A large percentage of Christians, as I know them, don’t understand the distinction between theism and Christianity. A theist is one who asks, Is there a God? Of course, the answer is yes. Everybody wants a God, and in most of Western culture, the available god figure has been Jesus. In theism, God exists to solve problems, and if you are good and you honor God, God will oblige.
Christianity has a very different message. It says God does not really solve our problems. God reveals them, leads us to the solution, leads us through the solution, and–here is the mystery of the Body of Christ–includes us in the solution. And so we are transformed. In Christianity, sin and salvation are two sides of the same mystery. Salvation is sin overcome and used for better purposes. The question becomes, How do we use evil for good?
Mary offers an example at Calvary. She does not try to pull Jesus off the Cross or try to sue somebody, saying, “This should not happen! This is unjust!” Of course it is unjust. But what does it mean? What is the message of the Crucifixion? Christ offers a similar example. He hangs on the horns of the human dilemma and does not eliminate it. He just hangs there in a reality of pain and contradictions.
That is how transformation happens: by holding the tension instead of expelling it, holding it until it changes us.
Through the Cross, Jesus says you can love it all, even the enemy. There is no scapegoating. Everything, everyone belongs. There is only the broken and suffering Body of Christ eternally crucified, eternally resurrected: the human eternally crucified, eternally resurrected. What faith and surrender and courage it takes to hold the Cross and the Resurrection simultaneously, to let both simultaneously be true in you, in your body, in your marriage, in your children, in your neighborhood, in the Church.
Stop looking for some perfect institution or perfect religion. Stop looking for the perfect friend or partner, because you will be disappointed. He is not Mr. Universe. She is not Miss America. He or she is an ordinary person with faults and wonderful gifts at the same time. It is so hard–but so rewarding–to hold the gifts and the faults together!
There are those who insist that reality be consistent and logical, and those who insist that life is only chaos. Those are the two poles–perfect consistency or chaos. In fact, what Jesus did in the revelation of the Cross was tell us that life is neither of those poles. The pattern of reality is neither perfectly consistent nor perfectly chaos–it is cruciform. There is order and structure, but it is filled with contradictions. Once you learn to hold opposites together, you can find happiness. You hang in the middle with Christ, on the Cross, which bears the mystery of reality–at once fully human and fully divine.
Meister Eckhart, the wonderful Dominican mystic, said that however great one’s suffering, God has suffered from it first. There is only one Cross, one Resurrection, captured in that microcosmic moment and person we call Jesus. We see it there; we understand it there. All the wars, the struggles, all resurrection and rebirth is about God. We are merely fragments in this huge flame of divine action.
Mystics and sinners understand this because, unlike the rest of us, they are not trying to create a universe they can understand and explain. They’ve let go, surrendered to a new identity.
Basically, there are two patterns of transformation into the mystery of God–the pattern of pain and the pattern of prayer. However, because most people do not surrender to real prayer until they suffer pain, you can say there is only one pattern. The fact is, normally we aren’t willing to give up ego control until we must, until pain forces us to do so. Nobody walks gracefully into the mystery of Crucifixion.
That is why the mystery of suffering is so central to transformation. The mystic lets go of the need to prove anything, protect anything, defend anything, be superior to anything, be anything. I am who I am who I am. I am who God is in me.
At that point in spiritual development, you are so grounded that you do not have to worry about your reputation anymore–you don’t have to worry about seeking blame or using other people to make yourself feel good or competing or winning. You are basically invulnerable.
The Franciscan word for this is poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness; the Buddhists, emptiness. It says, I am naked underneath my clothes.