Path of Descent
The Sign of Jonah
Monday, October 17, 2016
Jesus’ primary metaphor for the mystery of transformation is the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:39, 16:4; Luke 11:29). Jesus tells the growing crowds, “It is an evil and adulterous generation that wants a sign” (Luke 11:29), and he then says the only sign he will give is the sign of Jonah. As a Jew, Jesus knew well the graphic story of Jonah the prophet who was running from God and was used by God almost in spite of himself. Jonah was swallowed by a whale and taken where he would rather not go. This was Jesus’ metaphor for death and rebirth.
Rather than look for impressive apparitions or miracles, Jesus said we must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit up on a new shore and understand our call, our place, and our purpose. Paul wrote about “reproducing the pattern” of Jesus’ death and thus understanding resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11). Unless you have gone down, you do not know what up is! Unless you descend, you won’t long for and make inner space for ascent.
This is the only pattern Jesus promises us. And we see this pattern mirrored in other traditions as well. Native religions speak of winter and summer; mystical authors speak of darkness and light; Eastern religions speak of yin and yang or the Tao. Christians call it the paschal mystery, but we are all pointing to the same necessity of both descent and ascent, and usually in that order.
The paschal mystery is the pattern of transformation, and it indeed is a mystery—that is, not logical or rational at all. We are transformed through death and rising, probably many times in our lifetime. There seems to be no better cauldron of growth and transformation, for some cosmic reason. Even in the Trinity, God self-empties before the other can then fill the empty space. The Father pours love into the Son; the Son pours love into the Spirit; the Spirit pours love into the Father. Each is emptied and ready to receive the other’s love. Trinity is for me the foundational template for all true love.
We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster such as the death of a friend or spouse or the loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there. As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent because we are by training capitalists and accumulators. Mature religion shows us how to enter willingly and trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers.
We would prefer clear and easy answers, but questions hold the greatest potential for opening us to transformation. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the perilous dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to the state of emptiness—to a momentary sense of meaninglessness—in which we ask, “What is it all for?” The spaciousness within the question allows Love to fill and enliven us.
Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, hibernation, initiation, and transformation. Yet we avoid this sacred space. When we avoid such darkness, we miss out on spiritual creativity and new awareness. Let’s be honest: there has been little solid teaching on darkness in Western Christianity for the last five hundred years. We have instead sought light, order, certitude, and theological “answers” for everything, which by themselves do not teach us very much.
Gateway to Silence:
The way up is down.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 44-47.