This stuff of earth matters

Popular Canadian author, Louise Penny, in her most recent book, “The Beautiful Mystery”, writes about monks living in a monastery hidden deep in the wilderness of northern Quebec. Their holy order is characterized by a vow of silence. But not when it comes to singing:

Unique to this group of two-dozen cloistered monks is Gregorian chant. Apart from constant silence, they chant their daily, round-the-clock prayers.

A rift develops in this monastic order called “Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Loups” (St Gilbert among the wolves). The conflict between those supporting the Abbot (the leader) and those supporting the Prior (choir director) deepens until one morning the Prior is found murdered in the Abbot’s secret garden. Now, this religious order ‘among the wolves’ suggests that one of monks themselves is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Some years ago, their murdered Prior had led the group in recording a CD of their most enchanted singing. The recording sold millions, and had provided enough funds to restore part of the monastery building. But apparently more had to be done.

When famed chief inspector Armand Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir visit the monastery to solve the murder mystery, they hear from one of the monks the crisis facing this ancient monastery built hundreds of years ago: the foundation is cracking, to the extent that if nothing is done soon the beautiful stone building will collapse.

They also learn that the Prior had recently tried to convince the Abbot to agree to making another recording of their popular, sought-after, Gregorian chant. Doing so could raise enough funds to meet the needs of their aging building. But that would also mean suspending their vow of silence and commitment to remain detached from the world.

The Abbot refused the Prior’s plan. He believed that God wanted them to remain true to their holy calling to observe the vow of silence. By growing their own food and doing their own repairs they would thus fulfill their mission and identity as self-sufficient Gilbertines. All they had to do, according to the Abbot, was to pray that God would provide their every need, and continue as had monks throughout their history to do what they had to do without outside contact or help.

Those monks in support of the now dead Prior argue that God indeed had provided them an answer to their prayers. Using their gift of chanting, God was giving them a way through their predicament. God was giving them the financial help, through the sale of a CD recording, to do just that: solve their need.

I haven’t finished reading this story, so I can’t tell you who dun-it! But what strikes me is that their conflict is very similar to an age-old Christian tension between flesh and spirit.

The story of Jesus turning water into wine in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) during a week-long wedding celebration suggests not either/or but both/and. Both the spiritual realm and the earthly are important. The church, nevertheless, has placed greater emphasis on ‘spiritual’ matters, often downplaying the stuff of earth.

Yet, if I remember anything from my biblical study in seminary — now, many years ago — it is this: The theology of the Gospel of John, where we find this miracle story, is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). And this theology is very much an ‘earthy’ one; that is, concepts like ‘salvation’ and ‘eternity’ are grounded in real life.

Salvation for the Jewish people was in fact experienced in the exodus from Egypt (i.e. being liberated from slavery) and in the return from exile (i.e. coming home to rebuild Jerusalem after years of captivity in far away Babylon). While throughout the Bible these places like Zion and Babylon, for example, take on symbolic weight in the poetry — especially in the Psalms and Revelation — any ‘spiritualizing’ of these places and events cannot be removed from their actual existence in world geography and history. Salvation is grounded in life on earth. It is the starting point.

Salvation, then, is not just after we die. Salvation is not merely a discussion about heaven. Salvation has just as much to do with our earthly condition and circumstance. And the Gospel message of Jesus — the good news of our faith — addresses just as much and as importantly what is going on between people and their reality on earth, as we pray every week: “Thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

The expression of our faith, then, is reflected in what we do with what we have. These things matter: bricks and mortar, soup and sandwiches, money and politics. These are not outside the scope of our concern. Nor God’s.

Martin Luther, when he wrote hymns such as ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ and ‘From Heaven Above’, he used popular bar tunes to develop the music in these, what we now consider, “sacred” hymns.

From a sacramental perspective, he emphasized that Christians ought to celebrate the Holy Communion as often as they assemble. Why? His passion about the Holy Communion — the bread and the wine — mediating the grace of God was unparalleled among the 16th century reformers.

Of course, God is not bound by any particular way of dispensing grace and forgiveness. But Christians have throughout the ages understood the special, intimate, albeit mysterious way in which the presence and love of the living Jesus is mediated through the sharing of a meal. How more common a human activity than eating!

The ordinary world matters. Material reality is spiritual. It is the starting point for people longing for an authentic experience of the divine.

And yet, to be sure, while the ground on which we stand and the flesh and bones of life are the initial places of engagement with God, that encounter then draws us beyond what is measurable, quantifiable and bound by our reality. We don’t remain stuck in tasting, feeling, touching, seeing. The Christian Gospel points us beyond ourselves to God’s reality which is not bound by human limitation.

While our earthly reality is valuable as a meeting point, a starting point, we begin a journey that continues eventually beyond this life. The wedding at Cana was Jesus’ first miracle. The time had come for Jesus to begin his journey to Jerusalem, death on a Cross, and the empty tomb of Easter. Our vision is not turned inward, ultimately. It is directed onward, outward and upward.

And yet, on this earthly journey, we return to that starting point, over and over again. Back to the table, to be renewed and fed. That is where Jesus waits for us. And spurs us on.

So do not lose heart. Jesus cares. And gives more than we could ask, saving the best wine for last. God cares about every part of our lives, even those Monday through Saturday realities that we might normally exclude from considering “holy”. And God is poised to engage and intersect our lives precisely in those moments of greatest material need as well as joyous celebration.

If anything, reading this familiar miracle story of Jesus gives me comfort and assurance that Jesus will exercise care and compassion to me not just when I’m engaging those more serious acts of piety in worship and formal prayer. But Jesus will provide grace, resources and ‘signs’ especially in the ordinary, commonplace aspects of living life on earth and in community.

And what is more, when those ordinary, material, needs of life are dedicated in service of God and for the love of the world — then I can be confident in faith. I am confident that Jesus will demonstrate the glory of God. God will provide around those very mundane, secular and at-first-glance unholy, irreverent and even jovial circumstances of life.

Open the eyes of our heart, Lord, to see your glory in laughter, in joy and in ordinary living with others. May this awareness lead us to offer your joy and love in providing real, material support in your mission to those in need. Amen.

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