Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom: "Would that it were already kindled!"

For this post, I am linking up with Mystie's Desiring the Kingdom Book Club.
Go to Week 5 for links to more discussion.  
"I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!" Luke 12: 49
The mass readings for today were about David and his son Absalom.    Absalom has rebelled against his father, but when news comes of his death, even though his followers expect him to feel triumphant, here is the response of David:
The king was shaken, and went up to the room over the city gate to weep. He said as he wept, “My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!”
In the first place, I so empathize with how he felt.   

In the second place, I can't help reading David's words here (as they so often are in his Psalms) as a type, a figure of God's relationship to us.    You see it carried through in Hosea, and in the story of the Prodigal Son, and in God's own response to David, and in Our Lord's heartfelt words quoted above.   Pope Francis talks about it here.

That makes me realize how above all what grieves God, what the essence of our sinful nature IS, is not simply doing bad things, but our coldness and hardness of hearts.  What God is always working with throughout the Old Testament is replacing hearts of stone with real hearts, hearts like His, that respond to Him.

In that respect, the things we love in preference to God are like little barricades in our heart.      Even good things can become little barricades. 

If I see where I fail to respond fully, to be transformed, by this kind of love, then I see where I am like Absalom, or like David when he was blind to what he had done to Uriah and against God.    I also realize how completely incapable I am of any kind of proper response to this love, which is why the Gospel reading for today, concerning the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the restoring from the dead of Jairus's daughter, is hopeful, because it gives me a way, through Jesus, who literally did what David wished he could do for Absalom -- died instead of me. 

This seems to me to connect with James Smith's message in Desiring the Kingdom.   The direction he is going is somewhat different, because he is describing how our rituals, our daily "liturgies", shape us without even our realization.

I am focusing mostly on the first part of the reading.   Smith uses the example of a movie I haven't seen, Moulin Rouge, to make the point that as Christians, believers, we are ultimately to be in love with God, a love that makes us eager to set the world on fire, to transform and let ourselves be transformed, not just building up a middle class edifice of proper living.    
 On the one hand, this seems to be the very antithesis of the kingdom of God: a realm of prostitutes and addicted artists given over to wanton pleasure-seeking. This criticism is embodied in the figure of Christian’s bourgeois father, who berates the bohemian culture for its sinfulness, which seems to be most linked to its failure to be “productive.” But to “the children of the revolution” (try to hear Bono crooning the song from the sound track), our highest calling is not to simply be producers. Instead, they are committed to the bohemian ideals of “beauty, freedom, truth, and above all, love.” And the spectacle of the film is ripe for analysis in terms of  (Charles) Williams’s theology of romantic love—a love that is revelatory, that breaks open the world .. Christians will tend to say, “Ah, but that’s not love—that’s eros, not agapē!” But a romantic theology refuses the distinction... The end of learning is love; the path of discipleship is romantic.
Romantic, perhaps, but not sentimental.... I was thinking about why the "affective" nature of many Sunday school, youth group, Vacation Bible School, and Christian camp experiences tended to make me squirm uncomfortably rather than fall in love.   I think those large-group emotional experiences are often somewhat contrived and so not meaningful.       I think we had enough experiences with the bathos of a lot of 70's religious practice not to go back there.

But I take it that Smith is talking more in the tradition of CS Lewis and his friends.   Even our rationality needs to be thoroughly infused with caritas, with our response to the utterly unsentimental but deeply affective and relational call of God.

He goes on to make the point that in this light, even "neutral" behavior is underpinned with deep significance.    One person could chop vegetables because he is getting paid to do it, another out of love for her family, another because he knows his mom will get him in trouble if he shirks his chores.  In that light, exterior habits themselves are "thin" (just things you do customarily for whatever reason) but they get depth and resonance (he uses the term "thickness") by the underlying self that does them.

St Josemaria Escriva puts it this way
You are writing to me in the kitchen, by the stove. It is early afternoon. It is cold. By your side, your younger sister — the last one to discover the divine folly of living her Christian vocation to the full — is peeling potatoes. To all appearances — you think — her work is the same as before. And yet, what a difference there is!

—It is true: before she only peeled potatoes, now, she is sanctifying herself peeling potatoes.


  1. This is just beautiful, Willa. Truly. I'm saving it to read again tomorrow.

    I knew this already:

    "What God is always working with throughout the Old Testament is replacing hearts of stone with real hearts, hearts like His, that respond to Him."

    But hearing it again, in this context, was just oh so good. Thank you!

  2. The unsentimental yet affective can be a hard distinction to see. I hope he develops that more as we go.

    I especially loved the last quote; I've seen that in my own life as well.


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