Sunday, December 14, 2008

Advent Meditation: Hearing from Where We're Placed

One does try to discern the spirit at advent time. And at other times when we are called to listen carefully—to cleanse the palate of the soul so that the important insights reach our hearts, rather than the superficial messages that bombard us all the time, all around.

I have to confess a problem, though. When I hear the men who rule us (and their epigones) preaching to the rest of us about the joys of self-abnegation during advent, I increasingly turn a deaf ear. The problem is not the message itself. It is, God help me, the bearers of that message, the ones who have for so long taken for granted that it belongs to them.

That it is to be preached by them. To the rest of us.

That phrase, “the men who rule us,” which runs through my postings: I introduced it in a poem I uploaded to this blog back last March ( That poem has a specific provenance. I wrote it late in 1990 or early in 1991, when I was invited to fly to Belmont Abbey College from New Orleans, to apply for a job at that college.

The poem articulates my experience as I flew. Surrounded by the men who rule us—sated men, talking about too many steak dinners and too many drinks. Honeying the flight attendants, asking for more magazines, men’s magazines.

I felt—I always feel—in the presence of such men, the men who rule us (and their worshipers of both genders), very much the outsider. As the poem notes, I find God outside their circles, in the honeyed humors secreted by the earth, in the mists that wreathe the grass in light.

And so my spirituality is different. It is not the spirituality of the men who rule us. Who, when they preach, seem to think that there is only one cloth from which to cut the suit for the spiritual man or woman—their cloth, cut to fit them. And then imposed on the rest of us. Whether it fits us or not. By God.

I can understand why the men who rule us preach about the virtues of self-denial. About the need to relinquish unjust power over others, to stop hoarding the goods of the world for themselves and their friends. I understand why the men who rule us read the gospels and are struck by the recognition that no one is called to lord it over others. That the bona fide messiah is the one who comes denying all messianic claims, serving rather than ruling, debasing himself like a servant or a woman and washing his’ friends’ feet.

I can see why the men who rule us (and their acolytes) think that they need that message. They do need that message.

What I cannot see clearly—God help me, because seeing this ensnares me in relentless criticism of the churches and how they work—is why the big men and big women of the world assume that this is the only message to be preached to the world. I cannot understand why the men who rule us assume that the gospel as it confronts them is gospel as it confronts the rest of us: why their message is our message, the spiritual clothes they need to wear the garb we, too, must don.

For many of us, under the rule of the big men and big women of the world, the problem is not the need for self-abnegation. It is to find a self, under all the layers of humiliation and self-doubt imposed on us by, well, the men who rule us. For many of us, the self is nowhere near so secure, so hard—so dominant—as it is in those who rule us.

Our problem is not taming the self. It is coming to see that we have a self. A self worthy of love, and worthy of giving love. A self that counts as much as the vastly inflated egos of the men who rule us.

Who write about “my wife,” as they craft their advent meditations. Who write with such astonishing, such supreme, self-confidence in their right to own—things; others. Of their right to call another human being “my” wife. Who seem sublimely unaware that, in speaking that message, they are not only illicitly claiming ownership of another human being, right in the center of their “traditional” and God-approved and society-blessed marital lives.

But that they are also acknowledging the extent to which they fit in. Without ever thinking about it. Even as they problematize the lives of those of us who cannot ever fit into the world and church they own. Because they have set up the club rules to favor themselves and to exclude us.

I am convinced that if the gospel message is to reach many of us, it has to be preached by someone other than a purple-clad dignitary on a throne, with a hat bigger than anyone else’s and a silk train encompassing a sanctuary. Who warns us about the dangers of materialism and of egoism and of serving ourselves.

It has to preached by those who have read the gospels and Rilke and who know the dangerous fatuity of everyday language with its implicit claim that some people can own other people. And the world. Their houses, cars, bank accounts, jobs. Their wives and their children. Their Jesus. And yet a Jesus who did not have a wife to call my wife. Or a bank account to call mine. Or a house of his own to renounce.

To be effective in this age (and perhaps in all ages), the gospel message has to be preached by people who know what it is to be made worthless. To be told that you do not have the right to own. To claim a place at the table. To speak God’s word or claim any ownership thereof.

To be effective, the gospel has to be preached by those who understand what good news it really announces, when it announces that God embraces the entire cosmos with love—all of us, and not just the sated and the satisfied, who are worried about self-abnegation and renunciation of ownership. A gospel that reaches people has to be preached by those who understand the need for the gospel, of the good news of God’s love reaching into the depths of the world’s misery.

To embrace not only the big men and big women of the world. To embrace all of us. In an act of astonishing defiance of how things work in this world of big men and big women on top, where goods and self-worth are assigned on the basis of merit. Merit according to the rules of the big men and big women on top.

Who apparently do not think quite as God thinks when she comes into the world ignoring the powerful and the worthy, seeking out the despised and unworthy. To embrace them in a way in which the world will never choose to embrace them. Since that is what divine love and good news are all about.