Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability. But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 3; 17-18
The other day something that occurred had agitated my memory and evoked an experience of several years ago of being disregarded and hurt by a person I had considered a friend. As is usually the case at such times, it seemed as if my mind and restless energy could grind out its anger and resentment endlessly. I felt as if I was trapped in a mental windmill that continually turned my repetitive thoughts in order to grind out and increase the hatred and rage that was the product of this long cultivated memory.
Then, somehow, the summons of the Our Father occurred to me to forgive as we long to be forgiven. I realized in the midst of this destructive mental habit that instead of raging against and resenting this person, I could pray for him. At that moment the frantic repetition of the angry thoughts ceased. I realized, at least momentarily, that there is a great difference between the world I create in my own thoughts, memories, imaginings, and feelings and the real world. Perhaps the “new world” of which 2 Peter speaks is really happening someplace that I fail to recognize and inhabit because I am so caught up in the totalization of my own experience, thoughts, and feelings.
As I read this morning the above passage from 2 Peter, two questions arose in my mind. Wherein lies my “own stability” and am I continually growing “in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ”? As for the first question, I primarily know the experience of stability through my own instability. It seems as if my moments of feeling truly grounded are but brief interruptions of my own changeableness. When I am confirmed and treated well by others, the world feels right and in order. When I am countered or worse disregarded or insulted or disrespected, all is dark and verging on hopeless. When I am getting something done, the world is my oyster. I am, in the words of the old song, “sitting on top of the world.” Life is full of possibility. When, on the other hand, I am not, to my light, making progress, or feeling effective, or producing something worthwhile, it is a struggle to keep myself moving and engaged. I begin to be overcome with my own infantile sense of helplessness and rage. When the world appreciates my efforts, I feel in love with the universe. When it doesn’t appreciate them, I feel resentment and hatred.
As Freud says, we suffer throughout life “the vicissitudes of the ego.” As the Buddha says, we live much of life driven by craving and aversion. To live in this way is to live without constancy and stability. it is not to live in the world but to react to it. When my memory is grinding away over a relatively, in the larger scheme of things, insignificant event, I am really not living my real life at all but am trapped in the unprincipled dispositions that have been formed in me and that I have nurtured because of the gratification such self-justification affords me. Stability in life comes from “willing one thing.” It comes from a relationship that is grounded in the hummus, the soil, of true self knowledge. It realizes that my deepest potency is not primarily related to my functional ambitions, but it is rather my spiritual capacity for communion with my Origin, the source of my own originality. it is not the outcomes of my work or the responses of others that grounds my life, but the true place I have in the God who is the source of all.
If that is where we really live, then life should be, as the author of the letter says, a growing “in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” For some reason, today I was very much challenged by this statement. Is my experience of life a continual growth in my knowledge of Jesus Christ? How much better do I know him today than yesterday, or 10 years ago, or, for that matter, 60 years ago? What does it even mean to know Jesus Christ? Recently a confrere from Congo spent some days with me. As we were driving around the area in which I live, he commented on how strange it was that in America there were all these different churches in such proximity to each other. It is in many ways amazing that in a country in which secularism and capitalism are the primary form traditions, there are so many churches and so much talk of Jesus Christ. Even within our own religious tradition, the name of Jesus comes readily and frequently to our lips. Yet, I find myself asking myself today whether or not my day to day life a real growing in the knowledge of him.
What does it mean to grow in knowledge of a person with whom we are in relationship? It involves knowing about them, to be sure, and even more to discover slowly over time more and more about their lives that we had not know until the present moment. Yet personal knowledge is so much more than what we learn about a person. It is to become increasingly more intimate and more at one with him or her. This growth in intimacy carries with its increasing sense of knowing and understanding of the friend, a growing awareness of self in the new light that is cast by the love of (in both objective and subjective senses) the other. In the growing intimacy of love there is also a growing identification of the one with the other. We come to experience that we share a common life and a common love. This is not a denial of the uniqueness and otherness of the beloved, but it is the truth of a growing awareness of how we are one.
When my mind is lost in its isolated memories, grievances, hurts, and ambitions, I am not aware that I am in relationship, that I live and breathe because of the one who gives me life, who is my life. In such manifestations of my own false form, I am isolating from Jesus and God; I am attempting to preserve a life from which Jesus is excluded and so in which my relationship to him remains not growing but static. We grow in the knowledge of Jesus by opening up those places in our hearts, those parts of our lives from which he has been and is being excluded. When I pray for one for whom I am feeling hatred and resentment, I am allowing Jesus to enter where I felt that he did not, and perhaps desired that he not, belong. At that moment, I grow in the knowledge of Jesus by discovering his presence and love where I thought it did not exist.
To grow in knowledge in this way, however, requires me to be willing to let go of my control over myself and my world. I don’t even think to pray for the person with whom I am holding my grudge because there is gratification in the feeling of anger. I don’t want the truth of God’s love of that person to be known to me. I want a world where those who hurt me or whom I dislike are punished, are banished to the netherworld. I prefer that self-justification to the knowledge of the love of God in Jesus, and so in me, of those persons. I know the world that reflects my sense of justice; I fear the real world where my judgments may be turned upside down.
So, when I am not growing in the knowledge of Jesus, it is because I don’t want to. I prefer my static and often infantile version of Jesus to the real person. To grow in knowledge of Jesus requires that I admit the truth in those moments when I don’t know him at all, and so permit him to come into my life and world in ways I’d never known him before. This feels to us very much like being unstable rather than stable. Yet, this true place of humility is our only real stability. What feels firm to us is the illusion of our own arrogance and isolation. This is why Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection counsel us, at moments when our mind has fallen “into habits of wandering and dissipation,” to “confess our faults.” To pray for one I really do not want to pray for is to confess my fault in that person’s regard, the person I prefer to blame and to hate. At such a moment, I am made aware of a truth I had not known before. It is the truth of the other’s place in God’s love and mercy and of my own, sinner that I am. It is also a true growth in my knowledge of Jesus Christ.
When the mind is untrained and has got into habits of wandering and dissipation, they are most difficult to overcome, and frequently draw us, against our wills, to the things of earth. I believe that one remedy is to confess our faults , humbling ourselves before God. I advise you to avoid much talking in prayer; long speeches often induce distractions. Hold yourself in prayer before God like a dumb or paralyzed beggar at a rich man’s gate; rivet your attention on keeping your mind in the presence of the Lord. If it wanders away from him, don’t get upset; to worry about it serves distraction rather than recollection; let the will bring back the mind quietly. If you persevere in this way, God will have pity on you.
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, trans. Donald Attwater, p. 83