Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Pentecost Year C- Sunday, May 15, 2016
|Photo credit LeAnn Gannon|
“ Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.”
-Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)
Not an image we normally associate with Pentecost, but perhaps we should. We are more likely to think of wind and fire and especially, language or the gift of tongues. Indeed the readings appointed for this year lead us to consider the chaos and disunity and misunderstanding that comes from the multiplicity of languages on the earth. For according to the Book of Genesis, that very multiplicity is the curse imposed by God at Babel on mortals who were overreaching their creaturely status. The events described in the Book of Acts as occurring on this Pentecost, 50 days after Passover/Easter, are explicitly designed to counter that confusion: an undoing, a correction or healing of this failure of communication that is our Babel. Rather, we hear in Acts the story of people of many nations all speaking in other tongues or alternatively, understanding each other, understanding the speech of those of other languages and accents and cultures and races and customs. It's a heady picture! And like much of the Book of Acts, Luke's continuation of his Gospel, it is an idealized one which paints over differences and difficulties...at least for another chapter or two. Then the usual suspects reappear in the life of the church: misunderstanding, ethnic tensions, quarreling and suspicion along with courage, profound faith, extreme hope and the spreading of the story of Jesus, admittedly as much through those fleeing persecution as through those sent to the mission fields, as it were.
The events of that first Pentecost are many layered and its meaning has been appropriated in so many different ways in different times and by different groups of Christians.
Some say it is the giving of the Spirit to the Church. Maybe...though might it not be more accurate to say (as Bp. John V. Taylor does) that it is the giving of the Church to the Spirit as fuel to be burnt up for the life of the world.
Some say it is the birthday of the Church. Maybe...though it seems to me that the Church was there from the moment that someone first answered the invitation of Jesus: Come, follow me. And maybe even before. In any event, please spare me the red helium-filled balloons.
And some say it is all about the gift of speaking in tongues. That's a focus that is at the heart of a now worldwide religious revival that began in the greater Los Angeles area in 1906 with the so-called Pentecostal or Charismatic movement marked by the practice, among others, of speaking in unknown languages which may or may not be interpreted or understood by the speaker or the hearer. I don't know. I've never experienced this personally, though there are men in our Order who have and who may still practice it as a private prayer language.
But increasingly I find myself going back to the quote from Thomas Merton with which we began. Pentecost, more than anything, is for me about that wind that blows at every moment of our lives thousands of seeds of “spiritual vitality” coming to rest imperceptibly in our minds and hearts. Pentecost is more than a one-time event. It is an ongoing reality. Always around us, within us, among us, between us is the action of God's life-giving Spirit calling us, coaching us, birthing us to new life...and that not only in times of quiet and peace but even, and perhaps most characteristically, in and with and through the most difficult and even appalling events of our lives. And alas, most of the time we miss it. We are not prepared to receive these seeds, they do not fall on that receptive soil of freedom, spontaneity and love that Merton describes as their natural seed bed. And so they go unnoticed and uncultivated.
The 20th century English priest and writer Alan Eccleston once wrote:
“It is not so much the gift of tongues that we now need as the gift of ears, not so much the proclamation of our beliefs as the willingness to listen to the ways in which we ourselves are being addressed, not so much the assertion of our knowledge but the silent admission that we are ready to learn.“
What we need in our day and age, this week, today is not so much the gift of tongues, as astonishing as that might be, but the gift of ears. An ability to here the sound of the wind of the Spirit blowing where it will, learning to listen in reverent silence at those surprising and uncomfortable places where we can be taught. That would be a real Pentecost.
We need, perhaps also the gift of noses to smell the fragrance, the odor of grace in the middle of the stink of violence and war and exploitation and systemic inequality as well as to catch its scent in all the sweet acts of love and honest affection and concern and respect that mark our lives, large and small. That too would be a real Pentecost. And the gift of eyes that no longer turn away from the evils that surround us but face them and name them and address them and, with God's help, defeat or transform them. That, too, would be Pentecost.
And perhaps most of all, we need the gift of touch to reach out to those who hurt and, infinitely more difficult, to allow others to reach into and touch the bruised and vulnerable places within each of us, bringing if not healing, at least fellowship in the loneliness of our own woundedness and pain. That would definitely be a new Pentecost.
“ Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men.”
May this more-or-less forgotten feast of Pentecost awaken us to a living awareness of those thousands of winged seeds that moment by moment surround us. May we receive them in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love. And may we become ourselves, each of us, seed bearers of the Spirit.
And who knows...maybe God will give us all glossolalia, the gift of tongues.
Don't be surprised.
God does things like that!