Canon Schmidt: “The Mediated and Unmediated Presence of God”
“To the one who knows nothing, mountains are mountains, waters are waters, and trees are trees. But when [s]he has studied and knows a little, mountains are no longer mountains, water is no longer water, and trees are no longer trees, But when he has thoroughly understood, mountains are once again mountains, waters are waters, and trees are trees.” Gracious Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear, in the name of the one God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
According to the Journal of Quantum Mechanics (vol. 238, p. 14):
The heaviest element known to science was recently discovered by investigators at a major U.S. research university. The element, tentatively named Administratium, has no protons or electrons and thus has an atomic number of 0. However, it does have 1 neutron, 125 assistant neutrons, 75 vice neutrons, and 111 assistant vice neutrons. This gives it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by a force that involves the continuous exchange of meson-like particles called morons.
Since it has no electrons, Administratium is inert. However, it can be detected chemically as it impedes every reaction it comes in contact with. According to the discoverers, a minute amount of Administratium causes one reaction to take over four days to complete when it would have normally occurred in less than one second. Administratium has a normal half-life of approximately three years, at which time it does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which assistant neutrons, vice neutrons, and assistant vice neutrons exchange places. Some studies have shown that the atomic mass actually increases after each reorganization. Research at other laboratories indicates that Administratium occurs naturally in the atmosphere. It tends to concentrate at certain points such as government agencies, large corporations, . . . universities [and even churches]. If can usually be found in the newest, best appointed, and best maintained buildings.
Scientists point out that Administratium is known to be toxic at any level of concentration and can easily destroy any productive reaction where it is allowed to accumulate. Attempts are being made to determine how Administratium can be controlled to prevent irreversible damage, but results to date are not promising.
Travel to Saint Catherine’s monastery, at the base of what is believed to be the biblical Mount Sinai and you will find yourself in one of the few remaining, trackless parts of the world. The desert stretches out ahead of you with few, if any landmarks. At night, there is so little incidental light that the stars almost appear to jostle one another for space in the heavens.
The hike up the mountain itself is not something that can be accomplished in the heat of the day, without the danger of dehydration. Instead, the vast majority of pilgrims make their way up the mountain, leaving from the monastery below at two or three o’clock in the morning.
The narrow path that you can take did not exist in Moses’s day, nor were the camels available in the numbers provided by the nomads who make their living there today. And, yet, it is still possible to imagine the clarifying silence and loneliness that marked Moses’s climb to the mountain’s top.
Mircea Eliade, the great student of comparative religions once wrote:
In several traditions, the Cosmos is shaped like a mountain whose peak touches heaven: above where the heavens and the earth are reunited, is the Center of the World. The cosmic mountain may be identified with a real mountain, or it can be mythic, but it is always placed at the center of the world.
There is certainly truth to Eliade’s observation and mountains figure no less prominently in the biblical account than they do in other religious traditions. But in the Exodus story, it is not enough that the mountain touches the heavens. True, the mountains have cosmic associations, but they are not cosmic in and of themselves. Instead, they are the places where the “unmediated presence” of God is made known to the wandering children of Israel. God alone, is ultimately “cosmic,” the sole example of the “Other.”
In this respect, the Sinai experience of Moses and the children of Israel grounds the faith of the nation in an encounter with God. At the mountain, they will be given a great deal more, that will serve to remind them of the encounter. They will be given the dimensions of a tabernacle; a series of sacrifices; a cycle of celebrations; and a tablet of commandments. The gifts are, as Walter Brueggemann observes, mediations of God’s presence that regularize the people’s contact with God. “Where Israel engages in these practices, Yahweh is connected to Israel. Where these practices flag, Yahweh wanes.”
But there are more dangers than these. The mediated experience of God can also serve as a substitute for the unmediated experience of God. Services and sacraments, practices and disciplines, texts and commandments can be controlled, domesticated and tamed. “Administratium” can do irreversible damage, even to an encounter with God.
Now, none of this will be news to you. It is this experience that drives many people away from what we refer to as “organized religion.” In search of God, we find ourselves alienated by our encounters with God’s people.
It is not at all clear, however, that institutions or organizations, as such, are to blame. Creatures of our own hearts and minds, they represent—on a larger scale —our own tendency to distance ourselves from God. When worship replaces encounter, the study of Scripture replaces the Word of God, and mouthing words replaces prayer, it is not a nameless force that shapes our behavior. It is our own flight from the unmediated presence of God that is at work.
For that reason, there is no substitute for the mountain-top experience. Our willingness to be vulnerable to God’s work in our lives is the only sure guarantor of vision and integrity, hope and redemption. The Holy Spirit is the only reliable guide.
The gifts of both God’s unmediated and mediated presence are given to the nation in tandem. We need the mountain-top encounter, but we cannot live there indefinitely. The tangible reminders of the encounter keep us grounded during the wilderness wandering, but only as long as we remember the experience of God to which they point. Remembering their relationship to one another is the perennial challenge.
There is a great deal that we could talk about in this connection. Much, if not the most important part of it, involves making ourselves available to the work of the Holy Spirit.
As Belden Lane observes, the desert fathers and mothers who lived in the wilderness that marked Moses’s first encounter with God, believed that the “simplicity and redundancy that characterized their environment” was also the key to making themselves available to God. Their prayers were often marked by few words and a singular focus. As Francis de Sales would put it for a later generation, “Contemplation is simply the mind’s loving, unmixed, permanent attention to the things of God.”
In a far less remote location, in the midst of far more activity, it may seem an absurd piece of romanticism to call for that kind of focus in the midst of our nation’s capital, in the midst of your life and mine. But I am convinced that given the activity and the constant distractions —dare I say, temptations?—it will be those who find that focus, that contemplative “attention to the things of God,” who are likely to transcend the clutter and the counterfeit in our culture to find peace, meaning and spiritual strength.
So, as you celebrate the grace of God, relying on the simple and redundant elements of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine,
Hold onto your heart,
Cherish the simple and the singular,
the will and the love of God. Amen.
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