Homily for Sunday, February 4, 2018
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to one Ilse Erdman, said about joy and creativity that:
Only in joy does creation happen (happiness, on the contrary, is only a… pattern of things already existing); joy, however, is a marvelous increase… a pure addition out of nothingness…. Joy is a moment… not to be held but also not to be truly lost, since under its impact our being is changed.
Joy is creative, and in this joy is different from happiness. Galway Kinnell, the former poet laureate of Vermont, in one of his poems (“First Song”), wrote of the “darkness and… sadness of joy.” Joy can be complex, often containing (in a strange way) darkness and sadness. Which is similar to what the orthodox theologian Alexander Schmeman once said, that:
The knowledge of the fallen world does not kill joy, which emanates in this world, always, constantly, as a bright sorrow.
In just a moment I want to get back to joy and creativity, and to joy and darkness and sorrow. But first I want to visit Esther Perel, the couples therapist and author. In a 2013 TED talk, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship,” Perel says that sustaining sexual desire in a long-term relationship has much to do with the imagination. She points out how the very things that make for a close, loving relationship—selfless care, being dependable, being responsible, knowing the other so well that we can anticipate his or her wants—stand in tension to the ingredients of desire: spontaneity, difference and otherness. Logs won’t burn unless there is air between them, she says. And in this space between, in this distance, is the opportunity for imagination. Couples that are able to nurture the imagination—and playfulness, novelty, anticipation, curiosity and mystery, but especially imagination—have what Perel calls “erotic intelligence,” and are able to better avoid the over-familiarity that can so easily quench desire.
Now that I have everybody’s attention….
The school of prophets that composed the book of Isaiah would have benefitted, I think, from a visit to Esther Perel. Like most new relationships, Isaiah starts out great; the first 39 chapters are fresh and full of passion—eros, if you will. Isaiah’s writing here may be unpolished, but it’s just this rawness and passion that make the first 39 chapters of Isaiah sing, that make these chapters so seductive. But in chapter 40, something happens. The images lose some of their freshness. The verses may be proportional—look at the even couplets of today’s text, for example—but the poetry lacks lack the punch, the verve, of earlier chapters. These later chapters are still good, but the former sparkle, the creativity, just isn’t there.
Which might be another way of saying that the joy isn’t there, for—as Rilke points out—joy is needed for creativity. The school of writers that wrote Isaiah may have been happy—by chapter 40 they wrote from exile in Babylon, the Paris of its day and a great place to live—but they weren’t as creative. I wonder: Did they have joy?
I wonder if Isaiah’s joy, like eros tends to do, petered out on account of the familiar. Before the exile—when the first 39 chapters of Isaiah were written—Judah was beset by frequent regime change and by wars, and the people longed for God, or at least stability. I wonder if the yearning the people experienced at that time was like air between the logs, and there—in that space—Isaiah’s imagination was able to burn. Isaiah’s poetry from that time is playful and novel, full of mystery and anticipation; it’s so imaginative. There is plenty of suffering, to be sure, but Isaiah’s writing is creative. So creative that I wonder if the sorrow we see in Isaiah is actually “bright sorrow”—joy! The people—including Isaiah—may not have been happy, but—given how creative and brilliant his poetry is—I suspect they had joy. Even in the most trying of circumstances—the deaths of kings, wars, the siege of Jerusalem—Isaiah was brilliantly creative, the precondition of which is joy.
Then during the exile—just as Esther Perel might have predicted—the Hebrews (including the prophets that wrote Isaiah) settled into patterns similar to those of a long-term relationship. They “built houses and lived in them,” they “planted gardens and ate of their produce,” (Jeremiah 29:5). For 70 years, under the protection of their overlords, the Hebrews enjoyed a stability greater than any they had previously known. In this long-term, stable and predictable relationship, desire waned; eros diminished; and the fire of Isaiah’s poetry dimmed.
Though I would have loved to see “second Isaiah” be as brilliantly creative as the first, yet in Isaiah’s decline of creativity, I see hope. Though I would have loved to see that much more great poetry in our world, in the decline of Isaiah’s creativity, I see the possibility that, even though we may be suffering, even though we may be experiencing grief and loss, even though we may be experiencing distance from God and feeling “other” from those around us, yet it is possible to cultivate joy. Not happiness—which is merely a “pattern of things already existing” and not at all creative—but joy, which is “a marvelous increase, a pure addition out of nothingness,” something “under [whose] impact our being is changed.” We can experience joy amid suffering—perhaps we can experience joy most profoundly amid suffering—because the very distance we feel, the “other-ness” we experience, gives rise to desire. Which always in turn stimulates our imagination… Which then, over time, can lead to anticipation and mystery… And eventually, if we let it, curiosity… And even novelty and playfulness. And there—in that space of imagination and curiosity and playfulness—it is possible to cultivate joy.
And no matter how “dead” we may be, yet is it possible to cultivate joy! In her TED talk, Esther Perel, speaking of her hometown in Belgium in which there were many Holocaust survivors, distinguished between survivors who never died, and those who came back to life. Those who had never died were “tethered to the ground,” she said. They could not trust, they could not experience pleasure; always vigilant, they could not be playful. But those who had died and come back to life, on the other hand, “understood eroticism as an antidote to death,” she said. They knew how to keep themselves alive, vital and renewed.
To help us, to train us, not just in staying alive but in dying and coming to life again, to train us in keeping ourselves vital and renewed, the Church gives us a weekly reminder of Jesus’ dying and coming to life. The Eucharist is filled with the ingredients of eros: with desire, imagination, playfulness, novelty, anticipation, curiosity and mystery. Which might be another way of saying that that the Eucharist is filled with the ingredients for joy. If we let it, this joy is creative. And what this joy can create within us is astonishingly beautiful: the Eucharist creates in us space for the life of Jesus Christ to come alive in us as only we can live it. And there is nothing more joy-filled, nothing more playful, more novel, more mysterious, more full of curiosity and anticipation—nothing more seductive—than for us to live into that life of Jesus Christ as only we can live it.