We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. . . . we are . . . always carrying about in the Body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
2 Cor. 4:7,10-11
At the heart of the spread of Christianity as universal lies Saul of Tarsus’ experience of the Resurrected Jesus. We know something of its effects, for this one who above all was persecuting the Church now becomes its primordial evangelist. He, who once prided himself on his obviously somewhat extraordinary personal intelligence and social influence, has come through this experience to recognize that the work that occurs through the earthen vessel which is his life is the work and the life of Jesus. Even what is death in him has become a source of life for others.
Paul’s actual experience is of greater interest to us than a mere curiosity. Unlike the other “Apostles” Paul had no encounter with the historical Jesus. His experience of Jesus, the story of being thrown off his horse aside, is the same as ours. Like Paul, it may be our realization of the very different modes in how we are present to and work for the world that reveals to us the life of the Risen Jesus in the world.
In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul says that “we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence.” At least at some moments, Paul seems to live in the awareness that, as he speaks and works on behalf of the gospel, he and those with and for whom he is working are together in God’s presence. They are together, “placed”, in that presence by the God who raised Jesus from the dead. The speech and the work of the “earthen vessel” which is Paul are somehow the action of the One who raised Jesus and is now raising all through that work.
Once, Paul worked on behalf of the law and, no doubt, on behalf of his rather more than healthy ego. He was a Pharisee; he was more righteous and law abiding than most others; he was a Roman citizen who deserved the special rights and privileges that status bestowed. His work was at the service of his own identity and privileged place. At some point, however, he, as Theodore James Ryken at the age of nineteen, was put in his place. That place is the realization that “death is at work in us but life in you.” Our “I” is of its nature always dying, despite all of our feverish efforts to the contrary. Yet, we are always participating in the life that is so much more than us. Until we die enough to our ego encapsulation, we can never know the true work that is given to us.
In Ryken’s experience, which is very much Paul’s, being put in his true place evokes in him a love that it was previously impossible to recognize. This love is the motivation and energy of the work that is ours to do. When our attention is ego-centered, so too is what we call “love.” We tend to love others from this place to the degree that they enhance our exalted sense of ourselves, that they gratify our need to be “someone” in their eyes and in the world. As a young man in my early years of teaching, I would get most angry when, from my perspective, a student failed to “respect” me as superior, as having an exalted position. I felt as if I loved my students, but that love was quite conditional; it was highly dependent on their gratifying my own need to be significant to them in the way I wanted to be. Paul’s love for those whom he is serving, on the other hand, is in service to the life in them, even as death is at work in him. Ryken says that he fell in love with God, having been put in his place. The love of God is a love of all, and a love of God’s work. This is why Ryken then says that he put himself in God’s service. Paul and Ryken both experienced a conversion, an encounter with the Risen Jesus, which transforms the nature of their work and service — from service of self to service of God.
To live an egocentric life is to be blind to the truth of things. Our very outsized sense of our own place in the world blocks us from seeing things as they are. Our place must change, from our being an object of our total attention and devotion to being a servant of the love and creative energy of the Source of life. The more our self-consciousness dissipates the more we can love and enjoy what we do. When my own identity became less focal, I could give myself more freely and totally in love to my students — not tentatively holding on to see first how they would react.
Paul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus is an experience of opening to the world and to its truth. It is only when he realizes that he is but a speck, that it is his very weakness and his dying body that are the source of life for others, that he can fulfill the “mission” he has been given. So too for us. We cannot recognize the Lord because our attention to “self” blocks our view. One way we can know if our work is “the service of God” or an attempted expansion of our own ego is how self-forgetful we are in carrying it out. We “put ourselves in God’s service” when it is, as Paul says, the love of Christ, which is the love of the world, that impels us to act. There is a constant dying in this mode of service, a dying to what in us is always passing away. This dying, though, is a source of life for others.
As we become act, as our dying bodies become but instruments of God’s love, we recognize that our dying is but a participation in a greater life. Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke of this truth when he famously said: ‘If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.” To live, to love, and to work from our place, which is always a place where “death is at work in us,” is to serve the greater life outside of us of which we are a part, in which we truly live. This is the encounter with the Risen Christ. it can seem quite humiliating to recognize that we are but clay pots, earthen vessels. Yet it is that pot that holds the treasure, the treasure which is the Risen Life to which we are all, together, called. Our dying brings yet the possibility of new life. So, the greatest of gifts is to give our all to the small but Divinely appointed work that is ours to do, to do it unto death for the love of the world.
In Shobogenzo, “Zazenshin” (Lancet of Seated Meditation), Dogen Zenji presents zazen as the practice of realizing bodhi-mind. But Dogen wants us to understand, very clearly, that practice is not a means to an end. Doing meditation, or any spiritual practice, because we want to be something special in the future is not the point of Zen practice. The point is to be free where we are now. Where we are is a problem, but where we are is also the beauty of existence. In Buddhism there are lots of psychological and philosophical analyses of the self because we have to learn where we are, who we are, and what a human being is. But to see the truth directly we have to practice. Through practice we can be free from where we think we are, which lets us return to where we really are and experience what the self really is. Then we have to come back and help others. This is Buddhism.
Dainin Katagiri, Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time