Toward a Peaceful Dwelling

Snow-covered Memorial Church, winter 2020
Sermon by the Rev. Rita Powell, Chaplain for the Harvard Episcopal Community, January 31, 2021. (Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



Good morning to the dispersed and varied community of Harvard's Memorial Church on this, the last day of January in the year 2021, the fourth Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. It is an honor, a privilege, and a pleasure to have some moments to spend with you contemplating together these sacred words on the house and person of Rita Powellwisdom. "Wisdom has built her house," begins the reading from Proverbs, the house of wisdom, a real house, but not a house we can go to in a car. The feast she offers, a real feast, but not food we can eat with our mouths. So how then shall we accept her invitation to us? First, we might need to ask, "Who is this wisdom calling to us?" This wisdom is a she, a feminine, a divine feminine. I like her already.

In the previous chapter of Proverbs she is described as a kind of first action, first principle of God, with God, the delight of God, the master craftsman of God, prior to all of creation. What do we make of a time, a place, a space before creation? She, this wisdom, she was with God and all things were made through her. That sounds familiar. That's the prologue to John. That's how we understand the cosmic word that is Christ. So then, this wisdom, this divine feminine, is like the Word, a part of God, an essential principle of God, a means of translation of God into the created world. In our text today she is the builder of a house, preparer of the feast, hostess par excellence. Where is her house? Where does she live? Where does she dwell?

In the spiritual inheritance of Iran, wisdom has many names, one of which is Mistress of the Dwelling. In this identity as cosmic principle of being it becomes clear that all of perceivable material reality, that is this created world, is her dwelling. Then her house is not far away. It is here. It is the world we inhabit. If we are already in her dwelling, why must she invite us to enter it? How are we not in her house? She says we must lay aside immaturity to enter. Our immaturity, our spiritual immaturity, prevents us from dwelling with the divine feminine. How shall we understand our immaturity? Here the gospel from today may offer us a clue. Perhaps we can imagine the unclean spirit that Jesus cast out as the very spirit of immaturity. It is a spirit which thinks it knows. It thinks it knows who Jesus is. It thinks it knows what it wants, what it needs. It is trapped by its commitment to the certainty of its perception.

When Jesus, the very Word dwelling with us, casts out this spirit of false conviction, false Christianity, immature perception, the word he uses to cast it out is a Greek word rich in agricultural use. It is a word which means to prune, to weed, to clear away as in a garden. This may give us the sense that the spirit of immaturity is something like weeds or like unproductive growth of a tree. It will arise again and again to clutter our perception, our vision, the best flowers in the garden of ourselves. The impediments to dwelling and feasting with wisdom are immature perceptions, foolish commitment to concepts we are certain of. We will need to periodically, methodically, prune them, weed them out. How shall we methodically prune and weed unclean immature wisps of spirit from our minds and bodies? What method do we have to lay aside the ideas that trap us, prevent us from accepting wisdom's call to us? How can we discover, or practice, new ways of perceiving that escape the trap of our certainties?

I turn now to the wisdom tradition of Zen to cultivate exactly such a practice. For many years now I have been an avid student of the Zen tradition in its more endless Buddhist streams, but this year I suddenly wondered if I might try my hand, and mind, and the rest of my body, too, at actual practices. As I understand it, in the lineage of Soto Zen in America, through D.T. Suzuki to Richard Baker, this is precisely the work of Zen practice. Take apart assumed truths by means of disrupting habitual norms, and focus heightened attention to the minute grammar of experiences so as to enter a different way of walking, a different kind of dwelling. I've embarked on a version of a 90-day journey of Zen practice called the ango, which means, I was astonished and delighted to discover, peaceful dwelling. It structures each day around periods of Zazen seated meditation, walking meditation, teachings, and ritualized attention to the mundane elements of life, like bathing, and cooking, and sitting, and drinking tea.

Questions from the teacher animate the silences such as, Can I perceive time or space? What happens if I only perceive through smell or hearing? Is there a difference between an essential what's-ness of my person, and a particular who-ness that I'm familiar with? Can I realize that the shape of the bowl, the rectangle of the window, are creating the space I am perceiving? If I attend to these things is this a way of pruning out the more obvious, normal, reductive ways that I quickly, and easily, move through my field of perception?

Wisdom, our mistress of the dwelling, our master of ceremonies, our presider of the feast, has wished for us to walk in a new way in the world. To dwell with her is exactly that, to walk in a way, a way of insight, insight as a way of entering into the sense of sight to discover the limit of what my eyes can perceive. Insight is the sight sense of that which cannot be seen. Back to the beginning, the house that wisdom built is not a house seen with the eyes, it must be entered with insight, a kind of supra-sensory perception, in sight, in hearing, in sense, perhaps.

Can we so cultivate our awareness of the data of the senses that we begin to perceive the world beyond them, which then we can see, hear, taste, in supra-sensory versions of those honed sensory capacities? Suppose this is sounding too out there for you, consider that our Nicene Creed recalls that we address the God of all that is visible and invisible. God rules over the invisible world, the real invisible world of God. Consider that our Lord Christ announces a Kingdom that is not of this world, a Kingdom that the blind may see while the sighted can miss, that the outsider, and the foreigner, can drink while the insider, the religious normal, can miss. God, our God, is this divine feminine wisdom, both suffusing, and activating, and inviting, through all creation and yet imperceptible, invisible if we are imprisoned by our own certainty, by our immaturity, by unclean spirits cluttering our sensory and supra-sensory capacities. Wisdom, the delight of God, has built us a house where we may dwell with her who dwells with us. May we find our way to our own experience and perceive it, and feast. Amen.

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