Vulnerability as a Place of Divine Encounter

Healing the Blind Bartimaeus, by Harold Copping (1863-1932).

God acts only for the good. God acts only to share himself as Love, namely, Jesus Christ. The human person is invited to respond to this revelation of love with his own vulnerability; he is invited to allow God to act in his being. In welcoming the divine action of love, we become what Love summons us to become: adopted children of God sharing in his own happiness. This capacity to receive God is fundamental to faith, and is the necessary component for our being able to live in communion with God. This communion transforms hearts, and lifts our minds from where they presently reside, to a plane more befitting the expansive nature of love. To be vulnerable to Divine Love is to let the beauty of God wound us, and so be filled with desire to commune with him, receive from him, and be taken up into him.

Beauty, as is clear in our Catholic faith, is not an ideal but, rather, it is the person of Christ. Christ is beauty because he radiates the Truth of God’s own being: Love. The Christian is to behold Christ as beauty itself, and the cause of our “wound,” the cause of our very openness to love and loving. He, as the God-Man, and the actions that flow from his own being, the Paschal Mystery, is capable of radiating the truth so that we remain fascinated with him through time, and into eternity. We are then convicted by this Beauty to know no other except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). We must, however, open our hearts to receive such truth, or we will miss the hour of our visitation (Lk 19:44), and remain opaque to beauty, and thus, remain sadly unmoved by the love that can be contemplated within his actions upon Calvary. Hans Urs von Balthasar1 notes that the mystery of Calvary, Christ’s own spousal self-giving to the Bride, his Church, is the Source of all truth and is, therefore, beauty itself.2 We must abide at this Source, and entrust ourselves to it as a child entrusts himself to his father. The drama of human life is clear: Will we rely on this Source, drink from it always, or turn away from it and rely on our own mind and strength?

To rely on the self contradicts all that is revealed about God’s love for us, and our deep vulnerability before the circumstances of life. Our nature defines us as limited, and tending toward sin. God loves us, not because we are perfect, but because he is good. He loves us always, and not simply when we are “scrubbed up” and ready for public display. We can at times believe, wrongly, that everything will be “okay” in our lives once we are perfect or invincible. This is a lie. We will never be perfect; and staying in this lie undermines what God wants to share most deeply with us: his own compassion in the sight of our weakness. Those who live in the lie that “I will be perfect someday if only I follow a certain regimen of life” will have difficulty mercifully embracing the weaknesses of others. Not only will we be constantly disappointed in ourselves; everyone else will be a disappointment to us, as well! To accept that we will never be perfect does not mean there will be no triumphs over temptation. There will even be such deep healings that we become free from attraction to one or more sins. To accept our frailty, our ontological vulnerability, simply means that our lives are a long procession of battling temptation, offering it to the mercy of God, and gratefully receiving the mercy that binds us to his heart. If we believe the lie of “perfection,” we may come to believe, in the face of regular setbacks, that we are failures at being human, or we may judge others to be such failures. Our advancement in holiness is partly measured by how well we no longer resist this truth: “I am not God, and that is good.”

To be dependent upon this truth for life’s meaning is to become a little child; and in so becoming, we remain open to “listen” to the Son leading us deeper into the mysterious source of life, his own self-giving in obedience to the Father’s voice. “The more like young children we are in opening our hearts to this source to receive its riches, the more … adult we shall be in opening our hearts to give to the world and its needs.”3 This receptivity to divine riches was the key to the mystery of Christ’s own maturity. Christic maturity is a sustained choice, not to choose the welfare of the self and “keep one’s options open,” but, instead, to choose the welfare of others. His identity as Son, his embrace of his own childlike identity, was the paradoxical source of his stunningly mature love upon the Cross: “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7-8).

To meditate upon Christ’s act of self-donation upon the Cross as a direct result of his obedience, as a result of his listening to the Father’s heart, becomes the model of our own vulnerability before God. In such obedience, Christ reordered human reality, and bestowed upon Man a new relationship with God. If we, too, listen to the Father in Christ, we can participate in this great “reordering” and, thus, prolong Christ’s own listening heart in time. But first, we must make a commitment to become “like little children” so that our actions are established, through grace, upon the same intimacy that Christ had with the Father.

What did Christ do to be the listening Son he is? How did he become the obedient one? Primarily, he remained in a disposition of vulnerability toward the Father. (Mt 3:17; 4:4, 4:10; 5:19, 5:44-45; 6:6-8, 6:25-34; 7:7-11, 7:21; 11:25 (!); 14:23; 17:5; 18:1-4; 19:13-15; 26:36ff, 26:53; 27:46). From this communion, he invited his disciples to live with him so they could attune the ear of their own hearts to Christ’s. Jesus tutored the disciples in how to remain open to the Father. The key to the vulnerability of Christ before His Father is revealed in this simple truth: He lived out of his Sonship. For us, this means that we are to embrace the truth that the Father reveals himself only to the “childlike” (Mt 11: 25, Lk 10:21). To share all that is in our hearts, like a humble son joyfully entrusting himself to a loving Father, we need to desire “life and life to the full” (Jn 10:10). But to be so trusting is a struggle, due to sin. Often, we choose not to come to Christ for life (Jn 5:40). We choose to reveal ourselves to idols, those realities in our life that “have mouths but do not speak; … eyes but do not see; they have ears but do not hear; nor is there breath in their mouths. Their makers will become like them and anyone who trusts in them” (Ps 135:16-18).

To be vulnerable before “idols” is not to be vulnerable at all; it is to have all of our thoughts, feelings, and desires suppressed and swallowed up within our own puny ego. To be vulnerable before Christ is a choice to come to life by revealing ourselves and becoming “childlike” in trust. To share our pain, grief, joy, confusion with Christ is to enter the deepest levels of reality … the only place where God lives. To be vulnerable and share all truth with Christ in prayer is the very substance of humility, and living in humble truth enables us to flourish (Prv 14:11).

Vulnerability as a Way of Securing Communion

So we stand before God as creatures “in need.” That is the truth, and this truth is beautiful. It is beautiful because this truth unveils the substance of our existence: radical dependency upon a provident and merciful God (Mt 6:26-34). In this state of ontological vulnerability, we are invited by God to draw life from his only Son, and to no longer remain “independent” and isolated from grace. To draw life from Christ is first to reveal all that we carry in our hearts. This personal revelation is an effective way to stay with Christ (Lk 24:29), attaching our faith-, hope-, and love-informed hearts to the loving essence of Christ. In so attaching our hearts, we remain one with him. Vulnerability is, above all, a commitment to be radically affected by the beauty of the Paschal Mystery. Vulnerability positions one liminally between the affective movements of the heart and this same heart’s desire to rest in complete self-giving. This self-donation is not the will exerting itself. It is, rather, the will being moved as a result of the heart’s dynamic reception of divine love. This receptivity is ever deepened by the concomitant act of human self-revelation. The more one receives, the more one wants to open the heart to God. The more one opens the heart and shares its contents, the more one receives from the fount of divine love. The Christian life is the circulation of love … and love’s deepest desire is self-revelation. This revelation is the adhesive that bonds the person to Christ and Christ to the person.

In order to live the way of divine “wounding” or vulnerability, we have to become experts in noticing the interior movements of our hearts. Once we notice those movements, we pour the substance of our hearts into the heart of Christ so that he can carry it to the Father, the fount of all healing. Our spiritual exercise through most of our lives is to avoid the hardening of our hearts. In this condition, we become crispate and dry. We no longer desire to share any affective movements with Christ, even negative ones, because the burdens of life have robbed us of the glorious freedom of being children of God (Rom 8:21). The only way to water a hardened heart is to open it before the “living water” (Jn.4:10) and let this water flow into it. We do this by ever so slowly entrusting our hearts over to Christ. The universal human grief we bring to Christ is that we think we want someone or something other than him. However, we know in faith that God’s self-donation to us is his most satisfying and enduring gift. Once we are healed of this universal error of wanting something other than God, we realize that a pure heart is our true desire. The pure heart wants only Christ, and all other desires pale and distract. Vulnerability has, as its ultimate goal, the inculcation of a pure heart … a heart that knows only God suffices (Ps 62:2-3). The key to vulnerability before God is to identify the deepest affective movements of the heart and show them to him. “Pour out your hearts to God” (Ps 62:9).

  1. First, we place ourselves in God’s presence. and ask him to raise up in our hearts the places of deepest vulnerability, those places that we hide, or those places that carry such beauty and joy that we subject them to scant attention for fear of tears, tears ignited by the fullness of beauty.
  2. As the content of our hearts gently arise, receive such by name (“I am sad, I am alone, etc.) and pour it from your heart into Christ’s own Sacred Heart.
  3. It is this pouring by you and this receiving by Christ’s heart that maintains your communion with him, a communion originating in the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love.
  4. As we enter into a life of vulnerability before Christ, both the healing of burdens and the joy of graces received quicken and deepen in us.
  5. Notice when you are tempted to retreat back into the hardened heart, and immediately ask for the grace to endure the burden of love shared. and resist the lie of isolation as the “better way.” Christ revealed to us that the better way is only one, rapt attention to him, an attention so consuming that all of who I am is eager to surrender to his open heart.

If we are to grow to the stature of Christ (Eph 4:13) and become mature, we must, paradoxically, become like children, entrusting ourselves to the Father. In this act of surrender, we give to Christ the contents of our heart, like a child vocalizing every dream and sadness that passes through him. In this disposition of self-disclosure, we lay the path to spiritual maturity … a maturity that meets Christ himself in our own growing desire for self-donation.

  1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Engagement with God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 46-49.
  2. “Beauty is truth; truth beauty—That is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
  3. Ibid, 49.
Deacon James Keating About Deacon James Keating

Deacon James Keating, Ph.D., is the Director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. He has published widely in spiritual and doctrinal theology.

Comments

  1. Solid teaching which I appreciate! I guess my only caveat would be in the wording of the first of the 5 points at the end. I.e., “Place myself in God’s presence.” Period.
    In my prayer, that’s the whole 1st point: Go into my room & shut the door, as the Lord says. I don’t think this is just a matter of semantics. When I consciously do that, it’s similar to the experience of being alone with a spouse. Yes, the roof is still leaking; yes, we still have an errant child we’re concerned about etc, but, for this little time, in this little place, all that is ‘outside the door.’
    The result is usually, after this set-aside time, many of the fears/vulnerabilities/preoccupations I brought with me have simply dissolved in his love & care. And/or he shows me a facet of my life I couldn’t have brought to his attention bc I had no idea it was there.
    So, my point is, it seems to work better for me to ‘languish’ in his presence before moving ahead on to the other points.