I’ve been laid up with crippling muscle tightness for the last two days, spending most of my time lying on the floor and trying to stretch the inside of my thighs. I guess that no respectable masseuse will work there, so I had no idea how tight my adductors had become. Sunday night after Dance Tribe in Santa Barbara, I got out of the car and almost couldn’t stand up. My foam roller doesn’t have any instructions for that area, but I ended up laying on my side with the inside of my thigh on top of the roller, wiggling the muscle back and forth across its length, working my way between the knee and my groin. It wasn’t quite like the black-out pain that I used to get doing Bikram’s half locust posture, but it was close.
Yesterday I went in to work to push a customer release forward, but at two the pain forced me home. I spent the rest of the day watching movies between sets on the foam roller and trying to get back into cow pose. I caught the last half of Stigmata on Sunday night, and picked up the ending of The Vatican Tapes yesterday. The two movies captivated me, not necessarily because they were compelling, but because they characterize two of the central difficulties I have faced as I attempt to go about the work that I do in the world.
The dramatic tension in Stigmata revolves around the attempt by a Catholic cardinal to suppress knowledge of Jesus’ authentic teachings. This builds around a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas:
Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me.
This is consistent with the teachings of the four canonical gospels that the kingdom of God does not reside in institutional order, but is found by looking into our own hearts. That the Church is threatened by this teaching is evident from its conduct, but there are many explanations. One is that, as Jesus taught:
It is not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.
[NLT Mark 7:15]
To tell a sinner to look into his heart is to bear responsibility for the consequences of his struggle with sin.
This is a struggle, naturally, to which priests are not immune. Stigmata relates the experience of the saints that suffered from the stigmata – bleeding from the wrists and feet that reflects the depth of the spiritual bond to the cross. The more nearly they approach to that perfect expression of love, the more they are beset by demonic influences seeking to enter into that power to work their will in the world. I would counsel any so beset to trust in love, and to do as Jesus did: offer your enemies forgiveness and a promise of healing. But what most stigmatics hold in their heart is a fear of sin, and it is that fear that runs amok as they draw to them the “demonic” spirits that seek healing.
Witnessing that struggle, many of their peers take refuge in religious institution. The institution becomes a substitute for Christ, and eventually of greater value to those that maintain it. This is not merely a point of theology: I was told as a child that a contemporary pope was torn from the throne of St. Peter because he was about to announce the return of Christ.
The Vatican Tapes explores the second great challenge to the return of Christ. This is the common teaching, drawn from the Book of Revelation, that Christ will be preceded by the Anti-Christ – a figure that manifests all of his virtues for the purpose of corrupting Christ’s purpose.
Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived.
[NSRV Rev. 13:11-14]
This echoes the words of 2 Thessalonians:
The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
[2 Thess. 2:7-9]
The interpretation by many is that the Anti-Christ is a man that will beguile the trusting with spiritual gifts, and lead them into corruption. In The Vatican Tapes, that ‘man’ is actually a woman, perhaps uniting both the anti-Christ and the Whore of Babylon in a single figure.
The problem posed by this interpretation is that it leads us to mistrust the presence of Christ among us. Christ brought fire down from heaven – the flames of the Holy Spirit. If we experience that, might we fear that we are being deceived as predicted in Revelation? And Jesus was famously a wonder-worker. Following Thessalonians, would a man that came to perform similar wonders be recognized as an avatar, or condemned (as Jesus was by his contemporaries) as a false messiah?
The way out of this trap is to recognize that Christ is not the man Jesus: Christ is part of the triune God that was, is and will be. Just so is the Anti-Christ: an opposition to Christ that since the dawn of life here on Earth has struggled against the healing power of divine love. Just as Christ’s influence reaches out from the cross through the ages, so the anti-Christ has woven its thread through our history. In the Bible, it can be identified as the serpent in the Garden, Herod on his throne, and the dragon in Revelation that chases the holy mother into hiding.
The only true barometer that distinguishes these two is our heart. Christ demands nothing of us but that our heart be filled with his love for others. Anti-Christ beguiles us with personal gifts that are twisted to command our fealty. Christ leads us because we trust him; Anti-Christ rules our thoughts with pleasures that cannot be sustained.
Here is the measure of goodness: not in what it offers us, but in the joy that it awakens through the boons received by those we cherish. Here science affirms that we are made in God’s image: if given a gift, our happiness lasts longer if we use it to benefit others.
This should be familiar to many of my readers. What may not be familiar is the allocation of spiritual gifts. This is the greater wonder, in my mind, and something tells me that it is an experience that others should now be encouraged to attempt.
Prior to Dance Tribe on Sunday, I stopped down the street at Hope. The pastor was just beginning his teaching, the concluding lesson in a series titled “A Freight Train Called Desire.” The lesson “The Loco-Motive” explored the damage we do to ourselves in seeking approval from others. I could feel a recognition in the congregation; they all knew this frustration. With that experience established in their minds, the pastor then reminded them that only one trustworthy source of approval exists: that of Jesus’ Abba (Daddy), the one that loves us without conditions, who welcomes our repentance with honor no matter how prodigal our sins.
In these moments prepared by a gifted teacher, I feel the congregants lifting their minds and hearts to the heavens. I am moved, recognizing the integrity of their desire, to guide it to the heavens with my hands, reaching up and up until I feel the angels’ responsive awareness. There is always a moment of surprise at this sense of being among the angels, and we pause there. As on Sunday there was nothing but gratitude in the experience, I raised my hands again to call them down.
Then comes the hard part: all the sorrows of this world come to the fore. Sometimes this is a defensive act – an attempt to protect ourselves from dissolving into love. But more often it is an act of healing. What comes to the fore are the experiences that must be surrendered if we are to hold on to the grace of the angels. So on Sunday, I found myself rooted to my chair as the tears rolled down my cheeks, heart breaking for the suffering of those I sat amidst.
Finally it cleared, just as the pastor completed his message. I don’t remember his closing prayer, for he had called the worship team up to lead the final song of praise. All the hours of practice focused in that moment. Sitting behind the rest of the congregation, I lifted my hands, imagining the stage cupped in my fingers, focusing the angelic presence. The introductory instrumental meditation resolved as a harmonic line, and the female lead sang directly into our hearts:
Oh, how He loves us, oh.
Oh how He loves us, how He loves us all.
Dave Crowder Band, How He Loves
It is an experience that I absolutely do not control. It is a relationship between angels and the congregation. It is something they do together when both see the possibility of service to love: us in manifesting healing in the broken world, the angels in amplifying God’s presence among us.
I am simply the witness to that possibility.
So I beseech you: open your minds and hearts to those possibilities. Do not allow fear to corrupt your love: have faith in Christ, immerse yourself in that security, and know that no power can stand against the strength of the healing we bring to the world with his angels. His love is the anti-anti-Christ. It erases the power of the anti-Christ. It makes the anti-Christ a lost, forlorn and confused figure – a withered shadow from our past that dissolves into the future we are creating together.