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

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pentecost and metanoia

As individual Christians, including and especially as contemporary Catholics, we tend to forget that it's not about you. I was reminded of that truth, and the forgetting of it, by a fine homily of that title posted by Msgr. William Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington. "It," of course, is not just not about you. It's about nobody in particular but God.

If we're going to get "it," we have to care more about the Lord Jesus Christ than about any other human being or value. "It" is the whole "economy of salvation," all that God has done and continues to do for us. Of course that's paradoxical: if it's we who are being saved—God needs no salvation—why would the whole thing not be about us? But our redemption is itself paradoxical: God saved us from ourselves by becoming one of us and then letting people torture and execute him as a threat to public order. By rising from the dead into glory, he demonstrated that abundant life is attained by giving life away. At Pentecost, the disciples were empowered to overcome their fear and confusion and go on to proclaim that kerygma to the whole world. Following that model, indeed participating in it, we must realize that the conversion, the metanoia, needed for salvation is that we come to care far less about what God does for us as individuals than that God himself be glorified.

That is hard to understand and appreciate in our self-indulgent, narcissistic age. Many indeed think that, if it were true, then God himself would be a self-indulgent narcissist--which is only further proof of how spiritually degenerate our age is. But the truth was hard to understand even in harder ages, when people took the centrality of sacrifice for granted because most of them could expect no other sort of life.

St. Paul got it, of course. He said that "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." That's the attitude we must aspire to. Baptism is only the inauguration of that reality to which said attitude is our only rational response. Thus, the indicative statement should coordinate with a hortatory-subjunctive prayer: "Let it not be I who live, but you who live in me." I have made that one of my daily prayers. But I have only begun to learn its lesson.

For reasons a few of my readers know, and that most probably wouldn't care to know, my life was thoroughly deconstructed during the 1990s. By the end of 2000, I had to be hospitalized for really major depression. I got depressed partly for biochemical reasons, but mainly because I felt that God had been playing a long, cruel joke on me. Since my recovery, in which the objective circumstances of my life have actually been harder than they were in the 90s, I've been having a long debate with God. I've wanted him to show me that my life wasn't and isn't one long, cruel joke. Of course he has been showing me that. Many of his children have shown his love to me at some cost to themselves. In fact I sometimes get impatient with myself, and God, about the extent to which I find myself the object of their heartfelt charity. But recently I've begun to notice that I've avoided a relapse not because I have the right pills and people in my life—I can't afford the pills, and no adult can expect others to solve their problems for them—but because I've slowly, grudgingly come to recognize that it's not about me.

My life is not about what I want or would prefer. My life is a gift meant to bring others closer to God. For that, it's not necessary that my life be what I want or would prefer. It's only necessary that I find Christ in the circumstances he wills for me, love as he would have me love in those circumstances, and let myself be loved by him in those circumstances. Yet I often find that fact immensely frustrating. I still tend to feel that I deserve a "better" life, more of a domestic and professional niche, than I've managed to achieve since my exit from the psych ward nine years ago. I think of myself as a wandering pilgrim at this point. That partly results from my own sins and failings, but I have grown certain that it is the positive will of God. I don't know why it's that, but I don't think I'm just being "made to pay." And I certainly don't think anymore that it's all just a cruel joke. Maybe I'm just supposed to be a knight-errant of faith. If I'd seen myself that way earlier, I would have handled things very differently indeed.

But of course I don't and can't know exactly what God sees for me. None of us needs to know that; we'll find out soon enough at the judgment seat of Christ. We need only know that he wills only our good. That willing consists in the Trinity's striving, often gently and sometimes forcefully, to make its home within us. That is why "it" means turning our very lives into a prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit—my preferred form of the Doxology. For that, we need to look for the incarnate Son every day of our lives, and adhere to him who obeyed the Father.

Pentecost is a great day to recall that. For as the Pope has said in his homily, the "Son who speaks to the Father exists and they are both one in the Spirit, who constitutes, so to speak, the atmosphere of giving and loving which makes them one God." "It" is ultimately about participating forever in that.
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