Impermanence and Transformation

And when some of them were talking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive offerings, he said: “These things you are looking at—days will come when there will not be left a stone upon a stone that will not be torn down!”

Luke 21:5-6

Yesterday a confrere sent along some pictures of a new construction of “luxury assisted living apartments” on the site of one of our former brothers’ houses in Belgium. Several of them showed the current building along with various views of the interiors of the apartments. One picture, however, was particularly striking. It was an aerial view of the area after the brothers’ house had been demolished and before the new construction had begun. I found myself for some minutes taking in the empty lot where once communities of brothers had lived and from which they served. The last time I was there it was to visit one of our most gentle and revered brothers who was dying. Despite how poor his own health was at the time, he asked me for my mother who was suffering, as she had for many years, from Alzheimers’ disease and whom he had met in his visits to the United States. He told me of how he often thought of and prayed for her. His care for her, at such a distance and in light of his own diminishment, was a communication which touched my heart deeply and affected it permanently.

As I reflected on the empty lot that had been a community residence, I experienced the sadness of loss and inner emptiness that always lies beneath the surface of life. Yet, my memory of Brother Marcel and his gentle, kind, and loving disposition also aroused a gratitude and a sense of enduring communion that combined a certain sweetness with the sadness. I was reminded of the Buddhist tradition of the sand mandala, where monks work together for days or weeks to create a beautiful design in the sand, then brush the sand together into a pile, and then spill the pile into a body of running water that the blessings of the mandala may be shared throughout the universe.

Today we read in Luke’s gospel of Jesus’ reminder to the people that even the temple, the very abode of God as they see it, will be destroyed. As with a mandala, the people had devoted so much of their life to create, in accord with what they understood to be God’s command to them, to build a house of great wealth and beauty for God. Yet, Jesus tells them that for all their desires, designs, and efforts, “days will come when there will not be left a stone upon a stone that will not be torn down!” Other human persons, with temporarily greater power, will come and destroy what they have devoted their lives to building to the glory of God.

Impermanence is difficult and painful for human beings. There is contained within it, however, a deeper life. The “sweet sadness” that my recollection of Brother Marcel contained, and so of my mother for whom he prayed, and for the brothers known and unknown who had lived in the house that once occupied that empty lot, is an intimation of “eternal life.” This apprehension of a deeper reality, however, is available only to ourselves as transcendent, as spirit. In a highly secularized culture in which we are seldom able to live beyond a life of function, we have pretty much repressed our access to the deeper truth of impermanence. We tend to measure the value of our life and its contribution to the world in light of the power we have attained or the product we have created. Because we know while not acknowledging that all of our own power must diminish and everything we make must ultimately be destroyed, we must repress the truth of our own limit and mortality.

So, the first emotion I feel as I gaze on the empty lot is a sadness that seems to awaken the possibility of discouragement and despair. Without a lived sense of spirit and transcendence such emotions are only dreadful to us. As they highlight our own impotence, we feel we must ignore or repress them. To see a deeper life even within the passing and the emptiness requires of us to sit with the sadness, to trust and have faith that within the loss and the sadness is the kernel of a deeper and eternal life.

Lately our Congregation has been wrestling with the possibility of a transformation, of whether and how we are being called to a new and different form of life out of our diminishment and loss. One response we have so far is to repress the loss and the sadness. It is to look at the buildings and structures we have created as our future and call. It is to deny the present pain by congratulating ourselves on the past. It is to console ourselves by seeing our lives repeated in the lives of brothers elsewhere in the world. All of this, however, is to see life only from the functional dimension. It is to fail to recognize the deeper life, what Jesus calls eternal life, that lies underneath all the rising and falling of forms, in our building and in the destruction of that building, in our physical thriving and in its diminishment, in our successes and in our failures: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)

In today’s reading from Daniel, we hear Daniel tell King Nebuchadnezzar of the meaning of his dream. It is that power will rise and fall through the hands of many kings, but through it all “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever.” (Daniel 2:44) Our deeper life, eternal life, is our life for God, our living our life solely as response to God’s will. To know our place is to know that “the kingdom, the power, and the glory” are not ours but are God’s. In our own lives, in our lives together, in our entire world, forms are forever rising and falling. We build and we destroy. Nature creates and through the passing and death of each creation, a new form emerges. We are called to live in accord with and response to the work and power of God manifest in those rising and falling of forms.

The only way to receive new life is to remain present to our deep and true experience of life. As Jesus reminds us, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16:21) Adrian van Kaam reminds us that our hearts and souls are formed, reformed, and transformed as we “hear the truth that every pain conceals.” A functional society’s discomfort with its own fear of impotence would lead us, its members, to repress the deeper life in us. To know the way of spirit, the will of God, eternal life requires of us that we allow ourselves to be drawn to a life that may look like death. We must spend the time it takes to dwell on the empty lot, to create a clearing of our own designs and ambitions, that the open space and the ending and beginning it reflects may speak to us, may show us the way we should go.

                    Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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