Tuesday, November 20, 2007

the good gets better

(Reflections on Malachi 3:19-20 & Luke 21:5-19)

Here on earth we suffer…
the attacks of monsters, owls and savage beasts.
But terrible though these attacks are,
behind them God is acting
and giving us something of the divine
which will give us the brilliance of the sun,
for here below both body and soul
are refined and fashioned like gold and iron, linen and gems.
Like these things,
our soul and body will not attain their full beauty
until they have been trimmed and shaped
and changed from their original form.
All they have endured in this life at the hand of God
––and he is love itself––
is meant only to prepare us for eternal bliss.
The truly faithful soul,
well versed in the secrets of God,
lives in peace, and,
instead of being frightened by what happens to it,
is comforted, for it is quite certain that God is guiding it.
It accepts all things as a manifestation of God’s grace,
ignores itself and thinks only of what God is doing.
Love inspires it to perform its duties most carefully and faithfully.
A soul completely abandoned to God
sees nothing clearly except the action of grace…
de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence

Huston Smith teaches that, whereas he South Asian-Indian religions––Hinduism and Buddhism––concentrated mainly on psychological development of the individual; and the east Asian religions––Confucianism and Taoism––concentrated on the social dimension of the human person, the concentration and therefore gift of the Abrahamic family of religions has been its attention to the natural world and the created order. And because of that what grows out of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are three marvelous gifts: modern science, the idea of progress and the notion of the individual and his or her individual rights. It’s the second of those two that the concerns me today, the notion of progress, which comes directly from its sense of time.

Huston Smith further suggests that because the Abrahamic family of religions took its shape from a people who for most of their history were either displaced persons or oppressed persons, it is a tradition forged by social underdogs, and there is only one direction for an underdog to look––up! In their formative periods the Jews were constantly filled with hope amidst their oppression; they were always a people of waiting––to cross over into the Promised Land or for something to throw off the yoke. This then gave the Judeo-Christian-Islamic perspective of history an “upward tilt of expectation” that eventually was to lead to the idea of progress, because progress has an obvious relation to time. When they witnessed the novelty that time brought with it, there arose a sense of the possibility that that which is novel or new might be better than what is old. As a friend of mine likes to quote (from the recent movie Into the Wild), “The good gets better.” When this took shape in the Jewish mind it crystallized into the doctrine of the coming of the Messiah; when it moved into Christianity that changed into the second coming of Christ. Huston Smith goes so far as to say that when it moved into a secular version in the 17th century it became the doctrine of historical progress; and finally in the 19th century even Marxism, for all its heretical tendencies, converted this same sense of optimism about time into the idea of the coming classless society. (My confrere Bruno might say another child that forgot who its parents were.) But the idea is the same: that there is going to be a great day.

I think it is important to keep this in mind as whenever we talk about the end of the world or the second coming as Christians do in the days just before and early in Advent. One of the things that separate Christians from other traditions is our sense of time. We don’t think that time just goes round and round in circles––“just one &#%@ thing after another,” as Winston Churchill said. For us time is going somewhere; history is going somewhere; evolution is going somewhere. It’s not simply about me working out my salvation either––in this lifetime or in another re-incarnation: all of human history itself, the evolution of the human race is going somewhere, heading toward something. The great Franciscan saint John Duns Scotus was one of the first theologians to articulate an evolutionary view of Christology. He taught that history and creation were like a pyramid whose capstone is Jesus; Jesus is the height of the evolution of the human person, and of human consciousness. And all of history is now heading toward that height as well, when, as St Paul says, God will be all and all in Christ. Time is going somewhere; history is going somewhere; all creation is going somewhere––that’s why we pray “world without end, Amen!” Where is it going? St Paul says in 2 Cor (3:18) “from one degree of glory to another.” That’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come!” God will be all in all in Christ. The good gets better.

It’s this essential optimism, this sense of the benevolence of the universe that we should carry in our hearts, and that should characterize our attitude toward the world. We don’t freak out about world events, even when planes fly into buildings full of people, even when our candidate does or does not look like he or she is going to win the election. We could concentrate on the blazing fire of God that is going to reduce all things to stubble (as we hear in the prophet Malachi); or we could concentrate on the fact that that same fire will become in us the “healing rays” of the sun of justice (as we also hear in the prophet Malachi). The fire of God that is coming on the earth is the fire of love! Jesus says, “I have come to bring fire to the earth! How I wish it were already blazing!” That fire––facing the unconditional love of God––might be punishment to the enemies of God but it becomes healing for God’s friends and, as Abba Moses said, if we want we could be all fire.

We could concentrate on all the calamities that may or may not surround our day and age; or we could concentrate on the faith that tells us that “not a hair on our head will be destroyed,” and that “by our perseverance we will secure our lives.” Among scared people there’s always a temptation to divide the world into the good and the bad, as we hear Malachi doing by separating the proud and the evildoers. That too in a sense comes out of our lack of trust in the benevolence of the cosmos that God has created, our failure to see goodness at work even in things that may seem dark to us at first. But the line that separates the good from the wicked isn’t between us and others––it crosses right through the middle of our own hearts. The root and stubble that is going to be burnt is going to be burnt out of my own heart, and then my real self created in the image of God will arise, the sun of justice will rise in our hearts, and we will be all fire, light for the world.

I focus in immediately on the last line of the Gospel: By your perseverance you will secure your lives. What are we persevering in? Faith, hope and love, those three cardinal virtues. We persevere in faith in the Gospel, a leap of faith in the beatitudes that tell us that the meek shall inherit the earth. We see calamities and insurrections and wars; it appears that evil is overcoming and we are tempted to give up on the Gospel; we are tempted to compromise the demands of the Gospel––even in the name of the Gospel! But Jesus says, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” We persevere in hope in the benevolence of the universe. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke Jesus has said, “Do not fear my little flock. The Father is glad to give you the kingdom!” While everyone else is running around saying the sky is falling, by your perseverance you will secure your lives. We persevere in love, love for this big blue marble and all its creatures, for our earth and all the sacraments of the earth, all the myriad ways that God shows us love, all the means God has put at our disposal to work out our salvation, not the least of which being time and history themselves. By our steady perseverance on this long slow road we will secure our lives.

Many people in this day and age come along giving us quick easy answers to very complicated questions, quick fixes and political expediency, from the left and from the right. Paul tells us what our attitude should be: we don’t freak out; we don’t worry. We work, quietly. We mind our business and work toward bringing the reign of God’s justice to the earth. It may not be anything fancy nor look heroic. It’s the long slow, boring, tedious work of faith in the Gospel of Jesus as the bedrock on which we base all of our decisions and actions; of letting that hope permeate our attitude and outlook on life; the long suffering work of learning how to love, a love that is patient, kind, slow to anger. By our steadfast perseverance we will save our lives and aid others in their salvation as well.