The voice of God is heard in Paradise: “What was vile has become precious. What is now precious was never vile. I have always known the vile as precious: for what is vile I know not at all. What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with my mercy and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas, My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin. What was poor has become infinite. What is infinite was never poor. I have always known poverty as infinite: riches I love not at all. Prisons within prisons within prisons. Do not lay up for yourselves ecstasies upon earth, where time and space corrupt, where the minutes break in and steal. No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away. What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. I looked upon what was nothing. I touched what was without substance and within what was not I AM.”
It was William Auden, I think, who wrote that when grace enters a room everyone begins to dance.
Would this were so! More often the opposite happens, grace enters a room and instead of dancing we become discontent and our eyes grow bitter with envy. Why? Nikos Kazantzakis, the great Greek writer, tells a story of an elderly monk he once met on Mount Athos. Kazantsakis, still young and full of curiosity, was questioning this monk and asked him: “Do you still wrestle with the devil?” “No,” replied the old monk, “I used to, when I was younger, but now I’ve grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me.” “So,” Kazantsakis said, “your life is easy then? No more big struggles.” “Oh, no!” replied the old man, “now it’s worse. Now I wrestle with God!” “You wrestle with God,” replied Kazantsakis, rather surprised, “and you hope to win?” “No,” said the old monk, “I wrestle with God and I hope to lose!”
There comes a point in life when our major spiritual struggle is no longer with the fact that we are weak and desperately in need of God’s forgiveness, but rather with the opposite, with the fact that God’s grace and forgiveness is overly-lavish, unmerited, and especially that it goes out so indiscriminately. God’s lavish love and forgiveness go out equally to those have worked hard and to those who haven’t, to those who have been faithful for a long time and to those who jumped on-board at the last minute, to those who have had to bear the heat of the day and to those who didn’t, to those who did their duty and to those who lived selfishly.
God’s love isn’t a reward for being good, doing our duty, resisting temptation, bearing the heat of the day in fidelity, saying our prayers, remaining pure, or offering worship, good and important though these are. God loves us because God is love and God cannot not love and cannot be discriminating in love. God’s love, as scripture says, shines on the good and bad alike. That’s nice to know when we need forgiveness and unmerited love, but it’s hard to accept when that forgiveness and love is given to those whom we deem less worthy of it, to those who didn’t seem to do their duty. It’s not easy to accept that God’s love does not discriminate, especially when God’s blessings go out lavishly to those who don’t seem to deserve them.
Allow me to share a story: When I as first ordained, I lived for a time in one of our Oblate rectories with a semi-retired priest, a wonderfully gracious man, who had been a faithful priest for fifty years. One evening, alone with him, I asked him: “If you had your priesthood to do over again, would you do anything differently?” The answer he gave me was not the one I’d anticipated. “Yes,” he said, “I would do some things differently. I’d be easier on people than I was this time. I’d risk the mercy and forgiveness of God more.” Then he grew silent, as if to create the proper space for what he was about to say, and added: “Let me say this too: As I get older I’m finding it harder and harder to accept the ways of God. I’ve been a priest for fifty years and I’ve been faithful. I can honestly say, in so far as I know, that in my whole life I’ve never committed a mortal sin. I’ve always tried my best and done my duty. It wasn’t easy, but I did it with essential fidelity. And you know something? Now that I’m old I’m struggling with all kinds of bitterness and doubt. That’s natural, I guess. But what upsets me is that I look around me and I see all kinds of people, young people and others, who’ve never been faithful, who’ve lived selfish lives, and they’re full of faith and are speaking in tongues! I’ve been faithful and I’m full of anger and doubt. Tell me, is that fair?”
In the end, we need to forgive God and that might be the hardest forgiveness of all. It’s hard to accept that God loves everyone equally – even our enemies, even those who hate us, even those who don’t work as hard as we do, even those who reject duty for selfishness, and even those who give in to all the temptations we resist. Although deep down we know that God has been more than fair with us, God’s lavish generosity to others is something which we find hard to accept. Like the workers in the Parable of the Vineyard who toiled the whole day and then saw those who had worked just one hour get the same wage as theirs, we often let God’s generosity to others warp both our joy and our eyesight.
But that struggle points us in the right direction. Grace is amazing, by disorienting us it properly orients us.
I posted the following on Facebook four years ago today. I don’t know why. Did I know in my gut that I was so near the end of my rope and that I would hit rock bottom – hard – some five months later?
Richard Rohr ~
When we come to the end of our rope and hit rock bottom, we are not dashed but fall into God’s hands. It is here at our lowest that we discover our true source of power, the indwelling Holy Spirit. Many years ago, during a hermitage in Arizona, I had a particularly strong sense of the Holy Spirit, the One who is fully available to all of us “if we but knew the gift of God” (John 4:10). I slowly composed this prayer–imagining many names and movements of the Spirit–to awaken and strengthen this Presence within you. Recite it whenever you are losing faith in God or in yourself.
Promise of the Father
Life of Jesus
Pledge and Guarantee
Always Already Awareness
Hidden Love of God
Fire of Life and Love
Wind of Change
Cloud of Unknowing
Deepest Level of Our Longing
Will of God
You who pray in us, through us, with us, for us, and in spite of us.
I sweep. I spread a blanket in the sun. I cut grass behind the cabin. Soon I will bring the blanket in again and make the bed. The sun is overclouded. Perhaps there will be rain. A bell rings in the monastery. A tractor growls in the valley. Soon I will cut bread, eat supper, say psalms, sit in the back room as the sun sets, as the birds sing outside the window, as silence descends on the valley, as night descends. As night descends on a nation intent upon ruin, upon destruction, blind, deaf to protest, crafty, powerful, unintelligent. It is necessary to be alone, to be not part of this, to be in the exile of silence, to be, in a manner of speaking, a political prisoner. No matter where in the world he may be, no matter what may be his power of protest, or his means of expression, the poet finds himself ultimately where I am. Alone, silent, with the obligation of being very careful not to say what he does not mean, not to let himself be persuaded to say merely what another wants him to say, not to say what his own past work has led others to expect him to say.
The poet has to be free from everyone else, and first of all from himself, because it is through this “self” that he is captured by others. Freedom is found under the dark tree that springs up in the center of the night and of silence, the paradise tree, the axis mundi, which is also the Cross.
– Thomas Merton, May 1965