11 June 2014

Achieving Purity of Heart: Leaping into the Abyss of God's Love

As I noted on Monday the contrast we feel between the Easter season culminating in Pentecost and the immediate shift to ordinary time is mirrored in the readings which remind us that after the giving of the Spirit Jesus was driven into the desert where he had to come to terms with the temptations his own identity as Son brought to him and consolidate or claim that Sonship more fully and radically. On Monday we were told the story of Elijah fleeing to the desert where he is fed by ravens --- one of the paradigmatic stories hermits claim as part of their own desert tradition. We also heard the beatitudes, that paradoxical charter of Christian living which reminds us that in want, those who have faith are filled, in hunger they are nourished, in grief they are consoled and in all kinds of darkness persons of faith find God as their light. This too is the essence of desert living, the essence of the contemplative and Christian journey where overwhelming light is experienced by faith as darkness and darkness is the occasion of an unquenchable and eternal light.

This paradoxical theme of fullness in emptiness, consolation in grief, etc, continued in the readings on Tuesday. Yesterday the widow overcame her fear of  having nothing, she relinquishes a certain kind of security, in faith gives all she has to Elijah and truly discovers as she embraces this particular emptiness that she is entirely safe in God's hands; besides that her jar of flour will not go empty nor her jug of oil run dry. ("Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added or given to you as well.") The Gospel reminds us that a light hidden under a bushel basket (this describes an attempt to hoard it and keep it as one's own)  is useless (in fact if the light is not quenched entirely by such an act it is apt to set fire to everything and destroy it) but if it is shared with others, if it is set on a lampstand where the entire household -- often consisting of several families -- can share it and live in light of it God will be glorified (revealed).

The hinge on which all these things turn is the purification of our hearts so that we not only truly let go of or relinquish that which provides temporary and partial security, but we also truly entrust ourselves to the One who is the ground and source of reality and so too, of absolute security. Unfortunately, some seem to do the first (the work of renunciation) without ever being able to do the second (the leap of faith) while most folks try to do the second (entrust themselves to God in faith) without ever doing the first (letting go of all except God)! This, by the way, is the reason Luke tells the story of the house which is cleaned out of demons but is left vacant and therefore comes to an even worse end! It is never enough to relinquish everything except our fear of emptiness and nothingness; we must also cast ourselves completely into God's hands in faith. But this act too has a paradoxical quality. It is a final and wholehearted act of renunciation where we consciously embrace the fear we have held at bay in one way and another, let go of our distrust (of reality, of God, etc), and leap -- fear pulsing against our breast -- into the void. In that leap we entrust ourselves to God because there is literally NOTHING else. Either God IS that void, that abyss, or he is not. It is the ultimate act of risk --- and the ultimate occasion of security.

Looking ahead to Friday's readings we are again faced with a radical choice so typical of desert spirituality; Jesus' words help us to see how truly radical this choice is, how profoundly our hearts need to be remade! [[If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.]]

I admit I can no longer hear this reading without thinking of the story of Aron Ralston as well as the OT command from the beginning of Lent, "Choose Life!". You will remember  Ralston as the hiker who was trapped when a boulder he was climbing in a canyon in Utah was dislodged and his arm became wedged between it and the canyon wall. Mr. Ralston tried several times over the period of 127 hours to amputate his arm but was thwarted by the inability to cut the bones with the tool he had. He made superficial attempts in the effort to get his courage up. Finally, when his food and water were gone and it was clear that the choice was do it or die, he levered his arm in such a way as to break both bones in his forearm and took an all-purpose tool and severed the arm from his body. He then rappelled down a cliff and several hours later was rescued. Ralston was clear that if he had cut his arm off sooner he would have bled to death before being rescued and if he had waited any longer the rescuers would have found him dead and still-trapped. At great risk and embracing terrible fear and pain Aron chose life.

The choices we Christians are called to make in order to truly be Christian are every bit as radical  than the choice Aron Ralston made. The choices, both renunciations and affirmations,  involved in opting for the life of God rather than a superficial and domesticated Christianity are momentous and difficult. It is the purification of our hearts that is needed so we look on others with the love of Christ rather than the lust of a divided and selfish heart.  Our tendency to do what is lawful rather than what is right points similarly to a heart that needs to be remade by God's love so that it may really risk the vulnerability and generosity all true faith requires. Most importantly our choice of  God before, after and underlying every other choice we make requires amputations and adaptations every bit as costly as Aron's. The choice Jesus faced in the desert was to really BE God's own Son or to exploit the power and authority that were his by virtue of the Spirit's gifts demanded he face and renounce those things which tempted him to something less than and other than this; it is essentially the same choice we are presented with in this week's post-Pentecostal readings.

Whether it requires the lopping off of a sense of entitlement, a tendency to see others as expedients to our goals, the insecurities and other passions that cause us to see and value ourselves and others less than (as) true daughters and sons of God, any tendencies to selfishness, fearfulness, addiction, or whatever it is that makes our own hearts less than pure and open to love, we are called to do whatever it takes to choose life, abundant life in Christ. God calls us to holiness rather than mere respectability and that means a host of choices more radical than our culture or mere institutions impose on us, or (with the exception of the Church) even allow us. After all, it is through our choices for God that purity or singleness of heart is achieved and even greater choices for God are put before us. It is only as we both let go of the securities we cling to in the world we know apart from God AND leap further into the abyss of his love that our hearts are truly remade into those of daughters and sons of God.