From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer
There is another decisive beginning in the Biblical history of faith, the starting point of God’s covenant with Abraham. This time the account starts by telling us that Abraham was now ninety-nine years old. Since one hundred stands for perfection, we are alerted here that our Father in Faith is still not quite perfect. So God appears to Abraham and says, “I am El Shaddai,” (Genesis 17:1). That means, according to one way of reading that Hebrew name of God: I am the One who sets the limit; who tells you what “enough” means, who determines the measure of fullness and perfection. And what is it that Abraham is still lacking? “Walk in my sight and be perfect.” This is what makes for perfection of faith: to walk in God’s presence.
What does that mean? God is not saying: “Walk in my sight and pull yourself together, for I’m keeping a close eye on you!” Rather, that walking in God’s sight is by itself a going toward perfection, to understand only by doing it. But talking about it, as we are doing here, might help us at least to see more clearly what walking in God’s sight demands from us. It demands no less than perfect trust and courage, perfect faith. Since this is not obvious at first sight, let’s take a closer look at it (give ourselves to a closer look, I should say).
Before Biblical passages can help us, we must allow them to put us on the spot. I must tell myself: Stop and listen! This concerns you! If this were merely a call addressed to Abraham, I’d be off the hook. But this means me! To face this fact calls for courage – the courage to accept myself, to accept myself as the person I am. Ah, how much easier this would be, I’m inclined to think, if I were Abraham, or at least Saint Francis, or Saint Teresa, or some other spiritual giant I admire – but little old me?
I so enjoy the story about the rabbi who prayed: “Lord, make me like Abraham!” Maybe he had been inspired by this very passage. “Gladly I would walk in your presence,” he prays, “but first, please make me like Abraham!” At this, a voice comes from Heaven, saying: “Look, I’ve already got one Abraham!”
God has already got one of each of my admired models. The one whom God is calling here and now is no one else but me. No one but me has ever walked in God’s sight with exactly the same background, the same talents, the same shortcomings. Yes, even our shortcomings seem to challenge God. Walk before me, God says, and I will show you that I can lead even as unlikely a candidate as you to perfection. I can accept this offer only if I have the courage to accept myself. And that means accepting the way I am as a given reality – as given material to work with, as very much in need of change, maybe, but in any case given. In this way to accept myself as given is in itself a form of gratefulness.
But the challenge to be myself is only one implication of God’s call to perfect faith. There is more to it. I must walk in God’s sight, and it cannot be done by proxy. I look at myself and wish that I could at least dress up for the occasion, even if it were no more than Adam’s little apron of fig leaves. I cannot beat the thought of naked exposure to God’s sight. I hide, as Adam hid in the greenery. But there is God’s voice calling me: “Adam, where are you?” This is God’s challenge to expose myself in trust and courage. This second implication of the call to perfect faith seems far more demanding even than the challenge to be myself.
The challenge to expose myself, face to face, to God’s sight is a double challenge. God calls and Adam hears that call as: “Where are you?” Cain hears the same call as: “Where is your brother?” One single summons to come into God’s presence calls for two different ways of doing so, depending on where we find ourselves. For Adam it means the challenge to face God by facing himself: for Cain it means facing God in his brother. These are two inseparable aspects of one and the same call. If I close my ears to one of them, my response to the other will be distorted.
The trouble is that we are apt to be off balance. Some of us are inclined to seek God exclusively in the secret recesses of our inner life, others exclusively in the encounter with people. Those of the first kind are never at a lost when God asks, “Where are you?” “Here I am, Lord. I have just examined my conscience and know exactly where I am. I’m not in danger of losing sight of myself. I don’t allow others to distract me from the business of self-improvement.” But God asks: “And where is your brother?”
Ah, now the others are getting their chance. They have their answer ready. “Which of my brothers would you like to know about, Lord? I have detailed information on every one of them. My sisters, too, in case you are interested. I keep close tabs on everyone. Here is my file box.” But God asks: “And where are you?” — “Me? Oh, ah, I guess there is a card missing from my files!”
It sounds funny, as long as I allow myself to think of those two types as being out there somewhere. But when I realize that I have them both within myself, it gets less amusing. Yes, I find that I am apt to do the opposite of what a given moment calls for. Every time I hear the question, “Where are you?” I seem to be busy with the affairs of others; and when I’m asked, “Where is your brother?” I’m steeped in preoccupation with myself. And yet, if I am serious about exposing myself to God’s presence like Abraham, our Father in Faith, I must rise up in trust and courage to face God both in myself and in others. Two different gestures, but one single response of faith.
There is a third challenge implied in God’s call to Abraham. “Walk in my sight and (so) be perfect.” This is addressed to me personally, and so it is a challenge to be myself. It summons me into God’s presence, and so it is a challenge to expose myself to that presence in others and in my own heart. But this call is clearly also a challenge to walk. After all, we might have expected God to say, “stand,” or, “kneel,” or, “fall down before me.” No, “walk” is the word. Walking demands more trust, more courage. Faith walks. Walking implies risk. And faith thrives on risk.
Throughout most of our lifetime, except occasionally, when there is sleet on the sidewalk, we are likely to forget that walking is risky business. But senior citizens know better – and toddlers, too. It’s an awe-inspiring moment when that little quadruped in diapers rises up to stand for the first time on two legs. She wobbles, I admit, but she stands. And her face shows clearly that she’s aware of the exciting risk she’s taking. Then she lifts up one of those pudgy legs and – whoops, she’s lost her balance. Later on we are no longer aware that we indeed do lose our balance with every step. We quickly regain it again. Yet, unless we took the risk of falling, we couldn’t make one single step. And this is the form of locomotion God demands from us on the path of faith: not riding, not swimming, not flying, but walking – a constant losing and finding of our balance.
If we are afraid of making fools of ourselves, too proud to lose our balance even for a moment, too eager to cut a good figure in God’s sight, we end up standing there like statues in dignified poses and make fools of ourselves, after all. But readiness to lose our balance is not enough. If, in the process, we stumble all over ourselves, it is just as foolish. We must dare to lose our balance, and yet keep it. We must dare to make fools of ourselves but be careful not to do it foolishly. Faith is the art of making fools of ourselves wisely like dancers.
At our peak moments of gratefulness, we find the threefold courage of faith easy. It comes quite naturally, because at those moments we respond to the challenge of life from our heart. When I find my heart, I also find the courage to be myself, for the heart stands for my very self. This true self is both unique and all-embracing. And so, when I find my heart, I also find the courage to expose myself, for the heart stands for the very point of encounter with self, with others, with God. God sees the heart and only with the eyes of the heart can I see God. But when I find my heart, I also find the courage to walk, for the heart is my true center of gravity. The wise foolishness that springs from the heart is a dancer’s graceful playfulness.
That primordial courage of our heart, as we know it in moments of wholehearted gratefulness, comes as close to perfect faith, in the Biblical sense, as we might hope for. But it is one thing to experience that faith in a flash of enthusiasm, and quite a different thing to keep our courage seaworthy amidst the ups and downs of daily living. This is where our religious beliefs come in. They are meant to keep our faith afloat, to be reminders for the renewal of our courage. The trouble is that our beliefs don’t always fulfill that function. Sometimes, instead of buoying up our faith, beliefs weigh it down. What causes that? The answer is: fear.