Texts: Luke 1: 57-58, 67, 76-80
Restless Children of the Promise, Part II:
Mapping the Landscape of Love
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness…
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
-Luke 1: 76-80
It was Oscar Wilde who said that any map of the world that doesn’t contain utopia isn’t worth even a glance. It’s a line worthy of Advent, one that might be recognized by the Prophet Isaiah, who dreams of a world of transformed social relations, of a time and place yet to come when nations will not rise up against nations anymore, when swords will be beaten into plowshares, and when lions will lie down with lambs. But it’s a line that might also be recognized by Luke, who puts an ecstatic Advent speech into the mouth of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Just prior to John’s birth, just prior to the birth of Jesus, Zechariah catches the Spirit so evident throughout Isaiah. He breaks into poetry, because ordinary prose won’t cut it. I’ve heard of people who criticize musicals because of a strange occurrence that happens sometimes in those dramas: whenever somebody feels a strong emotion, they burst into song. Those critics probably haven’t lived with children. Or not with my children at any rate, who break into spontaneous song all the time. They probably also don’t read the Bible much. Sometimes ecstatic moments demand a response other than prose. Sometimes, like Zechariah announcing the birth of John the Baptist, ecstatic moments deserve poetry and song.
Advent is such a moment. I promise you I won’t break into song this morning, but there’s a part of me that wishes I could. Because there aren’t many occasions when we’re permitted such imaginative flights of fancy as in Advent. Even in church, we tend toward the realistic and plausible, but in Advent, the lid comes off. Advent provides us with a map of utopia, with language that helps us to articulate buried hopes and possibilities, when human flourishing shall be the order of the day, when non-adversarial relations shall prevail, when warfare and enmity between peoples cease.
Consider Zechariah’s speech. I’m convinced that the tender mercy of God allows the possibility that each of us might utter ecstatic Advent speech, and that each of us might be those upon whom light will break, guiding us in ways of peace, non-violence, and shared mutual concern. I’m further convinced that we need those visions now more than ever, as we’ve been fed a steady diet of dystopian and apocalyptic thought that has encouraged us to believe the worst about ourselves and about our neighbors. By contrast, we need stories that recall us to the best of who we can be, stories that help us to map the inner and outer landscapes of meaning and possibility that most of us yearn for. That’s why Advent is such a blessing every year – that imagination is built into our annual life cycle as a form of spiritual discipline.
I’ve lately been reading a book entitled A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit, about the extraordinary communities that arise in disasters. It’s the most exciting book I’ve read in years, and it inspired some of my thoughts last week, and this week as well. Last week I told you the story of one restless child of peace, William James, and how he sought to build what he called a “moral equivalent of war.” James was a lifelong pacifist, and he found that moral equivalent in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which unleashed terrible destruction upon the city, but also released an enormous outpouring of mutual concern, generosity, communal sharing, and what can only be called social euphoria, even amidst the rubble and ruin. People found each other in the aftermath of the disaster, and James found it profoundly reassuring as to the nature of human beings. In a time of crisis, when the veneer of civilization crumbled, people didn’t revert to a bestial state of nature, as peddlers of doom would have it. For the most part, they blossomed into the best and most altruistic versions of themselves. They organized spontaneously, and mutual aid societies sprung up all over the bay area.
Another child of peace witnessed the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and the outpouring of communal spirit and solidarity that she witnessed in the aftermath became the axis around which her life revolved. I’m referring to Dorothy Day, and it’s her story that I’d like to share with you this morning. It constitutes yet another Advent parable, helping us to fathom not only what it means to create a world in which swords will be beaten into plowshares. But it also can help us discover the many forms of love that are available to us beyond familial love and erotic love, loves that I love, but by no means the only loves. There are others – for God, but also for ideas and ideals, for our neighbors but also for projects of wider public significance, for theology, but also a passion for the commons, for the creation of a common-wealth.
Those are difficult loves to articulate, let alone to cultivate. But what if we’re more than our family life, or our erotic lives? What if there are depths within our selves that we can scarcely guess at? What if there are regions of our psyches that we can no longer access, because we’ve lost the language to talk about such things? Maybe it’s true that we need maps of the world that include utopia. But don’t we also need maps of the human soul that include things other than the private? Where are the maps of human life that include utopian aspects like altruism and generosity, the maps that include idealism, that maps that include social meaning and connection with others, the maps that include things like ideas and shared purpose – human life at its most expansive? That’s why we’ll always need the ecstatic speech of Advent – to remind us that such heights and depths do exist, and to warn us of the seductive appeal of other, lesser means to experience those parts of ourselves. That’s part of what makes warfare and organized violence so seductive, even for those who are otherwise appalled at the logic of war. Many of us are so starved for wider social purpose that we’ll throw ourselves headlong into anything that might provide that meaning, no matter how destructive. Advent warns us off such behaviors. And all the restless children of Advent’s promise cut through the haze as well, providing us with alternative visions of human flourishing.
Which brings me back around to Dorothy Day. Her story picks up where William James’ leaves off. Like James, she was present in San Francisco when the earthquake shook the city. In 1906, she was eight years old, the daughter of a racetrack journalist living in Oakland. She went on to found a radical social movement called The Catholic Worker that still has more than a hundred active centers in the United States. She is now a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church. But it was the 1906 earthquake that altered the trajectory of her life. So too, reading William James led her to wonder what one among us asked last week on the way out of church: is it possible to create a society of shared concern, literally a common-wealth, not only without war, but without a disaster like an earthquake? Her answer, not surprisingly, was yes, and it led her not only into the depths of theology and the church, but into the depths of some of the most urgent social issues of her time. What Day accomplished was to map the landscape of love, a fuller and broader landscape than most of us acknowledge or experience. There are several markers or orientation points on Day’s map of the soul that I’d like to share with you, each of which leads to a reflective question.
One of the significant markers on her map was the experience of the San Francisco earthquake. On the morning of the quake, eight year old Dorothy woke up in bed terrified, screaming for her mother as the bed itself slid around the room. She was eventually rescued, along with the rest of her family, and they wound up camping at a nearby racetrack in Oakland. Here’s what she wrote about that scene later on: “What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days, refugees poured out of burning San Francisco…people came in their nightclothes; there were newborn babies. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals…They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted,” Day wrote, “people loved each other.” While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. That’s the first marker. And the first question, to go with it, is this: have you ever experienced that kind of communal outpouring? Not on that scale, perhaps, but situations that freed human beings to be their absolute best? I want to know – what were they?
Dorothy Day remembered what that was like for the rest of her life, and she soon dedicated herself to recreating that scene of shared concern in her ordinary life. But then a second marker came when she and her family moved to Chicago, which was where she first encountered poverty. In that period, Day got to know a lot of the poor people surrounding her, and her family often struggled to find enough to eat. Of that period she writes: “I did not want just the few, the missionary minded, to be kind to the poor…I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt, and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life.”
That experience was reinforced years later when she read an essay from William James about voluntary poverty. It’s not a perspective that many of us are accustomed to considering, concerned as we usually are to alleviate poverty. And yet James emphasized the way many early Christians, to say nothing of other spiritual traditions, thought that voluntary poverty was a worthy religious vocation. He argued that it had the capacity to free human lives for other forms of love. James called such individuals “unbribed souls,” a phrase that lodged in Dorothy Day’s imagination, the way it might yet lodge in ours. Eventually, it led Day to take her own vows of poverty, committing to living as simply as she could among the poor. That’s the second marker in Day’s map, and here’s the question that it prompts: What might an unbribed soul look like? What unmet desires might come into focus were we to be liberated from many of our material attachments? Is that a spiritual vocation that’s even imaginable to you? And if not, why not? What does Dorothy Day know that we seem to have forgotten?
The third and most important marker in her map of the soul came through a close friendship. It wasn’t a sexual relationship, but a relationship of shared ideals and social passions, another form of life that is difficult to remember, let alone to reconstruct. For years, Day couldn’t figure out how to translate her passionate ideals into anything concrete. But then she met Peter Maurin, and together, as a team, they accomplished what neither of them could have done on their own. Maurin was, in the words of Dorothy Day, “a genius, a saint, an agitator, a writer, a lecturer, a poor man, and a shabby tramp, all in one.” Together, they founded first a newspaper called The Catholic Worker, which soon grew into several “houses of hospitality” to lodge those who were destitute or displaced by the Great Depression. Passionate friendship is the third marker in Day’s geography of the soul, a love that we don’t have a well developed language for because, again, it’s neither familial nor sexual. That leads to my third reflective question: have you known such friendships? Do you now, or have you ever, had such a friend? That kind of friendship seems rare, but is that because that sort of relationality is truly unavailable? Or are those sorts of attachments rare not because they’re unavailable, but because our loves are too socially constrained?
Ultimately, Dorothy Day wound up recreating the conditions she had witnessed in San Francisco as a child, building a network of Catholic Worker houses that’s still going strong nearly a hundred years later. But it was also her response to what she had learned from reading William James, who yearned to find a moral equivalent to war. By inviting the displaced and destitute to live in community, and by inviting others to participate in that project as best they could, Day and Maurin helped to create environments of mutual concern and shared responsibility, where other, alternative loves like service to others, altruism, and social idealism could be named, explored, and realized, and where the temptations and lures of nationalism, warfare, and the creation of enemies could be resisted.
Why am I insisting on this theme during Advent? Why tell you these stories about restless children of the Advent promise? It’s because we’re going to need them. As climate change heats up the planet, unleashing hurricanes and floods, fires and droughts, what we believe most deeply about human beings will matter. Are we savage bestial creatures, or do we have other, deeper capacities, for connection, for generosity and hospitality, for belonging to a greater whole, for doing work that matters? That’s one challenge, but the planetary lurch toward the far right constitutes another. We will be asked: do we believe in a world where strongmen and authoritarian governments are all that stand between us and the apocalypse, or do we believe otherwise?
I believe otherwise. Advent insists upon it, as do the restless children of the Advent promise. Consider Zechariah once more: when faced with the implications of his wife’s pregnancy, to say nothing of the child Mary was carrying, joyful ecstasy welled up within him, and his speech comes out as poetry. It’s a poem about darkness lifting, about despair coming to an end, about a time when warfare and conflict would cease. I think he was sensing something profound about people, about the world, and about God in that moment. He was sensing all the unexplored regions of the human soul waiting to be discovered. And it made him break into song.
All of us possess untold depths of love and tenderness. We possess unexpected strength and creativity, leading toward joyful improvisation. We have capacities for compassion and shared mutual concern, orientations toward altruism and idealism that might still surprise us. And this is true as well: thanks to Zechariah but also to Dorothy Day and those like her, we have in our possession maps of the hidden landscape of love. It’s our task to follow them with a sense of wild abandon. We don’t go it alone. We have one another. But we also have a joyful, exuberant, hopeful, optimistic and contagious Spirit, which we name Holy, to guide us. Thanks be to God for that.
 Solnit, Rebecca, A Paradise in Hell, (New York: Penguin Publishing, 2009), pgs, 49ff.
 Suggestions made powerfully and provocatively by Solnit. See pgs. 62-63.
 Solnit, 59-60.
 Solnit, pg. 60.
 Solnit, pg. 61.
 Solnit, pg. 67.