Being reduced to nothing
is the most powerful means we have
of uniting ourselves to Jesus
and of doing good to others.
—Charles de Foucauld
I'm being reminded of so much recently. Today I thought of Charles de Foucauld, who made such a strong impression on me years ago. I remembered him today as I was thinking of Jesus' life, how we think of him as a kind of hero, with the crowds around him, with rulers feeling threatened by him, the center of attention. Yet so much of Jesus' preaching pointed to the small and poor and weak. The nobodies, who no one pays attention to. As an example he pointed to a child. Yet we have this image of Jesus himself as a hero or celebrity.
Brother Charles reminded me that Jesus' time in the limelight was actually very short, a small part of his life as "God with us." Most of Jesus' life, maybe thirty years, seems to have gone unnoticed. Like those little ones he pointed to.
Being reduced to nothing
"I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody." (J.D. Salinger)
Learning is a big part of life, but so is remembering. Lately I've found myself reminded of some important things in my life that had seemed to fade into the background. Now I'm wondering if remembering gets more important as we get older, being reminded again and again of the most important things in life.
We think of our lives as a progression and talk of progress. But so much in life is cyclic. Days, seasons, generations, over and over. I've often thought that the act of faith is really the same movement of our spirit every time, over and over, just in different (perhaps more difficult) circumstances.
One of the values of religious practices is how they can remind us of what is important. Like when Jesus gave the bread and wine and said, "Do this in remembrance of me." Every morning I pray "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart" to be reminded. And at meals, "our hope is in you Father." Worship as a time of remembering.
That's one of the best parts of keeping a journal, too. Looking back and being reminded of what God has done.
This morning I was enjoying some prayer time in the woods by the creek, and I began to recognize the deeper connections between the contemplative life and the physical experience of the poor who depend on God, the anawim. I found this from an old journal entry that seems helpful in describing this connection. It's from G.K. Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi, a contemplative who also lived a life as a poor man with the poor:
If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasise the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hung the world upon nothing.
If St. Francis had seen, in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact.
St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.
It is commonly in a somewhat cynical sense that men have said, "Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed." It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, "Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything."
It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero, from the dark nothingness of his own deserts, that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them; and they are in themselves the best working example of the idea. For there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset. But there is more than this involved, and more indeed than is easily to be expressed in words. It is not only true that the less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of his good luck and of all the gifts of God.
...This sense of the great gratitude and the sublime dependence was not a phrase or even a sentiment; it is the whole point that this was the very rock of reality. It was not a fancy but a fact; rather it is true that beside it all facts are fancies. That we all depend in every detail, at every instant, as a Christian would say upon God, as even an agnostic would say, upon existence and the nature of things, is not an illusion of imagination; on the contrary, it is the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life. That ordinary life is an admirable thing in itself, just as imagination is an admirable thing in itself. But it is much more the ordinary life that is made of imagination than the contemplative life.
He who has seen the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God has seen the truth...
"Come, follow me."
One of the most important images for me to visualize the life of Jesus is a child. "You must turn and become like a child," Jesus said. I remember writing in my journal years ago about Jesus giving us a child as our example. It's an important image.
But it may be that I'm getting to that age when it's harder to make that child image work. The analogy gets more abstract, and so it feels less powerful for me. I still want to be childlike, but most of the situations I find myself in are unquestionably adult. At a certain age, people start expecting you to take over the care of things, make sure the necessary things get done. And then there's parenthood. Seeing a parent with a real child makes it very difficult to see how envisioning myself as a child will be helpful in that situation. It is true we are all children before God, it's just that the image has its limits for us older folks, I think.
As I grapple more with taking care of things (and perhaps children) as an adult, I'm feeling drawn more to the image of follower. Like the relationship between the disciples and Jesus. It's clearly an adult relationship. But it puts us in the place of humility and dependence much like the child-parent relationship. In which we are not the one in charge, not the one responsible, not the one leading the way, we are just following. And, like with the disciples, it can certainly express our love for the one we forsake everything to follow. I can see myself as an adult, responding to adult situations, as a follower. I can see myself providing care for others as a follower.
That feels good to me. What is asked of me is not to take charge, but to follow the one I love.
At our little "experimental worship" this past weekend, our friends liked the Gregorian chant I shared from my daily prayer. Maybe next time I'll bring this (with the Hebrew pronunciation), and some thoughts on the love of God...
And one of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question, to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"
And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Mt 22.35-39)
Among "radical" type Christians, usually we hear a lot more about this second commandment than the first. These last few days I've been contemplating the love of God.
Love is the most successful answer to the question of what we live for. Loving others, loving a woman, loving our child. And I do think those are close to the heart of it, even touching God inasmuch as all true love touches God. But I find myself at times even feeling a kind of despair in my love for others. Perhaps that it is so weak and selfish. And also that it is so often disappointed, by the loss of the other, or sometimes in disillusionment, when I realize that the person is not the ideal I made them out to be. I'm sure others have been similarly disappointed in their love for me.
Love is often spoken of as a duty, or as something we do for others, and I suppose that's true. But love also is a need, not just to be loved but to love. To have a love that's worth living for (or perhaps dying for). So often we try to attach that kind of love to a person, a friend, a spouse, a child. I don't think those can ultimately fill that need, though. We do not love them well, I think, if we try to make them our reason for living.
The love of God, though. The great and first commandment. A commandment to save us from despair. Love for Jesus has been spoken of so often and so tritely that it seems almost embarrassing to mention it. And maybe mentioning it is not what's most important. But if we have truly found a love worth living for (or dying for) then it will certainly be seen in our living.
Heather and I spent the weekend in the cabin to celebrate our fourth anniversary. Beautiful. I think we both really feel good about where we are together right now. And today I found this to remind me of my wedding vow to her:
"Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.I was thinking of these words yesterday and they mingled in my head with what I've heard about social privilege. White privilege, male privilege, class privilege, etc. I've seen a lot of people struggling with the realization that they enjoy opportunities and access to things that other people are denied, poorer people, women, people of color. There's a certain guilt stirred by that. And often unsatisfactory attempts to atone for their privileges in some way, perhaps by some level of solidarity with the unprivileged. While at the same time trying to secure for the unprivileged some of the same rights and access that the privileged have (which leads to an odd tension). And because this privilege is so ingrained in the social structure, it seems even the most committed prophets against privilege usually can't suggest a personal response that makes much difference for the unprivileged in society.
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets." (Lk 6.24-26)
But if Jesus' words of woe are true, then the problem of privilege looks completely different. Not that privilege doesn't exist; it does. Social privilege means that certain people are more honored and powerful and have access to more of what society offers, and that's certainly exists. But what Jesus seems to be saying, here and elsewhere, is that such privilege is not a good thing. That social privilege is not a benefit but a detriment. And that actually makes sense, if our values and purposes are the same of Jesus', if what we want in life is to learn to trust God completely, rather than trusting ourselves or the power of society. To be honored by a society we do not respect, to be given the power that corrupts, to be tempted with the lures that can only enslave us, these are not benefits. "For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" And so we see Jesus born among the poor in an occupied country, rejecting the power he was offered, and dying despised as a criminal. We also see his message rejected by the privileged and embraced more readily among the unprivileged. The problem of privilege, as Jesus presents it, seems to be that privilege is a serious problem for the privileged.
As Jesus suggested to the rich young man, however, there is something that the privileged can do about this. To be born into an unfortunate situation is not our fault; what matters is what we do with our unfortunate situation. And unlike the socially unprivileged who do not have the access or resources to change their situation in relation to society, the socially privileged can change theirs.
Ironically, the complaints and protests against social structures that privilege only a select few actually reinforce the belief that it is desirable to be so privileged. Jesus showed us that such favors or honors or powers should simply be avoided. If we seek to live the good life that Jesus lived, then the only way society should be lifting us up is on a cross.
Our first "experimental worship" went pretty well, I thought. Heather read her Easter story; I brought a Psalters song; lots of drumming and shaking things. And lots of enthusiasm and ideas for new things to do, too. Several artsy people in the group, which should make it interesting.
At the end, someone suggested doing some nature art as a group like Andy Goldsworthy does. We watched some of a documentary about his work, called "Rivers and Tides." It definitely stirs up wonder at God's creation. Here's a sample of some of his art.