Monday, February 8, 2016

Becoming A Saint

When I was a college student at Indiana University, my New Testament professor was Luke Johnson.  Luke is a Roman Catholic, a former Benedictine monk who later left the order to marry his wife.  He is a charismatic speaker, an unapologetic apologist for catholic Christianity, and a gifted teacher.  I learned a lot from Luke about the New Testament.  I also learned what little I know about how to write well from his patient critique of my papers.  I owe a large debt of gratitude to Luke for my intellectual and spiritual formation as a young adult.  But what I remember most about Luke is a particular conversation I had with him in his office one afternoon. 

I was a college senior, wrestling with what to do after graduation.  Should I go to graduate school or seminary?  Did I want to become an ordained minister or an academic?  What did I want to be when I grew up?   Luke let me dither on for a bit and then said simply, “The only thing worth becoming is a saint.”  He didn’t elaborate and I was too stunned to ask him to clarify what exactly that was supposed to mean.  What could it mean for me to become a saint?  What could it mean for you to become a saint?  Is that what we really want?

I’ve thought a lot about Luke’s advice over the years.  I’m still pondering it.  Rereading this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth gave me pause to consider this question anew:  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[1]

It is a curious passage.  Saint Paul seems to being saying something rather amazing.  We are being changed.  We are being given the freedom to look into the mirror with unveiled eyes and discover that the image reflected back to us is the image of God!  We are being changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, such that we come to perceive the image of God when we look at ourselves in the mirror!  How weird is that!  How wonderful is that!

Notice, here, the passive voice:  all of us . . . are being transformed.  It is not that I am changing into the image of God.  It isn’t my achievement.  I wouldn’t even know how to begin!  For years, I thought that becoming a saint was about moral perfection, or doctrinal correctness, or ritual performance, or all of the above.  It was something I had to do.  But it isn’t something I do.  It isn’t a change that I produce by dint of effort.  It is something that I undergo, that I am given to receive from the hand of an Other.  

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.[2]  Jesus is the mirror in which we see the glory of God reflected in ourselves.  As we gaze into that mirror, we are being changed by God’s power.  That power is love.  And in that love, who we are is revealed to us. 

There is a paradox here.  There is no way for me to become who I already am!  The transformation of which Paul speaks is like the removal of a veil from our eyes, a veil of ignorance that blinds us from seeing the truth.[3]  We are blinded by fear, envy, and greed, by the disordered desires we internalize from the false gods of this world, the idols from which we seek to receive our identity.  If only if I could be like _____ [fill in the blank], then I could be fulfilled.  We are driven by a thousand manufactured impulses to imitate the desires of others, to become who we are not, as if we would then be happy.  Possess more! Consume more!  Do more!  Just watch the Super Bowl commercials this afternoon to see what I mean.

But the truth, as Anthony De Mello forcefully put it, is that You don’t have to do anything to acquire happiness.  The great Meister Eckhart said very beautifully, “God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.”  You don’t do anything to be free, you drop something.  Then you’re free.”[4]  We are being transformed as the scales are being removed from eyes, and we let go of the illusion that we need to become someone other than who we are. 

Religion is one of the biggest perpetrators of this illusion.  This is why Paul is so hard on his own Jewish faith.  He gives Moses such a hard time because Paul knows from his own experience how religion can create a veil that hides us from the truth about our self, that separates us from God.[5]  Paul’s own zeal for religion caused him to persecute those who disagreed with him.  To be a good Jew, he had to expel those bad Christians.  To be a good Christian, we have to expel those bad Muslims.  Moses wasn’t the only one wearing a veil. 

This isn’t a Jewish problem.  It is a human problem, a problem of religion making God into an object we can manipulate to control others.  We make God in our image, rather than realizing that we are made in God’s image.  That is how the train goes off the rails. “Only in Christ is the veil set aside”: this doesn’t mean you have to become a Christian.  That is about religious identification.  It means you have to become willing to look into the mirror. 

Imagine a patient who goes to a doctor and tells him what he is suffering from.  The doctor says, “Very well, I’ve understood your symptoms. Do you know what I will do?  I will prescribe a medicine for your neighbor!”  The patient replies, “Thank you very much, Doctor, that makes me feel much better.”  Isn’t that absurd?  But that’s what we all do. The person who is asleep always thinks he’ll feel better if somebody else changes.[6]  Nobody else can look into the mirror for us.  We can’t force others to look into the mirror either.  It is only as God wakes us up and we look in the mirror, that we begin to be transformed.

Being “in Christ” means being in love.  Peter, James, and John see Jesus unveiled on the mountain top, and immediately Peter wants to build a monument to religion.  He wants to reconstruct the veil as quickly as possible, to objectify the experience so that he can control it.[7] 

But being in love means being vulnerable.  It means letting go of the illusion of control.  It means becoming willing to receive our identity from an Other, from the God who is the Source of love, the Beloved, and Love itself; not trying to construct an identity under our own steam.  Peter wants to make Jesus an object of veneration.  He resists the invitation to become Jesus: to become who he loves. 

Peter could have taken a cue from St. Clare of Assisi, who said, We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.

What does it mean to become a saint?  I think the first step is to simply become willing to look in the mirror.  According to St. John of the Cross, What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.  We have to quiet the imperious urges to satiate the longing that only God can satisfy, let go of our need to justify our self before God, refuse to hide our fear, and shame, and envy behind a veil of religion. 

It is only as we allow ourselves simply to be before God, that we begin to undergo a transformation.   James Alison describes this transformation beautifully:  The experience of prayer is that of the gradual learning to rejoice in my induction by an entirely gentle, trustworthy power, into freedom from all my ways of being tied in to the place of shame, one by one, and discovering this as given to me as a “real me” in a series of new desires for new projects which share the huge affection and gentleness toward others that I have found myself receiving.[8]

We become compassionate vessels of God’s love – we become who we already are, in Christ – by becoming willing to patiently receive this love.  We are being changed.  The only thing worth becoming is a saint.

[1] II Corinthians 3:17-18.
[2] II Corinthians 4:6-7.
[3] II Corinthians 4:4-5.
[4] Anthony De Mello, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 82.
[5] II Corinthians 3:7-18.
[6] Ibid., p. 83.
[7] Luke 9:28-36.
[8] James Alison, “the strangeness of this passivity . . .” in On Being Liked (New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), p. 144.

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