Friday, October 26, 2012

Not an Escape

A chorus sung at a gathering I attended recently took me back to childhood days. Maybe you know it too. The words go like this:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things on earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.

Although it had been years since I last heard them, the music and words came easily, conjuring up memories of long ago. At the same time though, as I allowed the words to sink in I was struck by a jarring dissonance.

Savior of Zvenigorod 2 
I'm a visual learner, so the invitation to imagine being face to face with Jesus carries a certain aesthetic attraction for me. I recently finished meditating through, for the third or fourth time, Henri Nouwen's Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons.1 The book is a guided meditation on four traditional Russian icons, with fold out color plates of the images so that each can be viewed as one reads and reflects. One of the icons is the 15th century Savior of Zvenigorod, an image of Christ that though worn and damaged over the centuries, still reveals what Nouwen describes as “a most tender human face.”

Icons are not intended to be taken literally. They are not to be viewed as factually accurate depictions. Rather they are to be approached in silence, inviting us to gaze beyond the paint and panel. And when we least expect, they may reveal themselves to us as “thin places” in the universe, as windows through which we encounter something deeper than our world of five senses, a place where we glimpse Mystery.

So, as I joined in the familiar chorus recently, I was momentarily carried along – that is, until I got to the line about earthly things growing dim. Some have come to understand faith as a kind of escape from the world. This, it seems to me though, is to misunderstand faith. The God we encounter in Jewish and Christian scriptures is a God who calls us not to escape but to be deeply engaged in our world, to challenge what is wrong and to fight for what is right especially for and with the outcasts, disenfranchised, and struggling.

At the beginning of his ministry, in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus reads from the Prophet Isaiah declaring what his own purpose and mission were and pointing to the journey outward to which he calls those who would be his followers:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4: 18 & 19, quoting from Isaiah 58 and 61).

The true journey inward is not an escape, but necessarily leads to the journey outward!

1  1987. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press.


  1. Great words especially for an election season in the US that is dominated by a conservative brand of Christianity that takes a very dim view of so much of the world and too often promotes a view and practice of spirituality that is narrowly inward and selectively outward especially in terms of who is deemed worthy of God's love. As your post points out so well Jesus made no such distinction and his practice of a vibrant inner spiritual life led him to an equally vibrant love for and engagement with all of God's creation to fulfill the radical mission of justice, healing, and reconciliation expressed so beautifully by the words of Isaiah.

  2. Thank you Evan for your reflection and for making the connection with the climate during the current political season. I wholeheartedly agree with you.

  3. Donna Marcantonio10/28/2012 2:47 PM

    Yes. So important to do both, inward and outward journeys. I have been reading about Ghandi's life lately and feel that he was a master of doing this. I have much to learn from him and believe that his life work holds a key for learning how to move forward in rather than perpetuate the cycle of unrest. I am longing to develop these skills and understandings in community with others!

  4. I agree that both the journey inward and the journey outward are lived most deeply and meaningfully in community!