unless a grain of wheat
(cyprian, for Emmanuel)
There is one memory I have of Brother Emmanuel that will always be my favorite. It was one morning after Vigils––I think I was still a novice––and he and I were walking back down to the chapel together on the way to Lauds as we did most days. (Even as a young monk it did not seem to me to be a bad thing to break the Grand Silence when it came to Emmanuel. If he wanted to talk you just listen.) The moon was just setting in the sky as the sun was coming up. We had two dogs named Buddy and Scooter who adored Emmanuel, but for some reason only Scooter was with him that day. And Emmanuel looks up at that moon and then turns to Scooter and says, “Look at that moon, Scooter! I’m gonna put it in a box and show it to Buddy.” I want to say at that moment I was instantly enlightened, or at least I suspected that I was in the presence of a master of some sort, maybe a Christian shaman. The thing is, I could imagine him actually doing just that, putting that moon into a box and showing it to Buddy. If I were to write an icon of Emmanuel it would be of him holding a shoebox with the moon in it, showing it to a dog.
St. Paul in both his letters to the Galatians and the Colossians warns against being enslaved to what he refers to as “the elemental spirits of the universe,”[i] and we certainly know as Christians that we are not supposed to worship them. But, on the other hand if St. Paul is writing about them, these elemental spirits of the universe, then we can safely assume that there actually are such things––elemental spirits, some kind of intelligence or even a rudimentary consciousness about natural created things. Certainly St. Thomas Aquinas thought that even animals and plants have some share in the soul or psyche. (And, oh, Emmanuel was so delighted about the fact that Pope Francis suggested that there might be dogs in heaven! I think he was dreaming of Buddy and Scooter greeting him with their tongues hanging out and their tails wagging, ready for a ride in the bucket of the skip loader.) And neither our scriptures nor the teaching of the church ever say that we don’t commune with these spirits, live in harmony with this intelligence and these elements.
Now I realize that this sounds like a very New Age-y argument, but doesn’t Jesus himself command the sea and wind––and they obey him![ii] And what else would healings be about except that the Spirit pervades and is supreme over physical matter? I think that it is something that would actually be good to bring back into our consciousness––that there is something alive about the earth, something with which we ought to be in contact, even in conversation, in relationship, with which to walk in harmony. As the Holy Father suggests in his encyclical Laudato Sì, this is the evolution of our understanding from having dominion over the earth, to having stewardship over the earth. Then the next step, the one that St. Francis of Assisi took, is seeing creation as our siblings, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water.” This is something that a Kansas farm boy knew in his heart and in his body, which had not gotten bred out of him by sophisticated theological education nor deadened in him by our digital technological age. Emmanuel even had a sense of maybe what the hippies might call the “cosmic consciousness of all things” or, in the charismatic language that he used, a sense that all creation is pervaded by the Spirit of the living God. Or else why would he have been so keen to bless the generator or not hesitated in the least to pray over a stopped up toilet? Or else why would he have not only prayed about the rain and the weather, but even prayed to the rain? At least pray in the sense of the Romantic languages, the French prier or the Italian pregare, a request: “We’ve had about enough now.” ‘Who can this be that he commands the wind and the rain––and they obey him?’
I know this gospel story is a little unusual for a funeral, but it was the first one I thought of, the story of the disciples plucking grains of corn while they were walking through the field on the Sabbath, and then getting scolded by the Pharisees for doing it.[iii] (I actually can imagine Emmanuel being there with them and doing that, dressed in his stained cowl and a visor cap.) This story always reminds me of the phrase used in some traditions before the Eucharist is distributed: “Holy things to the holy!” Even more, it reminds me of a song I love to quote: “Everything is holy now.” If the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, what’s not holy? And if St. Benedict says that all the tools of the monastery are to be treated as vessels for the altar, what’s not holy? Holy things to the holy: when we look at the world with wonder, when we look at creation with a sense of kinship, when we see the whole world ablaze with the glory of God, what’s not holy? That’s a sacramental view of creation. That’s why we think bread and wine can be vessels of the divine, and incense and song and art can convey holiness.
And think too of how often Jesus used images from nature to convey a picture of the reign of God, the kingdom of heaven: the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, the rain that falls on the just and the unjust, the storm clouds rising in the east, the weeds and the wheat. And St. Paul continues the theme in the second reading from 1 Corinthians[iv] we heard by even referring to our physical body as a bare seed, like a kernel of wheat from which something else, our glorified body, sprouts up. As we sang in our entrance antiphon, the words of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, We are waiting for our savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transfigure our lowly bodies into glorious copies of his own.[v] And on that same theme, when Jesus is referring to his own imminent death he also compares his very self to a grain of wheat, which (as we’ll sing in our communion song) unless it falls unto the ground and dies will remain a single grain. But if and when it dies it will yield a rich harvest.[vi]
And so today we plant Emmanuel’s body like a bare seed, perhaps a kernel of wheat, in the holy soil of New Camaldoli, the consecrated ground next to the chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in this rich loamy earth of the Big Sur, over which we have learned recently that we do not really have much dominion, but with which Emmanuel communed as if it were a sister, a brother. And we watch for that day when from that bare seed of his physical being––and our own––a spiritual body will arise, “… the hour when we stand before [God], Saints among the Saints in the halls of heaven, with the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, blessed Joseph her spouse, the blessed Apostles and all the Saints, and with our deceased brother … whom we humbly commend to [God’s] mercy.”[vii] Because, as Emmanuel reminded us, the “saints are ordinary people like us only Glorifyed to a greater degree.”
[i] Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20.
[ii] Mt 8:27.
[iii] Mt 12:1-8.
[iv] 1 Cor 15:35-49
[v] Phil 3:21.
[vi] Jn 12:24.
[vii] Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation I.