Refining Fire

The Messenger who is coming will refine Levi like the refiner purifies silver. God is love, compassion and mercy; however, that does not mean that life is a bed of roses. As we grow in wisdom, age and grace, we have the opportunity to grow into closer union with God.

This is what contemplative living is all about. As we make our spiritual pilgrimage through life, we come to understand that it is not about will power. We can desire closer union with God and we should. Nevertheless, it is a gift from God. We cannot achieve it. We cannot earn it. We cannot buy it. It is gift. The most we can do is show up. The rest is up to God.

As we move ahead, God is purifying us like the refiner purifies silver. God knows the silver has been refined when God can see God’s image in us. Initially, we have the imago Dei but soon life experiences and our reaction to life experiences form the patina that tarnishes the silver. Merton would say that the false self is the patina that tarnishes our relationship with God.

John the Baptizer will be seen as Elijah who is purify people for the coming of God. John practices spiritual discipline and preaches metanoia. John expects us to turn out lives around in order to receive the One who is to come.

Henri Nouwen’s life story tells me that our lives are turned around for us by dint of our personalities and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Like Merton, Nouwen was a perpetual seeker. He always longed for more than what he had. Nouwen was ever seeking love and affection. This is what drove him. He was a successful teacher at Notre Dame and Harvard and yet he had an insatiable hunger that masqueraded as loneliness and erupted into depression.

In his first loneliness, Nouwen accepted an invitation to become the pastor at L’Arche Daybreak in Canada. L’Arche are worldwide communities of people with disabilities. Things went well at first. Nouwen felt that he had come home. Soon, however, the disruption of a close personal relationship threw Nouwen into a deep depression. He had to temporarily leave L’Arche in order to deal with it.

This was a purifying, refining experience for Nouwen. He discovered the first reality–God’s unbounded love for him. He realized that only God can fill our insatiable needs. What Nouwen had sought in human relationships could, in fact, only come from God.

He encountered his own nothingness. He was naked and limited. He was in poverty before God. He had to fall to the depths in order to discover the love of God who dwelt deep down within him. He says that we have to move form a “dissipated life” of illusion to a “more contained life”:

The life of Jesus refutes this dark world of illusion that entraps us. To return home is to turn from these illusions, from dissipation, and from our desperate attempts to live up to the others’ expectations . We are not what we do. We are not what we have. We are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving Creator. We no longer have to beg for permission from the world to exist. (Home Tonight. New York: Doubleday, 2009, emphasis added, 38-39)

Nouwen was refined by his hurts and wounds. He came to understand, “Before I was hurt, I was beloved.” When we are rejected by others for what we are, say, believe or do, it is painful. It leaves deep wounds.

Rembrandt’s Painting of “The Prodigal Son” became the catalyst of Nouwen’s spiritual recovery. The parable is about leaving and returning:

So in our leaving, as much as in our returning, we must try to remember that we are blessed, loved, cherished, and waited for by the one whose love doesn’t change. (41)

The spiritual life is a life in which we continually turn toward the truth, toward home, and hopefully those who love us help us turn back to ourselves, as favored daughters or sons of the Spirit of Love. (42)

True north for Nouwen is the realization that, in spite of rejection, God ever loves us. The “second loneliness” refines us like silver. The second loneliness has set  him “on the road to communion with the Divine and at the same time” brought him “in touch with [his] deepest self in relationship with brothers, sisters, and good friends.” (43)

For activists, a quote from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, has profound meaning:

The first call is frequently to follow Jesus or to prepare ourselves to do wonderful and noble things for the Kingdom. We are appreciated and admired by family, friends, or by the community. The second call comes later, when we accept that we cannot do big or heroic things for Jesus; it is a time of renunciation, humiliation, and humility. (Community and Growth, London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1979, 139)

Heeding the first call often leads to pain, suffering, and rejection–father against son, brother against brother–the refining sword of Jesus. Contemplative living refines us. Reflecting on his experiences while opposing the war in Vietnam, Daniel Berrigan wrote:

I am convinced that contemplation . . . is a political act of the highest value, implying the riskiest of consequences for those taking part. Union with the Divine leads us . . .  to resistance against false, corrupting, coercive, imperialist policy. (Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009, emphasis added, 144).

The very act of drawing into closer union with God can and will wound us. Understanding the divine mandates puts us on a collision course with nation and some other people, including family members.

Having experienced the pain of loss and having discovered Rembrandt’s painting led Nouwen to conclude:

The story [Prodigal Son] and the painting reveal to me that it is possible to experience goodness, friendship,  and affection without my whole life becoming dependent upon it. It is also possible to feel rejected and abandoned without being destroyed. There is nothing as painful as rejection, but if it is lived against a background of the first love [God’s love for us], it becomes possible to survive. This is the story of the spiritual life. (46)

We have all experienced the woundedness that comes from our life experiences. Very few people have perfect parents or perfect friends. The patina builds up. The Divine Physician is ever ready to purify us in the refining fire of Love.

Jesus takes on our flesh and reveals the compassionate face of God. He also brings the refining sword, but always with the balm of love and forgiveness. Come, Jesus, come. We claim your compassionate love for us.

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