PRAYER: Hope—Openness For Surprise (Part Six) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

Hope—Openness For Surprise (Part Six) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

A Fascinating Aura Of Awe

Silence and hope.  They do belong together.  Only in the silence of hope can we find our deepest communion.  “We are all one silence,” says Thomas Merton, “and a diversity of voices.”  How can we keep our ears attuned to the silence of our common hope when the divergent voices of our hopes distract us?  How can we tune in to their ultimate harmony, audible only to the ears of the heart?  Only by being still.  Only by nurturing in our heart a stillness that grows big enough to embrace even contradictory hopes, a stillness strong enough to go beyond all hopes in hope.

Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” opens with an interplay between the two halves of a double choir answering one another.  And just when the intricate interweaving of this exchange reaches a climax beyond which it seems impossible to go, a surprise element breaks in: a boys’ choir is added, superimposing the canus firmus on the continuing intense interaction between the other two choirs.  There are now three different choirs plus the orchestra, each following its own musical line.  The effect of this pattern, measured in decibels, is intense loudness.  And yet, surprisingly, the impression a listener gets is one of moving stillness.

The Biblical term for the polyphony of hopes in the music of hope is “glory.”  How often hope and glory occur together in the New Testament!  For the early church, the concept of divine “glory” provided the link between the vision of hope and its ultimate realization.  No less than the leverage for transforming the world rests on this pivotal concept “glory.”  “Glory,” as understood today – and that means mostly misunderstood – is a somewhat dusty concept, stored away in the attic of our religious vocabulary.  Like “majesty” it suggests not much more than pomp and circumstance.  It seems to have little relevance for responsible Christian living.  Who would guess that the concept of divine glory once provided the link between the vision of hope and its ultimate realization?  And yet, for the early church the leverage for transforming the world pivoted on their understanding of God’s glory.

If only we could recover a sense of what “enlightenment by the good news of the glory of Christ,” (2 Corinthians 4:4), meant to the first Christians.  We would realize why that enlightenment had power to transform the ancient world.  We would see that it still has power to transform even the social structures of our own time.  But we would also become aware how closely glory is related to beauty.

It seems that the English word, “glory,” does not suggest beauty strongly enough.  J. I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder, my trusty companion, lists no less than ninety-two synonyms for glory; the word beauty is not among them.  In the New Testament concept of glory the Hebrew notion of  “weight,” (kabod) and the Greek notion of “appearance,” (doxa) came to be fused into one.  We might get the idea, if we imagine a glorious occasion on which famous stars make a personal appearance and throw their weight around, as we say.  Glory, in the Biblical sense, is certainly more than that.  It is the manifestation of God’s powerful presence, the overwhelming appearance of “the God of glory,” (Psalm 29:3).  Beauty is implicit in all that.  God’s glory in light, fire, cloud, rainbow, starry sky, conveys a sense of surpassing beauty.  We should, now and then, read “beauty” when we see “glory” printed in our Bibles.  This would lead us to a deeper understanding of this key term – all the more, if we keep in mind the connection between beauty and hope, that we have already discussed.

A famous line from Rilke’s Duino Elegies expresses in contemporary language that commingling of resplendence and power, so characteristic for God’s glory in the Bible:

For beauty’s nothing
But the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear,
And why we adore it so is because it serenely
Disdains to destroy us.

If we thus think of God’s glory as fascinating aura of awe, we might rescue it from the realm of pompous ceremonial and associate it more correctly with beauty.  Let us remember, though, that we experience beauty as “shattering” not only in stormwind, earthquake, and fire, but in “a small, still voice,” (1 Kings 19:12), say in the gracefulness of a fawn.  We catch sight of it there, slender, dark against the freshly fallen snow, motionless – and we are “undone.”  We can still feel the trembling from such an encounter with overwhelming beauty when St. John writes: “We beheld his glory, glory as of an only-begotten of a Father,” (John 1:14).

This vision of divine glory leads to action.  Glory becomes, therefore, the key term for an understanding of Christian apostleship as the early church saw it.  We can convince ourselves of this by reading, for example, the Second Letter to the Corinthians.  All the quotations of the next two paragraphs are taken from that early document.  The term glory is repeated well over a dozen times here.  The essence, the goal, and the method of Christian witness in the world are clearly spelled out.  And it all hinges on glory.

First of all, what is our calling as Christians?  It is “a ministry of reconciliation,” (5:18), through “the good news of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God,” (4:4).  And what is the goal of this ministry?  “That the abounding grace may overflow, through the thanksgiving of many, to the glory of God,” (4:15).  But “who is qualified?” (2:16), the apostle asks, for this “ministry of justice abounding in glory,” (3:9).  The answer is: “We, all of us,” (3:18).  “Our qualification is from God,” (3:5).  And why?  “Because God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has kindled a light in our hearts, to shine forth and make known his glory, as he revealed it in the features of Jesus Christ,” (4:6).

But the decisive question is one of method.  How is our mission to be accomplished?  There we receive a one-verse answer, inexhaustible in its richness: “We, all of us, catching as in a mirror, face unveiled, the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into that same likeness from glory to glory,” (3:18).  In the two parts of this crucial verse two aspects of the one calling are set side by side: transforming vision and visionary transformation.  The bond between those two is the divine glory revealed in Christ.  He is “the image of God,” (4:4), in whose likeness we were created.  That is why all of us are able in faith to catch sight of him in the microcosmic mirror of our heart.  But notice, the pattern for the transformation of macrocosm and microcosm is one and the same.  Christ is also the primordial pattern for the whole universe, which is destined to mirror divine beauty in nature and in history.

Because the believers saw in Christ God’s Word, God’s Wisdom, God’s very Image, they professed that “all things were created in him, through him, and for him,” (Colossians 1:16).  In him – because he is the eternal prototype, “icon of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation,” (Colossians 1:15).  Through him – because he is “the splendor of (God’s) glory,” (Hebrews 1:3), that “shines in the darkness,” (John 1:5), when God speaks in the beginning, “let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3).  For (or toward) him – because, as the image that creation bears is being developed, like a photographic image in a darkroom, the full splendor of divine “glory is about to be revealed in us,” (Romans 8:18).  Already, every human being is the “image and glory of God,” (1 Corinthians 11:7).  Our transformation “from glory to glory,” (2 Corinthians 3:18), may be understood as an ever more splendid realization of God’s will, “on Earth, as it is in Heaven.”  The same process may be understood as an ever more faithful cosmic mirroring of God’s beauty.

Beauty transforms the beholder.  Beauty is winning.  It wins you over.  Even goodness and truth will not be fully convincing to the human heart unless they are gifted with a gracefulness and ease that makes them beautiful.  Take any period in history.  Who is still convinced by the arguments of its politicians, its philosophers, even its theologians?  But think of the poets of the same period of listen to its music.  We take a dim view of the hopes that inspired the crusaders.  But their hope inspired the cathedrals and still shines from every arch, sill, and coping stone.  Beauty, even in its most limited realization, holds an unquestionable promise of illimitable fulfillment.  When we contemplate, say, the great rose window at Chartres, we simply know what it means that “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God,” (Romans 5:2).

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