Saturday, July 19, 2008

pulling up the weeds

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
Matt 13:24-30
This Gospel passage spoke to me on a few different but inter-related levels. This first has to do with anger and violence. The Wisdom literature, whence comes the reading we heard that introduced this Gospel (Wis 12:13, 16-19), is later Hebrew literature, and the portrait of God being painted is somewhat more nuanced and attenuated than earlier images. And so in it we hear that although God is sovereign in strength, God judges with mildness, and governs with great forbearance. Following on that, therefore, God has shown us that the righteous must be kind, it is a salient feature of a righteous person to be kind.

Now, this must be connected to and have something to teach us about the Gospel we have heard or the church would never have paired these two readings together. Jesus is always showing us who God is, and showing us also how we are to be as well––so as to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Nathan Mitchell writes in his book Real Presence that Jesus is showing us that God is neither angry or vengeful––precisely because God has no “ego” to defend. Jesus shows us is that the very nature of God is

"… unconditional compassion towards the human world,
unimpeachable love for creatures and creation.
God is that One who cherishes people and makes them free.
God’s will is always and only a willing of good.
God’s power is always and only a power exercised on behalf of those who need it… "

It’s true that there are examples of Jesus being fueled with righteous anger––and it’s also notable that this anger is always and only shown to be directed at religious leaders and hypocrites, from clearing the temple to scolding the Pharisees and Sadducees. So even if I might find in Jesus a certain justification for myself to start tearing out the weeds, in reality, I have to admit when I am filled with righteous indignation or justifiable anger, I am usually actually more indignant and angry than I am either righteous or just. And does not St Peter, and do not the desert fathers, constantly warn us against anger? Even AA calls it a “dubious luxury.” How much more strength it actually takes for me to let the weeds grow and let God do the sorting! This is not to say that there isn’t some injustice and evil that must be faced head on––lest we fall into a sort of quietism––but there also must be a time for ignoring the weeds and getting on with it, getting on with growing and growing up.

This is one of the things I have always admired about St Francis of Assisi. In spite of the fact that the church at his time was corrupt, and monasticism in his day had grown sort of fat and sassy, and had lost the spark that had been kindled just a few centuries before, Francis didn’t spend a lot of time or energy or waste any breath criticizing either institution. And there was plenty to criticize as many other reformer saints did––but not Francis. As a friend of mine and I like to say, Francis just “walked the other way.” He was totally fixed on this one thing, this other way of being monk, this other way of being Christian, total positive energy. And out of that seed falling on good ground a revolution in religious life and the church took place. You might say the same about St Romuald as well, though he was a little tough on his fellow monks.

So, practically speaking, often when I am tempted to fall into justified anger or righteous indignation––when I want to start tearing up the weeds––I try to remember that I am probably neither just nor righteous, just angry and indignant, which is usually more my ego in defense. I think a good first move is to let it go (mind you, I cannot do it at times either) and let the angels weed out the weeds from the wheat, and concentrate my energy instead on building something new––me.

At another level, I remember saying to another monk once how I thought that the only violence I should use was against evil thoughts and temptations, and he told me, quite calmly, “Well, some people think that we shouldn’t even use violence against ourselves or our thoughts.” Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware teaches this about prayer––and I think this applies to things at every level, physical, psychological, spiritual. He says that our “spiritual strategy” should be positive rather than negative: even instead of fighting our passions directly and trying to eliminate them by an effort of will––that is, tear out the weeds––, we simply turn and fix our attention somewhere else. While there is a time for uprooting our inbred compulsions, working on our obsessions and neuroses, there is also a time for our spiritual strategy to be totally positive, walking the other way, nurturing the growth of the wheat.

At a spiritual level too, at the level of prayer and meditation, this is an alternative approach to the obviously legitimate one spoken of by the fathers of the desert––taking all thoughts captive to Christ, but I think it’s equally valid and I have found, at times, even better. I’ve seen it echoed by many great teachers of prayer and meditation, on the issue of thoughts, what we should do about what Buddhists call the “monkey mind” that is always jumping from this branch to the next, and will never sit still for even a moment. We can try to fight our thoughts and try to make our mind stop jumping around by sheer force of will. But I don’t think that works for most people––we get caught up in thinking about not thinking, and we waste all of our energy trying not to think. Shunryu Suzuki teaches that when we are meditating we should not try to stop our thinking, but let the thinking stop itself. What we do is not focus on our thinking, on our monkey mind, on the weeds. We focus on our breath, our mantra, our word; we focus on the saving power of the name of Jesus, and attach our intention and attention to it. We don’t focus on the weeds, we focus on the wheat growing from the good seed. Or as Abba Isaac teaches in the great Conference X on Prayer, if “wandering thoughts surge about my soul like boiling water, and I cannot control them, nor can I offer prayer without its being interrupted by silly images,” I cling to this one prayer, his prayer being, “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me.”

Instead of trying to tear up the weeds, sometimes we simply need to look to God, we count on the grace that comes through prayer, which can overcome anything that we cannot root out by our own strength. Instead of trying tear out the weeds, instead of trying to empty our mind of bad or distracting things, we fill it with something we are sure is good and healthy. In other words, we don’t worry about the weeds; we concentrate on the wheat. Or, to put it another way, we just “walk the other way.”

Barsinuphius and John, two other fathers of the desert, had a different way of saying it. They taught that we must “lay before God our powerlessness.” And that calls to mind the second reading that we heard today, the climax of the letter to the Romans, "Paul's Gospel" (Rom 8:26-27). At all levels of our life, we lay before God our powerlessness because, when we do, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Perhaps this is why the mantra of the desert was “O God come to my assistance…” and why the Jesus Prayer developed: “…have mercy on me.” We lay before God the fact that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” we lay before God the fact that we do not know how to think as we ought, that we do not even know how to live as we ought. And as soon as we do, as soon as we ask for that mercy, “that very Spirit intercedes (for us) with sighs too deep for words.” That very Spirit becomes our strength and our song, our prayer and our praise. “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."