"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, May 22, 2006

The courage to face a blessing

With her usual colloquial profundity, the Anchoress has passed and meditated on the following, said to have been prayed by his mentor over a man I admire, the late spiritual writer and lover of the mentally handicapped, the Rev. Henri Nouwen:

May all your expectations be frustrated.
May all your plans be thwarted.
May all your desires be withered into nothingness.
That you may experience the powerlessness and the poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

Oooooohkaaaaay....Anybody out there have the courage to accept a blessing like that—never mind the courage to utter it?

Still, it is Christianity. It is what happened to Jesus' closest companions, the Apostles, when he was crucified. After a few days he rose from the dead (!) and appeared to them several times; when he finally left for heaven, he filled them with the joy, courage, and power of the Holy Spirit to carry on the mission.

While my resumé is more impressive then theirs, my life has not been nearly so impressive. Yet in my own small way, I too have experienced what the blessing means. Five years ago, all my expectations had been frustrated and my plans thwarted. My desires had been withered into nothingness. I was so depressed that I had to have months of radical, multi-pronged therapy. Soon after emerging from that pit, I found myself homeless, facing other struggles too. I experienced the powerlessness and poverty of a child; I was empty and could not even ask the Lord to fill me; I asked only that he do with me what he willed, trusting implicitly that it would be for the best. Psalm 23 was my daily refrain. And that is when the glimmers of light started coming. I have begun to experience, when I least expect to, occasional moments of what C.S. Lewis called "joy." (Those of you who have read Surprised by Joy will know precisely what I mean.) Only this past week have I realized that I haven't felt any such thing since I was a boy.

It's not that I've become a howling success—at least not of the sort sought by the Prayer of Jabez. Many of my expectations continue to be frustrated; many of my plans are still thwarted; many of my desires still wither. But I have finally been learning detachment—slowly, to be sure, indeed too slowly; but learning all the same. I am slowly coming to accept that my expectations, plans, and desires are important not in themselves but rather as raw material to offer God for my own and others' spiritual good. Often they are crushed for the purpose, like grain to make bread and grapes to make wine. The Eucharist thus means more to me now than it ever did, which is why I dislike being unable to make Mass every day. Offering things to God for our own and others' spiritual good is the core of the essentially religious idea of sacrifice, i.e., making sacred. Setting aside for God's work that which is precious is, in fact, the source of our true life.

Jesus Christ, God the Son and the Son of God, gave us our only hope by becoming God's sacrifice on our behalf. We move toward fulfillment of that hope to the extent we emulate him by will of his Father and the power of his Holy Spirit. The sacrifice of our very selves entails letting go and letting God, as he did on the Cross; in the process, much is apparently destroyed. But only to be transformed—like him in his resurrection.

With us sinners, though, it's often one step forward and more than one back. That is why I don't recommend praying that blessing over just anybody. Their response might cause them to sin by inflicting on you a bit of non-redemptive suffering. Just try to pray it sincerely on your own account. I continue needing a lot of courage just to do that much.
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