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The Cloud of Unknowing

After a full day of visiting with people, and teaching, Jesus and his friends were to spend the night in the home of Simon’s mother-in-law. It turned out she was sick with a fever. Jesus healed her. The story suggests she was not able to feed them supper until she felt better.

I wonder if part of the healing was to help her in the kitchen, and listen to her blow off steam about being the only cook in a houseful of able-bodied people. That was probably not it, but I do think an important part of Jesus’ healing work was listening deeply, to communicate to people by the simple and profound act of attention, that they were loved.

On Friday evening, and all day Saturday we had a training session here at the church, for people interested in helping with the Week of Guided Prayer. We each practiced listening to another person, as they spoke of their experience of reading and praying with a scripture passage. Our teacher reminded us that the word listen is made up of the same letters as the word silent. There are times when the best gift we can give another person is to be silent, and listen to them.

Words have their place. There is nothing wrong with words, but there are times when words fail. What do you say to someone who is in pain, or feeling anxious, or grieving, or struggling with a serious illness?

Sometimes the best we can do is just be with a person, meet their eyes softly with our gaze, and listen. Sometimes silence is the best, and most healing way for us to be with them. That kind of patient presence shows a person they have your attention. You are not even worrying about thinking of something to say, you are just there, fully with them.

However the healing happened, Simon’s mother-in-law was healed. This was wonderful, and a mixed blessing, because word quickly spread. Soon there was a line of people at her door, all seeking comfort, hope, love and healing from Simon’s friend Jesus. What may have been planned as a restful evening in with a small circle of friends became an after-hours clinic. Jesus gave himself to the loving work of listening to each person, and helping them find healing.

This story, even though it is just a few lines in Mark’s Gospel, is like a pencil sketch by a true artist. I love sketches that are mostly open space on the page, shaped and defined by simple lines that suggest the contours of the subject. A few lines give you enough to let your imagination, and memory fill in details. There is magic and mystery in this kind of art. You are touched as much by what is unseen, as by the marks on the page.

The sketch of Jesus in this story suggests his humanness. He had compassion for those in need. Jesus also became tired, and I imagine, drained by his giving of self. It was hard work to be available so fully, for so many. How much hurt and loneliness, misery and despair could he witness, before he felt the immense weight of it all?

This sketch also points towards the possibility, without defining it, that there is more to Jesus. There is something around, with, within him that is more. Is it more than human? Theologians have tried to describe it, to point to the truth and beauty inside the mystery, using words like holy, divine, spirit, God in the flesh, God incarnate. They are good words, but they are just words.

At times I am amazed at how seriously we take our words. Honestly, we often have enough trouble finding words to answer a question like “how are you?” Or “what colour is that flower?” Or “how do you feel when you hear that song?” Words are limited. Words don’t mean the same thing to the person speaking as to the person hearing. We do the best we can, but it is a humbling task, trying to say what we mean, even about things we think we understand.

What is the best word to describe Jesus as he taught, and loved, and healed people? Were the people around him seeing God? Were they seeing more God, or seeing God more clearly than we do, when we look into the eyes of a loved one? Even these questions are like lines in a simple sketch that define the space, and still leave room for mystery, for visual silence.

It may be sufficient to say Jesus is human enough, to help people, and be wearied by the work. Jesus is God enough, that love and healing flowed through him to those in need. The story also shows Jesus as human enough to feel the need to go off by himself, in the early morning after the after-hours clinic night, to pray.

Depending on the translation, the story says he went off alone, into the desert, or it says he went to a deserted place to pray alone, or my favourite, he went to a lonely place to pray. The lonely part of me is helped to hear that Jesus could be in a lonely place- it hints he could be lonely, or see loneliness in a landscape.

Jesus prayed. This adds more lines to the pencil sketch that points to who he is, without explaining everything. If Jesus is totally God, then why would he go off to a place of solitude to pray to God? That would just be talking to himself! He could do that anywhere, and why would he?

There is more mystery here than clear answers. Jesus prayed. He was not just talking to himself. Later on in the Gospels, Jesus teaches his followers to pray. “Our father”, he says. Say “Our Father”, and talk to God, like I do.”

The story does not tell us what Jesus prayed, or how he prayed in the lonely place. I am drawn to the idea that Jesus prayed in silence.

There are many ways to pray. We pray and ask for help, for ourselves, or for others. We make prayers of gratitude. We have prayers about coming to terms with our mistakes, sometimes called confessions. We have prayers of praise, in which we acknowledge the amazing awesomeness of God. All these prayers fall into the category of spoken, or sung, or at least thought prayers. They involve words and images, and are directed to a particular idea of God. When we say “loving God”, or “Our Father”, or “God who made the earth and all its creatures”, we are aiming our words, thoughts and feelings towards a God we imagine a certain way.

Another kind of prayer recognizes the limits of our words and images for God. It can be called silent, or contemplative prayer. We do not always know what words to say when we talk with each other, and we don’t always have words to pray. We may not even know how to think about, or talk about, or imagine the God to whom we would pray.

Christian tradition has collectively agreed there are some things we can say with some confidence about God, and Jesus. Alongside this set of ideas, there has always been a stream of thought that whispers that our words and ideas about God, and Jesus were made up by people a lot like us. They are human words, human ideas, and likely to be incomplete, inadequate, and not always helpful. There is more to life, the universe, God, and us, than we know how to express. There is a lot we simply do not know. There is mystery.

A healthy, growing faith life, and prayer life, has room for humility, and openness to mystery. Openness to a larger reality only hinted at, pointed to vaguely by our words and images.

There is a book that dates from 14th century England called “The Cloud of Unknowing, in which a soul is oned with God”. It is a collection of short essays intended to help the reader develop in a way of contemplative prayer that does not depend on our human ideas and limited images of God. In fact, in one essay the author suggests we abandon what we think we know about God, and for the purposes of prayer, let go of trying to know, and simply set ourselves on being with, and loving God. The author suggests that our preconceived ideas about God actually get in the way. They are like a cloud of unknowing, that lies between us and God.

I imagine Jesus in that quiet, solitary place, opening his heart to love God in the same way he loved the people who came to him for help. I imagine God in return loving Jesus completely, and looking upon him with a soft-eyed gaze, if we can say God has eyes!

This open-hearted way of praying is available to each of us. It is what we encourage each Sunday, when I ring the prayer bowl to signal the beginning and end of a time of silent prayer. In the space between, in the mystery of silence, there is room, as we sang at the beginning of the service this morning to:

“Come and find the quiet centre

                        in the crowded life we lead,

            find the room for hope to enter,

                        find the frame where we are freed:

            clear the chaos and the clutter,

                        clear our eyes, that we can see

            all the things that really matter,

                        be at peace, and simply be.”  Amen

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