Often we experience angst—alienation, fear, and dread because of what life throws at us. Eckhart said, “God is in my suffering. God is my suffering.” God is my suffering. This is where we find God, or rather, where God finds us. Our suffering brings us face to face with our own futility and nothingness.
Recently, as I have continued to learn about prayer, I have rediscovered Karl Rahner, the influential German theologian from the 20th century. Rahner is the person who charted the course for religion and spirituality in the 21st century, “The Christian of the 21st century will be a mystic or not be at all.” Rahner the mystic is still somewhat like Rahner the theologian with long sentences translated from German. He has to be read slowly because he writes with poetic metaphoric beauty about the indescribable—our union with God. Thomas Merton, by contrast, seems to have been more reluctant to write about the indescribable. Yes, he does explore prayer but the only prayer he recommends is the Jesus Prayer—the prayer of the heart. “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner.” Prayer is not to get what we want but to be what God wants.
A brief excursus on the Man of the Year—Pope Francis I. Francis has caught the imagination of the world because he is truly a mystic who walks the talk. Mystics understand the fundamental unity which pervades the cosmos. We all are one in the Risen Christ. When is the last time a pope washed the feet of juvenile prisoners or broke bread with homeless men? Francis, in contrast to his immediate two predecessors, is about mercy rather than sacrifice and doctrine. He gets the liberating message of the risen cosmic Christ who will be re-birthed in our hearts next week. At the opening of his now famous interview, Francis described himself. “I am a sinner.” Francis a sinner? Yes. If you read his biographies, you realize that Francis like Archbishop Romero, had a metanoia change of heart. As he grew in consciousness of the message of the Christ. He who once forbade priests from living among the poor now takes time to be with the poor and live with them. He who was exiled to Rome for his perceived reluctance to move with the reforms of Vatican II and the Jesuit order and now he is reforming the church.
The psalms more than anything else are the marinade for our spiritual formation. The psalmist often addresses the angst of life. The psalmist reminds us that God is Emmanuel—God with us and for us. Take Psalm 27 for example:
Light, space, zest—
So, with him on my side I’m fearless,
afraid of no one and nothing.
2 When vandal hordes ride down
ready to eat me alive,
Those bullies and toughs
fall flat on their faces.
3 When besieged,
I’m calm as a baby.
When all hell breaks loose,
I’m collected and cool.
4 I’m asking God for one thing,
only one thing:
To live with him in his house
my whole life long.
I’ll contemplate his beauty;
I’ll study at his feet.
5 That’s the only quiet, secure place
in a noisy world,
The perfect getaway,
far from the buzz of traffic. (The Message)
No matter what life is throwing at us, God is with us. Rahner writes, “However, one thing is certain, whoever wants to honestly love God already loves God.” This is so reminiscent of Merton’s prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Paul got the mystical truth early on. He wrote in Philippians 3:6-9:
Yes, furthermore, I count everything as loss compared to the possession of the priceless privilege (the overwhelming preciousness, the surpassing worth, and supreme advantage) of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord and of progressively becoming more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him [of perceiving and recognizing and understanding Him more fully and clearly]. For His sake I have lost everything and consider it all to be mere rubbish (refuse, dregs), in order that I may win (gain) Christ (the Anointed One),9 And that I may [actually] be found and known as in Him, not having any [self-achieved] righteousness that can be called my own, based on my obedience to the Law’s demands (ritualistic uprightness and supposed right standing with God thus acquired), but possessing that [genuine righteousness] which comes through faith in Christ (the Anointed One), the [truly] right standing with God, which comes from God by [saving] faith.
Paul is saying more than this or any other translation gives. The Greek word for “rubbish” is slang Greek. Literally, skybalon (????????) means “S__t.” Paul, having experienced the risen Christ, realizes that Christ living in him and in his community is all that really matters. All else is skybalon. God is with us amid all the angst, alienation, rejection, and, indeed, the skybalon of life. Whatever life is throwing at us, whether it be a dysfunctional government, wars and rumors of wars, homeowners associations, government spying on private citizens, does not matter in the long run. What matters is that like Francis I, Mother Teresa, and all the cloud of witnesses, we put our focus on growing in union with God and then stepping out on the dark night streets to show God’s love, mercy, and compassion. Our suffering brings us to the “rubbled” cellar* which is our dungeon and opens the door to love incarnate.
*Rahner uses this expression often. I do not know what he pictured, but I picture cellar trapdoors covered with the rubble from war and bombing raids. The Risen Christ sets us free from the impact of our sins and structural sin as he removes the rubble that has rained down upon us.