“Layers” or “Levels” of God Encounters

Hi. I’ve been away from the blog for a little bit, kind of doing some thinking in a lot of different areas. I’ve mentioned here before that this search for Wisdom in my own life is – as one would expect – spilling over into my thoughts and understandings about my life in ministry.

In pursuit of that type of thing, I ran across an old video of a panel discussion that featured, among several other people, Cynthia Bourgeault, who has been leading my spirit in some fairly interesting directions for the last several months. In this video, someone mentioned how she seems to have left the old model of the church behind in favor of a more direct encounter of the Divine through various spiritual practices, including Centering Prayer, The Work (what students of G.I. Gurdjieff call his “Fourth Way” practices of involving all three energetic “centers” of the human being: heart, intellect, & emotion), chanting, etc.

Cynthia offers a gentle correction, and she does so by mentioning having learned about three “levels” of the church: The Exoteric, The Mesoteric, and The Esoteric.

“The Exoteric church, the one with the doors, that people come into off the streets, the one that needs pastors, the church that’s there when you’re ready to put a bullet in your head in the middle of the night — that church serves an extraordinarily important function, and without access to it, people aren’t ready to go further. Its role is to create a basic welcome container, basic pastoral/ethical nurturance, and a sense of devotional reference points.

“From there on, it opens into the Mesoteric, which is about Path; which is about practice, and that’s where you really sort of bring in the Centering Prayer, the chanting, the psalmody, the Orders of Life. And that, then, drives and makes possible the gateway into the Esoteric, which is badly understood in our culture. It’s sort of equated with the ‘secret knowledge,’ these ‘cosmic PIN codes,” where it really just means the deeper: the deeper understanding, the deeper immersion in what was there all along in the Exoteric, but you didn’t get it before.

“So, the Mesoteric is the real bridge. And I think it’s that bridge that people are hungering for. That’s the place we try and give them in Wisdom School, and that’s certainly the bridge I crossed without ever looking back when I became a teacher of Centering Prayer. [Centering Prayer does most of the heavy lifting] because it begins to change the way people think.

“There’s brain science now to show that meditative practice increases our capacity to bear paradox, to live in ambiguity, and to not immediately react from defensive postures. And it’s the part that was missing from the church. Nobody knew how to do this. Nobody made time and they were drowning in their own sort of ‘surface-ness.’

[There was a comment about the dying of the institutional church. ] “It’s not an either/or. Maybe there will be <strong>fewer</strong> churches. I think the <strong>parish church </strong>may be belly-up. The movement towards greater and more powerfully diverse and impassioned centers – kind of cathedrals in the old way of thinking: vortexes of human energy and then a lot of Mesoteric groups spinning out — that would be the model that I see as viable.

“But I certainly would never recommend going back and starting with ‘the Jesus church,’ because there’s no such thing, at least in our own culture.”

My take-away or reflection on this multi-structured way of looking at the church and spirituality is this: 12 years into my “pastoring gig,” as I like to call it, there are aspects of the Exoteric church that trouble me (institutional racism, institutional sexism, traditionalism over tradition, protection of the institution over living the gospel of Jesus, etc.), and much of it leaves me weary and empty. I NEED that Mesoteric church and sort of aspire to Esoteric practices and embracing integration. At the same time, what the Meso- and Esoteric churches teach me is: IT AIN’T ABOUT ME! There is clearly still a role – “an extraordinarily important function” – for the “regular ol'” church in this world, and I remain committed to it. My hope is that my ministry will help some “transcend” – or maybe simply go deeper into – the traditional church, rather than to just accept it at face value. If I can do that while also being there in the middle of the night, as Cynthia says, when someone wants to put a bullet in their brain, or when Grandma dies, or when someone wants to celebrate new life, I am content. It all belongs.

Reflection on All Saints Day

Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson devote a chapter of their book The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity to the sanctoral cycle — a kind of liturgical calendar of its own (199ff) — which celebrates feast days of individual saints. The authors point out that the sanctoral cycle developed out of popular pietestic veneration of early Christian martyrs, generally on the anniversaries of their martyrdoms. Martyrdom was, for early Christians, “in all likelihood … understood as both a repetition of baptism or a substitute for it, and a sacrifice parallel and similar to Christ’s passion and the Eucharist, that is to say, as a redemptive sacrifice” (179). This manner of dying for the cause (as it were) sanctified the sacrifice and martyrdom became essentially synonymous with sainthood.

Bradshaw and Johnson state that, by the fourth century, several other categories of “saints” began to appear on lists of the Church’s annual celebrations: ascetics and monks, people who were confessors (and therefore “witnesses”), but who were not killed on account of their witness, per se, were nevertheless included as “martyrs by extension” (189). Bishops also began to make the list in the fourth century and, as the authors quote Pierre Jounel, “the difference between these two types of anniversaries must have been rather vague in practice” (190). Throughout that century, the categories continued to expand, and feasts for figures like Mary Theotokos, Emperor Constantine, and Theodosius I were added to the cycle, and so the sanctorum continued to grow, with localized variations, over time.

Laurence Hull Stookey (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church), along with much of contemporary Protestantism (in spite of continued anti-Catholic grumbling), embraces a much more expansive definition of a saint, citing the New Testament’s synonymous use of “saint” with “Christian” and “believer” (142). He points out that being a saint actually has nothing to do with being one of the “greats of History,” or indeed with any merit or effort on the part of humans, but rather, sanctity is necessarily intimately connected with and dependent upon identification with the holiness of Christ. We are ALL saints “because God’s [that is, Christ’s] sanctity is at work in us” (143).

Contemporary practice of commemorating a particular saint’s feast day still generally corresponds with that person’s death date (as it had been for the martyrs of the early church), unless some other festival or celebration (e.g. the Lord’s Day) takes precedence, or if the death date is not known, as is the case for biblical saints. Instead, those feast days are placed into the cycle largely according to convenience or in order to make a special comment on that saint’s “specialness” (e.g. Stephen, the protomartyr, who is considered noteworthy enough for his feast day to fall on the day after Christmas) (145).

In any case, the large number of saints whose lives are commemorated in the sanctoral cycle gives rise to a predicament: each day of the calendar year memorializes one or more saint’s lives. Stookey states: “Eventually a crisis developed, and a solution arose: Designate one day each year as a kind of omnibus occasion, a day on which to commemorate all the saints who cannot be accorded their own specific dates, and whose names have been forgotten” (148). The date of this commemoration, which we call All Saints Day, varies in the West (where it is often celebrated on November 1) and the East (where some rites celebrate it on May 13 and some on the Sunday following Pentecost) (148). And even in the West, there remains a disparity between Roman Catholics on the one hand, who celebrate only canonized saints on November 1, leaving “all other faithful departed” to be remembered the following day (the Feast of All Souls), and Protestants on the other, who celebrate All Saints Day, collapsing RC practices into one day: either November 1 or the first Sunday in November (148).

Protestant practice also makes no distinction between “recognized” saints (i.e. great historical figures) and the biblical “great cloud of witnesses,” including people who died in the previous year, many of whom belonged to our parishes and whose names we read aloud as part of our ritual celebration of the saints (148).

In our expansive definition of sanctity and in our ritual observance, we emphasize the catholicity of the church in all times and all places. We give thanks for the departed ones and for their faithful witness to the promise of God in Jesus Christ. Stookey writes: “[T]hese persons [, though departed, continue to] bear testimony to us concerning the One of whom it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isaiah 53:4 RSV). Their stories point us to his story. And it is his story that enables us to bear all sorrow …. [It is] the sole source and focus of the entire liturgical calendar” (150).

The rites particular to All Saints Day manifest in the church’s use of time in the proclamation that all the saints across all times and places are sanctified in the holiness of Christ, which he shares with us as part of what Luther called “the happy exchange,” or what Orthodox Christians might refer to as theosis or deification. In other words, Christ takes on OUR sins which die with him on the cross. With us he shares, by his grace, the righteousness which belongs to HIM as the Son of God.

This Good News interacts with the faithful in our time in spite of the larger cultural orientation toward despair and the fear of death. As believers, we still grieve death — our own and that of those we love — but because God’s promise proves trustworthy, we can rest in the assurance that death does not have the final word. Instead, the final word belongs to God, whose promise IS life in Christ.

I think that All Saints Day aims, as a ritual event, to put us in mind, not only of all the saints who have gone before us, but also to remember that WE are the saints. Here and Now. We are examples in the world in real time. Our faith will also have impact on the generations that follow. Our understanding and way of being run counter to Culture (the “powers and principalities” of the kosmos, “the prince of this world”, “the patterns of this world,” etc.), and this gives us hope in the face of death and decay, in the face of every kind of darkness. It falls to US SAINTS to share this Good News, which we ourselves have already received — to share it with a world that desperately needs to hear it, aches to hear it.