Growing into Love of God
At his weekly audience today, Pope Benedict XVI asserted that “the fast track to knowing God is love.” Souls are drawn toward union with God in a manner similar to the receptivity between a man and a woman. “Another person can be reached only if you open your hearts,” said the Pope.
It would be presumptuous of me to say that the Pope is on to something here, as if I can approve or deny his words, but he is clearly skirting the edge of a great mystery. It is the mystery that we must open ourselves to God in order to understand God, Who does not reveal Himself to the hard of heart.
The book of Wisdom in the Old Testament starts with the very same thought, though it is more fully developed:
Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth,
and seek him with sincerity of heart;
because he is found by those who do not put him to the test,
and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him.
For perverse thoughts separate men from God,
and when his power is tested, it convicts the foolish;
because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul,
nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin. (1:1-4)
Despite our knowledge that grace can knock a sinner’s socks off, this passage from Wisdom gives us some sense of what opening ourselves to God must mean. Still, there remain other parts of the mystery. Why do some people seem so naturally disposed toward God while others seem just as naturally to find the thought of God either incomprehensible or repugnant? And why do I (sometimes) resist my sin while my neighbor (sometimes) does not? The importance of the question is demonstrated immediately by the frank answer given by Calvinism: the elect have been predestined from all eternity for glory, and the reprobate predestined for damnation. This supposedly accounts for their difference in receptivity to grace.
By sheer coincidence (for those who don’t trust Providence), I came across Jack London’s commentary on this same question today in the foreword to The Cruise of the Snark, where he attempts to justify to his friends his decision to set off around the world in a small sailboat:
The ultimate word is I LIKE. It lies beneath philosophy, and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month, telling the individual what he must do, the individual says, in an instant, “I LIKE,” and does something else, and philosophy goes glimmering. It is I LIKE that makes the drunkard drink and the martyr wear a hair shirt; that makes one man a reveler and another man an anchorite; that makes one man pursue fame, another gold, another love, and another God. Philosophy is very often a man’s way of explaining his own I LIKE.
The attentive reader will notice that London doesn’t answer our question; he simply restates it. Why does one man like what another man does not? Nor is London quite willing to leave it to chance, as the materialist would. Philosophy, he says, is “very often” a rationalization. But not always. This is undoubtedly true, and it points again to the difficulty of finding a coherent explanation of human predisposition. We have a sense in our own lives, I think, that we bear some responsibility here. It is in the nature of spiritual beings to be able to overcome even their predispositions. But it is all very difficult to grasp.
Truth to tell, the Calvinist is partly right. Some of us are given greater gifts than others, as Our Lord made clear in more than one parable. What Calvin missed was that salvation does not depend on these differences in gifts, but on what we do with the gifts we have. For this reason, there is no way to pose the question without putting more pressure on those who have received much. One of those pressures is to keep trying to find ways to encourage those who have received less to be more open to God. The suspicion enjoined upon the Christian in all this is that everyone else may have received less, which leaves no room at all for complacency.
There is a great deal at work here, including the apparently endemic nature of iniquity, for which we are all personally responsible in some way. But judgment remains a very chancy thing, and we will never fully plumb any part of this mystery: not iniquity, not human predisposition, and certainly not the mystery of another person’s life, or even our own. Best, then, to remind all and sundry that this God business can really be as wildly unpredictable as a love affair after all. But there I go approving of Benedict again.
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