Lent 05, Year B
- He began to feel sorrow and distress (Mt. 26:37)
In a brief writing of some 425 words only, St. Louise de Marillac spoke of, among other things, some disturbing doubts she had from the feast of Ascension to the feast of Pentecost in 1623. One doubt that made her suffer very much was about the immortality of the soul.
At times I come to a dead stop wondering if this question about the immortality of the soul is only a matter of illusion. To go on believing in an afterlife and in heaven and hell, isn’t this indicative of a not so healthy personality, on the part of the believer, or of the escapism and the immaturity of one seeking refuge in such and similar beliefs as one comes face to face with the riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief, of sorrows and anxieties that take joy and hope out of the human heart?
Thoughts such as these make me feel sometimes like I am going to break out in a cold sweat. And the more dread and anxiety I feel, the keener I become aware of human mortality that becomes ever more personal and more certain with each day that passes and with every ailment that comes along. I don’t find comforting the thought that with death comes total extinction that would bring an end to life’s pain and sorrow, and, of course, to its delights as well. Indeed, in the words of the Fathers of Vatican II, I rebel against death, and I abhor and repudiate the utter ruin and total disappearance of my own person (GS 18). I admit, moreover, that I feel myself to be the most pitiable of all if it is for this life only that I have hoped in Christ (1 Cor. 15:19). Notwithstanding my propensity to hedonism and in spite of the temptations I expose myself to, I don’t think I could settle for just eating and drinking as though there is nothing left for me to do, before I die tomorrow, except this.
But what other thing could there be that would not be considered futile? Is not everything vanity, as the author of Ecclesiastes tries to show in his intelligent observations and reasoned reflections about human life? All effort is vanity, knowledge is vanity, earthly things and pleasures are vanity, life too is vanity because of it not being fair, and so are words and riches. What I find strange, however, in the wisdom that Ecclesiastes is proposing is that, while it has been affirmed that all is vanity and though there is no concept of future life in the book, we are advised, nonetheless, to live ethical lives. We are encouraged as well to show sincere reverence to God--the only who gives meaning to human existence and determines the due season for everything, and in whose hands are all things--and deep gratitude for the simple but eternal truths that are revealed to us in the present and for the blessings that his providence sets aside for the day, without entertaining either pretensions or illusions of intellectual or moral grandeur.
And if all is vanity except God, what difference does it make really that I continue to live or not after death so long as God remains God? Surely, God’s love is better than life (Ps. 63:3). And even if my anxieties and fears could help deliver me from a shallow and Pollyannish optimism and from simplistic and self-soothing statements, would they not be vanity still should they arise out of a lazy and complacent life that knows little about the more serious problems in life and has no experience of the sting of poverty? In any case, the only thing that ought to matter ultimately is God and I should not be preoccupied with the question of human mortality or immortality, of reward in the kingdom or punishment in eternal fire.
To cast my worries and doubts upon God and to leave everything to God when, pained and exhausted, I can no longer go on, this is, in part, what it means to have faith, I think, or to be faithful. To have faith is to imitate Jesus Christ, “the leader and perfecter of faith,” who endured the cross, despising its shame,” and also, while “in the flesh, offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death,” and “Son though he was, … learned obedience from what he suffered. To be faithful means that, as I acknowledge that I am troubled, I pray that I be saved from the “hour,” without failing to add, however, that the Father’s will be done, not mine. To have faith is to hate my life in this world, instead of loving it, and to make my own the fruitful falling to the ground and dying, like that of the grain of wheat, of the one who became the source of eternal salvation and the mediator of the new covenant (Heb. 8:6-12).
Contrary, then, to the claims made by those who take faith as simply a defense mechanism or a prop for the weak or a soft and comfortable pillow on which to lay one’s head, faith means rather the height of insecurity that suffering and death are. It is true faith is described as a guarantee or an assurance, but this is given precisely because, even with faith, insecurity does not disappear altogether; in fact, by faith, our father in the faith exchanged his security in the land of his kinsfolk for the insecurity in a distant country toward which he headed, not knowing really where he was going (Heb. 11:1, 8). The leap of faith, far from being a leap into certainty, is something like the free-fall into uncertainty of someone who has accidentally fallen off a cliff but lets go of a stump he has managed to hold on to which prevented his falling into a certain death. He lets go because an invisible someone, responding to his cry for help, has so commanded and has promised to catch him as he falls down. And it is illogical, this leap of faith, for it sounds like begging the question, postulating gratuitously, from human despair, hope in divine providence.
In 1623 the quite intellectual and logical Louise still showed a certain reservation when, having acquiesced to the idea of a change in spiritual director, she added, “It seemed to me I did not yet have to make this change.” In 1660, however, her surrender was without reservation and she simply said: “No desires, no resolutions. The grace of my God will accomplish in me whatever he wills.”