In the garden are four small rocks, each inscribed with a capitalized word: BELIEVE, HOPE, TRUST, WAIT … If the small garden … can imaginatively serve to suggest the divine “grandeur”; how might one order the realities represented by the four rocks?
Outside of the window is a small garden. There is no need to feel guilty about not being able to name each of the flowers. My own Little Flower can do that as well as almost all of the labor the cultivation requires. I can simply enjoy the small spectacle and acknowledge that Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ testimony to “the grandeur of God” does not require a grand canvas.
In the garden are four small rocks, each inscribed with a capitalized word: BELIEVE, HOPE, TRUST, WAIT. The alphabetical order is easy enough to arrange. If the small garden—with its beauty, but also its predatory insects and ever-present weeds (despite all good intentions)—can imaginatively serve to suggest the divine “grandeur”; how might one order the realities represented by the four rocks?
The “reality,” of course, is most likely not so simple: a lock-step spirituality might be a trifle brittle when the Texas sun intrudes. Most likely, too, the proper ordering of such an experience of faith is far more orderly in the re-telling. Or, more simply, the four virtues blend together in one’s life and do not really need to be parsed, but rather lived. But, at some point, it is hard to escape analysis or even self-reflection. What might an “authentic” ordering look like?
If one is honest, the world can often be described as disappointing. Many words are used about Jesus, but one is definitely “vulnerable.” To be vulnerable is to risk disappointment. Apostles squabble about their ranking. A mother enters the fray for her boys. Crowds melt away at notice of the Eucharist in the offing. Jerusalem is the occasion of weeping, as is the death of a good friend. Listeners fail to understand. Yet, Christ trusts the Father. And so must we.
This TRUST is easy to talk about, as are all four of these realities. All four are not easy to live. Perhaps, then, a simple trust can precede the others, creating a more effective foundation for the others. Trust might come first as a fundamental soil, a necessity for any garden, even a faith garden.
Even if one is simply curious about the faith, and what at first glance would appear to be a somewhat difficult course of do’s and don’ts, an approach might be made through trust of another. This may be God. But, to look about at the disarray—not just in a suffering world, but also in a suffering Church—is to be mistrustful of the messenger, much less the message. “Theodicy” is a fancy term that puts forward immediately the troublesome but persisting issue of a good God, and the evil and the suffering in his world. How to square the apparent contradiction?
One does not need the experience of a Job to wonder at the symmetry of Divine Providence and suffering. The answers are many and traditional. For example, free will is a source of wonder, but also a burden—yet, a risk that a merciful God is willing to take. This is an easy verbal formulation, but not so much an easy existential moment to live, especially in the face of the sufferings of the “innocent.” Then, again, so often suffering is viewed in material and bodily terms only. The personal sufferings we inflict on others, whether through a lack of charity or through abuses of friendship or family, are hardly attributable to God after all. But there are those other kinds of suffering that seem simply arbitrary, unaccountable in a universe supposedly redeemed. There are, for example, spiritual sufferings.
To speak then of the cross, to surround oneself with crucifixes, as a way of warding off any direct engagement with the cost of the cross, is hardly in itself a way to promote trust in a God whose divine economy can seem gruesome, occasioning H.L. Mencken’s mocking description of “the Cosmic Kaiser.” A suggestion today of the enormity of sin, of freely-chosen evil in the face of the living God—these are hard sayings to propose in the midst of our therapeutic society and bargained religiosity. There is about us, it would appear, only a small sense of sin and a modern, progressive aversion to personal guilt. There is also the spectacle of “negotiations” conducted with a God most delighted to shower prosperity on true believers, a transaction that constrains God, and startles on-lookers. Yet, this becomes a shallow conquest with the untimely appearance of suffering. And one goes round and round.
St. Peter’s encouraging ‘that the suffering be only a little while’ (1 Pt 1:6-7) cannot always be encouraging. Nor is his counsel to “rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed, you may also rejoice exultantly” (1 Pt 4: 13) seem on the face of it a cause for rejoicing. One can worry, too, over St Peter’s summary: “… those who suffer in accord with God’s will hand their souls over to a faithful creator as they do good” (1 Pt 4:19). Nor is St. Paul’s exhortation about “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24) such an attractive example or prospect. But the cross is always present in the garden of faith, a “message of … foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Accordingly, St. Paul refuses to back away from the gift of faith: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1: 18, 22-23). These truths can be so easily and glibly rattled off, especially if one is not really listening. But, it is perhaps easy to appreciate St. Teresa of Avila’s tongue-in-cheek response to Christ that the trials attendant on embracing Christ’s way helped to explain why Christ has so few friends.
Glibness—a mechanical recitation of hard sayings—can attend any presence of suffering; and glibness, in word and deed, can be scant comfort in the face of what must remain a mystery so apparently inexplicable in itself. The necessary faith to accept such counter-cultural revelations, as offered by Sts. Peter and Paul, demonstrates in itself the profound substance of this unearned gift. A first word can thus be uttered by Job’s glib friends. The last word is uttered by Christ on Calvary. What then? How can this eternal chasm be bridged? Some bit of trust might be a first step in coming to a term with this redeemed, yet still human, condition that confronts us. Adding to the mystery, though, is a belief in also unearned (at least by us) grace. Is this not already present in trust?
It is not easy to separate trust and belief. Some would surely suggest that BELIEVE must come before trust. That may be true, but belief might well be understood as a more formulated and self-conscious response than a simple, even child-like, trust that comes before a more formal set of beliefs. The Church’s various creeds over the years—the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene, Athanasian—are all thoughtful recitations of truths that are beyond us without first, revelation, and second, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Many today reduce Christ’s message to a convenient, self-centered variation of the Golden Rule: Believe what you will, and make sure you are nice to others! This is nothing other than a sentiment, a righteous feeling. It belies any objective moral order, what can be a most difficult moral order in the face of modern consumerism and moral relativism. At heart, non-judgmental, such sentiments end by denying any realities other than those of our own creation, or at least acceptance. The sadness of the cult of self-actualization, preached in a secular liberal society, is that what is produced is not a community grounded in truth, but rather a society seeking to comfort itself through selfishness. To believe is to encounter many epithets: arbitrary, sectarian, self-righteous. The preferred Christ is the fictitious, non-judgmental, morally relative figure alive in modern imaginations—a warm and fuzzy fellow who would never have wielded a whip in defense of his Father’s house.
This is not to reduce the “Way” into an easily manipulated chorus of those perennial do’s and don’ts, or into a field of play for sturdy theologians, each pondering their own private pins. It is a counter to the reduction of the faith into a pleasing series of feelings, and soulful glances, meant to affirm the other, but mostly the self. God is first outside us, and comes to dwell within. It is God’s truth, then, and the temptation to spiritual pride and arrogance, which must be withstood. The faith is a gift, after all, and a gift to be shared, charitably. Perhaps, the other side of the sloppy, self-referential, and mostly creedless Christianity so prevalent today, is the sloppy, self-referential, humility-less arrogation of the Father’s scepter to ourselves. It should be an uneasy self-affirmation, an uneasy self-reliance.
In a very non-theologically precise way, to trust and to believe, should, it would seem, produce HOPE. This known God is merciful and just, and in Christ, self-denying! All can be hoped for in knowledge of such charity. All of this must be shouted from every house-top, if only through personal and communal witness. In the face of so much ugliness in a post-Christian world, though, the temptation might be to hunker down, albeit hopefully, and to excavate new catacombs for the elect. Yet, given the traditional Western freedom to exercise one’s faith without legitimate interference, particularly in America, such a ghettoization would not seem to be in order or possible. But, this non-interference with religious liberty is, of course, no longer true, and the popular secular ethic is promoted now even by self-proclaimed “Christians.” Hope, then, perforce, must become personal and sectarian?
As ever, God would not seem to let us off so easily. The hope that is Jesus Christ is not a personal, nor even a sectarian, possession. The last several lines of St. Matthew’s Gospel over-ride any temptation to keep it all to ourselves. Again, for most of us, evangelization will not be a street-corner pulpit, but rather a settling (and unsettling!) and examined faith, lived out in front of others, mostly by example. The prevailing uglinesses—abortion, abuses of traditional marriage, co-habitation, consumerism, greed, euthanasia, etc.—cannot temper our ultimate hope! It is yet God’s world. It has not lost its essential goodness, despite how much we have marred it with our disobedience. Happily, it is not up to only ourselves to change it all. God promises grace, and he is a God who keeps his promises. Ours, then, is a graced hope, not dependent simply on ourselves—another counter-cultural idea! The sacraments and prayer, scripture and tradition, all are sign-posts and means to the grace freely proffered by our God. But, even when this enthusiasm—prompted by a received faith in God and Divine Providence, and fortified by grace—is embraced, we do have a problem.
There are some moments in the Gospels when it might be argued that Jesus is revealing a sense of humor, for example, with the woman who would settle for crumbs. It may be, then, that God is moved to good humor by one of the more difficult of contemporary human traits: impatience. In a world seemingly marked by human accomplishment and control—particularly, once again, in America—we savor the instantaneous and immediate. Patience, self-control, to WAIT for something to mature, such as flowers, can seem so old-fashioned. We believe in speed and rapid gratification. Even if a hundred years are as a moment for God, he did take his time in allowing the drama of redemption and salvation to play out in the journey of the ancient Hebrews. We would most likely have acted far more quickly and decisively, and then gone on to other interests and fashions. Yahweh’s ways are, after all, not ours; and our ways are, we would believe, better in some instances, especially in a wired and gadgeted world! And so to practice patience, to wait as we trust, believe, and hope. Nothing is as foreign to the modern sensibility, and to our accustomed time-slotted worldview. It is, perhaps, comforting that God might actually smile at our misplaced fervor, and, perhaps, even our musings about rocks in a small garden.