God as Man

(This is the fourth article in a series written for Lent. Having stolen Met. Ware’s chapter titles, I am finding that my writing bears limited resemblance to what he has written in his book, “The Orthodox Way”. Hence, do not blame him for the content that follows.)

I find myself struggling to write and I am not sure why. I ask God’s grace to be with me and guide me this evening as I begin again.

Perhaps the most obvious source of my difficulty is simply not knowing what to say. That God became man in the person of Christ is central to our faith and yet we can no more explain it than we can explain the Trinity.

Sadly, our efforts to do so have too often created divisions among us. Just as regrettable are the many absurd if not delusional notions out there that lead more people to dismiss the faith than to embrace it.

I do not want to fall into either of these traps.

If my words do not encourage others in the faith, they ought not be written.

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Let me begin with these oft-quoted words of St. John the Evangelist:

For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16)

While these words have undoubtedly consoled many Christians, I find myself struggling with them – not because I don’t believe their message to be true but more because I do not understand them.

What does it mean for God to have a Son, an “only Son”, yet one who has existed from the beginning?

Certainly we do not believe that God had a wife, engaged in a human reproductive act and she produced a son who carried His genes.

This kind of father-son story would be more characteristic of the tribal gods that surrounded the ancient people of Israel. God’s children were led along a very different path in the revelation of the One God.

What emerges in the account we are given of God sending His Son to save us are certain core truths – but truths cloaked in mystery.

For us to come to salvation, our Messiah, our Christ, needed to be both fully God and fully human.

For Jesus to be fully human, He needed to be born of a human mother, to take on flesh and blood in the very real sense of the word.

If He had come among us in any other way, e.g. bursting through the clouds on a chariot of fire, we might have been impressed – but we would have doubted that He was truly human since we would not know where He came from.

For Jesus to be fully God, His birth of a human mother needed to be different from every other birth. He needed to come forth from God – to be sent or “given”. Hence, He was born of a virgin.

Did Father then “create” Jesus? Did He “beget” Him?

It seems that the answer to this question is both yes and no – a paradox that again bespeaks a  profound mystery that transcends human reasoning.

As part of the Trinity, Jesus is uncreated God. There was never a time when He did not exist.

As a member of the human race, Jesus was created. He began life as a fertilized egg in His mother, developing a body like any other, being born into human history on a specific date. There was a time when He did not exist – or at least He did not exist as a human being in time.

Our confusion occurs, of course, because we cannot see outside of time. The latter makes sense to us, the former goes beyond our understanding.

I wonder if this is why the words “Father” and “Son” were given to us. They are words that we can understand and relate to.

If we were told that our God has three persons who love each other and that we are to love each of them, we would have no way of conceptualizing this sort of love.

But we do understand the love of a father for his son and we can comprehend the enormity of the gift when a father sacrifices his son to save others.

From a Biblical perspective, we have been given the story of Abraham and Isaac to prefigure our Father’s sacrifice of His Son.

As important as this foreshadowing is, let us consider a scenario closer to our own experience.

A father sends his son into a burning building to try to rescue the children trapped inside, knowing that the odds are great that his son will not make it out alive. It is his only child he sends.

A mother sends her son to rescue a young child caught in the crossfire of warring gangs outside their home, knowing well that he may take a bullet. It is her only child she sends.

Let’s imagine that both sons die in the rescue attempts. The grief of these parents would be overwhelming. They would feel quite literally that they had sacrificed a part of their very own selves that others might live.

But the gift of God our Father far exceeds the sacrifices of these hypothetical people. For He sent His Son, not for the innocents, but to rescue the arsonist who set the house on fire in the first scene and to save the gang members whose violence terrorized the neighborhood in the second.

He gave completely of Himself in order to save those of us who don’t think we need saving. He poured Himself out in the person of Jesus for those among us who may not even care to be saved.

He wants it for us – because He knows far better than we do what we need if we are to experience the fullness of joy.

One might question though how this is a sacrifice for God. After all, He remains God and the death of His Son is but temporary. He knows from the beginning that Jesus will be raised.

As much as this question lures us with its human logic, I cannot let myself be drawn into this erroneous thinking. It reduces God to the level of our humanity.

Although all human metaphors for sacrificing one’s child involve heart-rending suffering, we cannot conclude from them that God suffers when giving us His Son. (See my previous article,  The impassibility of God, for an extensive discussion on whether God suffers.)

The words of John’s Gospel are not to teach us how much God suffers but how complete and total is His love.

The evangelist has no choice but to use human words and imagery to help us understand what we have been given – and surely even they fall short of the reality.

The reality of such a love is beyond our imagining.

Not only has it been given to us in the person of Jesus, but we are invited to have a full share in this love.

Jesus, as God-as-man among us, not only reveals to us who God is but also reveals to us who we are.

Though we were made in the image and likeness of God, the corruption of sin has kept this from being fulfilled in us. Having entered our death voluntarily, Jesus’ absolute act of love brings to perfection this image and likeness in His human self.

He does not merely rescue us from death, as though rescuing us from a burning house, so that we can later die again.

Rather, He demonstrates in His own person what we were made to be and becomes the Way we are to follow to arrive at the eternal Love.

Indeed. “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…”

To Him be glory. Amen.

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God as Creator

(This is the third article in a series written for Lent, 2018. I have borrowed the chapter titles from Met. Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way” and sometimes reference his content. However, I go off in my own directions and therefore am responsible for the content unless otherwise noted.)

The gift of Creation is so magnificent and mysterious that we will never fully grasp it. Even less can we comprehend the Creator or the process by which all things come to be.

In this chapter of Met. Ware’s book, I encountered discussion of many topics I have already written on at some length. Though I cannot claim to have written well, I think it is best to leave well enough alone – rather than rehash hypotheses about the book of Genesis, good and evil, and so on.

However, there is one (seemingly) small part of Creation that I have not written of and would like to highlight. May God be merciful and permit me to share a few thoughts about this great gift given to humanity.

Met. Ware provides the following quote from Thomas Merton, a monk of the Western Church:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all of the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…The gate of heaven is everywhere.  (from “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” by Thomas Merton.)

Several things drew me to this passage. First, I felt a personal affinity to it because of Merton’s use of the term “nothingness”, given that “nothing” is my word for 2018. I was intrigued that Merton termed this most sacred aspect of our created selves a nothingness. This set me to wondering why he did so.

His notion of a point or spark is further reinforced by his description of it as an absolute poverty. How can he say that of what he later refers to as the “pure glory of God in us” and “his name written in us”?

What could be of greater value than His name within us, His pure glory shining within each and every one of us?

If indeed the Lord God created the human person with such a point, would this not be far greater than any riches we can conceive of?

How then can it be a nothingness or a poverty?

Merton seems to recognize the apparent incongruity of his image – for he then proceeds to portray it as like a diamond “blazing with the invisible light of heaven”.

In other words, out of all of His Creation, this spark implanted in the human person is simultaneously the greatest of riches and the most profound of poverties.

This paradox, I believe, is what finally seized my attention, rendering inevitable further reflection on this one (seemingly) small detail of God’s Creation of humanity.

One key consideration should be noted before delving further into our topic, however. And that whether this point or spark actually exists.

There are no means by which we can view or measure it, nor will there ever be any method of proving its existence.

Yet the implications for believing that it is there are enormous. More about that later…

I cannot help but conclude that Merton’s words point to a truth inseparable from our belief in God as the Creator who made us for Himself, in His image and likeness, able to share in the fullness of His life.

The image that forms in my mind is that of the Lord God putting His signature into every person He brings into being, much as an artist signs a work upon completing it. Each human being is unique yet all are His images.

This signature proclaims, “This one is mine. I made it.”

When we view a great work of art, we are naturally drawn to the artist’s signature. We not only want to know who created it, we want to encounter the artist, the source of the beauty we see.

Whether we call it a point or a spark or a signature, it only makes sense that God would leave His imprint (yet another term for the unnamable) on what He has made.

And in the case of human beings, this imprint is an indelible mark of His presence within.

Merton is correct, I believe, in describing this spark as something we cannot access – in essence, something that we cannot ruin.

Though God has created us with a free will, there are some limitations on that freedom.

We are free to choose our way or God’s way. We are able to choose good or evil, life or death.

However, no matter how much we might damage ourselves and each other by our choices, there are some things we are not able to do with our free will.

We cannot stop God from loving us.

We cannot choose not to be His Creation, His sons and daughters.

We are free to deny these things – to deny that God loves or that He created us or that He exists. We are free to make ourselves ignorant of His way of love, blind to His beauty and deaf to the song He sings to our hearts.

But we are not free to stop Him from being love and beauty and song. We cannot stop Him from being our Father by denying that it is true.

Metaphorically, we cannot erase the signature of the Artist.

We can pile so many sins upon His glory within us that it is barely recognizable. But we cannot remove it – nor can anyone else.

This signature, this imprint of His glory is the splendor of humanity. It is truly like a “diamond blazing”.

Yet we can only know of it by experiencing the poverty, the nothingness of our being apart from Him. It is indeed an absolute poverty that impels us to cry out, “Abba! Father! Save me!”

To know our Artist as “Father”, we must accept in ourselves the poverty of being children – children who are ultimately not in charge of our own lives.

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Awareness that this point, this spark, this imprint has been placed within us is perhaps the most important awareness of our lives.

First, even if I experience myself as confused or I feel detached from God, I have only to look within to find Him, to begin (again) the process of knowing Him.

I do not have to search far to find God or to know that I am His. No matter what the state of my body, my mind or my soul, I will find Him in that tiny spark within me. Every time.

Part of me may want to protest this point – “I don’t know how to find that point. I don’t know what it means to ‘look within’. Where do I look? How do I find Him? This is not nearly so easy as you make it sound.”

To clarify, I did not say that it was easy. I only indicated that we are always free to look within and He will always be there.

If I don’t know how to look within, I can begin by being still. Without a practice of stillness, my focus will likely be trained on things outside of my soul – whether that be the outside world or the clutter of my mind.

In stillness, I discover grace for the asking.

If this is not enough for me to find Him (and it very well may not be), then I must assume that there are passions, sins or other distractions that keep me from seeing Him.

And so I can begin (again) the process of repentance – of patiently but firmly removing all that keeps me from seeing Him.

Certainly none of this is easy. But if I know this spark is within me, I am much less likely to give up the search. “I must keep going, keep going – He is there, I know He is there.”

There is another aspect of this awareness of the spark that is of great value to us.

To consider that God’s signature is within me and within every other person I encounter may change quite substantially my thoughts and feelings and reactions.

If I am tempted to view myself as flawed, worthless or defective, awareness of the spark within requires me to rethink this.

Yes, there may be quite a pile of sins in me. I may frequently give in to the passions. I may feel damaged.

But beneath all of that still lies God signature, proclaiming that I am His creation and always will be.

Nothing I do – and nothing that anyone else can do to me – can ever change that.

And, of course, the flip side of this awareness is that every other person I meet or see or even read about has God’s signature in them as well.

I may not be able to see it – either because I am not willing to look or because they have a lot of sins piled on it – but I cannot deny that it is there.

How does this awareness change things?

It has the power to change them radically.

Someone cuts me off in traffic. Oh – he is God’s own creation.

Another person berates me. As the anger begins to build, I remember – she has God’s signature within her.

A world leader makes outrageous moves that places many innocent people at risk. That’s right – he is one of God’s own children.

This awareness, of course, does not excuse the wrongdoings of others – anymore than it excuses my own.

However, remembering that I am viewing one of God’s personal works of art, I become concerned if its beauty has been neglected or marred.

I do not rage. Rather I pray for the lost and forsaken and strive to cultivate a heart of compassion.

In my nothingness, in the poverty of my being, I search for the tiny points of light in myself and others that they may dispel the darkness of this life and lead us to the great Light of our Creator.

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Abba, Father of all Creation, Holy is Your name. I thank You and I praise You that in Your abundant goodness You have placed Your name within me. May I always rejoice in knowing that I am Your child and not be afraid to depend on You. Help me to grow in all ways, but especially in Your way of love. Open the eyes of my heart that I may behold the light of Your presence in everyone  and everything You have created. May my heart love most especially Your children in whom Your name, Your glory is buried – whether through their own sins or those of the world. Grant me the courage to relentlessly seek Your spark, Your light, in myself and everyone whose path I cross today and every day of my life. Amen. 

God as Trinity

(This is the second post in a series composed for the season of Lent. As noted previously, I am reading “The Orthodox Way”, by Met. Kallistos Ware, and am borrowing his chapter titles for my posts. Although I use his reflections as my starting point, Met. Ware should not be blamed for anything I write here. Indeed, I can only imagine that he would be horrified if he knew… 😉 ) 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How readily the words of this short prayer form in my mind and roll off my lips. The sign of the Cross, with its words and gestures, was probably one of the first prayers I learned as a child.

Yet the triune nature of God is far from universally accepted much less understood in Judeo-Christian faith history. Jews, Muslims and Jehovah Witnesses, for example, do not see God as three Persons in one God.

Even among those of us who embrace the Trinity, there is much confusion. Most disastrous are the controversies, such as the filioque, that have aroused passions to the point of schism.

I have no interest in discussing these or even giving them much consideration. The mystery of God is beyond me. I shall not try to define Him.

Even setting all of this aside, however, many still find the notion of Trinity confusing and nearly impossible to fathom.

A large part of our problem, I believe, is that we cannot truly comprehend union, as much as we long for it.

In trying to find our way out of this conundrum, we make God far more complicated than is either necessary or helpful. It is not the Trinity Who is so complex as it is the many words we generate is trying to explain what words cannot express.

Union is utter simplicity.

Union is Oneness in being, no divisions, no parts.

But union also requires otherness. Union cannot be described in singular terms any more than love can.

While in psychology we may speak of learning to love oneself, what is meant (or should be meant) is learning to love the God who dwells within us.

When we come to realize the love of God alive within us, it is not the “self” that we love in return – but Another.

Having discovered this divine process within, there is no longer room for doubting, neglecting or despising the self created and so profoundly cherished by God.

It is in and through this process that we are healed.

Self-love approached apart from this process constitutes an unhealthy egocentrism and must be rejected as the work of the enemy.

What we experience in this healing is but a foretaste, a glimpse as it were, of the dynamic love within God.

However, unlike the healing love we cannot live without, the love that unites Father, Son and Spirit is freely chosen.

It is perfect and has been from all eternity. It so defines love that every other love is but a shadow of it, a longing for the completion it represents.

Being three Persons, God loves selflessly, completely, eternally as One Being… Father loving Son loving Spirit.

Yet this union is not a fusion – each Person is distinct and must remain so in order for the love to continue as an ever-living reality.

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I am afraid I have created too many words. I cannot explain Him any more than anyone else… His three-ness, His one-ness…

And yet the Trinity is so incredibly important that I cannot walk away from Its truth as I can with other controversies about God.

In Christianity, God is revealed to us as Trinity, a truth that has far-reaching implications for our faith:

  • To know that God is Person – He is not merely formless energy or “something out there”.
  • To know that God is love, loving within Himself, in perfect, selfless union.
  • To know that God desires our love, our worship, our service, not for His sake (ego on a cosmic scale), but because perfect love invites participation.

Yet just as importantly – or perhaps more importantly – awareness of these truths about the Trinity is fundamental to knowing how we are to live now, as we navigate through this life to join the Life of God.

The Son has instructed us to love one another as He has loved us – and He loves us as He loves the Father and the Spirit.

To live in union with the Trinity, is to follow this Way, to “reproduce on earth the mystery of mutual love that the Trinity lives in heaven”. (The Orthodox Way, Met. Ware).

In so doing, Met. Ware tells us that we create icons of the Trinity in every social unit of our lives. Our families become icons of the Trinity – our churches, our schools, our workplaces…

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I do not know how to be an icon.

But this, of course, is the point. Never was I intended to undertake this alone.

Let us begin the journey toward union.

Let us walk together in His truth.

May we love one another in Him without end.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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God as Mystery

(Among my Lenten readings this year is Met. Kallistos Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Way”. I must admit that I was drawn to it because of the chapter titles. Noting that the number of chapters equaled the number of weeks of Lent + an epilogue for Easter week, I could not resist it. God willing, I will also write once a week, using the author’s chapter titles as my post titles. Although I have used Met. Ware’s reflections as a starting point, please do not blame him for what I write. Certainly he knows far more that I do and is far more faithful to God than I will ever be.)

Every time I set out to write about God it seems that I am struck by what a foolish endeavor this is.

Not only is my understanding of God minimal but any words I might craft will inevitably be inadequate. And this is an understatement.

One might ask then why I write. Sometimes I am not sure – or even sure that I should try. But I believe in God and have heard Him speak through me enough times to be convinced that I must not stand in His way.

And so I write. Sitting here at my computer tonight, first I say a short prayer. I tell God that I would like to write for Him if that is okay with Him. But I also ask Him to stop me if I am writing foolishness that is unworthy of Him.

He has stopped me a number of times in the past. On these occasions, I would start writing on what I thought was a worthy topic. However, I would have to set it aside for some reason or another, losing interest before I got back to it.

When I later view such drafts, I quickly delete them. Close call.

Clearly I was writing out of ego. May He ever protect me from falling into that trap. Stop me, Lord, if I am. Do not let me profane Your name or lead any of Your little ones astray. I too am a little one and can only listen for You to lead me.

Met. Ware reminds us that the Greek word for repentance, Metanoia, literally means to change our minds. And to approach God we must strip ourselves of all of our habitual ways of thinking.

How many and varied are the habitual ways in which each of us thinks about God! How can I strip them all away? Why should I strip them all away?

I was talking to a priest the other evening and the conversation meandered into some of the differences I have experienced in Eastern and Western approaches to God.

I noted that the one of the things I cherish about Orthodoxy is its greater sense of mystery – whereas the Western Church seems to have almost a compulsive need to try define and explain everything Divine.

The priest, a historian, pointed to The Age of Reason and Scholasticism as driving forces.

I’m not a historian but I do know that we human beings tend to like things that we can explain – and we are wary of things that we cannot. The latter often leaves us with an uncomfortable sense of not being “in control”.

Of course, we are never truly in control – but we like to think that we are. On a human level, it helps us to feel safe. Until it doesn’t.

In any event, this desire for rational explanation, while leading to much reflection and discussion about God, has some troubling side effects.

Perhaps the most obvious one is that rational explanation does not help us to know God. One can be a scholar of theology without ever experiencing the presence of God.

And another may have a very primitive understanding, riddled with theological “errors”, while daily opening his/her heart before the Lord God and knowing His love deep within.

This latter individual lives a life of love and enters the Kingdom, while the former remains at the gate, arguing with those of similar ilk.

Another problematic side effect of our desire for rational explanation is that, as we try to describe God and define His parameters, we inadvertently create a god who is too small to be credible.

Those genuinely searching for the Creator of the universe will pass over a god who can be described by mere man. Earth and its creatures are but a speck amidst the estimated 100 – 200 billion galaxies that astronomers say surround our Milky Way. If there is One who created all of this, surely human beings cannot know or describe Him.

Furthermore, in our attempts to make this One comprehensible, the ordinariness of our human words can easily deflate our sense of awe. The intellectual debates keep our minds active but too often leave our hearts dormant.

And so it is time to strip away my habitual ways of thinking about who or what God is or isn’t.

I am not suggesting discarding what may be many years of experiencing God in faith – but rather the assumptions culled over lifetimes of exposure to culture and controversy.

In other words, I must repent.

I stand before Him, the Unknowable. He is Mystery – so far beyond my intellect and senses that I hesitate to try to conceive of Him, for fear I will invent Him rather than encounter Him.

He is Other. Only He is uncreated. I am one, tiny created being.

I might attempt to praise Him – with such words such as “How holy You are! How good and loving!”

But this sounds so very foolish. Me telling God that He is holy – when I can only imagine holiness because of Him?

If I step into even greater foolishness, I might try to define how God is organized in Himself, His essence and His energies – or the route by which His Spirit proceeds – or whether His grace is created or uncreated.

Forgive me, dear theologians – I cannot be one of you. For the heresies you have prevented or halted, I thank you. I do not doubt your vocation. But I cannot enter an exchange of words about such things.

No, I must be silent before Him in the place of unknowing where the wonder of His great glory transcends all thought and word.

I must let go of Who I want God to be or even whether I want Him to be. I must be still and allow Him to speak to my heart.

But if this God created all of the billions of galaxies, is He not too “Other” for me to experience Him? Can I realistically expect that He would sing to my heart?

All of Scripture cries out to me a resounding, “Yes!” to this latter question. Not in its many words but in its one Word.

He hides from me in mystery, lest I imagine that I understand Him and diminish Him with my ramblings.

Yet He also reveals Himself in ever-present reality, lest I suppose that a chasm of unknowability exists between us.

Am I not too small and insignificant for His notice?

Yet could all of the cells in my body carry out their functions, working together to simultaneously draw in and direct raw materials, cleanse and remove waste, create thoughts and feelings and perceptions – were He not present to be Life within me?

Could I desire Him were He not near enough to be known?

And He is near.

I see clues to His presence all around and within me. Creation is not only magnificent and beautiful in its design but it is an ever-living, interacting, developing dance of unimaginable intricacy and balance, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the most immense of galaxies.

Then there is the consciousness of creatures, reaching such an incredible complexity in human beings that we seem driven to search for eternal truths. And there appears to be a built-in capacity in us, a conscience, that assesses the right or wrong of things with remarkable consistency.

And, of course, there are the experiences of love and grace arising in the depths of my own being that I know I, myself, did not cause or create. They seem to have come from outside me, from Another who is both beyond me and within me.

Still, He remains mystery. And for this I am grateful.

I celebrate my inability to comprehend Him with my mind – as my heart delights in unfolding layer after layer of a Love that it never could have anticipated or imagined.

I rejoice in the reality that I cannot prove Him, describe Him or control Him.

I can only stand before Him, empty and humbled in my nothingness, awaiting the gift He never denies.

He fills all things. And so He fills me…

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A short video

My readers from the Orthodox tradition may already be familiar with Frederica Mathewes-Green – but I just encountered her tonight.

Hence, I haven’t more than scratched the surface of who she is and all that she has to say. However, I came across a video she made about her conversion to Christianity – she tells it in less than 4 minutes.

I believe you will find that it is 4 minutes well spent…watch it, share it and comment here, if you’d like.

via Frederica Mathewes-Green: Christ Spoke to Me – Beliefnet

 

the heavens open…

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i see the empty body

requiem-vested in white;

he has left us for Another.

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hidden behind wary lids,

salty mix of sorrow and joy;

a love i cannot explain.

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i’ll be alone, i’d thought,

no one will understand

this hole in my heart.

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church walls gather us close.

we weep, we hug, we laugh.

and share our holy hearts.

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how did i not see it before –

this communion of life

that surrounds me?

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praised be God

in our Lord Jesus Christ

for all His good gifts.

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alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

the heavens open

and he enters the eternal Joy.

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amen. amen.

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On January 21, 2018, my very dear friend and pastor of 38 years left behind his ailing body to enter the presence of God. Loving us to the end, he crossed over as, we, his people, prayed for him in Eucharistic celebration. May he live forever in the fullness of our Father’s love.

Nothing

I have been slow to write of it this year. That phenomenon that has been an annual occurrence now for the past 7 years.

A word has chosen me for the new year. I did not just become aware of it today or yesterday – or even on January 1st. It has been pursuing me for weeks now, not unlike the Hound of Heaven, nipping at my heels when I try to ignore it or push it away.

(For some history on the Give-me-a-word tradition, see my post from January, 2017.)

Before proceeding, allow me to recap the words that have chosen me over the years, so fruitfully challenging my soul.

The very first word was “yes”. Now that seems like a simple and innocent word – except that, at the time, I didn’t know just what it was I was saying “yes” to – I simply knew I had to say it.

I think this will help you understand (if you didn’t already) how having a word choose you for the year ahead can be a very powerful thing.

The following year, “obedience” chose me and after that came “humility”. The following year that rather curious and antiquated word, “chasten”, sunk it talons in me until I embraced it with gratitude. Then there was “mercy” and finally, in 2017, “purify”.

None of these words seem so very threatening, sitting there by themselves on the page. But let the purifying begin and it is another story.

As I anticipated last year, “purify” did not mean having a nice shower and cleaning up a bit. It was more like having my heart ripped out and scoured.

But I’m glad it happened. I’m grateful the word chose me – not because it made the events of the past year happen but because it guided me through them.

In my moments of anguish, it gave me pause to consider, “Perhaps this is God purifying me for Himself”. And while it did not lead me to enjoy the experience, it helped me endure and grow.

It helped me understand just a little bit more what it means to follow Christ.

And so why have I hesitated in writing of this year’s word?

Perhaps because it is hard to know how to write of it, despite my soul’s recognition that it is indeed the word.

The word that has chosen me this year is “nothing”.

It is not a new word in my interior life. I have long had some awareness that I am nothing. But it seems that I am being invited to learn this on ever deeper levels.

I once posted a comment at Fr. Stephen’s blog (Glory to God for All Things) in which I attested to the reality that I am nothing and some kind soul tried to rescue me from what they assumed was an experience of despair or low self-esteem.

I was offered a reminder of how gloriously God created me and how mercifully He has saved me from my sins.

This is all true – more true than any other reality I might consider.

And this perhaps is at the heart of my awareness that I am indeed nothing.

I am nothing before Him. I am nothing apart from Him.

My consciousness, my ever-present awareness of “self”, can almost be said to be a delusion in light of His glory.

I often live my life as though what I think and how I feel are of tremendous importance, not only to me but to the world around me.

Do I like this feeling? Then I must seek to perpetuate it. Do I find this unpleasant or painful? I must avoid it.

Do I agree with this teaching (or this individual or this political group)? Then I must see to promote or defeat it.

Hence, within my notion of my self, there lies a delusion that my wants and needs, my opinions and ideas, are at the center of a universe that should accommodate if not obey me.

If this remained but a distorted idea in my head, perhaps it would be harmless. However, because of its perceived importance, this delusion is the default setting within that guides far too many of my actions and decisions.

One might readily normalize this on the basis of my biological ancestry. After all, my brain is hardwired to avoid what will harm or kill me and to seek what will enable me to feel well in terms of physical survival.

And how true this is. This hardwiring is a gift from our Creator and must not be disrespected.

However, in the spiritual life, such a delusion about the value of self is utterly toxic.

I am simply not the center of the universe. Next to the grandeur of God, I am barely a speck of dust.

But this is not cause for despair. On the contrary, it cause for great joy.

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We were made for union with God. Can I, a mere speck of dust, imagine such a thing?

Surely I cannot. But neither can I imagine being apart from Him.

Not so long ago, I happened upon a tract someone had written about sin. The author asserted that when we commit mortal sin (i.e. intentional serious sin), we are telling Jesus that we do not want Him in our hearts. He has no choice but to leave.

Reading this horrified me. Not that I was planning to intentionally commit serious sin, but the thought of Christ not being in my heart terrified me.

Even if I am tired, restless, doubting or otherwise not mindful of Him, I cannot bear the thought of Him not dwelling within me.

It would be like suddenly going blind, becoming deaf and having my limbs amputated all at once – only worse. How could I be anything if He were not here – here within my heart?

While I am far from experiencing the complete union with God for which I was made, this reflection heightened my awareness that I am so far in that there is no turning back.

Apart from Him I can do nothing. Apart from Him I am nothing.

Once the terror had subsided, I experienced gratitude – gratitude that I don’t ever have to be apart from Him.

Even more than that, I am grateful to be assured that a tiny speck of dust like me has the capacity to one day know full union with Him – the Trinity of Love that brings all things into being.

In the course of our lives, we often encounter experiences that provide glimmerings of union – and generally we find them very appealing.

We humans seek out sensations of union in many and varied ways, through sex, friendship, even being part of a large crowd cheering on a sports team.

We naturally gravitate toward these sorts of experiences because we were made for union.

However, the union for which our Creator designed us so far exceeds these human experiences that we cannot begin to fathom it.

How can I explain what I mean?

I am only free to live in union with God if I have been emptied of all of the delusions of the sanctity and significance of my personal selfhood.

For true union, based on divine Love, can only come about by my becoming nothing. I must be emptied of the false self, the false life I have created in which I have imagined myself god.

Then, beholding Him, the living God before me, all worldly desires and thoughts of self will be readily abandoned, that I might race toward Him and the eternal embrace of all who love Him.

It is not that I will cease to exist at that moment – no, quite the opposite.

To know my nothingness and relinquish my self will not be the end of my life. Nor will I be left without identity, assimilated into some impersonal cloud of energy.

No – it will be at that moment, in that union, that I will begin to truly experience for the first time the fullness of life.

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Of course, I have made it sound as though my year with “nothing” is going to be a grand and glorious experience.

On a human level, I doubt very much that this will be the case. To enter the depths of my nothingness suggests a great deal of letting go. I cannot hold onto anything or anyone, not even control over where I am heading.

I can only hold on to God and go where He takes me.

I cannot help but think that there a plot behind these words that have searched me out me over the last 7 years. Can you not see the pattern in their progression?

However, it is not a plot against me but a plot for me. A plot to free me completely for love.

In one of his letters, St. Paul hints at what lies ahead…

I have been crucified with Christ;

it is no longer I who live,

but Christ who lives in me.

Galatians 2:20

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May it be so…