The Gritty Medicine of Mt. Moriah

It’s been about a month since Easter. During the days leading up to that Holy Week, I heard a homily about Good Friday that knocked me between the eyes. Recently, this homily’s message sank even deeper. Perhaps it’s because Lent and the Triduum are such a spiritually heightened period and in its quieting wake, everyday life can seem blunter and starker. And contrary to how we typically prefer, some spiritual truths are gritty in how they liberate us.

This homily was given by Fr. Michael Fish, a Camaldolese monk of the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur California. He broke open Genesis 22, a chapter that many understandably find challenging and outright disturbing.

Abraham is ordered by God to take his only beloved son, Isaac, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. After a three day journey, they arrive and build an altar. Isaac clues in that there’s no lamb to be slaughtered as his father binds him and lays him upon the wood. As Abraham takes a knife to kill his son, an angel calls out for him to stop because he has demonstrated his ultimate allegiance to God. Then, Abraham looks up to see a ram caught in a thicket that will serve as the sacrifice. The angel proceeds to tell Abraham that his offspring and their generations to come will be blessed beyond measure due to his obedience.

Fr. Fish shares his feelings of shock and revulsion at what kind of sadistic God would ask a father to go through with this – particularly for Abraham and his wife Sarah who had Isaac when they are both close to 100 years old (and whether their age is literal or metaphorical – Sarah laughs at the preposterous situation of being a mother at such an old age when it is prophesied). They are given a living miracle to be cherished, and then demanded to destroy it.  

Then Fr. Fish takes a step back. He makes the astute point that everyone of us has had (or may be having) experiences of having to place a long-sought dream on to the wood and under the knife. While perhaps not as dramatic as the demand on Abraham, our lives have been full of seemingly mundane events that sliced us to the bone. A broken relationship. A lost job. Exacerbated depression. A failed project. A quiet humiliation. Whatever the permutation, we discover, in the hardest way, that we must give up the way we thought things were supposed to be. And unlike Abraham, there is often no ram that appears to offset the course.

However, like Abraham, there are greater dreams that God has for us that are hard to see beyond the dreams we hold for ourselves. It is so hard for us to let go of our dream to make room for God’s that it must be slowly pried from our grips. Jesus was not exempt from this as he made his way from Gethsemane to be laid on the wood in Calvary. And even God, like Abraham, had to sacrifice Her own Beloved Son – but no ram suddenly appeared in the thicket to save him from death.

But who could imagine their own Resurrection? Often, if we look back at our lives, the most personally painful of situations led us to a renewed destiny we never could have foreseen. As Franciscan friar Richard Rohr says, “We do not handle suffering; suffering handles us— in deep and mysterious ways that become the very matrix of life and especially new life.” And within our crucible of transformation, can we be like Abraham who says three times in this chapter to God, his son, and the angel: “Here I am.”
[Fr. Fish’s homily can be found on part 3 “Camino of Shadows / Good Friday Meditation” of his audio retreat “Compassion: Opening the Doors of Mercy”]

This will be the last eSpirit until the fall as we take a hiatus for the summer; thank you so much!

– Kenzo An;

The Right Rev. Shannon MacVean-Brown, Bishop of Vermont

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