entertaining angels

cyprian

I have a great fondness for the so-called Rublev icon, the one that is a portrait of the story we hear from the Book of Genesis (18:1-10)  today, Abraham offering hospitality to the three visitors, who we find out are angels––actually three angels that we find out are God. I am fond of the icon and the story behind it first of all because it can apply to all three of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam as well as us. Of course we Christians see in these three visitors an intimation of the Trinity. In our chapel at New Camaldoli we have a beautiful rendering of the icon (done by our former nun Sr. Anna) that hangs in the foyer of the guest entrance (see photo below by our friend Devin Kumar), and the thing I really love about it––and I always tell people this when I give a tour of the Hermitage––is the way that it is set up spatially, with the three angels sitting around the table. There is a space at the front of the table, too, and the way it was explained to me is that is because there’s room at the table for me too. So, at first glance this is a story of Abraham offering hospitality to the visitors, but in the icon it becomes an image of God offering hospitality to us! In the liturgical sense I like to think that it’s like a sign reading, “C’mon in! All are welcome in this place!” In a broader sense, it’s an invitation to enter into the very love life of the Trinity. I’ve checked this with theologians who are smarter, holier and more cautious even than I (and I’m pretty cautious), and it’s safe to say that the Trinity is not a closed system. We are invited to enter into the “love life of the Trinity.” As Bruno used to love to quote St. Peter, we are invited to participate in the divine nature itself. So who’s the host and who’s the guest?

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You know it is from this same story that we get the phrase “entertaining angels.” It’s in the Letter to the Hebrews (13:2): Be not forgetful to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels! Some people!? Abraham! “Entertaining Angels” was also the name of the bio-pic done by Paulist press about Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, known of course for their hospitality to the poor and the homeless.

This story is paired with the story of Martha and Mary from the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42). We assume right along that this is a glorification of the contemplative life over the so-called active life––‘Mary has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken away from her’––and therefore we hermits monks have chosen the better part simply by virtue of “sitting in our cell as if in paradise” while everyone else does the somehow inferior work of feeding the poor, clothing the naked, raising children, finding a solution to global warming, taking care of the sick and the dying. (I’m being ironic, of course.) This is dualism at its absolute worst. Meister Eckhart, not surprisingly, has a unique understanding of the story of Martha and Mary that we hear in the gospel today in his famous sermon #86. Meister Eckhart, who is even in this modern age to be Christianity’s answer to mysticism, taught that Martha was actually the more mature and spiritually advanced of the two. Whereas Mary was filled with longing for what she knew not, and was drawn to consolation, Martha, because of her age and experience had the mature power of reflection and greater dignity, and no longer needed the sweet consolations of the spiritual life. Martha was so grounded in being that her activity did not hinder her from contemplation.

Meister Eckhart says that “we harbor suspicion that Mary was sitting there more for enjoyment than for spiritual profit.” He thought that Martha was not so much scolding her sister as trying to urge her to grow up, and not cling to consolation so much. As is typical in medieval times, this Mary gets conflated with Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus says in the garden after the resurrection, ‘Do not cling to me!’ (Jn 20:17). And he thought that Jesus was not so much chiding Martha as consoling her, letting her know that Mary will some day be as careful as she herself (Martha) is––“careful” meaning careful not to let these many things impede her spiritual progress.

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This is the real goal, and the sharp division between the contemplative and the active is a false dilemma. If there’s any warning issued about the pitfalls of the contemplative life and the monastic way that I have heard across the board––from John Cassian to Teilhard de Chardin to the Bhagavad Gita––it’s about this. In Gandhi’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita he warns that the sannyasi life––the life of total withdrawal––is “beset with obstacles and is likely to encourage hypocrisy,” as the Gita itself warns, unless it goes hand in hand with ceaselessly working to “serve others… in a perfectly disinterested spirit.”[1] That’s why Cassian warns of the pax perniciosa–the pernicious peace, and Saint Benedict adds mutual obedience into the mix of monastic life, always regarding others’ good over our own. And Teilhard’s suspicion too particularly of Eastern mysticism was that it could be too inward, too immanent. He thought that even the phrase “Communion with God” could be too other-worldy, if we see God and religion as exclusively transcendent, totally separate from the world. No, as St. Peter wrote, we are to become stones and a house, a temple out of which the love of God, the Holy Spirit, pours like a stream of life giving water, pours out like love, like charity, pours out as creativity and participation, and we become co-creators, participants in the divine nature![2] That’s the invitation. (I know I cited these same texts a few weeks ago, but they apply even more here.)

Which brings us back to someone like Dorothy Day. It is a beautiful holy thing to stare at the face of Jesus like Mary, but we should also be able to see the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor, the smelly, my annoying brother, my emotionally needy sister, the special needs child, the immigrant, my spouse who I am with whom I am no longer enamored, my co-worker, the brother who lives in the cell next to me. We should never neglect to offer hospitality to strangers; we never know when we might be entertaining angels! Saint Benedict understood this when he urged his monks to welcome all guests as if they were Christ. In this way we fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body (Col 1:24-28, which we also heard today).

Instead what Meister Eckhart urges is that our work have three qualities: that it be orderly, that it be done with discrimination, and that it be done with contemplation. Contemplation doesn’t remove us from the world; it makes us right in the world, in right relationship with the world because in right relationship with our deepest self, with the Spirit, with others. This is where a quote of Panikkar comes in, speaking of his own work which was that of writing and teaching: “No word should be uttered if not out of contemplation,”––I think we could safely add, no work should be done if not out of contemplation––“but no contemplation is possible if it is not the fruit of action. Action means life, and life is not life if not lived to the full––and thus also, consciously, as much as possible.”[3] Hence, no contemplation is possible without a life lived to the full, consciously, active, engaged.

This is the invitation then from the love life of the Trinity: to enter into life, to live, fully. “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” But that means both to breathe in and breathe out. What contemplative spirituality has to offer and what we monks may have to offer is the groundedness in spirit, the groundedness in Being, the groundedness in God that is the fruit of our silence and solitude, our prayer and meditation. Our Fr. Thomas thinks that this is what St. Peter Damian meant when he said that Saint Romuald wanted to turn the whole world into a hermitage––to teach people the inner life with God, how to enter the love life of the Trinity, contemplative prayer. But what our oblates and friends have to offer––along with our maintenance staff, our cooks and administrative assistants––is showing us how to breathe out, how to serve the world and each other in the name of Jesus, for love of God, how to welcome the stranger inspired by the Gospel. We never know when we might be welcoming Christ, gazing at the face of Jesus, working for, serving, feeding, clothing, comforting, entertaining angels! And then––to our surprise––the angels invite us to sit down and dine with them.

[1] The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, commentary on Chapter 5, 103.

[2] 2 Pt 1:4.

[3] The Rhythm of Being, xxxi.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the blessing of such beautiful truths. One of the enduring images from my visit is the icon of the trinity reflected in the holy water upon entering the chapel. As I dipped my finger into the font and crossed myself momentarily disturbing the reflection; the symbolism made tangible in that most scared space.

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