Day and night they never stopped exclaiming: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.” Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before the one who sits on the throne and worship him, who lives forever and ever.
‘I tell you, to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Luke 19: 26
Lately, perhaps due to old age, I find myself saddened by how much of human interaction consists in jockeying for power at best and pushing each other around at worst. It’s a tough sell to try to convince people that working together toward a common end is as fulfilling as feeling in control and in a position of dominance over others. Theodore Ryken, who had problems enough with navigating his desire for brotherhood, on the one hand, and for maintaining control of his small band on the other, offered this description of his hope and desire for the community he was establishing:
A band of brothers
who mutually help,
and edify one another,
and who work together.
We speak much of “collaboration” these days, and yet, in truth, truly “working together” is extremely difficult for us. Given our own struggles with identity and with understanding what actually constitutes us as significant, we live in the belief that it is only in exerting our will that we truly exist. And, since at least at the functional level of willing, we will different things, we are forever suspicious of each other. Ryken’s vision of a work that is truly “common” to us all requires a level of ongoing discernment among his followers that seems to our functional ambitions to be a waste of time. Our usual view is that given the brief time we have on earth to accomplish what we wish, how can we waste time attempting to “figure out” the work that is given to us as members of a community, be it religious, familial, national, or universal.
At the level of our functional or executive willing, we live in a continuing state of competition with each other. This universal human disposition is the engine of the capitalist system. From this place, it is the assertion and the dominance of our own view, our own desire, that constitutes our place in society and the world. In this view to be “great” requires that others be less. Since what the world has to offer us is inherently limited, we can only gain our share by limiting that of others. It is this perspective that experiences life as scarce rather than full that Jesus is critiquing in today’s gospel. ‘I tell you, to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The more we live with a fear of deprivation, the more we shall feel deprived. The more we are aware of the abundance of God’s love and care for everyone, the more we shall experience being given.
So, competition is the mode of living we employ out of our sense of scarcity. Early on in our catechetical experience we are taught that God loves us totally in our uniqueness at the same time as God loves everyone in this same way. Even though cognitively we are able to grasp this vision of the world, for it to form our hearts often takes a lifetime. For if we really believed this, not only in our heads but in our hearts, we would begin to shift from a basic mode of competition to that of collaboration. If each of us has a unique experience of God’s love, which is God’s action in the world, wouldn’t it be desirable to share and understand those experiences in such a way that in common we know God’s love so much more fully than we can know it in isolation. And, if God’s love for the world is also God’s will, that is that task we are called to fulfill, wouldn’t it require full collaboration with each other to come to know that work to which we are called.
Most of the destruction and pain we wreak on our “common home” and on each other is due to our refusal to acknowledge God’s love as “a love common to all.” That love is infinite, but we are extremely finite and limited. Although “the way” lies within us, we cannot know the way alone. True human flourishing comes not from competition and domination but rather from discerning the place of one’s unique task and work in the work of God in the world, of humanity’s common task.
So, how, in fact, are we converted from competition to collaboration? How do we transition from the living out of our pride form or false self in relationship and work to the way of the true self which acts from its experience of this “common” love? In today’s reading from Revelation we are taught that the nature of “heaven” is that of a place where all of life is the proclamation of the glory of God. It is to live in full mindfulness of God’s holiness. The more our consciousness becomes that of the glory and holiness of God, the closer we approach the true “end” of human existence.
The conversion or transformation from competition to collaboration is the movement from the glorification of the false self to the proclamation, in word and deed, of the holiness of God. What this concretely entails is our grasping that our will is a very partial window on to the will of God, and that our access to that will in this life requires our openness to the partial view of others. It means growing in the awareness of all we do not know and our need for the perspective of others to even begin to understand.
This humility of releasing our tight hold on our own perspective in order to allow into our mind and heart the vision of others leaves us in a very vulnerable position. Just recently a couple of us attempted to enter into such an open dialogue with a group that had been well prepared to be closed and resistant to us. The more we would try to express a desire to listen to and learn from each other, the more we experienced being assaulted with grievance and demand. In the course of this interchange and since, my awareness of how violent we tend to be with each other in many of our relationships and in much of our daily work has become even more acute. The life and death of Jesus is a constant reminder of what tends to happen in our world when one comes into the world, and situation, in openness and vulnerability. “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:11)
Thus, to live out of the desire to work with others and so to practice the openness and vulnerability that requires a continuing surrender of what we take to be our very identity and worth is a profound spiritual struggle for us. The holiness of God, of Reality, is an awesome mystery to us. We cannot grasp it by means of our own executive will. We can only begin to receive it as we release and surrender our pride, arrogance, and certitudes for the truth of a light that is so bright it seems dark to us. This is why the surrender of what our false selves take to be our lives feels like death to us. To surrender our tendency to self-worship to the actual glory and holiness of God, through changing our way of relating to each other, is our practice for dying.
So often we may feel that we don’t so much fear dying as we do the pain associated with it. Similarly there is real pain for us in leaning how to live, as Jesus did, in openness and vulnerability to a world that seems only too willing to take advantage of us. Yet, for all appearances to the contrary, as we learn that we already have all that we need in God’s love for us, we realize that the pain is merely an access to even fuller life. To life in faith is to trust in the fullness of life. It is to release all the ways we reduce life to our own pettiness, so that we may come to realize that life is truly holy and eternal. It is easy for us to be petty, mean and even violent with each other, when we live as if “there is not enough for us and for them.” When we begin to realize the truth, however, that the love of God is truly common to all, then there is nothing to lose but our own constricted vision and practice. Every letting go, then, becomes a source of greater life, until that moment when we finally let go of what we have, in our darkness and pride, taken to be our life.
From this perspective, the dying process is the culmination or the peak of the whole development of the spiritual journey, in which total surrender to God involves the gift of life itself, as we know it.
For that reason it’s not really death, but life reaching out to a fullness that we can’t imagine from this side of the dying process.
So death is . . . the final completion of this process of becoming fully alive and manifesting the triumph of the grace of God in us.
Thomas Keating with Carl J. Arico, The Gift of Life: Death & Dying, Life & Living Companion Book, 12-13,