May 27, 2016
My dear fellow pilgrims,
I greet you from a relatively empty Kimmel Hall, a student center on NYU’s campus, looking out from my comfortably air conditioned space into the humid park, listening to the unabashed worshipper, Amanda Cook, through my headphones: “Let the weary rise, lift their eyes to see / You love crushing every lie, every doubt and fear…”
I want to begin by saying that God is about a mighty work in each of us. Phrased differently:
God is about a mighty work in you.
One of the worst lies the enemy can make us believe is that our lives are inconsequential. This lie can take many forms (“it’s not worth trying, since things will not get better, they never get any better… you never get any better…”), but the essential lie is that we are worth nothing. And the evil one inserts this lie into different experiences; it can be forced upon us through abuse or bullying or discrimination, but it can also steep slowly into our skin, our being through apathy caused by repeated failures or just the absence of holy affirmations.
Yes, your biggest enemy is not yourself, it’s the evil one.
Modern psychology, and thus, all of the self-help advice that permeates mass media, leaves no room for Good and Evil. Much of the struggles humans face these days is situated within brain science, as arising between the conflict between different areas of our brains: the more evolutionarily primitive (i.e. the "basic drives" part of our brain, formerly known as the "Id"), and advanced regions (i.e. the "thinking" part of our brain, formerly known as the "Superego"). The belief that human struggles exist within a higher, largely imperceptible spiritual reality has been slowly assimilated with feeble-mindedness, stupidity, and ignorance (according to contemporary US politics) or an “opiate of the people,” according to Karl Marx.
But, my brothers and sisters, don't believe the hype that the fact we are facing "cultural crises" now makes it a particularly difficult time to be a Christian. It has always been difficult to live on this earth according to Christ’s teachings, imitating His Life.
But, at the same time, we need to affirm that all humans are the prize, the Beloved, of God, whom He has come to redeem and win back to His Love from the evil one. We are caught in a divine battle between Good and Evil. Our sufferings and our successes are never inconsequential. It is our hearts that are at stake, our souls, because they are meant to be with God, Who does not find His home on this earth. The more we allow Jesus into our hearts, our lives, surrender our minds, our decisions, our sense of self… all we have, the more the evil one tries to root Him out, because God allowed the evil one to rule here until the earth ends. And it will end. It is a threat to the evil one’s rule when Jesus, the eternal King, takes up residence in our hearts, and it is a threat when we assert that it is not the world (i.e. tangible accomplishments, successes) we ultimately desire!
As I have been writing this, I have kept a picture open on the other half of the screen ("Pointing #1" attached to this email): my three friends pointing to a mountain that we climbed and summited the next day. My thinking when we had taken this picture was that when we got to the top the next day, we would point at the ground in triumph to symbolize that the challenge was now conquered, under our feet and not over our heads.
However, something struck me when I was going through the vacation photos the other day… when my friends posed on the top of the mountain ("Pointing #2" also attached), they pointed towards where they had been standing originally. (Not pictured: Nervous, height-fearing Alyssa who didn’t wait for the camera lens to adjust to the top-of-the-mountain light.)
This realization struck me: if my friends were to have followed the instruction of my prideful heart, the end of the two pointing pictures would have been the mountain itself. Instead, there is this beautiful connection between us, pointing up towards and down from the mountain. Through these gestures, our accomplishment is centered on the journey, and not the journey centered on the accomplishment.
The spiritual life is often likened to a mountain, and when you’re climbing mountains… you really see why. (WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT!) When you get closer to the top, the ground (i.e. the dirt below your feet) largely fades away to a steep incline of rocks, and there are mainly only man-made piles of rocks (i.e. cairns) that you have to find and move towards to find the next cairn to move towards the top. Sometimes, you need to stop and just survey the area before you to find them, and not think of where you are on the mountain, how far down the ground is, and how all of these dang rocks look the same... (I wasn't the leader of this outfit.) You have to rely on those that have gone before you, you have to keep moving in spite of the fear of no immediately visible trail, and you have to trust in the group decision that yes, those rock piles were most likely created and didn’t just happen to fall on top of each other from a gust of wind. You follow the leader, you keep moving, you watch your step, you watch the feet of those in front of you, you start to question how close you REALLY are to the top… and then, at some point you hear: “WOOOOOO!!!” and you know you’re about to see something awesome, you know your journey is complete.
But it’s really not the mountain you have conquered, it wasn't the mountain who was calling you (sorry, thrill-seekers), it’s all of the voices that tried to keep you from moving forward, towards the direction you originally had intended. And, without those who went before you, who knows if you could have made it to the top?
As it says in today’s Psalm, our Lord “comes to rule the earth...with justice and the peoples in his constancy,” and before the Gospel reading, “I chose you from the world to go and bear fruit that will last.” We must listen to the Lord, who calls us to partake in bearing, growing heavenly fruit from the orchard His Son has planted, and not to the evil one, who calls us to take any fruit from the trees we see before us on this earth. (Sound familiar? Isn’t that what got us into this mess in the first place?)
I pray that we would dwell in this knowledge of our chosen-ness, our identity as God’s Beloved, as is so beautifully described in the first reading. We must learn to embrace the trials that are wrapped up in embracing this identity, the mountains we face, but most of all, not look towards the mountain itself as the thing to conquer, but allow the Lord to conquer our hearts in the process.