“I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.
And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”Luke 11:8-9
As often as I have been affected and inspired by the words of today’s gospel, I think I have never before realized the degree of courage that is required if we are to live in the “persistence” Jesus describes. One of the greatest dangers of what we can call religious belief is its tendency to shade into, if not outrightly become, magical thinking. As the Buddha taught, all life is suffering. As Freud reminded us, we must learn to bear with the harshness of reality. And, of course, these are unpleasant truths. And so, we can resort to a way of living that corresponds to the dramatic device of the “deus ex machina.” When all else fails, simply declare that God is manifest, that the “Spirit” has moved us.
It is not an unusual occurrence that when someone hears of the reputation of St. John of the Cross as one of the greatest spiritual teachers of our tradition and so begins to read his work, they are very disappointed to find no direct and explicit teaching on what we understand to be prayer. In our early training as young religious, we were often taught that prayer is that focal activity by which the fuel for the spiritual life is replenished; it is the break for refueling during the course of the long journey. Yet, for St. John the entirety of life is prayer. There is not a separate “spiritual” activity that is distinguished from the rest of one’s life. There is only life in God.
The disposition of persistence, that is continual seeking, searching, and receptivity, that Jesus teaches in today’s gospel is to be the way that we live our lives. It is to live without ceasing in faith, hope, and love, even when our experience seems to tell us that we cannot bear remaining so vulnerable. Personally, I am not inclined by nature and by formation to live in the past. Yet, as I reflect over the course of my life, my deepest regret and sorrow is that for so much of it I withheld from God, myself, and others what it was I most desired to give away. We read in 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
There are, it seems, two major obstacles to fulfilling this summons. The first is that it is a lifetime’s work to know with any clarity what truly is the gift we have received. The second is that to dare to really give that gift away leaves us painfully and sometimes terrifyingly vulnerable.
One of the most difficult questions for any of us to answer is “What do you want?” At a certain point in later childhood or early adolescence I began to repress the question. I carried this on into adulthood, so that while often seeking to fulfill my own needs and desires, I seldom if ever adverted to them and certainly did not express them. So much violence in our relational worlds and the larger world is the result of our refusal to be honest with ourselves and each other about what we want. The more our life of desire is repressed, the more we are likely to leave damaged human beings in our wake. On the other hand, even though the way is unclear to us, when we attempt to be honest with ourselves and others about what we want, we often discover that the desire we have feared is only a sign of our deeper desire. The unique gift we have received for the world is not immediately apparent to us. We must become educated by our life of desire to begin to recognize that one and true desire of our heart which is to be who we are called to be for the world, to finish, as Jesus did, the work we have been given to do.
We tend to repress our access to the gift we have received because we are ashamed of our own desires. Our desires are “wants,” both in the sense of our wanting something and our lacking something. What makes the great artist so rare is the purity of heart that great art requires. What makes the Olympic level athlete extraordinary is his or her willingness to put everything he or she is on the line for the fulfillment of that desire. What led for so long in my life to my giving of myself to others so half-heartedly was my fear being seen as wanting something so much that I would risk all for it. It was also due to my fear of disappointment. Among all of life’s difficult experiences, perhaps disappointment at this level is among the greatest. To be rejected in one’s deepest desire and need is to be negated as a human person. It is an experience of annihilation far beyond that of the mere physical.
To pray, as Jesus sees it, is to stand before God, ourselves, and the world out of our deepest desire. This requires extraordinary courage. It means living out of our heart in faith, hope, and love, risking the very real possibility that what feels so central or important to us is not what is most important at all. Yet, it also can well mean the experience of the Cross. We are fearful of giving what we have been given to offer because the world may not accept that gift. Today Jesus tells us that if we remain persistent we may finally receive that for which we ask. Yet, that persistence, as in the parable, may have to endure many rejections.
The only thing that can enable us to be persistent in this way, to live our lives in such a spirit of prayer, is trust/faith in the ultimate mercy and fidelity of God, hope, not for any specific outcome but for the prevailing of God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven, and, most of all, love that knows by experience that “if God is for us who can be against us” (Romans 8:31). It is, of course, in moments of focal presence to God in faith, hope, and love that we receive the confirmation of God’s presence and love of us. Yet, those moments are meant to inform and to form our lives in such a way that our hearts are formed to live in vulnerability, generosity, persistence and courage throughout our days and lives.
The great consolation is that if we live out of these dispositions God upholds us throughout the course of our life’s formation. We may be mistaken about our desires, and so about our gifts. Yet, if we express and offer them generously, the love and mercy of God sustains us. It is also our mistakes, if vulnerable and generous, that are our way. It is not so much our mistakes and failings that constitute our regrets. Rather, it is our lack of generosity and courage. In our early formation for religious life, we were taught to stifle our own desires. There is, of course, a truth in this teaching which is an aspired to abandonment to God in all that life brings us. The problem for myself and for some others of us at the time was that we were too young for this ascetical teaching. We experienced what Adrian van Kaam calls “premature distancing.” Because we did not yet have a strong enough sense of ourselves and our deeper longings, the teaching we attempted to follow led to a deformative dissociation from our own uniqueness, from the gift we had received from God to give to the world.
I have little doubt that be it religious communities or any other social structure, the lack of creativity, adaptability, and re-creation lies in the lack of recognition and expression of the unique gifts of their members. Those teachings, structures, and practices whose original design was to foster the unfolding and expression of each person’s unique gift for the world became overtime sources of submission and conformity. What was intended to be a way to self-realization as the ultimate obedience to God’s will became instead suppression of desire and spirit.
The Spirit does not and cannot express itself in suppression and conformity. It finds its expression in the world out of the transcendent depth of the human personality. What we are called to persist in is our desire for our lives and the life of the world to become a fuller expression of God’s creative love. The forces of power, violence, and suppression are very powerful ones. So, to live in prayer and as a prayer is to live the vulnerability of the Cross. It is to dare to know and to give the gift we have been given and to reverence the gift of others even as experience often disappoints.
The Moses story is a charming study. It makes clear how much time it can take to face the fact that something must be done and that we are expected to do it. Did Moses doubt that God was with him? No. Did he doubt that the liberation of the people was God’s will? No. Moses believes both the voice and the vision. He doesn’t question either. But he shows us something very important for our own lives: Lack of faith in God is one thing, we discover as we grow, but lack of self-confidence can be just as bad. If truth were known, even worse.
Joan Chittister, The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage, pp. 118-9
Lack of faith in the presence of an invisible God at a difficult time at least makes sense. To lack confidence in the strength I’ve been given is far more serious than to doubt what I believe will happen through cannot see. To deny the abilities I’ve been given—thought, insight, wisdom, analysis, understanding, explanation, persuasion—is a virtual sin against creation. It degrades the virtue of humility to a kind of debased self-knowledge. It withholds from the human community the very gifts I haven freely given for its good. Worse, it denies life the effort it takes to make such gifts real. Having gifts is nothing if we don’t use them. To praise the Creator for seeding the universe with them is bogus if we ourselves fail to use them to their limits. It is a sin against creation.