Action and Contemplation: Week 2
Face to Face Knowing
Sunday, May 15, 2016
Moses is the first person in the Bible who is spoken of as knowing God “face to face,” “who would speak with YHWH as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11). And yet the Exodus text also demonstrates how coming to the point of full interface is a gradual process of veiling and unveiling, just as in all of us. God takes the initiative in this respectful relationship with Moses, inviting the fleeing murderer (Exodus 2:12-15) into an amazing intimacy and ongoing conversation, which allows mutual self-disclosure, the pattern for all love affairs.
Moses describes this experience as “a blazing bush that does not burn up.” He is caught between running forward to meet the blaze and coming no nearer and taking off his shoes (Exodus 3:2)—the classic response to mysterium tremendum. It is common for mystics, from Moses to Bonaventure, Philip Neri, and Pascal, to describe the experience of God as fire or a furnace or pure light. But during this early experience, “Moses covered his face, afraid to look back at God” (Exodus 3:6). He has to be slowly taught how to look back. At first Moses continues to live like most of us, in his shame. God gradually convinces Moses of God’s respect, which Moses calls “favor,” but not without some serious objections from Moses’ side. It is a long fight, but, as we know, God always wins.
Moses takes spirituality and social engagement together from the very beginning. As Moses hides his face from the burning bush, God commissions him to confront the pharaoh of Egypt and tell him to stop oppressing the enslaved Hebrews. This is the foundational text for teaching the essential relationship between spirituality and social engagement, prayer and politics, contemplation and action. It stands at the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but the connection is often forgotten or denied. It is the job of the prophets and Jesus to remake the connection.
In response to God’s call, Moses quickly comes up with five objections: 1) “Who am I?” 2) “Who are you?” 3) “What if they do not believe me?” 4) “I stutter.” 5) “Why not send someone else?” If it were not the classic biblical text, I would assume this exchange to be a cartoon in the New Yorker! In each case, God stays in the dialogue, answering Moses respectfully and even intimately, offering a promise of personal Presence and an ever-sustaining glimpse into who God is—Being Itself, Existence Itself, a nameless God beyond all names, a formless God previous to all forms, a liberator God who is utterly liberated. God asserts God’s ultimate freedom from human attempts to capture God in concepts and words by saying, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Over the course of his story we see that Moses slowly absorbs this same daring freedom.
But to learn foundational freedom in his True Self, God has to assign Moses a specific task: create freedom for people who don’t want it very badly, freedom from an oppressor who thinks he is totally in control. It is in working for outer freedom, peace, and justice in the world that we have to discover an even deeper inner freedom just to survive in the presence of so much death. Most people become cynical and angry and retreat into various ideological theories over time. Or they walk away and return to an indulgent liberal worldview—this happened with much of my own generation in the 1960s.
Again, we see the inherent connection between action and contemplation, the dialogue between the outer journey and the inner journey. Contemplation is the connection to the Source of Love that allows grounded activists to stay engaged for the long haul without burning out. Moses shows us that this marriage of action and contemplation is essential and possible.
Gateway to Silence:
Richard Rohr, art by Louis Glanzman, Soul Brothers: Men in the Bible Speak to Men Today (Orbis Books: 2004), 17-19.