Saturday, August 29, 2015



I was watching a game of dodgeball yesterday involving two teams of about twenty teenage boys each. You know the scene: the idea is to throw the ball at an opponent and hit him, thus sending him out of the game. If he catches the ball you’ve thrown, though, then you’re the one who drops out. Picture six kickballs (soft ones about the size of a volleyball) whizzing around in various directions, sometimes hurled with fearful velocity.

When the whistle blows, you run!
It was a sort of parable about life. When the referee blows the whistle to start, a number of kids run and cower against the back wall, hoping to be invisible, but a certain few go charging forward into the thick of the battle, hurling balls to left and right with abandon, disregarding the possibility that they could get smacked in the nose with an opponent’s shot at any second. 

These guys who charge forward are, it seems to me, the ones who truly understand the game: win or lose, you jump in and risk everything all the time, throwing everything you have into the effort -- even if you sometimes get smacked in the side of the head.

Actually it’s also a pretty good parable about the spiritual life. Some people relate to
God by cowering before the Almighty, while others try to blend into the back wall and remain uninvolved, unnoticed by a God who will surely hit them with all sorts of unsettling demands that would require a conversion, a change of heart. But others, following the example of all the saints, step up and risk everything in the encounter with the Divine Lover.

Francis of Assisi took off all his clothes and left them in the town square and left in search of God.

The great mystic Teresa of Avila once chided the Lord with a complaint that went something like “If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.” 

Mother Teresa of Calcutta left the security of the convent where she was a young missionary sister, and went off to India to serve the poorest of God’s poor.

Young Saint Benedict walked off into the wilderness of the forested hills of Umbria with nothing; he was in search of God.

St. Peter and the rest of these extremists whom we venerate as saints, all of them went toe-to-toe with God, accepting, scolding, embracing, complaining, falling down and getting up in an intimate, spirited personal relationship with the Lord. As with any worthwhile personal relationship this included risks and ups and downs, as well as deeply satisfying joy and deep peace.  

One of the great spiritual wrestlers, I think, was St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, and who details his spiritual struggles in his Confessions. He writes somewhere that faith is like a fire. When a strong wind comes along, a small, weak flame will get extinguished by it. But that same threatening wind, when blowing on a strong fire, will only serve to  make it burn even hotter and stronger.

The great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich writes about “greatness” as being a state in which one refuses to accept the given just because it is given, and is not afraid to let go of the safe and familiar in order to risk encountering the unfamiliar, the unknown.

When a young man comes to the monastery wanting to “try” the monastic life, I
encourage him not to come in order to “try it.” In order for this life to work, you can’t just be “trying it out to see if it’s for me.” You can’t experience what it’s like to be a monk by slithering along the edge of the court or with your shoulder blades safely sliding along the back wall. You have to live it;  you just dash to the center of the gym and start throwing those big rubber balls as fast as you can. I promise to be there to support the new candidate when he suffers the inevitable first nosebleed from getting smacked with a ball in the normal course of the fray. It will require an ice pack and some cotton, of course, but it’s really the only way to play the game.
You're in the game whether you want to be or not.


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