Faith and Encounter

Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the Lord’s messenger called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Here I am,” he answered. “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger. “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”

Genesis 22:10-12

At that some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, “Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise and walk?

Matthew 9:4-5

 

From the very beginning of his Pontificate, Pope Francis has called on us to give ourselves to the world in the mode of “encounter.” He tells us that we are called to live a “culture of encounter.” The story of Abraham and Isaac and of Jesus’ “encounter” with the scribes, as he forgives the sins of and then heals the paralytic, afford an opportunity to reflect on the challenges that living a life of encounter pose for us

The first word that Jesus speaks to the paralytic is “courage.” “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” The first response of Jesus to the paralytic is a response to his heart. It is a realization that to live a new life, one not dominated by the sinful habits that have so far been his mode of survival, will require that he find courage where fear has dominated. As with all of us, we might like to break out of those life draining habits of mind and body that diminish our life, and yet they are also our security. Jesus makes clear that healing requires that we leave what we know in order to courageously discover the new life that God would give us.

Every true encounter is an openness to change. it springs from a recognition on our part that God comes to us in openness and hospitality to what is new, unknown, and different in the other. it is a willingness to give away what we have to another, in deed and word, with the willingness to have it returned to us in a new and different way. Courage comes to us the more we live from our heart, the more that love rather than fear pervades our relationship to ourselves, to others and to the world. The scribes are unable to encounter Jesus because they already fully know who God is and how God acts.  Without an openness to learn and a willingness meet on new ground, they can never receive the unexpected revelation of God that Jesus brings and is.

As any true teacher, as Jesus before him, Pope Francis evokes a good deal of resistance in his call to encounter others and the world. There would be little or no resistance if he had called for us to do good to others or to be kind to others. For to do this does not require us to be open to the change the other may call us to. In the pervasive ecclesiology of our lifetimes, and long before, we, who lived in the light of truth, were called to bring that light to the lost and benighted others. That was the very nature of mission and apostolate. I was reminded of this as I read, with some degree of disturbance, the opening prayer given for today:

O God, who through the grace of adoption chose us to be children of light, grant, we pray, that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth.

I have to admit to feeling uneasy at the images of the prayer. It seems to suggest there are those who are “wrapped in the darkness of error” and those who “stand in the bright light of truth,” and that, somehow, I/we are among the latter. How is encounter possible for one who must “always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth”? If I am in the light and my secular family, friends and others are “wrapped in the darkness of error,” what will be the quality of our encounter. If I have nothing to learn from them, how can I really listen to them? If it is I who know the truth of God, then I must either dominate or flee from any different perspective. In domination and withdrawal, true encounter is impossible.

There may be no more terrifying experience of Divine encounter than that given to us in the story of Abraham and his beloved son Isaac. We find ourselves horrified by the very possibility that Abraham would sacrifice his son to God. Yet, in Abraham’s religious world, child sacrifice was an aspect of worship. This story from Genesis is a relating of a cataclysmic change in religious consciousness. At this “moment” in history, as embodied in this person Abraham, human religious understanding is passing through the darkest of dark nights. Abraham is our parent in faith not because he bequeaths us a body of doctrine about the nature of God. Rather, it is because he submits everything that he is and has to a Mystery that is so different from all he has known and understood up to this moment. His courage lies not in always being seen “to stand in the bright light of truth,” rather it is the courage to abandon himself and all he thinks he knows to One who is totally “Other” from what he has known. It is a willingness to trust as he enters the profound but fecund darkness of unknowing.

As St. Paul reminds us, we carry a treasure, the light of Christ, in an earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7). We are not the light but are to bear witness to the light, as we are told in John’s gospel (Jn 1:8). The light shines in the darkness, including our own darkness. As a young man, I often thought that if I lived to the age I am now, I would have attained assurance and certainty as to the truth of my convictions and the rightness of my path. Concerning this expectation, I have been sorely disillusioned. Life continues to teach me how to live knowing less but trusting more. To be in ministry is to be asked over and over again in different ways, “How can this be? How can God allow this to happen?” I am no more able today, and perhaps less so, to answer these questions than when I first heard them, in myself and others, as a young man. In truth, living in faith asks of us, as it did of Abraham, to abandon our lives, to offer everything to a God whom we really can never know but whom we trust “will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.”

As regards the road to union, entering on the road means leaving one’s own road; or better, moving on to the goal. And turning from one’s own mode implies entry into what has no mode, that is, God. Individuals who reach this state no longer have any modes or methods, still less are they attached to them, nor can they be. I am referring to modes of understanding, tasting, and feeling. Within themselves, though, they possess all methods, like one who though having nothing yet possesses all things [2 Cor. 6:19]. By being courageous enough to pass beyond the interior and exterior limits of their own nature, they enter into supernatural bounds—bounds that have no mode, yet in substance possess all modes. To reach these supernatural bounds, souls must depart from their natural bounds—and leave self far off in respect to both bounds—in order to mount from a low state to the highest.

St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II,iv,5

 

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