Monday, March 3, 2014

War Begins in the Heart

Today, the world seems a little more dangerous. And not only because Russia has invaded Crimea.

War is everywhere. It begins in the heart. Indeed, I see the roots of war within my own heart. Saint James articulates the whole thing very simply in the New Testament. We all know that this is true:
"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts" (James 4:1-2).
Saint James tells us to pray. And we must not pray selfishly; rather in prayer we must surrender ourselves to God. We must give our hearts to God, because he knows what we are really seeking. The face of Jesus looks upon us to help us remember that God is infinite mercy. He wants to give us himself, and in him we shall receive everything. He wants us to trust in his wisdom and love. He wants us to trust that his mercy holds each of us in our depths, and is shaping us according to his designs.

When we forget about God, however, our hearts lose their way. We begin to think we are alone with nothing but the insatiable hunger inside us, and we begin to grasp for whatever is at hand. We crave and covet and we trample upon one another in the desperate effort to find satisfaction.

We make alliances, gather into groups and factions; we surrender our own identity to some designation: a party, a nation, or a social group that seem to contain the promise of power -- a power that can bear us forward and bring the terrible, implacable desire of our hearts to that mysterious place of fulfillment. Or else we try to obliterate the anguish that we find when we look within ourselves; we look for things, persons, causes, and powers that can substitute for our own person, that can allow us to escape from the self so full of needs, so impoverished.

Is it a surprise that we have war? We make war in our families, our work places, our communities, our society, our culture... every day.

It is true that sometimes we fight for justice. We fight to defend the good, to help the poor, to protect the vulnerable. But even here, if our hearts forget God we will lose sight of the real meaning of what we are fighting for, and we will be tempted to turn it into a struggle for our own cause, for the triumph of what we want and what we think we must grasp by our own power. If our hearts forget God, we will turn to violence, and even if we talk all the time about God, and call ourselves "soldiers of God," our fight will degenerate into a desperate, violent effort of self-exaltation. We think we are serving God, but really we are trying to escape from the radical need for God that cries out within us because we are afraid to give ourselves to him. We are afraid to trust in him.
But wait! It's too hard to trust in this "God." Where is he? Really! There have been times when I've had deep religious feelings and I've just "known" that God is there, but then those feelings go away and I'm left high and dry. I know, I'm supposed to have "faith," but what the heck does that mean? Faith in what? It's all well and easy to say, "God loves me," and "God is infinite mercy holding the depths of me," but those are words. Where the heck is he right now?
I know what this desperation is like. We all do. And the world is full of it. It's deep deep down in everyone, even in the most screwed up people.

And what about the God of infinite mercy, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who loves us with the love that is the source and sustenance of the originality of our being, of each one of us? Does he not know this question? Will he not answer it?

As Christians, we profess that God indeed has answered the need of our hearts. He has made himself present in a human way; he has entered the human condition and transformed it from within. He has come to us, and he remains with us.

He is Jesus.

"But where is Jesus right now?" That is a good question. Jesus is with us, and his presence is what changes us. We don't change ourselves by talking about Jesus (and, inevitably, arguing about him). And we are tempted to reduce his discrete presence to our thoughts and projects about him.

Still, his human reality stays "in front of" us. He is present and reaches us in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit through the human reality of his Church. Through the Church, Jesus teaches us, leads us, and touches us concretely in the sacraments. He invites us to approach him in prayer and love, to be united to him by the Holy Spirit as sons of the Father.

He changes our hearts.

Even here, God understands us. He knows we change through time, often slowly. He knows that we can even reduce "the Church" to a routine, or a mere compartment of ourselves. Worse, we can take human elements of the Church and use them badly; we can use them as pretexts for manipulative or destructive behavior.

But not entirely. Jesus remains with us. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the earth, and works mysteriously in the heart of every human person, leading them to the One for whom they have been created. Every circumstance of every person's life in invested with meaning and value, as the mystery of God's love seeks always to draw each person to himself. On the cross, Jesus has given to each person a love that remains, within and beyond every suffering, every limitation.

Jesus remains with us. This is the great promise of the sacraments, and in particular the Eucharist. Everyone else can be forgetful, and the priest who says Mass can be an incoherent man or even a dangerous man, and still Jesus gives himself to me in the Eucharist. Are the people ignorant, distracted, unfaithful? Is the priest a villain? The Eucharist is still Jesus himself.

Jesus remains with us, constantly provoking our lives. He looks upon us each day and begs for our love through the persons he has placed in our lives. The "neighbor" -- the person who is "near" us -- constantly knocks upon the door of our own limits and preoccupations, asking from the need that rises from his or her heart. The person near me is Jesus. The person near me is my brother, my sister, my companion. We are called to help each other. "Love one another." Jesus has promised to be with us through this mutual love, to build communion among us and with him, to build peace.