But what if it’s not an encounter with beauty that awakens us, but an encounter with dissonance? In order to feel the spiritual dissonance that leads to the awakening of the Wound of Divine Love, you have to have a profound sense of the love of God, and a deep awareness of the world’s suffering. Why, when God loves the world in a way that is palpable to you, that you experience every day, is there so much sorrow, loss, and grief?
In 2001 I found myself in real anguish. In August, my wife miscarried and we lost our first child. A few weeks later, the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed. I was in seminary at the time, and most of my training focused on the intellect, on understanding Christian history and theology and liturgical practice. I took great solace from the realization that I’d never really be able to understand the ways of God. At the same time, I can’t honestly say that God was very present in the life of my spirit or my emotions. I was coasting on earlier experiences of awakening, living off the memory of them. Those experiences had taught me that God was real, and grace palpable, but I did not live in close relationship with the Beloved. I took comfort in understanding that God is ineffable, far beyond my own intellectual strivings, but that understanding could only take me so far along my path to awakening. I was more deeply aware of the world’s suffering than I was of the love of God.
The saints and seekers of the Christian tradition who have come awake by experiencing the Wound of Divine Love have often done so in a world and a church that are more emotive, more experiential, more attuned to the weeping and the dancing of the spirit than the 20th century world and the intellectual Episcopal church that I was formed by. In early Christianity this world was created by mystery rites in catacombs, agape love feasts, the experience of imprisonment and martyrdom, and hermits who disappeared into the desert. In medieval times, it was created by mystery plays, processions, street carnivals, pilgrimages, the viewing of relics, the stories of saint’s lives, daily devotions with illuminated breviaries, light shining through stained-glass windows, monks singing in choirs, and statues carved onto the facades of cathedrals. Since the enlightenment, Christian faith has become more private and contained within the churches. The emotive, playful, sometimes irrational world of Christian story and understanding has become reasoned, careful, and anxious to prove itself very rational indeed. The “story world” of Christianity has shrunk considerably, and with it the supporting voices that asserted, again and again and in a great choir, that the suffering you feel is real, but the love of God for all creation is equally real, is, in truth, more real.
“Story world” is a concept that my friend, Sarah Isles Johnston, introduced me to. Saying that we inhabit a story world is a little like saying that we belong to a faith or adhere to an ideology, but there’s an essential difference. Story worlds are about stories, not ideas or doctrines or dogmas. By their very nature stories are rambling, strange, fun, emotionally effective, full of familiar characters, surprises and plot twists. They don’t always tell you what you’re supposed to make of them — they leave some of the meaning making up to you. Their coherence comes from their structure and shape, and the craft of the storyteller. Theology can be systematic, a wonderful game of ideas, but one that is very concerned with getting it right. Stories aren’t concerned with getting it right, and that’s part of their power. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, very rarely will anyone die for a right idea, though for a good story someone might possibly dare to die.
As Sarah writes in her wonderful book, The Story of Myth,
“when we talk about a story world, we typically mean something that goes beyond the narratively constructed space in which a single story is set, something that constitutes a space where many stories, whether they be directly connected to each other or not, can be set and that is perceived by its audience as consistent and coherent.”Johnston, S. I. (2019). The story of myth. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard university press.
The story world of Christianity includes stories that range across continents and eras of history, stories whose heroes are people of different genders, nationalities, ethnicities, and ages, stories that can find the deep commonality in people as different from each other as a Victorian missionary and a second century, half-naked African hermit. The coherence of this story world is found in the person of Christ, whose life on earth set the pattern for all of these other stories.
The Christian story world was and is articulated through sculpture and stained glass, sung passions and folk songs, shrines and pilgrims’ paths, plays and sermons. Some of the stories that make up the weave of this story world are fantastical, but shouldn’t be disregarded because of that. Take, for instance, this sermon story by Caesar von Heisterbach:
Not many years ago, in a certain nunnery, there lived a virgin named Beatrix. She was beautiful in form, devout in mind, and most fervent in the service of the mother of God. As often as she could offer secretly to the Virgin special prayers and supplications, she held them for her dearest delight. Indeed, having been made custodian, she did this more devoutly because more freely.
A certain clerk, seeing and lusting after her, began to tempt her. When she spurned the words of lust, and on that account he insisted the more strenuously, the old serpent enkindled her breast so vehemently that she could not bear the flames of love. Therefore coming to the altar of the blessed Virgin, the patroness of the oratory, she spoke thus: “Mistress, I have served thee as devoutly as I could; behold, I resign thy keys to thee, I cannot longer withstand the temptations of the flesh.” And, having placed the keys on the altar, she secretly followed the clerk.
When that wretched man had corrupted her, he abandoned her after a few days. Since she had no means of living and was ashamed to return to the convent, she became a harlot. After she had continued in that vice publicly for fifteen years, she came one day in a lay habit to the door of the monastery. She said to the doorkeeper, “Did you know Beatrix, formerly custodian of this oratory?” The latter replied, “I know her very well. For she is an honest and holy woman, and from infancy even to the present day she has remained in this monastery without fault.” When she heard the man’s words she did not understand them, and wished to go away, but the mother of mercy appeared in her well-known image and said to her, “During the fifteen years of thy absence, I have performed thy task; now return to thy place and do penance; for no one knows of thy departure.” In fact, in the form and dress of that woman, the mother of God had performed the duties of custodian. Beatrix entered at once and returned thanks as long as she lived, revealing through confession what had been done for her.Jacques, Stephanus, Caesarius, and Dana Carleton Munro. 1901. Medieval sermon-stories. Philadelphia, Pa: The Department of history of the University of Pennsylvania.
I’ve loved this story ever since I first read it, even though the Roman Catholic world that it was told in is somewhat foreign to me. I don’t have a Catholic understanding of the Beloved Virgin Mary, yet when Mary, the mother of mercy, appears to Beatrix, I find myself deeply moved. I start thinking about all the ways that God protected my best self when my worst self was dominant. Not just in terms of reputation, but in terms of self-knowledge. When I think back upon my younger self, I see him doing many terrible and silly things. A selfish, cruel, unhappy person who could dominate my understanding of those days. Yet God was preserving the better parts of my nature, and they were making choices, too, continuing in certain disciplines of grace and generosity, preserving something for my future.
Yes, von Heisterbach’s story is fantastical, and if we were only to accept stories that stick to verifiable facts, we would have to reject it. But I hold it up as an example of the Christian story world to make the point that such a world can contain many types of stories, some historical, some well-researched, and some mythical, full of the mood and power of fable. These latter types of stories can speak to truths about ourselves, God, and the world that historical narratives and biographical veracity cannot. And part of the beauty of a story world is that it can include all types of stories, and transcend any number of limitations. It doesn’t have to be systematic. It just has to move the soul.
The Christian tradition has always understood the importance of its stories. In the early church, much emphasis was placed on Exempla, the stories of saints, apostles, and martyrs that were read or heard by those who were preparing for baptism, with the understanding that these stories would be as formative as the ideas in a catechism, if not more so. In the thirteenth century, two writers created works that have reverberated throughout the church ever since. One was Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica probably needs no introduction, as it is still prominent enough that precocious college students quote it to win arguments. The other was Jacobus de Voragine, an Italian bishop who collected stories of the saints into a compendium called The Golden Legend. Until the sixteenth century, it was one of the most popular books in Europe, reproduced more times than the Bible. I am not trying to set up a rivalry here, since the Summa Theologica is a majestic work. But I feel a sense of loss that the Summa Theologica has persisted while The Golden Legend has not (although you can still find it in many good translations). After the enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation, the story world of Christianity faded and dimmed, while the ideology of Christianity grew and grew. We became accustomed to using only one lens when trying to read our lives and our experiences of God.
And that is why I’ve gone on this long digression, when trying to talk to you about awakening to the Wound of Divine Love. Just as awakenings to the Revelation of Divine Beauty take place in nature, or in the presence of art, or even in moments of transcendent ugliness, like in Buechner’s account, awakenings to the Wound of Divine Love take place within a story world. They take place in people who are already immersed in a certain understanding of God and the world. This is in part a theological understanding. But to a much larger degree, it’s a story world understanding. The stories of saints and martyrs, of pilgrims and hermits, of widows and orphans, of priests and parishioners tell us how the world works, and how God works, and how we might work if we are able to balance our love of God with our grieving for the brokenness of creation. Awakening to the Wound of Divine Love is like setting out on a journey at the beginning of an epic tale. When we awaken in this way, we say that we, too, want to participate in the narrative, that we’ll allow that narrative to take us to many unexpected, and sometimes undesirable, places, and that we expect to change, to become more like the Divine Lover of the World, as we travel.