In Rats’ Alley
What are the roots that clutch, what branches growOut of this stony rubbish? Son of man,You cannot say, or guess, for you know onlyA heap of broken images, where the sun beats,And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,And the dry stone no sound of water. OnlyThere is shadow under this red rock,(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),And I will show you something different from eitherYour shadow at morning striding behind youOr your shadow at evening rising to meet you;I will show you fear in a handful of dust. – T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Part I, partial—–For death, entering the world ‘through sin’ (Romans 5,12), tears apart the being of [humanity] as God envisaged it. Neither philosophy nor religion can restore to the status of a rounded, meaningful whole this fragment of earthly life, slipping away as it is toward death. Nor, besides, can they contrive in the realm beyond death some complementary piece – be it the ‘immortality of the soul’, the transmigration of souls’, or whatever – which, once added makes the broken self entire. The shattered image can only be restored by God, by the ‘Second Adam’ who is ‘from heaven’. And the midpoint of this restorative action is necessarily the place of the original rupture: death, Hades, lostness from God. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, p. 12—–
I found myself typing the words, and even as I did, I knew they were wrong: “I am a person of faith”. What a silly compendium of words, strung together in a way that, for my mind, is utterly meaningless. To be a person of faith is a bit like being a person of cheeseburgers, or perhaps a person of late pointillist art. To declare to the world, “I am a person of faith!” is to say nothing at all. Not really. Oh, like centrifugal force, it certainly might feel like something, even something substantial. Like that force, however, it just isn’t real, no matter how we protest to the contrary.
In the first instance, no person is “of faith”. Their existence, their identity, their selfhood, does not come from faith because faith is something that comes to us from the outside. We do not “have” faith. Faith has us. It is quite beyond the ability of any individual to “have” or to declare their existence flows from faith because faith is the loving free gift of God. It is an action that happens to us, and we spend our lives fighting to understand what this roller coaster ride means, if it means anything at all.
Second, no individual can ever be “a person”. The individual, whole and complete (however those words might be understood), is an abstraction. Not any of us are or could be self-sufficient. Every human being, in order to live, must live in intertwining sets of relationships, from birth until death. To declare oneself “A person” then is to declare oneself the sole member of a set whose members are actually zero. It is to declare non-existence.
Third, no one caught up in the grace of God in Jesus Christ through the power and love of the Holy Spirit ever does so alone. From reading and understanding the Scriptures through study and contemplation and prayer to the sacraments, worship, and praise, the Christian life is defined by plurality. We are Christians; no one ever is.
Yet, is it not the case that we are called to give testimony to that which is the source of our faith, the subject of our love, and the object of our hope? I have never read a statement of faith that gels with any other person’s statement of faith. Yet, together, we both confess and profess together our faith in the Father, the Son, and The Holy Spirit; the salvation wrought by God in the Son, for the Father, in the Holy Spirit; the creation of the world by the Father with the Son through the Holy Spirit; the life of belief being one of obedience to the Son for the Father in the Holy Spirit. Our life together is defined by the Trinitarian reality that is our God. How is it possible to be a singular voice when our New Creation is already defined by plurality?
It seems I am caught in a conundrum. Or perhaps a paradox. Because, you see, my faith is rooted in contradiction. A human being who is also the full embodiment of the Divine, nevertheless emptied of all the attributes of power and glory, a slave obedient to death who nevertheless defies death and defeats death by using its own weapons against it. We are in the midst of Holy Week, that time when we move toward the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth, when all our words fail as we stand and stare at the broken body of yet another failed Messiah only to discover in that failure is the final victory of God. It was the plan all along!
We love the world. We live in this world, filled with beauty and horror, the delicate first cries of babies and the mass graves that cover our planet. We are each beloved of the Creator of the Universe, called and known by name, declared of eternal significance; we are as horrid as the most terrifying person imaginable, despised and damned because of our very existence, bound to death and destruction. When grasped by the relentless grace of God, we find ourselves caught in a whirlwind that rejoices that we have returned home; we are then set down and told to follow a path, this path, the path that was ours from the beginning of all Creation, but are only now able to see because that same grace has opened our eyes to see. When we follow this path, we will find peace; we will find conflict; we will find joy; we will mourn with those who mourn; we will praise God in all things; we will find ourselves unable to speak because the choking odor of death fills us. We are of eternal significance, beloved by God, yet our lives are nothing, our loves are nothing, our desires and dreams are nothing because God doesn’t care all that much at all about what I want. God doesn’t care what I say I believe. God only wants me to live and act as God intended. Fear God? Some days I hate God. That, too, is part of the life of faith.
I’m still not sure what it is to be “a person of faith”, despite the fact that I used that wording. All I know for sure is I am beloved and called and I’m following the best I can, knowing it will never be enough, never good enough, never full enough. It’s OK, though, because I’m not walking or running or crawling or muddling through under my own power. Nope, that’s the Holy Spirit that’s got hold of me, in the name of the Son, for the Glory of the Father. Thus I carry on, riding a motorcycle with no hands on this bumpy, dangerous back road called the world, knowing I shall reach whatever end is mine in the belief it is all worth it. Every heartache, every sleepless night filled with fear. Every long day filled with routine. Whether it’s the smile and feel of my daughter giving me a hug, hearing her say, “I love you, Dad”, or reading yet again of death and destruction, of hatred and fear – it is what it is, and being in the midst of it all is where I am to be, with nothing more than my faith to shield me.
And I don’t do it for anything I’m going to get. Don’t ever think that. I do it, all this, because not to do it would be to die. It would be to plunge in to the rats’ alley, where the corpses are stripped of their bones, those dry bones that lie in a valley. I don’t do it for myself, or my family, or my wife, or because I went to Seminary, or because it makes me feel superior to anyone else (because I’m reminded pretty much all day each day that I’m far below them), or because it’s the cool thing to do, or the right thing to do, or to keep up appearances, or because I am subject to some kind of religious fervor, or because – God forbid! – I get to go to heaven when I die. I don’t do it for any of these reason. I do it because not to do it would mean my death. Oh, doing it is a beckoning to one’s death. All the same, the death that follows on belief is the only death that matters. Without faith, it’s just stopping, filling up space in the earth until even those who remember we were are forgotten.
I do what I do because it’s about God, God’s glory, the God who loves, who recreates the entire Universe each moment it exists, never once losing track of whole galaxies or protids swimming in distant seas. I do what I do because I don’t matter, and that’s a good thing. I believe and live as I do because I am of infinite worth, paid for with a price beyond measure, freely given and offered at no price. I am caught up in that death and resurrection, and even at the most evil in the world I can only smile and declare, “God loves you.” Because it is true.
And I know this in every cell of my body because God loves me. If God can do that, God can do anything.