Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. / He is like a tree planted beside the waters / that stretches out its roots to the stream: / It fears not the heat when it comes, / its leaves stay green; / In the year of drought it shows no distress, / but still bears fruit.
Jesus said to the Pharisees: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”
Recently some of us spent time visiting our brothers in Kenya and Congo. As the years pass, these trips become increasingly challenging for me, physically as well as emotionally. The constant movement as well as the living conditions, that are far less physically comfortable than those to which I am accustomed, takes an ever harsher toll on me at 71 years of age than they did even just five years ago. On the other hand, the deep life and commitment of our Brothers in these countries is an enlivening challenge to my own consciousness and spirit that evokes deeper life and, often, even joy in me.
To reflect on my experience during such travels casts light on the movements of my own consciousness that both the reading from Jeremiah and the parable of Jesus in Luke address. At times during our travels, my physical and emotional discomfort moves me to escape into the fantasy of what it will feel like when I return to my everyday comforts and routine. I fantasize about my everyday life at home and the bed and food I am used to, the leisure and recreation I enjoy, the autonomy and mobility of moving about as I wish in my own car. At such moments, I am caught in the desires and illusions of my own mind and am not present to and aware of the reality around me. At these moments my experience of time is adversarial: I am counting the days or the hours until my return to “my own life.” At other moments, however, when I and my companions are working together and being with and for those around us, I experience being awake, alive, and joyful far beyond most of my everyday experience. At these times, I become unaware of my sense of cultural and emotional disorientation and my physical discomfort, and rather find myself fully present to those around me, engaged with and enjoying them. Here, my experience of time is that of kairos rather than chronos. I am not thinking about being elsewhere or of how many more days until my departure. Rather, I am in the world and time as an “acting person” who is fully and happily engaged in what life is asking of me and so offering me at the moment.
Having now returned home for a few days, I am discovering that my experience in my familiar surroundings presents the same challenge to me. Here, the escape is not so much into the fantasy of being elsewhere, but it is rather into the cognitive and spiritual numbing of routinization. I’m discovering that in my ordinary, day to day life, I build my routines around the desire to maximize my own comfort. While traveling in the developing world, the resistance I experience is my inability to create such modes and routines of comfort and security. So, I create imaginary spaces to which I can escape. Yet, isn’t perhaps the “life” I create, with the help of the comforts and technologies of my daily life, not also a flight into the imaginary? This is the situation of the Rich Man in Jesus’ parable. He surrounds himself with comfort and discovers only after his death that he had been blind to the world right outside his door.
The passage we read today from Jeremiah asks us the question of where our lives are rooted. If they are rooted in the Real, in the Lord, they are constantly nourished by the eternal stream of God’s love and grace. For God loves who we are, not whom we imagine ourselves to be. It is by being in the world that we can receive the grace of God through relationship. The deeper and truer our relationship to the world, the more that we flourish. The more that we live in our own imaginary world, the more we are cut off from the grace that comes to us when we engage that world in love.
Adrian van Kaam says that “We are our formation field.” We are not a cut off and autonomous cognitive, emotional, and spiritual life. We are only in relationship to each other, to the actual situation in which we find ourselves, and through that situation to the entire world of creation. Yet, as we see in Jesus’ parable, most of us live much of our lives asleep to our own and the world’s reality. I can spend hours if not days of my life not attuning to the life and the call around me but rather absorbed in my own desire for comfort. I can “wish away” the realities, including the persons, around me and live rather in the realm of the imaginary — thus being untouched by Reality. This is how we create the “chasm” that Abraham tells the Rich Man exists in the next life between him and Lazarus.
Abraham then tells the Rich Man that if his brothers are not to suffer the same fate as his that they must wake up to what “Moses and the prophets” are telling them. So, I have returned home from our travels with a haunting sense of dis-ease. The tasks and responsibilities of life, at this moment, feel as if they are too much. But this is also an illusion. As we imagine a world of gratification and comfort, we also imagine a world that is too much for us. So, we often try to escape not only from Reality as it is but as we imagine it to be. Once engaged our field of formation is not only not too much for us, it is actually our life and our only way to human fulfillment.
As the disciples in Gethsemane, the temptation is always present to go to sleep because being awake seems as if it is too much for us. The perennial conflict I experience in my life is that between engaging the world and avoiding it. As in my travels, so in my daily life, I am at each moment being offered life if, in fact, I engage it and relate to it. I know myself as alive to the degree that I respond to what the person, situation, and event of the moment asks of me. I fail to live, I live in fantasy, to the degree that I avoid engagement. Reality will not go away because we attempt to wish it away. Yet, despite the fears and insecurities that would lead us to withdraw and avoid, we can, in faith, trust that the call of Reality to us in the moment, the task that is before us, is “the Way.” Such faith is how we live planted beside the waters with our roots stretched out to the stream.
Watchfulness is the path to life, and thoughtlessness the path to death. The watchful are alive, but the thoughtless are already like the dead.
Stay awake. Watch and reflect. work with careful attention. In this way you will find the light within yourself.
The one who is awake has overcome crying and exchanged the folly of delusion for the stronghold of wisdom. That one looks down upon the suffering and the ignorant, on the delinquent and the foolish, and sees that they live close to the ground.
The seeker who guards one’s thought and fears the willfulness of one’s mind, burns through the bonds which tie one with the fire of attentiveness.
The seeker who guards one’s thought and fears one’s own delusions can never fall. Such a one now knows the way to bliss.
The Dhammapada, 21, 27, 28, 31, 32