The Shape of Perfection
Readings: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, John 20: 19-31, Heaven and Hell #56 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Artwork by Bronwen Henry, www.bronwenmayerhenry.com
This text appears in this spot in all three of the lectionary cycles, so basically, this is the reading that always appears the week after Easter. Often times it causes us to consider the intersection of doubt and faith. Today, however, we will focus on Jesus, and what it means that he appeared to the disciples, not transfigured and whole but with wounds on his hands and feet and on his side.
It might, at first, seem that his wounds were retained only as a help to us poor humans in believing the unbelievable. The disciples were afraid that they were seeing an apparition, a ghost. Being able to touch Jesus, and to see the evidence in his body of what they had witnessed happening to him, helped them to understand that it was Jesus himself that stood before them.
But when we go a bit deeper, this appearance by Jesus has some really interesting implications. It leads us to ask: Is it by our wounds that we are known? Is it by our wounds that we can connect with other people? Is it by our wounds that we can believe in the transcendent? And if so, what does this say about God, about the wounded-ness of God?
Naturally, we are not used to talking about God in this manner. Theologians, preachers and liturgists have often used the word “perfect” to describe God, and lots of other words besides that imply the perfection of God like unchanging, omnipotent, supreme. Swedenborg was certainly among them, often using the world “perfect” to describe the Lord, as well as angels and heaven.
It is important, however, to understand the way in which the word is used. From a Swedenborgian perspective, we can’t have a conversation about the perfection of God without taking about the “universal human,” (or as previously translated, the “Grand Man.”) From Heaven and Hell #59:
“….heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual…Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human—“divine” because the Lord’s divine nature constitutes heaven.”(1)
The vast embodiment of God in reality takes the form of a universal human being, from which heaven takes its form as a universal human being, from which heavenly communities take their form as universal human beings, from which individual angels take their form as individual human beings. And because all things earthly take their existence from a spiritual inflow, we too (as angels-in-training) take our human form from the universal human shape of God.
This certainly urges us to recall Genesis, and how human beings were created, in that story, in the divine image: So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them. (Gen 1:22)
And here we are given our first hint that when we think of this universal human form of God, clearly, it is beyond our earthly framework. For example, both male and female are created out of God’s one divine image, not to mention all of the normal and expected variation in human form. When we think about the universal human, it doesn’t appear that we are supposed to just take an earthly idea of the human form and make it enormous, or perfectly beautiful or powerful and say that this is God’s form.
Of course, it is tempting to do this because when some universal truth is beyond our earthly ideas, it very easy to default to an ideal, to our own personal concept of what perfection is, because what else would God be except for the most beautiful perfect thing we can imagine? Except that, when Swedenborg actually describes what makes perfection, it is actually something quite a bit different than simple beauty. Further from Heaven and Hell:
…The reason that so many varied elements act as one in an individual is that there is nothing whatever there that does not contribute something to the common good and do something useful. The inclusive body serves its parts and the parts serve the inclusive body…they provide for each other respectively, they focus on each other mutually, and they are united in the kind of form that gives every single component a relationship to the inclusive entity and its well-being.”(2)
It is worth noting that the more members there are in a single community and the more united they are in action, the more perfect is their human form. This is because variety arranged in a heavenly form makes perfection, and variety occurs where there are many individuals.(3)
So here, whether we are speaking either about communities or individual bodies, we are seeing a more nuanced idea of what perfection is and how it relates to the universal human. In what we just read, there are two important ideas. The first is integration: every single component is in a relationship to the inclusive entity and its well being. The second is unity of purpose: the more united in action the components are, the more perfect the form.
From this we see that the perfection of the universal human is not in any way an aesthetic determination, but rather a functional one. It depends upon integration and unity of purpose, not upon beauty or wholeness or one specific ideal.
Let’s think this through in terms of an example: have you ever seen athletes who are competing in the ParaOlympics? Perhaps basketballers with their super-fast wheelchairs, or runners with custom prosthetics? What they are able to do is amazing. Often times their prosthetics seem like an organic extension of their bodies because they are (just as we discussed above) integrated and unified with the function of that person’s body. Components that we might otherwise call “non-human” are in a perfect relationship with the other parts of the “human” body. According to the tenets of heavenly perfection, these “disabled” bodies are in perfect human form, because the various parts of their bodies, natural or otherwise, are usefully and seamlessly inter-related and inter-connected. I think one might even be able to say that they are more perfectly engaged with the universal human form than myself, for example, even though I have what is understood as a whole and abled-body, because on my worst days, I do not support the integration and purpose of my body; sometimes I ignore it, abuse it or despise it, as many of us do.
This is why disability theologians have called out a too close identification between tragedy and disability, the idea of “physical disability as travesty of the divine image.”(4) Throughout the ages, physical disability has been connected to sin, or conversely to virtuous suffering. Either way, it has been considered an obstacle to be endured, and an impediment to participation in the divine image. But of course, thinking about disability in this way obscures the fact that the perfection of the universal human form is a question of integration and unity of purpose, not of aesthetics or ideal. The universal human was never about aesthetics, about perfection from sameness, but about how various disparate things come together, and about the inter-dependence that is formed between them.
Even prior to today, I’ve already preached before about the Swedenborgian theological idea that “variety makes perfection.” That the perfection of something is increased the more various its parts. But we haven’t explored as deeply why and in what way variety contributes to perfection. Why is variety and difference so important to the reality and embodiment of heavenly perfection? I believe that it is because when there is variety, there are more different ways for perfection to be achieved. So, here is the third leg in the heavenly-bar-stool-of-perfection: first, integration, second, unity of purpose, and third, increased possibility. Perfection comes from an integrated unity that is born out of the beauty of potentiality. It does not have an orchestrated or preferred outcome; it is organic and it is particular and that is what makes it real.
So, what of the wounds of God? How do they play into what we have been exploring here? Jesus’ body was “a body reshaped by injustice” (5) as many bodies are, by disease, violence, time, and chance.
Nancy L. Eisland, in her book, The Disabled God, writes:
“Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are, incorporating the fullness of human contingency and ordinary life into God. In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected savior, calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection to God, their own salvation. In doing so, this disabled God is also the revealer of a new humanity. The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that true personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.” (6)
The revelation of true personhood, or a conscious and engaged participation in the universal human, must contain all of our experiences with disability and contingency, because Eisland continues “our bodies participate in the [image of God], not in spite of our contingencies and impairments, but through them." (7) This makes total sense in light of the notion of heavenly perfection: the universal human form is manifested by striving to integrate and unify what “is,” not by striving to eliminate what “is” in order to reach what “could be.” Thus, disability represents not brokenness, but rather, holy possibility. The wounds of Jesus prove that the universal human is not prevented from manifesting until something broken is fixed, but rather that the image of God incorporates and uses whatever is happening in service of connection and integration.
And, lest I mislead you with my example of the disabled athletes from earlier, it is important not to unconsciously make the image of God about excellence, achievement or “overcoming,” but rather about surviving in, as Eisland calls it, “a simple unself-pitying honest body, for whom the limits of power are palpable but not tragic.”(8) Overcoming cannot erase the difficulty of disability, but still difficulty is not the same thing as tragedy. In the wounds of Jesus we see this: it’s not that Jesus was excellent at not dying, or even that he triumphed and overcame death, it is that he survived a vicious and brutal act and proved that thriving, proved that living, is still possible in the face of difficulty. The universal human is not aspirational but pragmatic; it blooms fully wherever it is planted.
Thus, the experience of disability does not take away personhood, does not prevent participation in the universal human. And it is not that we must be martyrs and saints, and pray for suffering so that we may prove our faith, prove our mettle. Rather, knowledge of Jesus’ woundedness, woundedness that was incorporated into the resurrection, helps us to see that the divine image contains not only beauty and power but also integrity: wholeness-in-what-is. Eisland quotes a women who suffers from multiple sclerosis, who in contemplating her journey said: “I’d take a cure but I don’t need one.” When the perfection of the universal human is about the possibility inherent in unified integration rather than in aesthetics or excellence, or in the erasure of difficulty and challenge, we see how fully God really is with us, wherever we are, however we are. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Do Not Hold On To Me
Readings: Isaiah 42:5-9, John 20:1-18, Secrets of Heaven 2916 (see below)
See also on Youtube here
Thumbnail photo: Johannes Plenio on Pexels
Dear Friends, how wonderful it is to be together on Easter after two years of celebrating Easter online. I cannot be more grateful for the ways that you have continued to show up for our community during these past two years. And boy, what a two years it has been!
I don’t know about you but I certainly do resonate with Mary Magdalene, wandering around crying outside of the tomb, knowing that something is off, something big and strange has happened, but doesn’t quite know how to process it. Where is Jesus? Where have you taken him? Please tell me where you have put him!
We ourselves might well likewise be asking these days: Where have you taken my stability, my certainty, my energy, my faith in humanity, my hope for a better future? It’s been a tough few years, full of loss and change. We’ve had a lot revealed to us, and this revealing is still happening. We are discombobulated. Recent articles point to the uptick in crime during the pandemic, we note a decline in teenage mental health (likely exacerbated but not caused by the pandemic), we note seemingly intractable political divisiveness, we note the rise of brazen authoritarianism around the world, we note a closing window of time to mitigate climate change.
Yes, we are back together, but we also may well feel traumatized and off-balance and anxious, and thus Mary is our perfect avatar today.
And yet, the bleakness that I have just described is not the only story. According to the World Happiness Report, and quoted as follows (on Twitter) by University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant:
The untold story of 2021: people became kinder. Global rates of helping strangers, volunteering, and giving to charity are nearly 25% above pre-pandemic levels. The dominant response to suffering is not selfishness. It’s compassion. The worst of times bring out the best in us.
The resurrection of Jesus tells the same story, a story in which trauma, violence, and cruelty do not have the last word, a story in which God births life within that which seems dead, a story that allows for hope where we did not dare to have any.
And what a balm it is to hope. In the face of all the suffering in our lives and in the world, brought so quickly and acutely into our awareness now via our newsfeeds, what a relief to know that we can hope in humanity, that overall, when tested, humanity reacts with compassion over fear and selfishness. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that is the case.
And so we resonate also with Mary’s tearful surprise and joy: Rabboni! Teacher! Life appears into a space where all seemed lost, where it seemed impossible.
But almost as quickly as that joy is expressed, Jesus appears to put a damper on it. Do not hold on me, he says, the greek implies a kind of clinging. On the face of it, it seems callous - why curtail Mary’s joy? Why prevent her from embracing her beloved teacher, it seems such a natural and poignant impulse. And it was certainly not because Jesus didn’t want to be touched - he later would invite a doubting Thomas to touch his wounds. Jesus gave Thomas what he needed in that moment, and likewise Jesus gives Mary (and perhaps us) what she needs in her moment as well, as much as we might not want to hear it.
A natural reaction to good news in the midst of a crisis is the hope that things can now go back to what we considered to be normal. To the extent that a crisis, by definition, is an interruption of a preferred state, well, of course we want to return to that preferred state. Remember life before covid existed? Before the loss of 980,000 Americans and 6.2 million people worldwide? Many of us would give much to go back to that time.
But we can’t. Not only because time only flows one way, but because we have been changed by our experiences. We have been changed by what we have seen, we have been changed by what has been revealed to us. The fragility of our democracy and a peaceful world order, the depth of systemic racism and discrimination, the inter-relatedness of our supply systems, the nearness of many to hunger, homelessness, and loneliness. And to the many who had never noticed these things before, we have had our privilege revealed to us as well. We can’t go back to the way things were, and we shouldn’t want to.
Easter Sunday was never meant to erase Good Friday. So it is my preference not to describe Jesus as conquering, defeating, or vanquishing death. He did die, he didn’t escape it. We are *supposed* to remember what happened to Jesus at the hands of the powerful, even on this day. What he did do though, was demonstrate that death, that suffering, is never the final word. This is what we celebrate. We celebrate that global rates of compassion are up 25% and did we have any right at all to expect that, to hope for that? We celebrate that people of good conscience put on masks and sacrificed gathering together for the sake of each other’s health. We celebrate that healthcare workers and teachers worked twice as hard to take care of us all and our children, and scientists doubled down to develop a vaccine at lightning speed. We celebrate scores of people who showed up for each other, who created ways to support each other. These are miracles.
Because this, again, is the resurrection story writ large. Jesus rises from the tomb inside our own hearts and minds when we take the realizations that crisis has created within us and we use that insight, these new hearts of flesh, to make things better. Jesus did not rise from the dead to make us happy; he did it so humanity would understand that even from the shame and the pain of the crucifixion there could still come life; that God’s divine design never leaves us anywhere so dark that light cannot exist.
So, the resurrection that we celebrate today is not only a joy but a challenge. For Mary, she would come to understand that Jesus couldn’t stay, and that it would be up to Jesus’ followers to build a movement that embodied Jesus’ teachings. And now we, in the face of our own resurrection, our own return to the somewhat familiar (for now), what will God’s challenge to us be? If, in the moment of embracing Jesus, Mary dared to hope everything would be as it was, Jesus gently reminded her that she was to take this miracle and live it forward, not backward. And so it is with us, in every resurrection of life that we experience, large and small, God is calling us into new life, and that new life gives us an opportunity to love more and better and stronger. As we heard in our Swedenborg reading, we live out the Easter story on a metaphorical level over and over with each crisis in our lives; in our tradition we call that regeneration, and the rest of the world might call it spiritual growth. Either way, it is God’s gift to us. In our Isaiah reading, God has new things to declare; the question is are we listening?
Mary, to her credit, listened to Jesus right away, when he told her not to hold on. I’m quite sure I would have needed more persuading than that. But the text then tells us that "Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” May we all be as responsive and resilient as she.
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Secrets of Heaven #2916
The reason it means life…is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection… Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated they die as regards their former self and rise again as regards the new.
Readings: Psalm 139:1-10, Heaven and Hell #265 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Photo by Nicole Avagliano: https://www.pexels.com/photo/milk-way-2706654/
Welcome to our fifth and final installment of our Lenten series Grounded: Goodness by Design. Today’s installment is titled TBD: An Exercise in Not Knowing. (TBD is of course, an abbreviation for the phrase To Be Determined).
Now, I’ll be the first to say that this makes me extremely uncomfortable! One of the foundational tenets of the Swedenborgian tradition is that faith is a belief in concepts that we understand. Swedenborg was very critical of what he called blind faith, a belief in mystery that we do not understand. Much of Christian history, especially before the scriptures were widely available, rested on those in authority telling people what they should believe, and that they should believe, regardless of whether any of it made sense to them. Swedenborg instead posited that rather than spiritual things being an inherent mystery, spiritual things are inherently understandable. He wrote:
It is, however, a common saying that no one can comprehend spiritual or theological matters because they transcend human understanding. Yet spiritual truths are as comprehensible as natural ones. And if they are not clearly understood, still, when they are heard, it falls within its scope of the intellect to perceive whether they are true or not. This is especially the case with people who have an affection for truths.(1)
I much prefer this vision of things. I have no interest in a relationship with a God who is all mystery. That kind of God seems unpredictable, capricious and entirely “other.” I don’t believe a loving God would set things up that way. A loving God would provide for a pathway for us to have a sense of place in the universe, as sense of knowing who and what God is, a sense of resonance for the way things are, a sense that there is enough likeness between God and human that there actually can be useful relationship.
However, Swedenborg also was clear that since we are not God, we will never be able to completely understand the infinity of God, the whole of God. There are limits to being human. God is everything and we are not. But, the main point is that we are not supposed to experience God’s transcendence as something that makes God impenetrable or inscrutable. God wants to be close to us, and closeness requires some level of resonance and understanding.
So, we are to love truth, and the understanding of truth, and the sensing of truth, while at the same time recognizing that there is always more to learn, that we are earthly and fallible and limited. We are not to grasp at certainty, as a bulwark for our ego and sense of superiority. Our understanding of truth is a gift to give us a sense of place and home, rather than something we should twist to serve power and ego.
In the practice of Lent, a time of reflection, openness and curiosity are very important. If we think we know what we will find out before we start, there is not much use to the process. So, we will end our Lenten series this year with a time of settling into the space of not knowing, of getting comfortable with recognizing there is much beyond us, and this is a good thing.
Now, this has some relationship to Buddhism (which is the theme of series) because it is a practice of Zen Buddhism to meditate upon statements called koans. (Koh-an) These statements are deliberately perplexing and paradoxical, but they are not designed to trap the mind but rather to free it, to invite the contemplating student to step outside of the dualistic framework that might be holding them back from spiritual progress. Sometimes this is called the Great Doubt or the Great Inquiry.
For us right now, I’m not going to appropriate the practice of koan meditation, because it is actually a highly developed and varied practice, and koans are given to students of Buddhism by trusted teachers at specific points in their spiritual development. This is not for me, in our space and context, to take on. But, I think we can be inspired by the intent of the koan, to introduce a pause, and an openness, in our thinking. We can accept the invitation to let go of the comfort that knowing the answer might provide.
So I invite you into a few moments of contemplation, with some passages from Swedenborg, a prelude perhaps to our time of communion, when we offer ourselves into the arms of God, into our journeys that are still before us. We will the meditation time with a prayer from the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard du Chardin.
I invite you now to settle in your seat, take a deep breath, and close your eyes.
The Lord as He is in the heavens - that is, His Divine Good and Divine Truth there - is able to be represented, but not that which is Divine and His above the heavens, because this cannot fall within the range of what human minds or even angelic minds can grasp, since it is infinite.(2)
…the mind cannot have any grasp of things that are Divine or infinite except through those that are finite, of which humankind is able to have mental images. Without mental images formed from finite things, and especially images formed from things that exist within space and time, human beings cannot begin to comprehend Divine things, let alone the Infinite.(3)
The Divine fills every space of the universe, but is non-spatial.(4)
The Divine is in all time, and is timeless. (5)
The Divine is the same in the greatest and the smallest things. (6)
Sometimes, we cannot see the whole picture. As we move toward the end of the Lenten season, may we retain openness, curiosity, and a willingness to learn, but above all:
…trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability--
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
and grace will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ)
1 You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Heaven and Hell 265
The nature of the wisdom of heaven's angels is almost beyond comprehension because it so transcends human wisdom that there are no means of comparison, and anything transcendent seems to be nothing at all. Still, there are a few overlooked means that can be used for description, means which until they are recognized seem like shadows in the mind and actually obscure the nature of the matter as it is in itself. Yet they are the kinds of things that can be known, and can be understood once they are known, if only the mind takes delight in them; for since delight arises from love, it has a light with it; and for people who love matters of divine and heavenly wisdom, that light radiates from heaven and provides them with enlightenment.