RonRolheiser,OMI

God’s Quiet Presence in our Lives

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The poet, Rumi, submits that we live with a deep secret that sometimes we know, and then not.

That can be very helpful in understanding our faith. One of the reasons why we struggle with faith is that God’s presence inside us and in our world is rarely dramatic, overwhelming, sensational, something impossible to ignore. God doesn’t work like that. Rather God’s presence, much to our frustration and loss of patience sometimes, is something that lies quiet and seemingly helpless inside us. It rarely makes a huge splash.

Because we are not sufficiently aware of this, we tend to misunderstand the dynamics of faith and find ourselves habitually trying to ground our faith on precisely something that is loud and dramatic. We are forever looking for something beyond what God gives us. But we should know from the very way God was born into our world, that faith needs to ground itself on something that is quiet and undramatic. Jesus, as we know, was born into our world with no fanfare and no power, a baby lying helpless in the straw, another child among millions. Nothing spectacular to human eyes surrounded his birth. Then, during his ministry, he never performed miracles to prove his divinity; but only as acts of compassion or to reveal something about God. Jesus never used divine power in an attempt to prove that God exists, beyond doubt. His ministry, like his birth, wasn’t an attempt to prove God’s existence. It was intended rather to teach us what God is like and that God loves us unconditionally.

Moreover, Jesus’ teaching about God’s presence in our lives also makes clear that this presence is mostly quiet and hidden, a plant growing silently as we sleep, yeast leavening dough in a manner hidden from our eyes, summer slowly turning a barren tree green, an insignificant mustard plant eventually surprising us with its growth, a man or woman forgiving an enemy. God, it seems, works in ways that are quiet and hidden from our eyes. The God that Jesus incarnates is neither dramatic nor splashy.

And there’s an important faith-lesson in this. Simply put, God lies inside us, deep inside, but in a way that’s almost non-existent, almost unfelt, largely unnoticed, and easily ignored. However, while that presence is never overpowering, it has within it a gentle, unremitting imperative, a compulsion towards something higher, which invites us to draw upon it. And, if we do draw upon it, it gushes up in us in an infinite stream that instructs us, nurtures us, and fills us with endless energy.

This is important for understanding faith. God lies inside us as an invitation that fully respects our freedom, never overpowers us; but also never goes away. It lies there precisely like a baby lying helpless in the straw, gently beckoning us, but helpless in itself to make us pick it up.

For example, C.S. Lewis, in explaining why he finally became, in his words, “the most reluctant convert in the history of Christendom”, writes that, for years, he was able to effectively ignore a voice inside him, precisely, because it was almost non-existent, almost unfelt, and largely unnoticed. On the other hand, in retrospect, he realized it had always been there, a gentle, incessant nudge, beckoning him to draw from it, something he eventually recognized as a gentle, but unyielding, imperative, a “compulsion” which, if obeyed, leads to liberation.

Ruth Burrows, the British Carmelite and mystic, describes a similar experience in her autobiography, Before the Living God.  Chronicling her late adolescent years, Burrows describes both her religious flightiness and her lack of attraction to the religious life at that time in her life. Yet she eventually ends up not only being serious about religion but becoming a Carmelite nun. What happened? One day, in a chapel, almost against her will, triggered by a series of accidental circumstances, she opened herself to voice inside her that she had, until then, mainly ignored because it lay inside her precisely as a voice that was almost non-existent, almost unfelt, and largely unnoticed. But once touched, it gushed up as the deepest and most real thing inside her and set the direction of her life forever afterwards. Like C.S. Lewis, she too, once she had opened herself to it, felt it as an unyielding moral compulsion opening her to ultimate liberation.

Why doesn’t God show himself to us more directly and more powerfully so as to make faith easier? That’s a fair question for which, partly, there is no fully satisfying answer. But the answer we do have lies in understanding the manner in which God manifests himself in our lives and in our world. Unlike most everything else that’s trying to get our attention, God never tries to overwhelm us. God, more than anyone else, respects our freedom. For this reason, God lies everywhere, inside us and around us, almost unfelt, largely unnoticed, and easily ignored, a quiet, gentle nudge; but, if drawn upon, the ultimate stream of love and energy.

The Transcript of our Trial

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The biblical accounts of Jesus’ passion and death focus very much on his trial, describing it in length and in detail.

And there is a huge irony in how it is described. Jesus is on trial, but the story is written in such a way that, in effect, everyone is on trial, except Jesus. The Jewish authorities who orchestrated his arrest are on trial for their jealousy and dishonesty. The Roman authorities who wield the final power on the matter are on trial for their religious blindness. Jesus’ friends and contemporaries are on trial for their weakness and betrayal. Those who challenge Jesus to invoke divine power and come off the cross are on trial for their superficial faith. And, not least, each of us is on trial for our own weaknesses, jealousies, religious blindness, and superficial faith. The transcript of the trial of Jesus reads like a record of our own betrayals.

Recently the church has tried to help us grasp this by the manner in which it has the Passion proclaimed on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. In many churches today when the Passion is read the narrative is broken up in such a way that one narrator proclaims the overall text, another person takes the part of Jesus, several others take the parts of the various people who spoke during his arrest and trial, and the congregation as a whole is asked to proclaim aloud the parts that were spoken by the crowds. This could not be more appropriate because a congregation in any Christian church today, and we, as individual members of those congregations, in our actions and in our words, in countless ways, mimic perfectly the actions and words of Jesus’ contemporaries in their weaknesses, betrayals, jealousies, religious blindness, and false faith. We too indict Jesus countless times by how we live.

For example, here is how we do it in our words: In Matthew’s account of the trial of Jesus, at a certain moment in the trial, Pontus Pilate comes out to the people, the same people who just five days before had chanted for Jesus to be their king, and tells them that according to custom, at Passover time, he is willing to release one Jewish criminal being held in custody. At the time, he had in custody a particularly infamous murderer named, Barabbas. So Pilate asks the crowd: “Whom should I release for you, Jesus of Nazareth or Barabbas?” The crowd roars back: “Barabbas!” Pilate then asks: “Then what should I do with Jesus of Nazareth?” The crowd’s reply: “Away with him. Have him crucified!” We can make this, very obvious, extrapolation: In every moral choice we make, big or small, ultimately the question we are standing in front of is the same question Pilate asked the crowd: Whom should I release for you, Jesus or Barabbas? Graciousness or violence? Selflessness or self-centeredness?

It is the same when the crowds say to Pilate: “We have no king, except Caesar!” In saying this, they were abandoning their own messianic hopes in favor of a momentary security. We say the same thing every time when, for our own well-being, we sell-out our higher ideals and settle for second best.

As well, all too frequently, we mimic the words of the crowds who challenged Jesus as he was hanging on the cross with these words: “If you are the Son of God, come off the cross, save us, and save yourself.” We do this every time we let our prayers become a test of God’s existence and goodness; if we get a positive answer, God loves us, if not, we begin to doubt.

It is the same, of course, with our actions: Like Jesus’ disciples, we tend to stay with Jesus more when things are going well, when temptation is not too strong, and when we are not facing real, personal threat. But, like Jesus’ original followers, we tend to abandon and betray when things get hard and threatening. Moreover, like the authorities who come to arrest Jesus carrying lanterns and torches, we also often prefer artificial light to the Light of Lights; just as, like those who arrested Jesus, we tend to approach the Prince of Peace carrying clubs and swords, ready for a fight.

Generally, on reading the account of Jesus’ Passion and Death, our spontaneous inclination is to judge very harshly those who surrounded Jesus at his arrest, trial, and sentencing: How could they not see what they were doing? How could they be so blind and jealous? How could they choose false security over God’s ultimate shelter? A murderer over the Messiah? How could his followers so easily abandon him?

Not much has changed in 2000 years. The choices that those around Jesus were making during his trial and sentencing are identical to the choices we are still making today. And most days we are not doing any better than they did because, still, far too often, given blindness and self-interest, we are saying: Away with him! Crucify him!

The Garden of Gethsemane

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Several years ago, Mel Gibson produced and directed a movie which enjoyed a spectacular popularity. Entitled, The Passion of the Christ, the movie depicts Jesus’ paschal journey from the Garden of Gethsemane to his death on Golgotha, but with a very heavy emphasis on his physical suffering.  The movie shows in graphic detail what someone who was being crucified might have had to endure in terms of being physically beaten, tortured, and humiliated.

While most church groups applauded the film and suggested that, finally, someone made a movie the truly depicted Jesus’ suffering, many scripture scholars and spiritual writers were critical of the movie. Why? What’s wrong with showing, at length and in graphic detail, the blood and gore of the crucifixion – which, indeed, must have been pretty horrific?

What’s wrong (or better, perhaps, amiss) is that this is precisely what the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death don’t do. All four Gospels take pains to not focus on the physical sufferings of Jesus. Their descriptions of his physical sufferings are stunningly brief: “They crucified him with the two criminals.” “Pilate had Jesus scourged and handed him over to be crucified.”  Why the brevity here? Why no detailed description?

The reason that the Evangelists don’t focus us on what Jesus was enduring physically is that they want us to focus something else, namely, on what Jesus was enduring emotionally and morally. The passion of Jesus is, in its real depth, a moral drama, not a physical one, the suffering of a lover, not that of an athlete.

Thus we see that, when Jesus is anticipating his passion, the anxiety he expresses is not about the whips that will beat him or the nails that will pierce his hands. He is pained and anxious rather about the aloneness he is facing, how he will be betrayed and abandoned by those who profess to love him, and how he will, in the wonderful phraseology of Gil Bailie, be “unanimity-minus-one”.

That the passion of Jesus is a love-drama is also evident in its setting. It begins with him sweating blood in a garden – and ends with him being buried in a garden. Jesus is sweating blood in a garden, not in an arena. What’s significant about a garden?

In archetypal symbolism, gardens are not for growing vegetables or even for growing flowers. Gardens are for lovers, the place to experience delight, the place to drink wine, the place where Adam and Eve were naked and didn’t know it, the place where one makes love.

And so the Evangelists place the beginning and the end of Jesus’ passion in a garden to emphasize that it is Jesus, as lover (not Jesus as King, or Magus, or Prophet) who is undergoing this drama. And what precisely was the drama?  When Jesus is sweating blood in the Garden and begging his Father to spare him having to “drink the cup”, the real choice he is facing is not: Will I let myself die or will I invoke divine power and save my life? Rather the choice was: “How will die? Will I die angry, bitter, and unforgiving, or will I die with a warm, forgiving heart?”

Of course, we know how Jesus resolved this drama, how he chose forgiveness and died forgiving his executioners, and how, inside all that darkness, he remained solidly inside the message that he had preached his whole ministry, namely, that ultimately love, community, and forgiveness triumph.

Moreover, what Jesus did in that great moral drama is something we’re supposed to imitate rather than simply admire because that drama is also ultimately the drama of love within our own lives, presenting itself to us in countless ways. Namely:

At the end of our lives, how will we die? Will our hearts be angry, clinging, unforgiving, and bitter at the unfairness of life? Or, will our hearts be forgiving, grateful, empathic, warm, as was the heart of Jesus when he said to his Father not my will but yours be done?

Moreover this is not just one, major choice we face at the hour of death; it is also a choice we face daily, many times daily. Countless times in our daily interactions with others, our families, our colleagues, our friends, and with society at large, we suffer moments of coldness, misunderstanding, unfairness, and positive violation. From the indifference of a family member to our enthusiasm, to a sarcastic comment that is intended to hurt us, to a gross unfairness in our workplace, to being the victim of a prejudice or abuse; our kitchen tables, our workplaces, our meeting rooms, and the streets we share with others, are all places where we daily experience, in small and big ways, what Jesus felt in the garden of Gethsemane, unanimity-minus-one. In that darkness will we let go of our light? In the face of hatred will we let go of love?

That’s the real drama of the Passion of the Christ – and the ropes, whips, and nails are not the central drama.