HE CONTRAST between Buddhist “salvation” and Christian salvation―which means entering fully into the radiant, though to our eyes darksome, plenitude of love, gaining one’s identity in communion with the other―could not be more striking (see last week’s post for more). In his book Truth and Tolerance, Joseph Ratzinger dwells in a similar way on the contrast between the path of mystical “identification,” where the ego is lost in an ocean of impersonal “divinity,” and the path of personal communion where the self, through a process of abandonment and purification, becomes for the first time really and truly itself, precisely by surrendering to and being caught up in the Beloved. Here is where the Christian faith is unique: we find rest in a person, in a friendship founded on a love that knows no limits and lasts forever, if only we will cling to him in love. We can see this clearly in Matthew 11:28–29:
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and lowly of heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
Our Lord says, first of all, not “Envision an ideal,” or “Go to the streets,” or “Enter into your psyche,” but “Come to ME”―this is where the laborer (and that means each one of us after the fall) must go. The laborer is heavy laden with the world. Christ wants to replace this burden with a “yoke” that is, paradoxically, the opposite of burdensome: a being yoked in friendship, a union of our restless hearts with his peaceful heart, burning with gentle love, so lowly that it welcomes even sinners. Without Jesus, whose power is made perfect in our weakness, we can do nothing at all, not one deed worthy of eternal life (cf. 2 Cor 12:9; Jn 15:5).
How different this teaching, at once consoling and challenging, is from the despairing self-portrait of modern man: self-sufficient and self-satisfied on the surface, but utterly lacking in true peace of soul, and utterly afraid of suffering and death. No, we somehow have to face, or rather, embrace, suffering and death―not because they are the final word, but because our Lord has made them the path to inner freedom and the gateway to eternal life. In the Canticle of the Sun St. Francis calls death “his sister.” Why? Because she puts an end to illusion and to sin. We must be ready for this end. The only way to be ready for it is to learn the art of dying to self.
A crucial part of peace-making (and, as I observed a couple of posts ago, a remote preparation for martyrdom) is to learn to do without, to learn to be poor in spirit as well as in bodily goods. In this way we try to strip ourselves of the self-will or wilfulness that leads to conflict, we strip ourselves of the goods that lead to one man’s being exalted over another in real or apparent power―for he who has much, has power to hoard it and use it irresponsibly, at the expense of others, indulging himself while others look on. Recall Our Lord’s parable of Dives and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31).
How do we learn this most challenging and subtle art? In small ways. We cannot do everything all at once. We can only tackle one thing at a time. It will be a question, at first, of seemingly insignificant, unnoticed acts by which we thwart our own selfish desire in favor of loving and serving another, for God’s sake and for the other person’s sake. Each one of us can think, if we are honest, of a hundred small ways in which we might help out others, in spite of our habitual inclinations against undertaking this or that particular task―we might think of our mothers or fathers, our roommates, our friends, our sweethearts, our wives, our children, our coworkers, even and perhaps especially the people who dislike us or whom we dislike. The little dyings-to-self are the endurance training for the final supreme act of heroism: the acceptance of the death that divine Providence has appointed for us.
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