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LIVING WITH CONTRADICTION
An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality
By Esther de Waal
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1997Esther de Waal
All rights reserved.
A Way of Healing
'the love of Christ must come before all else' 4.21
We all stand in need of healing. We are all seeking wholeness. For most of us it is a most urgent and ever-present reality in our lives, one we may perhaps try to bury or neglect but which, if we are honest with ourselves, we find we cannot ignore. We all know also that unless we attend to our inner conflicts and contradictions, not only will we find ourselves torn apart by our inner divisions but also we shall very likely inflict wounds on those around us.
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Our God, the God of love, does not want a broken and divided self. He created us for fullness of life. He created each of us to be a free son or daughter, that son or daughter whom in our deepest being each of us longs to be, to become. And we all know in our heart of hearts (even if we are unwilling to admit it) that this healing of our divisions, this search for wholeness, must be an ongoing process. There is no once and for all moment when we can say that at last we are whole, the past is buried and over, the hurts forgotten, the wounds healed. Instead we find that it is to be a search that we must expect to continue throughout our lives.
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This search is one that is very evident in our world today. Concern for healing and for wholeness is a theme much written or spoken about. There are countless paperbacks with the word "healing" in the title. There are countless workshops which hold out the promise of healing. Faced with something which none of us can evade, even if we wanted to, I believe that we can turn to the Rule of St Benedict, and find there a handbook of healing. St Dunstan's first biographer, almost a thousand years ago, described the saint as a man "following the health-giving Rule of St Benedict". I am sure the same can be true of us all today. But the promise is not one of some idealistic, escapist healing, which will lead us into some easy wholeness. Rather the promise is that we shall learn to live with contradiction, holding together the tensions in such a way that will let them become creative and life-enhancing for us. And in fact I find it reassuring to think that there is no easy path, no short cuts, no simplistic answer.
Jean Vanier writes of this with understanding when he says
In our times there is a danger of thinking that everyone may become perfectly healed and find perfect unity in themselves and with others. This type of idealism is rampant everywhere. New therapies engender more and better illusions. And each day new techniques are born which will bring about this long-awaited healing. Personally I am more and more convinced that there is no perfect healing. Each human being carries their own wounds, their own difficulties of relationships and their own anguishes. It is a question of learning to live day after day with this reality and not in a state of illusion ...
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When we stop and look at ourselves we are broken and fragmented in so many areas of our being – in our relations not only with ourselves, but also with other people, with the world around us, and not least of all with God himself. Here are the four aspects of our lives which we must all at some time confront if we are to grow into that fullness of stature to which we are called. This search for healing is a search which is common to us all; it is basic to our humanity. We are faced with it right from the start, in the Garden of Eden. We return to that story and find there a story that is our own. For each of us is Adam and each is Eve. And as we read what happened there, step by step the full impact of those successive alienations is brought to bear on us. We see the drama unfolding in relentless detail with an almost terrifying sense of inevitability about what men and women can do to themselves.
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The setting is a garden. There are two players, but dominating it all is God, his voice heard, his presence felt. We watch what happens. Encouraged by that subtle snake the man and the woman, whole in their nakedness, disobey the very simple command given to them by God. The relationship of God with the men and women of his own creating has been challenged and damaged. Then immediately they discover that they are naked, and so they sew fig leaves together to make a garment which will cover parts of themselves. Here is a split within themselves, for when they cover their nakedness with leaves they are rejecting their original wholeness. And then God speaks to Adam, and Adam blames Eve, but Eve says it was all due to the snake. Then God speaks to Adam of the enmity that there will be between him and the woman, and he speaks to Eve of the pain that she will feel in child-bearing. Now there are splits in the relations between persons. And finally God tells Adam that he is to till the earth with sweat on his brow – there is no longer any harmonious relationship with the earth. Here is the split with the environment.
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All these elements are part of the drama. They tell me that I must not think that I can try to heal myself without also trying to heal my relationships with other people, those with whom I have to live. Nor must I forget that I have a debt to the world around me, to the earth and the environment that gives me life. But above all there is God himself, the root and ground of my being. Unless my relationship with him is made whole I shall remain standing in the shadow of the tree in the Garden of Eden, instead of standing under the shadow of that tree which is the cross on the hill of Calvary – the cross that speaks to me of God's forgiving and redeeming love.
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The cross also tells me that there are no short cuts. The wood that went to make the cross was taken from a living tree, but a tree that has been cut, shaped, transformed. The process of cutting, stripping and reshaping is never easy or comfortable; it is protracted and painful. Then the cross itself stands there, its main thrust downwards into the ground, its arms stretching outwards, a balance of two opposing forces, vertical and horizontal held together in a dynamic tension. Only so can it be life-giving. In that tension lies a most powerful image for what is at work in my own life. In that transformation I must expect to be shaped, formed and re-formed; nor can I ever hope to escape the tension that lies at the centre and makes possible the holding together of the whole.
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Another way of expressing this truth would be to see it in terms of a continual dying and rebirth throughout my life. That I cannot have new life without death is the most fundamental and inescapable of all the tensions I have to hold on to. Here I remind myself of what was really involved in the nativity at Bethlehem, putting aside all the popular representations that have obscured a rather harsh reality: a child laid in a hollowed stone trough, warm human flesh placed on cold, bare stone, a prefiguring – right at the moment of birth – of the moment when that same body would be laid to rest in the stone of the tomb, death and life inextricably bound together.
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St Anselm opens one of his prayers with the disarmingly simple words, "O God, who has formed and reformed me ..." As I pray them I realize that this is one of God's mercies: that he allows me to remain open, vulnerable, sensitive to the ways in which he is ready to shape and mould me; that I am indeed clay in the hands of the potter; and that continually throughout my life the old gives way to the new – if I am willing (O let it happen, if I am ready to play my part.
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I also realize that my own co-operation comes into play; tha
Excerpted from LIVING WITH CONTRADICTION by Esther de Waal. Copyright © 1997 by Esther de Waal. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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