Be mindful, therefore, of what you received and heard: meet it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come as a thief, and you will not know the hour of my coming.
Rev. 3: 3
When he reached the spot, Jesus looked up. He said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry down from there! For I must stay in your house today!”
Luke 19: 5
How can it be that a loving and merciful God will come to us “as a thief”? How do we reconcile this image of the Lord’s coming with the famous image some verses later: “Here I stand knocking at the door; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with such a one and that one with me.” (Rev. 3: 20) or with Jesus’ words to Zaccheus that “I must stay in your house today!” It seems that the answer lies in our fundamental disposition of heart. Do we live our lives sleepwalking or, like Zaccheus as he climbs the sycamore tree, vigilantly watching and listening for the Lord’s voice in our lives and opening the door of our hearts to allow the Lord to enter?
The Fundamental Principles are a call to “allow ourself to be formed by God through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life”, and to “stand ready to answer when asked if you are available for God to become more present in your life and through you to the world.” Today’s scriptures, as much of what we read at the end of the liturgical year, are a reminder that God will break into our lives one way or another, as the welcome guest for whom we open the door or as the thief in the night that steals away from us all we have been hoarding.
It is said that at the end of his life the Apostle John consistently repeated one simple spiritual directive: “Love one another.” It is perhaps our very difficulty in living out this clear and simple, but not easy, call that illustrates our difficulty in remaining awake at the level of heart and spirit. Many years ago, the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote of how important for him was the way that he would take his leave of others. He had come to truly realize the truth that when he was leaving someone he loved, even for a brief time, that he had no way of knowing whether or not this would be the last time he would see them. We know the truth of which Nouwen writes and of the vulnerability and fragility of all life, and yet, we most often behave with each other as if life, as we habitually know it, will go on forever.
Many years, actually decades, ago, I was meeting up in Cambridge with my friend, who was, after our time together, to drive back to Pittsburgh where he was studying. He had intended to go about half way and then to stop for the night. Thus, I was not surprised to receive a call that evening from him. I was surprised, however, when he told me that he had experienced a very serious accident on the turnpike in Pennsylvania. Although he was okay, the car he was driving was severely damaged. As he related the experience to me, I recalled the moment of our parting some hours ago in great detail. I visualized in a new way, the common and ordinary action of his getting into his car and my standing on the curb and waving to him as he pulled away. For a moment, and a residual moment that endures to this day, I absorbed the possibility of how that moment could have been our last “seeing” of each other in this life. To this day, our partings have about them something of the realization of the pathos of our own mortality and contingency.
The waking up to which Revelation calls us certainly includes, at least in part, an overcoming of the drowsiness of our illusion of immortality. Much of “common, ordinary, unspectacular” experience is repetitious. The dispositions and habits we developed very young control our experience of and response to the reality that confronts us. So, we develop habits of mind and of heart by which we react to the persons, situations, and events of our lives. We live an unconscious arrogance of knowing the others and the world around us, and we act and react based on those illusions. Zaccheus climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus because, being small of stature, he is unable to see him in the midst of the crowd. So too with us. If we live only in the midst of the crowd, of our social and cultural pulsations, our bodily and emotional impulses, and our functional ambitions, we shall remain, in the spiritual sense, unable to see Jesus. We shall live as if our apparently “eternal” habits of mind and body are the measure of reality.
Habit and routine is not capable of love but only of vital and functional accommodation. It is only with the sensibility and responsibility of a vulnerable and fragile heart that we can actually love another. One of the great struggles of the spiritual life is the bearing of external detachment, receiving and accepting the harsh truth that everything passes, so that we may begin to experience the kind of internal detachment that frees us to recognize that the passing of everything is due to the very nature that they, as we ourselves, are all gifts from and of God.
If we never awaken from the limits of our worldview and our illusion of immortality, then the Lord will come to us as “a thief in the night.” No matter what we do, all will be taken away from us. Yet, if we develop a habit, a disposition of appreciative abandonment to the Mystery of God, then the coming of the Lord will be a loving visitation, for which the “standing ready” of our whole lives has been but a preparation.
When a person through the grace of God is able to see and has a purified conscience, and when that person has observed the three comings of Christ our Bridegroom, and when that one has gone out in virtuous activity, there then follows a meeting with our Bridegroom, which is the fourth and last point. In this meeting lies our entire salvation. It is the beginning and end of all the virtues, and without this meeting no virtue has ever been practiced. Whoever wishes to meet Christ as the beloved Bridegroom and to possess eternal life with Christ and in Christ must in this present life meet Christ in three ways. The first of these is that a person must direct one’s mind to God in all those things whereby one is to merit eternal life. The second is that the person neither think about nor love anything more than God or as much as God. The third is that the person rest in God with great ardor above all creatures, above all God’s gifts, above all virtuous activities, and above all those feelings which God might infuse into one’s soul or body.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, I,iv