Monday, October 11, 2004

An icy horizon

The fast is over. I completed my homework. I experienced my misery, my fears, my pains, and my needs. And I experienced the Cross of Christ. The three longest or deepest legs of the journey were Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, during which I experienced the distinct but related revelations about my self these days. Tuesday was the raw pain and emptiness night; Wednesday was utter lack of self-confidence night; and Friday was the fear of life in general night. Aside from that, I don’t feel comfortable sharing too many details about my inner pilgrimage (not the least because I daren’t alienate or smother you). Suffice it to say, I never knew how weak I was until now. My usual (trademark?) chipper resilience has taken a hit, a big hit. I tread the earth a lot more heavily these days. Not more sadly, just more consciously. Not more gravely, just more humbly.

Fr. Ramon asked me today to (try to) summarize last week. I managed to condense it into four main ideas: refreshing (since I can finally walk in HONESTY with my self, God and key other persons), peaceful (since I have no strength BUT to lean on God), humbling (since I have no STRENGTH apart from God), and scary (since I’m not sure how I got this far without seeing inside me what I’ve seen – and since I’m not sure what else “what lies beneath”).

I’ve always known at a theological, and even basically spiritual, level that all my strengths, all my virtues, are but ash compared to God’s splendor. But I have finally reached a zero point, an icy horizon, at which I can no longer deny, in the depths of my very being, how weak I am. I hesitate to say any of this, since I fear most believers, and certainly any non-believers, reading this will find it sheer (albeit well meaning) melodrama. But I speak the truth. I can no loner front. I am but a VESSEL for God. All the fullness I once (thought I) possessed is now gone. As late as last Thursday or Friday I was pondering how this could (or should) effect my activity in various ministries and activities, but have decided to let any changes or declarations ride for a while.

Fr. Ramon hit the nail on the head today when he described me as a man wearing a lot of armor. I have, in much of my life, been expected, by myself or others, to be strong, to be wise, to lead. I do not renounce any such ability; it is the gift of God. But what I can no longer do is pretend I am able, right now, to wield that armor. It’s all simply too heavy for me these days. For better or for worse, I have needed armor, I have learned to use it, and I have used it well. The problem is that I have not yet learned how to remove it – in a sustained, unguarded way – and be a man of flesh and blood. As he said, “The same armor that protects you from an arrow, also prevents you from being loved.”

This is a bold statement. But he’s right, especially when you consider the image he proposed this evening. Imagine a two-day old baby boy. He cannot speak, walk, understand human speech, contribute anything of material worth to the family, and, in fact, can barely even see. But imagine how deeply, how passionately, how – if need be – *self-sacrificially* that baby’s mother loves it. If you didn’t catch it, I am the baby and God is my mother. (Yes, His love is so deep and wide that it encompasses *and in fact surpasses* conventional anthropocentric images of strictly paternal love.)

This was an invaluable metaphor for me because I am stuck between my armor and God’s love. I admit my emptiness and hunger for true love, but I am as yet unwilling to let my self sink into that divine love. For reasons I can't begin to fathom, I am actually aware of my *fear* of God's love. Maybe it's part of my Adamic heritage of shameful nakedness before God and man. Maybe it's a more primally chauvinistic contempt for having to change in ways and rhythms I can't dictate. Whatever the cause, I am, as Fr. Ramon said, the man who knows he is empty inside his armor, but must still take it off to be embraced. I know I am naked but I am afraid of being naked. I know I am hungry but I am afraid of eating. I know I am cold but I am afraid of the hearth. Quite simply, I am *embarrassed* to approach God with so little to offer Him.

As you may or may not know, I often feel restless in the company of other people to say something, to contribute something to the emptiness of otherwise wasted time, to break any and all awkward silence. As with humans, so with God. I have become deeply uncomfortable resting before God, not because I don’t enjoy His presence and consolations, but because I am squeamish before His unblinking gaze. Precisely because I know He sees me and my paltry wares, precisely because He loves me, precisely because He *wants* to see my brokenness in order to restore me – precisely because I know I cannot evade His tender sovereignty, I try to do so. I pray, but I quickly shuffle off (mentally or bodily) to something else, something that lets me be less starkly transparent. As long as I can keep my mind on something or someone else, I can keep my mind off the fact that His mind is fixed imperturbably on me. And His gaze is fixed on me precisely in my medicocrity. I have no wise words to speak in prayer. I have no great insights to put forward in prayer. I have no wisdom – but the wisdom of my need – to offer anyone. I have very little strength to support anyone else right now. I know I must move on from my pain to God’s love, but I am terrified to do so. Pride will do that to you.

And yet, thankfully, Fr. Ramon’s metaphor makes the transition a lot easier. I was truly touched, deeper than I could express at the time, by that image of a “worthless” two-day old squib of humanity basking unawares in the love of his mother – God, it really is me. For perhaps only the second or third time in my life, I can truly and without any pious affectation say I have nothing to offer God. I cannot even understand Him or engage Him, but I know He loves me! I have nothing to offer Him but my erratic, myopic eyes, my incoherent, drooling mouth, my absurd gyrations, and even my shamelessly plump soiled diaper! I am worthless and God loves me! I am weak and God loves me! I am close to God “not in spite my weakness,” as Fr. Ramon kept insisting, but *because* of it. For perhaps the first time in my life, the Beatitudes actually make vital irrefutable sense. I have nowhere to run or hide; I can finally be honest: I am a small, laughable, incompetent baby – and I am God’s! Hallelu Yah!

I mentioned above early last week I experienced the Cross of Christ. I mean this. In an indescribable but undeniable *mystical* sense, I felt in my soul as if I were superimposed on Christ at Calvary. I hesitate, again, to reveal this (for the same reasons as above, plus the suspicion of madness), but our hearts beat as one. He knew my pain and I knew His. And because I have tasted of the Cross, I am now tasting of the Resurrection. There is not then latter without the former. I have tread in the valley of mortal darkness and I am now enjoying the hills divine light. Obviously, I don’t delude myself in thinking I have “made it,” that I have had all the Cross and valley I’ll ever experience, and that I am completely on the up-and-up. God is carrying me higher – into His glory, known fully in Heaven – *in order to* draw me deeper – into His heart, fully opened for the world as it was at the Cross. The future is the future. For the present, all I know is that I had to stop floating on the hollow balloon of image last week; and now I am floating on the unbreakable wings of love.

In keeping with my new, and renewed, spirit, my homework this week is exactly the opposite as lat week. I must *stop* looking at myself and must turn all my devotion to God. Last week I had to remember my pain, even at the expense of God’s easiest comforts; this week I must forget my pain and give myself to God, poopy diapers and all.

As Fr. Ramon said, “He will use even your weakness, not just your ‘strength,’ if you will let Him.” That hit me, hard, like an adrenaline rush to the soul. God doesn’t want my strength; He doesn’t want my weakness; He wants *me*. His grace has weakened me, and thus strengthened me. I accept the Good Doctor’s diagnosis. Now I must face enter His office. More than that, I must lie down, let Him knock me out, and open every inch of me to His knife. It’s the scariest thing of my life. Like birth, I guess.

Any (ostensible) spiritual high-handedness aside, all of this makes me smirk more than a little wryly. This is just what I could expect Gos to “pull.” I’ve got my engine revved to the red to plunge into the catechetical depths as a blazing martyr of Truth – and I end up spending almost a month on “my feelings.” A sly trick, that. But it’s the trick of salvation. The Truth does not just set us free from intellectual errors. Rather, just as sin enslaves and erodes us on eveyr level, the truth liberates us on every level of our person. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20-21).

31To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.[1] 32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

33They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?"

34Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31-36)

I cannot embrace the fullness of God’s truth in the Catholic Church without Him also embracing the fullness of me “in the nest of [His] Church” (cf. St. Augustine of Hippo, _Confessions_, IV.31). This week is all about accepting that embrace. I will not be blog-fasting as such, but I most definitely will be online less.

[1] I can never escape how peculiar this verse is, among many others, for Protestant theology in general, and Calvinist soteriology in particular. The Bible clearly states these people have faith in Christ (8:31); and yet He has the gall to add conditions of obedience and perserverance to their saving faith (cf. 8:24). According to Calvinism, Jesus should say, "Since you really are my disciples by unconditional election, you will, as a matter of ineluctable spiritual fact, hold to my teaching as proof of your election." But according to Christ, persistent obedience -- generated and sustained as it is by grace alone -- is a *requirement* not only for identifying *but actually for having* a faith of any merit.

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