How To Live In Interesting Times

Remain in me, as I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, unless it remains part of the vine, neither can  you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, as I remain in you, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.

John 15: 4-5

What is it that makes us truly and distinctively human? Are we more than our physical functioning and instinct for survival? If so, how do we remain, in the midst of constant forces of dissipation, connected to our life and source? In today’s gospel Jesus tells us that if our lives are to bear the fruit for which they exist, we must remain grafted onto the vine which carries the Divine life that is the source of our own lives.

We are told, probably apocryphally,  that an ancient Chinese curse declares: “May you live in interesting times.” To live in the United States at this time is certainly “interesting” in this ironic sense. It appears that all the weaknesses in a culture have come, somewhat suddenly, to a head. The taken-for-granted values of the culture have become caricatures of themselves. The limits of the search for success, wealth, power, personal recognition, and the materialism and relativism to which they give rise have become strikingly and somewhat alarmingly apparent. The wealth and power of the nation seems to be without anchor or considered direction. We seem to be living on the brink of the unbridled release of the instinctual, irrational, and irresponsible in human nature and to be facing the possibility, if not inevitability, of the damage that can thus be wrought on ourselves and the world.

As the anxiety of such a social milieu increases, we are thrown back on ourselves and on the kind of fundamental human questions that a smoothly functioning culture and society can readily avoid. Where once the illusion of “the American Dream” was sufficient, we are now experiencing its limitations. Every human construct is finite and mortal. Every human answer is partial. What makes us who we truly are is our communion with Jesus; it is our sharing in the life of God which he mediates to us. Any life or world we construct must maintain its connection with the Divine life within us, for cut off from it we “can do nothing.” Although we can pretend to replace truth with power and mercy and love with wealth and possession, we cannot do so without losing our humanity. Perhaps the chaos in which we now live began as our pursuit of autonomy and wealth inevitably diminished our sense of community and of the common-wealth.

Each of us is created by and sustained in love, the life of the vine. What mediates that love to us, however, is always limited and partial. So, we seek the love we need, as St. Augustine wrote (“And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you. . .”), outside of ourselves, in the world around us. Instead of realizing and accepting as a gift the source of the beauty of the world around us, we seek to grasp and possess the world in such a way as to fill our own emptiness and lack. The more we grasp the more the reality of the other shrinks from us, and so, the more our loneliness increases. Life is fruitless when we live and act in the world apart from the vine that is our own true life.

As we read recently in John 14:6, Jesus tells us that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Every thought, opinion, value that we hold to is to be measured against this truth, the truth not of any human doctrine, dogma, or social norm but the truth of Jesus’ life in us. As Augustine expresses, the truth is not to be found by seeking and searching outside, but rather by coming home to ourselves, and to the Divine within. To know, to live, to express the truth requires of us that first of all we abide in the truth of ourselves. It can seem, at this point in history, that there is, for the most part, no truth in our public figures and leaders outside of self-interest. Without being grafted on the vine, without the experience of our common source, there can be no shared sense of “that which is common to all.” The truth is that what we share in common would judge us all. None of us will be justified by the truth, but we all may find in it a merciful love of us all.

We come to know communion, rather than competition, confrontation, and envy, when we awaken to our common origin and common love. In the “ordinary,” that is in who we are as beloved of God, we come realize that our lifeblood is, in the words of Jan van Ruusbroec, “a love common to all.” Perhaps there is, after all, a grace and possibility in living in such interesting times in which the limits and illusions of our social and cultural understandings have become so manifest. it may be a moment where we can learn once again that to be cut off from Jesus, the vine, we can do nothing. If Augustine had so lost contact with his own inner life through searching for God outside of himself, how much more outside of ourselves have we been in our search for security, significance, potency, and love in the outside world. The good news is that whenever we have failed to remain in Jesus, we are always welcomed by him to return.

This call to return is especially difficult to hear in a time of social turmoil. These days, I find myself almost addicted to the latest political eruptions and news reports. Yet, always, and perhaps especially in the moment of such temptation to dissipation, there is a call from Jesus to “remain in me, as I remain in you.” To live the life to which we are called, we must life the life of God in us. Doing this means to put all of my person, all I have been given, at God’s service. It is to attend to the love in me that is a love for all. It is not to increase my store, to overcome my doubts and self-depreciation, but to receive all I have been give as a gift to be given away. To do this requires the work of turning toward God, the God who is my life and is within, to learning what love is from God, and to recognize that in the human world that love is manifest as service.

 

Parental love is limited reflection of an unlimited love. In the experience of parental love I was wounded as were you, and every other human being. Most parents are the best and the greatest, but in the human experience, parents are also very, very broken people. As much as they desire to give their children the very best, their own brokenness prevents them from being able to do it, and against their own desires they communicate limited love.

Partly for this reason all of us feel the desire to search beyond home for our belovedness, and we generally get caught in many of the cultural movements that exist around us. A dissipated life is one in which we consciously or unconsciously live with the questions: “What do you think of me? Look at me! Look at what I’m doing! Look at what I have! Aren’t I great? Do you think I’m OK? Do you accept me? Do you see me as good? Do you like me? Do you love me?

. . .

The life of Jesus refutes this dark world of illusion that entraps us. To return home is to turn from these illusions, from dissipation, and from our desperate attempts to live up to others’ expectations. We are not what we do. We are not what we have. We are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving Creator. We no longer have to beg for permission from the world to exist.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, pp. 36-8

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