Letters to Peregrinus #46 - On Emergence

The Baptism of Christ (1450s) [1]
by Piero della Francesca (1410 or 1420 – 1492)
It is the fact that never in all history before this had any Jew submitted to being baptized. The Jews knew and used baptism, but only for proselytes who came into Judaism from some other faith. It was natural that the sin-stained, polluted proselyte should be baptized, but no Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism. Baptism was for sinners, and no Jew ever conceived of himself as a sinner shut out from God. Now for the first time in their national history [because of John the Baptist and his ministry] the Jews realized their own sin and their own claimant need of God. Never before had there been such a unique national movement of penitence and of search for God.[2]
Dear Peregrinus (Sunday, the Baptism of the Lord):

I am writing to you at our return to what our liturgical calendar calls “Ordinary Time”.[3]
I have learned over the course of a long life how un-ordinary the ordinary[4] actually is, because God, whose world this is, has not the slightest part of ordinary in Him. I mean God’s “ordinary” in specific and unsettling contrast to the “ordinary” that we humans prefer. The Wisdom Books of the Bible regularly ponder what kind of world we have when God seems set on being free to do what He wants, Who is unpredictable (but only in relation to our self-serving expectations)[5]!
Yet, we humans commit to building, and then to maintaining, a predictable[6] life. Doesn’t it seem to you, Peregrinus, that we humans would do well to consider how our commitment to predictable lives sets us up constantly to be disappointed with the lives we have, and sets people up to be angry with their “lot”[7], and who then blame people who (seem to them) to have wrecked their cozy[8] predictabilities? Think of how powerfully St. John the Baptist unsettled those who came to witness his desert life of utmost simplicity[9] and to hear him get away with telling them all that they needed profoundly to live different lives (a metanoia), lives re-structured around principles long ago forgotten.
Matthew 3: 10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 gI am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.* 12 *h His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[10]

Peregrinus, the year 2019 was for me farthest from ordinary, a year pierced many times by unpredictability, a year of a “thrown” life.[11] Yet it was an undeniably profound year of my life. I did not “enjoy”[12] it, but I learned much, and much about people, which will take me years to process sufficiently.
Jesus Himself began His public life in a startlingly unpredictable way (the only predictable thing was to be His unpredictability), when He, the God-Man and a Jew, came to His cousin John to be baptized at the Jordan River[13] -  
14 *John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and yet you are coming to me?” [14]

God assuredly acted out of the ordinary[15] when He identified Himself with us human beings precisely when we were actively experiencing a need of repentance (metanoia[16]), catalyzed in us by the preaching of John the Baptist and even more compellingly by Jesus.
Sin is grounded in an illusion concerning my own alleged greatness and worth in my own eyes. Repentance is grounded, not in a desire to abase myself, but in a clear understanding and a profound conviction of my great worth in the eyes of God.[17]

The Contemplation

Peregrinus, you have appreciated the help that has been given to me (and I hope to you) when I have considered the paintings of the Masters as expressions of, the fruit of, their contemplation of scenes from the life of Christ.
In the history of spirituality, the term contemplation has been given many different meanings. What is basic is that it has to do with awareness of the presence of God apprehended not by thought but by love. Contemplation is often used interchangeably with mysticism, though the latter is a more abstract term, applied, somewhat loosely at times, to a number of phenomena that relate human creatures to God. Still, mystical prayer often serves as a synonym for contemplative prayer, though generally for infused or mystical contemplation, the highest form of such prayer. At times Meditation has been used as a synonym for contemplation. This is an unfortunate usage, because meditation is generally understood to involve discursive reasoning, something foreign to true contemplation. Reasoning tends to separate, for it involves a subject thinking and an object thought about.[18]

Three points[19] captured my attention in the painting (above) by Piero della Francesca. Promise that you will let me know what you see?
First, I notice the man in the background (to the right) who is in the process of removing all of his clothing, unlike Jesus who has already done so, but Who remains partially clothed. What strikes me is that the unnamed Everyman[20] is in the process of becoming naked, which seems to me an insightful way of describing the human process of learning to be unshielded, vulnerable, and available to the grace of others. The Everyman feels free from his/her fears, because it is Christ Who stands near him or her. I sense happening here in the painting a reversal of the Genesis creation account that tells of the first clothing (hiding) of Adam and Eve, and the fear of God that gave them their reason to do so – “we were afraid.”
Genesis 3: Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day,* the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.[21]d[22]
Second, it is easy to miss that the person standing on the far left, barely able to get into the scene because of the edge of the painting, is a gendered[23] Angel (see the wings, and the feminine presentation?). Why the Angel is made to crowd into the scene was initially unclear to me. A being of such power and grace should have been given whatever space he/she wished. (It is not wise to crowd out an Angel.) But perhaps this “guardian” Angel (belonging to the woman in front of her whose face shows apprehension[24]) does not want to appear too prominent, to impose herself, lest the woman stare at her (the Angel) rather than at Jesus – paying attention there: Who He is, and what He is teaching by His example. A good Spiritual Director also knows how to get out of the way when Christ has made Himself really present to the person he or she is helping (the Directee).[25]
Third, as simply drawn as the divine Dove is, I cannot get over how to my eye that is the most beautiful feature of the whole painting. Of all of the living beings in the painting, it is the smallest in size, the least decorated (just one color – white), but it feels powerful. I do not mean this because I know that the Holy Spirit is powerful, but because the painting causes me to experience its power as it floats there, hovers there, at the center of the action. That divine Dove feels more powerful than even Jesus, under Whom Jesus stands in reverent attention to what is being done to Him by John the Baptist. No, I say. It is being done to Him by the Holy Spirit through John’s right hand.[26]
Well, old friend, the baptism of Jesus marks the moment when Jesus went “public”, after being “hidden” for, we think, thirty years (very little left now of His beautiful life to live among us). And all that happened within/to/because of Jesus during those “hidden years” Luke sums up in this way:
Luke 2: 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.[27]

Have you ever wondered whether the greatest part of your life has been “hidden” by circumstances, by resolutely conventional schemes of recurrence, by the expectations of others? Do you recall how the Paul-influenced author of the Letter to the Colossians perceived that this was how St. Paul himself experienced his life (!), even as massively deployed as it was?

Colossians 3: If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. [28]

Let us pray for one another, Peregrinus. And as I close this Letter, I am thinking of those haunting lines from Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,[29] / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.”[30]


[1] Benezit Dictionary of Artists (Oxford Art Online) - https://doi.org/10.1093/benz/9780199773787.article.B00141439 - “Piero della Francesca is now regarded as one of the greatest painters from an age where, especially in Italy, there was certainly no shortage of painters. However, it was not always so. Vasari, for example, respected his work and his mastery of perspective, but saw him more as a precursor of the 'golden age' of Italian art that, for Vasari, began with the 16th century. Art historians of his day frequently failed to mention Piero della Francesca's work. By the 19th century he was a virtual unknown, so much so that Stendhal (who had visited the chapel of the S Francesco in Arezzo) makes no mention of him in his History of Italian Painting or, for that matter, elsewhere in his art criticism. It was left to certain Italian art historians such as Cavalcaselle, and an Englishman, Lord Dennistown, to identify his importance. Dennistown's enthusiasm for Piero della Francesca was largely responsible for the fact that many examples of his work are now preserved in British museums and galleries.”

[2] William Barclay, ed., The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), 59–60.

[3] Which in this case refers to the weeks lying between the special seasons of Advent (December 1st - 24th this year) through Christmastide (December 25th through January 12th this year) and the season of Lent (Ash Wednesday which is on February 26th.
[4] The Oxford English Dictionary at “ordinary” – “Belonging to the regular or usual order or course of things; having a place in a fixed or regulated sequence; occurring in the course of regular custom or practice; normal; customary; usual.” I am associating “ordinary” with the words “predictable” and “normal”, but perhaps more pointedly with “what is owed to us” (!).
[5] I think that it was Fr. Pat O’Leary, SJ who made the distinction for me between “having expectations” and living “in a state of expectancy.” The latter is what is the goal for us to learn how to do, to be. If we live too attached to what we expect to happen, to be the case, then we open ourselves to constant jolts of disappointment. Some wag once said, “If you want to hear God laugh, then tell Him your plans.”
[6] The Oxford English Dictionary at “predictable” – “Able to be predicted or foretold; (of a person) acting in a way that is expected or easy to predict. In later use sometimes with pejorative connotation: tiresomely consistent with expectations, conforming to type, unimaginative.” And, by the way, biblical prophecy is not predictive in a soothsaying way (seeing the future). Rather biblical prophets tell the truth, or they speak from a greater than average (spiritually gifted) understanding of concrete reality – the ways things actually are. (We might say that a biblical prophet has divinely inspired, or at least divinely motivated, good judgment.) When a person does sufficiently perceive the way things are, it is far easier for him or her to “predict” what very likely will come to pass (“seeing” the future in this way). To put this another way, it is our refusal to see the way things are (in the present) that blinds us about the future.
[7] The Oxford English Dictionary at “lot” – “Any of a set of objects (such as pieces of wood or paper) used in methods of random selection to secure a decision in resolving disputes, dividing goods, choosing people for an office or duty, etc., by an appeal to chance or a divine agency believed to be involved in the results of chance.”
[8] The Oxford English Dictionary at “cozy” – “Warmly intimate or friendly; sentimental; frequently in pejorative sense: complacent, smug, unadventurous, parochial.”
[9] Matthew 3: John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.”
Jn 1:26–27, 33; Acts 1:5.

* Baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire: the water baptism of John will be followed by an “immersion” of the repentant in the cleansing power of the Spirit of God, and of the unrepentant in the destroying power of God’s judgment. However, some see the holy Spirit and fire as synonymous, and the effect of this “baptism” as either purification or destruction. See note on Lk 3:16.

* The discrimination between the good and the bad is compared to the procedure by which a farmer separates wheat and chaff. The winnowing fan was a forklike shovel with which the threshed wheat was thrown into the air. The kernels fell to the ground; the light chaff, blown off by the wind, was gathered and burned up.

h 13:30; Is 41:16; Jer 15:7.

[10] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 3:10–12.

[11] Wikipedia at “thrownness” – “Thrownness (German: Geworfenheit) is a concept introduced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) to describe humans' individual existences as "being thrown" (geworfen) into the world.”

[12] The Oxford English Dictionary at the 14th century verb “to enjoy” – “To be in joy, or in a joyous state; to manifest joy, exult, rejoice.”
[13] See how William Barclay explains why what Jesus did was unexpected, in the quotation that I placed at the head of this Letter to Peregrinus.
* This dialogue, peculiar to Matthew, reveals John’s awareness of Jesus’ superiority to him as the mightier one who is coming and who will baptize with the holy Spirit (Mt 3:11). His reluctance to admit Jesus among the sinners whom he is baptizing with water is overcome by Jesus’ response. To fulfill all righteousness: in this gospel to fulfill usually refers to fulfillment of prophecy, and righteousness to moral conduct in conformity with God’s will. Here, however, as in Mt 5:6; 6:33, righteousness seems to mean the saving activity of God. To fulfill all righteousness is to submit to the plan of God for the salvation of the human race. This involves Jesus’ identification with sinners; hence the propriety of his accepting John’s baptism.

[14] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 3:14.

[15] The English expression “out of the ordinary” is interesting. The Oxford English Dictionary at “out of the ordinary” defines it – “not in the ordinary or expected course of things; not usual or commonplace.” It could mean (1) that what is not ordinary comes out of, is derived from, what is ordinary; (2) that what is ordinary has run its course, has given what it has to give and has nothing left to offer a person – we are “out of” the ordinary (none of it left), we might come to realize, or (3) it could imply that the ordinary defines a field of endeavor, a particular shape of “normal”, meaning that what is not ordinary comes from outside that field, perhaps surrounds the field of the ordinary, enfolding it in its far greater, more mysterious, extent – the “Holy Mystery” of Karl Rahner, for example.
[16] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible at “conversion” – “New Testament conversion is also understood as turning from one way of living to a different way of living. This transformation almost always involves turning to God (Acts 15:19–20; Gal 4:8–9), and it is frequently associated with repentance (Acts 3:19; 26:20). The transformation is actually more commonly referred to as “repentance” (metanoia μετάνοια). The synoptic Gospels present the inbreaking of the “kingdom of God” as the impetus for this transformation. Both John the Baptist and Jesus demand changes in the way people live their lives.”
[17] Leiva, Erasmo. Fire of Mercy, Vol. 1. Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

[18] Michael Downey, The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 209.

[19] The word “point” is a common word in Jesuit spiritual language. St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises most often gives three “points” to guide the Retreatant (the person who is led through the Retreat) into a particular scene in the Bible, but especially in the Gospels. I like the dynamic aspect of “point”, which meant for Ignatius a particular aspect of a biblical story where he himself, but regularly where those he directed spiritually, was “pierced” (as if by the point of a needle) by spiritual insight. “Giving points” to a Retreatant were given in the hope or expectation that the Holy Spirit would “pierce” the Retreatant with a personally experienced depth of insight into the Trinity at work in Christ (a “felt knowledge” as Ignatius desires for a Retreatant).
[20] This famous literary term – “Everyman” – means “human being”; that is, it means either a man or a woman. I think that “Everyman” might be somewhat parallel to the Gospel title that Jesus liked to use of Himself: the “Son of Man”.
* The breezy time of the day: lit., “the wind of the day.” Probably shortly before sunset.

d Jeremiah 23: 24 Can anyone hide in secret without my seeing them?—oracle of the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth?—oracle of the Lord.

[22] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ge 3:7–8.

[23] At least this much for sure: an Angel is not an “It”. It is interesting to observe how painters are not sure what to do with Angels, for it becomes very difficult for human beings to conceive of a “genderless” created being who looks like us. First, the painters conclude that Angels, created beings as we are but of a higher order of power and grace, do look like us, but with wings (notice that Angels are not painted with “haloes”, which itself is a particularly interesting point) and who always look beautiful, perfect skin, flawless garments, etc. Second, most often the painter’s choice is to paint androgynous (i.e., a “man-woman” appearance) Angels. The larger question is whether the human gift of gender, and therefore of pro-creation (both parts are important here: “pro” and “creation”) is a greater gift at the level of Being than what the Angels have given them in their created being. We never hear, for example, that Angels procreate, and so we wonder whether there is only a limited number of God-created Angels, each one created by God the Father, not co-created (pro-created) by individual Angels. This becomes even more complicated to think about when we affirm that each person is “assigned” by God the Trinity a “guardian” Angel. This might suggest that God individually creates each “guardian” Angel in specific relation to each pro-created human being come into the world “fresh from God.” Every guardian Angel is, if you will, form-fit to each human being born into the world – no “generic” Angel.
[24] The Oxford English Dictionary at “apprehension” – “Fear as to what may happen; dread.” This particular meaning rom the 17th century is the twelfth meaning given in the entry.

[25] It might be a helpful line of theological thought to frame the role of Spiritual Director as an “angelic” function. A Spiritual Director is sent by God to direct people toward Jesus (as those Angels near Bethlehem did, instructing those shepherds where to go find the Christ), not letting the shepherds follow their natural inclination to want to stay with and to enjoy the presence of Angels!
[26] There is a kind of “trinitarian” suggestion here in the pattern of (1) Spirit/Dove, (2) Jesus, and (3) John the Baptist; that is, the Giver, the Receiver, and the Mediator - he who mediates the Gift: all three being essential for the baptism to happen.
[27] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 2:40.

[28] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Col 3:1–4. This quotation was, I believe, a particular favorite of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, whose cause for sainthood is advancing.

[29] In the masterwork, the Divine Comedy of Dante, the “I” of Canto #1 of Inferno we find lost in a wood, dark and deep, and he finds himself unable to get out/through it on his own. He exhausts all his powers trying to win his way out. But suddenly there is the arrival of the Friend (a beloved poet) who changes everything, who knows how, who knows the Way. And so, at the midpoint of his life, he began with the help of the Friend the actual, truest spiritual journey, which can only fully commence when a person has exhausted every commitment to figure out the Journey on his or her own, by his or her own talents. The time of his emergence has begun.
[30] See https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42891/stopping-by-woods-on-a-snowy-evening.

No Comments