Breathing Haunted Air. Homily for Laetare Sunday

I’ve been re-reading the book Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion. It’s a fascinating story of an athiest-turned-Jewish-Rabbi named Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. From the book review:

At thirteen, decided that she was an atheist. As a young adult, Danya immersed herself in the rhinestone-bedazzled wonderland of late-1990s San Francisco-attending Halloweens on the Castro, drinking smuggled absinthe with wealthy geeks, and plotting the revolution with feminist zinemakers. But she found herself yearning for something she would eventually call God. As she began inhaling countless stories of spiritual awakenings of Catholic saints, Buddhist nuns, medieval mystics, and Hasidic masters, she learned that taking that yearning seriously would require much of her.

Surprised by God is a religious coming-of-age story. It’s a post-dotcom, third-wave, punk-rock Seven Storey Mountain. It is the story of integrating life on the edge of the twenty-first century into the discipline of traditional Judaism without sacrificing either.

Here’s the key line that is relevant to today’s homily:

It’s also a map through the hostile territory of the inner life, an unflinchingly honest guide to the kind of work that goes into developing a spiritual practice in today’s world-and why, perhaps, doing this in today’s world requires more work than it ever has.

The readings from the Scriptures this weekend deal with the topics of sight-related. They look at perceived appearances seeing, not seeing, blindness, what is revealed, what is not. This was very relevant in the conversion experience of Rabbi Ruttenberg. Again from the review: “Watching the sea of adults standing up and sitting down at Rosh Hashanah services, and apparently giving credence to the patiently absurd truth-claims of the prayer book, she came to a conclusion: Marx was right.”

There were two things that played a significant part in the rabbi’s journey. First Ruttenburg’s deep dive into the philosophy of Marx, Hagel, Hobbs, Nietzsche and others. The deeper she went, the more she sensed that there was something amiss with their ideas. They didn’t seem to correctly connect with the reality of the human experience. The woman who once said, “Marx was right” later wrote, “Nietzsche was wrong.”

The second thing was the death of her mother. She was surprised how much “sitting shiva” affected her. The depth of emotion drawn from rites and rituals she had previously criticized not only fed and healed her - is genuinely terrified her. But can religion and serious intellectual pursuit coexist? She writes,

But whatever philosophy’s limitations, there was something that appealed to me in these systems-the quest to know, to grasp something of what it was to be human.

Perhaps mysteries of babies and rainbows aren’t the domain of the philosopher, or perhaps a philosophy that does not allow for such things is distorted, incomplete. Perhaps the religious claim of understanding wisdom and love comes from experience walking through haunted air, rather than pondering its meaning-which isn’t to say that decisions about what to do with that experience shouldn’t be made.

Anyone who crossed my path found themselves being asked whether it was possible to take a leap of faith without believing in God.

One day, Ruttenburg prayed:

Folding my legs into a lotus position in the chair, I began, “You know… I love studying this stuff. I’m, like, passionate about it. But … I’m not sure that I want to be an academic. What, um, other jobs are there out there in the field that I could do?”

Haunted air.

Anyone who hung around Jesus breathed “haunted air.” Haunted air is disruptive. Jesus is disruptive.

[I entered into] the great, gorgeous, terrifying gaps of stillness and uncertainty … somewhere in the disquieting space between comfort and crisis. Stripped from my usual context, from the comforts of normalcy, I entered, unwittingly, another dimension. The icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Gaps are powerful, potent entities. Inside a fissure, things can grow.

Most of the Pharisees weren’t comfortable in the haunted air. (Nicodemus was however). They chose not to enter into the terrifying gaps of uncertainty. Their faith didn’t grow.

Where are you breathing haunted air during this Lent? A member of the men’s Gospel reflection group which I attend is 100% blind. Because of the Corona Virus, we could not meet in person today at our usual location at St. Arbucks. The reflection was virtual on-line. Thus we could not see him today. It was poignant only being able to hear him. He offered a challenge:

Look at the ending of today’s Gospel passage from John Chapter 9.

“If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

Take you favorite sin. Substitute that sin for the word “see.”

“If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘I use the Lord’s name in vain,’ so your sin remains.”

“If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘I don’t attend Mass on Sunday,’ so your sin remains.”

“If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘I gossip,’ so your sin remains.”

Has quite an impact doesn’t it? It not only begs the question, it screams a question from the Lord, “So why do you continue to do it?”

Perhaps that isn’t the real question. Perhaps the real question is, “So why don’t you let me take it from you?”

What would that imply? Breathing haunted air.

Stripped from our usual comforts of normalcy. Entering into the great, gorgeous, terrifying gaps of stillness and uncertainty … somewhere in the disquieting space between comfort and crisis. Inside such fissures, things can grow.


Let me add two more quotes from the Rabbi. They deal with the gentleness of God. It also speaks to the pace with which God deals with us when we approach him and allow Him to change us.

Perhaps for the first time in my life, I was unguarded enough to perceive a force that, for all of its power, is quite subtle in day-to-day existence.

That’s the thing with instant change - it’s usually not change. Either that, or it’s not actually instant. The real story of spiritual awakening tends to live beneath the surface for a long time. It’s much more subtle and much less linear than it may appear.



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