Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Love Song

You know what your problem is?  You don’t really believe God loves you, passionately and devotedly, right this very minute.  And until you stop trying to be good enough for Him to love you, you aren’t going to make much progress.
So says a friend of mine, a friend with an indecent insight into my spiritual life, for he is right.  I can’t quite bring myself to believe.  I work at it, but I can’t quite let go and...have faith. And of course, that’s the problem.   Believing isn’t just knowing.  Believing draws its life from a place beyond merely knowing, for that which one knows does not require faith.
I know.  I have that part down, the head knowledge that God loves me, the central construct of my faith.   In my intellect, I understand that God created me out of nothing and for Himself, a sheer, utter, gratuitous act of ongoing love, for only by His ongoing love do I continue to exist at all.  But heart knowledge, belief, is a very different thing, and like all graces a gift that is received according to the mode of the recipient.  (More head knowledge.)  My mode seems a trifle...closed, as though there were a detour sign from my heart, directing all traffic to my head, and that a long, long way away.
I’ve lately quit beating myself over the head with this particular little paradox, content for now to work on the edges of my spiritual life, dealing with things I can grasp and mold and feel as though I am making progress as though progress as I measure it is important.  
I am weary of trying to wrestle that particular truth, the truth of faith and love and knowing, to ground.  If it is so, that God loves me so very much, then He loves me enough to give me time, space, latitude to be caught by Him.  If I ask for the grace of faith, He’s promised it to me, and God is a Father who keeps his promises (with apologies to Scott Hahn, and even more head knowledge.)  So I have asked and asked again.
I count on the gentle and relentless pursuit of God, the completeness of His ardor for souls, even mine.   If life is what happens when we make other plans, grace is what happens when we are distracted by other cares.  Perhaps necessarily so.   Only when we let down the defenses of the will, the mind, the imagination, the intellect, can God’s indefinable mercies flow in.  God the Father is also God the Suitor, casting pebbles at the windows of our soul, knowing that sometimes to catch us in  moments of surprise is to catch us when we are open at last, vulnerable to the ministrations of love.  One such moment came this week as I caught myself up in other pursuits and projects and plans.
Saturday vigil took me visiting a neighboring parish, a liberty I permit myself when our pastor is away, and one in this case necessitated by a full Sunday of travel and photography for the Hands Project with a deadline looming.  I fretted about the work to be done and the time to do it.  Logistics and problems interrupted even my preparations for mass and my rosary.  While I worried about things that are not, in the end, all that important, God managed to get past my defenses on the one thing that does matter.
The text for the sermon was the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry, and His call to repentance, the lines of scripture perfect to feed my ongoing quest for perfection.  After all, does God himself not call us to change?  Is not change something necessarily in our own control?  He cannot call us to that which we cannot do.  And that which He calls us to do, ought we not do well?
All true, but this priest, gentle of speech and gentler of demeanor, took a different tack.  Recalling the prodigal son, he wove the stories together reminding us that we don’t have to be perfect. The prodigal son wasn’t and we never are.  But the father in the story, and our Father loves us so much that He waits expecting us and runs to meet us as we come home.
I lost the rest of the sermon as those words led me off to a place of my own.  Not only do we not have to be perfect, we don’t really even have to be all that close, at least, not to begin with.  My reading of that story tells me that the prodigal was willing to voice that he had sinned against heaven and against his father--but it was the fact that he was cold, hungry and homeless that made him say it.  It was his own personal, individual pain, not his awareness of sin, not his father’s anguish, and not his own anguish at his father’s pain, that set him on the road back home.   He was sorry the same way I am so often sorry--not because he had caused his father grief, but because he had come to it himself.  Not because he had done wrong but because his own wrong had done him in.
Read in that light, the remainder of the story becomes even more remarkable: the father (and the Father) does not wait for the son even to stutter out his own crabbed, inadequate version of repentance.  The father, who was more than willing to give all he had to a son guaranteed to be profligate and ungrateful,  was also watchful thereafter for the perfect opportunity to pursue his errant child and shower him again with gifts all over again and welcome him home.  He welcomed him not because the son deserved it, nor even because he’d learned his lesson, but because, it seems, there is nothing else that this particular father can do.  He is just that kind of Father.  Turn to Him and He is there in all His fullness.
Good thing for me.  At least the son in the story had some inkling of what it is he had done wrong.  There’s so much in my own life I do not even see, even as I am metaphorically feeding seed pods to the swine.  But if the good Father who  preached Saturday of an even better One is right, it is only needful that I start my turn back to the road from which I strayed, turn my face to the Father I have offended.  My Father will run to meet me, covering more ground in His great and loving strides than I ever can in my own small and misguided steps; He will overtake me, not I Him.   Important head knowledge to have.  

And ah, the mystery of becoming a child of that great Father, the adoption that occurred when water was poured over my infant forehead!  It seems that it was the Roman tradition, the culture of the time,  to lay a newborn infant on the floor, then call the father to examine it.  If the child were acceptable to the father’s criteria--that is, perfect, desired, his own flesh and blood,  and very often, male---the father would raise it up--that’s what it was called, raising up--from the floor, to be reared as a child of the family.  If not, the baby was consigned to the trash heap to die.  
Raise up.   In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist cautions the crowds that God can raise up sons to Abraham from the stones of the desert--God has the power to make even the most unsuitable material into real sons, as real as, perhaps more real than, the crowds who stood on the banks of the Jordan that day.  
And the words of Jesus: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has real life in him and I will raise  him up on the last day.
Raise him up.  Raise me up.  From the floor, the dominion of this world, where I wait to be cast aside if the criteria of the world are to prevail, for I really can’t ever be good enough, complete enough, enough of anything to warrant being picked up and saved from the trash heap.  And my head knows that.

But  I also know, at least in my head,  something about the Father who comes in to look me over, the One who decides.  He is the One who runs to meet me.  The One who gathers me up in His two strong arms, and declares that He loves me and makes me a child of His own.  
My head, then, reminds my heart to breathe easy, for He will never, ever let me go.  If just for a moment, I let out the smallest and most comfortable of of sighs.  I am met on the road.  I am raised up from the floor.  I am, in fact, loved beyond my wildest expectations, certainly beyond anything that I deserve.  That I know, and that when I begin to live in that knowledge, it brings me to that land beyond knowing, to that place of faith.
I am loved by Him who is Love, Who can do nothing else but love in all its extravagant, complicated, difficult and overtaking forms.  Perhaps the distance from head to heart is not so very great after all, only the span of a Father's arms, and there are no detours.  In one embrace He makes my head knowledge into the very song of my heart.  A love song.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, you seem to have learned much, my friend. Isn't it wonderful when you read or hear a sermon, and then you suddenly realize that what you are now hearing is not the same speaker? He comes to us softly, and caresses us.

    A priest friend almost always comments on that parable by pointing out the fact (usually very loudly for emphasis): "Jewish men don't run! When the father saw the son in the distance, He RAN to him to welcome him home. That is how much he loved him, no matter what he may have done." I like that, and all the implications of the joy He feels.

    "After all, does God himself not call us to change? Is not change something necessarily in our own control?" Perhaps you need to read my blog more. There I quote (often) a guy who said: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Are the changes, the big changes ours to control? I think not; they are ours to cooperate with, with the One who we choose to let live within us.

    I know I am preaching to the choir here; you know as I do how often we seek to do the will of God, but we act like a runner in a relay race, like God hands us the baton and off we go, to win or lose by ourselves. But that's not the way our race is run, alone. He is with us, if we let Him. And He encourages us to do many things, yes even change, but He remains with us like our co-pilot, to check with, to make sure we are doing it right --- His way, not ours. But so often in our enthusiasm we go running off on our own, leaving Him behind.

    But He waits. And He will run to greet us when we realize how lost we are.