From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer
The Surpassing Surprise
Beauty is useless, superfluous, like all great things in life. Is not the universe itself a totally superfluous firework of divine glory, and therefore so priceless? Useful things have a price. But who can assess the value of a poem in dollars and cents? Who can put a price tag on a kiss? If God’s glory is really all that matters, then the totally useless is not to be relegated to moments of spare time once in a month of Sundays. We may have to learn that the useless deserves prime time. The superfluous comes first in attention anyway. To acknowledge this truth might mean a far more drastic transformation by divine glory than we were prepared to undergo. It might turn our set of values topsy-turvy. When Jesus says, “Behold the lilies,” (Matthew 6:28), he is inviting each one of us to take beauty seriously in all its uselessness. What will this mean for our daily life?
For the aesthete looking at those lilies involves no risk. It will never lead him to a change of heart. He has developed a sterile way of looking; he takes pleasure, but he gives nothing in return, least of all, his heart. The moment we give our heart to this vision a surprise happens. We thought we were looking at the lilies, but suddenly the lilies were looking at us. Rilke captures that experience in his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” It takes him twelve lines and a half to make his readers feel that they are gazing at the sculpture, which he sets before them, rather than describes. They are all eyes. At that moment, suddenly, the poet turns the perspective clear around and says: “there is no place / that does not see you.” And abruptly he closes the poem with, “You must change your life.” The lily looks at you and every petal becomes a tongue that challenges you.
With this challenge begins the transformation of our world. Once we rise to the challenge and accept the risk, transformation takes hold of us. It begins with a change of heart and runs its course, all the way to the transformation of the social order and to the transformation of matter itself.
The aesthete is too jaded to run that risk. The do-gooder is too busy. He has no time to bother with flowers. With six tongues the glory of God shouts at us from every lily in bloom, “Stop and look!” Or, as the psalm puts it, “Be still and know,” (Psalm 46:10). But the busybody does not understand the language of their silent eloquence. He rushes on: “Sorry, I don’t speak Lily.” His ears are buzzing with the din of his own projects, ideas, and good intentions.
While the aesthete in us falls into the trap of barren vision, the do-gooder in us is trapped in barren action. Over against both of them stands the person of hope, with clear eyes and rolled-up sleeves. Hope is the virtue that frees us from the double trap of idle vision and blind action. The aesthete and the busybody are desperate in opposite ways. The one despairs of the power of action and gets drunk on vision. The other drowns his despair of finding a guiding vision in mere activity. But hope brings us right back to the core of contemplative transformation: glory.
Glory is seed and harvest of hope, its initial spark and its ultimate blaze. When the first Christians tried to sum up “the good news, proclaimed now to every creature under Heaven,” hope and glory were indispensable key words. When they attempted to bring into one formula “the secret hidden from ages and generations, but now made manifest,” this is what they came up with: “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” (Colossians 1:23-27). They speak of it as God’s “secret among the nations,” a divine master plan, if you wish, for social transformation. But this “hope of glory” is more than a secret blueprint. It is “hidden” like leaven in the dough. And the apostle speaks of it as “that energy of his, which is at work in me with power,” (Colossians 1:29).
Giving yourself to the transforming power of “Christ within you” implies self-acceptance. God has accepted you – as you are – because God looks at your heart of hearts and sees his own glory – acceptance of us makes self-acceptance possible. To accept God’s acceptance is also the basic gesture of faith, our trust in the Giver, from whom we receive all, even ourselves. And to accept God’s acceptance is also the basic gesture of hope, our openness for Surprise, including all the surprises of our own unsuspected possibilities. The Self of this self-acceptance is “Christ within.” In Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot calls it:
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.
But before all manner of things shall be well, the most painful test of hope still awaits us. We have to face that test when the one hope of our common calling, (cf. Ephesians 4:4), gives rise to mutually conflicting hopes within the one Body of Christ. An example is the tension among our sisters and brothers in Latin America today, where hope, hopes, and social transformation are at stake. “It is necessary,” says Saint Paul, “that there should be factions among you, so that the approval may become apparent,” (1 Corinthians 11:19). Our limited visions give rise to limited hopes. And those hopes must clash with each other so that God’s surpassing plan may emerge. That is why we must hold our hopes lightly at the same time as we are willing to die for them. There is no greater suffering than that. Yet, suffering gives weight, that weight without which glory is just flimsy glitter.
When hopes clash with hopes for the sake of the one surpassing hope, it becomes clear in what sense we “glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Galatians 6:14). We glory in it not as in a jewel-studded emblem of triumph, but as in each one’s own, most unprepossessing suffering – Martin Luther King’s, Karen Silkwood’s, Oscar Romero’s, your own. The trajectory of hope is not an unbroken line “from glory to glory.” It leads through the paradox of the cross. The cross itself is a sign of contradiction. Its two lines meet in conflict, like clashing hopes. The cross stands for that collision in which our hopes must go down so that on the third day hope may rise. The risen Lord says to his discouraged disciples: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer all this and so to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26)
“Hail, holy cross, our only hope,” sings an ancient Christian hymn. “O crux ave, spes unica!” Why should the cross be an emblem of hope rather than hopelessness? All Jesus’s hopes were shattered when he hung on the cross. Why was it “necessary” for the Christ to suffer all this? We set our hopes on what we can imagine. But hope is open for the unimaginable. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, what God has prepared” for us. That is why our desperate little hopes must be crossed out to make room for the surpassing Surprise, “the God of hope,” whose breaking into our lives is death and resurrection.
A friend who read the manuscript for me wrote in the margin at this point: “Give life experience example.” A well meant advice, but an impossible task. No life experience can exemplify God’s breaking in, for that event is a death experience. Its other side is resurrection. But resurrection is not revival, survival, resuscitation. Resurrection is not a coming back to this life of death. What would be the point of that? Resurrection is a going forward into death and through death into a fullness that lies beyond life and death as we know them. From this side of the great divide, death remains all we can see, unless we are looking at some mirage of hopes. Hope looks squarely at death, the open door for Surprise.
On Easter morning the angel announces the resurrection of Jesus not by saying, “Here he is; he has come back to life!” No. Looking for him in that way would mean looking for the living one among the dead. He is not here. Nor is he alive with our aliveness that is closer to death than to life. “He is risen,” runs the good news, and “He is not here.” All we can experience from the perspective of our death-bound living is that the tomb is open and empty, a fitting image for wide open hope.
Hope shares the ambiguity of Jesus’s cross. Hope is a passion for the possible. The double meaning of the word, “passion,” takes on a new significance in the light of Christ’s cross. Hope, as passion for the possible, implies passionate dedication to the possible as well as suffering for its realization. Only patience fulfills this double task. A mother’s patience is the passion of hope. And since patience is as contagious as impatience, it will also be our way of strengthening each other’s hope. But it will demand from us a passion for – and for the sake of – goals, yes, even hopes, for which one might have to give one’s life without getting attached to them.
The unattached devotion which might pass for devotionless, in a drifting boat with a slow leakage.
The slow leakage T. S. Eliot describes comes from the fact that for our hopes, which move in time, time is running out. But for hope, which “abideth,” time is filling up toward the fullness of time, here and now.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying.
Most of us are so used to an overabundance of words that silence tends to frighten us. It seems to us like a vast empty space. We look down into its expanse and get dizzy. Or else we feel a marvelous attraction toward the silence that leaves us bewildered. “I don’t know what has happened to me,” someone says. “I used to feel comfortable with my prayers, but lately I just want to be there in God’s presence. I don’t feel like saying or doing or thinking anything at all in prayer. And even God’s presence is more like an absence of all that I can imagine. There must be something wrong with me!” Wrong? I do not think so. This silence, too, is gift of God. And if we own it as the expression of our openness for surprise, we discover that this great emptiness of hope is already filled to the brim with the unimaginable.
This must be paradoxical, because it brings us back to the paradox of God’s life within us, the starting point of this chapter on hope. At the silent center of our heart, the fullness of life strikes us as a great emptiness. It must be so. For that fullness surpasses what eye has seen and ear has heard. Only gratefulness, in the form of limitless openness for surprise, lays hold of the fullness of life in hope.