Saturday, February 11, 2017

"LEAP, GOD WILL BE THERE TO CATCH YOU!" - Saint Augustine of Hippo (Reflections on Mary's "Leap of Faith" on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes)

"I am a bow in your hands Lord;
draw me lest I rot.
Do not overdraw me, Lord;
I fear I shall break.
Overdraw me, Lord;
do with me as you please.
Who cares if I break!"

- The Prayers of Three Kinds of Souls
(Nikos Kazantzakis)

Why Mary, why did you accept Gabriel's greeting? Did you not think of the perils you would face? Why did you risk your relationship with Joseph, your betrothed? Why did you not carefully consider the consequences of bearing a child whose future you did not know? Why did you not think of the pain, the heartache, the sorrow, this vocation could bring you? Why did you not ask for some guarantee that God's promise would be fulfilled? Why did you not seek assurance for yourself, in case the mission of this child to be born were met with failure? Why did you say 'yes' to God's request? How could one be so full of generosity, so selfless, so utterly giving, in the face of such lack of certainty? Why, Mary? What made you so brave?

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior .. For the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name... For he has remembered his promise of mercy ... the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever."
The words of Mary's Magnificat hide a tremendous and explosive force, an enormous power. They reveal what lies at the heart of the tremendous courage that allowed Mary to respond with that most risky yet most generous and selfless 'yes' to the invitation to become the mother of God's only Son.

The Magnificat contains the 'secret' to a life lived in total self-giving, in complete generosity of spirit, of a willingness to step out of the safe and secure boundaries of our selves so that we might not only accept, but embrace with a courageous and fearless heart,  whatever comes our way.

That 'secret' casts out fear, extinguishes doubt, lays waste to hesitation, and conquers selfishness. That "secret" is none other than a heart that has completely wrapped itself in trust and confidence in a God who always remembers his promise and who never goes back on his word.

In his book Fear and Trembling, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard spoke of what he called the "knight of faith" - one whose heart is so convinced of two important things: the utter impossibility of what he is confronted with, and the utter possibility of the very same thing.

"But that would absurd!" one might protest. To which the knight of faith replies: "Precisely! It is absurd! And it is precisely because of that absurdity that one believes! Did not Tertullian exclaim: Credo quia absurdum? I believe because it is absurd!" This isn't mere faith, this is conviction. This is trust, a leap into the unknown, confident that as Augustine exclaims in his Confessions, "God will catch you!" (Conf. VIII, xi)

In his book, Kierkegaard, names the only two persons whom he says qualifies perfectly to be called "knights of faith": Abraham and Mary - because both believed that nothing surrendered to God is ever lost, not one's son, nor one's honor. For as Gabriel says to Mary, ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα - "The word God has spoken is not unable" - or in words more familiar to us, "Nothing is impossible with God."

Mary's "leap of faith," her total and unambiguous "yes" to Gabriel's words were a sign of complete and radical trust in a God who never fails, who keeps his word, and who accomplishes what he says - if only one believes.

Mary's said "yes," selflessly and generously because she was brave and trusted completely in God's promise. She had no reason to hold anything back, no reason to be anxious and fearful that having given everything, she might in turn receive nothing. And it is that faith, Søren Kierkegaard says, that allowed her to take that mightiest of "leaps."

A selfish heart anchors itself onto fear, fear of losing what it possesses, fear of losing those things with which it has identified itself, fear that its love will not be reciprocated, fear that after having given so much, it will get so little or even nothing in return.

Are such fears unfounded? No, they aren't. We can lose, we can fail, we can get deeply wounded and seriously hurt, we can end up not receiving what we've given, and our love, care, compassion and generosity can find no reciprocation from the very people we've decided to love and to whom we've chosen to give ourselves wholeheartedly. Our kindness, care, generosity and compassion can even be ridiculed by a jaded and cynical world that can judge us hopelessly naive, unnecessarily optimistic, overly romantic, dangerously idealistic.

Mary knew all these things in her heart; she may have been young, yet she was hardly naive. When Gabriel came to her, asking if she would be willing to take the greatest risk of her life, the risk of doing for God, something that even her betrothed could regard as a betrayal, which could earn her the scorn of her family, her friends, her society and her religion, Mary knew what it meant. It isn't hard to imagine her taking a deep breath, closing her eyes and asking - like most of us often do:

"What if the promise being made to me isn't kept? What if Joseph, my beloved chooses to give in to doubt and sends me away, what if those I love most, family and friends, refuse to believe me? What if the child I bear, instead of being embraced as the Savior that Israel had been promised, dies instead a most ignominious death in the hands of those he has sent to love, heal, and save? What if it all fails? What if the Lord doesn't keep his word, what will I be left with? What then happens to me? Wouldn't it be better to keep something for security, hold something back in case it fails?" 

But Mary's generosity was rooted in her trust that the God who was asking her to take what was to be the riskiest decision of her life, wouldn't go back on his word. She believed with her whole heart in his promise and took courage in the fact that he had never let his people down. He always had their back, and now he would have hers. Why shouldn't she be brave then? Why shouldn't she say 'yes'?

A generous spirit is the flowering of courage, it is born out of a profound trust that the leaps we make in life aren't blind, though they may initially seem to be, for there is a strength, a power, a promise that underpins our every selfless act, giving that invincible reassurance that we shall never give, care, or love in vain.

Scripture tells us that God's Word never returns to him without accomplishing its purpose. The seeds God sows are never sown in futility; though their growth may seem to take long and though to the world's eyes they may seem to fail, even die, they bear the fruit which God intended. With him there is no failure, with him there is no loss. Mary's selfless 'yes' was a result of this confidence. With God by her side, how could she fail? With God by our side, there can be no 'failure'.

There's an ancient philosopher who always counseled his students: "Never suppress a generous impulse." He wasn't telling them to be foolhardy or imprudent. But he wanted them to recognize that taking the risk of loving, of caring, of showing concern and compassion, of giving and committing oneself to others, to noble endeavors, and to life itself, is a risk worth taking.

For a generous heart can never fail, and a spirit that steps out of the safety and security of its borders never returns empty-handed, even if it fact returns with battle scars. Because when we do so, we mirror and pattern ourselves after the one who first took the supreme risk of loving despite the possibility of not being loved in return, of caring despite the possibility of that care not being reciprocated, of giving himself and his very life despite the possibility of that gift being rejected and nailed onto a tree.

So the next time we find ourselves wondering whether loving, caring, showing compassion, generosity, or giving ourself fully to something we believe is noble and worthwhile may not yield a return, we ought to think of the bravest of women, the most "yes" was a complete and total mirror of her own Son's "yes" to the will of a God who remembers his promise, who never goes back on his word, and who will always have the back of those whom he first loved into being and whom he never ceases to love - whether or not they love him in return.

We can take those risks, those "leaps" so necessary to living life to the full, because Mary has shown us how, and because God has shown us why: in Him, we can never lose. We can be courageous, we can be brave, we can be strong, like Mary.

"Cast yourself upon the Lord and do not be afraid. He will not withdraw himself so that you fall. Make the leap without anxiety; he will catch you!"  - St. Augustine

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