STUNNED BY THE MORNING
- Kent Mayfield
Mystery is what we don’t know, what doesn’t fit, what we have not made into shape and order; it tells us that surprise is at the core of life, terrifying but also delicious
Yet this experience happens entirely within the every day…Awakening rearranges our perspective so we perspective so that we can see the of which we are a part…Everything is clear in the vertical light, unshadowed, undoubtable [in the] glory of the awn: we are charged, brightened, elevated and enlarged (143)
After a great experience of opening [of awakening]into a new way of being and looking, our task is to embody what we have found. (144)
John Tarrant: The Light Inside the Dark
I’ve always been an early riser. But, it has always been one of the great challenges of life to put the light on for the first time in the morning. Strange things happen to my eyes; I don’t see at all clearly for a bit, and I’m liable to go around bumping into things. Usually by the time I’ve made it to the bathroom the world is settling down a bit, but at first I’m so conscious of that light that I can’t- as you might say- use it to see with. After a spell, though, my attention isn’t focused on the light itself any more but on the world that the light is showing me.
It would be odd, of course, to see someone going around in broad daylight asking, “Where’s the light?” as if the light were something extra to all the things one can see, one more item to count.
The gospel stories of the Easter, however, are full of my “early morning” sensation: things aren’t clear, people aren’t quite recognizable. It would be more comfortable to stay in bed, stay back in the dark seasons, the darkness of the womb in Advent, the deep darkness of the heart in Lent, the way the unknown presses on all that we know as we feel our way along–groping, as Paul said to the people of Athens, for God even.
No, Easter as we read about it is about surprise and disorientation: a shock and amazement brought about as the friends of Jesus discover that he is not where he was expected to be. That he is not as they thought just a few dark days back. He is not a pathetic victim, abandoned by his intimates, tortured and given a slow, shameful death, beyond human repair, not a body under a memorial slab or behind a heavy stone.
And just as first thing in the morning, dyed and stained all through with night, the light you are aware of can be at once dazzling and disorienting, so with the Easter stories: What Jesus’ friends are conscious of in the misty light of day is a bewildering “otherness.” For a bit, in the disciples see Jesus, they see light going on after darkness and they experience all the strange, exhilarating and frightening sensations involved. Like staring into the sun, a storm of signs and wonders so brightly lit that it leaves them dazed and blinking, stunned by the morning, so much light that is its own kind of darkness: “light inaccessible” as Walter C. Smith’s great hymn says.
Even Jesus’ closest followers can’t see clearly in the light of Easter. Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus until she hears her name spoken; the disciples who meet him on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize him until he feeds them. For Thomas, it’s the touch of Jesus wounded body that finally brings him into view.
For me, the image that most captures the glory and the glare of Easter is the scene that brings the Easter scenario to a close on what is described as the Ascension – Jesus’ followers huddled together on the Mount of Olives staring into the sky -the moment when Jesus “goes away,” stops being the object they concentrate on itself, and becomes more deeply and permanently present: I am with you always, to the end of time, he says. He is with them as the light they see by. They see the world in a new way because they see it through him.
It makes my eyes ache to think of it, and my heart too. They have only begun to recognize the risen Jesus when he drifts out of sight. Staring into the empty sky with the sun in their eyes, would it feel as if he had never been there at all? Are they overwhelmed by the sky’s immensity, wondering where in that vast blue dome they will ever find him again.
Most of us, whether we accept the details of Advent and Lent, we know how to feel our way along, wait with Mary for the baby, follow Jesus into the desert, resist the devil’s easy consolations. None of it is easy, but all of it is comprehensible. It is grounded in human experience, within our psycho-social-emotional capacity to do.
The glory of Easter, on the other hand, erupts, runs beyond our explanations, beyond our categories of reasons, even more, beyond the sinking sense of our own lives. We know about the powers of fear and greed and anxiety and brutality and disease, powers before which we are helpless and alone. We can turn from all our unresolved losses to cosmic grief at the loss of Jesus, feel the full embrace of loss and defeat. Then, at dawn, tumbling out of darkness into broad daylight — an empty tomb, a shape still bearing the wounds that destroyed it, the man his friends watched die now walking along a roadway, eating breakfast with them on the beach–Nothing in our experience prepares us for this!
In her great poem, “Catholic,” Fanny How asks, “What can you do [with] Easter?”
What can we see with the light in our eyes?
Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century visionary, knew how to find a way forward in dazzling, even painful brightness. She lived her entire life with what she called “the reflection of the living Light” in her field of vision. She couldn’t see the form of it, she said, any more than she could stare into the sun. But rather than look straight at it, she learned how to look within it as if into a pool of water—and to watch as words and images took shape there. Every once in a while, she said, she saw a light within the light.
Charles Singer, and later Oliver Sacks, famously diagnosed Hildegard with migraine, crediting the light she saw to a migraine’s aura. Perhaps they were right. She wrote not only of the way in which the light refreshed her but also of experiencing pain so fierce she thought she would die. But whatever caused Hildegard’s vision to fill with a permanent radiance, she drew from that pool words, music, images that themselves became pools of meaning into which she lowered herself again and again.
Hildegard believed everything she saw within the brilliant light of her vision was sacred.
Maybe Hildegard has some wisdom for those of us, who surrounded day after COVID day with saturating darkness, struggle with accepting the brightness of Easter. Rather than looking straight at it, perhaps we should be trying to look within it behind it.
Behind the dazzle of Easter, however, the cross does loom dark.
Death counts still mount in New York if not in Rome and Madrid, beyond the virus, more threats come from Isfahan and there are newly discovered rape camps in Central Africa, migrant children remain incarcerated and neglected in our country and more young men of color are dead on Milwaukee streets this weekend …There can be no surplus people, those whose needs or clams we can safely ignore, the poor, the handicapped, the dying or those who are far away from us. BUT we can imagine a world where people make room for each other, buy groceries, connect daily with remote loved ones. We can envision another place where love abounds and kindness prevails.
We’ve seen the Good Friday humiliation, betrayal and murder of the Galilean, and we know too what we do to one another in our self-justifying, self-defense, our refusal to penetrate to and face our personal arrogance, our petty inner divisions and their destructive effects on community. In a time of rampant dishonorable-ness when the slick evasive marketing and massaging of the egos of the powerful that threatens public life and discourse and that has its face in a prurient, shadowed, trivial, and malicious culture that is so much a part of our daylong night-time, it is asking a great deal of us to create a counter-pandemic of generosity, outlandish to expect an upswing of delight from our harried, bewildered fellows much less imagine a light coming on, a daystar from on high dawning. I know that. I know that.
Still, in the caves of our lives, in what is terrible in our country and in our hearts, we can mine the dark.
Some years back, the novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen told an amazing story. It was not taped and it was not delivered from a text, so there is no record of it, except in the stunned hearts of the fifty people who heard it. I have thought about it almost every day since, and I have told it rarely. I tell it today so you may think of it with me, too.
Peter was a devout Buddhist. He died in 2014 but in recent years he traveled from his home in the U.S. to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Nazi death camps in Poland, dark scars on the earth where two million people were roasted because they were Jewish. On these occasions, Peter and his companions have stayed for a week at a time, wandering through the campos, sitting for long hours in prayer. Some of his companions were so oppressed by the spoor of evil there that they could scarcely rise from their beds.
One night in Auschwitz, he said, we were all gathered together in one room, more than a hundred of us, when a rabbi with us reached out with both hands and grasped the hands of the people standing next to him. Slowly, most of the people in the room began to hold hands, and then they began to sway a little, and then some began to gently dance, and then, he said there rose up in that room such a powerful joy that we were stunned and speechless and confused. Nearly every person in that room felt the sweeping joy, he said, but not everyone. Some ran out, horrified that there was dancing and joy there in the very lair of evil.
What happened that night, he asked us.
The he went on:
When we came down from the trees sixty million years ago, he said, we were naked and slow and week, and to survive we evolved superb brains and great ferocity and an endless thirst for killing, and that is why we kill, everything, even each other. We are capable of unspeakable evil. No one can be at Auschwitz and not feel evil twitching in himself. It is a place where excuses end.
But, he said, what if our moral evolution sped up now as fast as our physical and intellectual evolution has? What if this can happen to us? What might our world become if this is so?
To experience joy at Auschwitz and Birkenau, Peter told me was no “laughing matter.”
Peter and his companions, after a horrendous week, were assailed by a sustained joy that moved those who didn’t flee to join hands and gently dance, although only the joy itself knew why.
We can endure with grace and ferocious, relentless joy. We can stay in the game. In the middle of the muddle that is this world’s life, we can see things in a new light. We can be Eastered to salve wounds, break injustice, guarantee safety. We can be Eastered in joy, the irrepressibility of grace, the love and affection and laughter and holy hands of family and friends, of clans and tribes, the mad insistence of hope,
Look, I know very well that brooding misshapen evil is everywhere, in the brightest houses, the most cheerful claims of good intent, in what we do and what we have failed to do, and I know all too well that the story of the world is entropy. Things fall apart, we sicken, we grow weary, we divorce, we are hammered and hounded by loss and accidents and tragedies.
And I know that John Tarrant is right: After the glory of the dawn…on returning to the everyday world, we find that much remains the same. The dishes need to done, email messages remain unanswered, and toilet bowls need scrubbing. The basic wounds of human life remain: war, famine, human misery, sickness and death appear at every turn.
But I also know, with all my hoary, harrowed, muddled heart, that we are carved of immense confusing holiness, that the whole point for us is grace under duress. We either take a flying leap at nonsensical, illogical ideas like marriage and marathons and democracy and divinity…or we hunker and huddle and wither behind the wall. In short, I believe in believing the resurrection, which doesn’t make sense, which gives me hope.
According to one of the gospel accounts of Easter morning, the young man at the tomb told the three women who had arrived to anoint Jesus’ body that he was no longer there. Then he said, “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Remember, he told his disciples time and again that he would never leave them–that his presence would always be with them, that his spirit would remain among them.)
“Go, tell Peter, tell the disciples. Let everyone know that the work will continue.” And in that moment everything changed, changed utterly. What seemed like the end was not the end after all. The terrible had given rise to the fearsome hope that something else might be possible. A terrible beauty was born.
On Easter, caught in the first hint of dawn, what do we see? We see the things we’ve always seen: Faces of strangers and family and friends, communities within which we move, the world around us and beyond us, caught in the tentative glow of first light within the last of night’s shadows, then all washed in the incomprehensible Easter. Stunned by the morning, struggling to see every bit of what is right in front of us, something beyond curiosity or the startle of amazement, something that none of us can find words for, we look into dazzling light.
And while that light does not wash away pain nor illuminate every mystery, it can teach a great and awful lesson; it can lay bare the sacred truth that if we can celebrate grace when fear and loss and evil lurch into our lives—-as they always will —. If we can prompt surges of kindness and good humor and lean into the challenges that reveals the depths of “can be” and rigor and grit, if we can fiercely choose to face what is and determine a way forward not back to where we were, if we can welcome life’s stunning reversals, disrupt fear and isolation to focus on care and connection, day need not always fade back into darkness.
Maybe this is why those humble peasant fishermen and visionaries who watched Jesus go away, turn their faces toward the city…why with the sun still in their eyes, they are drawn beyond their fear back into the blistering life of the world, seeing the things and persons of that world in a new light, edging toward hope, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”
May we be such visionaries, one and all.