Swedenborg was a Contemplative Dave Rogalsky
Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-8, Acts 10, 15, Matthew 2:1-12
Theme: To see that Swedenborg’s basic spirituality was one of connecting with God via becoming quiet enough to hear God. This is basic contemplation. Church of the Good Shepherd – Swedenborgian – has this heritage to celebrate, and this gift to offer the community.
Epiphany is a good day for us to be thinking about Emmanuel Swedenborg and his spiritual life. Epiphany is the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men or magi from the East with their rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew tells us that they knelt down and worshipped Jesus when they found him, with his mother, in a house in Bethlehem. The gifts were part of their worship. The church has called this event epiphany, a Greek word that means “to become literally visible or figuratively known, or to appear.” The church has used this especially of God appearing. Jesus, worshipped by angels, shepherds and wise men, was God among us, was God appearing, was an epiphany.
We use epiphany for that moment when we understand something that had been hidden from us. Swedenborg had such a moment, such many moments. Through the practice of contemplative spirituality he came face to face with God over and over again. Today, on the first Sunday of the Christian season of Epiphany, we think about Church of the Good Shepherd’s third priority – to stay Swedenborgian – by focussing on Swedenborg’s spiritual life.
To contemplate is “to spend time considering . . . one particular thing for a long time in a serious and quiet way.”1 Contemplation, as a spiritual discipline is to spend time, in a serious and quiet way, thinking about life, in all its components, in the presence of God. The short time we spend at the end of sermons is a time of contemplation, using tools that others have found to be helpful to connect human beings with God – the posture of open hands, closed eyes, focussed breathing, specific things to consider, and inviting God to be with us. Contemplation is a form of prayer, an ancient and widespread form of drawing near to God, of meeting God, of having God reveal Godself to us.
Though it isn’t described in detail for us I don’t think we are wrong to think that what both Cornelius the Roman centurion of the Italian cohort, and Peter the Jewish apostle of Jesus Christ were doing was contemplation.
Acts 10 tells us that Cornelius had an active and regular life of prayer. Three o’clock was a regular Jewish time of prayer (see Acts 5:1), and though Cornelius had not converted to Judaism, he was what the New Testament calls a God-fearer (see Acts 10:2, 13:16), – a non-Jew who had come to put trust in the Jewish God. The fear component is more awe than terror. Cornelius was a non-Jew who had come to be in awe of the Jewish God. So, sitting down in private at the regular afternoon time of prayer for Jews, in a serious and quiet way, Cornelius thought about life with all its components, in the presence of God. In into his thoughts came a man, an angel, in the flesh or in a vision, to bring him a message. Acts 10 calls the messenger both a man and an angel (see verses 3 and 30). And Cornelius calls this visitation both a vision (verse 3) and at another time relates it as a waking experience (verse 30). The people of that time didn’t divide such experiences into “real” or “visionary” the way we might. Paul’s vision experience of Jesus along the road to Damascus in Acts 9 is recounted as both a vision and as a ‘real life’ experience in the book of Acts, and other places in the New Testament (See Acts 9:3ff, 1 Corinthians 15:8, and Acts 26:19). Cornelius was a contemplative, one who prayed in a contemplative manner. In that prayer life he met God.
The other person here was the apostle Peter. Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us that “about noon” Peter went up on the flat roof to pray at another of the three regular times to pray (see Psalm 55:17), the third being evening (see also Daniel 6:10). There he got hungry and asked that something be prepared for him. In the meantime – baking bread takes time! – he went back to his prayers. In his prayers he had a vision and heard a voice. Peter was offered a number of choices for lunch on a sheet. But each of the choices was against the laws of the Old Testament. Leviticus chapter 11 gives a detailed list of what the Jews were not to eat – they were considered ritually unclean. Some scholars think that the animals carried disease that they Jews were to avoid, others think that some of the animals were used by other religions and could lead the Jews away from God. Whatever the reason, none of the foods offered Peter were legally available to him. As a good Jew, in the vision state, he refused them. But the heavenly voice told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” What God has called clean, you must not reject, God tells him (Acts 10:15). For emphasis, it happened three times. Luke tells us that Peter was disturbed by this vision. He “thought fiercely” about it. Was God telling him to change his diet? Was there another meaning? Visions are much like dreams – they often contain images and symbols that are not straightforward, and they almost always apply only or most to the one who has had the vision. Any further application needs counsel from others.
The long and the short – Peter was a contemplative – he prayed in contemplative ways and met God there.
From his vision Cornelius sent for Peter. From his, Peter went when invited, even though “28 he said to (Cornelius and the others), "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection.” (Acts 10:28-29). From their encounter non-Jews began to join the Jewish-Christian sect, without first having to become Jews. From this Paul and Barnabas went out from Antioch of Syria, planting churches made up of Jews and non-Jews throughout Asia Minor, now Turkey (see Acts 13 and 14).
But, you might remember, I said that if a vision was applied further, to more than the situation or person at hand, that it needed further conversation. And that happened in Acts 15. Peter, Paul and Barnabas, were called on the carpet in Jerusalem by the other leaders of the church. There some told them that they were wrong – the church was to be Jewish so non-Jews needed to convert. But others argued otherwise. All together they listened to Peter’s story of his vision, and of Cornelius and the Holy Spirit. Then they listened to Paul and Barnabas’ stories of many non-Jews, mostly God-fearers, becoming followers of Jesus without first becoming Jews. The group then turned to their scriptures – could there be guidance in God’s word about this. With their eyes opened by the visions, they saw old passages with new eyes, and stronger light shone on them. James, the leader of leaders said,
14 (Peter) has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for God’s name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 'After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18 known from long ago.' Acts 15:14-18 (NRSV)
And the Christian church changed from being only another sect of Judaism to being a more universal gathering of God followers, Jews and non-Jews. God’s love got a wider hearing. God’s acceptance gathered in more people. I think God’s plan to draw all people to Godself grew by a huge leap.
Emanuel Swedenborg grew up in the Swedish Lutheran Church. His father was a pastor and eventually a bishop in the church and he believed in God’s care of the individual. Early in his life as a pastor Swedenborg’s father studied other forms of Christianity in Europe, including Roman Catholic and the growing pietistic movement in Lutheranism and other Protestant groups. Both of these forms of Christianity focussed on a personal God who answered prayers.2 He must have influenced his son who from childhood on practiced worship, study, and a form of contemplation – focussed breathing, quiet, thought, considering life in the presence of God.
In his later scientific studies Emanuel Swedenborg was trying to find the place where the soul or life resided in the human being. Like others before him he could not find it, though he kept on trying. In this time of frustration in the summer of 1743, for some reason, he began to keep track of his dreams, writing them down and beginning to interpret them. His life of contemplative prayer moved much more deeply into that life having many visions, dreams, and intense spiritual experiences. Like anything else to which he applied his formidable intellect, he learned very quickly.
To the best of our understanding, he did it alone. The Lutheran tradition did not have a history of spiritual guides as did the various Catholic traditions – Roman, Anglican and Orthodox. So Swedenborg was on his own recording and interpreting the dreams. People like Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Hildegard von Bingen all had confessors, guides, people who listened openly and without judgement to their dreams and visions, wrote them down, preserved them, and from the deep tradition of these mystical happenings, helped them to make sense of what they were experiencing. Swedenborg actually had real doubts that anyone in any church was on the right track. As a reformer he saw the shortcomings of the organized church in his day – and they were real. But he failed to see that in every institution there is a mix of good and bad. He missed out on the mystical tradition and the guidance that went with it.
Dreams and visions are almost always for the person who is having them, and are not the foundation of thought for others. A number of years ago David Wilkerson, the small town Pentecostal Minister who felt called to work with the gangs of New York City in the 1950’s and 60’s, had a vision. It ran to about 10 pages when published. As it went it was a powerful word. But then he spent 100 pages pushing the vision through his conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist and apocalyptic framework as a word for the whole world. It wasn’t. His vision was true, but his tradition also lacked good spiritual guides used to working with mystic to help him draw the truth for himself out of it.
A number of years ago I was part of a group setting up a rural church building as a solitary retreat centre. In the discussion we wondered if people who used the space would be required to have a spiritual director. At the time I was naïve enough to think that wasn’t necessary. I think differently now – having someone who can encourage, ask good questions, help someone make sense of their dreams, visions and experiences, is essential.
So what do we learn from all this?
Swedenborg’s theology, his understanding of God and all that there is, came from his experiences in contemplation and in mystical experiences. Swedenborgian belief in God’s love and acceptance comes from Swedenborg’s theology. Church of the Good Shepherd’s love of neighbour and God comes from this Swedenborgian tradition. For the congregation to remain Swedenborgian I think that we need to focus on spiritual lives practiced by the people who come here, from children to the aged and everywhere in between. You already do it. In my first service here I left room in the prayer of the Church for silent prayer. People complained – I hadn’t left enough time! It was wonderful! Contemplation there, and at the end of the sermon, leaves room for individuals and God to come in direct contact.
I think that contemplative prayer is something this congregation has to offer the community around us. People have tried of find life’s answers through work and buying things, through human relationships alone, through science and knowledge. Many feel empty when those things fail them. They don’t want to turn to the church because the church has also failed humanity so often. What we offer isn’t just a church but an offer to create space for them to meet directly with God.
What if this place became a centre of spiritual direction – come at noon for a half hour, once a month or every two months – or a place to practice Yoga and other spiritual practices, led by folk who meet God in their practices and want to create space for others to do the same? Remaining Swedenborgian means creating space for people to draw near to God.