Uninhibited Communion: My Latest Theological Reflection for MAPC
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When I came to Zambia I carried with me an old, used copy of Julian of Norwich’s Showings from the Classics of Western Spirituality series of publications. To my own detriment I had never read her before, as is sadly true with most of the great Christian mystics. So, I made her writings part of my nightly devotions—though in reality “nightly” became sporadic quickly. Those early days here were difficult. I missed people with a deep burning. I missed familiarity. I had not yet gotten to know people here. I had not yet grasped my purpose in this context and calling. A year seemed like an unfathomably long amount of time. In the midst of this mindset and heartset, Julian of Norwich gave me comfort. She proclaimed and held onto divine love with a fervor and tenacity that I needed.
On one of the TEEZ exams that I often mark we have a question about what makes an apostle an apostle. We teach that it is somebody who has actually seen Jesus, as Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. If this definition is valid, then Julian of Norwich was definitely an apostle. In her visions she encountered Jesus Christ, most vividly while hanging on the cross. While she certainly saw his suffering, she was pulled most profoundly to the overpowering love expressed in that act of dying. As she goes through her other visions and presents her theology, it becomes clear that she experiences this love in intensely intimate familial and sensual ways. She is freed by it. She is able to enter into uninhibited communion with God as her father, her mother, and her lover. She writes:
As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything, and especially in these sweet words where he says: I am he, that is to say: I am he, the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessed love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who makes you to long; I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.—Showings (The Long Text) Chapter 59.
Fatherhood, motherhood, light, grace, blessed love, unity, supreme goodness, longing, desire—all of these describe the relationship between Julian and God and the intra-relationship of the Triune God.
As I went through the slow and difficult process of allowing myself to become part of community here, it was great solace and encouragement to know that regardless there could be uninhibited communion with an unconditional God. Although I never reached a point of ecstatic mysticism like that of this great English anchoress, I did begin to have what I would call experiences of mysticism of the mundane—seeing reflections of that divine love in the communities that surround me here. I saw people greeting even the strangest of strangers with expressions of the utmost respect and familiarity. “My mother, my father, my sister, my brother, my elder, my parents, my dear, how are you?” would always be accompanied with a hand to the heart or hands held together in a posture of humility. I saw already packed homes taking in nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren, and even street children simply because it was considered right to do so if there might be even the remotest chance that they would be better off than in their previous living situation. I saw churches becoming refuges for people with mental health disorders or developmental disabilities. I saw people sacrificing for each other and sharing resources because, well, if somebody is in need of something that I have, then they should receive what I have.
And of course I saw the passionate side of things. I saw friendship and romantic love blossom among people. I saw explosions of conflict between people and groups of people who cared enough about each other to be hurt by each other. I saw the grace and forgiveness people would afford each other even in the midst of these conflicts. Sometimes this came through in admonishment, sometimes in repentance, sometimes in acceptance. For the most part I saw all of these expressions of love within and amongst community being enacted without pretense and without agenda. It was part of a general ethos that people should be in community with each other by sharing the fullness of their lives without inhibition.
Now, I am aware that inhibition, anxiety, pretense, and agenda manifest very differently in different contexts. It is highly possible that because the specific community ethos here was so new to me, I viewed it with rose-colored lenses. I think the truer analysis, though, is that the observable good was so opposite of what I was used to in the U.S.A. The strengths were more obvious, as I had perhaps become desensitized to the strengths of other communities in which I have lived and loved. On the flip side, then, the relational weaknesses were less pronounced. Of course, I know many Zambians who are quick to point out these weaknesses in their own context and the strengths they have experienced or assume are there in Western societies. Thus is the nature of cross-cultural life. Regardless, the specific manifestation of community and communal love opened my eyes to manifestations of God’s love that I had previously been ignorant of.
The greatest miracle of the mundane for me was being welcomed into this manifestation of community. People here are fond of saying, “You are most welcome,” putting to rest any doubts about whether or not an invitation to enter is sincere. I was most welcomed, and as I was drawn ever more into community here I began to express community in a similar way—familial, broad, and deeply passionate. Those typically Western inhibitions and idols of independence, scarcity, security, privacy, and personal space fell away panono panono, bit by bit. Although this has begun to feel natural to me, I had to be very intentional about it in the beginning. Sometimes I still have to push myself to continually release those inhibitions. Often I falter and fall.
Even when I falter and fall, though, I do so in the embrace of communities that exercise that grace and forgiveness mentioned above. For whatever reasons those are that cause me to drop even the best devotional material or time, I put Julian of Norwich down many months ago. Because of a love for symmetry, however, I picked the book back up for this final week of my time in Zambia. Today I read this:
And when we fall, quickly he raises us up with his loving embrace and his gracious touch. And when we are strengthened by his sweet working, then we willingly choose him by his grace, that we shall be his servants and his lovers, constantly and forever. And yet after this he allows some of us to fall more heavily and more grievously than ever we did before, as it seems to us. And then we who are not all wise think that everything which we have undertaken was all nothing. But it is not so, for we need to fall, and we need to see it; for if we did not fall, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we are in ourselves, nor, too, should we know so completely the wonderful love of our Creator.—Showings (The Long Text) Chapter 60
I especially cannot get this line out of my head—“And then we who are not all wise think that everything which we have undertaken was all nothing.” She describes perfectly the plight of the perfectionist, of the one who fears failure while at the same time viewing every accomplishment as a failure because of its imperfection. She describes the person who has incredible difficulty accepting God’s grace and accepting that God’s grace is real. She describes me. And then she explains that our failures allow us to know more fully “the wonderful love of our Creator.”
I have made blunders in my time here, some significant and some minor. Some can be chalked up to cross-cultural misunderstanding, others to the seemingly natural mistakes we make on the daily, and still others to my own personal failings. Those who know me well know that I have an unhealthy tendency to dwell on mistakes and to be driven by the guilt thereof. I can honestly say, though, that this year in community has been deeply healing. The grace and love afforded to me by fellow community members has opened my eyes and my heart. I have slowly been able to move from a place of fearing to act because of a fear of failure to a place of stretching and entering into communion with others without inhibition. Through those who surround me I have indeed experienced more fully the wonderful love of our Creator.
I have a great task before me now. For, the time is quickly approaching for me to reenter the community ethos of my context in the U.S.A., the particular strengths of which I mentioned I have grown desensitized to. My prayer is that my time in constant communion with Zambians will have given me a new baseline and perspective, a new starting point to be able to observe the beauty that is there. I also pray that I will never lose these internalized learnings of uninhibited communion. For, if I am able to hold within myself the strengths and challenges of each context, then I will have that much clearer of a picture of the community practiced by the Triune God and promised for the Kingdom.