Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Beginnings may be hard; but good awaits those who make it through them.

Human nature is a wonderful mix of two tendencies that are in constant tension with one another: the sense of adventure on the one hand, and a desire for stability and security on the other. The first is that which pushes us to launch, like Abraham, into unknown territory, blazing new trails, discovering new and wonderful things about life, learning new things and growing on account of them. The second is that which keeps us safe and reminds us to be wise in our ways, it prevents us from being too hurt and wounded by the many uncertainties of life. It also enables us to take stock of what we’ve learned in our adventures, remember them, and even share them by handing them down to others. The first is an invitation to courage, the second a reminder to be cautious. Both are needed in life, both are needed by someone who wishes to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

The healthy tension that characterizes the relationship between these two tendencies, however, must always be maintained. To simply allow one to dominate while forgetting the other is to allow oneself to be carried into either of two extremes: throwing all caution to the wind on the one hand, or an inordinate desire to maintain the status quo on the other. Of the two however, it is usually the latter one that often gets the better of us. It’s safe, its convenient, it’s comfortable, and one who chooses it is less likely to be hurt or wounded in the process. This is why many choose to remain in their so-called “comfort zones”. It is the path of least resistance, you see. Unfortunately it’s also the path of least learning and growth as a person.

The Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis has a very interesting little story in his work Report to Greco. It illustrates very well the difficulty one experiences when faced with the challenge of having to move out of his “comfort zone”—one’s terra firma, into terra incognita—the promised land of growth and newness of life:

Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do? You are demanding the impossible!” But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”
It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! As a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.
Animals appeared—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine”, they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging!”
But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!”
“We don’t want to! We can’t”
“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”
And lo! After thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.
The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. He has been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his animalistic scabbard. He is also fighting—this is his new struggle—to draw himself out of his human scabbard. Man calls in despair. “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss”. And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”

Two thousand years ago, Jesus presented a child to his disciples as a model for all those who wished to follow him. “Unless you acquire the heart of a child you cannot enter the kingdom of God”, he said. (Mt 18:3) A child is someone who has not yet closed himself to the many possibilities that the great adventure of life presents. In many ways, our lives approximate the reality of being a child. It’s always in the process of growing and maturing, of developing and enriching itself. However, while this process involves a great deal of “trial-and-error” as well as “wrong turns” and “dead ends”, one really has no alternative but to allow himself to be carried by the flow, and to make the most of every experience he encounters along the way.

For a seminarian—one who wishes to follow Christ more closely—this means developing a greater openness to the many wonderful—and, at times difficult—experiences to be met along the way of formation. Beginnings are especially tough, but if you are willing to “stick to it” till you get the knack of things, any new experience eventually becomes not only bearable but can actually be enjoyable. New things are experienced that way, and seminary life is no different.

We eventually “get the hang of things” and enjoy our work. It’s the same with seminary formation. You will start losing your fears and anxieties after a while, you just have to be patient. Just remember to keep your sight on God’s promise of something great and wonderful awaiting you if you are willing to leave behind your “comfort zone” for something new, exciting and worthwhile. Like every great adventure, seminary life can be tough at the outset, but if you just “hang in”—“persevere” as they used to say—you’ll eventually discover that it can be the greatest adventure and journey of your life, one that will challenge you, stretch you to your limits, and make you discover new and wonderful things about yourself, God, and others. And you will gradually learn to set your sight firmly on your goal as you put your trust in God who will always be there for you. Thomas Merton wrote this beautiful prayer. I think it speaks to each of our own personal journeys.

Thoughts in Solitude

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And the fact that I think that I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me
By the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost
And in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)