This morning, we continue in a series called The Divine Dance drawing inspiration from the book of that name by Richard Rohr, Franciscan friar and Director of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.
This will be the 2nd in a 4 part series, the 1st can be found on our website, and while connected, and building on one another, the goal is that each week’s reflection will also really stand alone.
But before we get too far into this, I’d like to invite us to ground this discussion in a few moments of attention to our breath. If you are comfortable, I’d invite you to gently close your eyes, perhaps to lay your hands open in your lap, and to be attentive to the feel of your breath…
Rohr would tell us that all within all things, and all around us, and in between us, is a flow.
This flow Rohr would suggest is what the ancients were pointing towards when they began to use to the word God – and that the goal of the Christianity, as is the goal of all religion – is union with that flow.
And this is where we begin with this second week of pondering from Richard Rohr’s most recent book – The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation – a book exploring one of the most ancient doctrines, or theological innovations of the Christian Tradition – that at the core, God is three, God is relationship, and to use one of the most ancient metaphors for this idea, that God is a dance – a dance that beckons to be joined.
Garth read for us this morning first from the Hebrew Scripture the story of Abraham at the oaks of Mamre – a story that really lends itself well to contemplation as the narrative itself seems to invite the reader into a bit of a mystery.
Abraham met God the story says – but then quickly the narrative describes that three figures approached him in the heat of the day – so he goes out to them, bows down and says “my Lord”.
We see it a bit in the section Garth read, and the dynamic continues, how the narrative alternatively names Abraham’s visitors sometimes as three men or figures (perhaps seeming like Angels), or using the very name of God.
Abraham’s response is hospitality, to set a table before them.
This story is the inspiration for piece of art that we have here at the front – it’s from the religions artistic tradition called iconography specifically in this case Russian, from the 15th century artist Andrei Rublev.
It is officially titled the Hospitality of Abraham but is most commonly called The Holy Trinity – and while theologians, and Rublev himself will likely concede that the story we heard from Genesis is likely not a Jewish pre-telling (if you will) of the eventual Christian declaration that God is 3, but that it perhaps does (as do many other moments in the Hebrew Scriptures) of God as communal – pictured here in table fellowship, sharing from a common bowl.
There is a lot that could be said of this Icon and how it invites contemplation about the mystery of Trinity – the mystery of God as relationship – but what I will point out, is that the perspective of the painting points to their being a 4th seat at this table, and that the viewer themselves in contemplating this art, places themselves in that 4th seat, joining the fellowship at the table, eating from that common bowl, joining in the conversation and community between the 3.
This is where the Icon goes further than the story itself for Abraham stood by the tree and watched the figures from a distance as they ate. This is where our reading from the New Testament or Christian Scriptures brings the ideas together as the table of the passover meal sees Jesus take up a seat surrounded by his friends – no empty space here but divinity and humanity brought together.
I would suggest that it would be overly simplistic and a deeply problematic reading to read into this contrast an understanding therefore that Christianity somehow then completes something that Judaism left undone.
For from it, the Hebrew Scriptures, and in particular the Jewish mystical tradition has a strong thread of unitive spirituality of humanity brought into the divine being, and certainly Christianity holds for much of its history and in many of its expressions a strict separation between the God and humanity.
But this is where Rohr’s reading of the Trinity points, that understanding God as relatedness and relationship calls us to move from an imagining of God as complete being, as ruler or monarch that is out there somewhere – and to move to an imagining of God as a lively dynamic that is to be entered into.
That the dance, the table, the conversation, has space for you, and me – or to follow Rohr and the traditions that he draws from – already includes us – all of us and not to give away too much about where we will go with this in future weeks – all things – lakes, streams, eco-systems – inviting, I would suggest a radical ecological ethic of interconnectedness.
St. Paul the Apostle, wrote that in God we live, move and have our being.
The preposition makes all the difference.
God not as object but context.
Going back to the icon then, there is this space at the front, and art historians note that during a restoration traces of an adhesive seems to have been found there – the thought being, is that at some point, whether by Rublev himself or some time later that a mirror was affixed to the piece – so that the perspective hinted at a 4th seat at the table, and the mirror invited the viewer to literally see themselves at the table – to see themselves mirrored in God.
I’ve referred to words from St. Paul who elsewhere expresses the goal of Spirituality in the Christian Tradition to grow in likeness of God as expressed in the Christ.
I’ve mentioned before about spending many years involved in deeply conservative, evangelical circles of Christianity – and this idea of growing in the likeness of Christ was central.
But what it meant in this context is that humanity begins as fundamentally separate from God and that those who have adopted the right beliefs are brought, through a theological sleight of hand, into a relationship with God, exclusive to them, and it is in this context that this likeness to God is developed.
Now remember though, that the imagining of God this is based on, is an out-there, separate being, a removed one whose prime characteristic is Holy – understood to mean unchangeable, and perfect.
Therefore growing into the likeness of this sort of God is done through attaining moral perfection, which by consequence means a separation from that which is imperfect – in that kind of system – meaning anything that is not part of that worldview.
Rohr picks up this idea of likeness in a very different way.
If God is not a supreme monarch, a being who is fundamentally separate – but the very relatedness of all things – then to grow in likeness means to grow in relationship – to grow in interconnectedness.
To see the separation of self and other, of self and nature, as false – a very different invitation.
To deepen union requires what Rohr names as participatory knowledge —a contemplative posture that instead of using the tools of ego to develop an objective separating knowing —develops the self by mirroring, and allowing what is most true to emerge —or use theological language to embrace an original goodness rather than seek to overcome original sin.
The tools then for such a spiritual task are tools of relationship of relatedness —to know as in relate to, as in to understand and live into a fundamental relatedness to —rather than to know about.
So many traditions would call this knowing wisdom.
Yesterday at the Harvest Moon festival on 11th, we sat on the street (which was closed to traffic) and watched and listened, captured and enraptured to Terrance Littletent’s generous sharing of his Cree Hoop Dancing. He danced an Eagle Dance, which traditionally was danced by young warriors who would have left the community and entered the wilderness for a time of strengthening and wisdom-seeking —and returned having brought into themselves the strength and wisdom of the Eagle.
If you’ve never seen Terrance or another do the Hoop Dance, I can’t recommend it strongly enough —find a chance —it is utterly remarkable, and as he explained how in his dance he would take the Hoops and bring into himself the presence of the creatures who fly in the sky and swim in the water, who walk upon two legs and four, the sun and the moon and the wind —I thought about how what Rohr is just hinting at, just figuring out, is intuitive to Terrance and the wisdom of his elders that he carries.
How the self formed through Hoop Dancing and the teaching embedded in the form is a self in relationship with all things, a self developed by deepened relationship not forged through individuality.
At Lumsden Beach Camp this summer, we would ponder the Genesis creation myth, we’d sing All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir and would challenge ourselves to enter into the relatedness that was beautifully embodied in the valley eco-system, of the many grasses and bird-songs —cooperating to make life full and possible for the rest —to ask, as the two legged ones, the visitors, what is our place in this dance?
It strikes me that in the creation poem of Genesis One, that humanity is the final thing created, which has often been read as the culmination – the fulfilment of what it was all building up to —but when I think of that in this context, I wonder if a better analogy is not fulfillment, but the last ones to enter the dance —so who would do well to pause, listen, observe and then learn with careful steps how the dance goes, taking the lead of the parts already moving in harmony.
That’s one of the beautiful challenges of reading the 4th seat at the table as the one we are called to take – because it’s not really the 4th, it’s not the completion in the sense that my ego-individuality gets to be welcomed into this God-relationship on its own.
If trinity makes a 4th seat available through this endless relationship of giving and space-making then the beautiful revelation upon sitting down is that one is invited to see that it’s an inclusive seat, or maybe the better image is that the 4th seat makes a 5th, 6th, and 7 Billionth available.
The Circle dance, what the Ancient theologians who first spoke about God as relationship called perichoresis isn’t a closed circle, but ever expanding, and that if my moving in this dance doesn’t make more space available then I’m not moving in step.
If the part I am singing in the choir that has a space for all of God’s critters isn’t leaving and creating space for another voice, I’m not singing in tune.
To declare as we do in a New Creed that we are not alone is both a comfort and a call.
To take courage that we are not alone, but to take care —because the way we walk, the way we dance, the way we sign, the way we spend money, the way we use resources, the way we vote, the way we eat, the way we (frankly) anything —we don’t just do in and to ourselves.
For our very breath joins one to another, bringing in and out the same oxygen – as Michael Stone said – the Universe itself breaths in us.
In God, St. Paul wrote, we live, move and have our being.
And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone.