Hold Fast to the Crown of Life

Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. —Revelation 2:10

Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. —Revelation 3:11

John of Patmos, in his second of seven letters to churches in Asian Minor (ancient Turkey), counsels them to be faithful until death. He offers the ultimate of paradoxes essential to the spiritual life: this life is not all there is.

To access a deeper, divine life, however, something in us must die. All of my deepest transformations have happened because of pain, humiliation, and failure. I’d like to say otherwise, but it wouldn’t be true. Some even describe contemplation as a way to “die before you die,” because when we sit in silence, unguarded with ourselves before God, we are forced to choose: to grip tightly to our obsessions, inner scripts, and agendas, or to let them go, if only for twenty minutes or so.

The most perceptive of scholars see a potential historical background to John’s short letter to the church in first-century Smyrna. They construct a situation in which Jesus-followers are ratted out to Roman authorities by other minority groups. The Romans were fairly tolerant religiously—if you worshiped their gods. If you didn’t, you were at risk. Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Christ could fly under the radar from imperial persecution for a time, but as the Flavian dynasty reigned, the position of communities who did not worship the Roman gods became more precarious. It was every community for itself, and especially so in imperial cult centers such as Smyrna, Ephesus, and the other cities to whom John sends his messages. (See this commentary.) The people lived and worshipped with the ever-present possibility of danger.

John passes on a promise to these people, and to all people, navigating fear and suffering: a promise of life amidst and beyond death. The symbol of such life is a crown. If we read this verse alongside 3:11, above, we see that the crown of divine life is not something that we receive later, but something that we already have.

Our divine identity is the truest part of ourselves; it’s just that most of us don’t realize it. And the way to access it, unfortunately, seems to be through some form of “dying.” For those on a spiritual journey, this does not only include physical death, which is the ultimate passing over into God, but also simply and devastatingly what the late Fr. Thomas Keating called the “dismantling of our emotional programs for happiness.” He writes:

The false self is looking for fame, power, wealth, and prestige. The unconscious is very powerful until the divine light of the Holy Spirit penetrates to its depths and reveals its dynamics. . . Instead of trying to free us from what interferes with our ordinary human life, the Spirit calls us to transformation of our inmost being, and indeed of all our faculties, into the divine way of being and acting. The Greek Fathers called this process deification.

John’s promise of our “crowned” identity is rooted thoroughly in the Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures. Psalm 8:5 and 6 prays, “Yet you have made them (human beings) a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” The Psalmist speaks to the royal vocation of the human being to reflect God’s rule of compassion, justice, and peace by living and working in the same Spirit. Disastrously, instead of compassionate and humble co-creation with Earth and living creatures, we turned the Genesis mandate to have dominion (1:28) into unbridled domination. In nearly every category of life, humans have wielded power-over other living beings with relentless brutality.

Like modern politics, the biblical tradition has its fair share of evil kings. The early Jewish prophet Samuel warned the people what would happen: “These are the ways of the king who will reign over you” (1 Samuel 8). To paraphrase Samuel’s diatribe, the king will enslave your people, start wars with them, abuse their labor, and steal your crops. The Israelite people opted for one anyway. But alongside the anti-king warnings and the evil kings’ reigns, the Bible reclaims true, loving, and just royalty. Jesus heralds the “kingdom” —even though the realm he celebrates looks like nothing Pilate can imagine (Luke 23:2–3). 1 Peter calls the early church a “royal priesthood” (2:9) and John of Patmos promises crowns to those who hold fast even through death. Then, in Revelation chapter four, the worshippers before God’s heavenly throne cast their crowns off, singing in praise to the true Lord (not Caesar, Trump, whiteness, or Wall Street), “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power” (4:10).

German mystic Meister Eckhart takes up the biblical theme of royalty and clarifies its mystical dimension. In his sermon thirty-six, the title of which Matthew Fox gives as “Everyone An Aristocrat, Everyone A Royal Person,” Eckhart quotes Jesus’ parable in Luke: “ A man of royal birth went to a distant country to be appointed king, and afterward he returned” (Luke 19:12). The inner spiritual reality of our lives is a “new person, a heavenly person, a young person, a friend, and a royal person,” Eckhart teaches. The divine depth terrain of our lives, however, often remains “a distant country” for those of us so used to dwelling on the surface level, caught up in the webs of affirmation, security, and control that we tell ourselves make up who we really are. Thus, it takes a journey to a distant land to return home to our royal personhood: “To return home means to know and realize the fact that we know and realize God.” (Matthew Fox’s translation of Meister Eckhart’s Sermon thirty-six, see this book; read a post about Eckhart’s “nobility inside” here).

The crown of life, then, is the inheritance we’ve already been gifted. God’s presence in us; our presence in God. Every single day threatens to seize it. We must hold fast.

Apocalyptic culture moment: Last week.

Apocalyptic quote of the week: Is the Christ of the Gospels, imagined and loved within the dimensions of a Mediterranean world, capable of still embracing and still forming the center of our prodigiously expanded universe? Is the world not in the process of becoming more vast, more close, more dazzling than Jehovah? Will it not burst our religions asunder? Eclipse our God? —Teilhard de Chardin

Image: Patmos, with thanks to @louverstudio

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Is life a battle to be won?

Dear friends,

Is life a battle to be won? On these days, it sure seems like an urgent and mighty battle for many to choose love, joy, nonviolence, and hope instead of fear, resentment, violence, and despair. Political chaos aside, during COVID—whether mail-carriers, nurses, administrators, or parents—everyone is, as the quote goes, fighting a great battle. So be kind. Or maybe the language of inner conflict needs to be retired altogether?

John of Patmos, the visionary-mystic behind the book of Revelation, certainly viewed his hearers as engaged in a conflict. John himself is an island-exile (with gorgeous ocean views, photo below from modern-day Patmos) writing in a post-war landscape. In 70 A.D., Roman soldiers—after four years spent suppressing a Jewish rebellion—marched on Jerusalem and burned the Jewish temple to the ground (see this book). It’s from within such oppressive contexts that Jesus, his followers, and even John of Patmos affirm and enact what may perhaps always be an alternative vision in a world of rage, scapegoating, and violence: the realm of love, compassion, and diversity-within-a-greater-unity. White supremacist rioters wage hatred, and Jesus followers wage peace. That’s nothing new; it’s what Jesus’ followers have always done.

John’s letters to the seven churches have an eightfold structure (Revelation 2–3), says scholar Eugene Boring: they begin with an address to an angel, name a particular city, reference an attribute of the Cosmic Christ from 1:12–16, offer specific insight to each congregation, and end with a promise to those “who conquer.”

To every everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” —Revelation 2:7

John often takes over Roman imperial language and twists it for a different purpose. Conquer, for John’s hearers, is not what Jesus-followers will accomplish through military force, but what they will do inwardly through the Spirit. Hang in there, John tells. Keep the faith. It’s hard right now, but it will not always be this way. Do not let your love for God and people grow cold. John pairs this with his frequent rejoinder to “patient endurance” (2:1), which is better translated as nonviolent resistance. John’s message is not a call to arms, as Caesar’s “conquer” was, but pastoral encouragement during crisis.

The spiritual life has often been described as a fight or battle. One church I attended for several years believed sincerely that the life of prayer involved combat against the demons they imagined were behind every lustful or angry thought. If we could just pray powerfully enough in the name of Jesus, these would-be demons would retreat. Rather than empowerment, the result in myself was simply a paranoid spirituality. It took a while to recover and rebuild.

The desert fathers and mothers, some of the most cherished mystics in the Christian tradition, were notorious for their showdowns with demons. One rather extreme desert monk named Antony (4th century) famously took his fasting and prayer to the tombs near a small village, where he faced down demons through the night. His experience became modeled as an ascetic “archetype” that the devoted desert-dwellers should seek to embody themselves. I can understand why many progressive Christians disavow such “combat” language. There’s plenty to disavow.

Unfortunately, framing the spiritual life as a great battle is typically interpreted as a way to war against the body or sexuality. The devil showed up quite often to those male desert monks in the form of a woman. Christianity has for far too long perpetuated belief systems of shame about embodiment, ironically and disastrously for the religion of the Word made flesh! Such dualistic rejection of the body results in a tragically disembodied spirituality, along with the trauma that comes from believing an essential part of our humanity is “fallen.”

Strangely enough, though, I find myself drawn to the interior battle once again. The most sensitive of such desert monastics matched their belief in “inner spiritual combat” with breathtakingly savvy psychology. If we can peer underneath and behind the drama of demons, we can learn from such hard-won inner wisdom.

Evagrius (4th century) is a sort of theologian-father of desert fathers. After falling in love with a woman in the imperial court, he fled a promising theological career and took up life in the desert. He wrote short, pithy wisdom sayings about anger, lust, vanity, depression, pride, and more, all to support the monks’ spiritual development. Here’s Evagrius on pride, from this book: “The demon of pride is the cause of the most damaging fall for the soul. For it induces the monk to deny that God is his helper and to consider that he himself is the cause of virtuous actions. Further, he gets a big head in regard to the brethren, considering them stupid because they do not all have this same opinion of him. Anger and sadness follow on the heels of this demon.”

Leaving the demon out, can you see the brilliance? We all do this. We try to take credit for the virtuous good that we do; it’s far easier for me to turn to God when things are not going well than when they seemingly are. Such pride then leads to judgmentalism, and when I set myself above or against another, then anger, sadness, and disconnection from the other than I have judged is a result.

The interior battle is to pay attention to the rhythms in which our hearts are turned in on themselves and to offer that very paradox to God. When we do, our hearts open to grace. As we saw this week in Washington, D.C., the world is desperate for such inner transformation.

Together through revelation,

Mark Longhurst

Apocalyptic culture moment:

Octavia Butler saw it coming.

Apocalyptic quote of the week:

The more one studies his [St. John’s] book, the more convinced one feels that it was deliberately composed as a coda or finale to the whole canon. —Northrop Frye

Image credit: Patmos, with thanks to @louverstudio

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