Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: August 2010

What hath the Monkees to do with Jerusalem?

Monkee magic: the nature of conversion?

“I saw her face
Now I’m a believer
There’s not a trace
Of doubt in my mind:
I’m in love Whoah-oh
I’m a believer
I couldn’t leave her if I tried.”

“What hath the Monkees to do with Jerusalem?”, you may well ask. Well, there is a strand of Christian thought that treats conversion as just this sort of ‘Monkee magic.’
One minute you’re a sinner, even, like Paul, a persecutor of Christians, but then in one magic moment God reveals Himself and suddenly, you’re a believer, numbered among the saints.
But for the ancients, catching sight of a god was not always such a fortuitous affair. Take the story of Actaeon. This young huntsman was stalking through the Attic glades, his hounds hot on the scent of a young buck. As they chased deeper into the woods, the dark canopy overhead began to break up, and he found himself in a bright glade, where the sunbeams played on crystal water. And in that water – what a sight! Even with her back turned, he had never seen such radiant beauty: the woman bathing naked before him must surely be divine. And, alas for him, so she was. Diana, Artemis, maiden-goddess of the Hunt, turned her face to him in shame and rage: and as he stood transfixed by her glory, his body began to twist and change. He hunched forward onto all fours, fur started to sprout from his skin, his head split with pain as bones flowered from the temples, his hands hardened into hooves:- and before he could think to spring away, his own baying hounds turned on him and savaged him: for the hunter had become the prey; Actaeon had been turned into a stag.
So, a second and more famous question: what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem? The story of Actaeon seems a far cry from the conversion experience of Paul. But maybe not so far, I think. Because doesn’t God tell Moses in Exodus that ‘no one can see Me and live?’ And doesn’t St John write that ‘no one has seen God at anytime?’ So, in the conversion of St Paul, I think there’s a certain conflict: on the one hand, we’ve got the mystical ‘Monkee magic’ experience of seeing God and being instantly converted, transformed into a Christian; and on the other, the impossibility of coming face-to-face with God and surviving the encounter, the unspeakable transformation of Actaeon in the face of the naked power of the Divine.
I’m wary of navel-gazing, and don’t want to be self-indulgent, but my own experience is not unlike Paul’s, and I think it might shed some light on the matter. I was brought up unchurched and unbaptised. The prospect of our family going to church on a Sunday was about as remote as Timbuctoo. As a boy, I was broadly indifferent to such things; but as a teenager, at about fourteen or fifteen, I started to make a decisive stand against religion in general, and Christianity in particular: or, at least, against the variety of bland, establishment Protestantism that I had been brought up to equate with Christianity. At University, I was known in the Debating Union and around the pub table alike as a militant and outspoken heathen. My arguments were well-versed and, I thought at the ripe old age of nineteen, sharply honed; I gave no quarter. For me, this world of matter was all there was, and pure reason all we needed to understand it, unfettered by the facile superstitions of yore. My ‘Damascus’ was Japan, where I spent a couple of years teaching after I had graduated. And yes, there, like Paul, I had a sudden experience that I can describe only as mystical. Things led up to it, pointed to it, sure: conversations with a Buddhist monk I practiced Aikido with and a theistically-inclined neighbour in the flat below mine; the general religiosity that pervades Japan, with its bustling Shinto shrines on every street corner and the vermilion cheer of their torii gates, or the simple serenity of the local Buddhist temple; and, not least, the newly-found love for the girl who would six years later become my wife. Each of these things heralded the experience in its own way, but I cannot deny that at that instant, something changed.
I was lying on my futon one morning, and the ray of light that shone through the slatted blinds might have been sunlight, but I’m not too sure that it was physically there: because I felt it more than saw it, and what’s more, it felt like the light was shining somehow inside me. That feeling was, really, beyond words – but a feeling of intense love, light, and oneness with the world. Harmony, radiance. It was – and remains – singular, incomparable. And it’s hard, even now, after six years reflecting on it, to put it any more clearly. Sorry. Now, bear in mind that I was not really brought up a Christian, and so I didn’t know what to make of the experience I’d had; like Paul, I was blinded by the light, and so much so that I certainly couldn’t make out ‘God’ behind it.  As I was in Japan, it was more natural to explore the native Buddhism: I found myself deeply sympathetic to much of that religion’s thought, and remain so to this day.
Now, both St Paul and I needed those spiritual experiences for God to push us in the right direction. Some people need that, others don’t: some have the good fortune of being born into the faith, and continue in it without the need for such drama. But the journey of conversion does not end with that sort of experience. And for me, it was not until I started teaching at Exeter Cathedral School that the scales really fell from my eyes. It took being part of a living Christian community to lead me to Christ. I do believe that, in the experience He had given me, God took the initiative of opening my mind and heart to the possibility of faith. But it was through the living body of His Church, through other people, that He continued to draw me to conversion. And so, I’m not sure that Paul’s conversion was quite as decisive as advocates of charismatic experiences might want us to believe. Even after his mind-blowing encounter with God, even after Jesus has spoken to him personally, Paul remains blinded – until another person, Ananias, a member of the Church, leads him back to sight. So while I do believe that St Paul saw God on that Damascus road, just as those who saw Jesus saw God, or as Jacob did when he wrestled with Him, yet, that sight was only partial. Even St Paul could not look upon God in the fullness of His glory; just the radiance of the divine light leaves him blind and groping. We cannot look upon that which is beyond imagining, we cannot understand that which is beyond comprehending, we cannot be one with that which is beyond all sense of oneness or multiplicity.
Paul’s conversion, then, his turning to God, could not be ‘complete.’
Likewise, our encounter with God can never be complete in this world, because God is beyond our wildest dreams of completion. Even the most intense religious experience, even the most heartfelt affirmation of faith, can be only a pale reflection of the glory that awaits us when we are truly reconciled to God in His Kingdom. For now, we must keep living in the shadows, looking for reflections of God’s light wherever we can find them. And so, conversion has more to do with what happened to Paul after his conversion experience than the experience itself: more like the gradual dropping of scales from our eyes than the sudden flash of blinding light.
Faith, I think, is a kind of vision. As we tread the path of conversion, and I for one am still just starting to find my way, we find that the shadows recede, and we see God’s light more and more, reflected in places and things and people where we never expected to find it, until ultimately, in union with Him, we will see all things illuminated in His glory. If faith is such a vision of life, then conversion is our effort to perfect it, through love and prayer, through our journey in the life of the Church.
Conversion is not the work of an instant. It’s not about a sudden feeling and saying ‘I believe,’ job done, I’m ‘saved.’ It’s not even about me making an act of commitment, being baptised, or assenting to the propositions of the Creeds or Scripture. Ultimately, it’s not so much about me and my salvation at all. It’s more about putting me last, putting other people before me and God first of all. You see, my own conversion, like S. Paul’s, has never been just ‘me and God.’ Both he and I needed godly people to prepare us for that experience in the first place; we needed them to guide us on after. And by the grace of God, the best we can do as Christians is be such godly people, to put others first and guide them along the same path: to open ourselves to God’s love so that He can work through us, here and now, to build up His Kingdom. This is conversion: and it will not be complete until every part of God’s Creation is reunited with its divine source. For then, and only then, at the dawn of the New Creation, will we be able to look upon that light face-to-face in glorious union.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Transfiguration 2010: Climbing the mountain

Why do people climb mountains? You know it costs about £50,000 to climb Everest these days – sounds a bit steep to me. And surely it’s more comfortable to stroll around here below on flat ground. But many of us do like to rise to the challenge. Perhaps it’s the exertion, the exercise, the feeling of achievement when you get to the top, the beauty of the views or the quality of the cool air above. But there’s also that headiness, that giddiness, that strange feeling of being in a world removed, where earth almost touches heaven. And I suppose this is why so many great human traditions over the millennia have treated their mountains as sacred space: Zion, Olympus, Horeb, Sinai, Athos, Ararat, Fuji, to name a few.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I climbed the three peaks of Dewa Sanzan in Japan, sacred to the Shinto tradition, each with a shrine at its peak.
I remember ascending the countless stone steps through the tall cedar forests that covered the face of the first, worn smooth by hundreds of years of pilgrimage, small shrines dotted about on the sides of the track. It was a long way to the top, and the clouds got there before us. We groped our way through a cold, damp, dazzling whiteness, disorienting, even weird, a world apart from the humid heat and sun below. Our only guide was the squawking refrain of old Japanese instruments which we followed to find the temple’s vermilion gates gradually looming from the mist. Inside the lamplit dark, a mountain shaman performed a sacred dance wearing the multicoloured coat of his order, a conch horn around his neck and a sword at his side. You could see why they thought the mountain was sacred.
That time, there were plenty of other people around, and a temple to take shelter in. But I’ve been on the top of more remote mountains when the clouds roll in, and when they do, you’re pretty stuck. You struggle to climb any further, if you haven’t already reached the top. If you’re trying to cross that mountain to get somewhere else, there’s no use going back the way you came, even if you can. Nor can you plunge forward blindly, not knowing where you’re going, hoping you won’t lose your footing on the rocks and rather terminally spoil your day. And you can’t just wait forever up there in the cold, hoping that the cloud will pass, especially as night draws in. So it’s a bit of a Catch 22.
I think there’s a danger of getting trapped in clouds like these not just on top of real mountains, but also as we try to cross the many mountains that pop up in our lives. They may be mountains we’re trying to cross together. Take the current political situation. As we stumble across the current mountain of recession, unemployment, societal breakdown, we hear predictable voices: those on the extreme Right who want to go back the way we came, turn the clock back to the 1950s, say, as if everything were better before we started climbing. Then there are those on the extreme Left who want to rush blindly forward and escape from the past to some new, utopian dream: or even better, steam roll the mountain flat and forge a brave new world. And third, there the extreme liberals who just stay sitting in the clouds, the ‘I’m all right, Jacks,’ blissfully ignoring what goes on either side of the mountain as long as they can carry on with their own lives. This is just one mountain that we are all trying to cross.
But the danger may be even stronger when we’re trying to cross mountains alone, the mountains of our personal lives. I think it’s fair to say that there aren’t many people without some quite mountainous problem: childhood traumas, poverty, addiction, broken relationships, guilty secrets that gnaw away. But as Christians, I think we’re particularly vulnerable to these. Because there’s the temptation to think that with God’s healing to repair us, we can go back down the mountain, turn back the clock, and things will be just as they were. Or there’s a temptation to say, I’m baptised, I’m forgiven, the past’s just history: I can run away down the mountain and leave it all behind. Lastly, there’s a temptation to retreat into prayer – but do nothing: to resign from the world and the problems it brings, sitting on the mountaintop and meditating our lives away.
But God gives us a different way to cross these mountains. Not regression to a pristine past, not charging forward at whatever cost to a future of our own making, not quietism, passive retreat from the world – but Transfiguration. The Transfiguration narrative in Luke does look back and forward: back with God’s words, ‘this is my beloved Son,’ to His words at Jesus’ baptism. Forwards with the cloud that descends, that dazzles Peter and the disciples on the mountaintop, to that cloud which Jesus will eventually pass through to ascend into heaven. But when the cloud passes at the Transfiguration, the glory of the Lord that shone so brightly, bright enough even to burn through the cloud: the glory of the Lord has faded from Jesus’ face.
Peter, John and James do not find a new Jesus, a super-Jesus, but the same man Jesus that they followed from the start: a man with understandable anxieties about taking the cup His Father has given Him. They do not find a warrior Jesus who will fight a new path to the future Kingdom, erasing the past, destroying the old, and leaving a trail of dead in His wake. They do not find a mystic Jesus, like some other religions’ holy men, passing away peacefully on the mountaintop having achieved His own salvation. Not a Jesus who ignores His past, who eliminates His future, or who ignores the present. But the same Jesus who was born of Mary and rejected by his peers, who will still have to suffer and die on the Cross; who even now has fears and doubts.
But while he remains the same Jesus, He is also changed: and this is not transformation into something completely different, not transcendence of his flesh to become purely spiritual, but Transfiguration. His humanity, and the suffering that comes with it, is not destroyed or risen above. The transfiguring power of the glory of God took what Jesus always was – human, afraid, suffering – and brought out from within that humanity the perfect Image in which it was made: the Image of the Son of God.
There is a Buddhist concept that I think can help us understand better this idea of Transfiguration. It’s called ‘Buddha nature,’ the idea that the material world that we live in is in fact one with the Buddha, if only we could see it truly. Now this is different from Christian belief, because we do not believe that the material realm is one with God, but that He created it. But we do believe that He made the whole cosmos in His image, that it in some way shares in Him. So take a wooden carving of the Buddha. The Buddhist might say that the true shape of this piece of wood is not the tree that it came from, but the Buddha image. So, when the sculptor carves the image, he is not destroying the true shape of the wood to make something new from it: rather, he is bringing it to its proper shape, the shape that it was always intended to have, and the shape that in fact it always did have, hiddenly: the shape of its Buddha-nature. If you go to the British Museum and look at some Japanese wood carvings, look out for the way the artist uses the natural lines and defects of the wood as detail for the statue. I think this is something like Transfiguration. As Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, ‘gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit’: ‘grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.’ Transfiguration isn’t about staying with what you’ve got, or about getting rid of it and making something completely new, but about working with what is already there and making it what it always really is.
The Transfiguration is not just about Jesus. It’s about His disciples, too, and so about us. Back in our Gospel, he led Peter, John and James up the mountain for a reason: to be witnesses, participants, even. As the glory of the Lord shines from His face, through the cloud, it is reflected in their own. With Moses and Elijah, they see God face to face and yet live, changed but still human. Transfiguration is not about making things easy, and they too still have to carry on walking the Way of the Cross. But they, unlike Jesus, do not where the Way leads. They do not know the suffering and humiliation that is to come. In this, they are very much like us. Like us, they are left groping in the dazzling brightness of the cloud. But like us, they have the light of Christ to guide them. In today’s epistle, S. Peter himself describes that light as ‘a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.’ And we walk with St Peter and all the saints, with Christ leading us along the way: Christ who does not take away the hard mountains that make us who we are, does not destroy them, but transfigures them, helps us to carry them.
You can’t run away from who you are.
You can’t magic away what you’ve done.
You can’t ignore the past and pretend it doesn’t matter, because you are made of your past, and it does. Christ may wash away our sins, but you know as well as I do that it’s not as easy as that: they’re still a part of us. All we can do is trust: trust in Christ to take what we’ve done and what we are, everything we’ve done, everything we are, warts and all, and make us into something better: to turn His glowing face towards us so that even our darkest parts shine with His glory to all who behold us. All we have to do is what the Father commands: ‘this is my beloved son: listen to Him.’
And this is what the Son says: “Take, eat. Take, drink. Come to the table, share with me in the glory of our Father. Take this perfected, transfigured food: my body and my blood to sustain you on the journey. It will not be easy. But follow me, and I will walk with you over the mountains: to a Kingdom where mountains, burdens, suffering will be no more.”

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén