Sunday, March 12, 2017

LETTING GO AND TRUSTING IN GOD'S ABIDING LOVE ALONE (Thoughts on detachment, surrender, confidence, and faith, on the Second Sunday of Lent, Matthew 17:1-9)

Endings come; they always do.
Goodbye comes. It always does.
Trees struggle with it in autumn,  
and in our deepest being, so do we.

And as we begin our fallow vigil,
we recall the truth of the ages: 
Unless the wheat seed dies, 
it cannot sing a new birth.

Endings silence the soul,
yet not forever,
For the heart will one day,
sing once more.  (Joyce Rupp)

Letting-go is rarely easy. A few days ago, I was talking to one of the guys at the gym, and he was telling me how he developed a rather serious back problem and has had to cut down on the weights he lifts. He said it was tough at first, especially since he had always taken his workout routine seriously and has had to adjust to what now seems to be for him, a "new normal": lighter weights, less stress on his back, less time spent in the gym. "A lot of adjustment, a lot of re-thinking in terms of routines, just a whole lot more caution", was how he described the new situation he found himself in, and I could tell, he wasn't happy about it.

Letting-go, at times, is easy; at other moments, not quite. At the end of every academic year, a professor finds himself saying goodbye to students he has taught. At the end of four years, a priest involved in formation ministry, has to say goodbye to seminarians he has come to know during their brief stay in seminary. Parents whose children leave the "nest", either for college or after having gotten married, go through a period of adjustment. A son or a daughter who has lost a parent goes through a period - for some long, for others longer - of mourning the loss.

My last visit with my spiritual director was in September of 1998, at their retirement home in Torhout, Belgium. Fr. John and I prayed together in their community chapel; and just before I said goodbye, he directed my attention to a wall where there were small crosses with names and dates etched on them. "In a few more years, if you visit this place, my name will be on that wall", he said. He died a few years later, and today, his name is indeed on one of the crosses hanging on that memorial wall.

St. Augustine in his Confessions tells us that this world - our world - is forever passing. And even the greatest and most noble thing we experience in life, such as the experience of love or falling in love, is tinged with pain and sorrow, because nothing in this world lasts forever. Only God is eternal. We must therefore, he counsels, love all things with an acute awareness of what they are, and aren't, able to give. And we must always be mindful of their temporary and fleeting nature.

Peter, James and John are with Jesus on the mountaintop in today's gospel reading. The peace, serenity, tranquility of the place must have made such an impression on all of them. Just being there with Jesus, being there with one another, enjoying each other's company - it must've been a foretaste of heaven for the three disciples. Why would anyone in such a situation want to be anywhere else? Why would anyone want to leave? "Lord, it is good that we are here!" Peter exclaims.

Time, even life itself, seems to stand still when we are in situations where everything seems alright, where, as Peter says, everything is "good". Sadly, during such moments - and we've all experienced them - hours, days, weeks, and even months, seem to go by so quickly, they might as well be no more than a couple minutes long. "Time flies when you're having fun". We all know what that means; we've all "been there".

And so we must understand where Peter is coming from. "Lord, it is good that we are here!" Would that we could all be there; would that we could always be in those situations, at those moments, when everything is simply "good", and we wish time would simply stand still. Sadly, we can't; all things must come to an end, both the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant. It is part of the ebb and flow of life, the passing of time. But like Peter, our hearts wish to prolong the experience, to hold on to it for as long as we can. "Just a few more minutes", we say, "a couple more hours", "a day or two longer". 

But then the inevitable ending comes, and we have to move on. But not after finding ourselves strengthened by the experience itself. Like Peter, like James and John, those who sincerely wish to follow Jesus, do hear that voice - like the one that spoke as they enjoyed each other's company on Mt. Tabor. The voice of the Father that did not merely affirm Jesus whom the disciples followed, but confirmed the urgency of his work that lay ahead. 

"This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, listen to him". The Father affirms Jesus, confirming him in the work he has done, and strengthening him for the things that still lay ahead: in the suffering, death, and resurrection that are part of his story, that are part of the Father's plan for the salvation of those whom he loves.

The Father is "pleased" with His Son for his willingness to bring the plan of salvation to its utmost conclusion, laying down his very life in order that the plan may be fulfilled. And He presents him to us, as a model and pattern, not just of total and complete surrender, but of absolute and unwavering confidence and trust. Jesus' will and that of his Father were one; and when the Father presented him to the disciples, and to us, as our model, pattern, and guide at the mountain of the Transfiguration, he was inviting us to make our will one with His as well.

The Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard distinguishes between what he called the "knight of surrender" and the "knight of faith". The former is one who, having heard God's voice, and understood God's will, gives himself in obedience, letting-go of what can hinder him from giving what God asks, and saying to himself, "I cannot do otherwise. I must obey". There is greatness and nobility in such a disposition and attitude.

And yet Kierkegaard says, there is a far greater and far nobler way: the "letting-go" of the "knight of faith" who does not merely obey or surrender "because he cannot do otherwise", but obeys and lets-go, "even if he can in fact do otherwise". 

The knight of faith knows fully well that he is free, that his will is completely his own, that he can always bend it towards whatever goal or purpose he wishes to bend it, even towards that which refuses to do what God wants. And yet he does not do so. Rather, he "lays down his will, and gives his life, completely, totally, absolutely", fully trusting and confident - without a trace of doubt, with no shadow of fear, without a hint of hesitation, without holding anything back - that what he has let-go, will be given back to him, "a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over". And so he has nothing to fear, not even losing his life; for in the end, he does not lose it, but wins something even greater, something "the eye has not seen, nor the ear heard". 

This is the kind of "letting-go" that lies at the very heart of what Jesus accomplished - something that in the eyes of the world, looked like a complete and utter failure, for it did not seem to end with triumph, but with a most ignominious death on the cross. But the eyes of the world are blind. We know the real score, we know the true story, we know that death was not "the final word"; it was life, and life in abundance - for Jesus, and for all who believe.

This is the fruit of complete and utter trust and confidence in a God who shall always keep his promise, who will forever be present, who never abandons, and whose loving embrace awaits those who remain steadfast. "Well done my good and faithful servant; come and share your master's happiness". 

The mystics, those great masters of the interior life, had a name for this "letting-go", this laying-down of one's life in complete and utter trust. They called it "detachment". Not the detachment of one who is disinterested, apathetic, or indifferent; but, the detachment of one who has come to know the one and only thing to which his heart, mind, body and soul must cleave, the only thing that can give satisfaction, rest, peace and tranquility to the restless human heart. 

"The soul that desires God", says St. John of the Cross, "that desires to give himself entirely, must surrender itself entirely to Him without keeping anything for itself.” We detach ourselves from all things in order that we may attach ourselves completely to God. 

But what form does such detachment, such "letting-go" take in daily life? 

In prayer, it means taking whatever God sends us, whether this comes in the form of joy, peace, comfort, and consolation, or the aridity, barrenness, and desolation of the desert. In our daily life, it means going wherever God sends or takes us, trusting only in His providence and the kindness of others.

It means not allowing the difficulties, heartaches, headaches, pain and suffering of life to weigh us down, but rather - as the ancient stoic philosophers counseled, "to see them for what they are, no more and no less... They are challenges that come, but from which we must learn, out of which we must rise, and with which we must grow strong... They are storms that always come, but always eventually pass". 

In our faith, it means trusting, despite the opaqueness and perplexity that sometimes comes with believing. In our hopes, it means discerning God's plan for us in our lives, and living according to this hope, as best we can, confident that with God and in him, "all shall be well". In what we love, it means knowing that all things are in God’s hands and therefore we seek to possess no one and be possessed by none except God alone.

In our plans, visions and dreams, it means following where God chooses to lead us, no matter how great the sacrifice we are asked to make in having to give up the things we have come to love, treasure, and enjoy. And in our very self, it means realizing that the path towards the fullness of life is never-ending, and therefore we are never simply ourselves, but are always "on the road" towards becoming what God wants us to be.

"Letting-go" isn't always easy; but it is the only way to happiness, to peace of mind and heart, to tranquility of body and soul, and to knowing God in whom alone our hearts must cleave to find their rest.

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