The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Holy Week meditation

Jerusalem has sinned grievously
and she has become a thing unclean.
All those who used to honor her despise her;
they have seen her nakedness.
While she herself groans and turns her face away.”
Lamentations 1:8

Tenth Station of the Cross: Jesus is Stripped
of His Garments, by Fr. Donald Walpole, O.S.B.

“Clothes make the person,” Mark Twain once wryly observed. “Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Figuratively speaking, that’s true, isn’t it? As human beings, we tend to clothe ourselves in all sorts of ways of thinking and acting in order to hide our nakedness—both from those around us, and from ourselves. We (and when I say ‘we’ I mean me, too) project or repress our own shame by putting on all kinds of behavioral garments. We hoard and possess and guard. We murmur and gossip, ridicule and resent. We seek approval and cling to expectations. We fail to fuel the fire of good zeal. We become attached to our positions, projects, and programs—or we envy others theirs. We bask in self-assurance and cast the glare of judgment on those outside our own little circle of light.

As human beings, we dress ourselves with such habits and attitudes because they appear to make us more honorable than we know ourselves to be. We do this because we want to have influence, to be in control, to know and to have it all. Clothes make the person.

We don’t want to be naked. To be naked spiritually means to be vulnerable, to surrender, to not have it all figured out, to have nothing. But in the light of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, it also means something else. It means being freed from what weighs us down. It means being stripped of all the ways of thinking and acting that hinder us from truly experiencing and expressing the love of God in our lives.

As much as we desire that, however, we fear the shame of nakedness, of being exposed, of being found out—just as our first parents did. As we hear in Genesis, Chapter 3:

The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that is was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate it.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together to make themselves loin-cloths.
The man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“I heard the sound of you in the garden,” he replied. “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

God, of course, gives them a chance to confess, to be forgiven, to be naked once again and be bathed in the splendor of divine light as creation intended. But instead, they blame one another. They cling to the garments of sin, to their knowledge of good and evil—a story that humanity repeats with each generation.

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a “dressing-down” knows how painful and humiliating it can be—especially if it occurs publicly, and even if what is said is all truth. The truth hurts. The truth will set us free, as Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel (8:32), but as a number of historical figures have said in various ways and contexts, “first, it will tick you off.”

We don’t like being stripped of our clothing.

In the Tenth Station of the Cross pictured here, Jesus inserts himself into this very situation of being dressed down—though he enters the picture from the opposite direction. As he is stripped of his clothing before being crucified, we are offered a glimpse of the Jesus proclaimed in the celebrated Philippians hymn: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). Here, Jesus most visibly takes on the condition of fallen humanity—naked, exposed, and shamed. He is reduced to absolutely nothing. God is mocked by humanity’s disbelief.

“All who see me deride me,” declares the station’s Latin inscription, which, of course, we read in Psalm 22. The verse, which finds its prophetic echo in the synoptic gospel accounts of the Passion, continues:

They curl their lips, they toss their heads.
“He trusted in the Lord, let him save him;
let him release him if this is his friend.”

Interestingly, however, there is no sign of resistance, fury, or even fear on the part of Jesus. He offers no response to his own dressing-down, though it is all orchestrated by deceit, jealousy, and hypocrisy. His stance is one of willful acceptance. He willingly subjects himself to this. He allows his divine splendor to be stripped away from him, and he stands before us as the first Adam after the Fall.

And there it is—the point at which he meets each one of us, so fearful of being stripped bare and revealed for who we really know ourselves to be, despite all our attempts to conceal it. By his loving fidelity, Jesus embraces our human weakness to set us free. By letting go of his divinity, he allows us to grasp it. By tracing the steps of humanity’s Fall from grace, he carries us toward redemption, restoration, and resurrection.

Here, Jesus stands in the mirror before us, not only revealing in his person our own shame, but taking it upon himself in place of his stripped divinity. As St. Paul wrote in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). It is not mere substitution; it is an empowering partnership in grace. By being forgiven our shame, we are freed to forgive others in turn, to become the goodness of God. This is the Truth, staring us in the face. We don’t need all those clothes to make us human beings. This is the Human Being!

What an awesome exchange that is! We know all this intellectually, of course, but I wonder how often we stop to consider it from an emotional standpoint. We have to know and encounter it not only with our heads, but with our hearts—in our gut. And while having our shame revealed may indeed make us angry or miserable at first, in the end, this kind of knowledge should lead to joy, mercy and peace. THIS IS GOOD NEWS!!! It doesn’t get any better.

But it takes a while to get there, doesn’t it? We are all works in progress, each at different points along the path of conversion. Each day we are called to embrace more deeply this wonderful and mysterious news. We are called to meet Jesus, traveling daily along the road that he treads, while encountering him together in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers (cf. Acts 2:42). As he shed his divinity, we must continually shed our illusion of divinity to take on the glory of his resurrection. Stripping ourselves spiritually is a process, and along the way, we’re bound to discover layers of clothing we barely knew existed.

As I prepared to enter the monastery in the summer of 2006, I began stripping away a lot of things. By that time, I had already embarked on a new way of life after experiencing a spiritual reawakening and a rediscovery of my faith. I had, only by the grace of God, stopped drinking three years earlier. Now, at the age of 40, I was moving into a new, unknown future in religious life, and I had to let go of other things to which I had been clinging. In three months’ time in that summer of 2006, I divested myself of my house and possessions, my career, my investments, my entire way of life. To some extent, I had to let go of family and friends—some of whom could not, for the life of them, figure out what I was doing. Although these relationships were not ending, they were changing. Most difficult of all, perhaps, I had to let go of my canine companion of 13 years.

None of that was easy. Some of it was extremely difficult. But I was moving toward the path to which I felt God was calling me, and so I had to let go of those things. The experience was both exciting and frightening, but all things considered, I had never felt so free.

When I arrived at the monastery that September, I realized, of course, that I would have to make some “adjustments” to this new way life, but at some level, I assumed that I had already stripped everything away. WRONG!!! Most of those things I just mentioned amounted to physical attachments of one sort or another. They weren’t without emotional elements, but they also didn’t strike at the heart of true conversion. They amounted to a good start, but that’s all, really. I had further to go.

I’m reminded of the character of 74-year-old Fr. Francis Fogarty in Jon Hassler’s short story Keepsakes, who finally comes to this realization just before it would have been too late. In the story, Fr. Fogarty is being relieved of his 23-year-stint as pastor of a small parish in the Upper Midwest to become a live-in chaplain for a group of religious sisters. He enlists the aid of an altar boy to help clear his many possessions from the rectory. Together, the two stand in front of an incinerator and feed it Fr. Fogarty’s sermons, letters, hymns, and poems he had written. Watching the papers turn to ashes in the flames, Fr. Fogarty says to the boy:

All my life I’ve been keeping things, but it’s time to discard my keepsakes. For 23 years I’ve been trying to save the souls around St. Henry’s and I haven’t been tending to my own. Look—the part of your past you can get on paper takes about one afternoon to dispose of. The part that isn’t on paper lasts for eternity.

Just a few weeks later, Fr. Fogarty was dead—but not before he had let go of a number of things he had been clinging to physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

In the nearly seven years I’ve been in the monastery, I’ve discovered and struggled with—sometimes quite painfully—layer upon layer of additional so-called garments that still need to be torn away. I’ve had to go deeper than mere physical attachments and try to let go of expectations, passions, old ways of thinking and acting, pieces of my old self. By the grace of God, there’s been some progress, I hope, but I’m not completely unclad yet. And so, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, each day I begin again.

Obviously, I don’t do this on my own. While we all have different vocations, come from diverse backgrounds, and wear various garments still needing to be shed, as baptized Christians, we are all called to the same community of faith within the Body of Christ. Faith, I think, is the key word there. As Christians, we are not just any community, but a community of faith that believes in what is represented here in the Tenth Station of the Cross and the entire Paschal Mystery that encompasses it. As I mentioned earlier, this is a partnership of grace empowering us to become the goodness of God.

In his Rule for monks, St. Benedict captures all this quite nicely, and provides us with a straightforward guide on how we are to live this mystery. In his Prologue, he writes, “The Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide” (Prologue 20-21).

Through Baptism and the other Sacraments, the Word of God, and prayer, we are clothed with faith to then perform God’s good works. Our own works do not save us; faith does—as Jesus so often points out in the Gospels. When we are clothed in faith and allow ourselves to be slowly stripped of all the ways of thinking and acting that hinder us from experiencing and expressing the love of God, Christ in his own weakness frees us to become the image of his goodness. Benedict devotes a whole chapter in his Rule explaining how this should be expressed—“The Tools for Good Works” in Chapter 4.

While Benedict never refers to the Letter to the Colossians in his Rule, I’ve often considered one particular passage from this New Testament letter as a perfectly concise summary of what Chaper 4 embodies. In a way, it presents the image of what we strive for as a community of faith:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

So, as we look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing as such a community of faith, let us ask ourselves what types of behavioral garments we still need to shed so that we may clothe ourselves with love and become the goodness of God. Let us each ask: “What do I need to let go of?” Perhaps it’s an obsessive pursuit of one type or another. Maybe it’s selfishness or anger or an ancient grudge. It could be regrets or expectations. Perhaps it’s a spiritual restlessness to be anywhere but right here, right now. Maybe it’s envy or the need to be esteemed and admired. Possibly, it’s simple willfulness or the refusal to believe that anyone else has something to teach me. It could be any of those things, none of those things, or something else altogether.

Or, to frame the whole thing in a more positive light, who needs something from me—something which must come specifically from me? What is it? An apology? Compassion or patience? Maybe it’s being generous with my time and giving some of it to someone who is in need physically, emotionally or spiritually. Perhaps it’s something as simple as a smile, an expression of gratitude, or a compliment. Whatever it may be, why can’t I seem to be able to give it up? How might I try?

Is this person who needs something from me, perhaps, my own self?

Whatever the case may be, as a community of faith, let us stand and be stripped bare like Christ, like Adam in the Garden, and not try to cover up, hide, or blame. Let us be willing to become spiritually naked—clothing ourselves only in faith as we strive to be bathed in the splendor of divine light through the performance of good works. As the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts, “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Through faith, with our eyes fixed on the face of Jesus, may we simply … let go.

As Susan Howatch writes in her novel Absolute Truths, “[When one is] stripped of all illusions, one can only repent, and in the face of such repentance one can only be forgiven, and in the face of such forgiveness one can only receive healing and bestow it.”

To paraphrase Howatch further: This is how we witness the process of salvation. This is how we witness redemption. This is how we witness absolute truth:

By letting go of the clothes we think make the human being, by giving up the desire to grasp at divinity, to stop hiding our shame. Then, little by little, we will finally recover our true selves--the image of God who knows how to truly win friends and influence people.

Hear this meditation as it was delivered to the monastic community for a Lenten conference (about 20 minutes long).

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