November 5, 2015
Father Mark Doherty
Ruth Burrows, a little known but noteworthy contemporary author of spiritual books, stresses time and again in her small, powerful books and essays (one thinks especially of her masterpiece “Guidelines for Mystical Prayer”) that God is always looking to share with us as much of his grace as we can receive. She even goes so far as to say that God is actively “pressing down” on us as he seeks to fill us with his life. The obstacle to deep communion with God is not in God, but rather in ourselves, for there is often so little “room” within us for God.
St. Augustine of Hippo, in his “Letter to Proba” (one of the greatest treatises on prayer), makes a similar point. “(God’s) gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed.”
But how do we increase our desire for the gift so as to receive it more fully? Another way to put the question is: How do I make more room within me for God to pour more of his gift in? Using this spatial imagery has its limitations given that what we are talking about, namely God’s gift, is a spiritual, immaterial principle, but the image is still useful, especially in that it clearly conveys that in order to receive I have to clear something out to make room. And the things I ought to be ready to clear out are not just or even primarily evil, sinful things, but rather genuinely good things, even really good things.
But what does that look like concretely? How do I really make room? When we get down to the brass tacks of the matter it becomes evident that to really make room for God requires us to sacrifice something from our needs rather than just our wants. Moreover, to sacrifice means, well, to sacrifice … which is to say that in clearing it out, offering it to God, the thing I am sacrificing is given up for good. I will not get it back. It is truly “burned” as a fragrant offering to God.
This, of course, is why we balk at the whole idea, and why today especially, in a culture dominated by catchphrases such as “I’m meant to realize all my dreams,” and “I deserve to have it all,” the inner logic of the Christian way of life is a hard sell. It’s also why so many today turn away from lifelong commitments such as marriage, because such commitments necessarily imply closing the door permanently on many other good possibilities, such as life with another person, career opportunities, experiences. We find ourselves, fists on hips, telling God that it is absolutely unreasonable for him to ask that we sacrifice good things, even really good things. Isn’t it God who made this or that thing so good? Isn’t it God who placed this good need within me? How can he now ask me to offer it up, burn it up, such that I will never see it again or realize and experience its fruits?
Because for as good as the thing is, and as genuine the need, they are still but lowly creatures. In their place God wants to give us his very self. God doesn’t want to leave us poor and destitute. He wants us to be wealthier, more full of life than we can fathom. God is the always greater. What he gives us is always greater than what we’ve offered up.
The poor widow in today’s Gospel gave from her need, two small coins. What did she get in return? Life in the kingdom and a shout-out in the most read book in history. Not bad for a little old lady. Where and how is God inviting me to sacrifice from my need so that he can give me himself in exchange?
Father Doherty is parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, San Francisco, and chaplain for Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory.