“Friends, why are you doing this? We are of the same nature as you, human beings. We reclaim to you good news that you should turn from these idols to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all Gentiles to go their own ways; yet, in bestowing his goodness, he did not leave himself without witness, for he gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filled you with nourishment and gladness for your hearts.”Acts 14: 15-18
The above words of Paul are evoked by the attempt of the people of Lystra, after a man crippled from birth has been healed by the words of Paul and Barnabas, to worship them as gods. “They called Barnabas ‘Zeus’ and Paul ‘Hermes’.” Immediately Paul attempts to return them to what is, “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons.” The “living God,” says Paul, is the one “who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.” In today’s gospel, Jesus teaches likewise: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14: 23). God is not “out there” someplace but rather God, as the Father of Jesus, is one who comes to us and dwells with us. Idols are what we create out of the tendency of our cognitive faculties to leap out of the actual, material world and attempt to reach some kind of “super-human” reality. When Paul wants to call back the people of Lystra from the idols they are making of him and Barnabas, he does so by telling them to turn to the living God who made the world and who manifest in its rain and fruitfulness, its nourishment and gladness.
Whenever we move from life to concept, our concepts will always have about them generalizations, deletions, and distortions. Our presentation of the world will always be somehow distorted and incomplete. To know “the living God” requires of us simple presence to and receptivity of the “Real.” The Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki puts it this way: “I mean that, as soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is already not just what you saw.” So, Suzuki says that “Zen is the teaching or practice of seeing ‘things as it is’ or accepting ‘things as it is’ and of raising things as they go” (Transcript of Talk, September 8, 1967).
The reason why we don’t experience Jesus’ words that God comes to us and dwells with us is that we are not dwelling there with God. Our “minds” are elsewhere. Suzuki speaks to this in a striking way. He says that we fail to be present, to see “things as it is” because we are not enjoying our life as it is. If we did, he says, then anything that happens will be all right with us. “When you are encouraged by everything, and you realize everything is always helping you, then there is no difference whether you are dead or alive.”
Never, perhaps, in human history have we had more devices and tools to entertain us, to make us happy. Yet, when I speak with persons who are deeply suffering, it is almost always the case that they have no experience of enjoying their lives. Because we live in a culture that fosters self-alienation, the enjoyment of our lives recedes more and more from our experience. Enjoyment is not the same as what we typically call happiness. It is possible to experience enjoyment in the most difficult of circumstances. Why, for example, is there something so different and striking about our experience of ourselves at some of life’s most sad and difficult moments? I am thinking here of the death of a family member or close friend, for example. I think it is because at such moments there is no escaping ourselves. We are pulled by events into our own depths. As James Kugel says, “The music stops” and there is a profound outer and inner silence. We are encountering life far beyond anything we can think or say about it.
It seems implicit in what Paul says to the citizens of Lystra that if they could just be present and attend to the rains and the fruitful harvest and the nourishment that harvest brings, they would see it all as a witness to the living God. And so, as Jesus says, if we are truly “at home” and in deep enjoyment of our very being, we would realize that Jesus and His Father have made their dwelling with us. It is natural for us to think that when we are experiencing the lack in our lives the solution to that lack is to do or make things. It is to make the right rules by which to live and so to build a satisfying life, a life which God will ratify and justify. Yet, the truth is that what is, to quote Suzuki, “is helping us.” The rain and the harvest, and all they represent in life, is given to us for our enjoyment.
I learned from others reporting it to me that my father felt concern about me because I thought too much and worried too much. I was surprised when others told me this, because I knew it to be true. I also knew that much of this tendency came from him. Yet, I also inherited something else from my parents and that was a keen ability for play and enjoyment. It was not unusual for the three of us to play together, in actual games but also just in verbal play. At these times, I experienced the enjoyment of being with with no other reason than to play together and be together.
In a conversation I was having yesterday with someone who is a great ice hockey fan, he was pointing out to me that the best young players in his part of the country no longer play for their high school teams but rather pay thousands of dollars to play in what are called junior leagues. They pay to play as well as pay for all their own equipment, all of which comes to thousands of dollars a year. And this is because they are hoping to play ice hockey at the highest levels in the future. As he spoke, I thought of how we now push our children towards what we see as success from their earliest ages. Their days are fully scheduled with “productive” and “educational” activities from morning to night. When our lives are governed by this kind of ambition that has been formed by our cultural pulsations, there is no space left to experience the enjoyment that comes with true play and the leisure that makes that play possible. Yet, the life of God, the creative relationship that is the Divine dynamic, is really a mode of play into which we are invited. The description Jesus gives in today’s gospel, that is to love Jesus is to be loved by God and to allow God and Jesus to make a dwelling with us, is a description of the “play” of Divine love into which Jesus has drawn us.
Faith is not primarily a matter of cognition. It is to know, in enjoyment, our life as participating in this love that, as Dante says, “moves the sun and the other stars.” I wish I could say that I live everyday in remembrance of this reality. And yet, I believe because of it. At moments or full presence to our life as it is, to “things as it is,” we know the “perfect joy” of which Jesus speaks. To begin to know this, however, we raised in the “western” intellectual and formation tradition must overcome the dichotomy of body and spirit. The deep truth in my father’s perception of me, as of himself I suspect, was that I could readily get caught in my head, in my thoughts and my worries, and cease to be present to my body and to God’s incarnation in the physical world. In its extreme this can lead to where we find ourselves in relationship to our world, our “common home,” as Pope Francis calls it. We are prone to forget it is our home, our dwelling, and so we use it to our own ends, even to the point of perhaps “using it up.” When the earth, each other, even ourselves become commodities, we use them rather than enjoy them.
We are forever trying to think our way to solutions to our most intransigent problems. Perhaps, we need to complement that thinking with disposing ourselves, in rest, relaxation, relationship, and full presence (which is prayer), to greater enjoyment of our life, the life of each other, and of the world itself.
So it is not necessary to always stick to the rules. What is important is to extend your way of life deeper and wider. To have a beautiful ceramic bowl is not necessary when you are ready to appreciate things. Whatever it is, things will encourage your practice. If you can enjoy your life in its true sense, then even if you injure your body, it is all right. Even if you die, it is all right. When you are encouraged by everything, and you realize everything is always helping you, then there is no difference whether you are dead or alive. It is all right. Quite all right. That is complete renunciation.Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, p. 102