Friday, September 4, 2009

From Outside In

This morning I was reading a homily by St. Gregory the Great (d. 406) on Matthew 12:46, 50, the story of Jesus' family's vain attempt to visit him while he was preaching. Jesus' reply to those who were no doubt nudging and whispering and waving to get his attention to tell him that his mother and kinsmen were waiting outside was, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?....Whoever does the will of my father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother." A bit hard on his mother, but surely she of all people understood.

Gregory turns this story into a really regrettable bit of anti-Semitism, as was, sadly, the custom of many Christian preachers of his time. Equating Jesus' Jewish relatives with "the synagogue," he says, "[Jesus] does not acknowledge the synagogue because when it clung to the observance of the Law it did away with its spiritual understanding and established itself outside, guarding the letter." I was about to close the book in disappointed disgust--I hold Gregory in high esteem and had expected better--a little sliver of light shot out from between the pages and stung me in the eyes. Suppose for "the synagogue" I substituted "Genevieve?" I thought about how easy it is for me to shut out the words of Scripture as we sing them in our seven daily services (the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours) while I brood about something else, like my ever-present and ever-unfinished To Do list. Am I not establishing myself outside the words, guarding their letter by chanting them, but abandoning any claim to spiritual understanding? And what about the days when I run madly across the surface of things, keeping our customs, observing the Rule of Benedict, doing what I'm supposed to be doing--but skating along the thin skin of superficiality that stands between me and all the depth and richness of this contemplative monastic way of life? In fact, I realized, I'm very good at establishing myself outside of genuine life altogether, guarding its surface and refusing to plunge into its depths.

Three other famous "outsiders" crossed my mind. The first two also appear in the Scriptures, each one quite well known in his way. Neither has a name, belonging as they do to a parable (Luke 15). The younger of the two has a nickname: we call him "the prodigal son." His older brother has nothing at all to distinguish him. Both of them also chose to station themselves outside. The younger brother packed up all his worldly goods and left home to spend them on wine, woman and song. No doubt visions not of sugar plums but of happy pleasures danced in his head: he would have the best to eat and drink, he would have a host of friends around his table, he would have company in the night, or anytime he wanted it. Visionary sugar plums don't feed real hungers, but he didn't know that. When the visions evaporated, and he found himself cold, lonely and hungry, he finally recognized that he had mistaken "outside" as the place where all the good things of life were stored. Instead, he discovered to his chagrin, "inside," back in the home he had left, was the place where the truly good things were kept, above all the astonishing love of his forgiving father. At least he was smart enough to go back in.

His older brother was not so bright. He had kept his feet rooted at the old homestead, but he had in reality shut himself out of his home all along. He had wrapped himself up in a cloak of jealousy and resentment. He had not even requested, never mind claimed, all the good that might have come his way because, had he received it, as he surely would, he would have had to leave the nasty feelings outside and go in by the fire with his father. Resentment is oddly self-justifying and so, in a peculiarly twisted way, satisfying. To the very end of the story, we never learn whether he was ever able to make the decision to go in, though his father urged and urged him. We leave him, as the parable concludes, still standing outside.

I thought about how easy it is to shut oneself out in the cold, out of the real home of the spirit God has opened to us, even when God stands there in the door begging us to come on in. Like the prodigal, we can let ourselves be dazzled by far mirages: that forbidden relationship, that dishonest job, that money--well, it's the company's, but no one will ever know, will they?--that sugar plum over there always looks better than what we really treasure when we're in our right minds. And we sell out the treasure for such tawdry goods, sometimes--another TV show instead of a few minutes of prayer, a glamorous friend instead of Suzy who has been our best friend since kindergarten, even though she's now a little the worse for the wear of the years on the outside, a new opportunity instead of the steady job we could hold for a lifetime if we would. Any kind of excitement instead of the only kind of fidelity: God's, to us. I often wonder after the fact why I thought x or y or z was such a good idea at the time when I knew perfectly well from a long life's worth of experience that it would go flat in the end.

Or take the older brother. Like him, we can so easily refuse joy for the thin pleasure of ugly feelings, like resentment. We can stand outside shivering and sulking because the brother or sister got a feast, never seeing that we were also invited. Again, it's so easy to trade in the real happiness we have--the pleasure of a beautiful morning, the touch of a child's hand, the look of love in the eyes of someone we care about--for the chance to revel in our envy of the happiness we imagine someone else has. I'm reminded of Edgar Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory":

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.

So, who is the third outsider, you ask? (Or had you forgotten there was one?) Ah, the third is another prodigal who recorded famously his discovery that he was standing on the wrong side of the door of home:

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."
St. Augustine of Hippo (died 430).

His story ended happily. In fact, happily ever after, as far as we know. If he were here, and if he saw you or me standing outside, he'd be the first to say: "You don't have to stay out there. Come on in."

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga