Softening the Hard Heart (John 3:16-18)

Most Holy Trinity (Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Gospel for this Sunday — Holy Trinity Sunday, commemorating the Trinity a week after Pentecost’s great celebration of the Holy Spirit — contains a saying so well known that it’s easy to skim over it, and hard to plumb its depths with new eyes. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Primarily this verse touches us with its emphasis on God’s radical love for the world and love for us, despite all the suffering the human species inflicts upon itself and on other species. That love means that God is not enthusiastic about condemning. God is enthusiastic about redeeming and forgiving, when the hard heart becomes consumed with remorse and looks to its Creator for forgiveness and love. But God’s respect for our autonomy is such that this is not forced upon us. It is a gift freely offered, and can be freely turned down. Our hearts can soften in the face of God’s love, causing us to follow in the divine way of compassionate kindness; or they can remain hard and intractable, continuing to cause pain to others. 

If “perish” in this passage stands as the opposite of “have eternal life,” then looking more closely at what Jesus means by “eternal life” will help us better understand its opposite. In another passage in John, Jesus asks the Father to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given him. He then says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus reassures his disciples that simply to know God in an intimate way — and as he told them elsewhere, just to know him is a direct way to know God — leads to eternal life. This is because it is impossible to know God in our depths person-to-Person and yet refuse to love him. And it is that love, which is the greatest transformative force in the world, that brings eternal life. 

It is that gentle yet most powerful-in-its-gentleness force of love that softens our hearts and causes us to see others and all of Creation in the way that God sees. This, in itself, changes our actions and our disposition and leads into the eternal life of which Jesus speaks. We do not need to perform superhuman spiritual acrobatics, he tells us, to inherit eternal life. We do not need to wear ourselves out trying to “earn” it somehow, or prove that we are worthy of it. We will never achieve that. But neither should we relinquish all responsibility to seek and find God, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “well, I’m all good just the way I am, no need to seek God to improve me!” Both such approaches are nonsense. 

When Jesus says, “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you,” he is not telling us to ask for the latest hot consumer item, a more luxurious car, or a bigger house. When he encourages us to “seek,” he means seek God, and seek him in earnest, and God will not hide himself but let you find him. When he says “knock,” he means knock on God’s door, and it will always be opened to you.  

Those who are a part of other faiths can truly seek and know God in their own way, for the spark of the Creator dwells deep within each of his creations. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) made this, in fact, a part of doctrine when it wrote that those who are not familiar with Christ and his revelation of God “but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium 16). 

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds us: “It is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, and to see him, and to love him, is the one thing that matters.”

Holy Trinity, triune God, help us always first and foremost to seek you, to knock on your door, to invite you to come and stay with us. By doing so let us open our hearts to be softened and changed by the transformative knowledge of you and your love. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

Jesus’ Compassion for Thomas (John 20:19-31)

This reflection on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter is the first of what I hope will be a series of reflections on the lectionary’s Gospel readings. My hope is to offer a reflection for each Sunday’s Gospel, but if this proves to be too ambitious time-wise, then I will simply offer what I can. Occasionally I will do a reflection on a reading that is not in the lectionary on a given week, but which I might have been thinking about at that time. These reflections are based on what arises through my own particular meditation on the reading (a practice the Church’s tradition calls lectio divina), combined with what I have learned academically with respect to the historical context. I hope others might find this useful in some way. And I welcome your reflections, too.

The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

John 20:19-31 deals with the period of time immediately following the Resurrection. According to John, Jesus has just appeared, risen, to Mary Magdalene at the tomb site. There she had gone weeping after the Jewish Sabbath had ended, expecting to anoint his corpse in accordance with the Jewish burial customs. Instead, she was beyond shocked to see him approach her in the garden and speak to her by name: “Mariam.” Mary. He told her to go back and tell the apostles that he was risen, and instruct them to wait for him to come to them. This she did. However, most of them did not believe what she told them. They remained frozen, in a room with locked doors, for fear that they might be hunted down and executed as well. Their hopes and their expectations had been crushed by Jesus’ horrifying murder, instigated by Jerusalem’s corrupt and power-hungry religious leaders, and carried out by the Roman Empire’s well-oiled execution machine. Resurrection was not on their radar. Their own short-term survival was. Struggling through their grief, fear, and humiliation, was. But not Resurrection. As for Mary, they must have theorized, she was perhaps out of her mind with grief, seeing things. In any case, women were not even considered reliable witnesses to testify. Something this extraordinary would be hard to accept even coming from a man; from a woman, the truth of a thing so astonishing could hardly be hoped.

In the middle of all this, the Gospel tells us, “Jesus came and stood in their midst [despite the locked doors] and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ ” The Greek word written here for “peace” — eirēnē — reflects the Hebrew/Aramaic word that Jesus would actually have spoken: shalom. English cannot render in only one word the full meaning of shalom: it means not only peace, but wholeness, health, complete well-being. These are the first words they hear from him since before he died — since before they had either claimed that they didn’t know him in order to avoid arrest, or had simply run away in fear and horror during his Crucifixion. Many people have noted that these first words of the resurrected Jesus to the stunned apostles are simply a gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, a wiping clean of the slate of their less-than-stellar faithfulness and friendship on Good Friday. Their fear-induced abandonment of him on that day and the night of his arrest prior to it is purged away, wiped clean, put in the past as though it never occurred. He understands. He forgives them. He doesn’t hold it over their heads or throw any anger or hurt in their direction. What matters, he communicates to them, is what they are going to do from now on. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He will be with them on and off for around the next 40 days, to instruct them and be with them before he ascends to the eternal world.

But Thomas, for some reason, was the only one of the apostles who didn’t happen to be there when Jesus appeared in the room. By the time Thomas rejoined the rest, he had to listen to them fall all over themselves trying to tell him that the Lord had been there and they had all seen him. This was too much for Thomas. Now, surely, the rest of them had lost their minds just as Mary and the other women had. This was beyond the pale. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side [where the centurion had pierced it with a spear], I will not believe.” For this reason people have over time given him the unflattering moniker “Doubting Thomas,” which does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. But this, as our parish priest pointed out in a homily and as I have read elsewhere, is really a bit unfair. It’s even a little hypocritical, given how many of us nowadays struggle to believe anything that cannot be conclusively and scientifically replicated to prove its veracity. We cannot in any self-righteousness cocoon call him “Doubting Thomas.”

In any case, Jesus returns a week later, again despite the locked doors, and this time Thomas is there. Again Jesus’ first words are “Peace be with you,” as if he is replicating for Thomas what he had been unfortunate enough to miss. As he had for the others, Jesus understands Thomas and his actions. He has compassion for our limitations, and forgives them. He speaks to Thomas with gentleness. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’ Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ ”

May we all be comforted, in our many faults and limitations, by his compassionate tenderness.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

I Don’t Have to Like You to Love You (and You Don’t Have to Like Me to Love Me Either)

Yes, it’s a truism that we can love someone without liking them. Usually when we hear of this happening, it’s a case within families. Someone has a family member — spouse, sibling, parent, whoever — who’s put them through hell, and it’s hard to muster up a cozy affection for this person. Or it’s an old friend that’s just gotten a little hard to like lately. Yet you love these people anyway, because you just do. It’s a given. You want what’s best for them, even if they’re not your first pick when you think about going for that nice nature walk in the woods.

But there is a whole other dimension, too, in which this can happen. At our Catholic parish, we’re fortunate enough to have two grace-filled, down-to-earth, insightful priests. One of them gave his homily this Sunday on what it means to love in the way that Christ taught. He mentioned that St. Thomas Aquinas defined this kind of love as being rooted in the will, not just (or not so much) the emotions. Then he went on to clarify that this kind of love, simply put, wants what is best for the other person.

It seems to me that one obvious way to see this is to realize that loving another person in Christ-love doesn’t require believing that they’re a great person or even a good person, especially when it’s quite clear that they’re not. It doesn’t require “feeling” the same kind of affection we feel for our spouse when we’re in a happy marriage, or for a family member with whom we get along swimmingly. What Christ-love requires is that we recognize the other person as another child of God, whom God loves, and that we therefore want what is good for them. This is a liberating realization, and it’s one that can be applied to everyone — not just to the person we already know we love, but also to the colleague or co-worker or neighbor who makes life difficult.

And most significant of all from the perspective of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemy”: we can apply this understanding of love even to people who commit the worst kinds of sins, without ever thinking that loving them in this way implies any kind of validation, justification, or understanding of what they’ve done. When St. Paul said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” this is what he meant. He didn’t mean that by loving the sinner, they’re your natural go-to person for dinner and a movie (and yes, I know they didn’t have movies in the first century A.D.). He meant that you don’t want evil to befall them; you don’t want vengeance; you don’t want them to suffer for the sake of it; you can feel compassion for them. You want what’s best for them despite their actions, because you know that this is the love of Christ and you cannot wish against it. What’s best for them doesn’t mean they should never have to face up to their sins, and just go blithely along through life getting whatever they want — in fact, that’s very far from what is best for them. What is best for them is whatever God thinks is best for them, and that’s not for us to know. But it is for us to want, and if we can, to pray for.

This concept of love isn’t limited to Christianity, of course. I think immediately of Buddhism with its central teaching on compassion for everyone and everything, including one’s own enemy. It has been scientifically proven that Buddhist monks meditating on compassion, while their brains are monitored with a PET scan, register the highest levels of happiness that we’ve been able to record. Not long ago, I read a book by the Dalai Lama in which he explicated many Buddhist teachings, including the teaching to cultivate universal compassion. Acknowledging that jumping immediately to universal compassion is an impossibly tall order, the Dalai Lama said it must be approached in small steps if one is to achieve it. These small steps include first imagining something or someone for whom it’s quite easy to have compassion: a young child, for example, or an injured bird. When imagining this category, it shouldn’t take long for a feeling of compassion to arise. We can then continue on gradually and over time, in small steps, to imagine other, less sympathetic entities: a person whom we find irritating, for example. Meditating on compassion for that person then opens us up even more to the next level, and so on and so forth, until eventually we find ourselves capable of having compassion (and therefore love) on a universal level. Compassion is the door to love.

You don’t have to like someone in order to love them in the way that Christ taught. Practicing love in this way might or might not change another person; but it will, without a doubt, change the one who loves. We too can be like those Buddhist monks who experience the highest levels of happiness on the planet.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

 

Loosening the Padlock on My Compassion

This year, Lent begins on February 13. During Lent, practicing Christians undertake certain disciplines to achieve spiritual purification and growth. Lent is the unavoidable annual reminder to Christians that Jesus didn’t teach us the easy, feel-good spirituality of self-fulfillment that we find all around us in pop culture. A Christian spirituality that assimilates itself to this ignores the primary commandment that Christ taught, which is that we practice unconditional love, compassion, and non-judgment. Even when it doesn’t suit us, and even when we feel we shouldn’t have to. 

Sure. Love and compassion and non-judgment are easy to say, and are frequently said; but what does it mean to practice them in a real way, in a way that doesn’t lead to all of us making hypocrites out of ourselves? This is the question we often want to steer clear of, because it requires us to step outside our self-focused worlds and our grievances and the things we feel we deserve. The hard reality is that Christ calls everyone who says they want to follow him to walk down a road that our natural instincts would prefer not to know about.  What does this road entail, that we want to avoid it so much? 

Well, it certainly doesn’t entail drawing careful demarcation lines around those who we feel deserve the love and compassion Christ is always talking about: people we already love because they are family, or people we already like because they are nice to us and give us the consideration we feel we’re entitled to. As Jesus says: “What credit is that to you? Even the sinners and tax collectors do the same.” The reality is that most of the time, we expect the divine call to love, compassion, and non-judgment to be meticulously carried out when it is we ourselves who would be on the receiving end of it. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we’re not nearly so generous when it comes to extending those things to other people — especially people who are outside our boundary of those we love and those we like. 

The next category — people who have actively wronged us or our loved ones — are even farther outside our guarded boundary. They, we righteously feel, will never be the objects of our compassion because they simply don’t deserve it. So what if Christ still expects that I release my compassion from the fenced-in area in which it dwells, and extend it not just to myself but also to them? Well, I’m not Christ. I’m not able. It’s too much to ask. I’m too angry. What they did was too unconscionable. They certainly don’t have compassion toward me, after all; they don’t give me a second thought, and if they did, it’s a nasty one. Anyone who asks me to do otherwise is naïve.

But this is, in fact, what Christ not only asks but requires of anyone who claims to follow him. His repeated instruction — not to mention his example — to “love your enemy” and not just your neighbor is an inconvenient truth at the center of all Christ said and did. Most of us give it lip service on a good day. We prefer to be on the receiving end of such a thing, not on the giving end. Even the suggestion that we have compassion (to say nothing of love!) for one who is our enemy feels like an offense to us. I believe the reason it is so difficult is that we have an inside view of our own minds, but not those of other people; so it’s far easier to see a whole person when we look at ourselves, but only a one or two dimensional person when we look at the other. 

Yet that other person is as three dimensional as I am, whether I actually see those dimensions or not. More important, I am forced to recognize the uncomfortable fact that the God who I know loves me, also loves them. And not just a little: every bit as much. Because God sees everything that went into making them who they became. Just as God sees everything that went into making me who I became. I have no privileged status because God feels their pain no less than God feels mine, and God loves them no less than God loves me. How, then, can I permit myself to hate what God loves? Before long, I can feel the heavy-duty padlock begin to loosen on that fence where my compassion and love dwell, and the one who is loosening it is God. And now I myself don’t feel so cramped up anymore. I feel freedom instead.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck