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FIVE FOR SORROW TEN FOR JOY
Meditations on the Rosary
By J. NEVILLE WARD
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 J. Newville Ward
All rights reserved.
All people who pray have been given or have unconsciously absorbed some traditional idea of it—Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, as the case may be. It may well be that their understanding of their tradition is inadequate, they may indeed have got it all wrong, but that is where they begin.
The Christian who has a rosary in his hands is within a tradition. Certainly he misunderstands it, needs to learn more of it, but he has to apply his mind to something given. He does not have to seek the truth as though St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and all the rest had never lived. The person who starts from scratch and attempts to reach the Christian view of the truth outside the church has a long haul ahead of him. He will hardly have time to live. He will be answering questions seven days a week. In the Christian view the "answers" are things by which one lives. The living is what matters.
Many people do not seem concerned that life may or may not have any discernible meaning. They have their own standards and aims, learned or picked up from a hundred different sources, and they go about their lives without wishing to go any more deeply into such questions as the life of religion claims to answer, without feeling the need for the rational and emotional supports to living which religion claims to offer. They are in no way inferior to others more intellectually agitated. Many of them must walk with God in their active experience, in the acute sense of human misery and need that visits some of them with all the shock of an inspiration, in their awareness of the beauty and fascination of life. But a whole dimension of human life seems to be missing from their experience.
This dimension is one in which people experience an anxious need to understand. It is not simply that such people like the world of ideas. They belong to those for whom thoughts are not a game but a fight for survival.
Such people feel that to be able to go on it is necessary that what they do and suffer and enjoy should be justified in terms of a meaning that includes everything in its scope. They cannot settle for the imprisonment of the individual in his own privacy; they must relate somehow to all that they see to be going on, knowing at the same time that they must always register only a fraction of all that is going on. The possibility that there is no discernible meaning gives them an extremely unpleasant dizziness as though they stand precariously on some narrow rock ledge of the mind, below them the soundless gulf.
When someone says that life, or his life, has a meaning we conclude that he has adopted a certain view of life which brings order into his experience. It proposes values for his rational aspiration that excite his commitment. It enables him generally to act freely and interestedly and to regain his freedom and enthusiasm when adverse experience has submerged him in some compulsive reaction.
A political creed or some extensive moral aim can provide this kind of meaning as well as any of the great religious faiths. A genuine religious faith, however, involves the attempt to interpret all experience in its terms and consequently a greater investment of the self, as though a man would find himself in finding it and be lost in failing it. And it rates very highly certain moral and aesthetic experiences which shed an exceptional radiance over the mind or disturb it with unaccountably intense joy or sadness or desire to give. Such experiences always seem to have more in them than ever gets said.
Within the Christian tradition meaning is given to life in the form of a pattern of believing, hoping, loving that derives from the life and teaching of Jesus. The believer does not have to construct this meaning. It is there, among many other forms of believing, hoping, loving, waiting for his notice and interest as his awareness of the world develops. He chooses it because the man who first taught it has a unique magnetism and because it appeals to him as a reasonable interpretation of life.
Deep within this meaning is the conviction that life is to be interpreted as sign and lived as though human beings are continually being addressed or called to in one way or another. The process of nature, the flux of history, all that happens to each individual every twenty-four hours is "a mighty sum of things forever speaking." This way of thinking of experience in terms of speech-situation derives from the opening pages of the Bible. In Genesis 1:1–2:3 the whole evolutionary process is presented under the image of a God who "says" each element in it to bring it into being. And what he says is good. For the believer existence is not a neutral thing that one tolerates provisionally, waiting to see if one can like it or should hate it, but something about which to be glad immediately.
More particularly, what God "says" is one form or another of love. Every "word" that proceeds out of the mouth of God is to be seen as a form of his supreme, self-revealing, normative word, which is Jesus Christ. When St. John says "without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:3), he means that nothing comes into being without what Jesus is; and since Jesus is, so Christians believe, in himself a demonstration of God's love, St. John means that God can never act without loving. From the same world of belief, in a God who can only love, comes Jesus' mysterious saying that man is to live not just by bread but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). The idea that life is to be drawn from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God flings open a window in the mind onto an almost magical world in which everything is ultimately advantage, all is plus; even the dying that has to be done is part of a positive mercy of continual increase and fulfillment in the warmth of some eternal sun. To him who has the grace of this vision more will always be given. It will inevitably make the voices of life more numerous and mean more.
From these convictions comes the characteristically Christian view that every experience is a kind of annunciation, an announcement that God wishes us to receive something, do something, or endure something, and that, if we are willing to say "yes," our receiving, doing, enduring will be the occasion of the Eternal's revelation of himself in time again.
If "things proceed from the mouth of God like words," as de Caussade wrote in Abandonment to Divine Providence, so that life is indeed good and all that happens is to be referred directly or remotely to God's love, human beings can produce this "yes," this initially optimistic and trusting response to experience. They can do this because they take for granted a certain brightness in life in the light of which they will assume that it is innocent of any threat to their being until it is proved guilty. If each moment of a human life, whether it is one of beauty or boredom or panic, is an event in which there is a word from God, the right attitude to experience is a kind of listening and a readiness to say, "Be it unto me according to thy word."
No one can prove that this is the right way to interpret experience. The Christian simply says that this is how he understands it all. But it can be shown that it is not unreasonable to think this way. The Christian view is not inconsistent with any known fact. It is a way of understanding life in which human beings can think freely about it, live out their deepest moral and aesthetic concerns, and add to all that in the past has spoken in man's favor.
There are other readings of the complex pattern, some perhaps just as interesting. There need not be war between them but there certainly can be the interest of dialogue and mutual elucidation as well as experiment with new descriptions. It is fear that must at all costs convert.
The first mystery of the rosary concerns a God who speaks, who speaks through various messengers, who is therefore heard or not heard. He is never something or someone whose presence can be demonstrated.
He is one who speaks when man may not be listening and he is therefore somewhat at the mercy of man's interest and response.
He may say what man does not want to hear, what may challenge all his stabilizing codes and prudential arrangements. He is also one who may not speak at all, who can choose to be silent—for example, when man desperately wants to know what only God can tell him.
And he may say what man thinks hardly believable, that we are not alone, the long-desired friend is here, and life is heading for a fulfillment saturated with joy.
When the Virgin Mary hears this God she is made extremely lonely. She is isolated from the moral assessments of her time and from the one love of her life. She now knows something she hardly dares believe, dares not risk making known. She must go on as before, giving others no hint of its effect on her life if it is true, struggling with the thought that it might not be true, wondering whether that would be relief or some calamitous loss.
Many people have moments when they hear that which leaves them surmising that there may be something in religion, something for them. But this possibility of grace is often killed by repressing forces in society and within the self
Over the years we have all unconsciously developed strategies of defense against new experience. The process begins deep in the forgotten world of our childhood, in rejections and hurts there, and becomes a cumulative though ill-defined sense that life is not a thrill but a threat. The threatened self stiffens, withdraws, erects defenses or moves aggressively against the world, and becomes formidably successful in keeping love and God at bay.
It seems that Jesus was dismayed at the havoc so caused. He argued the wisdom of remaining open to experience, ready to listen, waiting to respond, because God himself comes in everything that happens. He gave assurances that people who love life and let go their hold on all that defends them from the risks of love will not be lost. They will certainly gain in knowledge of the real world, because they will not unconsciously distort the facts. They will increasingly be able to live in and with all their feelings and memories, and to live in and with themselves as thinking beings. They will like being alive. In the Christian view, when life works out in the desire for more of it and the decreasing need for defensive denial or distortion of this or that ingredient of it, "the Lord is with thee."
Some people come to know this presence long before they give it a name. Some people never give it a personal name; some eventually give it the great religious name. This must be a marvelously happy way to come to God, experiencing the grace of things again and again and then in some moment of brightness and recognition seeing what the glory is, who he is.
But most people have to be told that the Lord is with them. To some it is an outrageous announcement because they have experienced so much of the injustice and contradiction of things. Actually, most people begin no more confidently than by living provisionally in the faith that he is there, that in the present situation the grace of life is waiting to take form through their accepting and doing God's will The normal way in which Christian faith becomes real is first the announcement of the gospel, that you are greatly favored, that the Lord is with you and means to make the present substance of your life the bearer of his love and truth, and then your decision to see how it goes when life is lived in terms of that annunciation.
If God speaks, man must try to understand what he says. He must also understand what it means to listen.
At the basis of listening is a certain neutrality and stillness, inhibiting the evaluation of the situation in terms of preconceptions. There is the desire to understand, to see how anyone could think this way since many apparently do and not all are fools. A listener makes a deliberate attempt to enter the mental world of the speaker so that he reaches behind his inadequate vocabulary or inarticulateness to what he is trying to say; he does not lazily and unsympathetically stop at what his words can be made to mean. There is a certain mental agility that experiments to see if other words could be used and mean the same thing or nearly the same thing, along which route one might come closer to understanding.
And there must be courage, because there is the risk of being influenced by what you understand. If you listen to a well-informed communist who expresses his thought clearly so that you begin to "see things his way" you run the risk of seeing your own ideas and attitudes modify. Anyone who is not ready for this, who is unwilling to change, should never listen to anything beyond the jokes in the bar. To listen to what life says, in the many forms and voices in which it speaks, is the only way to avoid the world of private fantasy, the only way to be present. Unwillingness to listen is the decision in favor of one's imaginary picture of life; it is to play creator and make your own world and settle for your personal alternative to reality. Some of this we never stop doing. But it pays to reduce it, to give reality a turn; otherwise you could find yourself out of touch, not part of the living present, only part of the sweepings of time.
The Christian interpretation of life may seem unlikely at first, but the man who launched it was always talking about the real, the living, the new, the now. Movement and change were characteristic of him, especially change. He left the world an eternally youthful image of himself, not only because he died young and obviously had so much more to say and do. St. John hints that it would not be extravagant to call him the new Dionysus giving mankind the wine of life.
It is wise to acknowledge the difficulty of listening. The Bible has much to say about prophets doomed to have no response but people's deafness or their rage. Jesus seems to have been less furious, and less despairing in the face of the unlistening. He had a habit of concluding some comment on life with a saying about hearing and insight. He said it so often it is a kind of refrain, certainly a password to the mind of Jesus, "If you have ears to hear, then hear."
It never seems a particularly ingratiating remark but it is in fact a flash of light revealing his wide understanding of the human condition. When it is a matter of personal life that is shored up by some fantasy, clinging desperately to another time and another place, or hopelessly lost in emotional contradiction, the truth may be not bearable, in which case it is not the truth, the word of God for that person, or it may not have sufficient meaning for him just now to set him thinking in a constructive way. Truth has to have its moment.
It is always the moment for some truth, in the sense that God is present in every situation, wishing us to do or suffer or enjoy something, and ready to help this experience carry some fresh realization of himself and his purpose. And this is always blessing, always favor, because reality is on man's side and all that happens is for the production of mercy, pity, peace, and love within each life and throughout the world. To believe this is to face experience warm, with a hopeful, indeed expectant, attitude. It is going to be all right.
It is one of the principal exercises in any program of prayer to train the mind to bring these Christian considerations into focus at will, particularly recalling and trusting what we believe to be true about life as a whole when our world has contracted to some sharp bit that is cutting into us now. The training is a lifelong affair, very uneven, with many stops and fresh starts. There is always some part of us that shrinks from experience. It has been pointed out that this tension between willingness and unwillingness appears in innumerable paintings of the Annunciation.
Mary is depicted as a young, childish innocent, carefully dressed and set down in a walled interior—nothing more than a schoolgirl at home in her room, often doing handwork or at her studies, who is suddenly confronted with the Angel. In her body redemption will be prepared. She is shocked, astonished. In her face horror and rejection mingle with acceptance. The motif occurs in men and women today. In that schoolgirl image of our dreams, in those too young emotions—too naive, too innocent, too self-centred—something redemptive can grow, which might in the end lead to our own redemption.... But in the beginning it is astonishment and shock, for somewhere we are all virgins, sensitive, shy, psychologically naive, unexplored in our emotional life, unwilling to be called into involvements ... resistant to the major challenge, preferring where it is safe at home, familiar and protected, with books and bits of handwork.
Excerpted from FIVE FOR SORROW TEN FOR JOY by J. NEVILLE WARD. Copyright © 2005 J. Newville Ward. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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