Pentecost II - June 19, 2022
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
1 Kings 19:1-15a + Ps 42 + Galatians 3:23-29 + Luke 8:26-39
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
The scriptures today introduce us to two caves – each revolving around an experience of the numinous. A clash, as it were, between life and death, good and evil – and where an epiphany of the divine leads the main characters in the story in a life-altering direction.
First, we hear of Elijah who running for his life from Jezebel who has a bounty on his head for defeating a good many of her prophets, finds himself providentially cared for by God. Running off into the wilderness he takes shelter under a “broom tree” which (let the record show) is neither a broom nor a tree. It is, rather, a bush – a particularly large bush that takes its name from the fact that its long, flexible stems and manifold small leaves were often cut and tied together to make brooms.
Nevertheless, while taking shelter in its shade, he is miraculously provided bread and water, giving him enough strength to make his way to a cave at Mount Horeb. It is there, that after wind, earthquake, and fire, he encounters the Divine as a “still small voice” or what our lectionary translates as, “the sound of sheer silence.”
Fast forward: the gospel of Luke narrates Jesus’ confrontation with the Gerasene demoniac who, for years lived among the tombs, which were nothing more than natural or hand-hewn caves. Perhaps there is no better image than this to convey his misery as one who lives among the caves of the dead, cut off, as it were from the living.
Indeed, caves are strange and mysterious places. They hold a certain mystique as places of encounter and transformation in the history of myth, legend, and spiritual traditions the world over.Think of Plato’s cave, for example, or again, the Cave of Adullam where the future King David, was afforded divine protection until his enemy Saul was ultimately thwarted, clearing the way for his ascendency to the throne.
Indeed, the two foundational pillars of Christian faith – the Incarnation and Resurrection, both occur in caves. According to Christian iconographic tradition, it was a small cave in Bethlehem that marked the place where the Eternal was destined to be birthed in time, and the long road of cosmic history would stretch to meet the horizon of eternity. Likewise, the very tomb in which the Resurrection took place was itself a hand-hewn cave, as John 11:38, reminds us. The greatest miracles of our faith, unfolding in that little space. A God who is content to enter the world and rise again out of death from a cave – the very womb of our Mother Earth.
Moreover, the contemplatives of the 4th Century Egyptian desert sought out caves as domiciles. Indeed, one such Desert Father, Macarius of Egypt, spoke of the “little space” of one’s heart much as like a cave, a small vessel, in which the entirety of one’s spiritual life unfolds.
The heart itself is only a small vessel yet dragons are there, and lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil; there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices; but there, too, are God and the angels; life is there, and the Kingdom; there, too, is light, and there the apostles, and heavenly cities, and treasures of grace. All things lie within that little space.
Macarius is describing here what the ancient Celtic Christians revered as “thin places” where, as they believed, indeed experienced much as did Elijah, the veil between this world and the next was particularly thin, opening the way for a numinous encounter with the Divine. Indeed, many Celts, most especially on the north western Irish seaboard, built caves of their own, known as “beehive huts” or clocháin – each crafted like arched stone igloos. It was during a particular visit to a small craggy island that I came to appreciate the sacred allure of caves for myself.
It was May of 2004, barely five months since I had emerged from what had been a long Dark Night of the Soul that fell upon me in the wake of 9-11. And I knew that it was time for me to make that long awaited pilgrimage to the Holy Land. You know, “Ireland.”
Just days after my spring semester ended, Fernando and I found ourselves aboard a small fishing vessel in the Atlantic with some 16 other people we had only just met. Destination: Skellig Michael.
Lying some 7 kilometers off the coast of County Kerry Ireland, Skellig Michael marks one of the western-most points of Europe: a small craggy island that shoots out of the stormy Atlantic with two ancient majestic peeks souring hundreds of feet into the air. Between them, the landscape dips dramatically, in a field of green known as “the saddle.” I had heard that getting to Skellig Michael was catch-as-catch can. With no infrastructure firmly in place for tourists, would-be visitors to the holy island were dependent on local fisherman who, weather permitting, and for a modest fee, would ferry people back and forth along their fishing routes. Now when you’re in Ireland “Weather Permitting” is really just synonymous for “rarely, if ever.” And indeed, very often the rough Atlantic and persistent inclement weather that Ireland is known for would prohibit tourists from safely making the route to and from the island on any given day, or week, or month. But in answer to my prayer, I am here to tell you on that very day, we not only had perfect weather, but so perfect I got sunburned! Who gets sunburned in Ireland?? Thank you, Jesus!
Moreover, because of a mix up in vessels our two-hour trip was extended to four – with the last two hours leaving only ourselves and one other couple behind as we awaited a second boat to ferry us. With County Kerry now having receded along the horizon, we disembarked, and began the upward climb to the monastery, which was as precarious as it was beautiful.
A long, now ancient stone stairway, meandered up the steep slopes of the island. First to the saddle, then directly to the monastic enclave, dotted with clocháin. These were hand-crafted caves that appear much like stone igloos, huddled precariously on the edge of the cliffs, next to an ancient graveyard, an abandoned garden and weatherworn stone Celtic Cross at its center.
Over the first couple hours we explored the entire Skellig – up and down the peaks – both of which reached dizzying heights, even as the green slopes of the saddle below made for a perfect backdrop for dramatic photos. But before long we were all but alone on the island. The noise and scurry of tourists fading, as the last of them boarded the small fishing vessel that would leave us to ourselves for another two hours.
It was then that I climbed back up the long, narrow stairway to the now-deserted monastic enclave and entered one of the clocháin on the outer-most edge of the enclave, where just outside its curved walls the steep cliffs of Skellig Michael dropped off precipitously to the Atlantic several hundred feet below. A small rectangular window carved into the eastern side of the clochán looked out over the Atlantic to the shores of Ireland now barely visible on the horizon. The interior was cool and dark, muffling the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the island below.
As I settled into the muted silence of the clochán there was at first an interior cacophony of wind, and earthquake and fire, (thoughts, projections, and emotional tumult) all threatening to drown out the stillness that struggled to rise up in me, like the rising tide of the Atlantic below. But it was not long before the ‘still small voice’ of silence prevailed. A silence that felt much as much like it arose from within me as it seemed to descend upon me.
I sat there alone and uninterrupted for the better part of the two hours we had remaining. Fernando was off on some other peaks of the island snapping photos, and the other couple – nowhere to be seen. Friends have since chided me for wasting those precious hours confined to a dark little cave when there was as yet a whole island to explore – bathed, as rarely it was, in sunshine. Yet I was there, quite intentionally, not as a tourist, but as pilgrim. I was there not merely to explore the island itself – which in any case I had done in the two hours previously.
I was there in search for a portal to the cave of my own heart – to draw upon the history of this sacred ground, the spirit of the monks and the prayers they whispered in this very spot for centuries, carving out a most austere life notched into the edge of a cliff on a craggy island in the middle of the Atlantic. My prayer was that this spiritual energy, this sacred history might serve as a “thin place” by which I would cross the threshold of the world around me to the world within me.
What would emerge from those hours of silence, is the seed that gave birth to a community I would come to call “New Skellig” which, as some of you know, I founded some two years later after my ordination. A community whose mission could be summarized more as a question than a statement:
“What does it look like to live
as a contemplative Christian in the world?”
And it is the spirit of that community and its liturgy, that would become the very leaven that has grown this community of St. Columba’s so many years later.
I tell you this story to remind you: Strange things can happen – strange and wonderful things – when we dare to enter the cave of our own hearts. And no doubt, when we do, we will, like Elijah, encounter the violent winds of raging emotions; earthquakes across our spiritual landscape revealing great fissures in our psyches; and who among us will escape the fiery heat of our passions, desires, and ambitions. But in the midst of it all lies the promise of a still small voice, the sound of sheer silence, that descends upon us as surely as it rises up within us.
I invite you then, with Elijah, to go there. To stay there. To be there.
No matter how long the journey or how loud the tumult – the silence you encounter there, in the cave of your own heart, will never, ever fail you. All you need do is listen. So may that still small voice of God, forever speak I your heart of hearts, the truth, and beauty, and the love of Christ.
+ The Three-in-One and One-in-Three.