“To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”– Walker Percy, “The Moviegoer”
In 2016 I awoke from under heavy anesthesia, and the phrase “Incarnation is Everywhere” came to me. I had just donated bone marrow, via a surgical harvest in my hipbones, with two incisions at the top of my iliac crest.
It’s a relatively simple procedure, but as in all things, I prepared myself for the surgery with a lot of prayer. At some point during prayer the night before, I got the sense that I would “see God” that day. Of course, being a bit neurotic, I was instantly concerned that it was going to be curtains for me. So I was a bit nervous that morning.
Perhaps the attending nurse noticed too, or maybe it’s standard procedure to give your favorite patient a nice big dose of Ativan (an anti-anxiety medication) through their IV. Regardless, it made me feel great: any worry, inhibition, or concern I harbored melted away in that warm river of benzodiazepines. Then I got wheeled back to surgery, holding a note for my marrow recipient: a greeting card to be sent with my sack of stem cells.
I don’t quite remember what the note said but it was something along the lines of: “Hey I don’t know you but I think you need this more than me. I’m sending lots of love and prayers with it, and I hope it helps you heal and begin to feel better.” Then I counted backwards from 10, and it was curtains before I hit 7.
When I woke up, I felt the odd cloudy consciousness that often follows surgery, but this time there was a lot of concerned people around me. My blood pressure had dropped, and I felt, well, drained. The resident doctor in the recovery room looked really young, a bit of a stressed out frat boy, and the nurse attending to me seemed shocked by the procedure I had just had.
“Do you know what they just did to you?” she said incredulously. “They took (however many MLs that were donated) of bone marrow out of you!”
That wasn’t a good sign. Any time you get a panicked nurse it’s a bit unsettling. They began fluid and plasma immediately. My hand began to swell grotesquely from a botched IV. Limp, anesthetized bodies began to roll by, one after the other. The frat doctor could barely keep up, he looked overwhelmed. So did my nurse. In fact at one point I think she said, “I’m just so overwhelmed.” The poor thing.
In my cloudy mind I suddenly, drunkenly, remembered my prayer experience. I thought: Where the hell are you God? Everyone in this place is a damn mess, myself included.
Somewhere deep within came the answer, beyond words, beyond even concepts, just a certain and soft understanding: “I’m everywhere.”
But it wasn’t an everywhere like a vaporous and ethereal presence, a warm cloud of God or love or something like that. It was a particular, incarnate everywhere. It was God in in the incredulous nurse, in her effort, in her failure, in her panic. It was God in the overwhelmed young doctor, in his indecision, his worry. It was in God my wife who stood at my side, in her concern, in her growing anger. And it was very much God in me, in my helplessness, in my wounds, in my pierced, drained, body.
And it still is, even after 7 years. Incarnation, God made flesh, the Christ, whatever you want to call it, is everywhere. I keep seeing it, it keeps coming back to me, over and over and over again: As I watched birth and death and grief and ecstasy and everything in between: “I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.”
Like a never-ending game of hide and seek, I am either looking and lost or finding and being found. And I feel like the only ones who know what the hell I’m talking about are the long-dead mystics. Sts. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, etc.
But yesterday, I opened a new book, “The Whole Mystery of Christ” by Jordan Daniel Wood, and I was surprised at what I discovered. It’s about the incarnational creation theology of St. Maximus the Confessor, who died in 580 A.D. I’ve had a growing interest in the Church Fathers since my flash of anesthetized insight, trying to figure out what “Incarnation is Everywhere” means or if it’s just the random remnants of psychoactive chemicals from surgery. As with all things divine, discernment is important.
I was shocked when I read this quote from Maximus on the first page: “The Word of God and God wills eternally and in all to accomplish the mystery of Incarnation.”
Let me repeat that: “”The Word of God and God wills eternally and in all to accomplish the mystery of Incarnation.”
And what is the mystery of the incarnation? It’s the revelation of God made flesh, of Emmanuel: God-with-us. God wills eternally and “in all” to accomplish it. Not just in Jesus. But in “all:” You, me, them.
Or, incarnation is everywhere, and everytime, and everyplace. For God “wills eternally and in all to accomplish the mystery of the Incarnation.”
Or, “That God may be all in all” to quote St. Paul.
I’ve always had a growing hunch that the Church Fathers had something more to contribute to contemporary theology and spirituality, but I’ve never been struck by how visionary and universal their approach to Christ was, nor how intensely personal it is. Can you imagine if Christians lived like God wanted to accomplish the mystery of the Incarnation in all things? Can you think of how we’d treat ourselves, each other, the marginalized, and all the created world, including all its creatures? Can you imagine the incredible witness this would be?
It seems to me that the focus of theology has narrowed so much over the past two millennia. We’ve gone from cosmic creation as incarnation and redemption to the formulas of personal salvation and justification. We’ve traded the cosmic and universal for the turf wars of spiritual worldliness, and as a result we’ve lost sight of an understanding of God’s love and salvation that is big enough for the entire universe.
I don’t have the answers for all of this, but I feel, to quote Walker Percy, like I’m “onto something.” Sometimes questions are better than answers, and I have a lot of questions.
Somehow those sacramental understandings of God’s creative and redemptive activity at work in all creation, in those stories I’ve heard and liturgies I’ve lived since I was a small child, in all those experiences of light and grace and goodness, ever breaking through the suffering and struggle and messiness of life, all of that (and more) adds up to, and participates in, something greater and more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.
And you, and I, and indeed, everyone and every created thing, are invited to play a part.
“Onto something” indeed.
Oh, and happy belated Feast of St. Francis of Assisi! Somehow I think he’s got a hand in all this as well…