The Present Given By God

When you were slaves of sin, you felt no obligation to righteousness, and what did you get from this? Nothing but experiences that now make you blush, since that sort of behavior ends in death. Now, however, you have been set free from sin, you have been made slaves of God, and you get a reward leading to your sanctification and ending in eternal life. For the wage paid by sin is death; the present given by God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:20-23

One of the most important roles of all good parents is to reassure their young children in the face of evil and suffering that they are still safe and that everything will be alright. The first place a child will turn to when the disorder and chaos of life manifests is his or her parents, whose task it is to protect the child from the disorder and chaos that seems to constantly lurk. At such moments parents will mostly reassure the child by their mere presence, but often they will also need to offer a reassurance in words that will shield the child from the full truth of the reality. Throughout our lives we continue to balance our lives between the harshness of reality and the presumed comfort of our illusions. Today’s passage from Romans reminds us that the effect of sin, the ways in which we deny the nature and flow of reality and rather attempt to control and overpower it, is death.

As a very young child and prior to beginning school,  I would spend most of every day with my grandmother. With both of my parents at work, I would go next door each day and spend the entire day with her. I would watch her do her work; I would eat lunch with her; I would take my afternoon nap with her; and I would look out at the world, the changing times and seasons, from the security of her presence. When she got sick, actually she had been stricken by a heart attack, she suddenly disappeared from me. I knew she was upstairs in bed, but perhaps with one or two exceptions I was not allowed up to see her. I have a vague recollection of looking up the stairs when no one was around to see if I could see her there. When she finally died some weeks or months later, I recall that there was nothing my parents could say that could reassure me that things would be okay. I’m certain now that they were profoundly saddened by her death as well. In all likelihood, they did not have the words to reassure me at that moment. Life does, of course, go on, and with time we resumed our ordinary lives and routines. The acute suffering came to an end, but something in me, and perhaps in us, was permanently changed. There was a dark and threatening undercurrent to life, something that profoundly affected how I acted and what I felt, that I spent much of my energy avoiding.

Some twenty-seven years later my father died. As I drove to the church to meet the minister to prepare his funeral, I experienced my very first anxiety attack. It was severe enough that I thought I would have to pull off the road. Slowly, however, my breathing returned to normal, and I was able to continue on. I was able, despite my terrors to the contrary, to do what had to be done. We are a capacity, a potency, for far more than limiting and evading the aspects of reality that seem too much for us. We are also a transcendent form potency that is able to be present to and receive reality and, then, respond to it appropriately and wholeheartedly in accord with our own uniqueness. The truth is that life, as it is, is not more than we can bear.

To be a “slave of sin” as Paul puts it is to be compelled to act out of our fear of fully living. When we try to avoid the suffering of life by means of the exercise of power and control over others and the world, we shall inevitably have “our moment of reckoning.” When we use others and creation in an attempt to distract ourselves from our own impermanence, we can only come, at some point, to experience death in its harshest form. The Buddha says that the cause of suffering in us is “clinging and aversion.” These are our attempts to “pick and chose” the realities of life. We want to hold on to what we like, and we want to avoid what is displeasing to us. In short we want our desires and designs, the impulses of our own unconscious, to be the measure of all things. To be a slave to these compulsions is to be a slave of sin.

To be a “slave of God” in Paul’s terms is to be awake to the truth of things.  It is to be “one who attends solely to Reality.” This is what Adrian van Kaam calls “transcendent form potency.” It is naturally a part of us to feel that life and world are too much for us. At the pre-transcendent level our response to this fear is to attempt, by manipulation and control, to reduce the world down to manageable size. But as transcendent, we are a capacity to be awake, to attend to Reality, and to discover in it “the present given by God” which is “eternal life.” The stories in the gospels of Jesus raising people from the dead teach us that even death is not only what it seems to be to us. As Jesus says to the crowd as he prepares to raise the daughter of the synagogue official: “The girl is not dead but asleep” (Matthew 9:24). If we stay awake and enter into life as it comes to us, we shall discover it is more than meets the eye.

To be fully present to life in each moment is to receive “the present given by God,” which is “eternal life.” To be present, however, requires of us that we grow in awareness of what we refuse to be present to and the ways we live out that refusal. T. S. Eliot, in The Four Quartets, writes: “We had the experience but missed the meaning,/ And approach to the meaning restores the experience/ In a different form, beyond any meaning/ We can assign to happiness” (Dry Salvages, II). We “miss the meaning” of our experience to a significant degree because, without realizing it, we impose meanings from our past experience. It is our life of repetition that is doomed to death. Eternal life inheres in the actual meaning of experience. The “present of eternal life” is hidden there, like the yeast in the dough and the mustard seed in the ground.

I think often of my Godson Keith who died of a brain tumor at the age of 24. In the last years of his life in which he suffered from short-term memory loss due to the tumor, Keith developed an incredible ability to be in the moment. It seemed as if no matter how small the event or experience he would be filled with a sense of gratitude and appreciation for it, and for any person who was a part of it. Because he had lost the ability to be distracted and self-absorbed in the ways that afflict most of us, he could be simply present and open to whatever was a part of the experience. When he decided to suspend any further treatment, he was as fully alive and present to the meanings of that moment as anyone could be. He knew he did not want to die, but was not afraid of it. He was sorry for the pain that his decision caused his family, and he apologized to them. He was tired and knew that he had done all he could over recent times to fight for life, and so he simply chose to stop fighting and to trust what would happen. As he said, “If I don’t die, that will be great. But, if I do, it’s okay and I’m not afraid.” His last words before losing consciousness were those of a song he had learned at church: “All is love; all is peace.”

When an experience of life feels like too much to me, I vividly recall standing at Keith’s bedside as he related to me what he was going through. He taught me about our transcendent form potency to respond fully to whatever life or death brings us. I suspect that those last years of his life, where he developed a capacity to be fully present to each moment in awe and gratitude, were what allowed him to face the experience of his own death with the trust in “the present given by God” that is “eternal life.” Keith’s inability to manipulate and control his life, and I’m certain his response to that, had made him “a slave of God.” To be such a “slave,” however, is the only way to freedom. For the wages of sin, of being a slave to our own fears and desire for dominance and control, is a death, including the continual experiences of death-in-life, that come as “a thief and a robber.” Being present and responsive to life as it is, on the other hand, will teach us, in its own good time, to receive everything, including death, as, St. Francis did, as a brother or sister, as a portal to “eternal life.”

One who attends solely to Reality
avoids unnecessary suffering
and intuits the Order that binds the chaos of the world.

For there is order to everything,
despite the evil one perceives.

Those who persist in illusion,
seeking permanence and control,
have their moment of reckoning.
They know this and cannot shake the knowing.
They fear it and cannot escape the fear.
What they do not know is that the fear itself is the reckoning.

Just as you cannot command the wind,
just as you cannot ward off death,
just as you cannot ensure peace,
so you cannot escape the consequences of your deed;
evil consumes evil; good invites good.

Rami Shapiro, The Way of Solomon, 8:5-8, p. 69

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