“Friends, what do you think you are doing? We are only human beings, mortal like yourselves. We have come with good news to make you turn from these empty idols to the living God who made sky and earth and the sea and all that these hold.”
We hear today of the healing by Paul and Barnabas of a man “who had never walked in his life.” The gentiles who witness this healing begin to declare the divinity of Paul and Barnabas, calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes. The local priests propose that the people should offer them sacrifice.
In many ways we today seem to be the polar opposites of the citizens of Lystra. Whereas, they so readily declared the presence of the gods among them, our consciousness is almost totally secular in orientation. If we scratch even slightly beneath the surface, however, we might discover more similarities than expected, similarities that may shed some light on the disguised religious aspects of our secularism.
The people of Lystra divinize Paul and Hermes because of what they have done for them. In response, Paul tells them to turn their gaze away from the immediate and toward the eternal and transcendent. “. . . turn from these empty idols to the living God who made sky and earth and the sea and all that these hold.” “The living God,” declares Paul, is the one who made all and so is beyond all. The One who is truly God is beyond our manipulation and control. The people of Lystra and Derbe, as we ourselves, create false gods out what Ronald Rolheiser describes as our “narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness.”
As secular as we are in our consciousness, we always create and so have recourse to some gods or other. We can make gods of good health, affluence, success, recognition, security, political ideology, technology, even doctrine and dogma. We can create idols of political figures and leaders based on our own hopes or insecurities. We can and do make gods of celebrities or even of church and spiritual leaders. We do this based on what we hope, expect, demand will be good for us. When our idols fail to meet our demands, we reject or demonize them and replace them with new ones.
Paul tells those who are divinizing him and Barnabas because of what they have done for them to turn their gaze, not merely from him and Barnabas, but from their own narcissism, pragmatism, and restlessness to the world as it is. When Jesus teaches us to learn to trust in God and to let go of our ever-present anxiety, he tells us to “consider” the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Look, he says, to the wider world, to the real world. He tells us to leave aside the world inside our heads and to open our eyes and hearts and minds to God’s world. It is by doing so that we discover that God takes care of things. That God not only created but sustains the birds, the lilies, and ourselves. This is not a God limited by our own desires, our own needs, by the practicalities of the moment, or by our fears and restlessness. It is rather the One “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”
As initiates to religious life, we were often told by our Director of Novices to practice “recollection.” He told us that recollection was not to keep thinking about God but rather to be fully present, to pay complete attention to the moment and the task at hand. Living in the presence of God requires first of all that we live fully in the present moment. To the degree that we are truly present and aware of the “common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” we shall realize the presence of God and the direction of God for our lives that is embedded in each moment.
On the other hand, to the measure that our idols born of our narcissism, pragmatism, and restlessness limit and determine our presence to and so awareness of the contours of the present moment, it shall be for us stale, old, and repetitive. It is our limited consciousness that limits our reception of the inherent mystery and transcendence of the moment.
St. John of the Cross summons us to become always better students and disciples of reality, or ordinary life. He tells us (Sayings of Light and Love, #57): “At the evening of life, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting.” It is ordinary life in its “common, ordinary, unspectacular flow” that forms us in love. We “learn to love as God desires to be loved” by abandoning our own way not only of acting but even of thinking. To be human is to have a perspective on life that, in large part, is determined by our own self-interest. To learn to love is to learn to overcome that perspective. It is to consider the world as it is, not as I would have it, and by such docile presence to become aware of God that we might be taught and brought to new life by God.
Heartaches, headaches, pressing tasks, distressing restlessness—narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness, as we shall later name these—severely limit what we are aware of within ordinary experience. Normally there is a huge gap between what we are actually aware of and what is radically available for us to be aware of within experience. Thus, awareness or unawareness of God within ordinary experience depends upon the quality and depth of our ordinary experience in general. We can be asleep or awake to where God appears. That quality of awareness, or lack of it, in ordinary life is what contemplation is all about.
Contemplation is about waking up. Simply defined, to be contemplative is to experience an event fully, in all its aspects. Biblically this is expressed as knowing “face to face.” What is implied in that phrase . . . is that we are in contemplation when we stand before reality and experience it without the limits and distortions that are created by narcissism, pragmatism, and excessive restlessness.
Ronald Rolheiser, The Shattered Lantern, pp. 19-20