Readings for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (Year A):
2 Peter 1:16-21
This sermon was preached at the St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Novato CA on February 26, 2017.
Tomorrow is the feast day of the seventeenth century Anglican priest George Herbert who is arguably the most skillful religious poet of the English language. Ever since I read his poem “Easter Wings” in high school, I have been fed and inspired by his words and wisdom. The poem I have been chewing on the last few days is one with the deceptively simple title: “The Bag.” The third stanza of the poem describes Christ’s self-emptying and incarnation with these words:
The stars his tire of light and rings obtain’d,
The cloud his bow, the fire his spear,
The sky is azure mantle gain’d.
And when they ask’d, what he would wear;
He smil’d and said as he did go,
He had new clothes a making here below.
The two images that resonate most deeply with me are in the second line: “The cloud his bow, the fire his spear.” The Cloud and the Fire. These images are ubiquitous throughout Scripture in describing God—they both appear several times in our readings this morning—and they have become emblematic of different understandings of God that have conflicted and developed over and against each other throughout the centuries. The Fire and the Cloud.
I have been teaching an online course on pre-Reformation English Spirituality and Mysticism at CDSP and we have been studying the 14th century English mystics, whose profound spirituality fed into the ocean of Anglicanism in which George Herbert swam. Today, the most famous of these 14th century English mystics is the beloved Julian of Norwich, but there are others who also deserve our attention, since we are their spiritual descendants, as Episcopalians and Anglicans. The two others that I want to highlight this morning are the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and a freelance hermit named Richard Rolle, who is the author of a book called The Fire of Love. These two mystics can help deepen our appreciation of the Transfiguration of Christ, as told in Matthew’s Gospel.
Richard Rolle is one of my favorite of the English mystics and he uses the image of fire to describe his bodily experience of God. In his book The Fire of Love, he writes, “When a [person] is perfectly converted to Christ, he…feels a warmth most sweet, burning like a fire. He is filled with wonderful sweetness, and glories in jubilant song.” Rolle experienced God as one who tasted sweet, who felt warm like a fire and who sounded like a melodious song. Many other Christians have experienced and understood God in similar ways, as a divine fire that can be physically felt. Such Christians are generally part of what is called the kataphatic tradition, which emphasizes the imminence of God, who can be imagined in our minds and felt in our bodies. However, there is another tradition in Christianity that is quite different, a tradition that is often associated with the image of the cloud.
The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing used the image of a cloud to describe how we fail to see the God who is right in front of us. This mystic is often referred to as the Cloud author because, in his most famous text, he explained that between God and us, there is what he called a “Cloud of Unknowing” that obscures our vision of God. We cannot penetrate this cloud with any rational thought or theological insight or rigorous study. The only we can penetrate and see through the Cloud of Unknowing is by shooting through it arrows of love (“humble impulses of love”). The Cloud author is very skeptical and suspicious of any physical experiences of God like those described by Richard Rolle. He instead encourages a kind of prayer that does not try to access God through the mind or body, but purely through the heart. This author is part of what is called the apophatic tradition, which emphasizes the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God.
These two major traditions invite us to ask ourselves, “How do we experience God? Do we experience God with our bodily senses as a fiery warmth and melodious song? Or do we experience God as on the other side of a ‘Cloud of Unknowing,’ beyond anything we can grasp with our minds or bodies, but accessible only through love and centering prayer?” Historically, those who have experienced God as one beyond the cloud have been at loggerheads with those who have experienced God as fire. This particular division may or may not resonate with us today, but it may remind us of other divisions more close to home. For instance, those who experience God more through contemplative silence can often clash with those who prefer contemporary worship music that makes us feel those wonderful warm fuzzies that Richard Rolle talks about. Or those who want to integrate their spirituality with political justice often clash with those who prefer to keep religion and politics separate. Or those who attend the 8 o’clock service may clash with the 10 o’clockers; or those who prefer Rite I may clash with those who prefer Rite II. The clash between the Cloud of Unknowing and the Fire of Love is emblematic of the many clashes that continue to challenge and plague the church.
The invitation in our readings this morning is to hold them both together, both the Fire and the Cloud. The readings invite us to recognize them both as valid understandings of and approaches to the divine. The reading from Exodus holds them both together when it describes the cloud that covered Mount Sinai for six days while simultaneously saying that the glory of the LORD was a like a “devouring fire.” Also, remember that in Exodus, God led the children of Israel as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Psalm 99 brings these images together by describing “the pillar of cloud” out of which God speaks. Peter invites us to pay attention to the heavenly voice that spoke from the cloud as if it were a fiery lamp shining in a dark place. And in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, Jesus’s face shines like the fiery sun while being overshadowed by a bright cloud. Mark and Luke emphasize the whiteness and the cloud in the Transfiguration, but Matthew highlights both the cloud and the fire. Matthew seems to understand that Peter, James and John may have all experienced the Transfiguration somewhat differently. For Peter, it might have been more like a fire of love while for James and John, it might have been more like a great cloud of unknowing. Matthew makes space for both.
In my class, I invited my students to choose between the Fire of Love track and the Cloud of Unknowing track. The first track involved reading Richard Rolle and repeating the name of Jesus while remaining open to various thoughts, images, and even warm fuzzies. The second track involved reading the Cloud of Unknowing and practicing a form of Centering Prayer that consistently let go of any thoughts, images or warm fuzzies. I was impressed with how well they were able to enter into their own prayer practice while remaining open and curious and enthusiastic about the experiences of their classmates who engaged in the opposite prayer practice. Like Matthew in his account of the Transfiguration, they were able to hold together both the Fire and the Cloud, different understandings and approaches to the divine.
This ability to hold together differences is the great charism of English spirituality and Anglicanism. It is part of our Anglican identity and in our Anglican DNA. And few exemplify this ability better than the beloved Julian of Norwich. As she endured a life-threatening illness, Julian received 16 different visions of God, some fiery and some cloudy. It took her about 20 years to make sense of them and reconcile the apparent contradictions, but she was committed to working through the many different representations of God. To me, Julian embodies the Anglican Via Media (the “middle road”) not so much by compromising, but by holding together both the fiery kataphatic understanding of God and the cloudy apophatic understanding, honoring them both and acknowledging their differences and apparent contradictions. In Julian of Norwich, the fire and the cloud can be held as one. She learns how to do this through her deep theological reflection on her knowledge and experience of Christ, especially the open wound on Christ’s side, which she describes as a “fair and delectable place, large enough for all mankind to be saved and to rest in peace and love” (Ch 24). For Julian, Christ’s side wound becomes a symbol of openness and hospitality to all kinds of different people with all kinds of different experiences. And it becomes an important symbol for Anglican spirituality as a whole. In fact, it is also used by George Herbert at the end of his poem “The Bag.” He writes,
As Jesus was returning, there came one
That ran upon him with a spear.
He, who came hither all alone,
Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear,
Receiv’d the blow upon his side,
And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cry’d.
If ye have anything to send or write,
(I have no bag, but here is room)
Unto my father’s hands and sight
(Believe me) it shall safely come.
That I shall mind what you impart,
Look, you may put it very near my heart.
Christ, in his radical self-giving, invites us into a spaciousness, into the wideness of God’s mercy, so wide that it can hold both the fire and the cloud. George Herbert, Julian of Norwich and St. Matthew knew that this spaciousness was, like Christ’s side wound, close to the heart of God. They knew that it was in this spaciousness that we can be touched by the One who says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid”; that we can, in the words of the Collect, be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with “the cloud as his bow and the fire as his spear,” lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
 Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, Chapter 19, translated and introduced by Clifton Wolters (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 107.