From the Wilderness to Mount Tabor

I’m still pondering the categories of “wild” and “tame” in relation to God, to the mystical life, and to my own work as a writer. If you’re just joining the conversation, read yesterday’s post and comments to get a sense of where I am.

My fellow blogger Benjamin David Steele (whose original thoughts sparked my reflection) posted on both his and my blog that he meant no insult by describing my blog as “tame.” I want to go on the record as saying I never saw that as an insult. I saw it as criticism, in the best sense of the word: an honest assessment that weighs both the strength and the weakness of a given work. As the variety of comments posted here over the last 24 hours make clear, there are many different ways to approach these questions of God’s wildness, our civility, and how sometimes the Divine untameness intrudes on, disrupts, interrupts, shatters, and reconfigures our illusory sense of being in control.

Steele is a fan of author Philip K. Dick, and has presented me with this concept of “God in the gutter” which derive’s from Dick’s work. It reminds me of a book I read many years ago called In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld: A Mystical Journey. It’s been years since I read it and so my memory may be less than stellar here, but I recall the book as an honest look at the lives of pimps and prostitutes, strippers and drag queens, and others who typically are not shown much hospitality by “polite” religion. The “mystical” bit in the subtitle doesn’t refer to contemplation so much as to the reality of God’s presence even when God is hidden — and, heaven knows, there are plenty of layers of hiddenness in the sexual underworld. And of course, grace happens, even in the lives of those who have been rejected by the mainstream, and that was the point of this book. But I suppose when we’re talking about grace, we have to be careful here. We can say “Yes, God is present in the lives of sex workers” and it has a rather paternalistic and maybe even smugly superior ring to it: the unstated other half of that sentiment being: “… and as soon as they clean up their act, they’ll be welcome at our church.” Which is just about what the older brother of the prodigal son would say.

If Jesus were walking the earth today, I don’t think he would be spending too much time in the nicely decorated offices of First Baptist or Sacred Heart Catholic or St. Alban’s Episcopal Churches. He’d be out in the wilder places of our supposedly civilized world. Which I suppose is something that we who are so embedded in the institutional church need to keep in mind. But I also think that trying to connect with the untamed God isn’t about what can be called “do-good-er-ism.” In other words, it’s so easy to decide that escorts, or homeless people, or drug addicts, or prisoners, or whoever else pushes your particular tame/wild buttons, are hapless victims who need to be rescued. What this means is that we secretly want to makeover the whole world in our own image. And in this hidden desire of ours, we are not motivated by love, for it’s yet another subtle attempt to control and to dominate — to yank God out of the driver’s seat and put ourselves in it instead. Such efforts are doomed to failure. God is so wild that our attempts to control God will always backfire.

The monastery where I work is in the midst of a large capital campaign, and I’m sure everyone, both inside and outside the cloister, is cognizant of the tremendous folly of trying to raise millions of dollars in the midst of the worst recession (and its “jobless recovery” aftermath) since the great depression. But someone mentioned to me the other day that, when the monastic community originally built their monastery and church back in the 1950s, they had no idea where the money was coming from, and the Abbot at the time said, “If God wants this monastery built, we’ll find the money; and if God doesn’t want it, then I don’t want it either.” That’s the same spirit guiding the monks in their efforts today. And that’s a bit of wild faith, and it’s precisely the kind of wild faith I want. To set out to do outrageous and incredible things, confident that if God wants them, they’ll happen, and if God doesn’t want them, they’re not worth doing anyway. We don’t have to believe (have faith) in the work or the projects or the money themselves — all we need to have faith in is our wild, untamed, transformational God.

The Neopagans have a little chant about the Goddess that goes: “She changes everything she touches, and, everything she touches changes.” Welcome to the world we live in. Jesus continually invites us to the summit of Mount Tabor, where the transfiguration happens again and again. In a burst of light, everything changes, forever and ever. And we can’t control a bit of it. All we can do is decide if we’ll accept the invitation or not. And then trust the process.

Faith, Doubt and Perseverance
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Julia Bolton Holloway

    Yes, God is in the wildest places. I’m remembering Hedera telling me ‘He was so poor he was born in a shack, with the animals, with the horses, and the people were hungry and he gave them bread and fishes and potatoes, and the envious killed him’. She is illiterate, was living then herself in a shack, a Roma from Romania begging in the streets of Florence. Nursing her baby she wouldn’t drink milk on Friday. Her people, the slaves of the monasteries and the nobles from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century when Uncle Tom’s Cabin got translated into Romanian. I have come to love these highly-skilled family-centered people. We do work/study projects, when we are allowed to, but if we are found to be illegal under Berlusconi’s new security law it is prison for us as well as for them.

  • Benjamin Steele

    I’m reminded of various stories of God in disguise. The moral of the story being we should treat every person even those we deem lowly because they may be more than their appearance. Often in the story, the person who does good for the humble is rewarded, but reward isn’t the reason to good.

    I prefer phrasing as PKD does with his “God in the gutter”. There is nothing to be gained by realizing God is in the gutter besides the realization itself. Seeing God is it’s own reward, but God often seems only glimpsed in our periphery. The moment we try to grasp the divine it’s gone. All the forms of religion can just end up as more idols to be falsely worshipped.

    I see God at the edge of where moral judgements aren’t so clear. For this reason, I sometimes think the Trickster is more helpful in understanding the divine. Many stories of Jesus and other saviors show elements of the Trickster and I think that is a key to understanding the nature of the divine. Scatalogical humor along with reversals are very common in Trickster stories.

    However, in mainstream Christianity, the Trickster elements have been purged from Jesus and projected onto the Devil or else simply exclusded. The Trickster stories tell us about suffering and ignorance, and so they touch very closely upon our everyday experience.

    Jesus doesn’t simply pull us up from our misery. Jesus took physical form to meet us on our level. In fact, some stories claim that Jesus went even further down and entered Hell. Many saviors descend to the underworld. If God would descend to Hell, he surely would be present amongst those exluded form “polite” society.

    Isn’t that one of the most central teachings of Jesus’ message?

  • Carl McColman

    Yes to Jesus as trickster! The parable of the unjust steward is my favorite here, and part of the fun is watching generations of Christians tie themselves up into knots trying to interpret it according to their tightly controlled, hermetically sealed notions of God. The prodigal son, to which I alluded in the post, is another one. The zinger there is the older brother, who exemplifies polite/mainstream religion beautifully. And while it is a problem that the mainstream tries to repress the trickster by projecting him onto Satan, that process can be reversed: recognizing Lucifer as a trickster can be the key to revealing all sorts of hidden-in-plain-sight treasures in the Christian tradition.