But with their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses.
Numbers 21: 5
The one who sent me is with me.
John 8: 29
In today’s reading from the Book of Numbers we are reminded that the journey of the Hebrews from slavery to liberation was a difficult, tumultuous, and even conflictual one. For all of its pains and sufferings, there is a security in slavery that goes with allowing others to bear responsibility for one’s life. Liberation and freedom come at a cost. Subjecting ourselves to the pulsations of our culture or various addictive substances and habits, or the control and manipulation of other human beings provides a level of security and certainty that can make life easier for us than assuming and bearing responsibility for our own life and direction. Victimhood has its gratifications.
In contrast, Jesus in the gospel of John, even as his life moves toward chaos and conflict, chooses his life and the pain and death that are to be part of it because he knows that “the one who sent” him is with him in it all. To choose and be faithful to God’s way for him, to his life as given to him, is to know that he has not been and will not be abandoned. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23: 4)
The Fundamental Principles of the Xaverian Brothers tell us:
If you allow yourself to be formed by God
through the common,
flow of everyday life,
you will gradually experience
a liberation and a freedom
never before imagined.
There can be something of an idealistic sense of these words. Yet, as we see with the Exodus journey of the Hebrews, the way to freedom and liberation is not an easy one. To set out on the way to such freedom requires a conversion at the deepest level our being and a willingness and “patience” to suffer the purification of all our desires for comfort and pleasure that keep us enslaved. As the Fundamental Principles say:
Gradually, you will realize
that the cost of your discipleship
is your very life. . . .
In our unconverted state, freedom and liberation may suggest to us a state where our own self-centered desires and infantile fantasies are realized. Once we set out on the journey, however, we experience a rude awakening. Liberation and freedom come only with the acceptance, appropriation, and grateful self-giving of the life that has been given to us, in all of its aspects, both those we readily accept and those we would reject. It is a humble willingness to take up our own cross and follow the Way, trusting that “the one who sent me is with me.” The “liberation and freedom never before imagined” comes from the choice that “not my will but yours be done.” It is not a place where we are now “above it all” but rather, to the contrary, an every deeper acceptance, appropriation and offering of the limited and gifted call that we are. We become truly free when we receive and offer back, in love, the actual life we have been given in love.
I have focused on the dimension of self-surrender in religious conversion in order to highlight its contrast to absolute human autonomy. But Lonergan is on the more direct track to the heart of the issue in his emphasis on love. For only the reality of falling-in-love, in my judgment, makes it possible for a person to surrender his or her self in any significant degree; and only the total falling-in-love of religious conversion makes an unconditional surrender of self possible. From a Christian perspective one may say that a person can surrender the illusion of absolute self-autonomy only because one has experienced, and can trust in, the unqualified love of a person, of a personal God.
From Lonergan’s perspective of religious conversion as the fulfillment of a capacity and desire for self-transcendence, the total surrender of oneself in love without conditions can be seen as the ultimate realization of a multidimensional process of self-transcendence, of moving beyond the self, of reaching out to other persons. Such self-transcendence, I am claiming, constitutes the fullness of authentic self-realization.
Perhaps the notion of gift captures the essential reality of religious conversion best. One is able to surrender one’s self, make a gift not only of one’s illusion of absolute autonomy but of one’s whole life only insofar as one can recognize one’s very existence as a gift of love.
Walter Conn, Christian Conversion, pp. 226-7