Abiding in Love

On Holy Thursday, our community gathers before the altar of repose in our Chapter Hall and we listen meditatively to Jesus’ farewell discourses to His disciples (John 14-16) and his high-priestly prayer (John 17).  One theme is particularly prominent throughout these discourses – to remain in Jesus is to remain in love, to know the Father, to receive the fullness of God in the Holy Spirit, to have eternal life.  Before facing His own agony, Jesus comforts and consoles His disciples - His sons, His brothers - for He is compassionate for what they will undergo when He is struck down – they will scatter in fear.

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Of all the fears and pain we face, there is one we find most terrible; yet no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape it: the pain of loneliness, isolation, abandonment.  To feel unwanted and unloved.  As He was fully human, this was part of the pain Jesus underwent throughout His passion, beginning in the garden of Gethsemane.  His pain of loneliness and abandonment reaches to the depths of human suffering when He cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

We have many ways to try and numb this pain.  We seek pleasures, riches, honors and power; we search for the next high, work night and day to climb the ladder of success.  We compete with each other to see who will make it to the top, who will have the most toys, the greatest number of conquests.  Yet this only brings about more chaos in our hearts and lives, a greater feeling of loneliness and isolation, and so we seek even more pleasures, riches, honors and power.  And, with God’s grace, we come to realize it is all an illusion – it’s not real.

As we progress in the spiritual life, we still face these temptations, but they may take on different guises.  As Henri Nouwen writes in his book, “The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life”, the Christian faithful in our culture face temptations to be relevant, spectacular and influential. 

We try to be relevant by having purpose: we define ourselves by what we do instead of who we really are.  It is the illusion that “unless I contribute something tangible (i.e., some bread for the world), I am worthless.”  Perhaps this is in having a successful career or perhaps this is having a successful ministry.  But our core identity is not to be found in what we do or produce.  To try and find it there is an illusion.  On the cross, Jesus could not have appeared less relevant - what could he do in those moments nailed to a tree?  What had happened to his ministry with his disciples and followers? 

We are tempted to be spectacular, to draw attention to our message and ourselves.  We organize and plan events, programs, write articles, produce multimedia, send letters, throw parties, or even post just a quick status update on social media, and there’s a temptation to use the results of those things to judge our worth.  “No one attended the event?  No one came to my party?  No one viewed my last YouTube video?  No one liked my status update?  I must not matter.”  Illusion – the truth of our existence is not what others say about us or how popular we are (or aren’t).  On the cross, Jesus could not have been less popular - he suffered insults and mockery from all who passed by.

Finally, we still face a temptation to fill the loneliness with power.  In the Lord of the Rings, in panic and fear, Frodo offers the ring of power to Gandalf, the one person who is so good and already so powerful that it seems reasonable to think he should be able to handle the ring.  There is a moment and then Gandalf cries out, “Don’t tempt me!  I would desire to use this for good, but through me it would wield something far more terrible.”  Power in and of itself is not bad – but when we seek it for ourselves, even under the pretense that we would use it for good, it corrupts us.  Our security, our identity is not in the power we may wield over others.  And the temptation to power is not just for those in business or politics.  How many of us try to control other people, to direct the lives of spouses, sisters, brothers, friends, or children because we think we “know what is best” for them?  Yes, we have a responsibility to help each other walk in virtue and holiness - parents and superiors in promoting and upholding discipline, brothers and sisters in Christ to encourage and challenge one another on the road to holiness - but that does not mean we may try to manipulate or control one another.  If we stop and are honest with ourselves, too often we must admit we are often powerless in managing our own lives – why do we think we could manage someone else?  We must accept our powerlessness, let go and let God correct what seems hopeless from our point of view, both in ourselves and in others.  On the cross, Jesus could not have seemed more vulnerable and powerless, yet He revealed true strength comes not from a show of power, but from love. 

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So how can we respond to fear and loneliness?  Jesus shows us the way.  We stop running.  We admit that our attempts at filling the loneliness in our hearts with pleasures and distractions, toys and possessions, honor and power are futile - they don't satisfy our deepest longings.  We stop defining ourselves by whether we meet the world’s standards of being relevant, popular or powerful and accept God’s view of us in Jesus – we are His beloved.  God doesn’t need us…He WANTS us.  Abide in that knowledge, offer your past sins and present flaws, your loneliness, your heartache, your sufferings to Him and remain in His love on the cross.  Yet keep in mind, the work of the cross is God’s work, God’s way, not ours.  It is His grace that will heal us, transform us and empower us to be all He created us in love to be.  The way of the cross can and will bring us to rest, freedom, peace and order.  When we accept what He wants to give us, when we shoulder the yoke He has fashioned for us, which is truly light, then we will begin to see with His eyes and know with His mind and love with His heart - in essence, we will truly begin to live.  So today, let us accompany His mother Mary and the other women and John to the foot of the cross and abide there in faith, hope, and love, realizing that after the darkest of days and nights, He has promised the day of resurrection.

Something to ponder…

Jesus’ word on the cross “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” is the first line of Psalm 22.  Spend some time today with Jesus and His word: imagine yourself at the foot of the cross and slowly pray and ponder the words of Psalm 22 with Jesus.