The Taste in Water

It may be slightly scandalous to admit that one of my favorite sacred quotes is not from the Bible.  It is, rather, from the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.  In the Gita, the prince Arjuna is on the cusp of war against his kinsmen.  He is unsure of the morality of what he must do, and he turns to his chariot driver, the mysterious Krishna, for guidance.  The Gita is a prolonged conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, as the prince struggles mightily with his lot in life and desperately seeks some powerful sign of God’s presence in his midst. As to the quote I love, I’ll come back to that shortly.

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Elijah on Mount Horeb, where he meets God in the sound of silence.

Returning to our own holy texts, in 1 Kings today the great Prophet Elijah is as conflicted as Arjuna.  He has stood up for God against powerful forces, including King Ahab of Israel and Ahab’s pagan wife, Jezebel.  Jezebel has threatened Elijah’s life, and Jezebel always makes good on her threats. So Elijah flees across the border to Judah, in hopes that he might be beyond Jezebel’s reach.  Elijah is afraid—terrified by his circumstances in life—and he wants confirmation that God is with him.  (Whatever our lot and whatever our challenges, I think we can relate to that.)  He keeps traveling south until he gets to Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai.  Catch that: Elijah is so desperate for God’s presence that he goes to the place he feels sure God will be, the very mountain on which God appeared repeatedly to Moses centuries before, where God was in the ominous mist, and shone so brightly that Moses had to wear a veil, and spoke audibly when granting the Ten Commandments.  With the possible exception of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Mount Horeb was the one place on earth where God was sure to be in bombast and power.  That’s where Elijah determines to go.

On that mountain, Elijah waits in expectation for the thunderous arrival of God.  And thunder comes.  On the mountain, Elijah encounters a great wind, so strong that it splits the rocks around him.  The cyclone is followed by an earthquake that shatters the mountain at his feet.  And after the earthquake, a fire erupts that engulfs anything in its path.  With each in turn, Elijah thinks, “Surely this is the revelation of God, this demonstration of raw, unbridled power.”  But each time, as the phenomenon passes, God is not there.  Finally, after the fire, a stillness settles on Elijah and the mountain so completely that scripture calls it “the sound of sheer silence.”  (The King James calls it “a still, small voice.”)  And there, in the silence, in the stillness so subtle as almost to be missed, God is.  In the smallest thing, Elijah meets the divine.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna eventually comes to realize that his chariot driver is actually an avatar for Vishnu—God—and across time, space, culture, and religion, Arjuna begs the same as Elijah.  In his predicament, Arjuna wants to meet God in reassuring power, in overwhelming bombast, in confidence-inspiring noise and wonder.  To an extent, Krishna obliges.  “I am earth, water, fire and space,” Krishna says.  But then he stills himself, and Arjuna encounters the same calm as Elijah on Mount Horeb.  Krishna then says, “I am the taste in water…[and] I am the sound in ether.”[i]

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“I am the taste in water.”

That is the quote I love: “I am the taste in water.”  This truth is universal, embraced by our Judeo-Christian faith and the Eastern faith of Hinduism. We seek God in the wondrous, in the miraculous, in the bombastic and big.  In our lives, we want God to part the heavens and still the seas.  But we may be looking for God in all the wrong places.  It may be that God is primarily to be found in the smallest and subtlest of things, in the calm, in the sound of sheer silence, in the taste in water.

Many of you know that I have only just returned from leading a Cathedral pilgrimage to Northumbria and Scotland.  Much of our time was spent on Iona, the island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland where St. Columba established his monastery in A.D. 563.  For centuries, the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides served to some extent like a human Scottish Galapagos.  While not completely separated from the rest of civilization, the Hebrides were only tenuously tethered to the mainland.  Generation after generation of Scottish fisher folk were born, raised, and died with little contact with outsiders, especially on the smaller islands.  Consequently, the ancient Celtic songs and prayers of Scotland were preserved on these islands that dot the North Atlantic.  In the mid-nineteenth century, Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael spent twenty years traveling the Hebrides collecting these songs and prayers.  He compiled them in a book entitled the Carmina Gaedelica, or, in English, “The Hymns of the Gael.”  The Carmina is a treasure, and though in the past hundred years Carmichael has received some justified criticism for his editing of the work, the Carmina undoubtedly is our best source for the Celtic understanding of nature, the world, and the presence of God.

What is most conspicuous is what is missing.  The prayers and songs of the Celts do not include noise and bombast.  They are not about the great and grand, the earthquake and the cyclone.  They are entirely ordinary.  They are mundane.  They are as subtle as the taste in water.  The Celts have a prayer for making the bed in the morning, from an age when the family bed was, in addition to being the place of nightly rest, also the nuptial bed, the birthing bed, and the dying bed.  The prayer recognizes the presence of God in all these things: “I make this bed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the name of the night we were conceived; in the name of the night we were born; in the name of the day we were baptized; in the name of each night, each day, each angel that is in heaven.”[ii]

The Celts have a prayer for the kindling of the morning fire.  Imagine the cold of the North Atlantic wind, as one walked vulnerably out of one’s house to gather peat or seaweed to provide life-giving heat.  The drudgery of that walk becomes an encounter with God, when one prays, “I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven…without malice, without jealously, without envy, without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun, but the Holy Son of God to shield me.”[iii]

There are prayers and songs for kneading the day’s loaf of bread, for churning butter, for blessing one’s children when they leave the house, for traveling with Christ as companion.


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The Bay on the Back of the Ocean, west coast of Iona

In other words, the Celts looked for God in the smallest and most ordinary things, in the sound of silence, in the taste in water.  And like Elijah and Arjuna, they found God there.  They noted that nothing is outside of the purview of God, not even the moments we consider incidental, or the daily tasks we consider burdens.

Perhaps we do look for God in the wrong places.  Maybe because our gaze is cast out there, or up there, hoping for a sign that lights up the night like Astros summer fireworks, we fail to see that God is right here, among us always, like the air we breathe or the still small voice.  How would our days change, how would our chores be enlivened, if we understood that God is present in it all?  How would we move through the world differently if we recognized that by living mindfully in the quiet and calm we would encounter the God who is here?

I am the taste in water, says God.  May we slake our thirst and meet God with every drink.



[ii] De Waal, Esther.  The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination, 30.

[iii] Ibid., 78.

The Antidote to Loneliness

Thank goodness for Great Britain, our first cousins “across the pond.”  As the social and political fabric of our own nation has unraveled these past few years, watching the corresponding dumpster fire in England stemming from the Brexit morass has granted our attention a reprieve from our own dysfunction.  Or, at least, Great Britain’s mess has allowed us to say, “See, they’re as screwed up as we are!”  Misery loves company, I suppose.

Because of the way Brexit dominates news from Britain, we may have missed a New York Times headline from last year.  It turns out, as Prime Minister Theresa May was laboring futilely to craft a Brexit deal Parliament could swallow, she made another notable decision: Theresa May appointed Britain’s first ever Minister for Loneliness.  When making the announcement, the PM said, “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”[i]

To some, such a position in the government might sound like the epitome of the nanny state, until one remembers that the Ministry for Loneliness is the creation of the most un-nanny Conservative Party.  But it is really necessary, this government portfolio to study and combat loneliness?  Loneliness and isolation among the aged, especially after the death of a spouse, has long been recognized as a problem, but in recent years it turns out the problem is not unique to the elderly.  Surprisingly, Britain’s Office for National Statistics reports that the 16 to 24-year-old age group report greater feelings of loneliness than those in the 65 to 74-year old age group.  Ironically, the digital technology that leads to connection through social media appears to be a primary culprit.  It turns out that electronic devices are a pale substitute for actual conversation and contact.  Virtual relationships are not real, and they do not nourish.  Ever-increasing connectivity is actually feeding social isolation and loneliness.

It also turns out that we share this, too, with Great Britain.  Late last year health care provider Cigna with help from U.C.L.A. released a large-scale survey in which “most Americans reported suffering from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships.  Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or ‘left out.’”  Assuming that we are a representative cross-section, this applies to us.

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Our loneliness is borne in part, I think, by the transience of modern life.  I lived for the first eighteen years of my life in the same small town, in the same house, with the same friends.  Since then, I’ve lived in eight cities in five states.  And even if we don’t change cities, we change jobs, companies, and firms like changing socks.  That experience is now the norm, and it will only become more so, as what has been called the “gig economy” grows.  The circle of friends and depth of relationships that develop from a rootedness to place are increasingly rare in our transient world.

Even when around other people, including people we know, we often feel unknown and lonely.  In their song “Nobody knows me at all,” the Weepies sing, “When I was a child everybody smiled; nobody knows me at all. Very late at night and in the morning light; nobody knows me at all. Now I got lots of friends, yes, but then again, nobody knows me at all.  Kids and a wife, it’s a beautiful life; [but] nobody knows me at all.”  Does this resonate with you?

We are psychosomatic creatures—embodied spirits—and it should be no wonder that the lived experience of loneliness manifests itself in us physically.  Loneliness is resulting in a social and health crisis.  In the U.K., official Mark Robinson says that loneliness has been “proven to be worse for health than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.”  And here in the U.S., former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says loneliness is associated “with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”[iii]

What can we do?  Ben Sasse, the senator who was first a Yale-trained historian, says the antidote to loneliness is to identify, wherever one finds oneself, “a ‘thick’ community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient.”[iv]  By virtue of our presence here, we have found such a community, even if we haven’t thought of it in that way.  It is the church, specifically, for us, Christ Church Cathedral.  Thick community may not be why we first walked through the doors.  We may have come because we appreciate the historic architecture and well-crafted liturgy, or find ourselves moved by the beautiful music, or want to be part of a place that engages in outreach to those who live on the margins.  But at the end of the day, each of these things is derivative of the church; they are what the church does, not who the church is.  The church, at its essence, is the community described in John’s Gospel by Jesus today in his heartfelt prayer to God.  It’s a dense prayer, with twisting language, but it’s super important.  Understanding it may change our very understanding of why we sit in these pews.

Today’s passage is the very end of a longer prayer Jesus makes on behalf of the disciples he will soon leave, and, it is important to note, on behalf of all those disciples who will come after.  In other words, us.  Jesus says, in prayer, that he has lived his life in complete communion with God, so much so that it is not really Jesus who lives, but God who lives in and through him.  Think of that!  This is what the Incarnation means at the end of the day.  We really don’t need to get tied up in knots about creeds and archaic doctrinal explanations.  The Incarnation means that Jesus knows God—really knows God—and God knows Jesus even more deeply.  And, if we want to know God, and what God is like, we must know Jesus, in whom God is and through whom God flows.  But in his prayer today, Jesus goes a step further.  He says to God, “Just as you are in me, I am in them, that they may be one, as we are one.”

This couldn’t be more profound.  Jesus is saying that in the same way he and God are intertwined, we are to be intertwined with him and with each other.  In the same way that God knows Jesus, Jesus wants to know us—really know us—and wants us to know him.  That’s not about architecture, liturgy, music, or even outreach.  That’s about the character of relationship we have with God.  We know God by knowing Jesus; and we know Jesus by knowing one another, deeply, thickly.  God loves us so much, from before the foundation of the world, that God wants us to be in relationships with one another that embody that love.  It’s not too much to say that we are the love of God to each other.  That’s what the church is.  That’s why the church does all the things it does.

And, that is the antidote to loneliness and the remedy to social isolation.  For everyone who walks through these doors, we are to be the thick community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient.  We are to be the community in which no one is forgotten.  We are to be the body in which our shared life in God runs deeper than politics, economics, race, age, orientation, or anything else.  Church is not a place we go or a thing we do; it is who we are, and that identity is available to anyone who seeks to live through God’s love.

To return to Prime Minister May, in a siloed world of virtual connection, we are, each one of us, called to be Ministers for Loneliness.  We are called in love to relate in love to one another, finding and assuring one another that none of us is alone.  What we do here on a Sunday—raising our voices together in song, passing the Peace, kneeling side-by-side at the altar of God—these are rightly just the sacramental signs of the depth of our relationship: that God is in Jesus and Jesus is in us, that we are one as he and the Father are one.  In his prayer today, Jesus says that the community that lives this way serves as a witness to the world.  What a witness we could be.