Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Untamed God (Reflections on the Gospel of the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Matt. 11:2-11)

While in prison, John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus with a rather curious question: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we wait for another?” It isn’t doubt that John’s question reveals; it’s impatience as well as a profound perplexity that Jesus doesn’t seem to fit the notions of the promised Messiah held by people at the time—even perhaps the notions John himself held.

As we go through life we develop ways of seeing and understanding things. Call them “viewpoints” or “perspectives”—they enable us to “handle” the many challenges and perplexities life sends our way. They’re like built-in spectacles that enable us to make sense of life itself. But we’re not born with these. Instead we pick them up; they’re handed down to us by our upbringing, our family, our education, our society, and by the many other experiences that form us. These “ways of seeing” aren’t bad; they’re aids to life.

But there’s a downside to them as well, because the very things that enable us to “get a handle” on things, can also blind us at times; they can “hem us in”, put us in “boxes”, imprison and chain us, preventing us from seeing anything that can’t be fit into our neat and tidy little categories and labels. At such point, these ways of seeing things cease to aid us in life, but rather hinder us from experiencing life in its fullness. They become biases and prejudices. We become hardened, our relationships become sterile, the very adventure of life ebbs away, and the God we worship ceases to be the Living God, but an idol.

A couple of weeks ago I was sharing with some of the students in class, the fact that certain ancient Jewish manuscripts have ‘holes’ or ‘spaces’ where the letters of God’s name would otherwise be written. Jews of course, will not say the name of God; and the even more devout ones will not even write the letters of his name. “To name” something is to exercise a certain power or dominion over it. (In the book of Genesis, God tells Adam to “name” all the animals He had created—signifying humanity’s power as well as stewardship over them.)

But the “living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” refuses to be so “named”, “owned”, “controlled”, “tamed”, or turned into an “idol”. Just when we think we have him all figured out, he escapes our grasp. Just when we think we have him in the palm of our hands, he makes us realize that we are the ones he has in the palm of his hands. Even the “beloved” Saint John of the Cross speaks of is someone who wants to be pursued but never possessed. He goes out into the night and invites the soul to follow him.

Our experience of God in prayer in fact mirrors this reality. When I was a student, my spiritual director would always remind me—“Do not shun the desert”, by which he meant the times when the consolation of prayer will be absent, replaced instead by the seeming distance, even absence of God. “Remain faithful to prayer”, he would remind me. “God takes away the consolation in order to invite you to a deeper relationship with Him. Do not give up; rather, run after him. Follow where he leads”. When dryness and aridity happen in prayer, and they will, persevere even more—for God may very well be inviting you to a deeper understanding and friendship with him.

In the same way, this experience of God in prayer mirrors our journey in life. The same spiritual director used to always remind me—“Never make a big decision when you’re weak”, by which he meant that there will be moments when the “high’s” of following Christ will be absent, replaced instead by “valleys and even ravines”. “At such difficult moments, hold on to God even more”, he would remind me. “God brings you down from the mountain in order to lead you to a more profound understanding of yourself and your direction in life. Do not give up; rather, be strong. Be patient. Persevere. Follow where God leads you, because he will never lead you into harm”.

When doubt, difficulty, and the many perplexities of life assail us, and they will, remember that it isn’t because God has suddenly become absent. Rather, it is his way revealing a more profound kind of presence—one that invites us to “follow him” to an even deeper understanding of ourselves, our life, and our very relationship with Him. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Living God who refuses to be “possessed” and “tamed” is the same God who has given us the greatest gift possible—the gift of freedom, and the possibility of liberation from every chain and prison that oppresses us, including those that we ourselves have created.

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