The Grace of Disappointment

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The great crowd heard this with delight.

Mark 12: 37

Today’s gospel continues Jesus’ ongoing contestation with the Scribes. It also provides a contrast between the attitude of the scribes and that of those who constitute the “great crowd” that follow Jesus and humbly and openly attend to his word.

Jesus reminds us that “where our treasure is, there will our heart be also” (Luke 12: 34). The treasure of many of the Scribes is their self-satisfaction in their own sense of identity and their desire to maintain their status in the community. The treasure of those who are following Jesus is the life and the love that his words manifest to them.

It is not difficult to identify with the Scribes. As religious leaders and teachers, it is doubtless true that at some point they knew in their hearts a passion for God and the touch of God’s love. As we well know from our own experience, however, it is very difficult and painful to live in, as the Author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, desire all our life long. Day by day, we must choose whether or not to live in the longing, which means in the sense of dissatisfaction and lack, of our deepest human desire for God or to dissociate from that desire in favor of much more petty and realizable ones. The Scribes who don’t listen to Jesus but instinctually compete with him do so out of their desire for preservation of their power and status. Their heart has atrophied because their treasure is small and petty.

If our treasure is in heaven, we must be willing to live in a continual experience of poverty, hunger, and lack. We make our most important life choices and commitments out of our deepest longings, but the reality of human contingency and imperfection inevitably leads to disappointment. Disappointment is a powerful experience that is both a peril and an opportunity. The peril is that it moves us away from our deepest longing and desire and into a state of cynicism, negativity, and atrophy of heart. We may look as if we are the ones “in the know,” but actually we are in despair. On the other hand, disappointment is also opportunity. Adrian van Kaam says that it is through disappointment that bioeros is transformed into transeros. That is, if we can suffer life’s disappointments while continuing to keep our hearts open to our own deepest desires, and so to God within us, we can come to realize God’s love in the very partial and sometimes painful experiences of human love and its lack.

Perhaps our tradition’s greatest teacher of prayer is St. Theresa of Avila. In The Book of Her Life, she speaks of how, in the early experiences of prayer, we receive the spark of God’s love in the depths of our soul and how, if we don’t abandon our own soul and heart, that spark can, in time, enkindle a large fire.

This prayer, then, is a little spark of the Lord’s true love which He begins to enkindle in the soul; and He desires that the soul grow in the understanding of what this love accompanied by delight is. For anyone who has experience, it is impossible not to understand soon that this little spark cannot be acquired. Yet, this nature of ours is so eager for delights that it tries everything; but it is quickly left cold because however much it may desire to light the fire and obtain this delight, it doesn’t seem to be doing anything else than throwing water on it and killing it. If this quietude and recollection and little spark is from God’s spirit and not a delight given by the devil or procured by ourselves, it will be noticed no matter how small it is. And if we don’t extinguish it through our own fault, it is what will begin to enkindle the large fire that (as I shall mention in its place) throws forth flames of the greatest love of God which His Majesty gives to perfect souls.

  Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, Chapter 15

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