Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. (Dt. 30:15-20) God gives us choices. God has gifted us with the most precious gift of all—freedom. God lets us be free to make choices. We are most free when we jettison our false selves and live in the depths of our true selves.
As I read Deuteronomy, I sense strains of the prosperity gospel which is a cultural accretion of Americanism. Do good, say your prayers and God will bless you. Do things really work like this? I know a lot of people who do good and never experience spiritual or material prosperity. Mother Teresa suffered the darkness of faith for most of her life. She did not feel God’s consolation for the good she was doing. God taught her to be about faithfulness to the Cross, not results. It was the same for Merton who knew God best through dark luminosity. Mystics of all ages have taught us that we come to God through darkness, struggle and trials.
In the promises of the covenant, there is also the conquest and gifting of land to one people over another people. Does God really favor one people over others by giving them land to conquer? Does Manifest Destiny square with Gospel values? Jesus tells us in the gospel reading that it is about the cross and not about material or spiritual prosperity.
Mother Teresa bore the cross that belies the prosperity gospel. In Come, Be my Light [the call she initially heard from Jesus], she empties her heart. The saint of the Calcutta slums has emerged as a mystic in the great tradition of John of the Cross. The pathos is clear:
If I ever become saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.
Her pain and longing in the darkness of the night of the soul is so poignant:
Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart—this untold darkness—this loneliness, this continual longing for God—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind or with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there-. . . God does not want me—Sometimes—I just hear my own God heart cry out—“My God” and nothing else comes—the torture and pain I cannot explain.
It is in darkness, the pain and agony of the cross, that we come to eternal life now. All too often we think of eternal life as life that is going to come to us in the future. Jesus’ message is that the Kin-dom is present to us NOW. When we choose life over death, we are opting for what Richard Rohr calls The Ultimate Reality—God’s living presence to us here and now. (I highly recommend his book, The Naked Now.) Strangely enough, Rohr’s Ultimate reality echoes the “ultimate concern” of theologian Paul Tillich.
Facing our emptiness and nothingness, we encounter the Living God deep within our hearts and within the cosmos as life evolves toward the Omega Point—the Cosmic Christ. We choose to follow the Risen Christ who is “the way, the truth and the light.” It is here that God is healing us and delivering us from our false selves where we focus only on our wants and needs and power, prestige and status. God calls us to choose life, to choose life over death, to choose service over selfishness.
Lent calls upon us to choose life by “fasting” from the consumerism rampant in our culture. Merton joins the existentialists in calling us to genuine life—life in the true self. Living in the false self brings death where—the death of Mass People in the death culture of mass society. The false self is about all that is not about God. The false self thrives on consuming—“I consume; therefore, I am.” Left only to its own resources, the false self always chooses death.
The counte-rcultural reign of God is to rule our hearts and lives. We are called to choose life—to be faithful in spite of the unfulfilled longing and the angst and the utter darkness of not sensing God’s presence.
Life in God is love. God first loves us. When we let God love us, we are then empowered to love God and to love one another. We are set free. We have chosen life.
God calls us to solidarity. We are called to love as God loves. God loves every person. God especially loves the widows, the orphans and the strangers—the least among us. God wants the poor and oppressed to be able to choose life. At the Ash Wednesday Eucharist in 2009, our pastor, Father Tony, said a prayer: “Bless those who cannot give alms because they have nothing to give. Bless those who cannot fast because they have no food. Bless those who cannot pray because their hope has been stripped away.”
During our Lenten journey, we are to learn to live and love as God lives and loves. We are called to make it possible for everyone to give alms, to fast, and to pray in hope. In Jn 10:10, Jesus tells us that he has come so that we might live and have everything we need. We are to live so that others might have what they need.
Richard Rohr and others remind us that living the God life narrows right down to our eating habits. This Lent I have decided to focus on food and eating. Food Justice is one book which clearly shows us that what we eat and how we eat enmeshes us in relationship—justice—to one another and the planet. Is the food we are eating coming of the backs of exploited migrant workers? What is our connection to fresh food and produce? What is being done to the earth to mass produce food? Here I always think of the chickens packed into crates on tractor trailer trucks on north Georgia highways—feathers flying everywhere. How does the “karma” of the these chickens who are experiencing what they are experiencing affect the quality of the Tyson chicken breast we are barbecuing? Do we choose life for these chickens and for ourselves?
Lent is a journey—a pilgrimage if you will. Pilgrimage is traveling into the sacred. For Thomas Merton, pilgrimage was an inner journey. Thus, we are all pilgrims during Lent. We journey into the depths of our being where God finds us. We can search all we want and never find God. Make no mistake about it. God finds us. Martin Sheen’s wonderful movie, The Way, is now available on cable/satellite and DVD. As we ponder out Lenten Journey, I urge you to accompany Martin (Tom) on his pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago—the 500 mile pilgrimage from France across Northern Spain to the Cathedral of James the apostle in Santiago. Walk with Tom as he experiences the Lenten transformation of his false self.
Lent is a time to take a hard look at ourselves and our relationship with a loving, merciful, compassionate God who calls us forth. The cross (Lk 9:22-25) is the ultimate symbol of the Good Friday journey just as the Resurrection is the ultimate symbol of the Easter journey. It is really all one journey—death and life, dying and rising. It is an ever deepening relationship with God. It is faith amid the darkness that is light. Pilgrimage into the inner true self is a series of deaths to the false self. It is self denial for loving service of others.
Until I started reading Merton in depth, I thought his journey was one of escape from an evil and ungodly world. And it was in part. However, the more Merton journeyed into the solitude of the true self in union with Love, the more he grew in love for God, for people, and for the world. At the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, Merton came to realize his solidarity with other people. Thus, we have a monk who was silenced because he dared to speak out against injustice, war, racism and poverty. Merton lost his life for the sake of others. He took the journey we often do not have the privilege of taking so he could show us the way to our true self. He taught us to choose life over our death-dealing false selves.
We choose life. We live and walk and breathe in the person, power, and presence of the Risen Jesus as we make our pilgrimage—our Camino—in risen life NOW and to come.