Another reading selection from The Lord. One of the greatest riffs I have ever read.
Among the instructions that Jesus gives the Twelve before sending them out into the world are the following:
“Do not think that I have come to send peace upon the earth; I have come to bring a sword, not peace…. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And he who does not take up his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake, will find it”
(Matthew 10:34 – 39).
Jesus’ message is one of good will. He proclaims the Father’s love and the advent of his kingdom. He calls people to the peace and harmony of life lived in the divine will, yet their first reaction is not union, but division. The more profoundly Christian a man becomes, the deeper the cleft between him and those who refuse to follow Christ — its exact measure proportionate to the depth of that refusal.
The split runs right through the most intimate relationship, for genuine conversion is not a thing of natural disposition or historical development, but the most personal decision an individual can make. The one makes it, the other does not; hence, the possibility of schism between father and son, friend and friend, one member of a household and another.
When it comes to a choice between domestic peace and Jesus, one must value Jesus higher, even higher than the most dearly beloved: father and mother, son and daughter, friend or love. This means cutting into the very core of life, and temptation presses us to preserve human ties and abandon Christ. But Jesus warns us: If you hold “life” fast, sacrificing me for it, you lose your own true life. If you let it go for my sake, you will find yourself in the heart of immeasurable reality.
Naturally this is difficult; it is the cross. And here we brush the heaviest mystery of Christianity, the inseparableness from Calvary. Ever since Christ walked the way of the cross, it stands firmly planted on every Christian’s road, for every follower of Christ has his own personal cross. Nature revolts against it, wishing to “preserve” herself. She tries to go around it, but Jesus has said unequivocally, and his words are fundamental to Christianity: He who hangs on, body and soul, to “life” will lose it; he who surrenders his will to his cross will find it — once and forever in the immortal self that shares in the life of Christ.
On the last journey to Jerusalem, shortly before the Transfiguration, Jesus’ words about the cross are repeated. Then, sharply focused, the new thought:
“For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
This time the point plunges deeper. The dividing line does not run between one person and another, but between the believer, or one desirous of belief, and everything else! Between me and the world. Between me and myself. The lesson of the cross is the great lesson of self-surrender and self-conquest. Our meditations are approaching the passion of the Lord, so it is time that we turn to Christianity’s profoundest, but also most difficult mystery.
Why did Jesus come? To add a new, higher value to those already existent? To reveal a new truth over and above existing truth, or a nobler nobility, or a new and more just order of society? No, he came to bring home the terrible fact that everything, great and small, noble and mean, the whole with all its parts — from the corporal to the spiritual, from the sexual to the highest creative urge of genius — is intrinsically corrupt.
This does not deny the existence of individual worth. What is good remains good, and high aspirations will always remain high. Nevertheless, human existence in toto has fallen away from God. Christ did not come to renew this part or that, or to disclose greater human possibilities, but to open man’s eyes to what the world and human life as an entity really is; to give him a point of departure from which he can begin all over with his scale of values and with himself. Jesus does not uncover hidden creative powers in man; he refers him to God, center and source of all power.
It is as if humanity were one of those enormous ocean liners that is a world in itself: apparatuses for the most varied purposes; collecting place for all kinds of passengers and crew with responsibilities and accomplishments, passions, tensions, struggles. Suddenly someone appears on board and says: What each of you is doing is important, and you are right to try to perfect your efforts. I can help you, but not by changing this or that on your ship. It is your course that is wrong; you are steering straight for destruction…
Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy, or of the moralists with a better morality, or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life. He came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course.
Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him.
Jesus actually is the rescue pilot who puts us back on the right course. It is with this in mind that we must interpret the words about winning the world at the loss of the essential, about losing life, personality, soul, in order to possess them anew and truly. They refer to faith and the imitation of Christ.
Faith means to see and to risk accepting Christ not only as the greatest teacher of truth that ever lived, but as Truth itself (John 16:6). Sacred reality begins with Jesus of Nazareth. If it were possible to annihilate him, the truth he taught would not commit’ to exist in spite of the loss of its noblest apostle, but itself would cease to exist. For he is the Logos, the source of Living Truth. He demands not only that we consent intellectually to the correctness of his proclamation — that would be only a beginning — but that we feel with all our natural instinct for right and wrong, with heart and soul and every cell of our being, its claims upon us.
We must not forget: the whole ship is headed for disaster. It does not help to change from one side of it to the other or to replace this or that instrument. It is the course that must be altered. We must learn to take completely new bearings.
What does it mean, to be? Philosophy goes into the problem deeply, without changing being at all. Religion tells me that I have been created, that I am continuously receiving myself from divine hands, that I am free yet living from God’s strength.
Try to feel your way into this truth, and your whole attitude toward life will change. You will see yourself in an entirely new perspective. What once seemed self-understood becomes questionable. Where once you were indifferent, you become reverent; where self-confident, you learn to know “fear and trembling.” But where formerly you felt abandoned, you will now feel secure, living as a child of the Creator-Father, and the knowledge that this is precisely what you are will alter the very taproot of your being… .
What does it mean to die? Physiology says the blood vessels harden or the organs cease to function. Philosophy speaks of the pathos of finite life condemned to aspire vainly to infinity. Faith defines death as the fruit of sin, and man as peccator (Romans 6:23).
Death’s arm is as long as sin’s. One day for you too its consequences and death’s disintegration will have to be drawn. It will become evident how peccant you are, and consequently moribund. Then all the protective screens so elaborately arranged between you and this fact will fall, and you will have to stand and face your judgment.
But faith also adds, God is love, even though he allows sin to fulfill itself in death, and your Judge is the same as your Savior. If you were to reflect on this, over and over again until its truth was deep in your blood, wouldn’t it make a fundamental difference in your attitude toward life, giving you a confidence the world does not have to give? Wouldn’t it add a new earnestness and meaning to everything you do?
What precisely is this chain of acts and events that runs from our first hour to our last? The one says natural necessity; the other historical consequence; a third, something else. Faith says: It is Providence. The God who made you, saved you, and will one day place you in his light, also directs your life. What happens between birth and death is message, challenge, test, succor–all from his hands. It is not meant to be learned theoretically, but personally experienced and assimilated. Where this is so, aren’t all things necessarily transfigured? What is the resultant attitude but faith?
Religion then! But there are so many, one might object; Christ is just another religious founder.
No; all other religions come from earth. True, God is present in the earth he created, and it is always God whom the various religions honor, but not in the supremacy of his absolute freedom. Earthly religions revere God’s activity, the reflections of his power (more or less fragmentary, distorted) as they encounter it in a world that has turned away from him. They are inspired by the breath of the divine, but they exist apart from him; they are saturated with worldly influences, are formed, interpreted, colored by the historical situation of the moment.
Such a religion does not save. It is itself a piece of “world,” and he who wins the world loses his soul. Christ brings no “religion,” but the message of the living God, who stands in opposition and contradiction to all things, “world religions” included. Faith understands this, for to believe does not mean to participate in one or the other religion, but: “Now this is everlasting life, that they may know thee, the only true God, and him whom thou hast sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). Men are to accept Christ’s tidings as the norm of their personal lives.
My attitudes toward things to be done may be various. One follows the principle of maximum profit with minimum effort. This is the clever or economical approach. I can also consider a specific task in the light of duty, the fulfillment of which places my life on a spiritual and moral level. Christ teaches neither greater cleverness nor a higher sense of duty; he says: Try to understand everything that comes into your life from the viewpoint of the Father’s will.
If I do, what happens? Then I continue to act in accordance with cleverness and utility, but under the eyes of God. I will also do things that seem foolish to the world, but are clever in eternity. I will continue to try to act ethically, to distinguish clearly between right and wrong and to live in increasing harmony with an increasingly dependable conscience.
All this, however, I will do in the living presence of Christ, which will teach me to see things I never would have noticed alone. I will change my concepts and trouble my conscience — but for its good, stripping it of levity’s self-confidence, of moral pride, and of the intellectual stiffness that results from too much principle-riding. With increasing delicacy of conscience will come a new firmness of purpose and a new energy (simultaneously protective and creative) for the interests of good.
Similarly, my attitude toward my neighbor may be ordered from various points of view: I can consider others’ competition, and attempt to protect my interests from them. I can respect the personality of each. I can see them as co-sharers of destiny, responsible with me for much that is to come, and so on and so forth. Each of these attitudes has its place, but everything is changed once I understand what Christ is saying: You and those near you — through me you have become brothers and sisters, offspring of the same Father. His kingdom is to be realized in your relationship to each other.
We have already spoken of the transformation that takes place when fellow citizens become brothers in Christ, when from the “you and me” of the world springs the Christian “we.” Much could be said of the Christian’s attitude toward destiny and all that it implies in the way of injustice, shock and tragedy: things with which no amount of worldly wisdom, fatalism or philosophy can cope — and preserve its integrity.
This is possible only when some fixed point exists outside the world, and such a point cannot be created by man, but must be accepted from above (as we accept the tidings of divine Providence and his all-directing love). St. Paul words it in his epistle to the Romans (Chapter 8): “Now we know that for those who love God all things work together for good….” This means an ever more complete exchange of natural security, self-confidence and self-righteousness, for confidence in God and his righteousness as it is voiced by Christ and the succession of his apostles.
Until a man makes this transposition he will have no peace. He will realize how the years of his life unroll, and ask himself vainly what remains. He will make moral efforts to improve, only to become either hopelessly perplexed or priggish. He will work, only to discover that nothing he can do stills his heart. He will study, only to progress little beyond vague probabilities — unless his intellectual watchfulness slackens, and he begins to accept possibility for truth or wishes for reality.
He will fight, found, form this and that only to discover that millions have done the same before him and millions will continue to do so after he is gone, without shaping the constantly running sand for more than an instant. He will explore religion, only to founder in the questionableness of all he finds. The world is an entity. Everything in it conditions everything else. Everything is transitory. No single thing helps, because the world as a whole has fallen from grace. One quest alone has an absolute sense: that of the Archimedes point and lever which can lift the world back to God, and these are what Christ came to give.
One more point is important: our Christianity itself must constantly grow. The great revolution of faith is not a lump of reality fallen ready-made from heaven into our laps. It is a constant act of my individual heart and strength. I stand with all I am at the center of my faith, which means that I bring to it also those strands of my being which instinctively pull away from God. It is not as though I, the believer, stand on one side, the fallen world on the other. Actually faith must be realized within the reality of my being, with its full share of worldliness.
Woe to me if I say “I believe” and feel safe in that belief. For then I am already in danger of losing it (see 1 Corinthians 10: 12). Woe to me if I say: “I am a Christian” — possibly with a side-glance at others who in my opinion are not, or at an age that is not, or at a cultural tendency flowing in the opposite direction. Then my so-called Christianity threatens to become nothing but a religious form of self-affirmation.
I “am” not a Christian; I am on the way of becoming one — if God will give me the strength. Christianity is nothing one can “have”; nor is it a platform from which to judge others. It is movement. I can become a Christian only as long as I am conscious of the possibility of falling away. The gravest danger is not failure of the will to accomplish a certain thing; with God’s help I can always pull myself together and begin again. The real danger is that of becoming within myself unchristian, and it is greatest when my will is more sure of itself. I have absolutely no guarantee that I shall be privileged to remain a follower of Christ save in the manner of beginning, of being en route, of becoming, trusting, hoping and praying.