For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!Romans 11:32-33
Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”Luke 14:12-14
There are people I like to be with and those I do not care to be around. There are social engagements that I greatly look forward to, and there are others that I dread. There are aspects of my daily life and work that I enjoy, and there are others that are sheer drudgery. In short, my perspective on and presence to the world are greatly influenced, if not often controlled, by my likes and dislikes, by my cravings and aversions.
Yesterday a very disciplined friend of mine was speaking about how important it was for him to keep that discipline if he is to continue to meet his obligations and commitments, as well as to pursue his deepest desires. As he put it, “If I don’t get myself to bed early enough so that I can awake early in the morning, I’ll never be able to attend to all the necessary facets of my day.” As he spoke, I became aware of my own lack of such a discipline. And absent it, the focus of my days can get largely determined, rather than chosen, by my energy level from the short night before, which is shortened by my getting caught up in a movie or a sporting event, or just by my following the laziness or indeterminacy of my own body.
Now, one might say, what does this have to do with the parable of Jesus we hear today. He tells us to invite those who cannot pay us back, who will not gratify us at the level of our physical desires or our functional ambitions. For when we follow these, our cravings and aversions, we reduce the world we take in and respond to only to what we like or what serves our project. We refuse who or whatever in the world will challenge and enlarge our vision, and so our capacities. The most perilous aspect of human life is that we live out the course of our lives in the straight-jacket of our own hedonism. This is not necessarily the crass hedonism of some of our more celebrated figures, but rather the ordinary hedonism by which we see and treat the world and all that is in it narcissistically, that is as existing only for us. Unless we make a conscious effort to go beyond the perspective of our own cravings, we shall never really know the joy and possibilities of truly living.
I am fortunate enough not to suffer from a great number of regrets in my life. Yet, the strongest regrets I experience are of those times that I failed to reach out, to relate and communicate, to help where I could have, all because I didn’t feel like it. Sometimes that not feeling like it was due to dislike, but perhaps more often it was due to fear of the unknown. In both cases I suffer from a lack of true faith, the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” Our Founder said that the ways of God “are often inscrutable but always adorable.” Too often, however, I fear rather than adore the inscrutability. I don’t want to face that which evokes a feeling of insecurity in me. I fail to appreciate that the insecurity is an aspect of my innate narcissism. The world is not to be feared for at its core it is love and mercy.
The main reason, perhaps, that I am not more hospitable to the world is that I fear making a mistake, of saying or doing the wrong thing and then becoming the object of ridicule and rejection. In short, I constitute the whole world in light of my insecurities. When I have those moments, insights of regret for the word not spoken or the act not taken, I realize the difference between my way of seeing the world and God’s way. I don’t invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind into my life because I fear that I won’t know how to host them. I cannot trust that it is not my job to know, and that if I but enter into relationship with them, they will teach me how to respond. They too are bearers of the mercy and love of God, of God’s “riches, wisdom, and knowledge.”
To become really human requires serious work. We are not formed into the image of God that we are spontaneously. This is the meaning of human freedom. It is possible for us to choose to live in a world restricted by our cravings and aversions. Because we are always and everywhere in formation, life will constantly call us beyond ourselves, as Jesus’ words do today. He asks me who am I excluding from my vision, my concern, my hospitality, and my love. It is those I am continually excluding because of my dislike or fear, because of my transactional view of relationship that have the most to offer me. But what can get us over the hump, around the obstacle of our own narcissism?
Today is the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo. The Liturgy of the Hours for today offers an excerpt from a sermon of his. In it he says that we are to devote ourselves to the nurturance of that “tiny spark of God’s love” that burns within us. If it is not to go out, to burn out, in us, we must attend to it beyond all things. This is the discipline of which my friend spoke. The deepest desire within us, our desire to live for God and for the world by giving the best of who we are, must be cared for, for it is so easy for it to dissipate. As he reminded me, if we are to do all we can in the work that is ours, we must get the rest we need, we must spend the time required, and we must avoid whatever would lead us to lose ourselves in the pursuit of our own gratification, the “many things” that keep us from “the one thing that is necessary.”
St. Charles then says that the practice above all to which we must devote ourselves is meditation. Transcendence (“the riches, wisdom, and knowledge of God” at the heart of all creation) is not immediately accessible to us. It is easier than not for us to speak, act, live on the surface of things, reacting in the immediacy of each moment. If this is all we do, then it will become our world. We can live the bulk of our lives in the unreality of our own cravings. It is more true than not that we keep inviting into our lives only those persons, situations, and even thoughts who, as we see it, give us something in return. As a result, we can fail to know the depth of God’s mercy for us all.
It is in meditation that our self-protective shell is cracked open. In meditation we must be present to ourselves beyond what we do and control, beyond our most common feelings and thoughts. When we remember that we are in the holy presence of God, our vision widens and deepens. At that moment, we speak and act not for our own benefit but in our responsibility to God. On this day, at this moment the gift I have received I am to give as a gift. It is often not easy to know how it is that we are to give that gift. And so, we must pray and meditate without ceasing. Charles Borromeo says that “the difficulties we have to face day after day…are part of our work.” It is in meditation that we begin to see how this is the case.
That in us that is self-encapsulated and that moves only toward pleasure and away from pain does all it can to avoid and then to deny difficulties. It takes me a long time to see the greatest difficulties in my life as gift and call. The difficulties are a summons to change, to purify our life and our intentions, to abandon the demands of our own ego so that we might see the world more clearly and more fully. When these difficulties are painful and disruptive enough, there can be a darkness that feels impenetrable to our own thoughts. It is only in meditation and in prayer that the call of the difficulties and the pain can begin to emerge. As Adrian van Kaam says, we are “to listen to the call that every pain conceals.”
It is of our very human nature to sleepwalk through life. It can seem easier to us to defer to others, to our cultures, to the groups around us rather than to own the responsibility to God for our lives that is ours alone. For us who are such social animals, it is difficult to be Kierkegaard’s “solitary individual.” Yet, such responsibility for our own lives is requisite for true community. It is through the constant practice of meditation and prayer that we learn such responsibility. In true meditation and prayer we are always the publican in Jesus’ parable. For it is there that we know our poverty, our sinfulness, and our need for God’s mercy. And it is also there that we discover God’s mercy for all. “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.”
This is where discipline comes in. As my friend spoke yesterday about his own need to remain disciplined, I realized how difficult it is for me to keep my own discipline of meditation and prayer. In 2 Corinthians 5:6-7, St. Paul writes: “Therefore we are always confident, although we know that while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight.” So many aspects or our life and our world tell us what we are to do and how we are to act. Yet, when we detach from all of the “common sense” wisdom that surrounds us, we understand, with Paul, that ultimately we walk the journey of our lives only by faith. To be here in the body is to be driven in many directions by many forces, within and without. If we are really to walk by faith, then we must pray and meditate. Our own sight is inadequate. It has been formed in such a way as to be at times consonant with our true path and at other times dissonant. To the naked eye, God’s judgments are inscrutable and God’s ways are unsearchable. In faith, however, a living faith that is the fruit of prayerful communion, those judgments and ways can slowly become known to us.
If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless chatter.
If teaching and peaching is your job, then study diligently and apply yourself to whatever is necessary for doing the job well. Be sure that you first preach by the way you live.
. . . nothing is more necessary than meditation. We must meditate before, during and after everything we do. The prophet says: “I will pray and then I will understand.”
St. Charles Borromeo
This is the way we can easily overcome the countless difficulties we have to face day after day, which, after all, are part of our work: in meditation we find the strength to bring Christ to birth in ourselves and in others.