We know that in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, sowing involved broadcasting handfuls of seed which were later plowed under. In the exaggerated scene Jesus depicts for us this morning, it seems the sower is a bit too generous, scattering the seeds rather haphazardly. They’re going everywhere - over brambles, rocks, well-trodden pathways and hungry birds are constantly swooping overhead. The parable gives us an image of the dynamic outward movement of God, as in the beginning of creation, always moving beyond the sphere of his own self-sufficient Being into the void of nothingness. God is constantly pouring himself in abundance into what is not-God. Fr. Simeon Leiva It is this outpouring of Godself that takes flesh in Christ Jesus Our Lord. Jesus himself is the divine Sower who gives himself away to us completely, scattering his word, his very self upon us constantly. He is that Grain of Wheat falling to the earth, dying and rising for us, and bearing abundant fruit in us if we will allow him. In the condescension of his tender mercy, Jesus has come down to restore the beauty of our long-fallow garden, neglected and weedy with our sin and blindness and what Isaiah will call, our grossness of heart.
So it is that this parable becomes for us “an extension of the mystery of Jesus’ own person.” (Donald Senior) Jesus is this amazing superfluity of God’s self-gift to us; perfectly expressed in his signs and words, in his passion, dying and resurrection. It is he who reveals once and for all the immeasurability of God's love and compassion. In Jesus, the reign of God has arrived; the day of salvation is here and now. And this lavish gift of God in Christ begs only our openness to receive its extravagant abundance. It's all there for us, our work then is ceaseless receptivity, availability. But how exactly, we might ask.
Well, one day Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph with just such a question: “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” The old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” We imagine that in the Cistercian version, if there were such a thing, Abba Joseph would bend down, smile and answer instead – “If you will, you can become all dirt.”
You can become all dirt, good rich soil – absolutely grounded in the reality of your nothingness, your need and brokenness. Become all humility as you acknowledge your sins and your weakness. Do not fear to go down to that place of bitter self-knowledge, for it is there that you will receive all that the Lord in his mercy longs to give you. Humility then, my brothers, is freedom from the burden of pretension and untruth. And though “alluring in its beauty,” such humility may be “terrifying in its demands;”Robert Barron for we need courage to be all dirt and wait there. But rest assured, he will find us; he wants nothing more than our openness.
This is our place as monks - down there where Jesus has cast himself for our sake, coming down low to share unreservedly in all that we are. How blessed then to be good rich earth, humus. Humility is then not so much discipline or virtue but the way to relationship with Christ Jesus. It is good to go down low, because he is down there waiting for us. Where else would we want to be? If God is giving himself so graciously, our only task is to stay in place and receive. “The gaze of faith keeps us in place. There we abide in love.”Iain Matthew
This is how we pray best - down there where bitter self-knowledge has left us. Our only business is continually showing up, available for the abundance he longs to lavish upon us. And if we are brave enough to notice the thorns of self-righteousness and pride, our passions raging like hungry birds or most bitter of all our rock-hard hearts, gross and insensitive – it’s all good, if it brings us down low to our reality.
Such is our continuous dance of descent as monks, down, down, over and over. As Thomas Merton will remind us “we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds” and join in the “the endless dance of the Lord in emptiness,” this endless dance of falling and rising with Christ. For when we fall, he can raise us up, which is what he delights in doing. Our business is self-forgetfulness and perseverance in prayer, in work, in love, allowing the Lord to lead, to choreograph our days.
The following lines, written by the great American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham as advice to her dancers, sound like they might be good advice for us monks as well, as we try to get the steps right. Here’s what she says: "Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion…There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique...It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to…keep yourself open and aware…[There is] no satisfaction…There is only a…divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us…alive."
In other words, just keep falling, just keep dancing, becoming all dirt for Christ’s sake, to receive with love and deep gratitude all that he is constantly scattering over us – the love and truth and boundless compassion that he is. This must be our passion, our discipline, our joy.
Photograph by Brother Brian.
Photograph by Brother Brian.