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Center for Action and Contemplation

Ascent and Descent

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Unknowing: Week 1

Ascent and Descent
Wednesday, October 3, 2018

When it says, “He went up,” it must mean that he first went down to the deepest levels of the earth . . . to fill all things. —Ephesians 4:9-10

Philosophies and religions are either Ascenders, pointing us upward (toward the One, the Eternal, and the Absolute) or they are Descenders, pointing us downward (toward the sacred within the many, the momentary, the mystery, and the earth), seldom both at the same time. Yet that’s what we need.

Metaphors of darkness, descent, and unknowing are found throughout the Bible: caves, clouds, the Exodus, exile, the belly of the whale, wilderness, and desert. Within Scripture we also see a spirituality of light, ascent, and knowing which is represented by mountaintop images, especially Sinai, Horeb, Tabor, and the Mount of the Beatitudes. “The pillar of flame by night and the pillar of cloud by day” (Exodus 13:21-22) are both good guides, but not one without the other!

Jesus himself points us both upward and downward at the same time. He fully rests in a trustworthy Absolute, his anchored self, made in the image and likeness of God. This is his only real knowing or ascent. From there, he is free to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world, honor and protect its diversity and complexity, and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time. This is Jesus’ descent into the world of earthiness.

We have both knowing and not-knowing, ascent and descent, beautifully integrated in two companion pieces in the Scriptures: Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. When Moses is on Sinai, God is somehow manifest in thick darkness (Exodus 20:9). “You saw no shape on that day at Horeb” (Deuteronomy 4:15). Moses “sees” and “hears” to some degree, yet YHWH does not allow Moses to see God’s “glory” or “face.” The most that Moses can see is, humorously, YHWH’s backside (see Exodus 33:18-23).

In the parallel story of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36; Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-9), there is first dazzling light yet a cloud soon over-shadows the whole scene. The epiphany is both light and darkness, knowability and unknowability, disclosure and non-disclosure. Jesus then deliberately walks with the disciples back down the mountain, onto the plain and desert of everyday life, and out of this enlightening, but also dangerously ego-inflating experience.

Honeymoon experiences cannot be sustained. We must always return to the ordinary. Jesus tells the disciples who witnessed his transfiguration, “Don’t talk about it!” (Matthew 17:9). Jesus knew that talking too soon would only weaken the experience. Silence seems necessary to preserve the sacred and the mysterious, just as in sexual intimacy.

Spirit always desires to incarnate itself. Matter always wants to be God. The Christ Mystery is uniquely saying that we can have it both ways—the enlightenment of Spirit balanced out by the density and opaqueness of matter.  Maybe that is the essence of the human condition.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 117-119; and
“Ascending and Descending Religions,” The Mendicant, vol. 8, no. 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2018), 1.

Image credit: Philosopher in Meditation (detail), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1632, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: If we are going to talk about light, then we must also talk about darkness, because they only have meaning in relation to one another. All things on earth are a mixture of darkness and light, and it is not good to pretend that they are totally separate! —Richard Rohr
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