Archive for April, 2014

April 20, 2014

The Need to Beg: Or, Being the Prodigal Son

(This is quite a longish read so I beg for your indulgence – anyway, it is Easter! This is a product of four days of silence, and my Christian faith enjoins me to share the joy of the resurrection, no matter how longish and tedious it can be at times. Or most of the time.)

I have always felt some sort of unease whenever I would ask for something. Not that I felt I was unworthy of receiving, but more so with the feeling of not needing to ask because I could do it on my own. I’ve always savoured my lonesome, because it gave me a deep sense of security: there was only one thing to take care of: myself. In short, I thought I didn’t need anyone, and whatever comes to pass will come to pass, and what won’t, will not.

There was also a sense of expectation that I did not want whenever I asked for something, because I knew that once I “place my bet,” so to speak, in something I, for instance, asked for, that expectation was bound to fail. Asking for something meant asking for the best; no room for error, perfectly anchored on the fulfilment of that expectation.

And it was also the case for faith: I felt that I didn’t need to ask for anything from God because – and I thought I was being “open” – whatever comes will come, and I have but one response: receive it as pure gift.

Too often we speak of receiving in contrast to giving. There is always an opposition between the humility of receiving and the humility of giving. Too often we forget that both giving and receiving are done from the position of power: I can control what to give, I can control what to receive (or reject it!). What we too often, forget, however, is that there is a power otherwise than this. In the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, we are told that those who accepted Jesus “He gave the power to be children of God” (Jn 1:12).

What does it mean, to have the power to be a child of God? Was it being “radically open” to everything? I’m sensing a little bit of violence every time we speak of radical openness. It’s as if we’re challenging the one giving all that he or she has: come on and give me your best shot! I don’t think a child is like that. So this power isn’t to be “radically open.” In fact, once you dwell on it, it becomes some sort of a narrow-mindedness: I can take it, wait and see (and look! I can accept it as pure gift!).

 

Is being a child of God, then, radical giving, like the Well of Life that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-26)? To be sure, such a kind of giving is a model for us to follow, as Jesus Himself reminds us in the washing of His disciples’ feet (Jn 13:15). But can we really give that much, to empty ourselves, “taking the for of a slave, […], being obedient to the point of death” (Phil 2:7-8) There is a more disturbing sense of violence here: I am being godly when I give without account. I forget that I am created, and therefore a child of God! To think that one is God constitutes the greatest sin of all: pride. It can take on many forms: vanity, control, hubris, and dare I say it, deluded forms of “service.” There is an underlying presupposition here: I am the center of everything, and everyone is looking at me when I give. Thus, the sin that even the Muslims consider the highest form of blasphemy: forgetting that I am not God. In short, idolatry: to fashion for myself a god, which is none other than a reflection of oneself. Surely, this isn’t what a child is! So being a child of God certainly isn’t this, and only God can give without account.

It seems as if the first case is closer to what we want, despite its deficiencies. So let us delve on that. Imagine a child playing in an open field. Someone at the distance will say, while observing the child: look! The child is “letting be,” allowing himself to run around. Surely she must be radically open to everything that unfolds. What assures us, however, that it is the case? Perhaps the child has been running around not because she was having fun and being free, but because he’s lost and needs somebody?

We are a needy bunch; especially I, who, two and a half months in the breakup, still find myself needing affection and belonging. Too often, however, we moralize being needy as a sign of weakness, as a mark of our finitude that should be fought against. As a result, we fashion an ideal “strong person x,” a self-sustaining and self-regulating being that can chart out her way on his own. Friends have been telling me, hey, be strong, be happy, find for yourself your reason to move on. “Be strong” – the narcissistic slogan of our age of feel-good, quick-fix solutions to problems too deep for a single person to plumb.

Let us go back to the child: he’s lost, and all he wants is to have someone. She needs someone. So he shouts: please, I’m here, lead me back. Now, our present culture tells us, leave that kid alone, he needs to learn how to live in the “real world.” Being lonely is actually now a positive thing, a classroom of life, so to speak, for us to begin to learn how to “live.”

I find it deeply problematic. First, it is as if we never experienced that neediness. Second, (and remember, we are looking at the kid from afar), why aren’t we responding? Too often we’re eaten up by a culture of desensitized emotions: oh, look at that poor thing, what a pity – and then we “move on.” As if the “politically correct” response was to feel pity, post about it in Facebook, the afterwards look for other things to give our so-called compassion.

The point here is not to be like the prodigal father who runs to his lost son when he sees him from afar (only God can run that far!), but to be where the son was upon deciding to return home. He realized he needed someone.

The retreat taught me but one thing, but something that has always escaped my comprehension: the need to beg.

The son, technically, did not “beg” to be reinstated in his own household. But he did have an expectation of how to be reinstated: as one of his father’s hired servants. In short, there was an expectation. Now, what is the connection with begging? – Because every moment of begging also includes within it the need to fulfill an expectation, either to be responded to, or at the very least, to be compensated for. This hidden assumption is confirmed in the speech of the elder brother: “All these years I have served you and not once did I disobey your orders” (Lk 15:29). In other words, I did not beg for anything.

Now we see where the lack of begging leads us: a sense of entitlement. Under every gesture of goodwill is the hidden desire to fulfill a need, an expectation, though, uttered in silence, retains the full force of a resentful curse.

How about the younger son? – Even in the first part of the narrative, we already see him “begging,” but in a sort of calculated way, the kind of begging we employ in our everyday lives: “give me the share of the property” (Lk 15:11). We’re human, and the first step in recognizing one’s humanity is to recognize the need to fulfill desires and expectations, not to bury it with empty platitudes of “generosity” or “selflessness,” but to see it as an integral part of my being human.

I, for one, know that I have to constantly fulfill a desire for intimacy. Perhaps, because it was lacking when I was a child. I also feel the need to understand everything. I am, for lack of good terms, a touchy and a cerebral “thing.”

It took a four-day retreat for me to recognize that I shouldn’t deny them, because these are parts of who I was, who I am now, and who I might probably be in the future. And when we do find ourselves wrapped in self-deprecating guilt (which is another form of pride, not recognizing my humanity by treating sins as if they were outside of me), we find ourselves begging to be set free from those that make us who we are.

So we beg to God to have a “clear conscience,” to have “peace,” and so on. But those contain our own projections and expectations, too. No wonder Feuerbach spoke of religion as projections of our hubris. He was sort of correct.

Sort of. What he failed to see was that God responds. And He responds in the highest order: a suffering son, for whom “everything is made new” (Rev 21:5).

It is God, in the person of Jesus, that breaks open our expectations to reveal, as Pope Francis would say, a “sinner, yet infinitely loved by God.” It is the face of a suffering servant who sunders our reflections to pave the way where “the wind blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8). In short, grace is never in short supply. And the very first “step,” it seems, is to beg.

Begging is true humility: recognizing one’s incompleteness and at the same time recognizing that fullness is as exterior as the face of your loved one. Begging accepts your role as a created being; In short, to beg is to be a child of God.

But how does it become a power? It is a power because it holds fast to Truth, and the truth of the matter is, I am not God. And this is the greatest power, to come up to your Father, ask for everything, and instead gives so much more, even in spite of your failures.

I’ve spent the retreat in prayer, begging for the grace to relax. I’ve noticed that I have been too uptight about everything. Gradually I found myself crying all the time, having the best sleep I’ve had in years, being able to stay put for four hours just to keep watch in the Thursday vigil, even to the point of losing myself reciting the Jesus prayer, with a “voice” intervening my repetition, and being profoundly afraid and disturbed after that, as if I was given the grace of being spoken to by God Himself (I swear it was real.).

I came to the retreat expecting to be “reborn,” like Nicodemus who misinterpreted the Greek word anōthen when jesus actually spoke of “being born from above” (Jn 3:3). I am ending the retreat not as a changed person ready to be used up again: for the first time, I’ve realized that I am a child of God, of being born in His name, which simply means: I am loved beyond measure. Imagine the excessive nature of God’s response: asking for peace and relaxation, He has called me to remember my filiation: that I belong in His dwelling place.

Just like the son who is given back his life and more so too are we called to depend on God, and God will – paradoxically – never fulfill our desires; because it is God who will, as Sister Lucia Vetruse would say, “snap you from your greatest joy and show you His Will.”

One can imagine the son having so much “fun” being back in his father’s house. Did he learn? Like us, most probably, only for a while. The stubbornness of sin will never leave us, so long as we are human. But at the obverse is Christ Jesus, whose love for us can be separated “neither [by] death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature” (Rom 8:38-39).

To be Catholic is to tell a story of captivity, redemption, and salvation. Or, we can say, to learn the terrible and humbling power of being a child of God. To be Catholic is to see Jesus by the shore, cooking fish, and like Peter, jump into the water, towards the Lord (Jn 21:7), who has risen, now and forever, who will be with us until the end of time, and beyond, to the world to-come.

One, then, should imagine Peter hungry, risking drowning, just to be filled. The question for us, and for me, is whether I was jumping for the fish, or for Christ, who has cooked the fish.

I should hope and pray that I’m jumping because it was Christ that cooked the fish, not primarily because of the fish. Two and a half months in the break up, I now find myself at the edge of a clearing in the forest: there are many paths, and one needs time to discover where to step next.

One should, without a doubt, beg for the grace of patience, for it is in waiting that one is magnified, day by day, like Mary (Lk 1:47), by joy – a joy that knows no end, even death on the cross.

Maligayang Pasko ng Muling Pagkabuhay!

 

Holy Saturday
19 April 2014