Tuesday, May 24, 2016

the temptation of Anna Maria

My Christian conversion has granted me no simplicity. It has complicated all of my relationships, changed how I feel about money, messed up my public persona, and made me wonder if I should be on Twitter at all. 
Obviously, it’s been very beautiful.
--the delightful Nicole Cliffe, of The [most exquisite] Toast

Yesterday's Gospel reading was the sad little rich man. This man walks up to Christ and is all like: look, friend. I'm doing it all! I'm following the commandments, I am Getting It Right, where is the eternal life, where is that beauty and that hunger that I am missing?

Bursting with love, Christ says: Ah. The problem is, you must possess nothing, only me. The Rich Man is dismayed, because that's really hard. A lot harder than just following a set of rules. It involves a transformation of our total self. That is daunting for all of us, rich and poor alike.

In his magnificent series of homilies on the theology of creation, Benedict XVI writes of Christ--the perfect man--the man who shows us what the project of our creation is ultimately about: the perfect love and worship of God. Christ is the answer to the question of: who am I?

"And even in our own greatest humiliation we are still called by God to be the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and so to share in God's eternal love. The question about what the human being is finds its response in the following of Jesus Christ. Following in his steps from day to day in patient love and suffering we can learn with him what it means to be a human being and to become a human being."

The priest gently said to me: None of us stands before God having gotten in all right. Christ is the human, Christ is the perfect human, who stands before God, in beauty and in grace, and fully good. Christ is the one who has got things right.  The point is not to have reached the throne of God, saying: I figured it out. It got it right. Our task simply becomes to take up the cross of Christ, and enter into the battle. To live means to engage in the constant struggle between ego and self-gift; the constant dialogue of counter-loves; the constant war of narcissism and generosity.

Through some perverse egotistical or juvenile contortion in my imagination, I habitually envision the sacraments functioning as either a badge of pride--a mark that I have Gotten It Right. I am like the Rich Young Man: I think that I have gotten my checklist all in order. I have kept the commandments, I have observed all of these from my youth, thus I have earned these sacraments of eternal life.

Or, I imagine the sacraments as something neat and tidy, that should only be approached when I have gotten my interior life all organized and polished on my own. I may approach communion when my love is beyond reproach. When my contrition is finally pure and total, then I ought to go to confession, when I am totally committed to never sinning again.

But the sacraments are not these.

The sacraments are Christ entering into the struggle. They are an opening up, an inviting God into the messy, disorganized, chaotic interior life. When I feel myself shrinking away from God, holding onto my possessions--my desires, my ego, my accomplishments--as tightly as the rich man does, that is when I ought to run to the sacraments. As soon as I feel my hands start to grasp tightly around it all, I ought to instead cling to the sacraments, which pry open my greedy hands to grace.

The sacraments are Christ entering into the mess, during the mess. In the confessional, I wrestle with my desire to desire not to sin again. I do not possess that resolve perfectly. But here, I bring God into my attempt at goodness. For no man is good, and while we struggle towards Goodness, as we learn to fall in love most deeply with only Truth Himself, there is much self in the way. The more we live, the more we develop into fully human beings, the more self there is to wrestle with. As I attempt to bring my stubborn self into line, I am baffled by the seeming impossibility of the project.

And of course.

Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God.”
I imagine Him looking at them with the gentle eye-raise of "duh", as if to say: of course. You cannot save yourselves on your own. Silly children.

The lessons of self-gift and generosity are not learned overnight, although I wish they were. Make me generous and self-giving, Lord, right now. But let me have also what I want. I know how generous and self-giving I ought to be, and sometimes I achieve that goal--for a moment, for a day, for a breath. And it is searingly painful when I discover inside of me pockets of great selfishness. I am not perfectly loving or good yet. I am still so weak, and too caught up in the heady delights of right now. As I pray before communion, I wrestle with my weakness, which refuses to be whipped or wheedled into willing what God wills.

As I remember the rebuke of the priest, I realize--with joy--that I am still marvelously incomplete. There are still large chapters of story to be waded through. I am tempted to skip all the journey and just shortcut to the outcomes, but I am halted by the sacraments. The sacraments check us as we march down our predestined paths, willy-nilly. The sacraments stop the story for a moment, allowing grace to break in. I do not know what effect grace will work in my story. I do know I want them, even if my wilder self resists them. As I walk to the sacraments, that is what my heart is claiming: I do not know how to desire what you desire, Lord. But I want to learn how. I know I do not know how right now. But, Good Teacher, teach me. What must I do to obtain Eternal Life?

We, each of us, have a story of God's love in our lives. It drags at us, tugs at us, pulls on us so that we are never at rest. Caught up in embraces, caught up in fury, caught up in self-pity, we find inside each of them this constant tug of some great Thou that never allows us to forget Him.

Sometimes, being Christian is such great torture. It is giving up the simple, soporific, suffocating world of self, for the wild adventure of love. This love tears you in two. I suppose it doesn't have to. The great saints, I imagine, fell so utterly and perfectly in love that they still felt like one--and their oneness was not the stagnant self, but the oneness of God.

But this saint, perhaps, will always feel a great giant tear in the middle of her consciousness. Perpetually, the thundering, transcendent Thou will be pulling at her I, trying to get her through the eye of the needle. How she desires to make it through. But her camel is weighed down by so many conflicting desires. Perhaps she will never get through in this life. Perhaps it will always be a struggle, attempting to shed extra burdens in order to accept the yoke that is easy, attempting to lighten her load, so she might finally navigate through the narrow mountain path.

But it is that struggle which obviously, makes living very beautiful.

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