levelling down

(fr Cyprian)


(Ezekiel’s first vision)

I see the same tension running through all three of our scripture readings today. First of all we get just this little snippet of the prophet Ezekiel.[1] It’s from Chapter 2, and it’s very tame. But just before it, in the very first chapter, we have already had Ezekiel’s vision of the four creatures, and then the wheels made out of beryl, and the wheels within the wheels; and the dome made out of crystal and the sapphire throne; and something like a human form with amber and fire and splendor all around. It’s at that point the prophet Ezekiel throws himself to the ground in awe. That’s the authentic “fear of the Lord” that the Bible speaks of––that kind of take-your-breath-away awe that happens when we come up close and personal with incomprehensible grandeur and splendor and power. The Jewish tradition had such a feeling of awe regarding these strange visions of Ezekiel that they thought laypeople shouldn’t read or study this text before they were thirty years old. And yet we approach it and read it rather fearlessly, casually, sometimes with something approaching apathy.

The tension that I think runs through all three of these readings is something like this: on the one hand, in this reading from Ezekiel, there are these great heavenly visions; on the other hand there is plain old humanity in all its fragility. (Ezekiel uses the phrase “Son of Man”­­—in the NRSV translated as “O mortal,” like saying, “And you, mere human…”—99 times.) So on the one hand, there is this ordinary mortal who has thrown himself on the ground in fear and trembling; but on the other hand there is the Spirit of God who fills him and tells him to “stand on your feet!”

And then we have this section from Paul’s Second to the Corinthians,[2] which coincidentally comes right after Paul has spoken about his own visions, about being caught up into the third heaven, and hearing things that must not and cannot be put into human language. He says he can boast about a man like that he says (most scholars think it’s Paul talking about himself), but not about anything of his own except his weakness. I do not exalt myself, he says. Instead he was given this skolpos in his flesh, the Greek word which is usually translated a “thorn,” but could also be like a stake, an angel of Satan to beat me. For centuries people have speculated what this thorn was. Was it lust? Was it some kind of physical ailment? Whatever it was, the purpose it served was as a reminder that left on his own he was nothing; that without spirit, flesh is fragile. This theme runs all through Second Corinthians. Remember that marvelous image near the beginning of this same letter, …we have this treasure in clay jars so that it be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (2 Cor 4:7). So on the one hand you have this glorious vision; on the other hand you have a man totally aware of his own weakness. It seems irreconcilable and yet here he is. And that’s the tension we live in too.

And in some way it is the same theme in the Gospel.[3] The Nazarenes knew Jesus according to the flesh, just an ordinary guy, a craftsman–a tekton. Even that he is called “son of Mary” instead of “son of Joseph” seems to be a derogatory thing, perhaps a thinly veiled insinuation that he was illegitimate. They couldn’t see him as the Messiah; they couldn’t see him as being favored by God. But this is the extraordinary thing about the Gospel: the whole thing is a story of there being no separation now between these seemingly disparate elements––the dusty roads of Palestine become the golden pathway of heaven; and the fragile flesh becomes a precious vessel for the divine.

My friend Aaron was here recently, who works in future planning for the government of Singapore, and goes to high level leadership conferences all over the world. He was telling us about this phenomenon called “leveling down.” That’s what can happen when we are trying to make an “even playing field,” especially in societies where one culture or race has been oppressed. The temptation and the danger is that, instead of lifting someone else up, we level ourselves down, and we wind up leveling everybody and everything down too. This is a very politically incorrect thing to say but this can also be the down side of consensus––no one gets threatened, no one gets challenged, all of which can lead to a kind of triumphant mediocrity. But in some way not every opinion has the same value, because if knowledge that is cut off from its metaphysical roots has an equal voice in the consensus, knowledge that is cut off from spiritual truth is the criterion of values, it winds up undermining true authority. As Ali Lakhani wrote, “It mistakes the average for the norm.”[4] The same thing with the church: when we lower ourselves to the worldly standards of a purely human society, when we cave in to expediency and compromise our values, when we sell out to power and money, our evangelization is just propaganda with no real authority, and our evangelizers are like dancing bears entertaining crowds. And same for us mock: God forbid, if monasticism should ever get cut off from its spiritual purpose, it would just be silly and sad. Saint Benedict actually has a good maxim in this regard. He says that we should arrange everything so that the weak nothing to run from but the strong have something to yearn for.[5]

The criterion for any true norm has to be rooted in the Spirit, in transcendence, in spiritual values, and not merely on earthly ones. Whatever the average is, the true norm for humanity is that we were made in the image of God and are destined to move from image to likeness. The true norm is that we are destined to be participants in the divine nature. The true norm is that we are meant to “share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity,” frail as it is. We have to make our decisions based on our having been made in the image of God. It’s that kind of thinking that can hold together both the Son of God and the Son of Man, and can imagine that the Word, the divine Logos, was made flesh. Real authority, the authority of a genuine prophet, comes from this, the ability to hold together the divine and the created without leveling down God or exalting the merely human. This is the voice of the prophet, to live in this tension.

Speaking of prophets, and particularly poignant to think about this on Independence Day weekend, I ran into this quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recently, from a sermon he preached in 1965 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, entitled “The American Dream.” In it he was speaking about this concept of the imago Dei–the image of God. He says the imago Dei is “the idea that all people have something within them that God injected.” He’s very careful to say that this doesn’t mean “that they have substantial unity with God” (he must have been thinking of the Nicene Creed!), but it does mean that every person “has a capacity to have fellowship with God.” That’s the norm. And this is what gives human beings a uniqueness; this gives each human a worth and a dignity. And he says that “We must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God.” You either are or you aren’t. Everyone is made in the image of God, just as much as everyone else! And he prays that “We will know one day that God made us live together as brothers [and sisters] and to respect the dignity and worth” of each human being. This is still a countercultural message, but has been the clear and consistent message of the church. It’s not the average, but it’s meant to be the norm. And when Christianity speaks this truth, this is its real and prophetic voice—that all people are made in the image of God and should be treated accordingly. Whatever we think the American Dream is, it has to be attenuated by this truth.

A woman asked me once, “You’re always talking about the dignity of the human person and how beautiful we are and how good we are, made in the image of God. Well then, why do we say before communion, ‘Lord, I am not worthy…’?” It was one of those moments when if I had thought about an answer I wouldn’t have been able to give one, but instead I just sort of blurted out, “As soon as we say, ‘I’m unworthy,’ God says, ‘Yes you are!’” It’s like Ezekiel throwing himself on the ground and in the next instant the Spirit saying “Stand up!” It’s like Paul hearing, in spite of the thorn in his flesh and his fragile earthen vessel, ‘My grace is enough for you. It’s like a tekton from Nazareth being the messiah.

The Gospel of Jesus invites us to draw near to Mount Zion, the fearful untouchable mountain, but always remembering that it is still a fearful mountain and so to approach with reverence and awe. The Gospel of Jesus invites us, as Paul says, to gaze with unveiled faces, but always to remember that it is a privilege granted to us. The Gospel of Jesus invites us to serve the Lord without fear, but to remember that we are servants. The Gospel of Jesus invites us to participate in the divine nature, but to remember that divinity is not something to be grasped at, only granted to us if we empty ourselves. And the Gospel of Jesus also invites us to recognize that we are not only in the presence of God, but that we are the presence of God, and to fearlessly be that presence of God. In some way the mystery of the vocation of a prophet or an apostle lies in this, that not only is the good news proclaimed to the poor and the humble, but it is the poor and humble who in turn are called the proclaim the good news to the world. As Paul says, he has chosen the lowly who are small in this world. If we remain humble, if we accept our humanity in all its fragility, if we hold together both the delicate vessel of our humanity and the awesome divine energy with which it is filled, that’s when the strength of Christ will work in us, that’s when we can radiate the beautiful face of Jesus to the world, that’s when we will speak with true authority. Then they’ll know that prophets have risen among them.

[1] Ez 2:2-5

[2] 2 Cor 12:7-10

[3] Mk 6:1-6

[4] Ali, 111

[5] RB 64:19. Actually I turned this around from its usual translation; he mentions the strong first.

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  1. Powerful
    I will meditate on “we are the presence of God” and “I am not worthy” -“yes you are!” For a week at least
    Thank you Father. I am full now

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  2. If this article truly represents the theology of this hermitage, can not wait to attend a first time retreat… thanks!

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