Reflections on What the Wise Do Not See

I thank thee, Father… that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding… But what are these things? What do the wise and understanding fail to see?

It is perhaps not so much a matter of what they see, but of how. They want to see by means of their own wisdom and understanding, they want to master the truth by taking possession of it and subjecting it to their powers of comprehension. And this is what limits what can become visible to them, for not everything lends itself to their ambition to grasp and control. Whatever evades their understanding therefore remains hidden from them, or rather they themselves strive to exclude it from their field of vision. Their lives, by their own choice, are based upon what can be confined to the dimensions of their powers of comprehension – and everything else, which cannot be so confined, everything which can be received only in openness and trust, rather than in mastery, finds itself resisted by them, and finally either ignored or squeezed, distortingly, into something conformable to their desire to retain sovereignty.

Now this desire to retain sovereignty, undeniably, expresses for all of us some kind of ideal, in both senses of the word – I mean it is something we both aspire to, and is also something which we recognize at some level to be impossible. In this space, between aspiration and impossibility, our fallen desires unfold themselves, as we struggle, anxiously or resentfully, to achieve the unachievable satisfactions of mastery over the real.

And it is to this predicament, of oppression by the impossible aspiration to achieve a wisdom and understanding founded in ourselves and our own resources, that Christ addresses His invitation in the Gospel: Come to me, all who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.

But of course this invitation does not embody any promise that, in coming to Christ, we will find a mastery over things newly afforded to us, as if following Christ is the means we have been seeking to achieving the sovereignty we crave. We do, undoubtedly, sometimes think of grace in this way – as a kind of talisman to be deployed against vulnerability, meaning that the holier we become, the more immune to suffering we will discover ourselves to be. But whatever we may sometimes think, the rest which Christ promises us doesn’t consist in such immunity.

For as He testifies in the Gospel, there is a sense in which the yoke and the burden remain, vulnerability and suffering are not removed, or even, necessarily, diminished. But what happens is that, in union with Him, we begin to bear them differently. We can even say that we begin actually to bear them for the first time – I mean, we begin truly to carry suffering, as opposed to struggling perpetually against it, always tempted by the short-cuts which will eliminate it and restore us to self-possession. Instead of this primitive antagonism, we find that the yoke and the burden, though they remain as inflictions, are inflictions we begin newly to accept, even to welcome: and this is the ease and lightness which Christ promises us: for my yoke is easy, He tells us, and my burden light.

Now I think we should understand these words of Christ, in which He speaks of His yoke and His burden, as first of all being about Himself: the yoke and the burden which He Himself carries, and yet finds easy and light. We should register this, and give it priority, before ever we think of the yoke and the burden as our own, as something Christ imposes upon us in virtue of becoming His disciples. For the most important thing for us to understand is that Christ in His own life uncovers the secret of suffering well: not in resentment and repudiation, but along a path which is fertile and redemptive. This path is His, He is its discoverer, its explorer, the one Who maps it out, visibly, as a new possibility hitherto concealed within human experience. All that we can do is allow ourselves to be drawn into what He makes available. In other words, He calls our sufferings to share in the ease and lightness of His own; our sufferings, and our ways of bearing them, thereby become participations in His.

So not even our sufferings are our own, we are deprived of sovereignty even there, and instead our very sufferings are opened out, in excess of all egoistic sadness and conflict, in order to share in the mystery of the sufferings of Christ.

But of course this requires faith. It requires, in other words, an openness and trust towards the wisdom and understanding of the One Whom Christ calls Father, which lies beyond anything which our own wisdom and understanding can hope to penetrate. And in this, as well, we participate in a path which Christ Himself uniquely opens out for us.

For He, from first and last, stands before the Father in unreserved openness and trust, not drawing upon His own wisdom and understanding, but receiving and offering everything which the Father gives Him to be, to do and to suffer. This is what He tells us in the Gospel: He tells us that all things have been delivered to Him by His Father. And what this means is that the Father delivers everything to Christ according to the truth of His Sonship, of being a child of God, which Christ explains as being known by the Father and knowing Him in turn. Only faith makes this Sonship visible, for in faith we entrust ourselves beyond every impulse to cling to our own wisdom and understanding, and in that sense we consent to become a child. We need to be clear about what this means. We are not being invited to indulge in some vague and sentimental idealization of children, who can be quite as intent on their own sovereignty as any adult. Instead, in an utterly concrete and unflinching way, we are being invited into the mystery of the Sonship of Christ, His filiation from the Father, which He expounds in His life, death and Resurrection so that it may become visible to us, so that we in turn may come to share in it.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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