Living Life Forwards

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And another person said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”  Jesus answered him, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 61-2

Having made, at the age of 17, the decision to enter the religious life, I remember many a night before falling asleep that I asked myself what I had done. One form that my anxiety about the future took was a projecting of how I could somehow come to bear the uncertainty and newness of my “new life” for fifty or so weeks a year and then return home for two weeks of solace and familiarity “back in my own bed”. I dealt with the fear and anxiety of leaving home by, in fact, imaginatively holding on to it. The only way I could bear with such a dramatic uprooting in my life was to deny it through an illusory continuity.

“No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”  It is the task of a healthy and well-formed ego to domesticate life to a degree that allows us to adequately manage it. In my own most insecure moments, it takes only a disruption in internet service to unsettle an agitate me. Yet, for all of us there are the much more dramatic moments of physical, emotional, relational and spiritual change that evoke in us the fear and dread of the vulnerable child within. The in-breaking of the “Kingdom of God” is such a moment.  Our domestication of our lives is built on false certainties. At our core, we know that the sense of solidity we give to our day to day existence is nothing but the act of walking a high wire without a net. At any given moment everything can change. Yet, that is more than our psyche can bear; so we all attempt to find a sense of security in routine and continuity of experience.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us that when the demands of love break into our lives, we must be ready to respond without condition; we are to be ready to let go of the current form our life has taken and to respond wholeheartedly to the unknown that beckons to us. As the Fundamental Principles say:

Stand ready to answer
when asked
if you are available for God
to become more present in your life 
and through you to the world.

To “stand ready” in this way is, in the scriptural sense, to “not look back.”  Obviously this cannot mean that we should not remember our previous life experience in such a way as to enable us to give new form to our lives in accordance with that spiritual identity which is revealed to us through the entire breadth of our life experience. But, it does ask us to let go of the self-imposed limits to our call and our capacity to love that our insecurity has led us to draw around our hearts and minds.

The poet Christian Wiman asks the question: “What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us? This is what it means to love. This is what it should mean to write one more poem.”  Every deep and true impulse to love and to greater life and expression of our true calling is, to varying degrees, shattering. The reason is that real life, the “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks, is always so much more than our current domesticated form of life. We all seek and desire love. Yet, we do not seek the demands that true love always makes when it breaks into our routine. To realize that we are being offered love is to experience what feels to us like our incapacity for it, our inability to make the response that such a gift requires. Put simply, we fear that we don’t know how and can’t respond.

One way that we know the presence of love, the call to life, and the summons of “the Kingdom of God” is that we realize, in fear and trembling, that it will require of us that we become a “new person.”  In my experience, this kind of love always comes unawares. At a moment we did not expect, we come to know that this person, this relationship, this task, this call “demand” of us more than we know of ourselves. The one who is appealing to us “knows” of something in us that we do not know on ourselves, and that, if we are to realize that deeper truth of ourselves, we must first dare to let go of much of what affords us our sense of security at this moment. To accept and to return this deeper life and love will require of us that we “not look back.”

This does not mean there is not continuity in our lives. But, as Soren Kierkegaard wrote:  “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”  In retrospect we shall always come to see that we have been loved and called all along. Yet, at the moment of the call or appeal to us for greater love and more life, we shall experience a harsh and frightening discontinuity. The most important moments in life and in our relationships with others are always, most immediately, ones of caution and hesitation. Jesus understands that the stronger pull at such moments will be toward that which seems more secure. We shall want to incorporate this new person, this new love, this new call or possibility “within the lines that experience has drawn for us.”  So, Jesus summons us to practice, at such a moment, a radical detachment. We are not “to look back” but rather to “stand ready” in faith and trust, albeit while bearing the experience of our own fear and trembling, which is born of our sense of inadequacy and doubt.

Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level, rather than letting God lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable. This is as true in life as it is in art. Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we are  honest with ourselves, exhausted. What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us? This is what it means to love. This is what it should mean to write one more poem. The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agent of it; all love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love.

Christian Wiman, “Nimble Believing,” in A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, eds., Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, p. 247

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