Irene Alexander, a Companion in Community from Brisbane, reflects on the essential role of Grace in the struggle to find the true self:
Once you accept the existence of God – however you define Him, however you explain your relationship with Him – then you are caught forever with His presence in the centre of all things. You are also caught with the fact that [humans] are creatures who walk in two worlds and trace upon the walls of their cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of the spiritual pilgrimage. (West 1981, p 10).
We are caught with the “wonders and the nightmare experiences” of our journey. Morris West has articulated the human condition – we live in two worlds, we are walking a spiritual journey – in which there will be both wonders and nightmares – and some of those wonders are in recognising our own wonder and some of the nightmares are around our own fallenness and nakedness – and this is how we become more fully human.
Probably the most profound revelation of these last ten years of my life has been around grappling with my own brokenness, failure, humanness… and finding they lead me more than anything else does, to the Creator of a universe in which life follows death, spring follows winter, the butterfly is transformed from a caterpillar and a seemingly lifeless cocoon. And that it is only as I have the courage to trust this truth that I too can be transformed, and most necessarily transformed from the false self to the true self.
The concepts of the true and false self are useful in clarifying the learning of grace. Pennington (2000) describes the false self as a striving for approval – for achievement and performance. “Their value depends on what they have, what they do, what others – especially significant providers, real or potential – think of them… This is the construct of the false self” (p31). The false self is formed by fulfilling all the internalised rules and requirements to gain acceptance and approval by those we value – including God. We often are not even aware that we have transposed these beliefs on to God and yet we spend our lives living according to certain internalised patterns of behaviour that we think will gain God’s approval.
In contrast, the true self is found in abandonment to God. It is most easily identified by remembering an experience in which we had a revelation of God’s utter acceptance of us – a time when we knew as deeply as we have known anything that we are loved simply for who we are – there is nothing we can do – it is, after all, all grace. In that moment of deep knowing we are most in touch with the true self. Pennington (2000) helps us identify this by comparing it to how we feel when we know ourselves loved, in love, “One of the great experiences of life is that first experience of being in love and being loved. Of course our parents love us. They have to, or so it seems, and siblings, too. But the first time someone loves us for no other reason that that person has in some way perceived our true beauty, our true lovableness, we float. We are ecstatic. For we have seen in the eyes of the lover something of our own true beauty. The only way we really see ourselves is when we see ourselves reflected back to us from the eyes of one who truly loves us” (p46).
The true self is who we most truly are, having shed all the striving for acceptance, approval and control. Again Pennington elucidates: “When we perceive more and more clearly our true self in God, we are all but dazzled by the wonder of this image of God. But at the same time we are profoundly humbled. For we know that we are made in the image and likeness of God… And we know that, but for the grace of God, it could be wholly lost” (2000, p49).
It is the love of God which first reflects to us the image of the true self, and it is the grace of God which keeps us in the place of ceasing striving and letting our hearts simply open to the God of grace.
In Luke 18 Jesus tells a wonderful story of the true self and the false self. He told the story, to those who lived in the place of the false self or, in Peterson’s words “to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance” – the Pharisees – who stood in the temple and said “I do this, I do that”. Whereas, Jesus said, it was “the taxman, not the other, who went home made right with God”. It is the taxman, the failing one, the broken one, whose very weakness brings him into the presence of God. Richard Rohr (1999) points out that it is more broken who are more likely to find the place of grace more quickly. The others of us, the good ones, may wrestle back and forth with fulfilling the requirements. “You are the very ones who pass yourselves off as virtuous in people’s sight, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16;15 Peterson). And significantly it is often in acknowledging the hurt and the falseness of our own hearts – our own places of brokenness that we are more likely to find the place of grace.
Living in the false self, living by requirements is eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – choosing a paradigm of evaluation, of knowing good and bad from a place of autonomy has given us a mindset of constant evaluation. And so we continuously evaluate everything that happens around us – and within us, and find it wanting, or perhaps ‘complacently pleased’, an even worse place.
God’s idea was that we should eat of the tree of life, walk in relationship with him, and with each other and experience life in all its abundance. When we walk in a love relationship with someone we are far less likely to be evaluating, criticising and trying to change; instead we enjoy, and we notice. Certainly we notice people’s little foibles but instead of judging we accept and appreciate the difference from ourselves. Living in a love-relationship enables us to accept difference and imperfection and walk alongside the other person, standing with them in their ‘working out their salvation’.
In the garden of Eden story there is no mention of Adam and Eve being good. They were called to the dominion mandate – to look after the earth – to bring it to fruition; they were called into relationship with God and with each other. There is no mention of rules and laws and constant evaluation. The story simply states that they were naked and not ashamed, transparently seen for what they were – and yet somehow acceptable anyway.
Paradise was where people could be known for who they were and not be ashamed. I believe this is what God calls us to – a place, a quality of relationship with him and with each other in which we can be real and accepted anyway. This is the gospel in a nutshell – “it’s not about being good; it’s about being real”. It is about being known for who we are in our relationships, being, in Sims’ (1997) phrase, “conspicuously imperfect”, but living in God’s grace – then the world would be drawn to that reality and true humility.
When Adam and Eve, and we in them, chose to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we chose a righteousness based on comparison and living up to standards; a righteousness that had more to do with behaviour and beliefs than a heart attitude and relationship. We became caught in a mindset of comparison and evaluation which did not free us from wrongdoing but only showed us when we did wrong. As a response to this choice God gave us the Law – a way of evaluating our behaviour which at least kept us in line with the way the world was designed.
However this was not his original plan, nor was it his final response. The Law was simply a way of bracketing our behaviour until God could reveal a better way. The Law was like a fence that kept us from wandering off into licence and perversion. A schoolmaster, a babysitter, to bring us to Christ. And then, in Paul’s wonderful words of freedom in his letter to the Galatians, God revealed a better way.
When the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, under the law, in order that he might redeem those under the law, that they might receive adoption as sons. And because we are sons, God sent forth the spirit of his Son, into our hearts, crying Abba, dear Father. Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir to the living God (Galatians 4: 4-7).
God’s plan was, and is, that we should walk in life, in nakedness, in relationship with God, fulfilling all the law and the prophets by our love relationship with God, as God’s children, and our love relationship with each other – brothers and sisters. And too, to let them see me as I am and to hold me in grace. A difficult lesson this one – to know it is my own self-judgement that causes me to hold others at arm’s length lest they see me too well. And so I hold myself back from receiving their embrace, and the grace of the Father mediated through them. I prefer my image of my own self-righteousness and hold myself in isolation in order to retain it. But slowly as I receive the love of the Father I can allow my defensiveness to thaw little by little and allow others to see the imperfect being that I am. It is only as I learn to hold the paradox of my own mix of light and darkness, that I can learn to celebrate with another their own pattern of shadow and light.
Leunig (1990), in his book of common prayer recognises how difficult this process is. “God be with the mother. As she carried her child may she carry her soul. As her child was born may she give birth and life and form to her own, higher truth. As she nourished and protected her child, may she nourish and protect her inner life and her independence. For her soul shall be her most painful birth, her most difficult child, and the dearest sister to her other children.”
I have found this one of the most difficult things to learn – how to show grace to myself. But I am now convinced that unless I have learned to live in this I really haven’t learned grace at all. Ah yes, God’s grace applies to others, the prodigal Father runs to his other sons. But what of myself? I still cling to trying to be the older brother, the one who earns God’s love through my own self-righteousness, my own deservingness – and so I have not truly learned grace – I still think that in the end to get into heaven I need to have got it right. How to abandon all this and walk naked into the throne room of God?
Estes recognises as Leunig does, that the mothering of our own soul, our own inner being is the path to maturity. It is only as we change our inner patterns of speech, learning to speak kindly to ourselves that we truly live out grace. I am convinced that it is only as I learn to show grace to myself, in the inner world of my own thoughts and reactions, that I become one who truly extends grace to others. As long as I am hard and judgemental of myself others will intuit that harshness in my relationships with them. Estes suggests we must mother our own inner being and so we will learn to truly nurture others. And so we will truly represent the God of grace to others around us.
Says John O’Donohue “Our lives would be immeasurably enriched if we could but bring the same hospitality to meet the negative as we bring to the joyful and pleasurable…The negative is one of the closest friends of your destiny… You can only befriend the negative if you recognize that it is not destructive…One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness towards [these qualities]. In a sense, you are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities” (1997 p151).
Many of us have been convinced by a theology which calls us to be perfect, and to a God who is perfect, and so we cannot see how we can come as broken ones – unless we quickly become “whole”. Maybe it was okay to be broken and naked when we first repented, but now we must live righteously, and cover our nakedness, and leave the confessions to the addicted and the sinful. The Twelve Step program of confession and interdependence is appropriate for them we think, as we clutch at our fig leaves of achievement and education. Scott Peck (1987) points out that confession is the only way – for all of us.
Community requires the confession of brokenness. But how remarkable it is that in our culture brokenness must be “confessed.” We think of confession as an act that should be carried out in secret, in the darkness of the confessional, with the guarantee of professional priestly or psychiatric confidentiality. Yet the reality is that every human being is broken and vulnerable. How strange that we should ordinarily feel compelled to hide our wounds when we are all wounded! Community requires the ability to expose our wounds and weaknesses to our fellow creatures. It also requires the ability to be affected by the wounds of others. But even more important is the LOVE that arises among us when we share, both ways, our woundedness.
How is it that our theology has lined us up more with the Pharisees than with the tax collectors? I believe that it is in part our acceptance of a triumphalist gospel, an all-powerful God rather than the Christ of the Cross, the God of Philippians 2, “and being in the form of God, thought it was not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”.
Cosby (1998) explains that this God, the God of the gospels and of Paul’s letters, is a ‘descending God’. Whereas the focus of much of the western world is ascent to success and status and power, the way of the Christ is through taking the form of a servant, humbling himself even to death. Says Cosby, “In the Gospel it is quite obvious that Jesus chose the descending way. He chose it not once but over and over again. At each critical moment he deliberately sought the way downward” (p. 28). And again, “..it becomes plain to us that God has willed to show his love for the world by descending more and more deeply into human frailty…God is the descending God. The movement is down, down, down, until it finds the sickest, the most afflicted, the most helpless, the most alienated, the most cut off. The truest symbols that we have of Jesus are the lamb – the lamb led to the slaughter, a sheep before its shearers being dumb. Total poverty: a dumb sheep, the Lamb of God, and the Servant Christ kneeling with a towel and a basin, washing feet on the eve of his crucifixion. The weeping Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey” (p. 29).
And wonder of wonders it is not the Lion of Judah who is worthy to open the scroll which ushers in the end of time, but rather the Lamb. The apostle John tells in Revelation 5:4 “I wept because no-one was found who was worthy to open the scroll…Then one of the elders said to me “Do not weep! See the Lion of the tribe of Judah… is able to open the scroll.. Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if he had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.” It was through being the Lamb that Jesus conquered death, it was through his dying that he defeated the powers and authorities, “triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). And Cosby (1998) notes that it was his death that turned our hearts to him also. “What was it that captured our hearts? It was that figure dying on a cross… If the Lamb of God.. the form of the Servant Christ giving his life away for others – for me – if those deep expressions of reality captured my spirit, literally broke my hard heart of stone and gave me a heart of flesh, ended my captivity and delivered my spirit, why do I think that the expression of authority or power or success or efficiency is going to break anybody’s heart?” (p. 30).
The God who Cosby (1998) calls the descending God, Maggie Ross (1988) in Pillars of Flame explores as the self-emptying God – this is the meaning of kenosis: “The heart of Christianity is the self-emptying, kenotic humility of God expressed in Jesus the Christ… At the heart of God’s humility is this: God willingly is wounded” (p. xvi). “…a kenotic living God who is unceasingly self-outpouring, compassionate, and engaged with the creation…. God’s inviolable vulnerability, God’s unswerving commitment to suffer with and within the creation, to go to the heart of pain, to generate new life, hope, and joy out of the cry of dereliction, out of the pain to utter self-denudation, utter self-emptying, utter engaging love” (p. 72). Indeed this is the character of the prodigal father – the willingness to give, to suffer the pain of loss and wounding, to hold back in patient waiting, to respond in self-forgetting joy and forgiveness (Nouwen 1996).
The spirituality of descent is the practice of a spirituality which knows this descending God. Rather than the all-powerful Zeus-god of the Greeks, prodigal children know the God who gives, the God who waits, the God who experiences the shame and brokenness of his own. This descending God seeks to serve, not to be served, not just in the life-time of Jesus but in the millennia following, in the present world, where it is so easy to choose ascent, success, status, positions of power in our churches and ‘Christian’ institutions. Jesus deliberately broke the purity codes of his culture in order to include the outcasts (Sims 1997). Time after time, at meals, in the homes of Pharisees, in public places, he knowingly touched the untouchables – the bleeding woman, the leper, the Samaritan woman. “Suppose the only God that exists is the descending God. Suppose the only way we can know God is to go down, to go to the bottom…If God is going down and we are going up, it is obvious that we are going in different directions. And we will not know him. We will be evading God and missing the whole purpose of our existence” (Cosby 1998, p. 31).
The descending God then, is one who serves, one who lets go of position and status and power, in order to touch the lives of those around him. “We have seen what Jesus was like. If we wish now to treat him as our God, we would have to conclude that our God does not want to be served by us, he wants to serve” (Nolan cited in Sims 1997 p. 16). It is significant to note what John says about Jesus at the beginning of the story of the Servant Christ who washed his disciples’ feet: “Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God… girded himself with a towel” (John 13:3). Jesus was a servant who also knew his identity – he was not serving as one who did not know his boundaries, or one trying to earn approval. He knew who he was, but knowingly chose to serve, knowingly chose the lower place, knowingly went to the cross – the final point of nakedness and brokenness. There he displayed for all time the character of the Creator God, in Ross’s phrase, “God’s inviolable vulnerability.”
As we reflect on this God, the crucified one, the prodigal father, who stoops to embrace the sinner, we know that Jesus is indeed God’s self-disclosure – “the cosmos is ruled by a self-giving Love who chooses to endure crucifixion rather than decree any abridgment of human freedom” (Sims 1997 p. 17). “We cannot have it both ways. We cannot have a God who is an iron-handed ruler in remote control of the cosmos and, at the same time, a historic incarnation of that God who consistently defines himself as a servant… [We must] choose between a God enthroned in the power of imperial privilege and a God “disenthroned” in the more exquisite power of servanthood” (p. 17).
And the paradox is that once we have glimpsed this servant-King, who tells us that his flesh must be our real food, that we must learn to feed on his brokenness and self-giving, that even though we may be tempted to draw back, we are so drawn to him that we say, as Peter did “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6: 68). And even then we may, as Peter did, be prepared to give our lives to fight for him, but not know how to give our selves in the surrender and powerlessness of the Lamb. But this is the way to life. “Just as crucifixion and resurrection form the centrepiece of the life and work of Jesus, so too the cross and its promise of life reborn are central to his invitation to live” (Sims 1997, p. 48). The crucifixion is not just a plan God thought up to ‘fix things up’ after humans rebelled. “The Crucified God is simply the eruption into history of the cosmic redemptive love that is built into the structure of the universe from its start. The book of Revelation speaks of Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8, KJV)” (Sims 1997 p. 58). It is in coming to know this God that we can come to know the deepest, most broken places of our selves, and bring them into the light of his life-giving grace.
A God who allows himself to die, yes even protects his death – setting his face like flint towards Jerusalem. A God who even allows an unbelieving world to watch as he wrestles with isolation and even abandonment. A God who can cry out at his death the truth of his reality, “My God why have you forsaken me?” Why even the revolutionaries and atheists could identify with this God.
And now let the revolutionists of this age choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist (Chesterton 1908).
Chesterton (1908) has recognised that God himself has been as we are and so has shown the way to a spirituality that is honest and naked in a world that is broken, and so we can live with the truth of who we are, even at our worst. This then is true relationship with God – a faith that God is present, that even though the floods may come, and the fire, God is present. And this relationship enables us to journey with others in their wilderness and their darkness – having faith that God too, is for them, and with them. “Faith is not assent to doctrines or surrounding ourselves with props and propositions. It is trust that God – as Christ shows us – has been there before us, goes within us, waits to find us beyond the edges of utter dark. And, found by God, we become aware that God is closer to our being than we are” (Ross 1988, p. 135). This then, is the God who has lived through life, death and life, has shown us the way through, and now is present with each of us as we walk the same journey.
It is in these dark places, these places of liminality, that transformation takes place. But so often we shrink from this as if it were death. If we understand the process of life-death-life we dare to respond to pain and death as possible resurrection – as Eucharist. “The pain of transformation is morbid [ie death-dealing] only if we choose it to be, only if we do not want to look beyond and through it. If only we allow, the pain itself is transformed and becomes Eucharist; and Eucharist deepens us until we burn with Love in God’s very heart. If we spend all our time trying to block out pain with illusion or to twist it to inflate our egos, we will stagnate; we will cause in ourselves the destructive pain of disintegration” (Ross 1988, p. 133).
The mystics understood this process and assure us that it is in the darkness that we find the Beloved. In The Dark NightSt John of the Cross names the darkness, the absence of God’s felt presence, as the very place that we will be united with the Beloved, and indeed transformed:
Oh guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.
In my own journey I have been finding that I come closest to this God who accepts me, even delights in me, most deeply when I bare to him my broken and vulnerable places. When I dare to believe that I do not have to come to him in the fig leaves of my own goodness but that I can trust his grace to cover my nakedness. When I accept that the shadow parts of myself indeed need to be treated with kindness. As Jung told us, “Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is” (Welch 1982, p 121).
I have been finding as Rilke (1996) does, in his direct, even raw, poetry that our own need, our own darkness, can lead to God:
“Then suddenly you’re left all alone
With your body that can’t love you,
And your will that can’t save you.
But now, like a whispering in dark streets
Rumors of God run through your dark blood” (p. 76).
And as I identify with the real life peers of Jesus so I find the real Jesus who interacts with me. I acknowledge my own longing and my own fallenness. I identify with the woman at the well and her use of her own sexuality as a way to try and meet the deep needs of her being. Jesus, certainly, would have heard her innuendo, but consistently responded to the true longing of her heart. And he revealed himself to her, as he did to very few – and only when they were ready – as the Messiah.
I see him sitting there. In the shade, still, watching.
I become conscious of my self. My body. I swing it a little. I lower my bucket and glance at him. He meets my look and asks for a drink. There is something in his eyes. Some promise of such richness. Forbidden of course. But worth pursuing. The old longing in my heart. The longing for someone who would meet me. The real me. Fully. There is no man, I know. But I still hope. And make the play for it.
“Who are you a Jew who would ask?”
Flirt a bit. Draw him on. Engage him. I take him my bucket and pour water into his hands. He thanks me and drinks. I watch him. In his look is such a self-containment. Such a wholeness. I know he will not be tempted by me. Is not. Yet he is not afraid to give. He responds to me and lets the playacting fall ignored. He drinks and says “If you knew who I was you’d ask me for a drink.” I’m asking oh I am asking. But how to meet that look?
So I continue my act. “Well give it to me so I wouldn’t have to come here and draw water.”
Draw him along. Keep him talking. And on one level I’m not acting. I want this life he has in his eyes. I want to know how to get it. And I’m free for the taking if he’d only have me. Which he won’t of course. Because if he’s as great as he seems he’ll see my brokenness and not want me.
And he does – “Go and call your husband.”
But I’ll try for a little longer. “I have no husband.” Take me. I’m free. I’ll give you all I’ve got for what you’ve got. I’m yours for the taking and I’ll give it all for that life you have in your eyes.
He knows what I mean. He looks at me deeply. He doesn’t draw back from me. The promise is there in his hands. If only.
He looks at me, and without judgement, still holding out the promise he says – “You’re right you’ve had five husbands and the one you now live with is not your husband.” Statement – I know you.
So he knows my brokenness and my need. He sees through me. And wonder of wonders he does not draw back. Oh if only I could have this man. Indeed he would be living water to my soul.
I do not know how to get him. He plays a game I do not know.
Try another tack. Keep him in reach a little longer. “Sir I can see you’re a prophet.” Well something – you’re something to do with what my inner heart longs for. Talk about that. Tell me the Answers – tell me something I can feed on for a while.
He talks and I do not hear him. I watch his lips and his eyes and know that I long for something that is beyond my reach. Physically, spiritually. I am one who longs for spiritual answers but cannot attain to them – who would even believe I wanted them. I give myself physically to receive whatever life I can get. But this man, he knows something, he is in touch with the Real. It’s not hard to see that. And he takes me seriously. He talks to me as if I was someone who was real too. He’s not sidetracked by my banter.
He looks into my eyes and my spirit is drawn to him.
I dare to let him see my real longing. “I believe in the Messiah.” I want to know him.
“I am he,” he says.
I am stunned yet believing in the same instant. I stare at him, my bucket forgotten. The men coming up behind me ignored. If anyone could be, it’s him. He looks into my eyes. Gentleness and truth. Promise of life forever. Living water. It really could be true. I am caught in his look. Caught by the promise. Known for who I am yet free to come. I meet his look. My heart is held. Held yet free. For once I can give my heart. Yet freely. My whole being says Yes.
And as I engage with this Jesus I find that my longing, my desire, which I thought I must somehow hide, instead can lead me to him. As I am honest about my yearning I can go to the deeper desire, to the God who created us as intimate, deeply yearning beings. So often we have thought that this part of us was somehow unworthy of being in relationship with God and we tried to hide it from God.
Ruffing (2000) suggests that using desire as a way to God, necessitates identifying the desire beneath the desire. But that first obliges us to stay with our desire, however painful. “I am convinced that many Christians never entertain their desires long enough to know what they really want. If we habitually suppress our wants” she says, and I would add, or habitually smother them with false comfort, “we may not discover the true core of our longing that could lead us deeply into God” (p 12). She suggests an exercise:
When was the last time you asked yourself what you really want? And how long did you allow yourself to entertain that longing? Thirty seconds, a couple of minutes? What inner or outer voices suggested that whatever it was, you ought not to be so foolish as to think it could be satisfied? At some point did you judge yourself wilful or selfish? (Ruffing 2000, p 13).
Willful, selfish or, which I am sure is true for many of us – downright sinful.
But underneath that longing, I am convinced, if only we will stay with it, and go deeper, is a longing for connection with the Divine Other, an experience of knowing and being known, recognised and valued for our most true self.
This longing and falling short, and then almost giving up out of disappointment, is captured in the following poem by Hafiz, a Persian mystic of the fourteenth century:
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.
You have waltzed with great style,
My sweet, crushed angel,
To have ever neared God’s Heart at all.
Our partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy to hear.
So what if the music has stopped for a while.
So what if the price of admission to the Divine is out of reach tonight.
So what, my dear, if you do not have the ante to gamble for Real Love.
The mind and the body are famous, For holding the heart to ransom,
But [I] know the Beloved’s eternal habits.
Have patience, for he will not be able to resist your longing for long.
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to kiss the Beautiful One.
You have actually waltzed with tremendous style,
O my sweet, O my sweet, crushed angel
Ladinsky (1996) p131.
The line “Have patience, for he will not be able to resist your longing for long”’ suggests again, that our longing originates in God, and God’s true desire is to respond to us.
This initiative of God towards us, says Ruffing, is the essence of Christian understanding.
This movement of the Mystery towards us forms the core meaning of revelation in Christian faith.. God awakens us to this divine-human love affair and initiates in us the search for the Divine Beloved. No matter how confusedly we interpret this experience, no matter how many mistakes we make along the way, no matter how often this love for the Divine Beloved gets displaced onto other loves or other objects of desire, God continues to solicit and elicit our love. As Sebastian Moore says “ All desire [is] solicitation by the mystery we are in…all human loves contribute to our capacity for this divine-human intimacy (2000, p106).
The assurance that “no matter how often this love for the Divine Beloved gets displaced onto other loves or other objects of desire” God continues to draw us, is the message implicit in the parable of the prodigal son, indeed implicit in the gospel story, the core revelation of all of God’s word. And as Arnold (1977) says, this is the real perfection:
Your life will have a kind of perfection, although you will not be a saint. The perfection will consist in this: you will be very weak and you will make many mistakes; you will be awkward, for you will be poor in spirit and hunger and thirst for justice. You will not be perfect, but you will love. This is the gate and the way. There is nothing greater than love. There is nothing more true than love, nothing more real. So let us hand our lives over to love and seal the bond of love.
We thought we were called to be perfect and righteous, like the poorly translated ‘Father who is perfect’ at the end of Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Instead we are called to a more honest way, a way where we walk with the God of compassion as Luke finishes his version of Jesus’ sermon.
Brendan Manning (2001) tells us the story of Saint Francis and Brother Leo to help us find the way of freedom:
One day Saint Francis and Brother Leo were walking down the road. Noticing that Leo was depressed, Francis turned and asked: “Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?”
“Of course. It means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.”
“Ah,” said Francis, “now I understand why you’re sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.”
“Right,” said Leo. “That’s why I despair of ever arriving at purity of heart.”
“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus…The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown… It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. .. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices.”.
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