Scattering the Proud – Chapter XII

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Coming to the Father

Genesis is unerring in describing the primary and original sin:

Satan tempted us with the promise: ‘You will be as Gods.’

For all men in all cultures, Gods are at the summit of the pyramid of power and esteem. They are immortal and above all want and pain. They are also worshipped, which is what we think we want for ourselves. And so we set out upon the upward journey, using whatever gifts we may have.

This is ‘the world’, in which all seek glory from one another.

But glory is the gift of the many to the very few, so few can receive it. So the upward journey is futile for most of us. We can be no more than extras in the epic film, spectators and worshippers of the few. Our lives are lived in envy of theirs, watching TV or scanning the magazine racks.

And for those few the upward journey is usually worse than futile. They are trapped in the role or image that has won them glory, and live in a glass bowl of media fascination. Well aware of their own weaknesses, they live in fear of exposure, of becoming yesterday’s idols. Their success cannot buy what they soon come to value most, their own seclusion and privacy.

Yet the rest of us have all the privacy we want, and see it as evidence of relative failure. What can be the purpose of this brief life if not to to be as Gods – if only for a day?

And so we climb from one day to the next, and so the world is a wilderness of upward journeys in which dissatisfaction and selfishness rules most lives. In looking up we have no time for the less fortunate. Consequently many, many lives are lived in the sadness of self-dislike. If the world cannot recognise us, must not we be ‘losers’, people who have failed?

Is that all there is?

Not so. The purpose of this life is to help people come back to the Father, with whom we once communed in the womb, and by whom each of us is still infinitely and equally loved. And Jesus will take us to him.

Am I really serious? Do I really believe in a personal God, a being separate and independent of our own thoughts, who is interested in us as individuals, and with whom we can communicate?

And I answer: Yes, Yes, Yes! This is the good news! There is a marvellous truth in Christianity greater than any that science fiction has yet dreamed of. There is such a being who loves each of us equally and infinitely, with whom we can commune. Those who are still happy on the upward journey have no need of him, do not experience him, and can safely discount his existence.

Yet those who are in pain or desolation and cry out to him will not be left unanswered, if they meditate upon the Son, and upon his extraordinary downward journey to reach them.

Extraordinary?

I have called this journey extraordinary because in worldly terms it makes no sense. We know the names of very few of all whom our world has crucified. Crassus did indeed buy immortality by hanging the 6,000, and their names have been forgotten forever by the world. So we should know nothing of Jesus either. His downward journey should have meant his extinction. Who, in his right mind, would undertake such a journey?

There is no doubt that he was in his right mind. From the start he was beset by men who set out to trap him, and answered with a peerless self-possession and intelligence. There is not a hint of fanaticism or mental imbalance.

There is also his disregard for the Temple system, which had created a spiritual pyramid of esteem that condemned the poor to a sense of hopelessness because they could not afford the means of winning forgiveness. This was bound to antagonise powerful people. Why do so? Why spend time and fellowship with the condemned and excluded? What good was their company when they were shunned by the virtuous? Why seek out. Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus, the tax shark and the blind man? Why this elevation of unworthy individuals to his company when this would alienate many of the good people who could have praised him otherwise?

Because the purpose of the downward journey is to recognise all individuals without exception, to raise them into the company of by far the greatest man who ever lived. And to convince them of the Father’s love.

If we dismiss the possibility of the Father, then this journey to Calvary becomes entirely inexplicable. If we accept that for Jesus the Father was an ever-present reality, we can see this journey as the Father’s revelation of himself. Either way, we are presented with a mystery, but belief in the unity of Father and Son changes people profoundly.

Followers in Every Era

Always, down through time, Jesus has drawn to himself people who have a rare gift. Throughout those many centuries when the church leadership often abused its power, there have been people who balanced that fault with lives of self-diminishment and service: St Antony, who went back to the desert to find the Father whom Jesus loved, founding the hermitical tradition; St Benedict, who created a rule of life for monks living in community, sowing the seed of monasticism which kept alive the tradition of unselfishness and scholarship throughout the Middle Ages, as well as establishing the first hospitals; St Francis, whose followers took up the challenge of poverty, helping to prove the love of God for the poorest during the darkest times; St Ignatius Loyola, whose conversion in the course of recovery from a war wound led to the foundation of the Jesuits, still today affirming the dignity of the poorest in the barrios of Latin America; St Teresa of Avila, whose passion for God still draws people to the mystical life; St Therese of Lisieux whose search for a ‘little way’ to God, while dying of tuberculosis, led her also to the downward journey, influencing many in this twentieth century to do the same.

In our own time, Jean Vanier1Not until 2020 did we know that Jean Vanier was not a ‘living saint’ but a serious abuser of the trust of able women who came to him for spiritual guidance. Nevertheless, the L’Arche movement continues its work for the disabled, none of whom was affected by Vanier’s behaviour., founder of the L’Arche communities in which the mentally disabled are tended by able people on the spiritual journey, identifies exactly the same truth:

The poor and the weak have revealed to me the great secret of Jesus. If you wish to follow him you must not try to climb the ladder of success and power, becoming more and more important. Instead, you must walk down the ladder, to meet and walk with people who are broken and in pain. The light is there, shining in the darkness, in the darkness of their poverty. The poor with whom you are called to share your life are perhaps the sick and the old; people out of work, young people caught up in the world of drugs, people angry because they were terribly hurt when they were young, people with disabilities or sick with Aids, or just out of prison; people in slums or ghettos, people in far-off lands where there is much hunger and suffering, people who are op-pressed because of the colour of their skin, people who are lonely in overcrowded cities, people in pain.2Jean Vanier, The Broken Body, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988, p. 72

Christ is the way to the Father for he obeyed him completely, and gifted to all of us sisterhood and brotherhood in the Father’s love. In the downward journey he draws to himself all who are abused by the world, all who are ignored, all who see themselves as failures, all who are in the grip of an addiction. In our baptism we are recognised as sons and daughters of the Father, and can never lose this status.

How do we experience the Father’s love? First, travel with Jesus on his journey, seeing it as a journey in search of yourself. In your own pain, see the pain of the Son. See also that although this world sets out to enslave you in self-dislike, Jesus sets out to draw you to him by disempowering himself. He knows that you can come freely to him only in love, and so dies without empowering himself to demand that love. He has been ill-served by those who would compel — they simply do not understand the downward journey.

Mark Twain Understood

This truth you may come across in unexpected places. Here, Huckleberry Finn, rafting down the Mississippi with the runaway black slave Jim, has a sudden attack of white middle class morality which leads him to write a letter to Jim’s ‘owner’:

Miss Watson, Your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. — Huck Finn

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell’ – and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.3Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XXXI

Going to hell for someone is the essence of the gospel story, and an eternally subversive choice. Mark Twain declared that anyone foolish enough to find a moral in his novel would be banished, but here we find unmistakable signs of the impact of the gospel, intuitively, upon the understanding of freedom in western consciousness. The Father who planted this notion is not the authoritarian parent for whom order is preferred to liberty.

Notice here that this moment is one of self-discovery for Huck – he’s not one of the good folks who can think of a black man as someone’s rightful property. He has to make a choice between respectability – what his social superiors will think of him – and what Jim will think of him. He has to choose between the upward and the downward journey. In choosing the latter he thinks he is alienating God, but is in fact finding him – and finding himself at the same time.

My own experience, and that of many people I know, is that the experience of the Father – that sense of his presence and his love – begins often in a time of great pain when we are forced to evaluate our lives, then turn prayerfully to the Son in his pain, and then remember it is always the Father who sends us the Son. And when we understand the unity of the Father and the Son, which is also the solidarity of the Creator with all of his creation, we will receive the Spirit. It is then we receive a life in union with the Trinity that is beyond all power of mine to describe.

Salvation – related to salutary (conducive to health) – is a word for it: a sense of completion and fulfilment and mental health that sees through all death to the eternal. I have no doubt that, in the downward journey of Jesus Christ, each of us can find our own salvation. Yet we will lose it if we keep it to ourselves. History shows conclusively that Christians cannot be mass produced. It is in the free choice of the downward journey – the recognition of the pain of others – that Jesus’ journey goes on and on, through every one of us, and it is to this journey that each of us is called.

Notes

  1. Jean Vanier, The Broken Body, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988, p. 72
  2. Not until 2020 did we know that Jean Vanier was not a ‘living saint’ but a serious abuser of the trust of able women who came to him for spiritual guidance. Nevertheless, the L’Arche movement continues its work for the disabled, none of whom was affected by Vanier’s behaviour.
  3. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XXXI