Thursday, December 22, 2011

I shall cast my lot with a God who never fails (Reflections on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:26-38)

In his book “Fear and Trembling”, the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke of what he called a “knight of faith”, that is, a person who is so utterly convinced of two things: the sheer impossibility of something, and the absolute possibility of the very same thing.

“But is that not absurd? How could the possible and the impossible co-exist? That’s like saying day can become night”, a student once asked during one of my philosophy classes. And Kierkegaard’s words can indeed be deeply perplexing, if not downright confusing.

Still, there is a profound yet subtle, and thus often unnoticed difference between an absurdity and a paradox; for while an absurdity paralyzes thought, rendering it impotent, a paradox pries thought open, making it susceptible to greater depth. An absurdity is a dead-end; a paradox, the discovery of paths yet to be taken.

As such, the knight of faith embraces, not an absurdity, but a paradox; and he embraces it fully. He does not run away from it but welcomes it with open arms and immerses himself in it. For in doing so, he knows in his heart of hearts that there is a far greater power, a far more formidable force, a far greater strength that shall embrace and welcome him with open arms like that of a Father, who tugs a beloved son or daughter as close as he can to his heart, in order to assure him: “There is nothing to fear. All shall be well”.

And because of his conviction in the force and strength of this assurance, the knight of faith is able to take a leap into the unknown, trusting only that God will always be there to catch him.

In the same book, Kierkegaard names two persons whom he says qualifies perfectly to be called “knights of faith”: Abraham, and Mary. Abraham because he knew that while giving up his firstborn, God will give him back his son, and Mary because she would have a son even if she had no relations with a man. In fact, Kierkegaard quotes the words from the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke.

The key to understanding the ability to make this “leap of faith” is the 37th verse of the First Chapter of Saint Luke. In Greek we read, ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα - hoti ouk adunatesei para tou theou pan rema. (“For nothing will be impossible for God”.) More literally translated though, it means: “The word of God is not unable”, or “Every word of God accomplishes what it says” - which has often been translated: “Nothing is impossible with God”.

Mary’s “leap of faith”, her total and unambiguous “yes” to Gabriel’s message from God was a sign of a complete and radical trust in a God who never fails, who keeps his word, and accomplishes what he says.

“Nothing is impossible with God”. Could more beautiful words have ever been spoken, words that kill fear at its very root? If fear is truly faith’s greatest enemy, then confidence and trust in a God who can never fail—for whom “nothing is impossible”—is faith’s greatest anchor and shield.

But are they simply beautiful words?

In late May of 1995, a young man who had received a scholarship to do an advanced degree from a university in Europe was walking back to his residence with the treasurer of the college, a soft-spoken gentleman named Daniel.

Three years before that, in early 1992, his superiors had informed him that he was being sent abroad for further studies and that he should prepare everything for his eventual departure. Being all but 21, he was naturally hesitant, even anxious; but convinced by his spiritual director that this was part of God’s plan for him and the work he may eventually be asked to do in the church, he obeyed.

At the last minute though, while not completely pulling the plug from the whole affair, his superiors informed him that while he was still free to leave for his studies, no financial assistance would be forthcoming. He was to be on his own. “It’s a trial”, his spiritual director assured him. “Go, and don’t worry. God will take care of you”.

And so off he went, venturing into totally unknown territory, studying as hard as he could in his first two years of advanced studies, doing his best to prove to himself that he was worthy of the trust given to him by his superiors.

When he completed his first degree, he wrote them, saying: “I’ve done my best to do as you’ve instructed me, and did well even without your assistance. I hope I’ve somehow managed to prove that I am serious about what I’m doing and that I have no intention of taking you for a ride. My spiritual director has assured me this is God’s will for me. At this point I would like to know if you are now willing to support me?”

The response came quickly: “Yes. Ask the college treasurer to send us the information. We will now support you”. Imagine the joy and consolation he felt; he had finally proven himself worthy of their trust.

On that late afternoon of May 1995, however, as he strolled back to the residence with the man who had, just a year ago, sent all the information his superiors required, an odd question popped into his head. “I wonder if my tuition for the previous year has already been paid in full?” he decided to ask the gentleman walking with him.

“Don’t bother yourself with those matters”
, came the reply. “It’s exam time; that’s what you should be bothering yourself with”. He felt his heart beat faster. “Come on now”, he pleaded. “Don’t you think I should know. It does concern me after all”.

Daniel, the treasurer, stopped, scratched his head, took a deep breath and simply said: “Maybe you should go ask the college president. He’s in a better position to answer your question”. The young man’s heart beat even faster; all he could think of was getting to the residence as quickly as he could so he could catch the rector and make his inquiry.

As soon as he entered the green doors of the college, he made a dash for the president’s office. David, a religious priest had been college rector and president for two years now; he was sitting at his desk, getting ready to end his work day.

“Hey David”
, he said as he knocked on the door that was always left open for anyone who wanted to drop by. “You have a minute”? “Come in, have a seat”, David replied. “What can I do for you?” Trying to catch his breath, his heart feeling like it was beating a thousand times a minute, he managed to utter five words: “Has my tuition been paid?”

There was an awkward silence that probably lasted no more than ten seconds; for him though, it might as well have been ten minutes, even ten hours. “Don’t bother yourself with those matters”, came the response. “Don’t you have exams tomorrow? Just go back to your room and study.”

At that point, he felt a hardness in his chest, a lump in his throat, and pincers squeezing his temples. He had been standing all this time. Now he finally had to sit as he felt his knees buckling. “David, you have to tell me the truth,” he said. “I need to know. Otherwise, I can’t study. I won’t even be able to sleep. I’ll probably fail tomorrow’s exam”.

The rector took a deep breath, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Well, you really shouldn’t worry about these things; but since you insist on knowing. No, your tuition for this year has not been paid”.

The young man felt as if a ten-ton boulder had been dropped on him. He had been suspecting something for the past couple of weeks. He wasn’t certain why, but deep inside there was that nagging suspicion that things weren’t quite right. He began to cry.

“Where in heaven’s name am I going to get that kind of money this late in the school year? Why did they not just tell me, no. Why was I promised help, only to be denied, then not be told that nothing was forthcoming? What am I going to do?”

At that moment, he wasn’t quite sure if there was anyone left that could be trusted. Sensing the seriousness with which the young man had taken the matter, the rector put his hand on his shoulder and said: “Listen, I told you earlier, not to worry. Right now, your business is to study and prepare for your exams tomorrow and the rest of the week. Let me worry about these things. I want you to go back to your room, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and after having regained your composure, study as hard as you can for your exam tomorrow. Can you do that?”

“I’ll do my best”, he replied. “But before you go, let me ask you something. Do you believe in what you’re doing?” David asked.“Of course, I do!” he replied. The rector paused, then continued. How convinced are you that what you’re doing is going to create good both for yourself and other people?” “Totally convinced!” came the reply. “Do you believe God can work wonders?” “What kind of question is that? Absolutely. I do!” “Good", said the rector. "Now go. You have an exam to prepare for.”

The young man left the rector’s room, still with a heavy heart, but determined to block out, at least for the remainder of that night, anything that could distract him from the urgent business at hand, studying for a grueling oral exam in philosophy the following day.

The next morning, as he was about to leave the building to head over to the exam venue, the rector called him to his office. “You have a minute?” David asked. “Sure. My exam isn’t till an hour from now. I just want to get there early”, he replied. “Have a seat.”

Again there was a brief moment of silence that felt like an eternity; but unlike the one of the previous evening, this one had none of the awkwardness. In fact, he sensed something different, something good.

“You remember those questions I asked you last night?” “Yes, I do”. “Do you remember the last one?” “Yes. You asked if I believed God works wonders.” “That’s right”.
The rector paused, took a deep breath and smiled. “Well, he has.” “What do you mean?”

“What will you say if I told you your problem has been solved?” “You’re kidding, right?” He wanted to jump out of his seat and hug the rector, but he controlled himself, not sure if this was a joke or something. “No, I’m serious”, David said, pursing his lips and slightly nodding his head.

“Your tuition for this past academic year has been paid”.
“By my superiors back home?” he asked, holding one last sliver of hope that they had come through for him. “No. By a generous person who also believes in what you do, and believes that you can do much good for other people later on”.

The young man began to cry; but unlike his tears of the previous night, these were tears of relief and gratitude. God had come through for him, through the kindness of persons he hardly knew.

“And that’s not all”, the rector interrupted his quiet sobbing. “Your tuition for all your years of study have been assured. You can finish all the degrees you need finish; you have nothing more to worry about. The people you trusted may not have come through for you this time, but that’s alright. God has. And that’s all that matters.”

The young man, stood up, hugged the rector tight, said thanks, and rushed to his philosophy exam (which he aced by the way, despite the sleepless night).

He spent several more years at that place, made new and really wonderful friends from all over the planet, expanded his horizons by meeting amazing people from so many countries, completed several degrees, including a doctorate which he defended with flying colors; but most of all, he grew in understanding, appreciation and confidence in a God who, in his rector’s words, “can do wonders”.

ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα. Hoti ouk adunatesei para tou theou pan rema. “Nothing is impossible with God”.

The words of Scripture are true. They aren’t just beautiful words.

I know; because I was that young man.

And for as long as I live, I will never forget those deep, dark and dizzying, yet absolutely magnificent moments on that late afternoon of May 1995, and the equally awesome moments of the following morning, and the following years! For it was then, and (as I discovered in the many years that followed) that my trust and confidence in a God who can never fail, was finally and forever set in stone. And it is with him that I have, ever since, chosen to cast my lot, for I know He will never fail me.

ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα. Hoti ouk adunatesei para tou theou pan rema. “The word of God is not unable”. “Every word of God accomplishes what it says.”

“Nothing is impossible with God”. They’re not just beautiful words; they’re true.

[That experience on that afternoon in May, in that beautiful university town in Belgium called Louvain, at the seminary known simply as “The American College”, enabled me to better understand what the Blessed Mother felt at the Annunciation, when Gabriel spoke those immortal words to her: "Do not fear... nothing is impossible with God". And it has allowed me, with every passing day of my life as a priest, as a seminary professor, as a Christian, and as a man, to proclaim with Mary: “The Almighty has done great things for me; and holy is His name!” Those who put their trust completely in God, will not be disappointed. He never fails.]

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