What does a golden calf (Ex 32:7-14) have to do with our spirituality today? It has nothing to do with it if we take the account literally. It has everything to do with it if we dig deeper and examine the reality underlying the symbol of the golden calf.
Merton defines our Golden Calf—our idolatry:
The great sin, the source of all other sin, is idolatry and never has it been greater, more prevalent than now. Yet it is almost completely unrecognized precisely because it is so overwhelming and so total. It takes in everything. There is nothing else left. Fetishism of power, machine, possessions, medicines, sports, clothes, etc. all kept going by greed for money and power. The Bomb is only one accidental aspect of the cult. Indeed, the Bomb is not the worst. We should be thankful for it as a sign, a revelation of what all the rest of our civilization points to: the self-immolation of man to his own greed and his own despair. Behind it all are the principalities and powers whom man serves in his idolatry. Christians are as deeply involved in this as everyone else. (The Intimate Merton)
The Mertonian explanation of the symbol would cast it, not in bronze, but rather in terms of the false self-true self. Idolatry is living out of our false self. Spirituality brings us to acknowledge that God exists. “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” was one of Merton’s favorite scriptures. Our belief tells us that God came to dwell among us. Our faith tells us that we live and breathe in the person, power, and presence of the Risen Jesus.
However, we are not always true to our faith and beliefs. There is something in us—the false self—that wants to seek the good in evil. Merton says that we seek what we perceive to be good when we choose evil. This is the dynamic of the false self which causes us to erect our own golden calves—power, pride, prestige, possessions. Moses had to intercede. God relented. Jesus is with us and calls us to our true selves. “Come to me.” We come to Jesus in the depths of our being when we enter our cellars and close the door to be in union with Abba God.
Living mindfully throughout the day, we are in the presence of Jesus who keeps us in our true selves where we find fulfillment only in Abba God. Merton wrote in Rain and the Rhinoceros, “To be a contemplative is to be an outlaw.” We understand this becasue we are in union with Abba God and in solidarity with one another and with all of creation. This puts us on the fringes, on the margins of society. We understand the love requires service. We understand that Matthew 25 calls us to alleviate human suffering, want and misery. We understand that love requires us to forgive our enemies and to live nonviolently. We live mindfully in the person, power, and presence of the Risen Jesus who fills us with the power of his Holy Spirit.
The “Jews” are challenging Jesus (Jn 5:31-47). What testimony does he have to back up what he is saying and doing? John was a burning and shining light testifying to Jesus. Abba God testifies on behalf of Jesus. Their Scriptures testify on behalf of Jesus. The works Jesus is doing testify on his behalf. In spite of all this, they simply refuse to believe in Jesus. They refuse to come to Jesus.
Jesus could pile miracle upon miracle (signs in John) and they still would not believe in him. They claimed allegiance to Moses; however, Jesus turned the tables on them. Their very condemnation was Moses because they refused to give up their Golden Calves.
Jesus has challenged the religious leaders and the Roman Empire. He has challenged the structures which held the people in captivity—laws, regulations, debt and purity codes. Jesus came to set people free from external demands.
Jesus is challenging us on the personal and corporate levels. He challenges us to abandon our personal idols. He challenges us to cast aside the idols created by our culture and society—dismantle the structures which oppress and exploit others.
He wants, not sacrifice, but the commitment of our hearts. He does not want symbols, golden calves. He wants the response of our true selves—the self which is most real because it is grounded in the love of God in the very depths of our being. Faith assures us that Jesus in the One sent by Abba God. Jesus shows us the way to union with Abba God.
Jesus is the way. Rohr teaches that the way up is by way of falling down. It is up to us. Do we let Jesus heal us by peeling away the onion layers of the false self so that our true self can abide in the love of Abba God? Do we let Jesus lift us up to new life when we have fallen down, when we have failed as fail we must?
Contemplation—union with God—is “eternal” life now. Thomas Keating teaches that God is the Divine Physician. When we show up for contemplation, God always shows up. When thoughts, ideas, and feelings emerge, we simple let go of them. Keating assures us that the stuff we are letting go of is the stripping away of our false selves so that we can enter into deeper union with God. We cannot force it. We show up and let go. God does the rest. When we encounter the reality of our nothingness, God fills the void with infinite Love. When we wallow in the emptiness of our life lived for false promises, we come to see that God alone can fill our void.
God is healing us. God is making us one with God. This is contemplation (and we used to think this was only for religious people and people dwelling in monasteries). God gifts us with Love. We swim in the love of God like fish in water.