg of Algeria was to bear, for them, the presence of Christ, his desire was to understand, not to make converts. He lived without any European or Christian companions and sought simply to be present among the people as a hermit whose simple dwelling was known as a place of hospitality as well as brotherhood.

Although not seeking to make converts, Charles embodied the truth that dialogue depends on conversion – one’s own. We cannot enter into a truthful dialogue unless we are committed to allowing ourselves to be changed by it, probably in ways we cannot anticipate. The same could, of course, be said of all Christian life, that it is a constant process of growth, of conversion, of being conformed ever more closely to the image of Christ. But there is something particular about inter-faith dialogue, which brings us face to face with God through language and practices that are not our own, challenging our assumptions and revealing to us new insights that might not have been shown to us if we had chosen to remain with what is familiar.

In dialogue, do we also seek the conversion of the one with whom we are in dialogue? No, but it is likely that they have also entered into this transformative space with the same commitments as we have. Our responsibility, however, is only ever towards our own attitude and our own readiness to be converted by the God we will meet in new ways through our sister or brother.