Trust in the Lord forever! / For the Lord is an eternal Rock. / He humbles those in high places, / and the lofty city he brings down;/ He tumbles it to the ground, / levels it with the dust. / It is trampled underfoot by the needy, / by the footsteps of the poor.
Isaiah 26: 4-6
On this Thursday of the first week of Advent, we are reminded in the gospel to build our lives on rock and not sand. Jesus says we do that by acting on his words. And Isaiah reminds us that what is required to act on the Lord’s words is a recognition in humility of our lowliness, of our actual place in the universe. If we are trusting in anything but the Lord, we are likely to stumble and fall. But if we know our own lowliness, then we have nothing to fear in life, and being in our true place we shall learn how to live, that is how to act on the Lord’s words.
Last night I watched the new Paul Schrader film entitled First Reformed. The story portrays the intense inner conflict of the pastor of that church, a poor and sparsely attended satellite of a very successful megachurch. A great financial supporter of the megachurch is the owner of a company highly invested in fossil fuels. The life of the pastor of First Reformed, however, becomes intertwined with a couple. The wife is pregnant and the husband is an environmental activist who is tormented about bringing a child into a world that will probably be suffering extreme effects of climate change by that child’s adulthood.
This pastor is reminiscent of some of the priests of the novels of Graham Greene. He is sickly and suffers from at least incipient alcoholism. He has lost a child himself and has had his marriage fall apart as a result. It is quite clear that he is among the poor and needy. He is pressured to conform to the ways of the successful megachurch, by compromising with affluent donors and avoiding the “political.” Yet, increasingly he awakens to the horror of what comfortable and affluent humanity, including Christian proponents of the “prosperity gospel,” is doing to the planet. The burning question for him, first introduced by the young husband he encounters, is “Can God forgive us for what we are doing to God’s creation?”
The words of Isaiah and Jesus that we are given today do not seem, on the surface, to be born out by experience It is the wealthy and the arrogant, those who occupy the high places who seem to be dominant. The greater the cost to the planet that the greedy accumulation of wealth and power produces, the more the poor suffer. Even in developed countries those “classes” of people that once constituted the foundation of the society, now find themselves more and more the serfs of their corporate masters and the political leaders they control. it is an increasingly difficult act of faith to cast one’s lot with the poor and the lowly.
Yet, even in our own personal lives, we know that in our futile effort to make something of ourselves on the world’s terms is to build on sand. It is appropriate that in the United States we have the saying “In God we trust.” on our coins. For money and prosperity have become our gods. In it’s pursuit we are willing to be used and abused by our masters in the corporate sphere. We are told what we need, what we are to think, how hard we are to work, and how it is we attain success. We are told that our potency lies in our assertion of our racial and national superiority, in demeaning the neediest among us as useless and lazy. All the while we are being used and unable to recognize it; our very common home is being degraded for the sake of profit, and we are made to feel helpless to respond.
Every human problem, says Adrian van Kaam, is a spiritual problem. It is in speaking with the owner of the huge plant that supports the church and probably employs many of the townspeople that the pastor says, “Can I ask you a question? Can God forgive us for what we are doing to God’s creation?” To whom are we responsible for the form we give our lives and our societies, for what we do and what we say? We build on rock when, as we build, we “measure” our lives and our efforts against the Lord’s words. God can forgive, but the effects of that forgiveness depend on our changing our ways. God’s forgiveness does not come “cheaply” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us. It cost Jesus his life, as it does ours.
Which leads to the thought, so what is my life? Is it my role at work, my place in society, my virtue and uprightness, my competence and functional potency? Or is it something else, a life “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) that is the rock solid foundation of my being? There is a story of St. Francis that speaks of his transformation from one who loved and lived for pleasure, wealth, and position to the person who became a servant in a hospice for sufferers of leprosy. The story implies that our sense of what is tasteful and distasteful to us is socially acquired. Most of us have not been formed to delight in the taste of the Lord’s words, but rather in the values of our culture. It is sweet to us to be comfortable, to have prestige, to be seen as good and productive. But all of this is to build on sand. For any of these things can come and go, can be given to and taken away from us. And then our house, our dwelling, collapses.
The striking teaching in the story of Francis is that he must experience the kind of conversion that will change the very core dispositions of his heart: “. . . what before seemed delightful and sweet will be unbearable and bitter; and what before made you shutter will offer you great sweetness and enormous delight.” So, he, who once was filled with disgust at the very thought of touching a leper, now becomes, with great sweetness and happiness, their servant and friend. it seems almost impossible to consider our lives as so overturned by the experience of God that what we have moved toward all our lives we now find unbearable and bitter and what we have fled in fear, shame and disgust we now move towards in sweetness and delight. When those values to which our life became conformed in its earliest formation cease to dominate our love of the world and our actions toward others, we become truly free. This is why when Jesus speaks of his passion and Peter counters him, Jesus rebukes Peter as Satan.
In our own lives, Satan appeals to us with the values of status, prosperity, self-superiority, and all those values that constitute the “way of the world.” Human societies have always recognized that the greatest of punishments to inflict on those who dare to break the cultural codes is public shaming. Our need to belong and be accepted means that, above all else, we fear humiliation and shame. Although as children we recited the rhyme: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”, we knew in our hearts and experience that this was untrue. It was precisely the names we were called that most hurt us.
Is it possible that by the love and grace of God, those names might no longer be bitter but rather sweet. Francis discovers the freedom to love and enjoy serving the lepers because he ceases to care about his place in society. It is considered indisputably true that the “great success” of Catholic education in the United States is that it brought an immigrant community from the fringes into the center and even into the corridors of power in the society. But is this such a success after all? Is our culture and society, as a result of such a large number of Catholic politicians and judges, closer to the words of the Lord and the influence of the gospel? To appropriate a term of Johannes Metz, shouldn’t the church be a “dangerous memory” in the society, rather than a rationalization and justification of its capitalist values? As we witnessed recently, it seems that at least some Catholic schools have become elitist and privileged institutions whose alumni take for granted their entitled position over others.
Has the American church found sweetness in its privileged and successful place? Is this perhaps the very reason for its diminishment and growing insignificance? Somehow did we begin to build on sand and now we are seeing the collapse? Now that we are “in high places,” we are being humbled. May we begin to taste the bitterness in this position, so that we might, by God’s grace, discover the possibility in and sweetness of our own humiliation and poverty.
One day while he was praying enthusiastically to the Lord, Francis received this response, “Francis, everything you loved carnally and decided to have, you must despise and hate, if you wish to know my will. Because once you begin doing this, what before seemed delightful and sweet will be unbearable and bitter; and what before made you shutter will offer you great sweetness and enormous delight.”
. . . After a few days, he moved to a hospice for leprosy sufferers, taking with him a large sum of money. Calling them all together, as he kissed the hand of each, he gave them alms. When he left there, what before had been bitter, that is, to see and touch those with leprosy, was turned into sweetness. For, as he said, the sight of lepers was so bitter to him that he refused not only to look at them but even to approach their dwellings. If he happened to come near their houses or to see them, even though he was moved by piety to give them alms through an intermediary, he always turned away his face and held his nose. With the help of God’s grace, he became such a servant and friend of the leprosy sufferers that, as he testified in his Testament, he stayed among them and served them with humility.
from The Legend of the Three Companions of Saint Francis, II,74