10 Pentecost Proper 14: I Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, August 13, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
In the latter part of the 14th Century during years of bubonic plague and pestilence, the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 a devotional book called The Cloud of Unknowing was published. It was a manual for contemplative prayer, yet written as a guide by a mentor to his young student. It focuses on the via negativa as to road to discovery of the divine instead of seeking God through knowledge and intellectual pursuits. The via negativa is a form of contemplation not through the head, but through the heart, helping us to silence our analytical minds and free our hearts to love. It stresses the unknowability of God, his transcendence beyond being.
For many of us, the way we know God is through our heads—studying scripture, meditating on devotional literature, and reading books about God. We are intellectual people, we value using our brains when it comes to our faith. The via negativa opens a path for us to understand both ways of God—at the same time immanent and transcendent; at the same time, knowable and unknowable—because God cannot be known as one or the other only. The importance of The Cloud of Unknowing is in its guidance to abandon thought and perception and embrace an intellectual darkness that we wait in for the illumination that may or may not come—it is a knowing by not knowing or in theological terms, the apophasis because it describes what God is not. It sort-of boils down to the idea that “nothing can really be said about God. No single noun, verb, or any other part of speech can describe him. Why do we expect visible signs to be able to articulate the invisible nature of God?”
Visible signs and the invisible nature of God: Elijah understood a little of what that meant. He hides in a cave terrified for his life because he has called down the wrath of God upon Jezebel’s prophets of Baal. She has promised to kill him and he is on the run because the threat of a visible enemy can sometimes carry more weight than the security of an invisible God. And yet, here is God seeking Elijah and calling him to seek God—not in the visible signs of storm and earthquake and fire but in the invisible moment of the pause—the sound of sheer silence; the still, small voice; the faintest of whispers that, though heard are always questioned. It is there in the pause, in the vacuum, in the absence of wonder or visionary sign that God is made known in his unknowability.
It is not without cause that the Old Testament writer describes a scene that is not seen. When Elijah hears the silence, he wraps his face in his mantle and never sees God—rejecting visionary imagery and embracing the negative way, making his home in the darkness, as The Cloud author would later write:
The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling him fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions. So, be sure you make your home in this darkness. Stay there as long as you can, crying out to him over and over again, because you love him. It’s the closest you can get to God on earth, by waiting in this darkness and in this cloud.
Elijah and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing seem to understand that knowing God means that you must embrace the unknowable. Moving into the darkness is not Indian Jones’s leap of faith–blindly stepping into the abyss–but more like a recognition that affirmations about God can limit God in particular ways. To see God is to frame him as a picture in your mind—but unlike the moving pictures of the magical world, our version is entirely muggle—still and one dimensional, conveying a message but static in its transcendental beingness.
To define God in terms of good or love or beauty weakens our relationship with him in the times of suffering, horror, and despair. We are willing to say “God is good.” Yet, less willing to say “God is suffering” even though it is no less true. If we practice only an affirmative acknowledgment of God—looking for him in signs and wonders, butterflies and sunsets—we miss out on a fullness of relationship with God. Instead, by embracing the darkness as Elijah did and The Cloud author calls us too, we are drawn into a relationship with God that can be transformative. In the silence of the void, we can be intimate with God and hear his call to us to do his work of redemption in this world. Instead of asking ourselves where we see God in the world, maybe we should ask ourselves where we hear God?
Its about three o’clock in the morning. The disciples have had a hard day executing the logistics of the feeding of the 5000. They are tired and confused—having seen a miracle but not really knowing what to make of it; questioning how it happened and what it might mean. Their teacher has sent them ahead to row across the lake and his absence in the midst of the storm they find themselves in does nothing to diminish their anxiety only contributing further to their exhaustion. In this fretful and sleep-deprived state they experience a communal hallucination of sorts—a man walking on water in the midst of white-cap waves and heavy winds—but it is not a hallucination, so it must be a ghost for no one can walk on water that has flesh and mass. Everything that they see in this event fills them with fear and terror. Seeing God in the world, in this instance, limits the disciples’ relationship with Jesus. It is not until he speaks that they are drawn toward him, Peter so much so, that he gets out of the boat and walks toward Jesus. And again, when Peter shifts his attention from the unknowable—how can anyone walk on water—to the strong winds and waves he sees around him, he begins to sink.
We can read this story and see it only for its broad strokes of faith and doubt, walking on water and strong winds. Or we can read this story and be drawn into the juxtaposition between knowledge and love, heart and mind. The disciples would have been more likely to tell you their mind was playing tricks on them versus allowing their hearts to be open to a new way of experiencing God. Even when Peter tries to be open to that, he gets easily distracted and loses focus. It Is not that knowledge of God is unimportant, but we must be cautious for when we attempt to analyze a divine experience we often lose the purity of the moment in the doubt of our own intellectualism which can lead us down a wrong path or seed the doubts that only increase our anxiety and do nothing to assuage our fears. Jesus questions Peter’s doubt. But certainly Jesus knows why Peter doubted. It is the same reason we all doubt. We are more comfortable in that which we know, even if it leads to our destruction, than to the reaching out and trusting in that which is unknowable.
As soon as Peter shifts his attention from the mystical experience of the divine—walking on water—to the tangible experience of man—storms at sea—he shifts from the unknowable to the knowable and in that moment his faith lessens not because Jesus isn’t right there, but because Peter gets distracted. And it is not just Peter. The disciples in the boat have been distracted by their exhaustion, by the wind and waves, by the visual imagery of Jesus walking on water—it is not until the winds cease and the sound of sheer silence pervades the void that they know God, calling him such and worshipping him.
God is not in the chaos but in the quiet; not because he is absent but because we are distracted. Because we focus on ourselves when our world is in tumult and though we might find those moments to pray or think on God, they are moments dedicated less to the development of our relationship with him and the spiritual nourishment and guidance that he provides and more the prayers of the panicked—the toss up prayers for lost keys or screaming children or the positive outcome of some activity be it test or court case. When we are immersed in the cacophony of the present world we cannot hear the quiet call of God not unless we take time to be still, to listen for him amidst the storms, the winds, the earthquakes, and the fires. As the psalmist today says, “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.“ Notice he doesn’t say, “those who turn their minds to him.” We hear God in our hearts.
God speaks peace to us but we must enter into the peace to listen for God. The Cloud author calls that peace “the darkness”, Elijah calls it “a sound of sheer silence”, others have called it the inner voice or the still, small voice. It is the negative way, the un-saying of God. It compliments all the ways we affirm God and the Church holds up both of these paths. The peace that we will bless you with at the end of the Eucharist is always that peace beyond all understanding, keeping your hearts AND minds in the knowledge AND love of God.
There is a lot of chaos in this world. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote at a time of disease, political disruption, and social upheaval—not so very different from our own time. Instead of reacting to the prevailing anxieties of the day, he responding by calling others into a deeper and more trusting relationship with God. His understanding of faith was not to solve the world’s problems but to turn to God and enter into a more intimate relationship based on love, to listen even if only to the sound of sheer silence for in that moment the winds of tumult might cease and you too will cry out, “Truly you are the Son of God.”