Yesterday I was working through the same book that I have been reading through for The Academy for Spiritual Formation over the past few weeks. It seems like every Monday begins with a cup of coffee and the same book. Inevitably, my brain melts before the coffee cools. The book’s title is “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and was written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. This is a dense book with a lot of good concepts and ideas.
One of the brain-melting ideas that took a hold of me this week revolved around the idea of a Christian “koan.”The authors say this on page 63:
“Many years ago, when Wilkie was in Kyoto studying Zen meditation, this practice of gazing on the crucifix was endorsed by an unlikely source, a Japanese Zen master. Yamada Roshi told him and his fellow Jesuits that the cross is the Christian koan and that contemplating it was a path to enlightenment. A Zen koan is a riddle or surd (e.g. ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’) that baffles and stills the busy mind, so that an intuitive flash of truth can seize one’s awareness.”
This idea struck me as being very interesting given my background as a United Methodist. In his sermon “Spiritual Idolatry” John Wesley (one of the founders of the Methodist movement) clearly stated that he believed the Roman Catholic practice of using icons was a form of idolatry. John Wesley was not a fan of this “Romish” practice.
Now, let’s be clear. I do not believe that John Wesley only spoke and preached words that were beyond reproof. In some cases (like in “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”) I believe John Wesley was dead wrong, Despite all of my troubles with his works, I do believe that John Wesley wrote and spoke with all of the integrity he could muster. In short, I tend to give John Wesley the benefit of the doubt.
I do not believe that John Wesley would approve of the idea of a Christian koan, which I honestly believe is sad. I believe that there is some validity to what Yamada Roshi taught Wilkie Au. The authors go on to state that Yamada Roshi taught the Jesuits studying in Japan that excessive rationality often stood between people and God. The crucifix as a koan does an excellent job of being simple enough to help a Christian go beyond rationality into a place of contemplation where inspiration can take root.
After my brain stopped sparking I contemplated the idea on and off again. It kept setting small fires in my mind, but I had a few thoughts that I believe were helpful.
First, if the Jesuits focused on the crucifix, does it change the nature of the inspiration to contemplate the empty cross favored by Protestants? How would a focus on resurrection alter how one comes closer to God? What does it mean to us in our contemplation that the means of death inflicted by the world stands empty and defeated? Does pondering the very differences lead to the excessive rationalism Yamada Roshi was warning about? Would it be helpful to break through a barrier for a Protestant to contemplate a crucifix or for a Roman Catholic to ponder the empty cross?
Second, what koans have I experienced in my life? When I regularly went to the same Young Life camp first as a student and then as a leader I remember watching the same tree growing out on an island in the lake. Contemplating the tree led me to places where I found inspiration to get through some of the most difficult spiritual struggles that I faced as a college student. I know that I have stared at a campfire many times while praying through challenges as an adult. Were these koans or just convenient places where my focus rested until I saw Christ?
Finally, what’s wrong with an icon? John Wesley’s idiosyncrasies aside, is there anything wrong with using an icon? As a young Christian I enjoyed reading both John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress. In reading stories filled with allegorical characters I found a way of contemplating deep things about my own spiritual life. Is using an icon to go deeper in one’s faith different than using a work of fiction? Is using an icon to focus in and grow deeper in the faith different than using a sermon like a lens to focus on a truth in the scriptures?
As I said earlier, this book causes my brain to smoke. On the positive side, if my brain is overheating then I have an excuse to always be letting hot air out of my mouth.