Archive for September, 2012
Like a Little Child
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 23, 2012
Jeremiah 11:18-20 Mark 9:30-34 Psalm 54
In our reading from Mark, The disciples are arguing about who would be the greatest. Jesus says that the greatest must be like a little child. And a little further in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that we need to be childlike in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. What is it about children that is such a heavenly quality?
I think the most endearing quality about children is their innocence. It’s really hard to try to define just what innocence is. I see it in their eyes. The eyes of a child are so open and big. Then there is their sincerity. Children say exactly what they feel. There is no subterfuge, no cunning, no pretense in a child. Along with their sincerity, children are so emotionally open we always know their emotions. They are quick to laugh, they cry openly, they get mad, and they haven’t yet learned to disguise their emotions. And children give unconditional love. They love their parents, their playmates, they love everyone. When a child loves you, you know it. You feel it. And they draw out these qualities out in adults. We respond in like kind when we deal with children. Finally, I would say that a child’s love extends to everyone. Children don’t have prejudice or discrimination. They don’t know race; they don’t judge others by wealth; they reach out to strangers the same way they do to family members. And it is to a parent’s alarm that children will talk to strangers in, say, a shopping mall. Children need to be taught not to talk to strangers. And children also are taught about racism. I think of that song from South Pacific, “They Have to Be Carefully Taught.” It is for these reasons that Jesus blesses children and states that we all must become like children to enter the Kingdom.
Jesus is innocence itself. And we become innocent as we let Jesus into our heart, and as we learn to follow Jesus’ leading. As innocence itself, Jesus is often compared to a lamb. We heard this in our Jeremiah reading this morning. There we read a prophesy about Jesus,
But I was like a gentle lamb
Led to the slaughter.
I did not know it was against me
they devised schemes
William Blake captured that illusive quality of innocence in a poem about a lamb. In this wonderful
poem, Blake compares the lamb with childhood and with Jesus. Hear Blake’s simple lines about
the simplicity of innocence:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing woolly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee (THE LAMB).
But this innocence of children doesn’t stay. As children grow up, their innocence begins to fade. They become teens and then adults, and the beauty of their early childhood has yielded to the self-governance of adulthood. This transition is symbolized by Adam and Eve leaving the innocence of the Garden of Eden. So from early infancy, we develop our own rationality and begin to govern our own lives. Here proprium begins. This transition from the innocence of childhood into adulthood reminds me of a beautiful Robert Frost poem. It’s called “NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY.” Frost talks about the early golden buds that become flowers and then leaves. The early beauty of the flower and bud fades almost as quickly as it is born. And Frost bitterly comments that nothing gold can stay.
Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf’s a flower
But only for an hour
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief
So Dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
But this isn’t the end of the story. Innocence does not leave us altogether. It remains in our hearts and at certain times comes out again. The early love and trust of childhood remain with us and so Swedenborg calls these states remains. These remains stay with us—sometimes deeply buried under our adult personalities, sometimes shining transparently through our adult personalities. I will go further. In fact, innocence—real innocence—is a property of maturity. It is a quality of advanced maturity more than it is of childhood. The innocence of childhood is a passing gift. The innocence of adulthood is lasting and chosen. Swedenborg calls childhood innocence the innocence of ignorance and adult innocence the innocence of wisdom.
It’s hard to talk about just what innocence is. But for Swedenborg, it is a specialized term and he does define it. We can think of childhood when we listen to his definition because some of the qualities he describes fit with childhood. For Swedenborg, innocence primarily means to be led by God, not by self. Furthermore, innocence means acknowledging that all goodness comes from God, not from self.
Those who are in a state of innocence attribute nothing of good to themselves, but regard all things as received and ascribe them to the Lord; they wish to be led by Him and not by themselves; they love every thing that is good and find delight in everything that is true, because they know and feel that loving what is good, that is, willing and doing it, is loving the Lord, and loving truth is loving the neighbor . . . (HH 278).
Acknowledging that everything good is a gift from God, lifts us up out of ego. The cravings of our egos and the lust for wealth are what keep God out of our consciousness and hearts. When we acknowledge that there is a God, and that we aren’t it, we are beginning to enter the innocence of wisdom. We no longer take credit for our accomplishments. We no longer think of ourselves as superior to others. We feel as one with our neighbors. We put God in the center of our lives and ask for His guidance. This lifts us out of proprium, or the attitude that we are self-made individuals. Getting ego out of the way allows God to flow into us with His Divine Love.
As they love nothing so much as to be led by the Lord, attributing all things to Him, they are kept apart from their own (proprium); and to the extent that they are kept from what is their own the Lord flows into them (HH 278).
Heaven can be called being in God. The very heat and light there is God’s own Spirit. To the extent that we let God into our lives, we are in heaven’s light and heat. To the extent that we let God into our hearts we are in heavenly peace and joy.
Because innocence with the angels of heaven is the very being of good, it is evident that the Divine good that goes forth from the Lord is innocence itself, for it is that good that flows into angels, and affects their inmosts, and arranges and fits them for receiving all the good of heaven (HH 282).
Another poem by Blake seems to talk about God’s influx as the essence of heaven. It talks about God giving off heat and light and about our need to learn to bear those qualities. The poem is called “THE LITTLE BLACK BOY:”
“Look on the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives His light, and gives His heat away,
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.
“And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
“For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear His voice,
Saying, ‘Come out from the grove, my love and care
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice’,”
So innocence for Swedenborg is the acknowledgement that everything good is from God. When we acknowledge this, God can enter our consciousness and our hearts. To the extent that God is in us, and we are in God, we are in heaven—because heaven is nothing else than God’s Spirit flowing into every angel’s soul. It is this state of spiritual attainment that the prophet Zephaniah speaks of when he says, “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD . . . I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the LORD” (3:9, 12). Calling on the name of the LORD, and trusting in the name of the LORD means committing all our lives to Him, and letting Him rule in our hearts and minds.
When we choose to let God into our hearts, then we become innocent angels in the heavens. Just as little children follow their parents’ guidance, we will trust in God’s guidance. Just as little children don’t calculate wealth, we will be content with what we have. Then all the qualities that endear us to children will be our qualities. We will be like the children that Jesus says will inherit the kingdom of God. Or as Blake puts it, God will call to us, saying,
‘Come out from the grove, my love and care
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice’,”
Dear Lord, We ask for your guidance as we seek to do your will. Lead us into heavenly peace; guide our steps in the ways of righteousness; and enlighten our minds to understand your will. As we let go of our attachments to the perishing things of this world, open our hearts to receive the eternal goods of your kingdom. For we seek a home that is everlasting as we pilgrimage here on this transitory earth. We know you are ever with us, but we can stray from your care and love. Bring us back to an awareness of you when we are tempted to turn away. In you we place all our hopes, dreams, and joys. Be our God for ever and ever! Amen.
Who Is My Adversary?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 16, 2012
Isaiah 50:4-9 Mark 8:27-38 Psalm 116
If we trust in God, who can harm us? If we trust in God, what can harm us? The Psalmist describes a dire and deep distress of the soul:
The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came upon me;
I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the LORD:
“O LORD, save me!”
And the Psalmist tells us that God, ever faithful, heard his cry for help:
I love the LORD, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
All: Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
And Isaiah gives us the same assurance:
Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced (50:7).
Using language borrowed from law-courts, Isaiah continues to praise God for guarding us from all harm.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me (50:8).
Is there, then, any adversary to fear? Jesus tells us that we have only ourselves to fear. In Matthew 10:36, Jesus says, “A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” And shortly after that He says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This line parallels the line from Mark we heard this morning,
Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:35).
These lines taken together tell us that our enemies, that is, the members of our own household, are our very selves. The only thing we have to fear is ourselves.
What can this possibly mean? I think that this brings us back to our readings from St. Bernard that we heard last Sunday. Bernard described 4 stages of spiritual development. These stages began in nurturing and caring for ourselves and they ended in losing ourselves in God. Furthermore, in the final stage we love ourselves in God, so self isn’t entirely abandoned. Bernard writes,
When shall this flesh and blood, this earthen vessel which is my soul’s tabernacle, attain thereto? When shall my soul, rapt with divine love and altogether self-forgetting, yea, become like a broken vessel, yearn wholly for God, and, joined unto the Lord, be one spirit with Him? I would count him blessed and holy to whom such rapture has been vouchsafed in this mortal life, for even an instant to lose thyself, as if thou wert emptied and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love; it is celestial.
Bernard is considered a mystic, as he talks about a person having a direct experience of God. Swedenborg, too, is a mystic, and Swedenborg’s description of loving God is very much like that of Bernard. Swedenborg, too, talks about losing self in God. He says,
angels, as well as men, have what is their own (proprium), which is loving self; and all that are in heaven are withheld from what is their own, and so far as they are withheld from it by the Lord are in love and wisdom (HH 158).
for it is heaven to them to be withheld from self (HH 161).
This brings us back to the problem of self that I have been looking at over the past several weeks. The way I am seeing it now, I see Bernard’s early stage of spiritual growth as agreeing with Jesus’ statement about losing one’s life for His and the Gospel’s sake. While self-love and self-care are good and necessary for our early development, they are but a foundation for further development. Soon, we care equally about our neighbor, and extend to our neighbor the same healthy love that we show ourselves. More and more, our focus becomes other-oriented until we find that last stage in which we lose ourselves, as Bernard says, “emptied and lost and swallowed up in God.”
But as Bernard and Swedenborg both say, we do not stay here. This is where I find a profound and wonderful comment on life from Swedenborg. He tells us that angels as well as people will find themselves in times of deep union with God and times of distance from God. And like the seasons, which are now beginning to change, to alternate between these feelings of intense love and less intense love.
Angels are not constantly in the same state in respect to love, and in consequence in the same state in respect to wisdom; for all their wisdom is from their love and in accordance with their love. Sometimes they are in a state of intense love, sometimes in a state of love not so intense. The state decreases by degrees from its greatest degree to its least. When in their greatest degree of love they are in the light and warmth of their life, or in a clear and delightful state; but in their least degree they are in shade and cold, or in an obscure and undelightful state. From this last state they return again to the first, and so on, these alternations following one after another with variety (HH 155).
Like so much in Swedenborg, this description of the life of angels is not just limited to angels. I think a little introspection will show us that we, too, go through similar alternations of more intense love and nearness to God and less intense love and more distance from God.
Always the rationalist, Swedenborg gives us a reason for these spiritual seasons. It is our proprium, or our sense of self-love, that draws us away from the rapture of being filled with God. And as our proprium relents its hold on our soul, we open up again to being filled with God’s love and wisdom. But it is to be said that these cycles are all cycles of love. We are drawn to self because we love what is ours. And we leave self because we love, too, what is of God.
Angels, as well as men, have what is their own (proprium), which is loving self; and all that are in heaven are withheld from what is their own, and so far as they are withheld from it by the Lord are in love and wisdom; but so far as they are not withheld they are in the love of self; and because every one loves what is his own and is drawn by it they have changes of state or successive alternations (HH 158).
“A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will find it.”
And furthermore, there is a benefit to these spiritual changes. Through these alternations of state, we come to recognize and feel what goodness, love, and innocence are like. We sense heavenly feelings better. And we more readily open ourselves to receive God’s inflowing life, love, peace, and wisdom.
They are in this way perfected, for they thus become accustomed to being held in love to the Lord and withheld from love of self; also that by alternations between delight and lack of delight the perception and sense of good becomes more exquisite (HH 158).
There’s no right or wrong, good or bad about these cycles. We are moved by love to involve ourselves in self-love and then to return to God-love. In both ways it is love that moves us and there are enjoyments to be found in both. However, I should add that when we are filled with God, the loves we feel are much more intense, peaceful, and even delightful. As Swedenborg says, through these alternations we become accustomed to being held by God in heavenly states. As we grow accustomed to being held in heaven, or in God–the two mean the same thing–then the words of Isaiah become increasingly meaningful.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me (50:8).
The only threat to us is our selves, and our own loves. It is only the worldly self, the lower self, the proprium that draws us away from God and heaven. But even in doing this, proprium teaches us to be held in God. From delight to delight our pathway is ever upward to God and ever upward to heaven. For as Bernard says,
I would count him blessed and holy to whom such rapture has been vouchsafed in this mortal life, for even an instant to lose thyself, as if thou wert emptied and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love; it is celestial.
Lord, we give you thanks for your continual love and care for the whole human race. Although we seek you with our whole heart, we know that there are times when we fall away from you and engross ourselves in selfish and worldly desires. Yet we know that you remain constant, constantly loving us, constantly drawing us toward you like the unseen currents in the ocean. Give us patience when we fall away, and give us hope that we will soon respond to your unceasing love and return to your presence and your heavenly joys. For in you alone will our soul find rest, peace, innocence and tranquility.
Taking Care of Ourselves
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 9, 2012
Isaiah 35:4-10 Mark 7:24-37 Psalm 125
This morning’s Bible readings are about healing. In our reading from Isaiah, we heard about healing people:
The eyes of the blind shall be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a dear,
and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy (35:5-6).
And we heard about healing the earth:
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs (vs. 7).
And in our reading from Mark, Jesus healed a little girl possessed by an unclean spirit, and he healed a man of deafness and gave him speech.
Caring for our health is both a spiritual and a natural concern. We need to care for ourselves in order to be of service to others and ultimately to be of service to God. For Jesus tells us that, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Caring for ourselves is a healthy form of self love, I think. And this includes caring for our bodies, and living a healthy natural life in the world.
We need to care for our bodies because our bodies serve our mind and spirit. We are essentially what we think and love. And our body acts to serve our thinking and desires to bring them into act. Swedenborg tells us,
It is known that every one’s quality is determined by the quality of his understanding and will; and it can also be known that his earthly body is formed to serve the understanding and the will in the world, and to skillfully accomplish their uses in the outmost sphere of nature. For this reason the body by itself can do nothing, but is moved always in entire subservience to the bidding of the understanding and will, even to the extent that whatever a man thinks he speaks with his tongue and lips, and whatever he wills he does kith his body and limbs, and thus the understanding and the bill are what act, while the body by itself does nothing. Evidently, then, the things of the understanding and will are what make man; and as these act into the minutest particulars of the body (HH 60).
So we will want a healthy body in order for it to serve our soul’s wishes. We need a healthy body to serve a healthy mind. So we can take pleasure in good and healthy food, in order to nourish our bodies, which in turn serve our souls.
One who is in merely external pleasures, makes much of himself, indulges his stomach, loves to live sumptuously, and makes the height of pleasure to consist in eatables and drinkables. One who is in internal things also finds pleasure in these things, but his ruling affection is to nourish his body with food pleasurably for the sake of its health, to the end that he may have a sound mind in a sound body, thus chiefly for the sake of the health of the mind, to which the health of the body serves as a means (AC 4459).
In Swedenborg’s system of Biblical symbolism, the vision of renewing the desert that we heard about in Isaiah refers to renewing the outer level of our personality. It means bringing healthy modes of life into our day-to-day relationships. For the land signifies our behaviors and the emotions of our lives. Renewing the land signifies letting God’s Spirit into our minds and hearts and bringing spiritual life to the desert of our lower nature, or natural level. This also is what Jesus’ healings mean. Jesus’ healings showed His love for the human race. It is God’s nature to relieve human suffering. But the healings also depict healing the human soul of the infirmities that would block God’s inflowing love and life.
To all appearances, we are the agents of this renewal. Although it is God alone who heals, renews, and regenerates, we need to act with God in this process. Even as God comes to us, and regenerates us, so we need to turn to God and make room for His Holy Spirit. We need to act in accordance with God’s promptings in order to care for our soul’s health. So I’ll call this process showing love for ourselves for the sake of God.
Taking care of ourselves in a spiritual sense makes our souls a home for God. We love God when we live in a Godly fashion. God is loving, gentle, and kind. And so when we follow God, we treat ourselves lovingly, gently, and kindly. So we can love ourselves, and treat ourselves well as temples in which God’s Spark dwells.
St. Bernard wrote a treatise on Loving God that revolves around self-love. He describes a four-stage process by which we come into relationship with God. In the first stage, we love ourselves. Like Swedenborg, Bernard says that we begin our spiritual life by caring about ourselves only. But this is not seen as wicked or evil, but rather as a first stage in a four-step journey. So Bernard tells us,
But nature is so frail and weak that necessity compels her to love herself first; and this is
carnal love, wherewith man loves himself first and selfishly, as it is written, ‘That was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual’ (1 Corinthians 15:46).
But very quickly, this love expands to include our neighbor.
‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’. And this is right: for he who shares our nature should share our love, itself the fruit of nature.
And Bernard allows us to enjoy and celebrate who we are, provided we extend the same privileges to our neighbor,
He may cherish himself as tenderly as he chooses, if only he remembers to show the same indulgence to his neighbor.
This seems to me a good interpretation of the injunction to love our neighbor “as ourselves.” As we cherish ourselves, so we cherish our neighbor. This is all included in the first stage of love.
In the second stage we begin to love God because we need God’s help. We are hit with afflictions and calamities in life, and we turn to God for help.
So when man’s strength fails and God comes to his aid, it is meet and right that man, rescued by God’s hand, should glorify Him, as it is written, ‘Call upon Me in the time of trouble; so will I hear thee, and thou shalt praise Me’ (Psalm 50:15). In such wise man, animal and carnal by nature, and loving only himself, begins to love God by reason of that very self-love; since he learns that in God he can accomplish all things that are good, and that without God he can do nothing.
So our self-love causes us to turn to God. And God is faithful and gracious to us, giving us what our soul needs.
In the third stage we begin to love God because of who God is. We come to know God’s graciousness through the many prayers we pray in times of distress. Our experience of God teaches us about God’s nature. And we come to love God for who God is.
But when tribulations, recurring again and again, constrain him to turn to God for unfailing help, would not even a heart as hard as iron, as cold as marble, be softened by the goodness of such a Savior, so that he would love God not altogether selfishly, but because He is God? Let frequent troubles drive us to frequent supplications; and surely, tasting, we must see how gracious the Lord is (Psalm 34:8). Thereupon His goodness once realized draws us to love Him unselfishly, yet more than our own needs impel us to love Him selfishly.
In this third stage, we love God not out of necessity anymore. Bernard says, “No longer do we love God because of our necessity, but because we have tasted and seen how gracious the Lord is.”
But the fourth stage is most remarkable. And this brings us back to our topic this Sunday. In the fourth stage, we love ourselves for the sake of God. In a sense, we lose ourselves in God. But this causes us to view ourselves in an entirely different way. We love ourselves in God. Bernard talks about both losing ourselves in God and also loving ourselves in God. In the fourth stage of love, a person “does not even love self save for God’s sake.”
Swedenborg seems to agree with this final stage of spiritual attainment. We are all here for the sake of serving our neighbor and for serving God. And self-care means bringing ourselves into a condition whereby we can serve others and serve God. Our self-care is for God’s sake and for our neighbor’s sake. And for their sake we love ourselves, our health, and our souls.
One who is a spiritual man . . . regards the health of the mind or soul as a means for the acquisition of intelligence and wisdom–not for the sake of reputation, honors, and gain, but for the sake of the life after death. One who is spiritual in a more interior degree regards intelligence and wisdom as a mediate end having for its object that he may serve as a useful member in the Lord’s kingdom; and one who is a celestial man, that he may serve the Lord (AC 4459).
Although it is only God who gives us our natural and spiritual life and health, we need to join God in co-creating our spirit. In this sense, we are the custodians of our well-being. In this sense, we are the ones who need care for our spiritual well-being and our natural health. We need to love ourselves in order to keep ourselves a holy temple in which God can dwell. Then we will be truly happy in God and with ourselves.
Dear Lord, help us to be good stewards of the gifts you have given us. May we take care of ourselves as well as we do others. And may we care for our neighbors with the same concern and solicitude with which we care for ourselves. You have told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. May we be given to love ourselves so that we may care for your divine spark that dwells in the depths of our being. And may we be given to care for our neighbor as well, for whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to you.
Breaking Up Complacency
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 2, 2012
1 Kings 19:1-18 Matthew 8:23-27 Psalm 88
The path of spiritual attainment is not always a smooth, straight, path. It is not always peaceful. In fact, it can, perhaps must, be accompanied by distress and conflict. In our Old Testament reading this morning, the prophet Elijah stood in the presence of God. But before he stood in God’s presence, he was reduced to a state of utter despair. He came to a broom tree, sat down, and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough, LORD, take my life.” And it was in this condition of utter despair that God appeared to Elijah in the form of a soft, still voice. And there are times when the currents of our life become furious storms and, like the Apostles, we cry out to God, “Lord, save us!”
There is a good reason why spirituality often exacts a high price from us. When things are going our way, we get complacent, self satisfied, and forget about spirituality and our continual need for God in our lives. There is a poem of Wallace Stevens that illustrates this idea well. I have been reading it for 25 years and it still moves me. In this poem there is a woman who reflects on mortality and the good things of this earth. Yet her reflections are qualified by her complacency with the good things of earth she knows. So the poem begins:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe . . .
There are a couple things I would like to emphasize about this opening stanza. First, the woman is complacent with her peignoir, coffee, oranges, and sunny chair. She has all the comforts of this life, and they have made her complacent with life. All these good things “mingle to dissipate/The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” I take this line to mean that she has no place in her world for religion, called by the poet, “The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” And with no religion in her life, death is something fearful, called “the dark/Encroachment of that old catastrophe.” Without spirituality, death is a catastrophe. It means the end of all those good things of this world with which the woman is so complacent. This woman would like the things of this world to equal the eternal blessings that only spirituality can give. And she resents religion:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any other balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
She wants to cherish the things of the earth like the things of heaven, in fact, claims that the things religion teach do not equal the beauties of the earth:
She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophesy,
Nor any chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
However, content as she is with the beautiful things of this world, there is still something missing: “She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.’”
The poem never gives her anything more than the transitory, passing things of the world. Her contentment with the things of the world has rendered her spiritually blind. So, too, do we all have the potential to lose ourselves in the world, and to forget about the spiritual things that really matter. The truths about God that we learn in early childhood can become covered over with selfish concern and worldly interests. When this happens, we need to be shaken out of our complacency. We need to pass through sorrow, and trials in order to wake up to spirituality. When we have been brought through distress, the truths which are stored deep within us come to light:
These are stored up, and not manifested until he comes into this state; which is a state rarely attained at this day without temptation, misfortune, and sorrow, that cause the things of the body and the world, and thus of man’s own, to become quiescent, and as it were dead (AC 8).
Swedenborg refers to these shocks to our system as temptations. In his system, temptations are more than just struggling against our craving for chocolate when we are trying to eat healthy. Temptations are more than just trying to resist bad impulses. They are mortal struggles in which our very lifestyle is threatened. In temptations, we let go of our worldly inclinations, and open ourselves up to God’s inflowing life and love. We are shaken out of our complacency and our consciousness is lifted up to spiritual issues. When this happens, the truths we have learned cease to serve our own glory and become serviceable to God and our neighbor. Before temptation, the truths we know, which are vessels that receive God’s life, are turned away from God, toward self.
When therefore these vessels, which are variable as to forms, are in a contrary position and direction in respect to the life . . . it may be evident that they must be reduced to a position in accordance with the life, or in obedience to it. This can in no way be effected so long as man is in that state into which he is born, and to which he has reduced himself; for the vessels are not obedient, being obstinately resistant, and opposing the heavenly order according to which the life acts; for the good which moves them, and with which they comply, is of love of self and the world, . . . Wherefore, before they can be rendered compliant and fit to receive anything of the life of the Lord’s love, they must be softened. This softening is effected by no other means than by temptations; for temptations remove what is of self-love and of contempt for others in comparison with self, consequently what is of self-glory, and also of hatred and revenge arising therefrom. When therefore the vessels are somewhat tempered and subdued by temptations, then they begin to become yielding to, and compliant with the life of the Lord’s love . . . (AC 3318).
When we have been shaken up enough, we begin to look at ourselves and our place in the world differently. Our personality changes. When we are seeking glory and power, we are savage, competitive, and harsh. When we have been broken down by temptations, our whole personality changes. “He is afterward gifted with another personality, being made mild, humble, simple, and contrite in heart” (AC 3318).
I remember when I first finished my Ph.D. program. My head was full of a multitude grand theological theories, historical details, and cultural creations. But where my own faith was in all this, I didn’t know, or care. I was also drinking alcoholically. At that time, I thought that what I needed was a full-time university teaching position. Then I could continue to drink and theorize about religion and have the respect of a university position behind me. But this didn’t happen. I ended up in a state in America that was the third lowest in education. There was no university in the city. There was no library to speak of. There were a whole lot of bikers and rednecks who cared little for the things I cared most for. I used to sit in a bar and stare into the crowd, unable to imagine where I was. I found out later from a waitress that she though I was high on drugs because of that blank stare.
But what happened transformed me for the better. Being forcibly removed from the university and all its theorizing made me take a look at myself. I turned within and asked myself what I could take from my education and make my own. I began to form, or reform, a personal belief system. And as you all know, losing a teaching job in Florida is what led me to quit drinking. In the rooms of AA, I learned a whole new way of approaching the world. All the ego and perfectionism, and insecurity that drove me to drink was undone. In my 12 years in Florida, I became a new man. A better man.
This transition period was not easy. Most of my ideas about the kind of life I should be living were challenged and changed. This change was pretty much forced on me. I wouldn’t have freely chosen it. But I feel that where I am now is better for me—and those around me—than where I was then. Those truths were reduced into a greater place of compliance with God’s inflowing love than they were when I had just graduated. My personality did change into a more accepting, more mild condition.
This is the kind of distress that spirituality can bring upon us. This is the kind of change that only hard knocks can bring about. This is the power that shakes up our complacency and self-glory and lifts us into spirituality. I think that this process is what the Swedenborgian poet Edwin Markham has in mind when he writes:
Defeat may serve as well as victory
To shake the soul and let the glory out.
When the great oak is straining in the wind,
The boughs drink in new beauty and the trunk
Sends down a deeper root on the windward side.
Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture,
Sorrows come To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
(“Victory in Defeat”)
Dear Lord, We know that our spiritual journey is not always smooth and straight. We know that there can be difficulties for us to overcome. We know that we may go through hard times and trials. But these struggles are all for our spiritual welfare. Even as we know that we may find hardships, we also know that we can become complacent with the good things you have given us. We can forget that all of our blessings come from you. We can forget to thank you for the good things we enjoy. We may even forget our utter dependence on you and your leading. It is in times of distress that we remember you and look for deliverance from you. May we not need to await misfortune in order to recognize your gifts and your care for us. May we always be mindful of your love, and may we always give you thanks.