Wednesday, July 7, 2004

Christian heriage - July 6 - Strengthened in Temptation

"How holy and salutary, how loving and gracious, to strengthen and comfort one who is so disturbed and afflicted, so disconsolate and forsaken, and indeed when one is passing through the fire of testing and the water of tribulation to lead him out into the coolness of repose and consolation! Even if one who is so troubled should not immediately obtain this repose and consolation of spirit which he desires, or even is without it for a long time he should nevertheless steadfastly hope that he should possess it in the end, because Many are the tribulations of the just, and from them all the Lord will deliver them.

"Marvelous is your kindness, O most high, for you allow us to be tempted, not that we may succumb, but that we may take refuge from our fear in you, our most safe harborage. You act, Lord, like a good mother, who desires to see and embrace her son, removed far from her, and through some fearful happening strikes fear in him and, stretching out her arms, she welcomes her son as he flees, joyfully smiles on him and bestows on him loving kisses; and, for fear he may go off elsewhere, she exhorts him to ensure that nothing evil befalls him; she clasps him to herself, consoling him, and finally offers him her milk. O blessed temptation which compels us to take refuge in God's arms!"

William Flete (1325 - 1390), O.S.A., Spiritual Document, from William Flete, O.S.A. and Catherine of Siena. Masters of Fourteenth Century Spirituality, Villanova, 1992, 136

William Flete was an Augustinian friar and hermit in Lecceto, near Siena. He was a friend of and spiritual adviser to Saint Catherine of Siena of whom he wrote a moving testimony.

When reading or teaching the parable of the Prodigal Son, I've often wondered: that's wonderful... but it would be so much better, don't you, um, think, God, if there were a mother too, a whole family? But then I realize the father in that parable was a sort of mother. (Jesus structured the parable as He did to emphasize the patriarchal dimensions of redemption; He was showing how both the "man" of the Jews as the good older son, and the man of the Gentiles, as the bad younger son were meant to be wrapped up into the plan of salvation. This is a typically Lucan theme of universality. But I digress.) It's quotes like these by Flete that remind me God is truly beyond -- but, crucially, not beneath -- our binary conceptions of gender. That's a truism that is too often downplayed with an "Yeah, yeah, I know: I DO go to Sunday school, you know" nod. Only God the Father is manly enough to be our mother, as Flete so beautifully suggests.

(Incidentally, I find Flete's line about rejoicing in temptation because it drives us deeper into God's mercy decisively but subtly more sound than Luther's notorious quote to the effect that we should "sin boldy since you have been saved boldly. Even if you should commit fornication or murder a thousand times a day, know that you shall not be separated from the Lamb." To any fans of Luther, please hear me out: this is not some cheap, old anti-Luther potshot of mine. I simply think that quote of his captures better than most the key, life-altering difference between a truly Lutheran view of salvation and a more biblical view. Our assurance (a la Hebrews and 1 John etc.) is in the fact that in Christ we have perfect, lasting access to the Father for the forgiveness of sins, NOT that we in Christ have an inviolable protection from committing truly damning sins after we've been forgiven.)

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