While you watched, a stone was hewn from a mountain without a hand being put to it, and it struck its iron and clay feet, breaking them in pieces. The iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold all crumbled at once, fine as the chaff on the threshing floor in summer, and the wind blew them away without leaving a trace. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. . . .Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45
In the lifetime of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever. That is the meaning of the stone you saw hewn from the mountain without a hand being put to it, which broke in pieces the iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold.
The last week of the Church year has, for much of my life, been my least favorite time, liturgically speaking. There is a relentlessness to the themes of catastrophe, destruction, violence, and death. There is the constant reminder, as we hear in the gospel today, that “the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). The reminders of the limits of humanity’s potency and effectiveness have always easily evoked my personal psychic sense of and fears of futility. One of the hardest but truest spiritual directives I ever received was from a therapist who, as I cared for my mother during the time of her falling every more deeply into her diminishment from Alzheimer’s, said to me: “Whatever you do, she is going to get worse.”
Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death says that it is not so much death we fear as insignificance. I think that one of the residues of being brought up as an only child is that early on, at least this was true for me, one has the experience, as the small person among big people, of one’s insignificance. And so, and this I think is universally true, we want to make a mark on the world hopefully to be of service but undoubtedly also to feel significant. So, spiritual teachings that remind us of our insignificance are a painful experience. The last week of the liturgical year is an insistent reminder that everything that we build, that we work for, and even that we love will come to an end. And, at least in those most wounded places in us, this feels like insignificance. If making our mark is what gives our life meaning, then to be told that everything we do will cease to stand or that whatever we do, those who are sick and dying will still get worse seems like a discouraging and depressing message.
In our time, we are learning the hard truth that we, in all of what we take to be our technological prowess, may not be able, through our technology alone, to save our planet from the damage we have inflicted on it. Just yesterday the World Meteorological Organization announced that CO2 levels in 2018 had reached their highest levels in recorded history. This means that all efforts so far are not nearly enough to change the trajectory that is leading to global catastrophe. This does not suggest that we must not employ all of our technological competence to respond to the climate crisis. What it does tell us, however, is that we must engage this crisis with other, non-technological potencies of our humanity.
As Daniel interprets the king’s dream, while all idols are destroyed, there is a kingdom that will never be destroyed and will last forever. That kingdom, Daniel says, will be established by the God of heaven. It will not be established by the human need to be significant. It will not be the result of a will to power, but rather of an enduring, sustaining, and merciful love.
As long as our life and work in the world are the result of our desire and need for significance, they shall inevitably fall. In the Hebrew scriptures we experience time and again the fall of kingdoms and of idols. Both are human creations born of our will to power, even when that power seems to us to be love and service. It is only that which is born of the love of God that endures. When our efforts fail, when our idols (in all their various forms) fall, we experience disappointment. So painful is the experience of disappointment for me, that for most of my life I could not even acknowledge it. So fearsome and catastrophic was this feeling to me that I was convinced I would not survive its experience. And so, I kept the distance from life and love that were necessary to avoid it.
The way, however, from power to love is the way of disappointment. In us, love and our need to be significant are so intertwined that we tend to confuse one for the other. It is the disappointment of failure, limit, diminishment and death that purifies love in us. It is making the effort and giving our all without prospect of success that is the measure of our love in action. It is spending time with one who cannot acknowledge our presence; it is serving one who does not appreciate our efforts; it is giving our all to a losing cause; it is standing by one who is rejected by the world; it is loving wholeheartedly one we will inevitably lose. And it is in suffering the disappointment that all of this brings that we learn the true nature of love.
In the mystical tradition, St. John of the Cross tells us that in the early stages of our relationship with God we are encouraged by many experiences of consolation and delight. Yet, as we continue the ascent to God, we experience much loss and emptiness. We learn to move on even as we lose what we thought was our faith in God. And on the summit of the mountain, says John, there is nothing, and nothing, and still more nothing. That nothing and darkness, however, is not really darkness. It seems to be darkness to us because it is a surplus of light. At that place we lose ourselves and our need to feel significant and powerful, because we are immersed in love.
Perhaps all of us, certainly myself, when we are young cannot even imagine being old. Old people to us are a different life form. They are to the young, at least in our culture, superfluous. Yet, for me at least, it is in old age that I am learning not to fear the truth of “counter-finality.” As Jean Paul Sartre saw it, everything we human beings do and accomplish is, at once, self-defeating and has undesired consequences. Our “designs,” inherently limited and ambiguous as they are, will ultimately come to naught. So, how do we live, desiring to be significant, on the one hand, and constantly experiencing the deflating of our claims to significance on the other?
It is through moments of inner and shared love, a love that is sourced from and directed to God. It is in a community of love which, at least at moments, knows its communion in the love of God. It is by “running together,” as St. Augustine puts it, in longing toward our “heavenly country, our heavenly home.” We need others who will long with us and dare to be disappointed with us. We need a space where we do not demean and reject each other’s deepest longings and aspirations, but instead support them.
It is of the human condition that, whatever our attempts, we cannot create or build such a community on a permanent basis. Yet, to be at times such a place for one another can enable us, even when separated, to remain in faith, hope, and love in God. It can enable us to live through each disappointment, each loss, failure, and death as a disciple who is always learning how to really love. As St. Augustine addressed members of his own “community”: “It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him.”
I implore you to love with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers. What shall we then see? Let the gospel tell us: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” You will come to the fountain with whose dew you have already been sprinkled. Instead of the ray of light which was sent through slanting and winding ways into the heart of your darkness, you will see the light itself in all its purity and brightness. It is to see and experience this light that you are now being cleansed. “Dearly beloved,” John himself says, “we are the children of God, and it has not yet been disclosed what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”St. Augustine, from a Treatise on John, Office of Readings, Tuesday of 34th Week in Ordinary Time
I feel that your spirits are being raised up with mine to the heavens above; but the body “which is corruptible weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind.” I am about to lay aside this book, and you are soon going away, each to his own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him.