BEING WITH ‘I AM’

Author: Fr. Michael Byron
March 24, 2019

I came across a marvelous poem this week in, of all places, the St. John’s University alumni magazine.  It was embedded within an article that was written by a man named Gabriel Flynn whom I do not know.  The article was a tribute to his father, who has been an actor, poet, writer, and now a person living with advancing dementia in a senior care facility in St. Paul.  Judging from the year of his graduation, John Flynn must be about 75 years old.  The poem that John wrote is titled “Daily Diminishment,” and he authored it 4 years ago. 

Here it is:
“Live like there’s no tomorrow
Die like there is.  Fill what’s left
with prayer and poetry, the love
of children and boxer dogs.
The essence of life is death
Poetry is a tug of war with death.
Both win.”               

This is obviously a man who understands what is required to stand in the breach of Holy Mystery, without clever words of explanation for why things happen as they do.  Only poetry—which can hold all kind of apparently contradictory things together at the same time—only poetry is up to the task.  Or, perhaps, parables too.  There’s a reason why Jesus used them so often to teach.

Jesus came into our world to tell us about God, not to unfold the rational logic for the unfolding of time and events.  He came to confront us with Holy Mystery, by the way he spoke and by the way he lived.  He introduced us to God.  When people of faith speak of “Mystery” we are not speaking primarily about puzzles and conundrums and seemingly unsolvable predicaments.  We are, rather, speaking about realities so deep, so eternal, so far beyond our powers to capture in words and formulas and images that we are left simply to stand in the midst of it all—in relative silence—sometimes in ecstasy and sometimes in excruciating pain and confusion.  That’s often a very hard thing. 

In today’s first reading the book of Exodus, Moses encounters Holy Mystery in conversing with God himself.  He quite understandable wants to figure out the physics of that burning bush.  How can something be on fire, he wonders, without being consumed?

It’s not a bad question, but it is not a question that recognized that he’s dealing with God here, who will not be reduced to strict definition or scientific demonstration.  One has to have the capacity for living in and with Holy Mystery if one is to follow after God…the real one.  Moses take off your shoes.  As St. Augustine once observed—and I’m paraphrasing him here—if what you think you have hold of can be mapped out with a logical description, it’s not God.

And that’s really the whole point of this first reading.  Moses continues by requesting to know God’s name, so that he can share it with others who ask.  But in the bible, to know someone’s name is to presume to have some sort of control over that person, somehow to have figured that person out.

And that’s precisely what God will not permit.  God very much wishes to be known by the people he loves, known by his gracious acts toward them/us in the world, but God is not capable of being domesticated by our poor powers of manipulation.  Surely God’s answer to Moses’ question, “My name is ‘I AM’”—surely that was as frustrating to him as it still seems to us today.  What kind of clarity comes with that?

And yes, that’s the point.  We get to be near God, and to accompany God through every moment of life—and death—but we don’t get to solve the Holy Mystery that God is.  Again, sometimes that realization brings happiness, other times it brings agony.  And the agony is never more intense than in moments of suffering that threaten to seem absurd—when mosques blow up in New Zealand, when floods sweep away people’s homes and farms, when planes crash into the ground, when tornados and hurricanes and tsunamis devastate lives and landscape, when cancer shows up, when chronic disability comes into our home—like John Flynn’s dementia.  When all we want is a simple answer for the heartbreak of evil, and we can’t find it. 

A great part of what true faith demands of us, as it did of Jesus, as it did of Moses, and as it ever has and ever will of disciples, is the wonderful—awful requirement to accompany “I AM,” to be embraced by Holy Mystery/God without having figured out that Mystery. “Lord,” they asked, “Why were those Galilean pilgrims killed by Pontius Pilate just for making sacrifice at the temple?  Why did that tower fall on innocent people in Siloam?”  It seems that we deserve answers that we don’t get.  What’s the point of being faithful in the face of so much suffering that can seem so arbitrary and unjust?  We want to figure it out.  Jesus’ response can seem maddeningly insufficient: “I know,” he says, “I know, but stay with me.  Focus on bearing fruit here and now, until the day that all is made clear.”  That is discipline of this holy season of Lent.  To love and trust the Mystery that we cannot fully understand, but whom we know.  “I AM” is here, through it all.  Poetry helps.

“Live like there’s no tomorrow
Die like there is.  Fill what’s left
with prayer and poetry, the love
of children and boxer dogs.
The essence of life is death
Poetry is a tug of war with death.
Both win.”   
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