Saturday, August 18, 2007

Absolute Truths

I am currently reading Susan Howatch's novel Absolute Truths. It is the final book in her Church of England series of novels. I am saving Mystical Paths, the series' penultimate book, for last. It would probably be a gross exaggeration to write that anybody interested in Christian spiritual life has to read these books, but they should. I would add to these Howatch's novel The High Flyer. It was perhaps by reading her that I discovered, or became, something of a Catholic with Anglican leanings. Lest anyone worry, that is far different from being an Anglo-Catholic.

Along with Howatch's writing, in which she seeks to put theory into practice through story-telling- realistic story-telling- the spiritual/psychological writings of Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore, and the writings and witness of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, along with those of Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Quaker Richard Foster, form the basis of the model of the psyche with which I work and, hence, heavily influence my particular living of the spiritual life. Her Church of England books use an author or one particular book to frame the story. These books form a valuable bibliography on spiritual theology.

"In all religiousness", writes Moore, "there lurks the suspicion that we invented the story that God loves us." It is this suspicion that gets us into the most trouble. It is troublesome because we put all kinds of conditions on God's love. To think that God only loves me when I am "being good" is the most insidious lie ever. Such a manner of thinking comes straight from the pit of hell. Ask any parent if s/he loves their wayward son or daughter and the answer, at least in most cases, is an emphatic, Yes!. So, if we "who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to [our] children, how much more will [our] heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?" (Matt 7,9)

Sounds simple; God gives us good things and the living is easy, right? Well, No, actually. Our experience tells us otherwise because our experience consists of long periods in which we refuse to believe that God loves us unconditionally. Our experience consists of cycles of sin, guilt, shame, repentance, trying to be perfect, which is far different than trying to love unconditionally. To be honest, this cycle is unavoidable to some degree, but unhealthy nonetheless. Loving unconditionally is not the path to holiness, it is holiness! Trying to adhere to absolute truths, to keep the rules, to present a lovely façade of virtue, is what far too many of us waste far too much time on in the mistaken belief that we are in pursuit of holiness. Get a grip! Read St. Matthew's Gospel chapters five through seven. These chapters consist of a teaching called the Sermon on the Mount. While we are exhorted by Jesus in the forty-eighth verse of the fifth chapter to "be perfect just as [our] heavenly Father is perfect," this too often gets interpreted as "keep all the rules" and all will be well. One result of neurotic rule-keeping is that when someone needs us we are reduced to empty, pious platitudes. Another is that when we pray we have nothing to say, not that all prayer consists of confession of sin, but prayer must always come from the deep acknowledgement that we depend on God, we need God, that without God we can do nothing (Jn 15,5).

Loving is risk-taking, not a recipe for peace. I do not have to be perfect to love, or to be loved. I make a big mistake whenever I think and act like I must be perfect to be loved. After all, do I only love people when they do what I want them to do? When they meet my expectations? If I am being honest, sometimes (too often) I have to answer yes. I withhold my love because I do not know how to love as I ought. The good news is that God is not so facile. God is holiness, God is righteousness. This may be the only absolute truth: "God is love" (1 Jn 4,8.16). It is certainly the only one that matters at the end of the day. To love is to deliberately make myself vulnerable and to have others make themselves vulnerable to me. This is a tremendous responsibility that requires a huge, even super-human, commitment. That is why marriage and holy orders, both of which are at the service of communion, are sacraments.

"Temptation", writes Austen Farrer, whose various writings are quoted by Howatch as the epigraph of each chapter of Absolute Truths, "is what distracts us, beguiles us off the path. Temptation is what makes real life different from the world of our dreams. We dream of a world which is wax under the moulding of our ambitions or of our aspirations; we meet a world which faces us with trials we have not the character to surmount, and with seductions we have not the virtue to resist" (pg 323).

I like very much what the character Martin Darrow, who, like Bishop Charles Ashworth, has recently gone through a self-induced personal catastrophe, has to say. He begins by telling the bishop how good it is, when going through a difficult time, to have a frank conversation with "someone who's gone through hell lately". This leads Martin to comment on God and suffering: "It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us. Interesting idea, that."

Indeed, God did come into the world to scream alongside us. In his agony on the cross he shouted words from the twenty-second Psalm: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15,34). God brings life from death quia Deus Caritas Est, but it is not painless. Were it painless, it would be meaningless. This is a great mystery, which is something that is true, but we will never reason our way to why it is true, though we see why human existence must be this way- because "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12,29).

All of this before even broaching the subject of self-deception, which Howatch treats masterfully in all her characters. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but we manage to fool ourselves almost all the time. This is not due to our cleverness, it is due to that fact that we want to be fooled. We want to be fooled because the truth is usually too much for us and requires from us precious time and effort that we would rather spend in activities that gratify our bodily appetites, our egos, or (bonus!) both.

Neither have we touched on the ego-defense force field. One pernicious thing among Christians is the tendency to use learnedness, or office (i.e., bishop, priest, deacon, sister, brother, theologian, etc.) as an ego-defense rather than as a call to move beyond ourselves. This leads to a very childish form of clericalism which, forty plus years after the Second Vatican Council, we are not only still stuck with, but which we seem to want to revert, like a two or three year old child who still wants to be a baby. This is no way to grow in "the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ" (NRSV Eph. 4,13).

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