Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Idolatry vs. Contemplation

Yesterday's scripture reading from the Office of Readings was Exodus 32:1-20, the "Golden Calf" incident. Moses had gone up into the clouds on the mountain -- what appeared as a "consuming fire" to the people below -- to meet with God face to face and receive the stone tablets and other instructions from him. He was gone for 40 days and nights.

The people got antsy. "They gathered around Aaron and said to him, 'Come, make us a god who will be our leader; as for the man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.' (32:1)". Aaron told them to give him all their gold jewelry, melted it down and formed it into the shape of a calf. "Then they cried out, "This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.'(32:4)".

Idolatry, all through the Old Testament, is ridiculed as people making a statue and worshipping it as God. I have tried to understand, but I just can't relate. People are just not that stupid! Of course they don't think the golden calf statue is really God, and they don't think it led them out of Egypt, either -- I mean, come on, it wasn't even made until they were out, right?

So what WERE they thinking? What was going on in their heads and hearts? What did they mean by "make us a god who will be our leader"? The NAB (New American Bible)'s footnote on v.5 says this: "it is clear that the golden calf was intended as an image, not of a false god, but of the LORD himself, his strength being symbolized by the strength of a young bull." Yes, that makes more sense -- they know it was the Lord himself who brought them out of Egypt. They know the manmade calf statue is just a symbol, not a real God.

So why is this such a big freakin' deal?? I mean, God wants to wipe them out for this! For making a gold figure to symbolize Him, and bowing down to it. Not to worship the image, but what it represents, right? Moses talks Him out of destroying the whole race, but still rallies the zealous Levites to mow down about 3000 of them. This is really, really serious!! Why?? The footnote at v.5 goes on to say, "The Israelites, however, had been forbidden to represent the Lord under any visible form. Cf Exodus 20:4."

Wow. God's tough! He really wants us to stay with the mystery. No images .... No names, just Yahweh, which means "I Am Who Am" or something like that. What is your name? Being. Wow.

God must have realized, eventually, that this was too much for us to handle. He gave us a name and an image, Jesus, a living human being, for us to worship. Except ... there's no record of His appearance. We make images and call them Jesus, and bow down and pray to them, but they are not Jesus. Not to mention, we Catholics make images of saints and pray to them -- we don't call them God, but let's be honest, a whole lot of Catholics don't distinguish very well. Have they slid down a slippery slope? Is there any difference anyway, between a made-up likeness of Jesus and any other image? Is it all idolatry? Is the Shroud of Turin real???

Read this quote from Thoughts Matter, by Mary Margaret Funk, OSB (available through the Amazon widget on right). My emphasis added:
According to John Cassian, a fourth-century monk, three renunciations are required of us [on the spiritual journey]. First, we must renounce our former way of life and move closer to our heart's desire, toward the interior life. Second, we must do the inner work (of asceticism) by renouncing our mindless thoughts. This renunciation is particularly difficult because we have little control over our thoughts. Third, and finally, we must renounce our own images of God so that we can enter into contemplation of God as God.

We cannot contemplate God as God until we renounce our images of Him.

It was pretty ambitious of Him to try to get a whole nation to the level of contemplating Him as Himself -- but God is nothing if not ambitious when it comes to drawing us closer to Himself. He's gotten gentler about it, mercifully, but no less relentless. The incarnation was pretty extreme.... But did it teach us the lesson? Are we any better at renouncing our images of Him, or contemplating God as God? Is it that the incarnation gives us at least a better chance of pure contemplation? Or what? I feel like I have at least sometimes achieved it, at least somewhat, but not always. For me, the Incarnation matters, I feel like it gives me a better understanding of the kind of God God is, and how He relates to us humans, how He loves us and reaches out to us. But is theology, doctrine, religious story, itself an idol that gets between us and pure contemplation? Is pure contemplation even possible in this life, or even a true glimpse of Reality "through a glass darkly"?

I don't have answers here, folks. If you have a thought on idolatry and contemplation, please chime in.


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