Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”Genesis 28: 20-22
Today we read the story of Jacob’s dream. When he awakens from his dream, in that state of altered consciousness with which we are all familiar as we first awaken from sleep, he declares: “God was in this place, and I did not know it.” Jacob’s awareness of the presence of God in a place where he had not recognized that presence is a reminder and a call to us to awaken to God’s presence from that pervasive sleep that is incapable of recognizing it.
If God is everywhere and in every moment of our life, then what is it that makes us so slow to recognize and respond to that presence? There is, perhaps, a key to unlock this question in Jacob’s conditional vow to make the Lord his God. “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.” Jacob’s conditional faith is a reflection of our own. By nature we tend to make relationships contractual. If this, then that. The conditions of the contract we set in our relationships, including our relationship with God, are the products of the perspectives of our intellect, memory, and will.
According to St. John of the Cross, transcendent faith, hope, and love purify our faculties in such a way that we recognize the presence of God in all the “places” of our lives, at every moment and in every situation. As long as our “understanding” of God is limited by our own thoughts about God, then God will only “appear” to us within those comprehensions. As long as we hope for anything in particular, we, as Jacob, will only recognize the work of God when those hopes are fulfilled. As long as we seek the experience of being loved and loving in light of our own sense and desire of what love is, then we shall never recognize the love of God when it takes a different form in our lives. In transcendent faith, hope, and love, we cease to place these limits on God and God’s work and so are able to recognize the love and presence of God in our lives in ways familiar and unfamiliar to us.
Jacob’s story of God, that informs the vow he makes, includes God’s watching over him. I think it is safe for us to say that as different as our stories of God are, they all include, in some way or other, the sense that God watches over us. As Julian of Norwich says, “God made us; God loves us; God cares for us.” The complication comes in because we all have different ideas of what God’s watching over us and caring for us means and what it looks like. It is that narrative that limits our recognition of God’s care for us, by excluding whatever in our lives does not correspond to our story. So, for example, we may exclude God from our moments of helplessness, or loneliness, or neediness. Thus, there will be large segments of our life in which we feel the absence of God, or even the implausibility of faith.
As I read the story of Jacob this morning, I thought of how his articulation of his vow to God is an experience I know mostly retrospectively. It has been for me often only in retrospect that I recognize that God was with me and watching over me even in those moments in life that were most painful and where I seemed hopeless and alone. One of the reasons it is so important for us to face and re-appropriate those aspects of life that are dark and painful for us is that the story we have created about those experiences is not the only possible one. It is our ongoing dark interpretation of the event that causes us pain, and there is almost always some aspect of the experience that we are ignoring. This does not mean to replace the dark story with a forced “sunny” one. Rather, it is to recognize the simple truth that, for all its pain, we have come through it.
In the most threatening and painful of moments in life, we fear annihilation. I can recall as a child that when my parents would be in conflict and for long periods of time not be speaking to each other, I would feel as if my very existence were in danger. After my father died, I was fearful about “being left” with responsibility for my mother. Little did I know how long and painful and demanding her decline would be. If I had know that in advance, I suspect I would have come close to despairing of my potential to meet that responsibility. Yet, by looking again at these experiences and countless others, I have come to recognize that even when I felt fear and isolation, I was “living through” the experiences.
There are those who face the personal catastrophes of war, or natural disaster, or the loss of family and the emotional trauma that such life-experiences evoke. That trauma has hidden from awareness the truth that ‘I am still here.” We forget that beyond the incredible and traumatic fear lies a self that endures. This is a life that is deeper and more real than the stories we build out of our memories and imaginations. This is the self that knows that God made us, that God loves us, and that God cares for us.
The transcendent faith, hope, and love of which St. John of the Cross speaks is not merely for the few. The “union” with God that they awaken in us is the truth of all of us. Although it is gift, however, it is not a gift that comes without a willingness on our part to dare to hear a new story about our lives. It requires that we face the unique trauma and darkness of our own experience, that we humbly and willingly abandon the iron-clad grip that our current narratives have over us, and that we thus open our mind and heart to Reality in the vulnerable darkness that has no story. It means abandoning faith in our own understanding so that we might be open to divine wisdom. It means giving up our hope for possessions, material, emotional or spiritual, and hoping only in God. Finally, it asks of us to empty ourselves of whatever affections and appetites we desire, that we may desire in love only the will of God.
The poverty to which the gospel calls us is the realization that, for all our efforts to make a life at the material, intellectual, and affective level, we are nothing without God. St. Paul says that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8: 38). It is only our own memory, imagination, and will, and the stories we create to reinforce our own “reality,” that leads us to feel separation from the love of God. We have our own idea of what love is and in what it consists. As long we hold on to those ideas, we find ourselves at one with the experience of Jacob: “God was in this place, and I did not know it.”
Faith darkens and empties the intellect of all its natural understanding and thereby prepares it for union with the divine wisdom.St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, II, 22, 11
Hope empties and withdraws the memory from all creature obsessions, for as St. Paul says, hope is for that which is not possessed [Rom. 8:24]. It withdraws the memory from what can be possessed and fixes it on what it hopes for. Hence only hope in God prepares the memory perfectly for union with God.
Charity also empties and annihilates the affections and appetites of the will of whatever is not God and centers them on God alone. Thus charity prepares the will and unites it with God through love.
Because these virtues have the function of withdrawing the soul from all that is less than God, they consequently have the mission of joining it with God.