Rediscovering the Mystery
Reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
One of my favourite theologians, who is also a philosopher, mystic and poet, is John O’Donohue. He tells the story of a British anthropologist researching a Hindu village in India where there is a tradition of weaving the most beautiful and stunning designs in cashmere.
The intricacy and delicacy make them more like works of art than mere fabrics.
Anyway, the anthropologist notices that the way in which they achieve this artistry is by gathering around and weaving together in a very easy and natural way. The weavers sit together, share their stories, they laugh together, they celebrate, they weep together over the ups and downs of life and out of this sharing stunning works of art are woven. Well the work is so beautiful that the anthropologist decides it’s worth researching the details of how they actually do it.
And so he observes the weavers over weeks and months listening to what they say, observing their movements, making his notes – and bit by bit he records his findings. Once he has the information he goes off for more weeks to analyse his data, to pick apart the fine nuances of their words and works so that he can get under the surface of their creative process.
Finally he manages to model precisely the component parts of their creativity and he heads back to the village in order to tell the weavers all about how they produce such stunning work. But as he does so they become self conscious and creatively inhibited as they realise he has taken away the magic and the mystery that had been an integral part of that village life for generations. Theirs was a craft of the Spirit shaped by the soul of the village and now it had been subjected to the reductionism of the human mind and would never be the same again.
It’s a sad story yet a great depiction of what can happen when the inadequate faculties of the human mind attempt to contain the great mystery and how such attempts will almost certainly result in Spirit ceasing to flow and in wisdom being lost. And I wonder if there isn’t something to be learned from this story with regard to the way in which we approach God.
Often people will talk to me about their prayer life. ‘What is the right way to pray?’ they want to know, as if there was some formulaic list of right words in the right sequence with the right amount of emphasis in just the right place..
And then again I get asked what are the very best methods for analysing scripture! Of course we have lots of tools for this these days with the many different commentaries offering various methods of exegesis. We have ways of studying the linguistic structures in the bible and so on…so there is no shortage of methods available to learn about God as far as such analysis can tell us. But such cerebral approaches to God are comparatively recent innovations. There was a time when reason, analysis and formulaic methods were simply not a part of the equation.
There was a time – before the advent of the printing press, before we came obsessed with our fine tools of measurement, before we flexed our ‘reasoning’ muscles – when God’s direct presence was what really mattered. Scripture was a matter for the soul! Lectio Divina (divine reading) for example, was a method of listening to scripture with the ‘ear of the heart’ that the soul might engage directly with the mystery.
In those days the immanence of God…or we might say the ‘immediacy’ of God, was discerned as being very present in all of life, in nature, in relationships, in sharing in both grief and celebration of life so that prayer was as simple as being present to God’s presence. Thanksgiving bubbled up naturally and spilled over at the many blessings that one discovers when living fully in the immediacy of God. Asking for forgiveness from the depths of the soul when we became aware of our wrong doing was a normal part of our dialogue with God and calling for His help in our darkest moments was as innate as breathing….
A glance at the psalms will show how visceral the pouring out of the human soul to God was, with all its emotional highs and lows. But I wonder whether our instinctive relationship with the mystery, rather like the weaving of Cashmere designs for those Hindu villagers, is now under threat! When God is reduced to mere judgements of the mind no matter how sophisticated our methods for making those judgements may have become, the spirit cannot possibly flow.
In our reading from Matthews gospel Jesus is pointing precisely to this reductionism…He says to the disciples
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’”.
In other words we have built models of how we think God is and God simply can’t and won’t comply! God can never be made to dance to our tune, can never be categorised by the smallness of the human mind and all our attempts to confine God in such ways will result in an ever increasing inaccessibility to wisdom.
My prayer for this generation then, where science and technology are charting the course of human destiny, is that we might not altogether forget our deepest, innocent, instincts for engaging with the mystery. For as we are warned in v 25 ‘…these things have been hidden from the wise and the intelligent and are revealed to infants.’ To close with the prophet Jeremiah has some wise words that we would do well to heed. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.