September 21, 2009

Jesus Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1580

Jesus Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1580

In Out Of Solitude,  Henri J. M. Nouwen writes “Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our lives.” The Japanese had a term in their aesthetics called “aware,” pronounced ah-wah-rey, which seemed to express this very same feeling.  It seems that there is no such thing as clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. I always appreciated the curious coincidence of the pun on the English “aware” or “awareness.”

“In every satisfaction,” Nouwen continues, “there is an awareness of its limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness…”

Jesus made us look at our pains, but also beyond them. “You are sad now, but I shall see you again and your hearts will be full of joy.” A man or woman without hope in the future cannot live creatively in the present. The paradox of expectation indeed is that those who believe in tomorrow can better live today, that those who expect joy to come out of sadness can discover the beginnings of a new life in the center of the old, that those who look forward to the returning Lord can discover him already in their midst.

Our experience of life is profoundly paradoxical. At times we can find much in ourselves or in others which makes it easy to stand high and feel that we are indeed “little less than the gods,” as Psalm 8:2-8 puts it:

“You have set your glory above the heavens. 
   Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
   to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
   you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
   and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
   whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

 At other times we find much that cuts us down at the knees and makes it difficult to believe in anything. And at the end, death stands waiting to cut us down. Nonetheless, the long history of human hope, love, labor and struggle continues. It is testimony to our conviction that our lives do make sense, that we and our world are truly becoming something, that there is a real future. Here are the reflections of some writers who have found Jesus in their midst and the sense it has brought to their lives:

The Parable Of The Lilies Of The Field
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear? For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

There is perhaps nothing so perfect in all language or literature as the use of these three degrees in the parable of the lilies of the field; in which he seems first to take one small flower in his hand and note its simplicity and even its impotence; then suddenly expands it in flamboyant colors into all the palaces and pavilions full of a great name in national legend and national glory (Solomon); and then, by yet a third overturn, shrivels into nothing once more with a gesture as if flinging it away `and if God so clothes the grass that today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven– how much more’ It is like the building of a good Babel tower by white magic in a moment and in the movement of a hand; a tower heaved suddenly up to heaven on the top of which can be seen afar off, higher than we had fancied possible, the figure of man; lifted by three infinities above all other things, on a starry ladder of light logic and swift imagination. Merely in a literary sense it would be more of a masterpiece than most of the masterpieces in the libraries; yet it seems to have been uttered almost at random while a man might pick a flower.

But merely in a literary sense also, this use of the comparative in several degrees has about it a quality which seems to me to hint of much higher things than the modern suggestion of the simple teaching of pastoral or communal ethics.  There is nothing that really indicates a subtle and in the true sense a superior mind so much as this power of comparing a lower thing with a higher and yet that higher with a higher still; of thinking on three planes at once. There is nothing that wants the rarest sort of wisdom so much as to see, let us say, that the citizen is higher than the slave and yet that the soul is infinitely higher than the citizen or the city.

It is not by any means a faculty that commonly belongs to these simplifiers of the Gospel; those who insist on what they call a simple morality and others call a sentimental morality.  It is not at all covered by those who are content to tell everybody to remain at peace. On the contrary, there is a very striking example of it in the apparent inconsistency between Christ’s sayings about peace and about a sword. It is precisely this power which perceives that while a good peace is better than a good war, even a good war is better than a bad peace. These far-flung comparisons are nowhere so common as in the Gospels; and to me they suggest something very vast.  So a thing solitary and solid, with the added dimension of depth or height, might tower over the flat creatures living only on a plane.
G. K. Chesterton On Jesus Christ (Taken From The Everlasting Man)

The Resurrection Of Christ As The High Point In The Law Of Nature
To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has always been even if today there seem to be more reasons to doubt.  For you it may be matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me, it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws, I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered the human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace the way they were in Christ.  The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature. 
Flannery O’Connor Spiritual Writings – Robert Ellsberg (Editor)

Tolstoy On The Gospels
An idea becomes close to you only when you are aware of it in your soul, when in reading about it it seems that it has already occurred to you, that you know it and you are simply recalling it. That’s how it was when I read the Gospel. In the Gospels I discovered a new world: I had not yet supposed that there was such a depth of thought in them. Yet it all seemed so familiar; it seemed that I had known it all long ago, that I had only forgotten it.
Tolstoy, As recorded in Bulgakov’s Diary 18 April 1910
Jesus – Malcolm Muggeridge

Fantasy, Truth And The Eye
I want to cry out with the blind man to whom Jesus restored his sight: One thing that I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see. How, I ask myself, could I have missed it before? How not have understood that the grey-silver light across the water, the cry of the sea-gulls and the sweep of their wings, everything on which my eyes rest and my ears hear is telling me about God.

 This life’s dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’, the Eye.

Thus Blake distinguishes between the fantasy that is seen with the eye and truth that is seen though it. There are two clearly demarcated kingdoms; and passing from one to the other, from the kingdom of fantasy to the kingdom of reality, gives inexpressible delight. As when the sun comes out, and a dark landscape is suddenly glorified, all that was obscure becoming clear, all that was incomprehensible, comprehensible. Fantasy’s joys and desires dissolve away and in their place is one joy, one desire; one Oneness — God. In this kingdom of reality, Simone Weil tells us, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy as goodness; no desert so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. There we may understand what St. Augustine meant when he insisted that ‘though the higher things are better than the lower, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone, and how, in  the light of this realization, all human progress, human morality, human law, based, as they are, on the opposite proposition – of the intrinsic superiority of the higher over the lower – is seen as written on water, scribbled on dust; like Jesus’ scribble while he was waiting for the accusers of he woman taken in adultery to disperse.
Jesus – Malcolm Muggeridge

St Augustine’s Preaching After Hearing The News Of The Sack Of Rome
Jesus had indeed overcome the world, and forever…He had overcome the world by revealing its true nature, its reality contrasting with the layer upon layer of fantasy which the human ego is endlessly constructing out of itself, like a monstrous coral reef. The revelation was Jesus’ good news, the kingdom he came to proclaim. In its light, we may know ourselves to be displaced persons, who yet are given eyes, if we care to use them, capable of seeing here on earth, all the contours and of our true habitat and dwelling-place-to-be. Thus St Augustine’s preaching…after hearing the news of the sack of Rome:

You are surprised that the world is losing its grip? That the world is grown old and full of pressing tribulations? Do not hold on to the old man, the world; do not refuse to regain your youth in Christ, who says to you: the world is passing away, the world is losing its grip, the world is short of breath. Do not fear, thy youth shall be renewed as an eagle.
Jesus – Malcolm Muggeridge

Dostoevsky’s Creed
“One sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy,” he wrote from Siberia. “And yet God gives me moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simply: here it is. I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Savior: I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one.”

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