Thus says the Lord: / Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, / who seeks his strength in flesh, / whose heart turns away from the Lord. / He is like a barren bush in the desert / that enjoys no change of season, / But stands in a lava waste, / a salt and empty earth. / 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.Jeremiah 17: 5-8
As one who came of age in the Church immediately following the Second Vatican Council with its proper restoration of the meaning of the Incarnation for our humanity, I have always found the foundational spiritual teaching of today’s reading from Jeremiah a difficult one to comprehend fully and truly appreciate. “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings. . . .” Yet, if I hear the entire sentence which qualifies the “curse” as applying to one who trusts human beings solely, then I can begin to recognize its truth in my own experience.
To live on the basis of the response of others to us as if it were ultimate is to leave ourselves subject to what Freud called “the vicissitudes of the ego.” To be appreciated and recognized by others evokes in us strong feelings of strength and well being, a feeling of being worthwhile and grateful for our lives. On the other hand, to be disparaged and abandoned by others leaves us “like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.” It is to feel despondent and worthless, shameful and deserted. How do we come to a place in life where we are able to relativize the reactions of others to us? Is there a place where we are, as Jeremiah puts it, so rooted in ourselves and in our own lives, that we can bear the drought of lost affection and the storm of rejection?
If we are, in truth, “always and everywhere in formation,” we shall, as we age, suffer the need for reformation and transformation that comes when our trust and our hope in other persons is disappointed. If we ever stand for anything in life, we shall discover that standing solidly in any truth will evoke the scorn and rejection of at least some others. It is at such moments of apparent darkness that God is calling us to a reformation of our hearts, from our felt need to trust other persons alone to the realization that it is only in God that we can ultimately place our trust.
I will sometimes say to one whose friendship and trust is important to me that in time I shall inevitably betray their trust in me. Not because I want to do so, or necessarily will ever willfully do so, but because I am a fallen and sinful person. To trust me must always mean to trust me provisionally and not ultimately. So too it must be for me in regards to others. I long for another whom I can totally and absolutely trust, but our relationship and friendship cannot be based on this unrealistic expectation. To forego this expectation is really a necessary condition for relationship with others.
Adrian van Kaam teaches that we can only be affirmed by God and, through God’s love, by ourselves. Others can confirm us, but never affirm us. If we seek affirmation from others, we shall always be wanting. In my early years of teaching I didn’t understand this. And so, I would be in torment when I experienced my inability to overcome in my students their feelings of worthlessness and desperation. I couldn’t understand why it was that they couldn’t experience the love I had for them in such a way as to overcome their own self-depreciation. In many ways, my torment and inability to comprehend this was a measure of my own inner emptiness. My insistence that others receive from me that which was not mine to give was but a reflection of my own demand that others give me what I can only receive from God.
So, although our trust in other persons and our trust in God are very related, they are not identical. There is a depth in each of us that no other person, however close we become, can touch. This is both a cause of our suffering and a gift of God. For, it implies that although no other human can ever satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts, it is also the case that no other human person is able to violate the core, the container, of those longings. The great paradox is that the place of our deepest longing and loneliness is also the place of our inviolability.
For us to come close to and to live from that ground where, as Meister Eckhart says, “God’s ground is my ground, and my ground is God’s ground,” is to know a trust that can withstand all of “the harshness of life.” Most of us at least occasionally touch this ground in ourselves, but we also then distance from it. It is so easy for me when I am misunderstood and mistreated to feel rage and self-pity. At such times the possibility of forgiving the other seems remote or impossible. But this is because I have forgotten and dissociated from my own ground, which is God’s ground in me. I have become cursed because I have forgotten the truth of our human condition and that I cannot demand of others a trust that belongs in God alone.
So, to be planted in trust and hope in the fidelity of God in the way that Jeremiah describes is the prerequisite for any true trust and love of others. As long as I live the unconscious demand that another or others give me a sense of self worth, I will never be able to trust them and love them in the human way, in the inherently limited way that is the truth of our human experience. As soon as they dash my hopes for them and in them, I shall cease to love and befriend them.
All human relationship is dependent on our capacity to live in reality and not in imagination. The reality is that we are permeated, through and through, with finitude and fallibility. For human persons, the final form of love, as Reinhold Niebuhr says, will always be forgiveness. We are incapable of affirming each other absolutely. It is only the One who has given us life out of love who can do that. What we call “spiritual practice” is learning to live from the core of our identity. It is in time living, working, serving, and speaking out of that place that belongs only to God and ourselves, and finding, in such living, the strength to bear with and to suffer, in love, all that life and others will bring into our lives.
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.