A December Message from Fr. Justin

In my last Keystone article I mentioned a little series to help contextualize the imaginal realm or the imaginal heart in Christian Theology. Since it is Advent and we are preparing for the great celebration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, let us return to the wonderful expression of the three-fold understanding of the universe in the Christmas liturgies.

I’m talking particularly about the Triple Birth of Christ celebrated in the three Christ-masses. You may have heard me preach during Christmastide or read about this Triple Birth in Christmas letters past, where there are three different and distinct celebrations of the Birth of Christ. For those familiar with the Book of Common Prayer you may notice that there are three different sets of readings and prayers etc. for Christmas. Celebrating the three different kinds of birth revealed in the Incarnation, we get a sense of three different “floors” of creation.

The first of the Triple Birth is that of God the Father begetting the Word in the depths of Divine Darkness before time and all worlds.

The second celebration of this birth is perhaps the most familiar; that of the historic birth of Jesus to the Blessed Virgin Mary, his mother, in the little town of Bethlehem.

The third birth celebration of Christmas is that ceaseless begetting of Christ in the ground of every heart rendered by God’s loving Spirit.

These three births each have their own Christ-mass, their own Eucharistic celebration.

The begetting of the Word in Divine Darkness is fittingly celebrated in the middle of the night on the 24th – 25th, so called the “Midnight Mass”.

The second birth is celebrated at a Christ-mass at dawn. We have the meeting of Divine Darkness with the light of day, the primordial with the historical.

The third Christ-mass is celebrated at high noon, in the full light of history and the revelation of the Gospel to the world. A single community would celebrate all three of these. Even though this kind of liturgical practice is presently out of favor, its framework is still found in the Prayer Book, lectionary and the traditional minor propers.

These three births illustrate for us these three “floors”, if you will, of creation. The first celebration in the darkness of night and the divine darkness is an aspect of let’s call it the “third floor”. This is the realm of deep prayer, the ground of being, that glimmering darkness where no Angel ever peaked, and no thing ever did reside, yet out of this time and space and all creation are brought forth.

The second birth at dawn is the unimaginable interpenetration of that which is beyond the third floor yet begotten and manifesting as this Divine Darkness, throughout the very material of creation, the “first floor”. Material reality is interpenetrated through and through with the Divine, and we see this in a unique way in the birth of Jesus Christ. This little baby, just like we were (or are, but it’s doubtful you are reading this and are a baby) is also God and also the very foundational energies of creativity in this world. The unimaginable is done in Christ and we are still in awe and spellbound by its great paradox.

We have become more and more materialist over the last 200 years, and so we can easily note the historical side of this second birth. It is the material birth that gets most of our attention and it seems all of the attention of the Secular Christmas Holiday. For Christians this Christmas celebration at dawn is a revelation of both the third and first floor. That, whom is the very luminous darkness of unapproachable light, is born as a humble human being.

The third of these three births is that of Christ in the human heart. And here we begin to focus in on the imaginalis. As you are perhaps becoming more aware, the human heart is not simply the wet pump that rhythms blood and electromagnetic waves. It is the organ of human perception.

This third birth which happens in the heart of the faithful, what I am going to call the “second floor”, is where we become aware of God’s presence and God’s action in us and throughout creation. The imaginal heart perceives the angels singing with us, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Host. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory” at the Eucharist. Even though perception is not the highest function of the human being, it is an important piece of the integrated Christian life, and what is not discovered here will be unwrapped in our transition to the heavenly estate.

The imaginal heart is especially important as we are finding that our human impact on this beautiful creature we call Earth is causing disastrous effects. It will be important for us as a human family to being to perceive again our relationship with God and to recognize God’s very presence and action in the all sorts of creatures including Earth herself. God’s ministry for us in this world includes that “in obedience to (God) we might rule and serve all (God’s) creatures.” This becomes more expansive when we remember that everything created in Biblical and Christian theology is a creature, i.e. the minerals, animals, plants, the Earth, those “under the Earth”, planets, time, space, etc.

Part of my point here is to expand our view of creation and (re)introduce a whole house, a three “floors” approach to our lives and God’s mission in us and through us. Much of our contemporary secular culture in Anglo North American is predominated by a worldview that seems only to include an exclusive materialist perception and life. It is an idea (contrary to scripture, tradition and experience) that everything that is, is on the first floor, and perceptible by the eyes, ears, nose… and materialist science and that is all there is.

I dare say people’s experience of life, whether a secular humanist or Christian or Buddhist or Jewish or Hindu or Muslim… have had typical natural experiences of all three of these “floors”, even as babies. Typically, the three natural states of so-called consciousness; waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep, are examples of these three “floors”. Even if many of us have not restored our capacities of the heart and the ground of being, they are there enfolded in our human nature, these three floors continue to be present. Not only can we pray from the ground, the heart, and the brain, but they can also be (re)integrated, which is exactly what the Holy Spirit is doing in us.

I am not the first to mention all of this. Our scripture, liturgy, theology and prayer are overflowing with these and much deeper teachings. We are here on this corner of Pleasant and School streets, together entering into this journey, week after week, year after year and moment by moment, exploring the different floors of our being and the world, and learning bit by bit to integrate them.

We are together being made instruments of God’s wisdom and love, sometimes kicking and screaming, but none the less we endeavor to “run the race that is set before us”.

I hope my brief foray into the triple-birth of Christ and this image of the “Three Floors” is helpful in getting a sense of the vast spectrum of Creation and our own created human nature, even if I have run rough shod over so many important and subtle points.
May these words be helpful in your Advent preparations. Amen.
~Fr. Justin Lanier

 

A note from Fr. Justin on the passing of Fr. Thomas Keating and Abbot Joseph Boyle at the end of October, 2018:

This past October, my two principle teachers, or spiritual fathers, died.

Abbot Joseph M. Boyle, O.C.S.O. on October 21st and Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O on October 25th. Both were monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey, in Snowmass, Colorado where I did my initial, monastic contemplative formation. I was under Fr. Thomas’ direction since 1996, and under Abbot Joseph’s direction since 1999. It is hard to estimate their influence on my life other than to say they were both foundational and instrumental in forming my understanding and practice of Christianity and the contemplative journey.

This past October, my two principle teachers, or spiritual fathers, died.

Abbot Joseph M. Boyle, O.C.S.O. on October 21st and Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O on October 25th. Both were monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey, in Snowmass, Colorado where I did my initial, monastic contemplative formation. I was under Fr. Thomas’ direction since 1996, and under Abbot Joseph’s direction since 1999. It is hard to estimate their influence on my life other than to say they were both foundational and instrumental in forming my understanding and practice of Christianity and the contemplative journey.

At Fr. Thomas’ funeral I was talking with the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault about their departure. Both of us were close with both of them for a long time, I first met Cynthia at St. Benedict’s when I was in formation there. I told her of the great vacancy in my life, losing my two principle guides.

“They were a great compliment to each other” I told her. “Joe was Christ at the table in the upper room while Thomas was the Alpha and the Omega”. She replied, “That is exactly right”. We hugged. I must say that I did not feel a great deal of sadness at the loss of these two pillars in my life as an adult, a contemplative, a priest, a Christian. I was however very much disoriented, it was a different world and I could feel the change. Both Abbot Joseph and Fr. Thomas spoke about death and their own deaths in World Without End by Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017.

Fr. Thomas used to talk about this life as the Womb of God and death as the great Birth Canal of Life. Abbot Joseph told me on many occasions that he was not a teacher. Joe felt he did not have the charisma of a spiritual teacher, which made for a great spiritual director and the “finest abbot of the Order” as it had been said. Joe wrote in his last message about hearing the second opinion of doctors to discontinue treatment, “Now I can set about taking these steps of the final journey in Christ. So, far from discouraging me the doctor’s words were a deep spiritual encouragement.”

It is very auspicious that the two of died within a week of one another. They were such collaborators in teaching the Contemplative Heart of the Christian tradition both in word and deed. I suspect they will continue to do so beyond the womb of this life. If you would, please pray for their continuing journey.

Requiem æternam,
justin+

If you want to get a sense of Abbot Joseph, check out this video on youtube: search “The Desert – Abbot Joseph Boyle”. There are many videos for Fr. Thomas on Youtube, or you can watch the movie The Rising Tide of Silence (available on Netflix) .

 

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November Message from Fr. Justin

On September 1st, I led a short practice period of Centering Prayer at St. John’s in Williamstown, as part of the Conspire Conference put on by the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC). CAC is the organization Fr. Richard Rohr O.F.M. founded and continues to lead.

The Reverend Mark Longhurst, minister at First Congregational in Williamstown, is a graduate of CAC’s Living School and was one of Fr. Richard’s young contemplative leaders at the Contemplative Exchange last summer out in Colorado. The Conspire conference was actually live webcasted into St. John’s Episcopal where Fr. Nathaniel Anderson is the new Lutheran trained Rector.

It was an important first collaboration for the three of us and thanksgivings go in a big way to Mark who bore the brunt putting much of this together. Parishioners and members of all three congregations were present along with a few students from Williams College.

Later that Saturday, I was present at Dr. Patrick MacManaway’s talk that he gave at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship across the street from St. Peter’s. Patrick is a medical Doctor of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, but the talk reflected his work as a geopathic consultant and his subtle energy work with farms. This sort of practice is sometimes called “imaginal practice” especially by the 17th century Lutheran Jakob Böhme who wrote extensively on the “Imaginalis Mundi” or “Imaginal World”. You may remember a few sermons from last year that focused on this aspect of Christian prayer and experience.

So my day began with the high contemplative traditions of Centering Prayer and ended with the imaginal heart traditions and subtle energies of the land and electromagnetic properties of Bennington. It was an exciting weekend of collaboration and prayer and blessings. Over the course of the next year, I hope to collaborate more and more with my colleagues in Williamstown as well as with Dr. Patrick.

In doing so, it will be important for us to understand how the high contemplative and the imaginal practices in Christianity relate to one another and how they are different and engage differently the uncreated God as well as God’s wondrous creation. I hope to put forth a short series of Keystone articles providing some context for understanding these two distinct traditions and along side the moral, ethical, and ascetical traditions in our Christian tradition.

More to come.
Justin+

A quick update on the deepening collaborations of the Reverends Mark, Nathanial, and Justin:

On October 2nd , at St. John’s Church in Williamstown, Reverend Mark gave the sermon for Nathanial’s installation, while I prayed along with the clergy and people of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. The good Reverend Mark and I prepped for the whole affair with a period of centering prayer at First Congregational across the quad. The newly installed Rector later joined us and the parish at large in a feast of sausages, cheeses, and a variety of German beverages.

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Visioning

Posted on Nov 22, 2017 in rector's messages | 0 comments

Over this year the Vestry and I have been meeting to engage in Visioning, that is we are trying to catch a glimpse of our calling here at this corner of School and Pleasant Streets. One of the central pieces of Visioning is first understanding what the mission is, and here is where we, like many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, get caught up.

We often ask ourselves, what is our mission, which makes a certain amount of sense, except the Church is not another non-profit among so many good organizations.

The Church is the Body of Christ on earth, and we are called not to our own mission but to enter into God’s mission. God’s mission is described in the Book of Common Prayer as: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”(BCP p.855).

For most of us it is an uncomfortable way to begin our self-understanding collectively or individually, and yet this intention is the building block of what we are to be about.

It is unsettling perhaps because first we begin to consider God’s restoration of us, of me to unity with God. It is humbling to consider my own unity with God… realizing that the spiritual life is one of utter
dependence on God and that often times I usurp God’s presence and action in me; often rely on my own powers, my own awareness, my own loving, my own agendas, and that in the end these are not ultimately unveiling God’s mission even in my own soul.

The Christian life is not fundamentally about what we do, be it our time, our talents, or our money. It is about our surrender to God, and what God is doing in us and through us and around us as Christ body.

Scripture and our most venerable Anglican Eucharistic prayer give us a glimpse of what we are to “do” so to speak, we “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a
reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” (BCP p.336, Romans 12:1) Our response to God is one of surrender not simply service, one of faith not simply belief.

Needless to say, as a Vestry and rector we struggled and continue to struggle in our endeavor to surrender ourselves to God and to catch a glimpse of how God is restoring this unity in Christ, and in this particular parish.

We struggle with our own agendas and concerns and struggle so deeply with that entering and viewing from within Christ, from within God’s life and activity. Sometimes I feel as though we are more often caught up in our own activity and “works righteousness” as Martin Luther put it, than we are swept up in God’s restoration. The fact that Luther struggled himself, and that the Church 500 years ago struggled with this very issue points to the deep patterns of the human condition.

The fact that St. Paul writes to the Romans and many of the communities of his time that this pattern so deep in us is at it roots destroyed by Christ on the Cross. And that as humans we are required continually to deny the self, take up our Cross, and to follow Christ. (Luke 9:23).

Please continue to pray for the Vestry and for me. We are not simply trying to put together a balanced budget, or run a more efficient institution, we are trying to be swept up in God’s mission to “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” rather than being caught up in our own reactions, anxieties, and works righteous.

If you would please help us in this endeavor with that prayer described in our ancient scriptures, that surrender to God of our very being, the first fruits of our substance. (Proverbs 3:9) The more of us swept up in God’s mission the more vital and clear our vision will become.
peace, fr.justin