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

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Receiving by renunciation

In my doctoral dissertation, I argued that mystery in the fullest, positive sense of the term is actually intelligible in several ways. One of those ways is that positive mysteries, such as creation or free choice, are partially explicable. But of course they are not exhaustively so, else they would not be mysteries; a positive mystery is something that is partially explicable and thus intelligible, but is never exhaustively explicable even in principle. Thus positive mysteries cannot be resolved into necessities, even by omniscience; for to be necessitated is to be exhaustively explicable in principle, which no positive mystery could be. The proper attitudes toward mystery in that sense are awe and celebration. In today's Gospel reading according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, Luke 17: 5-10, we have an instance of such a mystery.

This passage always used to leave me completely befuddled, as it were "mystified." Hard experience has transformed my befuddlement into awe and celebration in face of the positive mystery revealed therein. The passage reads:

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

"Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
'Come here immediately and take your place at table'?
Would he not rather say to him,
'Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished'?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'"

Now what, I asked for many years, has the second bit about unprofitable servants got to do with the first bit, about faith the size of a mustard seed? I could never see the connection, and suspected that Luke was just stringing together otherwise unrelated sayings of Jesus remembered by the early Church. He may indeed have been doing that; but the Holy Spirit, who inspired the sacred writers, always has larger purposes. At the Mass for today, the Spirit vouchsafed me a sliver of insight. (No doubt some of the Fathers offered insights, but I have not read them on this point. I would be happy to be enriched or even corrected by them, if somebody would point one or more out to me.)

At this stage of my life, there is something my heart very much desires, something it is entirely appropriate for me to desire. Speaking on a general level, one might even call its attainment a spiritual duty. (I am not speaking of marriage or the priesthood, but of something just as meaningful.) Yet I cannot obtain the object of my desire without a change of heart on the part of a certain person, and I can do nothing of my own accord to effect such a change. Absent such a change, nothing true that I say, no matter how eloquent, and nothing constructive that I do, no matter how noble, is likely to make a dime's worth of difference. If the change comes, it will be by an action of the Holy Spirit granted through prayer and sacrifice, from the heart and in faith. For years I have offered such prayer and sacrifice in faith. But there seems to be no change. Does that mean I am unheard, or that I am heard but simply denied the object of my desire? Of course not. To believe that I am unheard or denied would be incompatible with faith understood as trust: the kind of trust Jesus was always urging, the kind he said would get us anything we asked the Father in his name, the kind he speaks of in today's Gospel reading. So, what am I to conclude?

This is where being an "unprofitable servant" comes in. To have the kind of faith that moves mountains, we servants must wait on the Master while he eats and drinks, offering our hunger and thirst as a loving sacrifice. What is it to make such an offering? Our faith must be such that we view serving the Master as the highest fulfillment we could ever hope to attain; for we deserve nothing more, indeed not even that. Only with such humble faith will we too get to satisfy our hunger and thirst. We get what we want but do not deserve only by acknowledging that he has a claim on us and acting accordingly, while acknowledging with humility rather than resentment that we have no claim on him. Only by renunciation can we be fulfilled; only by dying can we live as we are meant to.

Such a realization leaves me awestruck and disposed to celebrate. Of course I have no idea how the object of my desire will be attained. It could be attained in a manner I could perceive and rejoice over in this life. God has that power. But then again, it might not be attained in that way. I do not know; I simply trust that waiting on the Master, serving his larger purposes as the gifts he has given me permit, will draw me into the feast: the eternal sphere of love, joy, and light he wills for each of us. If I persist in such trust and act accordingly, I will get what I desire and ask for in his Name. But it is not up to me to doubt or judge if I don't get it in a form I could now recognize.

Such is mystery. It's comforting to know that my dissertation was good for something.
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