An interesting consideration came out of a recent reading of a passage from Bernadette Roberts’ book. What is Self?She suggests that the ordeal of Your incarnation was far greater than the ordeal of Your passion and death. She would have us consider the ramifications of willfully abandoning a sublimely divine nature to embrace the retrograde faultiness and frailty of humanity. She further suggests that this act of love and obedience to the Father was far more painful, embarrassing, and insulting to You than the human sufferings of Your passion and death.
It does make us consider God’s great love for us from a different angle. We’ve often heard that the greatest feast on the church’s calendar is Easter which celebrates the triumph of forgiveness and redemption purchased with the cross and guaranteed with the resurrection. But the descent to become human necessarily came first. Without this cause, the effects vanish. Thus, maybe we should look again at the importance of celebrating the Incarnation as the greater feast – or, at least, equal feast.
The analogy is crippled (even humorous) but think of theexcruciating indignity of a human assuming the nature of an ant in order, out of love for them, to save the entire race of ants.
In deeper reflection upon Your incarnation, unceasing gratitude is needed for the painful decision born out of love and obedience to become one of us. Think of it. God chooses to become human. How much less we would know of You had You not so chosen. So very much of what it means to be Christian for us is predicated upon the human nature You assumed in the Incarnation!
I read a lot of spiritual writers. It occurs to me that while their angles, perceptions, and approaches are intriguing and inspiring, not one of them has anything basically different to say from what You Youself taught. Thus, the gospel accounts of Your teachings are the rock-solid foundation of all aspects of the spiritual life.
If one studies Your words in scripture, certain themes keep recurring: Love, Faith, Trust, Vigilance, Humility, Suffering, Service, Prayer, Forgiveness, Mercy, Loyalty, Persistence, Acceptance, etc. From these are derived everything the spiritual writers have to say.
A frequent accompaniment to the way we seek God is the exploration of the spiritual life through the eyes of others who have trod the same path.This activity, while commendable for its enhancements, adds complexity to the utter clarity and simplicity of Your message. Yet it does redirect our attention to it in new and different ways.
There’s no denying that we do well to reflect upon Your life and teachings in the gospels, but it is also good to have the encouragement and example of individual responses to Your message. Perspective becomes an influential factor. Sometimes we become so “locked-in” to the repetitive gospel accounts that they become like clichés. We crave current perspectives built upon those gospel accounts to reclaim their reality and freshness.
Human life is rife with things made to seem important that are really not. In many instances we are driven by life-styles, pressures from other people, culture, and even religion to set for ourselves the task of sorting out what is important and what is not. We are, often, not very good at this. We have an innate tendency to assign importance with erroneous abandon. Part of the fault may lie in the tools and resources we use in judging what is important; for, truly, our treasure is where our heart lies. What we judge important becomes influenced by what we like and dislike, what we pursue and avoid, what we accept or reject, what is comfortable or uncomfortable to us, and so on.
Obviously, however, if we judge nothing important there is nothing pursued, liked, accepted, or with which we are comfortable. The problem then becomes finding the truth of importance itself. I personally find this tough, but know it is essential to growing closer to You; for there is where importance abides.
To help us judge what is and isn’t important in our daily lives is contained in the gospel messages of religion and the guidelines of the church. That being said it is, perhaps the person in the cloister who has a distinct advantage in evaluating what is and isn’t important. Silence, solitude, and stillness create a clearer field for making evaluations. It would help those of us who are not cloistered to occasionally create this atmosphere for ourselves. It truly facilitates discerning what is and isn’t important.
It’s often been a confusing process for me to get a handle on the specific meaning of the phrase “fear of God.” At different times I have interpreted it in a number of different ways. But recently, in reading the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews I think I have found a meaning for this fear that is more definitive. In Hebrews 4: 1 the answer seems clear:the “fear” of God is the fear we should all have of missing the one thing in life that is worthwhile – God! We should be afraid of becoming so wrapped up in busy-ness, in pride, in possessions, in money, in power, in sex, in education, in success – basically in “self” – that we missGod.
If we miss love, we miss the meaning of life itself. If anything is scary, eating, sleeping, breathing, and taking up space for 70 or more years on this planet without realizing why we’re here – that’s scary! But it’s all based on the powerful influence of choice which God has given us in His great love for us. The power to choose You is also the power to ignore You, and that’s what we should fear.
Fear is a great motivator. If we realize that from the moment of our birth, when life awakes within us, to the moment of our death that the push and pull of our senses constantly edges us in directions that ignore You, we should be afraid. If we do not maintain the fear of God not being the primary component of everything we do in life, we miss the choice that has been given to us. The Fear of God is also God’s own Fear of losing us.
For better or worse, I see myself as a strong subscriber to the aspect of modern spiritual thought which entertains a re-thinking of the essential message that man has strong tendencies toward sinfulness and hardness of heart, but that this is overcome by God’s love. Martin Luther, who was a spiritually forward thinker, in his time expressed this with the words pecca fortiter (sin bravely) emphasizing the love and forgiveness of God for individuals who sincerely struggle with being faithful but keep falling short. It’s a comforting security blanket to embrace, and what it says about God’s role in the matter I believe is true. But I think a bit more needs to be said about an individual’s role in the relationship.
One cannot offhandedly and boldly choose to sin bravely because of God’s unconditional love. In my opinion the modern re-thinking is only valid when it’s based on a mature and well-thought-out understanding of a love relationship. The union, the marriage, the coupling, the mutuality takes two to be complete. In this we are flawed.
We have loved someone without being loved by them. Our love is genuine and true, but it is not complete. There is no union. This is the position in which we put God even when we falter and rely on His forgiveness. I messed up – and He still loves me; and that’s true! But because of His constant forgiveness I want to love Him more and better. I want to aspire to the unconditional quality of His love for me in my love for Him – but I keep tripping over myself.
I think this is what Fr. Anthony DeMello’s tenet of “accepting life” is all about. We have to accept the fact that as we are we cannot complete the union as it should be. It can only be completed by God Himself when He creates in us the unconditional state that completes the union which is our destiny. Our part in that is the “accepting” and “striving” which are affirmed by two recurring themes You taught to Your disciples:
There are some things we reflect upon mainly because of the phase of life we are in. When you’re my age you don’t think much anymore about impressing people, vocation in life, raising kids, making money, getting an education, or making one’s “mark.” Even the “Walter Mitty” musings have evaporated.
But health and death are another matter! They now replace all the others. What strikes me is that the truly selfless person is the one least likely to have anxieties about these. I’m not very good at being selfless. I know its importance spiritually and I wish I was better at it. I do think about death and my health and I do have anxieties about them. If I write to You here on this page that I can handle the anxieties it’s not so much a lie as it is a wish that it was so. Confiding this weakness to You is a prayer that You would help me with it. My greatest anxiety is not about the physical pain and discomfort that may come with failing health and death, but rather that I have failed to live the life God has given me in the best way possible. I am disturbed by all the time in my life that I have frittered away doing frivolous, passive, and useless things. I think to myself, if I totaled up all the time in my life I spent solely on myself with absolutely no benefit to even one other person, I’d be staring at a huge percentage of my life.
Time not spent in some way on at least one other person is wasted. Watching TV, having a cigar, listening to music, swimming, fishing, etc. involve no one but myself. Should these things make me anxious about dying? The answer that these are little pleasures in life that are needed to re-create ourselves - hence, recreation – still seems somewhat cryptic because it’s this “recreation” time that imparts tinges of guilt about not spending my life more wisely.
The message of the good nuns in grade school about avoiding superstition has always stuck with me. I know that at different times in my life I have made concerted efforts to ignore popular phobias like crossing paths with a black cat, or walking under a ladder, etc. But, looking back, I can also recall many times when I have succumbed to a belief that certain outcomes would not materialize without certain postures on my part. This often still applies, notably to things for which I pray. It denotes a greater trust in myself than in You. If examined, most superstitions hinge upon the belief that outcomes are facilitated by extraneous “do’s and don’ts” attended by us. Such superstitions both warn us and empower us to control the influences of our desired ends; and, I think these are the kinds of superstitions the nuns were talking about.
The proclivity for this kind of superstition is evident all too often in my spiritual life. I find myself strongly influenced by beliefs that not finishing or missing certain prayers and/or spiritual practices negates them entirely. But this means that I see myself in control – not You!Allmy practices of completing things in certain ways or posturing myself in certain ways are nothing more than superstitions of high order when viewed against the trust that should be a hallmark of my love for You.
Somehow the order we create in our own lives becomes the fertile ground for the growth of superstitious practices, making us think that deviations throw our cosmic revolutions into malevolent orbits. But again, what’s basically happening is a mistrust of You. The workings of Your Spirit are replaced by some kind of confidence in the efficacy of the ways in which we ourselves do or don’t do certain things. Believing that shattering a mirror will bring years of bad luck, or that breaking the link in a chain-letter will bring about a publicized consequence is superstitious because it is based on the fear of losing control – control we never really had to begin with.
I still go on from day-to-day unable to fathom the connection in my life between a lack of worry and growth in the spirit. The way many writers talk about worry characterizes it as a type of fear, and fear, it would seem, denotes a lack of trust. A lack of trust undermines our spiritual growth. Basically I understand this explanation and cannot reject it out of hand. But I feel something should be said in defense of worry.
I may be wrong, but as I see it compassion, caring, concern, empathy, and a generally healthy regard for the well-being of another (all traits I would consider exemplified by You) are oftentimes motivated by worry. It may be true that most worry is based on fear, but not all. There can, I think, be unconditional worry – worry with no “ifs.” – worry that’s based on pure concern – worry that’s based genuinely on love which says, “I worry because I love.” If there is any fear or lack of trust in this kind of worry, it is a fear of and lack of trust in myself. Where trust and reliability are most shaky is in me.
So, to worry about a particular outcome or the direction taken by others really connotes a worry about self – about how one will be affected and about one’s ability or inclination to be an influence. It is a fact that we are the weakest link in this kind of worry. Humility demands that we realize this. And, this weakness itself should be worried about.
We must place our trust elsewhere – in circumstances beyond our control; in Your control! The things we waste our time worrying about are the things we fear because we have no control over them and we may not fully trust those who do have such control. But this is exactly the situation You were in when You lived on this planet. If we look to You it becomes clear that praying over what we would worry about and trusting the outcome is the best answer.
When I was teaching there was another teacher in my department who often used to say, “When I get to heaven I’m gonna sit on a cloud with God and ask Him this question,” and then she’d tell you her question. I was thinking about this teacher and imagining what questions I’d ask if I was sitting on that cloud. I think they would probably be based on some recent reflections I’ve had concerning Your humanity. One of them would be: In Your humanity did You ever feel the absence of God?
It strikes me that living in this world offers many occasions on which, either in our own lives or in the lives of others, we wonder where God is. It probably crossed Your mind in Gethsemane as, in our own Gethsemanes, it crosses our minds. Why is it that God seems most present to us when we are at peace and farthest from us when we are in turmoil? If, at the apex of Your passion, Your turmoil, Your aloneness, You were so humanly agitated as to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You abandoned me?” – then, clearly, we see how, in our own turmoil, we become so agitated as to imagine God’s absence. But God’s “absence” may not be God’s fault. God may somehow be barred from being present. So high are human emotions in moments of great turmoil that the conscious summoning of God may be excluded from thought. It would seem that dark powers beyond our understanding take over our wills at such times.
You lived by the Light of Your Father and, in the extreme chaos of the cross it must have seemed as if that Light was being snuffed out. Fenelon reminds us that it is very human to seek the support and approval of others. Thus it is very human to feel a huge emptiness when it is not there; and You, lest we forget, were very human. It is another paradoxical lesson of the spiritual life that we are left to insert God at times when God seems most absent.
I’m sure it’s true of even those most deeply connected with You that a doubt about God’s existence or about an after-life is, now and then. entertained. Faith, in the shadow of doubt, is our most potent connector. Doubt, however, is a common saboteur.
I was trying to imagine what it would have been like to be one of Your apostles during that period of time between Your death and resurrection. Here was a group of men who had grown to accept You as the promised Messiah and, because of that, had given up three years of their lives to follow You. In each of them burned the fire of their own concept of hope in the “reign” of this Messiah. They had experienced Your kindness and compassion. They had been enthralled by Your teaching. They had witnessed Your miraculous powers. And then, somewhat suddenly, they see You handed over, abused, crucified, and put to death. You were gone! You who raised the dead, were dead! Now, here they are, certainly feeling abandoned, afraid, and confused. You were tried as a criminal and they knew they were Your accomplices. I can imagine them in hiding, looking at one another and asking, ‘What do we do now?’ Yes, they were Your apostles. They were closely connected with You, but now the door of doubt was ajar. What if they had given three years of their lives chasing a dream that was too good to be true ?
In John’s record of the discovery of Your resurrection by Mary Magdalene, he quotes You as saying to her: “Don’t hold on to me.” It is my belief that she reported these words accurately because what I think they really meant was not, “Don’t touch me.” but rather, “Don’t hold on to the past.” Death is defeated. Life is renewed. But only in hindsight does that gain clarity. At the time directly after Your death the bottom had dropped out for those closest to You. They lived with that door of doubt ajar. Not until news of Your rising spread; not until You appeared in their hiding place; not until Your Spirit descended upon them did that door slowly close. But the fact remains that without Your presence there was doubt. That is why it is so important for us, now, to keep You present in our daily lives.