Solemn Feast of the Most Holy Corpus Christi, 2012
“Sauve ton peuple, Seigneur, et bénis ton heritage…” – Te Deum, 3ème Nocturne, Corpus Christi
Here, on this mountain, I am separated. From English-speakers. From my various tribes. From my family. From the connectivity that has come to define humanness in the Twenty-First Century, for much of the developed and developing world. I have my books, my notebooks, my pencils, and my Bible. I have my beads. I have my camera and my hands and my thoughts.
On this mountain, I work to create a niche, that compliments and does not unnecessarily interfere with the patterns and purposes of those around me, both the immediate presence of the monks, in their individual uniqueness and collectively as a cloistered community, and with the goings-on in the villages, the petty assertions of power and privilege, between citizens and authorities, between schools, between the communities of the commoners and the community of the cloister and the diocese.
My niche at times seems to be a bumbler and a stumbler, a comedian and a question mark, a muzungu with a heart, an American with a sense of direct engagement in times of necessity and opportunity, a cineaste and a professor, a soon-to-be graduate student in Theology, a loving son, a man who may, at the end of the day, for normal practical purposes, “see too far” – such was the curse once placed upon me, in the watershed of the Rio Oronoco, by an Amerindian mother. I have often, in times such as now atop this mountain, given pause to her proclamation.
Today is one of those big feast days.
In more traditional communities in America, those who still prefer the Latin Mass from the Council of Trent, the Holy Host is carried in procession through the streets of the community, up and down those stretching out from around the church, by the faithful, with solemnity and with accompanying litany and prayers of praise. I have often participated in such celebration, and in the middle of Latin recitations wondered about its continued efficacy of such showy public displays in this first quarter of this century. And what such a display says to those not so fixated on Trent and the Tridentine.
According to Christ:
“Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 1)
“And when we ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men…” (Matthew 6: 5)
“But … enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret…” (Matthew 6: 6)
To me, each day is an opportunity for such solemnity, with or without trumped up fanfare and filigree. For in the quiet moment of transubstantiation, as each person is called to empty each self, and to simply suspend in the moment waiting for the communion, once more, with the Christ, and through the Christ, with the Most Holy Trinity, connection and veneration is completed: person and personage is resuscitated, charted course recalibrated and drawn out across that day and beyond, and the journey once more continued from the very next step forward.
Today, I pause, from the excitement of last week, with the hiking up mountains to village schools, and the sudden negotiations with police chiefs out for a gift and a reclaimed prestige. I pause with one week to go until I head down this mountain and off this massif and back into the big dusty city in search of internet and connectivity and correspondence and quick meetings with former students and old friends, and then across the border to Kigali and on to Uganda. In one week and a day, a month will have gone by. My last trip to Congo completed, my next a distant possibility. In a week, I will again stand at the frontier and shake hands with now old friends, and go off to find a bus and press on.
I pause, having taken Cipro for some surprise bacterial stomach something that crept into me two nights before. I pause, having to take Larium, again, tonight, against the mosquito bite and the malaria parasite, with re-occurring threat of side effects (vivid dreams and much more).
I pause, after all that came to be yesterday, on Saturday, before and during and after a sudden violent downpour: a rainstorm that violated the change of the seasons from rainy to dry. Yesterday it rained like one usually assumes happens up here in Masisi. But which, in fact, rarely happens once the season shifts and the dust comes in off of the plain.
Yesterday, two men came down off of the mountain, as they promised, to sit together, and to continue our formation, regarding the technology in the devices being employed for the purposes of the electronic library pilot project. They came in the morning; they came as old trusted friends. And their coming cancelled the greediness and the haughtiness of the police chief, during his sudden unannounced appearance at the monastery, two days before. The police chief came wanting handouts and pay-offs. He came representing the tried-and-true praxis of the old regime and its mysterious Article 15, and its motto of Take for Your-self as a solution to every shortage, every disparity, every need. The two directors, from the two schools, came together, as friends and as partners. They came representing an alternative to the past, a presence still suffering under the praxis of the old guard, and a willing ‘neighbor’ willing to try new praxis, employing inherent intelligences and creativity. And we met for a few hours. And they progressed. And had some beans and rice, and left. And we agreed that I along with Br. O. should return to their village, on the Wednesday next.
The three of us gathered, to explore a possibility, an experiment: to see if such new technology could help facilitate education, and access to written materials, and create new opportunities to explore creativity, and to share such explorations between villages and between continents, or not. Perhaps the whole hypothesis is only a quixotic fancy from a well-intentioned but impotent muzungu. Perhaps too much bad water was reaching flood stage under a flimsy bridge. Perhaps the realpolitik of the police chief and the day-to-day village life would dictate otherwise.
The gospels do not give practical precepts; it is in their impracticality, against all perceived odds, that creativity and possibility is allowed to spark and to ignite visions impossible but much needed.
A psalm or a parable can change a life. A life can restore a community. A singularity can push the status quo into a new unknowing.
A simple gathering of “two or more” (Matthew 18: 20) can signify an expression of universality against the forces of convention and the projection of invincibility of the state of things in the here and the now.
Writes Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., of this paradigm shift backwards toward a pre-Constantine understanding of “catholic and apostolic” and “universal”:
“These Christians, who were practically contemporaries of the newly born Church, already considered her to be universal – not because of the number of her adherents but because she embraced the dimensions of humanity, itself, because no reality or human being was outside her frontiers, because she had always been present, even though her limitations as a particular historical reality seemed to indicate otherwise.” (THE COMMUNITY CALLED CHURCH, Vol. I, p. 7, 1968)
This early church professed universality “not in light of massive conversions in the future but as its permanent attribute from the beginning.” (Ibid, p. 7)
This is a signification beyond human historical and socio-political measurement. It is a signification that mystifies and confuses Marx and Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau and Jefferson and Paine and Hitler and Mao. There is no political expedience; it is, instead of an “art of the possible”, a co-creation of the impossible. It is a promise, and a shared hope. A covenant, if you will: that can be striven towards, can be occasionally made manifest, can with effort be shown by example, can be with patience ignited in others without any loss in the original source.
A simple survey of the history of Christendom, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Enlightenment and Modernity, Post-Modernity, ‘Revolution of the Proletariat’, and all counter-revolutions, shows how men move, against and away from the fallings-short of the institutions and ways of the Status quo, only to rebuild themselves into the same failed states in the years soon after: all the King’s horses and all the King’s men… Any magisterium or corporation is taken care of by those that opt to place their faith in their creations to the exclusion of the creativity of thinking away from such institutionalized reasoning and assumed wisdom.
Against the political warring of his day, within and without the Church, Saint Isaac the Syrian, from his cave, declared that:
“A man cannot receive spiritual knowledge except to be converted and become as a little child.” (Matthew 18: 3)
Therefore, said the sage:
“Walk before God in simplicity and not with knowledge.”
If Christ’s calling in Matthew 19: 21 is not to be dismissed as simply poetic allegory, but “Go and leave everything you have” – is to be taken as a calling, a radical Ausgangspunkt, how is the corporation to be thus founded and consequentially structured, how is the magisterium to be thus implemented and made manifest?
The theologian and hermit Raimon Panikkar once proclaimed:
“The kingdom of heaven is mine when nothing belongs to me.”
If this premise were to be in fact “the stone which the builders rejected” (Ps. 117: 22; old numeration), what a different society would be constructed if Man was to put honest enterprise into using “the same” … “as the head of the corner”… instead of spending time and energy in search of excuses not to, and loopholes around the consequences for not making the attempt.
Bending to Christ and his challenge to a radical love, an inclusive love, a love without expectation or planifications (“For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have?” Matthew 5: 46), we start with prayer, and before prayer with the action of forgiving any and all who have transgressed or trespassed or injured us (Mark 11: 25-6). By this action of release we make ourselves available to God and to his salvific and transformative presence in our lives and in the world, which we co-create. Without this activity, without this giving of grace: all is hypocrisy and all is doomed. For in closing ourselves off from God, by not fully fulfilling his commandment to love as He loved (John 15: 12), “we prepare,” so says Father Paul Evdokimov, “our own hells.”
And the challenge here is not to think with the knowledge which with we have been conditioned to place great promise in, the hand-me-downs from the Enlightenment, and Post-Enlightenment, and Post-Modernity, but to return to sources that defy such logical ambitions. “For,” writes Saint Paul, “the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness.” (I Cor. 1: 18)
To build community between “two or more”, to build community by going and leaving everything and then starting the project… how insanely mystically impractically beautiful?!
To build in spite of convention and conditioning. To roll the rock, again and again and again and again, into the imaginative future, without grimace or plaint. To restore the power of faith and trust placed fully in Providence.
Segundo believes that “the Christian, as the servant of God’s activity in the world, must by virtue of his doctrine go beyond doctrine and intellectual formulations.” (Ibid, p. 126) He must give testament in his willingness to risk, risk all, for after all “being a Christian involves giving up one’s life for others – nothing more and nothing less.” (Ibid, p. 91) And faithfulness to his rôle “includes fidelity to the moment of history, that is, to the hidden action of God in our world.” (Ibid, p. 126)
This moment of history is by definition momentary, ephemeral. It is not an epoch; it is not ein Reich. And by virtue of its counter-conventional nature, it is risky, existentially and silently confrontational, and thereby prone to be misjudged and feared and subsequently crucified by the established temporal order.
Quotes Merton, in one of his books, I believe Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (but I could be wrong, as I am exiled to a Trappist cloister atop a mountain, cut off from necessary reference materials at hand or a simple connection to the world wide web), a passage of Jacques Maritain that seems to underscore this divine play at work in the alternative and the strange:
“The Holy Spirit is not at work only in durable institutions that last through the centuries. He is at work also in ventures that have no future, which have always to be begun again.”
Such is the testament of the Desert Fathers, and the lives of so many martyred early Saints, and of the Apostles, the Twelve and Saint Paul, and all who carried on after. Such is the end of the monastery to Dorotheos of Gaza, and the monastery atop a mountain where Saint Isaac ended his days, finally ending his isolation. Such was the end to Eastern European Jewry for many decades. Such is the end faced once more by many Christian communities across the Levant and Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
For according to Yves Congar (or so I read once at the end of a book by Charles Cummings, O.S.C.O.), “in the Christian view of things… there are ultimately two important and absolutely supreme moments: the present moment and the moment of our death… because they are the meeting points with God.”
And since the latter is unknown to us, our focus and our immersion must be in the former, for it is in the former that we encounter the neighbor: every neighbor: the thief, the grifter, the terrorist, the junkie, the rebellious teenager, the power hungry politician, the rich man who fancies himself exempt. We stop and stare at a Magdalene, possessed by seven plus passions, and in deep need of our exorcizing love. We get the knock on the door at 4 a.m., from one of the dozen or so prodigals in our pasts, asking for twenty bucks and a place to crash “just ‘til dawn”, all sweating and scratching. We someone unconscious, along the roadside. They don’t see us: they’re unconscious. Cars keeping driving by, simple enough. A bum steps out from the corner of the corner church and begs a dollar. He needs to catch a bus to someplace better. The spouse who after dinner confesses an affair a year earlier. The brother-in-law who tries to “make a move” when nobody is looking.
It is easy enough to profess the face of God in everyone one is to meet. All post-modern spiritual “programs” account for such a platitude. It is another thing all together nurturing this conscientization into a living activating presence: one that is objectified literally moment to moment.
And in such a focused constant happening, how can anarchy of self-profit, by the individual or by the group, have time to take root? Does the salvific effect of a singular moment between two singular individuals, regardless of predisposition or calculated outcome, count, and for how much? In the matrix of Congar and in the practices put forth by the Desert Fathers, the singular counts significantly for the eschaton, significantly to the point of wholly.
And all of this swirls about in my head as I head to Lauds this morning, after yesterday and the first formation (with the two directors from Kibarizo), and my leading Br. O’s English class for the novices, with an impromptu Socratic-sort-of dialogue encounter, followed by another formation with the director, the director adjoint, plus professors, and teachers, from the primary school and the secondary institute in Butare, totaling twenty some, who braved torrential rains to come down the steep colline, to the monastery, on a Saturday afternoon off, to connect with the muzungu.
In these happenings, in the moment to the moment, in my struggling with French to find the words to transmit the information about the technology in ways that were easily digestible, in working with the novices struggling with their English to form questions to my questions and answers to my answers, in the moments I found a freedom to simply be present and in that some peace.
I did not care about long-term value, or whether the equipment would be stolen or confiscated or broken within the fortnight. I did not fidget as to whether my selection of books would be well received or perceived as some sort of forced cultural colonialism on the part of a high-minded expatriate. I simply spoke, and answered questions, and spoke some more, and walked the school folk through the use of the devices, and tried to provoke curiosity on the part of the novices and some needed lightheartedness.
And in the moment, with everyone simply being and trying and connecting, I hope some hope.
And some peace and some hope seemed like enough to build from, and to warrant Monday’s trip to Butare, and Wednesday’s climb back up to Kibarizo.
Christ does not stop at convention. He turns cold literal Mosaic justice on its head (John 8: 3-11), as he pushes beyond doctrine to transcendence and toward Truth. The woman brought before him by “the scribes and Pharisees” is declared to be “even now taken in adultery”. She does not protest her accusers. But it does not matter, for Jesus declares to her: “Hath no man condemned thee? … Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.” If Christ does not judge, and if we believe Christ to be Lord, and the Son of God, then how can we put ourselves in the judge’s seat (Matthew 7: 1-5)?
Judgment, punishment, retribution, a victor’s justice, and an eye for an eye – these play to the natural inclinations in men. Fight or flight? Fight! They serve to underscore Sartre’s claim that “Hell is the others.” Live and let die. Dog eats dog. Die, Motherf—er! Anger, and payback, and blowback, and fuck the world, fuck you!
This is manmade. And it is understandable. And it may even seem cathartic and profitable, to oneself, and by extension one’s family, one’s clan, one’s tribe.
This is encountered all the time in the politics of the special-interest group, the ethnic group, the voting block, and the focus group. But these collections of persons are naturally selfish in structure and use protectionism and xenophobia as sole motivators, with eventual necessary outbursts actualized in the pogrom and the vilification of those deemed readymade as scapegoats.
American Christian Individualism produced the noun lynching, and the term Death Row. We are the only nation in history to employ atomic weapons on two civilian populations to calculate a favorable outcome. Blood will tell. We know how many Americans died in Iraq and in Afghanistan. There is no tally for the other side, not one that readily includes all non-combatants, down to the last woman, widow, and orphaned child. Let the Bible tells us repeatedly that God favors the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor, the enslaved.
“Go, and now sin no more.” Christ pardons and through pardoning, on the spot, without any legal process, suggests a path towards rehabilitation, not only for the offender, but also for the community. Another stone rejected by the builders of our social order and culture; another exciting alternative motivating driving creating force. Another pause: to consider a radically different social reality.
Electronic tablet devices to bring books to villages in an unstable place like Masisi territory, Eastern Congo: Stupid? Foolhardy? Destined to fail? Who can really say?
But right now, on this feast day, solemn and holy, there are eighty plus books in two villages that did not exist in those two villages, a week ago. And there are men and women who took the time to learn how to use the tablet devices, in order to access the books to use in teaching their students. And they learned how to take photos are record bits of live action, to help document their villages and the education programs.
And just that made it all worth it.
To see the dictionaries, sent from America nine months earlier, still there, in tact, and in use, made it all worthwhile.
To be remembered and to be greeted in friendship…
To come together, in the moment, “two or three” or more, and to (re)define community…
Tomorrow will come. And more tomorrows will come along after tomorrow’s tomorrow. And no one knows what will come with tomorrow’s coming. But the present moment belongs to us, to share with our neighbor, and through our neighbor with God.