It Only Lives When You Give It Away
It’s been over two years since I’ve written here. There are many reasons why, many of which include some very dark days that I would care never to repeat, but nonetheless I’m writing again. My spiritual counselor has started his own blog this past year and it has been an invaluable help to me, in lieu of being able to actually visit him physically. One of his recent posts sparked me to finish this draft I started several months ago, but couldn’t seem to complete.
So much has happened since I last wrote, perhaps the greatest of which include my wife and I selling our beautiful country estate and moving back to a small townhouse in Indianapolis, a job change for us both, and most devastating, the miscarriage of our baby boy (named Aidan) after a decade of prayers for our own children. Nearly a year after our Godchildren moved home with their mother after spending 3 years living with us, we found out much to our utter surprise that we were pregnant. We had the blessing of hearing his heartbeat and knowing that life existed there, if only for a brief time. There are few things in life to top that feeling, especially after such a time, and there are few things in life to top losing that as well. Life is life and we all suffer loss at some point or another, but these past two years I would prefer to file away under the “Lord have mercy and let me forget” category…and still, growth comes from such things whether we want it to or not. I know that one of the worst questions one can ask is “why”, but I have found myself asking this off and on these past years. Have I received an answer to that question? No. Quite simply, no. I don’t expect to receive one really, but sometimes it feels good to rage anyway, like a spoiled child banging his head against the wall. It truly is incredible what the human heart can do and can bear – such sorrow and such joy – beating with one or the other, or perhaps at times with both. I have been astounded these past years at the depth of which I find myself feeling both things, and am convinced that there are some things that happen in life that change you as a person, and from which you will never recover – you can only choose to go on or not, and this I think is the key to the whole thing – everything lies in our free will and the possession of choice.
I can recall vividly a conversation I was having with Fr. James after a particularly difficult month of desperately trying to understand “why” things happen the way that they do, and he offered this bit of advice, which has stuck with me since. He stated, “Luke, God is not a gumball machine, where you put in your quarter of prayer and get the gumball result you desire. This is not the way prayer works.” This was not the answer I was looking for, of course. I wanted someone to ANSWER for MY pain and MY suffering and MY disappointment at not being given what I WANTED. I WANT WHAT I WANT WHEN I WANT IT!!! A wise man once said, “God cannot fill that which is already filled with itself.” In my self-fulfilling rage I wanted desperately for God to ANSWER for all of my years of “trying to be good”, as if they should count as currency on the divine scales, and should tip the balance in my favor. I suspect most people who pray feel the same, and yet, be that as it may, it’s absolutely not the case. We pray to understand, not to get what we want…asking for God to show us His wisdom rather than granting our own short-sighted desires. Of course, this does not mean that the Divine cares not for His Creation…only that He sees much further, and we can only begin to comprehend the “why” of things.
I came away from the conversation with the dear Padre contemplating what other areas of my life this line of thinking had crept into, and sadly, I found many. “If I act this way, people will like me more.” or “If I pretend to believe these things, these people will accept me.” and most of all, “If I strive to “be good” then I will receive “good things” from people and God, no matter what’s REALLY in my heart.” In essence…don’t be honest at all costs, because that honesty will cost you dearly. This has been a recurring theme my entire life, and one which is difficult to let go of. The struggle to be truly honest with ourselves and others is often like a train wreck in slow motion…I’m not sure how else to describe it!
I think our entire Western culture is FULL of this type of reasoning – if I follow the “rules”, God rewards me, and if I break the “rules”, He punishes me. One simple and current example of this would be the ever popular “Santa Claus” story.” If one forgets the real story of St. Nicholas and goes simply for the puritanical Western image of the fattened and jolly Santa Claus, one finds the usual game of “do good – get good, do bad – get bad.” Shoot – we even have a song! “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…Santa Claus is coming to town!” I think the modern day translation would be, “Hey kids…don’t mess up, or you get no presents.” Worse yet, this line of thinking gets applied to the Divine Himself – that God is watching ALL the time for us to mess up, and if we do, it’s hell-fire and brimstone for us imperfect sinners! Nothing could be further from the truth. God is perfect Love…and He has been, since our beginning and our fall from Paradise, reminding us of this fact. When one re-reads the Gospels over and over one can’t help but see that loving Father trying desperately to call His Creation back to Himself and remind them of His unconditional love. This season of Christmas is THE reminder of this ultimate truth – the giving away of that which is most precious for the salvation of those who don’t deserve it.
I believe that the heart of returning to the Source – to the Love of God and to the Divine – is the simple act of un-self-centeredness. I have been reminded over and over again these past years that taking this journey is about becoming “other-centered” as opposed to “self-centered”, though I generally fail miserably at it. (Thank you Fr. James…) However, turning ourselves towards the “other” is the only way to return to Paradise. Having said that, despite being nearly another year older, I still find myself uttering these same words all too often, “I don’t WANT to do that!” Fr. James’s recent post is, as usual, rain on a dry and selfish heart, addressing that ever frustrating self-centeredness that I try so hard to squash. Truly there is always more work to be done, as the good Father says.
Thanksgiving has come and gone and we are now in a season that is supposed to be about harmony, happiness, love, peace, and joy, and yet, so much around us in this world tries to drown all of that out, and rather, encourages the incessant gluttonous feeding of our self-centered adolescence. The irony of course is that the more “I” get, the less “I” am truly satisfied, and hence, the less truly happy I am no matter how much I might acquire. There is however, still, one sign of hope on the horizon – the One which this season of seasons reminds us of; an innocent child born in poverty, wrapped in rags, and sleeping in a livestock feeding trough in a dark smelly cave full of dirty animals, given away to bring light and hope to a lost world. This sounds curiously familiar to what I feel in the cave of my own heart…dank, dark, dirty, sinful and full of doubt and despair, but with a spark of the Divine still burning brightly, rousing me with His rebel yell of, “Grieve all you’d like in this dark cave, but the Light still shines in the darkness!” In the end, the only way to overcome the grief and longing is to let it go and turn it into compassion and love that can then be given away. One can capture a butterfly in one’s hands and admire the beauty that sits so silently still, but the second one squeezes tighter to keep it from escaping, one inevitably kills the very thing it loves. It must be given away if it is to live on.
C.S. Lewis says it like this;
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
I’m learning this lesson over and over again – continuing to risk the grief of letting Love in, especially if I’d like it to live on. It only lives when you give it away.
One of my favorite singer/songwriters, Bruce Cockburn, sums it up perfectly with these lyrics from his song, “When You Give it Away.” I pray and hope all of you dear readers have a blessed and joyful Christmas, full of light, love, and the grace of God, and above all, I hope in your own hearts, whether you find grief, joy, or a mix of both, you find the strength to give it away! Peace and joy to you and yours!
Trouble with the nations, trouble with relations – where you going to go to find illumination? Too much to carry, too much to let go, time goes fast – learning goes slow. But I’ve got this thing in my heart I must give you today – but, it only lives when you give it away.
click on player for full song
When You Give It Away – by Bruce Cockburn