On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, / And out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. / The lowly will ever find joy in the Lord, / And the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. / For the tyrant will be no more and the arrogant will have gone; / All who are alert to do evil will be cut off; / those whose mere word condemns a person, / Who ensnare his defender at the gate, / And leave the just person with an empty claim.Isaiah 29:18-21
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to awakening to the truth of our own being, the world, and God is our arrogance. It is our incessant practice of living by distinction, of seeing ourselves in contradistinction to others. In all the ways we judge others and gossip about them, we are attempting to buttress our own sense of a self as superior and set apart from our common humanity. In these days of Advent we hear in multiple ways from Isaiah of how life will be different when God’s promise comes to pass. Today we are told that the deaf among us will hear the words of a book, and the blind will see, the lowly and the poor will rejoice. This will happen because the tyrant will be no more and the arrogant will have fled. Those who judge and condemn a person will themselves come to judgment and be overcome.
So, here we are some two thousand years after God’s promise has been fulfilled in Jesus, and how are we doing? As we look around, it certainly does not appear that the tyranny has ceased or that the arrogant have disappeared. Certainly we do not live in either our micro or macro worlds without gossip and the judgment and condemnation of persons. So, perhaps our Christian application of the Hebrew scriptures is faulty. Perhaps the One foretold by Isaiah is yet to come.
Or else, perhaps we have to hear the words of the scripture today as describing our own selves. In order to welcome Jesus, continually and ultimately, we need to temper the arrogance that makes us deaf and blind, the judgment of others that inhibits the joy that is promised. The Author of The Cloud of Unknowing insists that God’s promise is, in fact, fulfilled. Jesus and the life, light, and joy that he brings is already ours. The problem is that we refuse to hear and to see and to joyfully love because we have not yet eliminated the arrogance and judgment in us.
I have often referred to a teacher and mentor by the name of Charles Maes. I have felt so privileged not only to have had him as a teacher but also to experiences his genius as a psychotherapist. What constituted that genius was, of course, his great learning and competence as a result of his own study and discipline. Yet, what made it so exceptional was his ability to be present not only to the outward manifestation of the person he was with but to the reality of who the person was called to be. That is, even through the obfuscation that came with a client’s attempt at self-description, he could hear the words of the book and see the truth of the Christ form that each person was. This was not a hearing and a seeing of a mind reader. It was rather that which invited the client to enter with him a space in which both could come to know the person’s true and deepest possibilities. To enter this place required that arrogance and judgment cease. I remember once bringing my hand down on the table and exclaiming with vehemence: “I know who I am.” Yet, in the quality of his presence to the person I am that is so much more than I thought, I felt immediately invited to seek, with him, the “self” I did not know at all.
If we are to know the gift that has already been given, says the author of The Cloud, we need do no more than “to think without subtlety that you are as you are.” To really pray, we must enter the space that Charles Maes provided for his clients: a space without the arrogance and judgment we ordinarily employ to make someone of ourselves. We must dare, and this is courageous for us, “to think without subtlety that [we] are as [we] are.” In other words, to know the truth of the kingdom of God we must not so much do something as cease to do what we ordinarily do, that is to cease being in the world in an arrogant judging of ourselves and others.
What makes this so hard is that our motivation for judging others and the world so arrogantly is that absent our oneupmanship, we experience ourselves as “so vile and so wretched.” We fear that to live in the truth of who we are, will leave us in a state where we shall “barely know what is best to do with [ourselves].” To dare to know ourselves as we are, in this way, leaves us in the deep truth that all we can do is pray. And so, says the Author of The Cloud, we must “take [our] sick self as [we] are, and strive to touch by desire the good, gracious God as God is.” This disposition is what is called in the spiritual tradition “abandonment.”
So we’ll hear in a very short time, that the Lord has come, that the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures have been fulfilled. Without, I hope, sounding like the Grinch who stole Christmas, I think we need to honestly ask ourselves whether or not we truly experience the truth of this coming. I know that when I honestly ask this of myself, I have to admit that much of the time I do not. Jesus, for me, is often Thomas Jefferson’s Jesus, the ultimate moral teacher. But the scriptures these weeks do not describe the one who is to come as merely a moral teacher. Rather, Emmanuel, is God with us. Often as I live and move through my days, I am not walking with a God who is with me, as humankind did before “the fall.” I am rather walking through life as if I were alone, self-sufficient and independent.
We have learned that human beings make sense of their lives through turning them into a story. We take the various experiences of our lives over our life’s stages and connect them by creating a story that makes sense. Thus, moments and experiences that well might not fit together at all, we make fit by the stories about ourselves that we create.
This is human nature, but it is also arrogance. For however our stories may differ, they have in common that we are the heroes of our own stories. We are central in them. But there lurks within each of us those inconvenient truths that remind us that we are not heroes. These truths about ourselves can frighten us because they seem unacceptable to others and worthy of being condemned by them. Yet, these truths are intimations of our deeper reality. This is why the Author of ˆThe Cloud” tells us to bring this person to prayer, to “take our sick self as we are” and, in the desire which only that self knows, “strive to touch by desire the good, gracious God as God is.”
I pray you then to do no more in this matter than to think without subtlety that you are as you are; no matter how foul or wretched you may be, as long as you have been absolved, as I suppose you have, of all your sins, particular and general, according to the true teaching of Holy Church. Otherwise, neither you nor anyone else shall make so bold as to take up this exercise, at least with my consent. But if you believe that you have done all that in you lies, then you may apply yourself to this exercise. And even though you still feel yourself to be so vile and so wretched, and so hampered by your own self that you scarcely know what is best to do with yourself, you must do this, just as I tell you. Take the good, gracious God, just as God is, without qualification, and bind him, as you would a poultice, to your sick self, just as you are. Or, to put it another way, take your sick self as you are, and strive to touch by desire the good, gracious God as God is. For the touching of God is endless health, as witness the woman in the gospel: ”Si tetigero vel fimbriam vestimenti eius, salva ero.” “If I but touch the hem of his clothing, I shall be safe.”. You shall be healed of your sickness much more by this high heavenly touch of God’s own being, of God’s own dear self. Step up then strongly and taste this wonderful medicine. Lift up your sick self, as you are, to the gracious God, as God is, without any speculation or special probing into any of the qualities that belong to your own being or to God’s, whether they are clean or unclean, of grace or of nature, divine or human. You have no business now except to make sure that your dark contemplation of the substance of your being be lifted up in gladness and loving desire to be joined and made one in grace and in spirit with the precious being of God just as God is in himself, and nothing more.Anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, “A Letter of Private Direction” in James A. Walsh, SJ, The Pursuit of Wisdom, p. 222