Archive for May, 2021

“In the Valley of Bewilderment,” (Sermon, Trinity Sunday 2021)

When I asked Heidi about what date in May would be most helpful for me to preach, she opened her diary and began paging through. Just as she started to say, “How about – ” I said, “It’s gonna be Trinity Sunday, isn’t it?”

She froze for a moment, her smile locked in place, and I almost wondered if her internet had cut out again. Then she looked up at me and the smile became very sheepish, and we laughed and laughed.

Trinity Sunday is a tough one. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this topic and a lot of them are really not very good. Once as a student and now as an honorary associate I am asked to preach on this Sunday pretty frequently to give the rector a break from having to deal with this labyrinth of hot takes and juvenile illustrations and digging up dusty theological dictionaries to argue about obscure heresies like modalism which mattered deeply to ancient scholars but seem pretty far removed from a twenty-first century faith.

The lectionary doesn’t help. I’m convinced it offers up this passage from the Gospel of John because it’s one of the few passages that links God with Spirit through the mouth of Jesus, and we cling to that because quite frankly there’s not much clear Scriptural evidence for the Trinitarian formula. I say that to you as a deeply committed ethnically Gaelic Anglican for whom Trinitarianism is baked into my DNA.

I think it’s important to honour all of the feelings we might have around this very strange and mystical piece of our tradition. First, I want us to come, perhaps quite naturally, to the concept of the Trinity with bewilderment.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a high-ranking scholar, well-versed in the texts of his ancestral faith, but not so high and mighty as to dismiss Jesus as some backwoods preacher. Like a scholar truly worthy of the title he comes to explore a new source, a new living text, because who’s to say that wisdom doesn’t exist here? And yet at once all of Nicodemus’s knowledge seems to come to nothing, for he’s baffled – bewildered – by Jesus’s teachings. And can you blame him? I’m no closer to understanding what Jesus really means when says “born from above,” or “born again” – we often hear both translations because the Greek word Jesus uses can mean either, and was definitely chosen to highlight that ambiguity. Born from above, born of water and the Spirit, the capricious nature of the wind – another play on words, with pneuma meaning both wind and spirit – what the heck is Jesus saying here, and what the heck does it have to do with the Trinity, which is surely even more bewildering?

In a course I’m taking on the Qur’an with my friend Omid Safi, we recently discussed bewilderment as a necessary and very advanced part of the spiritual path. In the beautiful twelfth century poem The Conference of the Birds by the Persian Sufi writer Farīd ud-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, the birds of the world gather to try to decide who should be sovereign over them all. The wisest, the colourful hoopoe, leads them on a journey through seven valleys to find a mystical being to help them. Traveling through the valleys, the birds, who each represent a specific fault in humanity, cast aside dogma, reason, worldly knowledge, and all their earthly attachments, and come to the realization that all things are interconnected. After that, they enter the Valley of Wonderment, or Bewilderment, for our purposes today. In this valley, the traveler suddenly realizes that they truly know nothing at all, and that emptiness is replaced by awe.

Image description: A bush of white hellebores are at the right, with a bluish-white stone sculpture of a heron at left.

The section of the poem detailing the Valley of Wonderment sums up my feelings so well. Maybe it’ll do the same for you! In the Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpe’s translation, it is in part described thusly:

“When you arrive here in wonderment,

You arrive already lost and will be yet more lost…

If they ask you, Are you drunk or no?

Do you exist or no?

Are you within or without?

Are you hidden or manifest?

You will respond: I know nothing,

Not even the breadth of my own ignorance.

I am in love but don’t know with whom.

I am neither devout nor faithless.

I don’t know what I am.

Of my own love I am ignorant too.

My heart is both full and empty of love.”

This sense of bewilderment is not unknown to Jesus’s ancestral faith of Judaism. The 20th century Polish-American rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel called this feeling of bewilderment “radical amazement” in his book Man is not alone. There was a sense in ancient and modern Judaism that God is utterly and completely outside of us, different from us, incomprehensible to us, and of course this is very true. God’s ways are not our ways.

In this way, Nicodemus can be said to be having an authentic encounter with the divine in his talk with Jesus. He has been made painfully aware of the limits of his knowledge, and indeed actually disappears from the passage as Jesus continues to speak. This is often interpreted as a slight against his character – that he comes in darkness and goes away in darkness, but I think for our purposes today we should explore the notion that perhaps, for one fleeting moment, he does manage to enter the last valley, which is total annihilation in the Beloved.

So if you were bewildered hearing the Gospel today, and if you’re still bewildered now, you’re in good company, and for all you know you could be inches from glory.

But I want to come back to this notion of God being utterly different from us, because this is one the things that makes us different from our siblings in Judaism and Islam. Both faiths are adamant that God’s love for humankind is boundless and eternal, and that wisdom and beauty is poured out freely through the created world and our sacred texts. We Christians share these beliefs as well, but in the Incarnation we proclaim that God chooses to become like us in order to know us more deeply. And through the doctrine of the Trinity, we proclaim that God is One and yet also Three. The intricacies of the arguments we had many centuries ago over how this was constituted metaphysically seem less important than the simpler and more credal statement that God is Three-in-One and One-in-Three. It’s fun to examine from many angles, like a faceted jewel, but ultimately the pronouncement has to be taken on faith, right? You can’t exactly squeeze the Trinity onto a microscope slide and document or segment the many parts. At a certain point, one simply has to sit back and be bewildered.

But the connotations of that credal statement cannot be overstated, for in it, we’re stating that God is by nature communal. It is one thing to say that God desires covenant and relationship with us. It’s a whole other thing to say that God’s entire nature is so similar to ours that They are a being who desires and flourishes in relationship, and yet paradoxically so different that God is relationship. God’s desire for covenant and relationship is therefore a desire not only based on will but on affinity. In being in relationship with one another, in abandoning the loneliness of pure individualism, we ourselves model a God who is diverse and yet fully integrated, just as God in the incarnation learned to model what we should be like.

As humans we are unlikely to fully attain the integration that God ardently awaits within the span of our earthly years, although I maintain that many of us get the occasional spark, like Nicodemus. But perhaps it is enough to know that God desires this, and maybe on this Trinity Sunday, we can take comfort in the knowledge that bewilderment is quite appropriately the first and most devout response.

Praise be to the One who is Three, and yet One, ever more and always.

In Your Arms

In anticipation for the coming rains, with love for the Flower Moon shining behind the clouds, and with love for my dear Sufi sisters, I offer this piece, written with help from an illahi by Şerani Baba. Say hello to Cindy, my mandolin! She belonged to my father. I am beyond grateful for her voice. I also hope you enjoy the soothing sound of the rain, recorded one evening a few months ago, and some thunder recorded in a storm a couple of weeks ago. I always liked how Loreena McKennitt did this in her stunning piece “Lullaby.”

Cennet Inside You

This song was written during an attunement for one of our Zoom Sufi gatherings. After having absolutely no ideas, one of our sheikhs, happily describing the view from his window, said, “Eternity is a walk through the forest.”
“What a beautiful line,” I thought, and wrote it down.
As I wrote, I looked up and found myself captivated by the luminous face of my friend Cennet, a monumental spiritual presence who was well into the return journey toward her Beloved. I thought of how much we would miss her…and immediately thought, “We’ll need to cultivate her within us.” The next lines came then.
I debuted the song at the service and the response to it was incredible. My beloved friend Seemi immediately adopted it as an anthem, and several other friends eventually followed suit.
It is offered with the greatest love to them and to dear Cennet’s memory.

The word can (pronounced jan) is a term of endearment that means “life,” or “soul”; “canım” and “canım benim” are Turkish expressions that employ this word – they’re like “my dear,” more literally “my life.” “Cennet” (pronounced jennet) is the word for Paradise, with Edenic garden overtones.

Bismillah

This song is dedicated to friends of the Friend, near and far, and in honour of Cennet, my precious friend, who reunited with her Beloved on April 25th. I can’t quite remember when it was written but probably sometime after I returned from RumiFest in 2019. The theme that keeps returning in the right hand had been looking for a home for a long time – I had been using it in a cover version of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, which honestly seems pretty appropriate for the subject matter here, heehee.

You’ll notice that it’s part of a playlist – I hope to include more songs that can be used for turning and other meditations.