From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer
There is no telling how many times in the course of a lifetime we may have to go through this process of creative dying. (The more creatively we live, the more often we shall have to die, I suppose.) But one thing is certain: in the end, no one can be spared this passage. There is a staggering variety of dishes set out on the banquet table of life. Each one of us gets a different menu. The final course, however, is the same for all of us: It is one big rock. “Sorry,” says our Host, “but now it’s time to die.” Will we be ready by then to “swallow up death”? If so, it will be a dying into fullness of life. We know this. We know it, not because someone else told us so, but because we have experienced it in one way or another. From our partial experiences of dying, we learn to expect a similar pattern in our final death. We learn that faith is the power to die into greater aliveness every time we get killed. And so we have reason to expect that being fully killed will mean coming fully alive. How? We cannot tell. If we knew, there would be no room for faith. But we know all we need to know: Faith finds life in every word of God, even when that word spells death.
Every creative death experience, no matter how small, teaches us how to rise to the third level of our ascent in faith, the glorious mysteries of Living by the Word. Now we are among those snowy peaks that looked so frightening from below. And, in a way, they are even more frightening now. But our courage has grown strong enough to enjoy it all. There is no more birdsong. There are no more flowers. Only the sky (blue almost black in contrast to the glacier peaks), silence, and fierce sun. But it is pure ecstasy.
Let me try to use a different illustration for what I call the ascent of faith. A youthful friendship starts out with joyful mysteries. The more fully we explore them, the broader will be the basis for what might grow into a lifelong love. Day by day we drink with new delight from one another’s lips, bathe in the light of one another’s eyes. But sooner or later friendship leads into sorrowful mysteries. There is no growing without dying to what we have outgrown. And even the closest friends cannot always grow at the same pace. If we have the courage to let go of each other, this death experience will become creative. If I remain faithful (not necessarily the other, but I), we shall find each other again on a level we could never have imagined. And every time we pass through this kind of death, we catch a glimpse of the glorious mysteries that lie beyond. If in the first days of our friendship a time machine would have shown us the other’s face a half century later, we would hardly have had the courage to go on. But now we look into that old face and see a beauty more thrilling than on the day we first met.
In the end, life strips the last shreds of husk from the kernel of faithfulness at the heart of all things. But at first, and for a long time, we need that husk. While it is still green, it is the husk that attracts us. Yet, all the time faith feeds on the kernel and slowly grows strong enough to do without the husk. Slowly we learn to make sense of life and that sense goes far beyond what our senses can reach. And I’m not talking about abstract concepts. Life simply begins to make sense to the heart, heart-sense. And that comes through faith. But how can our faith ever grow strong unless we start with the joyful mysteries, Living by the Word in ways that are pure delight? Any other start is apt to lead to impoverishment.
Even people who think of themselves as serious seekers often end up with sadly impoverished lives. Though one can’t be too serious in one’s search, one can be serious in the wrong way. There is nothing more serious than play. Children know that. And the child within us never forgets it. You can tell true seriousness from glumness by its playfulness. To seek seriously means to seek playfully. And the joyful mysteries of Living by the Word teach us this playfulness. By far the largest part of the exercises in faith consists of learning God’s games. If we insist that God ought to be more serious than that, we’ll miss the fun of it all. In fact, we’ll miss the point of everything. (The point of everything? Well, that’s the point at the heart of each thing where the kernel of faithfulness is playfully hidden.)
Martin Buber tells a story that is precisely to the point in question:
Rabbi Barukh’s grandson Yehiel was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him. When he had waited for a long time, he came out of his hiding place, but the other was nowhere to be seen. Now Yehiel realized that he had not looked for him from the very beginning. This made him cry, and crying he ran to his grandfather and complained of his faithless friend. Then tears brimmed in Rabbi Barukh’s eyes and he said: “God says the same thing: ‘I hide, but no one wants to seek me.’”
If our seriousness is a playful seriousness, much of our life of faith will be child’s play, delight upon delight. Once the child within us has learned the game, we’ll be able to see the point also when the sorrowful mysteries begin. With a child’s simplicity, we’ll go right to the heart of the matter and find that here, too, it is all a game of hide-and-seek. Death (and each one of the many deaths in the course of life) is the point where I so completely lose myself in the seeking that a breakthrough occurs: I find. But what I find is not what I was looking for. I find that what I was after, without knowing it, wasn’t finding at all, but being found. And at that moment I am found. Yes, now I even found myself, but that seems no longer of much importance in the midst of these glorious mysteries.
Seeking, losing myself, and allowing myself to be found – it is all child’s play. Why then don’t I do it? The answer is: I am afraid – afraid of seeking, and maybe not finding; afraid of losing myself, maybe for good; afraid of being found and maybe found wanting. Maybe I’m afraid, most of all, that there must be something wrong with so childlike an approach. I’m afraid it can’t be that simple. In short, I’m afraid period. Thus, once again, how can I overcome my fearfulness?
Just two suggestions in answer to that crucial question. The first was implicit in what we just discussed. We learn faith step by little step, and at the same pace we overcome fearfulness. By tackling the fear for which we are just strong enough, we grow stronger and can tackle the next one. As a small boy I used to be afraid of the dark. My mother knew it and would send me to pick up her sewing basket from the garden bench after nightfall. I ran and whistled to give myself courage. But in doing so I found out that nothing frightful happened. And I gained courage to tackle another fear.
Maybe we should, now and then, make a list of our fears – all of them. Of course there will be many reasonable fears among them, legitimate fears; we’ll leave those alone. And when in doubt, let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that our fears are reasonable and legitimate, unless the contrary is pretty obvious. There will still be enough unreasonable fears left on our list. We may be sure of that. And those are the ones we want to look at more closely. Maybe there is one among them we’ll dare to tackle after all, even if it’s only our unreasonable fear of spiders or hitchhikers. We pick that one out from our list. For once we do what we fear, and we see that the fear was unfounded. Not only do we survive what we unreasonably feared, but the experience lifts us onto a new and unsuspected level of aliveness. As often as we try this out, we find it to be true.
But I have another suggestion. This one has to do with how we think about our fears. It would be too bad if all this talk about faith and fear merely resulted in adding a new fear to our old ones: the fear of having fears. That would surely be the most unreasonable one of them all. Let’s think positively even about our fears. We know that courage presupposes fear. This is true even with the courage of faith. Without fear there is no courage. Children sometimes do things that would demand great courage from an adult. But in the children’s case, this exposure to danger is mere stupidity. The more clearly we see the danger, the greater the fear, but the greater also the courage that overcomes our fear.
There is a play, The Song at the Scaffold, based on a novel by Gertrud von LeFort, that tells of a community of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution. Disobeying orders to abandon their religious life, the nuns are imprisoned and led to their execution. So great is their faith and courage that they go up to the scaffold singing. Their song gets softer and softer as one by one the women are beheaded. Only with the last one the song ends. But this is where the core of the story begins. For, as it turns out, the last one to die with her companions was not really the last. One of the nuns had not had the courage to face death. She had gone into hiding. And now she must struggle all alone through agony after agony until she, too, gives herself up to be executed. To the last moment she is full of fear. But in the end it clearly emerges that her courage was greater than that of those who died triumphantly. Because the fear she had to overcome was so much greater, the courage that overcame her fear was greater, too.
We might even think of fear as the headwind of faith. The faster we go, say, on a bicycle, the stronger is the headwind we feel. It is our speed that creates that courage. As long as our faith remains a nose’s length ahead of our fear, fine. Let’s measure our courage by the fears we manage to master and pat ourselves on the back. We need not fear fear.
The struggle between fear and faith crystallizes into the image of Jesus in his agony. In the Garden of Olives, he becomes “the pioneer of our faith.” But this trail-blazing costs him bloody sweat. In the end he accepts the cup just as he had accepted the stones in place of bread. Are we not invited to see connection between this bread and cup and the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper? Whenever Christians celebrate the Eucharist, breaking bread and sharing the cup, they celebrate fullness of life. Yes, but with reference to death, with reference to a bloody agony in which faith conquered fear. The Eucharist is a challenge to follow Christ from fear to faith.
The very symbols of the Eucharistic meal are ambiguous symbols. Bread is a symbol of life. The breaking of bread signifies sharing of life that grows in the sharing. And yet the breaking also signifies destruction; it is a reminder of the body broken in death. The cup of blood drained from the body signifies death. But it is also the cup passed around in a festive gathering of friends, in an hour celebrating life. Only together can the two aspects stand for fullness.
The courage it takes to receive life even under the image of death – that is the courage of faith, the courage of gratefulness: trust in the Giver. When one approaches the altar to receive the Eucharistic bread and cup, this is an act of courage. It is a gesture by which one says, “I trust that I can live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, yes, even the word that spells death.” All that remains is to translate that act of faith into daily living. And this is done through gratefulness. Eucharist, after all, means “thanksgiving.” as we learn to give thanks for all of life and death, for all of this given world of ours, we find a deep joy. It is the joy of courageous trust, the joy of faith in the faithfulness at the heart of all things. It is the joy of gratefulness in touch with the fullness of life.