|41 - All Saints of North America, June 21, 2009|
There was once a little girl who about the age of three saw “The Lord of the Dance” and fell in love with Irish dance. On her own, she tried to do the dance, but it wasn’t until she enrolled in an Irish Dance class about the age of seven and received instruction from a champion of Irish Dance that she learned the “hidden” movements of the dance. She practiced every day until by and by, she, too, became a champion of Irish Dance.
What human being is not by nature in love with Love, with Beauty, Grace, Joy and Goodness, like that young girl in love with the beauty of the dance? What human being does not want to embrace love and beauty, grace, joy and goodness and become loving, beautiful, gracious, joyful and good, if only they knew how, like that little girl who wanted to learn the dance? There is a beauty of grace and dignity that is natural to human being, and fortunate is that child who grows up in such a family and culture. That child is more likely to become one who naturally walks with a certain dignity, speaks with a certain grace and exudes a certain elegance and nobility. But this beauty and grace, this goodness and joy that are natural to the human being are but an “image” and “likeness” that reflect and point beyond themselves to a higher Being who is the Source of Love and Beauty, Grace and Goodness. And when a person of grace sees Him Who Is Grace and Truth, she naturally falls in love with Him, and wants to learn the higher Dance, even to become the dancing partner of this “Lord of the Dance”, He Who Is the Source of all Goodness, and in union with Him, to join beauty with Beauty, love with Love, joy with Joy, grace with Grace to dance through eternity in a Great Round that forever ascends from glory to glory.
The law of nature that we’ve been reading about these last two weeks in St Paul’s letter to the Romans is this law of love, of beauty and grace, joy and goodness. When St Paul says this Law is imbedded in the human conscience, he means to say, I believe, that love, beauty, joy, grace and goodness are natural to us. When we live according to these attributes of natural law, then we are healthy, we are living according to our nature. When we do not live by these attributes, we are living against our nature. We become darkened and fall into all kinds of spiritual maladies: anger, hatred, anxiety, fear leading to bitterness, cynicism and despair. Who of us enjoys being – or let’s say dancing – with someone suffering from these maladies? None of us does. Dancing with such people, we begin to suffer, too, from anxiety and nervousness, doubt and fear to the point that we show even physical symptoms: headaches, high blood pressure, nausea and the like. We much prefer to “dance” in the warm light of the sun, not in the cold gloom of the dark.
The Church teaches us that the cold gloom of death has become the law of this earthly life because at its root, human life has fallen into this sickness of the soul that is against our nature. That the end of everything is death, in the teaching of the Church, is the proof that this world is no longer dancing. It has fallen into sin; it lives in a manner that is against its own nature – because God did not make us to die. He did not make us to be sick, sad and gloomy. He made us to live in the unutterable and exalted joy of love and beauty, grace, joy and goodness. Like the little girl, we try to dance this dance of joy but we don’t know how, and we are weighed down by the fat of our spiritual laziness and indolence. The law of sin has infected all of us and we fall again and again into lust and greed and anger so that we don’t dance this life away; we stumble through it in discontent, anxiety and despair.
We could say that the purpose of the Law of Moses was to raise Israel like a little child in the love and goodness that are natural to the soul, to prepare her for maidenhood, so that when the “Lord of the Dance” came she would recognize Him and fall in love with Him and be ready to join Him in the Higher Dance, the Dance of the Spirit, the Dance of heart to Heart. So also, the Law of Faith as it is being taught to us by Our Savior in His Sermon on the Mount, which we have been reading over the last two weeks from St Matthew’s Gospel, is meant to raise us up, to train us as children of God born from above in our baptism so that we are nurtured and shaped in the love and beauty that are natural to us and that we can be made ready to receive the Heavenly Spirit and to join the “Lord of the Dance” in the Dance of the Spirit. Study the Law of the Christian Faith as it is given in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, and you will see how His Law teaches us to become attentive to our secret heart and to the hidden desires that drive us in our daily life. We learn to become attentive to our words, to our manner of speech, to our actions, to how we look on others, even to the fantasies, the worries and fears, the hidden and secret thoughts that ceaselessly flood our mind, which have become the virtual substance of our daily life. We learn how to call on the Name of the Lord, how to follow Him beneath the surface of our conscious life and beneath the mask of our religious piety that is only skin-deep, and to descend with Him into our heart, like the myrrh-bearing women drawing near the tomb of the crucified Savior. And, in the love and beauty, in the joy and goodness of the Church that we experience in her divine worship and in the gentleness of her holy sacraments, we learn how to lay hold of all of those sinful thoughts and words and deeds that cause us to stumble around in worry, fear and anxiety, in anger and bitterness, cynicism and despair. We learn how to redirect our steps in the sacrament of confession and, through the ascetic disciplines of our Baptism, we learn the steps of the Higher Dance to make ourselves ready to receive the Heavenly Spirit in Holy Eucharist and to dance with the Lord of the Dance.
I should tell you that the little girl, as she learned the Irish Dance and became better and better at it, the more she fell in love with it. That is not to say, of course, that there was no pain in her dance training or that there were times when she wondered if it was worth it. There is pain in training: the pain that comes from the exercises to increase the body’s stamina and limits of endurance, the pain of boredom, even irritation that comes from the monotonous repetition of drills done again and again in order to train the body to move in a very specific way. But the pain of training comes out of the studio, and on the dance floor it is transfigured into the joy of the Dance, for through the discipline of the training you become the Dance.
So also, the ascetic disciplines of the Church are the training, the discipline that trains the outer man how to lay hold of the inner man so that we can learn how to dance the Dance of the Spirit in our heart, even to become not someone who dances but a dancer who dances without effort the Dance of the Spirit. As in the rigorous training of the dance, so also in the rigorous training of Christ there is pain; and the pain can be acute. For example, there is acute inner pain that comes when we choose to renounce the sweetness of returning evil for evil, hate for hate, and when we choose instead to respond with grace, even though we do not feel gracious: i.e., when we choose to do good to those who hate us, and to pray for our enemy as the Lord of the Dance commands us. The pain that comes from the disciplines of Faith, however, is like the pain that comes from the disciplined drills of the dance. If we practice them with diligence and resolve, they begin to reshape us; and our movements, not only the outer movements of our words and deeds but also the inner movements of our secret heart become more and more naturally gracious and beautiful, brimming with the joy and the love of the Faith of Christ.
The ascetic disciplines of the Church, the Law of the Christian Faith, then, are meant to lead us into our secret heart as into a dance studio. As we discipline ourselves to pray with our mind in our heart without ceasing, i.e. as we train our mind to look away from its fantasies and dreams, its worries and fears, and to adhere rigidly to the Lord’s teaching, like the dancer training hours on end in the dance studio, we find that the steps of the dance are becoming easier for us. They are becoming “second nature”. We begin really to shed our street clothes and begin to don the dance clothes we were meant to wear; and we fall even more deeply in love with the Dance – for the Dance leads us beyond our nature. In the Dance, we ascend into the personal realm of the Spirit – like scaling Mt Tabor – and we come out into the Freedom of the Spirit, dancing without effort the steps of love, of beauty, of joy and grace and goodness that are natural to us in the uncreated Light and Life of God. Faith is the mind of this Dance; love is its heart. Joy is its mood, and beauty is the aspect of its grace.
Beloved faithful, the Lord of the Dance is calling us as He called Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John in this morning’s Gospel. Perhaps you fishermen would like us to do this sermon over again using the analogy of fishing to illustrate the Law of Faith that the Church is teaching us in this time immediately following Pentecost. But for the sake of the rest of us, let’s conclude our words by saying that through their preaching, the apostles have caught us with their nets. They are the nets of the Savior’s Love, His Beauty, His Grace, Joy and Goodness which are revealed to us in the Beauty and Grace of Christ’s Holy Church. And the Savior with the net of His Holy Spirit, which has graciously caught us in the mysteries of the Church, is drawing us into the dance studio of our secret heart, and in the glorious light of His Holy Resurrection, out on the Dance Floor, the Lord of the Dance is calling out to us even now: Shall we dance?