This is what I commanded my people: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways that I command you, so that you may prosper. But they obeyed not, nor did they pay heed. They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts and turned their backs, not their faces, to me.
God is always and everywhere coming to us as a gift. For the Hebrews, the Law and the Covenant were given as the sign of God’s love for them. In the gospels, we read of the ultimate gift of God’s love, of God himself, in Jesus. Even to our present day, everything we have comes to us as gift, including God’s offering of love and communion to each of us. These gifts come to us in countless ways in the course of our day, often mediated in so many ways by the love and care of others. So, how is it that so often our hearts are hardened to these gifts. What are those who deny the good that Jesus is doing resisting? And why do we, in turn, so often resist and refuse the “beams of love” that come our way? Put another way, why is it so often true that cynicism rather than appreciation and gratitude seems to categorize our disposition?
We read in today’s gospel from Luke of how Jesus drives out a demon from a mute person, who then begins to speak. We are told that “the crowds were amazed” but that some of them declared that it was by the power of Beelzebul that Jesus drove out the demons. Jesus’ reply is that it is impossible to do good by the power of evil because the kingdom of Satan could not stand were it divided against itself.
Suspicion and cynicism, however, are not confined to Jesus’ time. Too often in life we experience the reaction of others whom we try to care for, as reflected in the common saying: “No good deed goes unpunished.” What is the reason that we far too often react with hostility and aggression toward another who vulnerably cares for us? What makes love so threatening to us?
Sigmund Freud says that our character consists of our defenses against loss. What we take to be our “personality” is in large part a carapace, a hardened defense against loss, disappointment and suffering. The “problem” with Jesus is that his very presence was a challenge to the falseness of those he encountered, a falseness they unconsciously confused with their very selves. In this sense, they were correct to see him as a threat. To accept his love would require a painful, if ultimately transformative, encounter with themselves.
In our very core we are vulnerable and even fragile. Our very life, as, of course, the lives of those we have loved and lost, is not our own. We are created and held in being by love, just as, at some point, we shall be brought to the end of this life by love. The love of God, however, is totally mysterious to us. We would understand love as that which would preserve us, while love, when it comes to us, is always asking abandonment of us. To live for God, to live for love means to die to the preservation and enhancement of the self. Our experience of this truth is suffering for us. In love, there is always the pain and suffering of loss for us. This deep and transformative pain is what we are avoiding when we are rebuffing the love of another for us, when we are resisting the love of God in our lives.
Those who allow Jesus into their lives and receive the love he offers them must follow him all the way to Jerusalem. So it is that receiving love from another and returning it is to accept with gratitude our now shared vulnerability. It is to be willing to come to know ourselves in all the ways that we shall both serve and fail them, and be served and be failed by them. It is the willingness to enter into “the valley of humility” in which we face and embrace our smallness, our inadequacy, our evil and our sinfulness. Love is to refuse to avoid the truth of life and rather to commit ourselves with the other to suffer our life so fully that our external sociability and niceness, which is a cover for our fear, is slowly transformed into true love.
Here is the way, if you would come to perfect knowledge and enjoyment of me, of eternal Life: Never leave the knowledge of yourself. Then, put down as you are in the valley of humility you will know me in yourself, and from this knowledge you will draw all that you need.
No virtue can have life in it except from charity, and charity is nursed and mothered by humility. You will find humility in the knowledge of yourself when you see that even your own existence comes not from yourself but from me, for I loved you before you came into being. And in my unspeakable love for you I willed to create you anew in grace. So I washed you and made you a new creation in the blood that my only-begotten Son poured out with such burning love.
The blood gives you knowledge of the truth when knowledge of yourself leads you to shed the cloud of selfish love. There is no other way to know the truth. In so knowing me the soul catches fire with unspeakable love, which in turn brings continual pain. Indeed, because she has known my truth as well as her own sin and her neighbors’ ingratitude and blindness, the soul suffers intolerably. Still, this is not a pain that troubles or shrivels up the soul. On the contrary, it makes her grow fat. For she suffers because she loves me, nor would she suffer if she did not love me.
Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 4