IMAGO DEI: June 13th, 2013
Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will gain it. Luke 17:33
In a meditation written just thirteen days before he died from pancreatic cancer, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin examined his life-long challenge with abandoning himself to God. The spiritual practice of “letting go” was not a new one for Cardinal Bernardin, but it certainly took on a more profound application as he approached his own end. He wrote,
Throughout my spiritual journey I have struggled to become closer to God. As I prepare now for my passage from this world into the next, I cannot help but reflect on my life and recognize the themes that, like old friends, have been so important to me all these years. One theme that rises to the surface more than any other takes on new meaning for me now—the theme of letting go. By letting go, I mean the ability to release from my grasp those things that inhibit me from developing a more intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus.
We learn how to let go of ourselves best through prayer. Contemplative prayer, in particular, teaches us how to open ourselves up to God so that the Lord might live more fully in us. It encourages and sustains us in the life-long conversion that this spiritual direction implies. But it does so mostly by revealing to us the many ways we hold back from God. Bernardin writes,
I have prayed and struggled constantly to be able to let go of things more willingly, to be free of everything that keeps the Lord from finding greater hospitality in my soul, or interferes with my surrender to what God asks of me.
It is clear to me, especially now as I face death, that God wants me to let go. My daily prayer is that I can open wide the doors of my heart to Jesus and to His expectations of me.
Though he often communes with God in prayer, Cardinal Bernardin admits that he is still afraid of giving himself more fully to the Lord. He recognizes that he only lets God come in part of the way. Though he believes and understands that God is to be trusted, he still finds himself holding back, unwilling to let go completely. Bernardin speaks of his struggle in this saying,
The Lord is clear about what He wants from me, but it is really difficult to let go of all the plans I consider so important and all the needs I think I have in order to trust Him completely. I know that I must empty myself so that Jesus can come in.
It is the Holy Spirit who encourages us to perfect the offering of our lives so that we can more fully enjoy the freedom that that offering promises us. And to the degree that we withhold this offering our freedom is curtailed. As our Lord taught us, “Whoever keeps his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it.” Cardinal Bernardin understands this when he writes,
It is always unsettling to pray to be emptied of self; it seems a challenge almost beyond our reach as humans. But to let go of myself is the most perfect expression of my love and trust of the Lord. And if we try, I have learned that God does most of the work.
Jesus showed us the Way and promised abundant life to all who will follow His footsteps. He did not grasp at His own life. And because He made Himself nothing, His Father gave Him everything.
Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities
1. In what ways do you find yourself responding to or resisting God’s invitation to “offer your life more perfectly to Christ?”
2. How do you relate to Cardinal Bernardin’s desire to “open wide the doors of my heart to Jesus and his expectations of me?” How does this reflect your own hopes for spiritual growth?
3. What fears does the thought of giving yourself more completely to God bring up in you? How do these fears rob you of the freedom that God otherwise desires for you?
PRAYER: In the gentleness of prayer, practice letting go and offering your life more fully to Christ. Make note of and confess any fears that arise in you. Take opportunity to express your trust of God, even in the midst of your fears. And above all, express something of your desire to grow more completely in the ways you offer your life to Christ.
And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. Isa. 35:8
Imagine a multitude of people walking along a raised path in the wilderness. They are crowded together, having to move carefully as there are ditches on either side of the high way. Most of the people seem to be walking resolutely towards some destination. You notice a marked difference though between those at the front of the line and those at the end, who are just beginning to join the throng. A significant transformation has taken place in the souls of those who have travelled longer on this path. It becomes evident, in light of this conversion, that the destination of this journey is not necessarily to a place but to an increasing state of freedom—a freedom associated with holiness.
Those at the front of the line seem to shine with a winsome glow that inspires and motivates the people behind them. Every now and then, those behind catch a glimpse of the virtue that the saints ahead of them are enjoying, causing a noticeable ripple of enthusiasm through the crowd. But regardless where people are positioned on this path, they seem satisfied and grateful to be there. The motivation that those ahead of them provide is not so much one of envy but one of anticipation that serves to quicken their step.
You notice, as well, that there are people wandering in the fields and rocky areas on either side of the raised highway, some alone and others in small groups. These people seem lost and oblivious to the parade that is taking place right beside them. But you also notice some who are walking among them with much more of a sense of purpose. They are those who have sacrificed their place in line in order to go search for these lost souls. You watch as one of them approaches a group of wanderers and begins speaking to them. You can tell by the way she keeps pointing towards the highway that she is inviting them to come and join her in the journey. Some do, but many don’t. Instead, they keep wandering in the field, their eyes looking far into the distance for whatever they are searching for.
There is a high hill nearby, off to the side of the road. You climb it, and you can now see the whole multitude at a glance. You notice that there is a bulge of people in the middle of the throng while the numbers seem to thin out at both the front and rear of the line. The ones in the middle are carrying items with them that will serve the whole community on their journey—tents, food, water, as well as musical instruments, books for teaching, liturgical vestments and other articles that express something of their common destination. Every night they set up their tents and serve the many people who gather for a common meal. It is an opportune time as well to share stories and to remind one another of the hope that inspires their trek.
At the rear of the line you see some people who are obviously new at this pilgrimage. Though they seem to begin each day with an inordinate amount of enthusiasm they soon start complaining about tiredness, blisters and the heat of the noon-day sun. But there are others among them, people with the same glow as those in the front of the line. They have purposely fallen back in the line, choosing instead to walk among the new pilgrims, encouraging them and reminding them of where they are going. They are keeping an eye out as well for stragglers who might get left behind.
Curiously, there is something similar happening at the front of the line. You see people who had previously been glowing with the winsome radiance of purpose who are now sitting down, seemingly dejected on the side of the road. Their glow has faded as they seem confused about their way, disheartened by the challenges that the process of conversion continues to impose on them. Others from the front line leave the highway to sit with these people. They are talking with them, gently bringing both understanding and encouragement to these discouraged souls. As you notice the glow slowly return to these people, you remember Moses and Elijah’s conversation with Jesus at the transfiguration. Finally they get up and rejoin the crowd, grateful to those who cared enough to notice them.
As you strain to see how far the front line extends you are startled by what you notice. The people at the very front seem to be mysteriously disappearing. Their souls, which were getting brighter and brighter with each step, are now becoming increasingly transparent so that they blend into the bright light of the sun. They are becoming one with the light that has been following them their whole journey so that they seem to disappear as they reflect the very holiness they have been seeking. The brightness of these souls attracts the attention of the pilgrims behind them. Suddenly, these same people who just a moment ago were dragging their steps, are now throwing themselves forward, making a renewed offering of themselves to whatever lies ahead for them on this journey. They do this so joyfully that it reminds you of your own deep desires for holiness. That you too have been called to walk on this highway.
You have been watching long enough. It is time now for you too to join this pilgrimage. You step down from the hilltop and run towards the highway. The people see you approaching and turn to welcome you. With a song of praise in your heart, you realize how blessed you are to be on this road. You too will soon reflect the light that now surrounds you. You thank God for this hope, and for the love you feel for all those who walk with you on this pilgrimage. And with great joy, you go forth.
“Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
It is not uncommon us, even as Christians, to lose our sense of God. As the hymn suggests, we are “prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.” For countless and often trivial reasons, we choose to no longer remain in His love. But as Jesus’ teaches in this parable, there is cause for celebration in heaven each time we repent of this. The woman finds her lost coin, she calls her friends and neighbours, they share her joy, and all ends well.
But let us back the story up a bit. To the part just before the lost coin is found, when that happy outcome is not yet certain. It is easy to imagine the concern that precipitates the frantic search for this precious item. If heaven rejoices when the coin has been found, does it not also suggest that it shares the worry over what, for the moment, appears to be lost?
Is there concern in God’s heart when we stray—that we might not return? The French poet Charles Péguy (1873-1914) thinks so. He believes there is a genuine, heart-felt fear on God’s part whenever His children have been away for too long. In his epic poem, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Péguy surmises that it was the lost sheep who first introduced such fear in the Shepherd’s heart. He writes,
By his very going away,
and because he was going to miss the evening call
the lost sheep aroused fear from the very heart of God,
and thus he caused hope itself to spring forth.
Because of this lost sheep, Jesus experienced fear in love.
Our “missing the evening call” is surely a cause for concern in heaven. There is, after all, the real risk that the exercise of our God-given freedom might become a snare for us. We could succumb to the arrogant words of the Israelites which Jeremiah records, “We are free to roam; we will come to you no more’?” (Jer. 2:31). If not for God’s grace, we too could be swallowed up by the very idols we create. What, for instance, might the fate of the prodigal son have been if, rather than ending up in a pig’s pen, he had instead prospered from his own initiatives?
As we ignore the continued appeals of the Holy Spirit to return to God, there is always a possibility that our faith might be shipwrecked (1Tim. 1:19). It is not, after all, just for idle speculation that the book of Proverbs warns us that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12).
As a wise preacher once noted, there are as many Scriptures that assure us of the security of our salvation as there are that caution us not to take the Lord’s grace for granted. In other words, God has valid enough reasons to be concerned for us when we wander too far on our own.
The three parables of lostness—the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son—all speak of the rejoicing that takes place in celebration of the return of that which was lost. But they also hint at the very real parental concern that remains in God’s heart until the precious item has been recovered.