preached Sunday, October 13, 2002 — Profession in Initial Vows of Br. Robert Emil L'Esperance, SSJE
Laying Down Our Lives
by Curtis Almquist, SSJE
During his upbringing Jesus obviously learned something about cultivating a garden and its cost. I’m not talking about the cost to the gardener—the time and labor expended, which is real—but rather, the cost to the plants. I cannot imagine that there is anything more confusing and more contusing to a living plant than to be pruned. A plant, whose sole reason for being is to be alive and to grow… and then to be cut back. It must feel like death to a plant. And yet, every gardener will know that unless the plant is pruned back, the plant may grow, but it will likely grow wild and it will spend itself prematurely, missing its great potential to flower with form and beauty, season after season. Gardens need to be cultivated and plants need to be pruned back to bring forth the best of what they’ve been created to be.
It seems to me that life prunes us, whether or not we consent to it. Some of this comes in the form of disappointments: what we could have had or feel we should have had, but don’t… because we weren’t chosen, because we grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, because we were let go (let go of a job; let go by a friend). Changes in our health, the experience of growing older and seeing our energies dwine, the experience of losing the loves of our life, the experience of simply not being able to have it all, and ultimately the anticipating of our own death and of dying. I would call this some of the experience of “pruning” that mortal life simply brings to us all, whether or not we choose it. But Jesus, here in John’s gospel, is saying to choose it. Choose to abide, which in itself is a kind of pruning from the delusion that life offers us limitless options. It does not, and it’s not supposed to. To abide, as Jesus here speaks, is to be rooted and grounded in the love of God, Jesus being the vine, as he says, and we the various branches that will bear the tough love of being pruned. I’d like to reflect with you what this “abiding in Jesus” may look like. Here are several pictures.
For one, we hear Jesus say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”i We have vivid reminders in our newspapers, virtually every day, of men and women literally laying down or losing their lives on behalf of others. And though we brothers acknowledge in our own Rule of Life that we may be called, quite literally, to give up our life as martyrs, this call has not been frequent in our community’s history, which may well be true also for you who are here as our guests. I suspect for most of us here, “laying down our lives” for another comes in relentlessly mundane, even boring ways. It comes in the tedious opportunities that come each day, especially among those whom we love the most… who are also the ones whom we may find the most trying. The endless invitations to forgive rather than to resent; to grant one another dignity rather than to judge with disdain; to serve rather than reign in whatever our little fiefdom is; to generously empty our life’s energies in the name of Christ, praying that he will as generously fill what has been spent. Unheroic, mundane, relentless opportunities to lay down our lives through-out the day.
I would say that to lay down our lives is also to lay down our own exacting standards of how we are to be perfect in our own eyes. The word “perfect” as it appears in the gospels, means to be whole or complete. To my ears, the word makes more sense as a verb: to perfect.ii To perfect implies a process or cultivation or conversion over time. To perfect one’s life one presumably starts with one’s imperfections, which, I think, is how God attracts our attention. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the eighteenth-century French spiritual director, writes, “Rejoice every time you discover a new imperfection.” De Caussade counsels, if you find yourself getting impatient, try to bear your impatience patiently. If you lose your tranquility, endure that loss tranquilly. If you get angry, don’t get angry with yourself for getting angry. If you are not content, try to be content with your discontent. “Don’t fuss too much about yourself,” de Caussade says. “Don’t fight the truth of yourself,” he says. The self “comes clean,” he says, when it is most exposed, most vulnerable to its own imperfection. He says, “the time will come when the sight of your imperfection and brokenness, which may horrify you now, will fill you with joy and keep you in a delightful peace…. The fruit of grace must, for the moment, remain hidden, buried as it were in the abyss of your imperfection, underneath the most lively awareness of your weakness.”iii In Christ, strength is made perfect in weakness.iv Laying down our lives is to acknowledge that we are not the Creator but a creature, incomplete, being perfected by God, who invites our own co-operation.
One final picture of what it might look like to “lay down our lives,” and that’s to live our lives gratefully. There’s an old French proverb: “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.” I was saying earlier that, for a plant in the garden, the process of pruning would seem incredibly confusing and contusing, particularly if the plant had no memory. Which we do. It seems to me an extraordinary grace to look backwards, to discover from a new perspective what we could not see at the time, of what may have seemed a senseless loss, some unmitigated pain or tragedy, which is in some way being redeemed into making and shaping us into the person that we are today. And it is nothing short of a miracle. I think it can make a world of difference for us to look backward in our lives, to not miss the opportunity to pray thanksgiving where thankfulness is now clearly due. I would say that living our lives gratefully, not resentfully or jealously or enviously, but gratefully is a picture of laying down our lives before God and others as an offering, an oblation. Living our lives in a posture of gratitude is an acknowledgment that we are not the author of life, but a participant in life, and that it is God’s world on God’s time and that God is at work, in our own lives according to God’s good pleasure. Gratitude consecrates our life and labor and makes us real.
Robert, it is a wonder that you have come to us, and it is a wonder that you desire to stay with us. Wonderful: a great gift to us brothers and our friends, and a glory to God. You come to us with so many skills and abilities highly honed, your graciousness, the generous gift of your friendship with so many. You also come to us as imperfect as the next man. Some things, you have shared with us are clear to you, how it is that God seeded into your soul this deep craving for what St. Paul calls the “the prize of the heavenly call”v : a longing for union and intimacy which you learned from your father. “Intimacy” from the Latin, intimus, which means inmost, most inward desire.vi And from your mother, you learned about unquenchable love and the anchoring of hope.vii Robert, as you abide in this life you will surely grow deeper and deeper into your family name, L’Espérance: hope. In the words of St. Paul: “... suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”viii You are a channel of God’s love and blessing to us, Robert, and it all returns to God. Jesus says—these are his words translated in The Jerusalem Bible —“Make your home in me and I will make mine in you.”ix Robert, welcome home.
i John 15:12-13.
ii Matthew 5:48; Luke 18:9-14; John 5:44; also Romans 10:3f; Galatians 3:10.
iii Simon Tugwell in Ways of Imperfection, p. 213, quoting and citing Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Lettres Spirituelles, vol. 1 (Paris, 1962), pp. 96, 117.
iv 2 Corinthians 12:9.
v Philippians 3:14.
vi The English word “intimacy,” from the Latin intimus, inmost; most inward; deep-seated.
vii The anchor image for hope from Hebrews 6:19.
viii Romans 5:3-5.
ix John 15:4.