“We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first. Of the links between God and man, love is the greatest. It is as great as the distance to be crossed.” —Simone Weil, quoted in Bread and Wine
The distance between who we are when we are honest with ourselves, and who we think God requires us to be, is vast. Everyone has a measuring tape; it’s what we do when we face our failures, to measure ourselves against other people. Sometimes it’s only to exhale with relief when we see the misfortunes of another person — that fleeting moment when we think, I escaped again! — before we open the door to empathy. To be Christlike in these and other moments, is to be a disciple, a follower, and to follow someone, especially one like Jesus, is to put oneself under discipline.
It’s not a following like flotsam that swirls in the wake of an ocean liner nor is it a following such as one train car coupled to another. Those metaphors are void of will. I mean how we overcome the almost involuntary form of our history, traditions, and reflexive rituals, our habits and the mental laziness that we use to convince ourselves we are faithful — these dispirited elements that play a part in our stumbling attention to God.
In contrast, we long to follow Christ with a will that is active, imaginative, and muscular. Once we let go of our fear it’s only longing that lures us onward. Given our flightiness, we could just as well veer off on a tangent or do an about-face and lark off in the opposite direction. The problem is that longing is diffuse, scattering like motes in the sunlight. But love — longing narrowed by the will to a burning beam of light focused singly on God — that is discipline.
Already there is an element of measurement in this description, usually to our own advantage. Disciples have discipline, discipline is noble and self-sacrificing, following Jesus is all about sacrifice. Sacrifice is what makes it authentic, us putting everything aside, especially our pride, and following on after Jesus. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we’ve eclipsed the Lord, passed him up as it were, and are prancing at the head of our own parade. It’s a puzzle. Can love be a discipline?
“We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason,” says Thomas Merton, “and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.”
Be perfect, we’re told, as your Father in heaven is perfect. That maxim alone has sent many a confused teenager careening into a ditch. It's the kind of self-improvement slogan for moral and spiritual perfection that gets weaponized in the hands of leaders who sincerely believe that the Second Advent is delayed indefinitely by our fallibility. But in these latter times we’ve learned that the phrase is best translated “be complete,” somehow more reassuring even as we attempt to square the circle.
In my teens I began to grasp the geologic depths of God’s love for us in the person and being of Jesus. Through the field work of certain spiritual geologists — teachers, musicians, poets and pastors — the strata of evidence pointing to God’s reach over the centuries came to light. Prophets and parables, ages of sages, scriptures and songs, odes and stories, stars and rivers, devils and dust — all of it was there for the taking.
But that was the thing: how were we to act on all this? On the one hand there were the teachers of the law, sincere and thin-lipped, who confirmed there was nothing good in us, yet we must fulfill every jot and tittle of the law in order to qualify for God’s love. By contrast, there was another party, cheerful and expansive, who held there was nothing we could do to earn God’s love, that it was all God’s doing, and our part was only to believe. Faith against works, a classic standoff. It was Paul against James in the ring, with Luther scoring the punches. The net effect of all this was a paralyzed indecisiveness, a post-modernist Protestant constriction of the bowels of our hearts. We were no good and there was nothing we could do.
Somewhere in transmission the message was garbled. All our righteousness was as filthy rags. Fair enough, our best efforts weren’t going to save us. Christ died to save us from our sins. True enough, and we couldn’t begin to calculate how pervasive our sins were. But after repentance and conversion, what then? A friend turned his life over to Christ, only to await instructions on what to wear each day. One pastor I knew implored us week after week to cling to the foot of the cross. But even Jesus left the cross within hours, as the arc of God’s justice bridged the abyss of death and touched down in the kingdom.
I found myself with Thomas, doubtful and needing evidence. “Touch me and see,” said Jesus, and then gently, “Happy are those who never saw me and yet have found faith.” I am also on the road to Emmaus, heartbroken and confused, but listening with rising awe to the history of the geology of God’s love, and then in stunned joy catching a glimpse of the Christ before he disappears.
According to the Gospel of John, some time passed after the disciples saw Jesus in the upper room after his resurrection. We don’t know how long it was but it was long enough that they finally furtively emerged from hiding, resigned to the fact that they were, after everything they’d seen and done, just fishermen again.
So off they go, fishing all night for nothing. In the morning light a mysterious figure on the beach calls out to them a crazy thing. “Shoot the net to starboard and you’ll make a catch.” Fishermen knew to crowd the fish toward the beach on the port side in the shallow water, not the starboard side where the fish could dart out for the deep. But when, against their own practice and knowledge, they followed what the lone figure on the beach suggested, their catch was so great they couldn’t haul it in. Then they knew, and John exclaimed, “It’s the Lord! At that Peter jumped into the water and thrashed his way ashore. No walking on the water this time, just an electric surge of joy that it was Jesus on the beach. He jumped because that’s what Peter always did. He did not jump out of fear of breaking the rules or of guilt for not following them. He jumped for the love of the Son of Man.
Anything that compels us to cross that great divide between ourselves and God, that does not come from gratitude, will end in failure. It is a discipline not of compulsion but of love and longing.
“So that the love may be as great as possible, the distance is as great as possible,” comments Simone Weil, a person whose spirit burned with an intensity that resisted evil without becoming it.
She sees God, with our consent, conquering the soul. “And then when it has become entirely his, he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone, and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made toward it. And that is the cross.”
“He is as near to thee as the vein in your neck,” says the Qu’ran. And so, like the prodigals we are, we are drawn home at last across the universe.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at email@example.com.
Image: Joshua Earle / Unsplash.com
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