From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer
The idea behind all this [living by the Word of God means feeding on it] is one of the deepest insights in the Bible: God speaks. What does this mean? It is image language, of course. But what experience stands behind the idea that God speaks? It is the experience of listening with our heart. For there is an aspect to that experience which we overlook all too easily. When we truly listen with the heart, we do not merely overhear something that is going on “out there,” with or without us, regardless. No. We find ourselves addressed. We realize in a flash: Whatever is “out there” concerns us, because it is somehow concerned with us, it is “toward” us in some mysterious way. This is just another way of speaking, gropingly, about faithfulness at the heart of all things. If we want, then, to put this insight into God-language, its most concise formulation is: God speaks.
But God is too simple to say more than one Word. All that God says is expressed, as it were, in the one eternal Word of faithfulness. That one Word, however, is so inexhaustibly pregnant with meaning that it needs to be spelled out forever and ever in all that is. It is as with faithful lovers. All they want to say to one another is: “I love you.” But that bears repetition. No lover is ever going to say: “Well, I love you. Didn’t I tell you so, once and for all, years ago? Do you really want to hear it again?” Yes, we do want to hear it over and over again. And lovers will go on expressing their faithfulness not only in words, but in gifts, in flowers, in songs, in letters, in caresses, in a thousand different ways, a lifetime long. In a similar way God’s faithfulness needs to be spelled out in ever new forms forever and ever. Everything there is in the whole universe exists for no other reason than to get this message across. In faith the heart intuits this secret.
God’s message is always the same. But the way the message is expressed makes all the difference. You may perceive the message in an apple orchard in full bloom. But the same message is also there in a forest fire. The difference would be bewildering, but to discover the same message in different disguises turns it all into a delightful game, a spelling game. That horse frolicking in the meadow is one way to spelling out God’s Word; the cat asleep in my lap is another. Each is unique, untranslatable. Poems can’t be translated; they can at best be approximated in a different language. In a poem the language counts as much as the message. God is the poet. If we want to know what God says in a tomato, we must look at a tomato, feel it, smell it, bite into it, have the juice and seeds squirt all over us when it pops. We must savor it and learn this tomato poem “by heart.” But what God must say can’t be exhausted in tomato language. So, God gives us lemons and speaks in Lemonese. Living by the Word means learning God’s languages, one by one, a lifetime long.
This is the easy, first stage of the prayer of faith, its joyful mysteries. We are still on the stretch of our ascent that leads through the meadows, barely sloping upward. And yet even this stage of living by the Word demands courage. Look at little Johnny’s face when for the first time he bites into a tomato. How that telltale face reports, blow by blow, the struggle between the fearful reluctance and the venturesome courage of exploring unknown territory. Starting with our first breath, every new encounter with the world implies trust in the faithfulness at the heart of all things. No matter how hidden, or implicit, this trust may be, it is proof of our primordial faith. It is the beginning of faith in fullness. And no matter how weak that faith may be, it will grow, step by step. That bite into your first tomato did take courage, but that courage was rewarded. Without daring there is not adventure. But adventure becomes the reward of our daring. The ancient faithfulness at the heart of things is always a brand-new surprise. And as we savor it anew, faithfulness strengthens our faith and makes it grow. That grateful feasting of faith at the banquet of faithfulness is the prayer of faith, living by the Word, a holy communion.
The banquet of life is the challenge to cultivate and broaden our taste. Every one of us begins with a provincial taste. Life challenges us to acquire a cosmopolitan, a truly catholic taste. In this learning process, some of us falter at the simplest exercises. Think, for instance, of the weather. With every change of weather a new adventure awaits us; each new season has its own recipes for dishing up new surprises. And we? It is our privilege, of course, to have our preferences, our favorite dishes. But is one man’s meat really another one’s poison? “Try it; you’ll like it,” comes closer to the truth. It could pass for a contemporary version of, “Taste and perceive how good the Lord is.” In order to taste and perceive, I must dare to taste first. Perceiving the goodness is the reward for the courage to taste. But to give ourselves to the sea breeze on a spring day is one thing; to step out into the mist and fog of a winter morning with the same sense of adventure demands more courage. Yet, if we draw back, how can we ever taste the unique flavor that only fog can convey to our heart, as it hides and reveals, conceals and shows again trees with dripping twigs and people in raincoats with dripping noses. How much of life is lost on us unless we can enjoy every kind of weather in its own way?
How can we expect to find life in fullness unless we learn to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God”? That is a crucial passage in the gospels – crucial for all who seek fullness of life, crucial for anyone who wants to learn grateful living. Which do I want to do? Pick and choose which word of God to live by? After all, who knows best what’s good for me, if not I myself? Or do I trust that God knows better and that God will speak precisely that word which I need, even though I might not like to hear it just now? The faith of gratefulness trusts in the Giver and, therefore, has the courage to say, “I can live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
This passage comes from the gospel story called the temptation of Jesus. He has spent forty days and forty nights in the desert, re-enacting the forty years of Israel’s desert wanderings. He has been fasting, a gesture of total reliance on God. Israel relied on God, and God provided manna, bread from Heaven in the desert. But Jesus is hungry and God provides nothing but stones for him. What father will give his hungry children stones when they cry for bread? If God cared with a father’s tenderness for Israel, why not for this Israelite who calls on God with such deep confidence as “Abba,” Father? If he is truly God’s son, is not all that he needs his for the asking? A tempting thought. But Jesus turns it around: This is how I show my faith as son in the Father: not by asking to get what I need, but by trusting that I need what I get. God knows best. When God says, “stones,” I will not insist that the word should be “bread.” I can live by every word….
But can I really? This is where things get tough. Now we are out of the meadows, and our ascent gets steep. These are no longer beginners’ exercises in faith. Here we are confronted with a life-and-death issue. The Biblical symbolism makes this clear. Bread stands for life, stones for death. Jesus trusts that every word of God is life-giving. The word in question here is stones. It spells death. The implication is: I can live even by dying.
This theme is picked up in a different gospel story, the agony of Jesus in the garden, another temptation story, if you want. In both stories living by the Word is the crucial issue. In both cases the word, which God speaks, spells death. Stones are all the Father offers in the desert, not bread; in the garden he offers the chalice, another symbol for the death sentence, as it is in the psalms. This time it is a hard struggle for Jesus: “Father if it is possible, let this chalice pass me by – yet, not my will be done, but yours.” This is the prayer of faith in its sorrowful mysteries. With bloody sweat Jesus struggles through to a faith that trusts in finding God’s faithfulness even at the core of death.
Sooner or later, each of us must reach this level of faith. Maybe God is still preparing us for that steep part of the climb. At the beginning, living by the Word is pure delight: God feeds us not only with bread, but raisin bread, as it were. And for a long time our trust is built up in this way. But sooner or later comes the moment when we bite into that raisin bread, and what we took to be a raisin turns out to be a small pebble. That is the crucial moment, the moment of testing for our faith. What am I going to say? Am I going to protest that I can’t live by stones? Or has my faith grown strong enough by now that, after meditating on the joyful mysteries for so long, I can pass over to the sorrowful ones? When, for the first time, God says, “stones,” where I expected to hear, “bread,” do I have the faith to say: “I can live by every word that comes from the mouth of God”?
Most of us have been tested in this way. An unexpected turn of fate, a seemingly impossible task looming up before us, the loss of a friend – a word that spells death. “This is going to kill me,” we say. And we are right. It is going to kill at least some part of us. Yet, our response to this word is what counts. Experience tells us that in situations of this kind we can shrivel up in fear and our life will be diminished. But experience also teaches us that we can step out in faith and “get our teeth into it,” yes, even into rocks. We might still be killed in the process, but we come out of this experience more alive. Living by the Word means courage to “eat it all up.” If we can do this, while being killed, “death is swallowed up,” as Saint Paul says. “Death is swallowed up in victory” – by faith.