Principle and Foundation
Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44
How unbelievable sudden change is.
Sue Gifford dies. Just like that. I get a phone call and she’s gone. My mother dies. Just like that. Before the paramedics even get there. I get a phone call and she’s gone.
I’m in the locker room, I’m putting on my pants, and suddenly I can’t move. My back is out. The next thing I know I’m in the emergency room.
We think we’re in control but we’re not. “We think our faith gives us security,” Anthony Demello says, but it doesn’t. “Faith is insecurity,” and by that I think he means that all this is a mystery and we just have to stop pretending it isn’t. “The unbeliever thinks he knows all about God,” Walter Kaspar says, “but the believer knows that he cannot provide himself with answers, and that the answer which God gives is a message about an abiding mystery.”
It’s almost as if the Church has made a big mistake in the lectionary this Sunday. Gotten the readings wrong. It’s supposed to be Christmas. It’s supposed to be cookies and coca and roaring fires, not thieves in the night and the end of the world. But no. For one thing, it’s Advent, not Christmas. We have to delay that gratification. For another, the whole meaning of the season of Advent and Christmas is keyed to the season we’re actually in. It’s keyed to winter. It’s keyed to the bare trees and the cold air and the dying of the year.
Eating is good, but not orgies. A drink or two is fine, but not drunkenness. Sex is a wonderful thing, it’s from God, but not promiscuity and lust. And the culture right now is trying to sell us orgies and drunkenness and lust, and it’s doing that, I think, because it fears what’s really out there. It fears reality. It’s trying to make us fall asleep, and we really have to resist that--in that sense we really have to “make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
Before we can put on the armor of light, we have to embrace the darkness.
I used to go this place on the coast, a Jesuit retreat center near Pacific City, the Nestucca Sanctuary. I’ve talked about it many times. I loved that place, the trees, the view of the sea, the smell of it and the feel of it, and I loved the man who directed the place, Andy Dufner, a Jesuit. I spent many weekends there over the years, and once a whole month. It was like my second home in a way, my real home.
And now Andy is dead. Five years ago November 19th. And the Nestucca Sanctuary is closed, locked up, because the Jesuits of the Northwest had to declare bankruptcy in their own pedophilia scandal. There’s a metal gate barring the road.
It’s all over now. It’s all gone.
Nothing earthly remains, not people or places or even churches. The very stones of the temple will be cast down. And that’s a blessing, I think, as Andy knew and St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, knew, because it teaches us again and again what we most need to learn: detachment. Detachment from the things of the world, even the good things, detachment from anything that might distract us from God or substitute for God.
And with detachment, joy, and confidence, and a wonderful freedom. Because nothing now can hurt us. The stars are falling and the temples are crumbling and yet, the Lord says, as he always says, be not afraid.
“Lord Jesus Christ, take my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have and cherish you have given me. I surrender it all to be guided by your will. Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.” That’s the great Jesuit prayer. An astonishing prayer, really. It asks for so much. It asks for everything. Every time I pray it I think how impossible it is in a way. And yet how incredible, how wonderful.
I pray for that kind of faith.
Or here’s how St. Ignatius puts it in the beginning of his famous Spiritual Exercises, in what he calls the “Principle and Foundation”:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him fulfill this end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use these things to the extent that they will help him to attain this end. Likewise, he must rid himself of them in so far as they prevent him from attaining it. Therefore we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, in so far as it is left to the choice of our free will and is not forbidden. Acting accordingly, for our part, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short one, and so in all things we should desire and choose only those things which will best help us attain the end for which we are created.
And so the passing away of things doesn’t matter. Death doesn’t matter. Or it does matter. It’s part of God’s infinite grace. It prepares us. It helps us towards the final dissolution, the letting go we could never achieve on our own.
This is the world into which Jesus is born. In a stable. In the darkness. And we can’t really see him if we’re too busy making merry. In the midst of all the city lights, we can’t see the stars. We really have to tone ourselves down this season, quiet ourselves, limit ourselves, if we are to hear the cries of that little child. If we are even to find him.
In a stable. In the darkness.
This is the sudden, unbelievable change, the thing we never expected, this birth into the darkness, into silence, and we’re going to miss it entirely if we don’t stop, and wait, and look out the window, at the bare trees and the snowy ground.
At this dying world, this frozen world, this world that one day, unbelievably, will turn into spring.