“Why has the Lord permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?”
1 Samuel 4:3
A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “if you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, Jesus dismissed him at once. Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything . . . .”
Mark 1: 40-44
In his Mandel Lectures in the Humanities published as The Nearest Thing to Life, the literary critic James Wood writes:
Death gives birth to the first question—Why?—and kills all the answers. And how remarkable, that this first question, the word we utter as small children when we first realize that life will be taken away from us, does not change, really, in depth or tone or mode, throughout our lives. It is our first and last question, uttered with the same incomprehension, grief, rage, and fear at sixty as at six. (Kindle locations 61-64)
In today’s first reading from 1 Samuel, the Israelites ask the “why” question: “Why have they been so resoundingly defeated by the Philistines?” Their answer to the question is that they are fighting without the ark of God in their midst, so they go to Shiloh and bring the ark to the battlefield. This, they are certain (and even the Philistines seem concerned), will bring them victory. And yet, they are again defeated and the ark itself is captured. Throughout human history, it is religion that has provided the answer to our most enduring question. In one way or another we hope to find the answer to our “whys” by understanding the mind of God. Thus, much of religion for us is theodicy, the justification of how a beneficent God can exist in the face of our human experience of evil and death. We are, in differing ways and to varying degrees, always engaged in the attempt to understand why evil happens to us so that we can avoid undesired outcomes in the future.
So, we create stories of God that are our attempts at theodicy, that attempt to make sense out of what is essentially nonsensical to us. We tend, then, to live by these stories, be they stories about our own lives or stories about the world and God. These stories become the “truths” that some religious traditions assert as the final word on life’s meaning. Many years ago an older confrere of mine said to me, after I had given a presentation to his community, “John, be careful of believing your own story too much.” As individuals, as groups, and even as religious institutions, we tend, after a time, to forget that we are living and working off of a limited story of our own making.
Today’s gospel, however, is a challenge to this basic human tendency to live by “our own stories.” One of the most intractable mysteries of Mark’s gospel is what is often referred to as “the Messianic secret.” Why does Jesus instruct people who have had an experience of his divinity not to tell others about him? Could this be, at least in part, because Jesus understands the inherent limitation of human narrative? It is impossible to capture and contain in any story the true identity of Jesus, as it is the reality of God. For that matter, it is impossible for our personal stories to express the truth of who we are. So, Jesus may enjoin those who experience him from telling others their experience because that will reduce to the story they are told who he can be for those others. This is why Jesus, in Mark 8:27-30, when the disciples respond to Jesus’ question of who people say he is by telling him what others think, says to them, “And who do you say that I am?”
Whatever stories we live by, these stories help us to make sense of our lives and of reality but they do so at a cost. As my confrere reminded me, we need to have a story but those stories can never be “the truth” in any absolute sense. Our stories give our lives a measure of coherence, but, as a result, they are largely the cause of our frustrations. When life does not conform to our interpretations, we experience it as inscrutable and unfair. We are like Lear, raging upon the heath, because reality has not submitted to our demands of it. As the Buddha pointed out, we suffer to the degree we do because of our efforts to avoid the truth that life is suffering. Like the Israelites, we want to know what we need to do next time to make things come out the way we want.
The great wisdom traditions are not answers to our whys, they are rather paths on the way to living in and with the Mystery. Recently, I found myself struggling in prayer to trust that it is love that is at the heart of life and creation. The work just to break through all in myself that inhibits my love and care for others can seem hopelessly daunting. And looking at humanity’s behavior as a whole, it seems as if power and not love is the pervasive influence. Often at our celebration of the Eucharist here, the celebrant will pray for “peace in our hearts, in our families and communities, in our schools and places of work, in our nations and in the world.” Some days as I hear that I feel a cynicism and frustration that comes from an inability to see beyond what to me look like life’s contradictions. We pray for peace, yet we relate by ambition and force. Are our prayers merely wishes that foster self-deception and illusion? Are they but a part of a narrative we have built that is no more than a fairy tale?
As I prayed to trust in the call of love, I, however tentatively, realized that the call of the great traditions to abandonment is to abandon oneself and all of one’s stories to trust in the Mystery. It is at such a moment that I began to recognize a teacher in the leper of today’s gospel. The leper comes to Jesus, kneels down, and begs him saying, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” What is so striking about the way the leper approaches Jesus is the level of trust and abandonment it reflects. The leper lays before Jesus the deepest desire of his heart, but he does not presume that Jesus wants what he wants. As he kneels and begs, he submits all of what he desires and who he is, even his very understanding of his own heart, to Jesus. To say to Jesus “If you wish . . .” is to be ready to accept a yes or a no. It is a handing over of what he wants to the will of Jesus. It is a darkening of every interior light that he possesses. In the leper I see, for the first time in reading this passage, a true teacher of prayer.
The truth of the matter is that I live a lot of my life in my ego’s frustration. I am not and the world (in all of its specific and concrete manifestations) is not what I thought and think it should be. At the level of my rational-functional ego, I am often on the verge of seeing the love and beneficence of God as a fairy tale. From this perspective I can see what isn’t, but I don’t have a very good idea of what is, of what God wants. To abandon myself to and to try to be a servant of such an unknown often does not seem and feel possible. In prayer and in love, however, it is possible to relinquish the hold of my ego and certainties and so to move from my head to my heart. It is only at the level of spirit that we can want the will of God, even as it remains mysterious to us.
In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More’s daughter Margaret attempts to convince her father to be reasonable and to take the oath to the King while preserving his own truth in his heart. She says to him: “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?” More responds to her: “Well, finally, it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.” The encounter and then healing of the leper with Jesus begins with an act of total abandonment. In effect, the leper in conditioning his request on Jesus’ will prefigures Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane in Mark 14:36: “ Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” What is love but a trust and abandonment beyond condition.
When we create a story about God based on our own predilections, it is the story, not God, that we love. To live in faith, and so to love, is to serve the world not on our terms but as it really is, and, finally, only God knows that. Late in life, I am still only learning what love is and what it asks of us, and how far beyond my comprehension it is. One lesson is to begin every prayer and attempt at discernment with the words of the leper: “If you wish . . . .”
Contemplation requires . . . an immersion in the passionate search for a God who lives with us and who makes makes Himself sought after on the path of human persons. The contemplative person understands that it is the personal “I” which marks the distance between oneself and God and for this, never ceases to be a beggar of the Beloved, but rather looks for it in the right place, in the depths of oneself, in the sanctuary where God resides.
CICLSALife, Contemplation, pp.31-2
As it happens, one of our clients is St. John’s Prep. I learned recently from SJP’s Head of School that you are a grad. After mentioning this discovery at a meeting at the school yesterday, I was asked to reach out to you in connection with an event at the school later this year in which the Brothers are to be honored. Would you please – “if you wish” contact me via email and I can extend your contact info to the event coordinator.
Many thanks for your piece today.