But he said in reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Matthew 25: 12-13
For those of us of a certain age, one of our earliest memories of Catholic catechesis may be the memorized answers to the first two questions of the Baltimore Catechism. “Who made us? God made us. Why did God make us? God made us to know, love, and serve him in this life and be happy with him forever in the next.” According to the teaching, the purpose of life is for us to come to know, love, and serve God. Today’s gospel, however, speaks not of our knowing God but rather of God’s knowing, or not knowing, us. It suggests that there is something more to us than our intellectual grasp of “the truth”; it is God’s grasp of us.
In the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins, Jesus is teaching us that when we have fallen asleep to the life and summons of our spirits, the one who is left is unrecognizable to God. The identity we create out of the fear, ambition, conformity, and self-indulgence of a lifetime is a stranger to God. Any attempt on our part to know God on these terms, then, will have lead to the creation of an idol or a phantasm. Being awake in the spiritual sense is not the living out of our functional or even spiritual ambitions, but rather it is living from our deepest longings for the One who knows and loves us in our true and original identity.
Today is the feast of St. Augustine, who so deeply understood that becoming the human person one is created to be is not primarily a task of our searching for God but rather of returning to ourselves as God created us. “But where was I when I was seeking you? You were there in front of me, but I had wandered away from myself. And if I could not find my own self, how much less could I find you.?” (Confessions V, 2, trans. Rowan Williams). In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” The love of God is harsh and dreadful for the imposter in us. Is there any thought more frightening than coming face to face with the One who loved us into being and not being recognized? Is there any experience more empty than living out a life that is not ours?
Adrian van Kaam says that love in the deepest sense is consonance. It is harmoniously “sounding with” one’s unique life call and one’s unique role and participation in all of God’s creation. To harmoniously “sound with,” however, requires that one’s life “strike the note” that is truly oneself. When we live our own humble but authentic existence as given by God, we, in the words of St. Paul, “know as we are known.” We live in the joy and peace of realizing that the life we are living is that of the person whom God knows and loves.
The Confessions provide a unique testimony to the fact that it is God and God alone who can give and shape meaning to a human life. The struggles of men and women to make their own lives and build their own securities end in despair, and this is equally true for the believer and the unbeliever. Conversion does not signify an end to the chaos of human experience, it does not make self-understanding easy or guarantee an ordered or intelligible life. What is changed in conversion is the set of determinants within which the spirit moves; and these may be as inaccessible to the mind as they were before. Thus the confidence of the believer never rests upon either his intellectual grasp or his intellectual control of his experience, but on the fidelity of the heart’s longing to what has been revealed as the only finally satisfying object of its desire.
Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, p. 84
“I fled him down the nights and down the days…down the archways of the years.” Our task is to return to ourselves as God created us. Otherwise we risk hearing the words: “I do not know you.” How terrible but how intelligible. We, I, become consumed with pursuing my agenda, with achieving my goals, with ordering my life as I believe it ought to be ordered. And all the while God tells me that what I pursue may be fine but it isn’t everything. The last sentence from Rowan Williams, emphasizing fidelity over control, speaks eloquently about where that “everything” is to be found. Thank you for your words and his.