Post Nubila

Volendam.  It’s been over ten years, but the first time I visited this quaint, little harbor town in high school, it was a cold, cloudy, rainy day.  This time it is bright, sunny, and cool.  The waters in the harbor are calm, unlike the choppy waters more than a decade ago.  As we park the car in order to stretch our legs and go to the walkway along the shore, we park next to a little vehicle with a large decal of Marilyn Monroe on it.  We stop and I have my picture taken “with Marilyn”.

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Although the town is what steals my heart, Marilyn Monroe has been an inspiration to many.  In an interview in 1988, Enya credits her song “Cursum Perficio” to Marilyn Monroe, specifically to Monroe’s house.  As she elaborated in the interview, “‘Cursum Perficio’ comes from a documentary about Marilyn Monroe. It means ‘Here ends my journey’ and that saying was engraved in the entrance of her last house. But that’s how it often happens. Those two words haunted me for weeks and then I finally used them in a song.”1

The lyrics in the song are minimal as Enya repeats the Latin phrases several times over, re-recording over her voice to create her distinctive style, but the lyrics and the sound is appropriate to the subject matter.  The song strongly implies a sense of the afterlife, with Enya’s haunting sounds making one feel almost like one is journeying through Dante’s spheres of the afterlife, particularly in the lines which follow “my journey ends here”, which are translated into “a word is enough for the wise; the more one has, the more he desires”.  This appears to be a warning to others based on Marilyn Monroe’s own troubled personal life, which patterns that of many celebrities.  The closing lyrics, “Post nubila, Phoebus. (in) Aeternum”, are most suggestive of Enya’s hinting at what lies beyond death, translated as they are into “after the clouds, the light. Forever.”  But although this may be how Enya and her lyricist Roma Ryan translate the Latin into English, I find it curious that the name Phoebus is kept capitalized, with it being another name for the Greco-Roman god, Apollo – the embodiment of “sun and light”, among many other things.2  

Although Roma Ryan provides the English translation of “Phoebus” as “light” in general, I find the capitalization of the noun to be significant.  Jesus Christ eventually replaced Apollo as the Ultimate sun god.  So perhaps Roma Ryan’s ambiguity with the capitalization of Phoebus as general light is intentional, referring not specifically to Apollo, but to the Source of light, whoever or whatever that might be.  And if that is the case there is no reason not to interpret “Cursum Perficio” as referring to Jesus Christ and the eternity with him that his followers wait for.

We celebrate Easter because we believe that Jesus did not remain dead, but rose to new life.  And when he conquered death and was resurrected, “He also said to them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem…He led [his disciples] out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them.  And while He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:46-47, 50-51).  Although we believe, based on this passage, that Jesus Christ “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father”, we also wait for His return to earth when “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb.  The nations will walk in its light and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:23-24).

In my last blog post, I wrote about being obedient to Christ’s path of humility, even to the point of death on a cross.  But such humility only makes sense if there is a resurrection to new life to follow, and Christ’s resurrection is bringing about new life in all areas of life, here on earth.  Followers of The Way, as early Christians were called, suffered persecution under the Roman empire for centuries until Constantine’s edict of toleration.  They were persecuted largely because it was believed their presence angered the gods.  But the ascended Jesus Christ overthrew the Roman gods.  In our lives, too, we have to pass through the clouds before we can experience the light.  For followers of Christ, such light isn’t received only after we die, but can begin to be experienced now on earth and into eternity.

Earlier, I compared my two experiences at Volendam.  As I reflect on them now, they were strangely prescient.  What many people don’t know is that the first time I lived in Germany in high school, I felt a strong sense of depression.  Everything in Germany was so gray, as exemplified in my first experience of Volendam, and I was so resistant to what my time there had to offer and teach me.  I know that many co-workers and friends may have been puzzled by my subsequent decision to go back to Germany many years later.  But I had to go in order to know if in the intervening years I really had grown and changed as much as I felt I had.  Sure enough, my second experience in Germany was much more pleasant, as typified by my sunnier experience at Volendam.  Although I still occasionally experience bouts of melancholy, and although I am far from being perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect, I have learned to stop resisting the transforming work of the Holy Spirit and to be more accepting of how He brings change in my life.

As Teilhard de Chardin exhorts, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”3  Most people reading that passage from de Chardin tend to emphasize the slowness of God’s work, but I would suggest that we also stress that the work is God’s to begin with.  As I mentioned previously, we tend to want to change each other, perhaps not trusting that God is capable and is enough, but it is so much more freeing if we allow God to do His work without trying to control the process.  For we are each of us “on the way to something unknown, something new”, and “only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.”4  In the meantime, let us rejoice in the Christ whose resurrection and ascension is the firstfruits of new life.  And let us patiently wait for the fullness of time, when the time is right, for Christ to return and make His home among us for all eternity.  After the clouds, the Light that is Christ…Forever.

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1 “Cursum Perficio” Enya.sk. Web. Accessed on 3 March 2018. <http://enya.sk/music/watermark/cursum-perficio/&gt;

2 “Apollo” Wikipedia.org. Web. Accessed on 4 March 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo&gt;

3 “Prayer of Teilhard de Chardin” IgnatianSprituality.com. Web. Accessed on 4 March 2018.  <https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/8078/prayer-of-theilhard-de-chardin> 

4 Ibid.

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Wonderful and Terrible

One of the reasons I chose to become a spiritual director is due to it’s emphasis on prayer and listening.  In high school and college, I had made some rather serious blunders in my attempts to speak God’s truth into the lives of others and, instead of improving the situation, probably only made it worse.  Further, I myself have often been the recipient of well-intended advice which was motivated more by an attempt to change me than out of love and understanding.  I find that humans in general, and Christians in particular, are often hasty in providing advice to others.  The beauty of spiritual direction is that advice, if given at all, is done so sparingly and usually only after much holding of the other person in a ministry of prayerful listening.

Just as my zeal committed me to speaking truth out of a desire to shape others in my image, we all have reforming tendencies. 1 Dorothy L. Sayers, writer of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series in the early to mid-twentieth century was also an astute observer of human nature.  Having lived through World War I and writing shortly before the start of World War II, she wrote about the “modern phenomenon of ‘the impulsive reformer, over-sensitive to suffering, impatient of the facts, eager to set the world right by sudden overthrow.'” 2 Most of us will not turn into Hitlers, Stalins, or Mussolinis of the world.  But still, that seed of a desire to shape others and our spheres of influence into our own image is there.

I am reminded of another novelist who had a keen insight into the nature of evil who wrote in the same circles, namely J.R.R. Tolkien.  Like Sayers, he was deeply influenced by his Christian faith in how he understood human nature.  In one scene in particular in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Galadriel has the opportunity to take the One Ring for herself and to use its power to her own ends.  As she tells Frodo, who offers it to her freely, “In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!” 3

Her proclamation came to mind one day when I was reading a passage of Scripture from the Old Testament.  I was struck by the parallels with Joel 2:1-2, 10-11: “Let all the residents of the land tremble, for the Day of the Lord is coming; in fact, it is near – a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and dense overcast, like the dawn spreading over the mountains…The earth quakes before them; the sky shakes.  The sun and moon grow dark, and the stars cease their shining…Indeed, the Day of the Lord is terrible and dreadful – who can endure it?”

Before comparing the passage in Joel and the quote from The Lord of the Rings, I wish to reflect on the nature of this “terrible and dreadful” Day of the Lord.  Rather than these adjectives being inherently negative, Michael Mears Bruner notes that “the word terror” can be used “to indicate something dreadful or something that causes great fear, as opposed to something necessarily evil.”  Further, he also points out that our contemporary association of it with something evil has “robbed it of its deeper and richer original meaning…It can either be glorious or demonic, salutary or despicable, depending on who inflicts it.” 4 That last phrase, “depending on who inflicts it”, is key to understanding the similarities and differences of the two passages.

To begin, given the above definitions of “terrible” and “dreadful”, it is not inherently the case that the Day of the Lord is a negative event.  Although there are many other passages of Scripture that reference the Day of the Lord, at least in this passage it appears in the sense that Michael Mears Bruner has in mind: as causing great fear.  This is also the case with the passage from The Fellowship of the Ring.  Despite Peter Jackson’s cinematic vision of the event, there is nothing in the book that indicates that Lady Galadriel turns into an evil version of herself.  Rather, the book describes a light that shines on her from her own Elven Ring, but it is not the nightmarish, almost ghoulish, scene from the movie.  Lady Galadriel describes herself in terms of being “beautiful” and “fair”.  The terribleness in both instances can be viewed in terms of a holiness that is fear inducing.  Both instances are reminiscent of God’s passing by Moses, wherein only a glimpse could be had of God’s holiness.

But there is a significant difference between the two passages.  Unlike God, Lady Galadriel is not perfect.  Although not a fallen elf like the orcs, Galadriel is in Middle-Earth in exile and capable of falling under the Ring’s influence.  And we see the more than a little of the self-justifying reformer in her temptation to take the ring for herself.  Although she might overthrow the Dark Lord Sauron, she would set herself in his place.  However, God is perfect in his holiness, righteousness and justice.  As Jesus commands his disciples, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

I am celebrating Lent this year by reading through Malcom Guite’s book on poetry, The Word in the Wilderness.  A few early poems were on Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness by Satan.  What I find curious is that Jesus, as God, would have been well within his rights to do the things Satan tempts him to do, to satisfy his hunger, to elevate Himself, and to expect His Father to protect him.  And yet, Jesus chooses the way of humility.  For he came to earth to die on our behalf.  As the apostle Paul wrote in his book to the church at Philippi about why Christ came to earth, “And when he had come as a man in his external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death – even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

If Jesus had chosen to exercise his authority over creation, or had he refused to be led to the cross, then he would have been like Galadriel.  He would, like the Lady of Lórien, been one in whom all would love and despair.  As Malcolm Guite elaborates, “If Jesus were simply set before me as an example of heroic human achievement I would despair.   His very success in resisting temptation would just make me feel worse about my failure.  But he is not only my exemplar, he is my saviour; he is the one who takes my place and stands in for me, and in the mystery of redemption he acts for me and makes up, in his resistance to evil, what is lacking in mine.” In other words, if Jesus had abandoned His mission, then he might still be all-powerful, but he would no longer be my Savior.

After Lady Galadriel resists her own temptation, there is a beautiful moment both in the book and the movie versions.  After the light fades, “‘I pass the test,’ she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.'” 6 In today’s vitriolic climate, it can be tempting to hold onto perceived or actual wrongs and believe that “suffering has it’s privileges”. 7  At moments, I myself am tempted toward such self-righteous justification.  But it occurs to me that saying is true only if the one who is suffering is perfect, which none of us are except Jesus, the God-man.  We have all contributed to the suffering of the world and brokenness in our relationships with God, others, creation, and ourselves. Like the Lady of Light we must be willing to diminish, or die to self.  Jesus told his followers, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34).  Denying ourselves, losing our life for our Savior, is not what this world wants to hear.  Humility is not valued in a society which preaches ambition, success, and material prosperity.

As we observe the season of Lent and journey toward Good Friday, let us hear the words of Paul who exhorts us to “Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.  Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7).  Jesus told his disciples the Father is perfect, and as one who shared the very nature of God, Jesus was also perfect.  But he chose the way perfect way of humility and grace, even though it led to a hill called Calvary and to an instrument of torture and death called a cross.  May God grant us the strength to be followers of that Way and remain our true selves in Christ.

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1 For fans of the Enneagram, I use the term “reformer” intentionally.  Although Type Ones are often labeled “reformers”, I by no means wish to implicate only those types as I find in each type a tendency to want to remake things in their own image when in their unhealthy and unredeemed states.

2 Colin Duriez, Bedeviled: Lewis, Tolien, and the Shadow of Evil (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 88. eBook.

3 “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Wikiquote.org. Web. Accessed on 19February 2018.<https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Fellowship_of_the_Ring&gt;.

4 Michael Mears Bruner, A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 144.

5 Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2014), 11.

6 Wikiquote.org, ibid.  Cate Blanchett, who plays the character of Lady Galadriel in the movie version, portrays well the sense of melancholy and relief that comes with dying to self, and the sense of diminishment associated with decreasing so that God might increase (see John 3:30).

7 One of the differences I observe between activists of the past and of today is the basis for their activism.  Whereas in the past, social justice was often based on the image of God in the lives of those suffering injustice, today it is often based on a sense of entitlement as a result of suffering.  I would posit that such a shift is not entirely surprising given that the privileged modern Western world is largely immune to the types of suffering that has been experienced by most individuals throughout human history and even today by the less advantaged majority world.

Wisdom’s Stance

Owl“The Owls” by Charles Baudelaire

Among the black yews, their shelter,

the owls are ranged in a row,

like alien deities, the glow,

of their red eyes pierces. They ponder.

They perch there without moving,

till that melancholy moment

when quenching the falling sun,

the shadows are growing.

Their stance teaches the wise

to fear, in this world of ours,

all tumult, and all movement:

Mankind drunk on brief shadows

always incurs a punishment

for his longing to stir, and go.

“Mankind drunk on brief shadows / always incurs a punishment / for his longing to stir, and go.”  In what ways do you find yourself “longing to stir, and go”?

Proverbs 1:7 claims that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.  Charles Baudelaire, although a troubled soul, finds that owls teach “the wise / to fear, in this world of ours, all tumult, and all movement”.  What connection do you find between the spiritual practices of silence and stillness and growing in wisdom?

In this season, how might you resist the tendency to constantly be on the go and create margin in your life for stillness?