Approach and Avoidance

When Aaron, then, and the other children of Israel saw Moses and noticed how radiant the skin of his face had become, they were afraid to come near him. Only after Moses called to them did Aaron and all the rulers of the community come back to him.
Exodus 34:30-1

“Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”
Matthew 13:45-6

In today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus compares the Kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great price that a merchant, having spent his life in search of, suddenly finds and then sells all he has to possess it. In the reading from Exodus we hear of how Aaron and the other children of Israel avoid Moses because of the way the very skin of his face radiates the encounter with God which he has just experienced. They only return to Moses after he calls them. In both readings today we are able to recognize a manifestation of the “approach-avoidance conflict” that is part of the everyday life of each of us.

Over time I’ve discovered that one of the most difficult questions for us to answer is “What do you really want?” We have plenty of wants, and, like the merchant in the parable, we search the world seeking to satisfy them. The very engine of our economy runs on our having wants, and often what we even feel as needs, that we’ll pay to fulfill. Basically we spend our lives, our money and our effort, as well as suffer the concomitant anxieties, for the sake of those things that we need and want for ourselves and our families. So, in the course of our lives, we accumulate our own unique storehouse of pearls. Yet for most of us the pearl of great price remains elusive. The scriptures and the spiritual traditions suggest to us that this is not principally because it is unattainable but rather because it is unrecognizable to us.

Exodus tells us that when Moses, having conversed with the Lord, comes down from Mount Sinai “. . . the skin of his face had become radiant.” The children of Israel, who had built an idol in order to have a god who was with them, are afraid when they see this manifestation of the glory of the Lord with them, and so they avoid Moses; “. . . they were afraid to come near him.” Is it possible that much of our “searching” in life is really avoidance of what we really want? Do we somehow understand that finding what we really want will cost us everything else for which we search? “When he he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”

At different points in life, we have very different feelings about our own mortality. At some times when I was quite young, I had a somewhat obsessive fear of dying. I would at times think that it would have been better not to live than to have to face death. Over time, however, I came to see that it was not death that I so feared but life. As the moments of joy in life increased, the joy of being alive and having the life that was uniquely mine, my fear of death began to dissipate. I began to see that the real fear is of never having lived, of never bringing to life in the world the unique life and call that is ours.

What we really want, and need, is what Jesus called “life to the full.” We do not so much need to add to who we are as to become who we are. We do not need to glorify ourselves, but we do need and want to express the glory of God in us, as we have been created and loved into being. Yet, for us as for the Israelites, when that glory does manifest itself, we are also fearful. So we spend ourselves looking for counterfeits of real life. We search for momentary oblivion and moments of gratification, rather than open our eyes and come close to the life to the full that each present moment contains. To live in the faith that the present moment, as it is given to us, contains all that we need and want, we must forsake all the counterfeits that we pursue. We must, as the parable says, sell all that we have in order to have the all that is given to us. The pearl of great price is always immediately before us, if we can empty ourselves enough to receive it.

Recently a friend and I were speaking about our desire to deepen our practice of silence and meditation. This is a recurrent theme for us, as for many. The deep desire to be still, silent, and fully present to life and to God for even a few minutes a day evokes in us the approach-avoidance conflict. As we work together each day, we decided to take time before lunch to sit and to meditate together, to help each other to cease avoiding what we each very much wanted to do. Our capacity to avoid what we most want seems almost infinite. What we think of as the asceticism and disciplines of spiritual practice are precisely an attempt to help us to overcome the powerful tendencies of avoidance.

Many days I also extend my lunch hour enough to spend some time working out at the gym, a necessity if I am to keep the worst symptoms of arthritis at bay.. Yesterday as I was heading out to my car from our office, a man called out to me. He had been a graduate of one of our grade schools in the 1950’s and had attended Mount St. Joseph’s High School, the site of our offices, for a year afterwards. He had found himself in Baltimore and wanted to see what the school now looked like. My project for the coming hour and a half was to get to the gym and get back to work. As the man spoke of Brothers he had known and of how the campus looked 60 years ago, I struggled to remain present to him. I was both somewhat listening to  him but also “searching for the pearl” of getting my exercise and keeping my schedule. The Kingdom that was in the present moment was different from my expectations. It was right before me. It took me some minutes, however, before I realized it, before I let go of, before I sold, everything I was holding onto in order to receive the pearl that was being given to me.

To sell all that we have in order to receive the Kingdom of heaven is to be “put in our place” in the world. We are restless, and so we are always searching about for the rest we seek. Yet, the possibility, indeed the reality, of rest is right before us. Jan van Ruusbroec tells us that love and rest are inextricably connected: “. . . the higher the love, the greater the rest; and the greater the rest, the deeper the love.” To enter the call in love that is ours in each present moment is to experience rest, and to cease all our exploration and rest fully in the present moment is the greatest love. To do what we can in the moment is to do all we can. It is to live our life “to the full.” The present moment is our life. When we live it to the full, when we bring the love we have to bear, however little it seems, we are at rest in the Kingdom of heaven.

It remains highly mysterious why we so avoid this. We live in a culture in which we suffer an epidemic of frustration and exhaustion. There is at once so much from which to choose, so many potential wants and needs to be met that we become more and more distanced from what we really want. In our affluence there are many moments of relative satisfaction and gratification, but far too few of real joy. Joy comes in presence, in silence, in rest, in love. These are what we really want, and what are continually being offered to us. To receive them however, we must cease avoiding them, and then we must let go of, we must “sell,” all that we think we have in order to  create a space to receive them.

 

                     Turning

Going too fast for myself I missed
more than I think I can remember

almost everything it seems sometimes
and yet there are chances that come back

that I did not notice when they stood
where I could have reached out and touched them

this morning the black Belgian dog
still young looking up and saying

Are you ready this time

W. S. Merwin

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