Monday, January 08, 2007

A Grain of Wheat

I don't know precisely when my fear of trying became fear of falling, but a few days ago when I realized that it was so, I knew that the transition had happened months earlier. It probably began last summer when I felt pressure inside my spiritual “receiver” to ask people to pray for me, and I put out an email request to those in my parish whose email addresses I have easiest access to—our many college students, grads, and professors. I only had a nebulous notion of why I needed prayer, but it had been revealed to me that it would have something to do with spiritual warfare, so I asked for support in a time of stress and oppression and approaching battle. I assumed that this would be connected mostly with the situation in the Episcopal Church—an obvious but, as it turned out, erroneous conclusion.

As time went on, I discovered that the battle was really about learning to love. I pray daily that I may be solely dedicated to growing in sanctity, refusing all evil, loving all people in all purity, and learning to receive love freely. Apparently last summer God chose to honor these requests with great force. I had no idea that doing so would ignite a spiritual battle, though I ought to have known better.

Growing in the knowledge of love has been indeed a time of embattlement. I do not think that this is just because of the emotional constriction in my background; I think it is so for most people, for all human beings fall short of walking truly in love, and striving to get it right does not come easily or automatically. The way to get it right, as in all things, is to follow Jesus and the example he set.

By faith I believe that the ultimate triumph is assured, and that God will guide and protect all those who truly seek to follow the way of love. But I have learned that that protection includes permitting a lot of challenge and risk and suffering. This also should be no surprise. The Son of God himself chose in immortal love to become born into this world, and was immediately hunted by murderous soldiers who came at the behest of Herod.

When he began his public ministry, Jesus took the way of risk and suffering from the day he first entered the desert to face his temptations to the day he entered the Garden of Gethsemane to prepare for his arrest. In both places he was alone, and in both places he was assaulted by the devil. The “opportune time” for which Satan began to wait after he was bested by Jesus in the desert was the time in Gethsemane. Clearly, whoever chooses to follow the way of godly love after Jesus’ example will be firmly resisted. Many of the great saints have written about this phenomenon, such as St. Anthony and St. Catherine of Siena. What is true of them must, to a lesser extent, be also true of the lesser followers of Jesus.

It should have been no surprise, therefore, that my decision to grow in love immediately plunged me into trials: fear, insecurity, abandonment issues, confusions, complexities, temptations, depression, discouragement, and darkness became part of my daily life. Even physical pain became commonplace. Often I was alone, or felt alone, but my trials also involved a dozen or two dozen others—sometimes by their choice and sometimes not. They prayed for me, advised me, spent time with me, and listened to me. Of course these others had limitations of their own, and therefore for us all matters of trust, vulnerability, showing and wanting affection or attention, and the use of time became matters of intense importance.

I learned that distortions and lying “spin” could rise easily at a moment’s notice, whether from my own internal dread of the call to love or from supernatural evil that sought to dissuade me from the right path. The source of the dissuasion was unimportant; what was important is what I did about it. I had to learn to accept this world’s imperfections and limitations, and realize that everyone has difficulty to some degree or other expressing love, receiving love, or maintaining love. Of course I knew that even what is very, very good in this world is mortal and flawed. I never expected perfection to come in this world.

I grew fearful of becoming a “high maintenance” friend—I who had not allowed anyone to provide much “maintenance” at all before. I was compelled to depend on others when I was in need, without being certain of their willingness or ability to support me. This also is normal; in spite of the disciples’ genuine love for Jesus and the best of intentions, when he was arrested they all forsook him and fled. Their flight was anticipated, and was even worked into God’s plan. The lesson I learned was to trust, for ultimate triumph, in God alone, and not look for flawless support in other people. It is not fair to them to do so, for only God can provide it. However, I did make advances in learning to accept such help as others were willing to offer. Although it made me acutely uncomfortable in the beginning, after two or three months it became easier.

I learned that I had to plunge ahead with full commitment to the course I desired, leaving the results to God. In this pattern I found that I actually had some resources I could draw upon, for it was like breaking a stack of bricks or speaking to a hostile or indifferent audience, both of which I had done successfully a good number of times.

I assume that in our unfallen world it was fully understood that in love giving and receiving are the same thing, but I have learned that when love is expressed in this fallen world, it takes the world’s flaws to itself and transforms them. In this world, therefore, love becomes sacrificial. That is, on Earth, love is not self-existent; by its very nature, it must pay a price for its own existence. One meaning of the Fall is that love has been rejected. “The world was made through him, yet the world did not recognize him. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:10-11). Surely, to love and not be loved back must be among this world’s greatest sources of anguish. Love, however, being the very nature of God, takes sin into itself and transforms it, creating the virtues of patience, trust, mercy, and renewal—virtues that do not exist in heaven since there is no need for them.

Though I was dedicated to turning neither to right nor left, I knew that I would move forward only by trusting the guidance God (Isaiah 30:21), and that whether I liked it or not I would drift from side to side like a car progressing on a freeway. Therefore I needed to trust others, including those close to me, to accept my stumbling. I knew that God allowed the stumbling—he allowed even the temptations and the risk or actual fact of sin. I learned that even the apparent abandonment of God is a part of his being present. So it was for Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus in Gethsemane, Jesus on the cross. It was the Son who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) when God was most present.

Even worse than that apparent abandonment was the “eighth” word from the cross. Whenever I preach on the seven last words from the cross, I always point out that there was an eighth: “Jesus gave a loud cry and died” (Mark 15:37). The loud cry is the expression of utter desolation at the time of greatest need. Once or twice in this struggle I have felt so barren and derelict that I could hardly move. It was at those times that all I could do was choose whether or not to continue forward. That, clearly (in hindsight), was the purpose of the experience.

So I learned that depression, doubt, confusion, fear, weakness, etc. are all necessary parts of future blessing, making those blessings hard as iron rather than soft and insubstantial as foam. The desolations are among God’s building blocks for these blessings, just as necessary to the blessings as the consolations are. Where most of us want love because it makes us feel good, true divine love changes us in ways that are painful to undergo at the time. Perhaps this is part of what it means to be “baptized with fire” (Luke 3:16).

Though my trials seemed great to me, I believe that they are probably comparatively small. I am familiar with many others whose trials seem colossal to me, under which I would succumb with barely a fight. Yet God’s protection includes affording us only the trials that we can survive, under which we can grow.

The great master of divine love, the apostle John, wrote, “In love there is no room for fear; indeed, perfect love banishes fear... anyone who is afraid has not attained to love in its perfection” (1 John 4:18). This implies that imperfect love still has some fear in it; none of us loves perfectly, so for all of us there will be some fear. This is because, if there is no fear in perfect love, we know there is no safety either. Not in this life. So we hold back. I have learned that the way of love is, beyond expectation, very often a lonely way. At least it is in the beginning, which is where I am. It positively cannot be a lonely way to the end.

There is, however, a safety net. “What love means is to live according to the commands of God. This is the command that was given you from the beginning, to be your rule of life” (2 John 6). This “rule of life” is something tangible. It provides the guardrails for the mountain way of love. As I have moved forward, I have banged against these guardrails frequently—putting occasional strain on vital relationships, making errors of judgment, perhaps arousing doubt or apprehension in others, but mostly withdrawing into my own doubts and fears when the way forward was most laborious. But I have not given up.

So whatever it may be like for others, for me learning these things is like walking a tightrope across an abyss. Although I’ve never walked a tightrope, I know that to succeed one must keep one’s eyes ahead on the goal, not looking down at what makes one afraid. In Biblical terms, one must keep one’s eyes fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). So when I realized that I had moved from fear of trying to fear of falling, I suddenly recognized that I had already long been committed to following the way of true love. It was unnerving, but it was good. “Underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27).

Because this is what I want. I want to love perfectly, I want sanctity, I want to love without counting the cost or considering the consequences, I want to love without having to watch myself to see how I’m doing, I want to love lavishly, like water in desert, sunlight on landscape, ocean waves rushing to shore—like a kite that is suddenly caught by the wind and soars without the effort of trying.

There are a few times in these months when I think I have experienced it—during occasions of private prayer or being in the presence of another. How like fire it is, a burning without consuming, surrounded by angels that drive away all fear and imperfection, where no evil can enter. How like Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, cast into fire because they declared adherence to God regardless of risk or price to be paid—and only after they were engulfed in the flame found that they were not only safe but in the presence of One “like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25).

It is like the “spontaneous combustion” that I mentioned in a previous post—humorously describing something that was more real than I thought at the time. With great surprise, I realized that I had even described this kind of love in a character in the Starman series whom love overwhelms in this way. I had written the passage in early 2005 before I knew what I was getting into—though I knew consciously that I was writing about myself. When I realized it, I recognized, with enormous and deep satisfaction, that I knew what I was talking about even before I made the commitment to walk that way last summer.

What is it like? Most people consider 1 Corinthians 13 to be the great “love” chapter in the New Testament—and it is. But I have long considered that another great “love” chapter was 1 John 4:7-21, in which the word “love” is used more often in a single place than in any other in the Bible. Both, of course, are true.

But if I had to put it into a single sentence, I think I would choose this, from the words of Jesus himself: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest” (John 12:24). Aha! This is what love means. It means to die—to die to safety, to self, to the old way. “The seed you sow does not come to life unless it has first died” (1 Corinthians 15:36). To love neighbor as self one must know how to love self. That means to allow that self to die, which is the requisite to resurrection. It means striving to know the heart of the life of Jesus, to go where he has led, to become as he is: a man who has died and now is alive forevermore.

So I have abandoned safety and strain forward “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). I’m not going to make it in this life. But I’m not going to stay where I am, either. Following that way is excruciating, and it is incandescently golden. I know that there is no other way.


Stephanie S said...

Thank you so much for this post, Fr. David. You know that I am going through some pretty excruciating trials of my own that are related to loving others. Your words and those of others--especially words of prayer I suspect!, but also words spoken to me--have really helped me bear up under this load.
I also greatly appreciate the honesty about yourself, in my love for you. But what you said really struck a chord for me in my own life.
Thanks for sharing.

Rachel said...

This reminds me of a bit of one of T.S. Eliot's poems:

"The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire."
--T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding", IV

Remember Dante? He had to walk through Hell to get to Purgatory and on, but a trip through Hell was better than staying in the Dark Wood. His trip though Hell even had (I think) a little joy in it as he and Virgil became companions. I think it's the same for us.

Joi said...

I'm reminded of the myth of the Phoenix: the Phoenix builds its own funeral pyre out of sweet herbs, and dies in the flames. As it burns, the usually silent bird sings the sweetest song imagineable, while the perfumed flames consume it. Then, from the ashes, the new Phoenix is born.

Hannah Jolene said...

I don't know how to define love, nor do I know how to teach someone how to love, and I definitely don't know how to love perfectly. I feel like, if we set our eyes on sanctity, our love will follow the same path. If I think about how I am loving, then my love becomes robotic. But it seems that I love most strongly if I just be myself and love the way my heart desires to love. I have to keep away from "trying" to love...because that just ruins everything. The act of "trying" causes me to love unlike myself...and I am unable to love in the unique way God created me to love.

You commented something about loving ourself. Well, in loving our own self, we are beginning to see our true self who God created us to be...and embracing ourself as a beautiful masterpiece of God. If we see ourself fully by our love for ourself, we are more fully able to love from within in our own unique way. Loving ourself, is embracing our ability to love. Loving ourself, helps us to see the love that is effortlessly shinning from our souls...where Jesus Christ reigns.

Anonymous said...

Fr. David, like the others, I too want to thank you for this post. Somehow reading a reiteration of your position of "God wins" (which never fails to make me feel like a little girl whose daddy has just reassured her that it will all be ok, and that it really will), it expands the (usual) feeling of encouragement I take from hearing you say that, when I read with it your mention of suffering and pain. God hasn't failed to speak to me through this honest expression of your heart and your searching for God in all of it. I love you. -katie p

Penny said...

Thank you for being open and willing to share your heart and your journey with all of us. We are all pilgrims in process, stumbling and weary at times, yet safe and victorious in Christ! How encouraging to know we are not alone on our journey but in the community of Christ.

Tim said...

Good post.