by Fr. Jack McArdle
The story is told of a man, who, when asked for directions to Dublin, replied, "Well, now, to tell you the truth, if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn't start from here at all!" It is obvious, of course, that if I am to go anywhere, I must begin exactly where I am now. To go to another place is to let go of the place I now occupy. Life involves constantly letting go. This includes age, living conditions, ability to function, control of situations, health, and, eventually, of course, life itself. "For we have not here a lasting city, but are looking for the one to come." (Heb. 13:14)
We will never get anywhere if we're not prepared to move. Even if I travel by plane, I have to go to the airport. If I am in a wheelchair, I am still travelling, even if I am physically immobile, relative to use of limbs. Time and tide stand still for no one. The minutes, the hours, and the days tick away, and nothing remains the same. To live is to change, and to change is to let go of the present in some way or other. The cycle of the seasons rolls on inexorably, as the leaves falls off the trees, to be replaced by new leaves some months later. The trees cannot hold on to the leaves, nor can they prevent their new adornment of Spring attire arriving on cue.
"There is a given time for everything, and a time for every happening under heaven. A time for giving birth, a time for dying; a time for planting, a time for uprooting. A time for killing, a time for healing; a time for knocking down, a time for building up. A time for tears, a time for laughter; a time for mourning, a time for dancing… Finally, I considered the task God gave to people. He made everything fitting in its time, but he also set eternity in their hearts, although people are not able to embrace the work of God from the beginning to the end." (Ecc. 3:1-11) What goes round comes round, and life, once it begins, never ends.
The first stage is the womb-life. This is followed a wrenching, a letting go, and emergence into the second stage, through the process of birth. Some mothers suffer varying degrees of post-natal depression, as if the system is hurting because of the pain of letting go of something that essentially has been part of them. The second stage in like being in the womb of God, where we are being formed in the image of Jesus Christ. Once again, this leads to another wrenching, a letting go, and an entry into the third and final stage, through the process that we call death.
For those left behind, this is experienced as bereavement, which comes from having to let go of someone who has been part of them. Bereavement is like an amputation. There is part of me gone. I will walk again, of course, but it's only time that can heal this pain. It's only when we all arrive in the Garden that we won't have to say goodbye again. "On this mountain Yahweh will prepare a feast for all his people, a feast of rich food and fine wines, meat full of marrow, fine wine strained. On this mountain he will destroy the covering cast over all peoples, this very shroud spread over all nations, and swallow up death in victory. The Lord will wipe away the tears from all cheeks and eyes." (Is. 25:6-8)
Learning to become detached is a really worthwhile exercise, if understood properly. It is far removed from becoming indifferent or callous. It is a discernment process, and it enables me distinguish between what should be let go, and what should be carefully treasured. There are things I cling to that cause me to be totally encumbered by baggage. I can develop a great need for affirmation, approval, and praise, and this can become an obsession, which, if not met, creates all sorts of problems within my mind. I cling to daydreams that have no hope of ever becoming realities, where I build castles in the sky that will never be inhabited. I can crave the limelight, and fawn to the powerful.
My ego is capable of building up a list of priorities that are mere perceptions of unbridled pride, and built on the moving sands of unreality. It is a very healthy undertaking to look seriously at all these possibilities, with a view to ascertaining where any or many might exist. It is a wonderful freedom to be free of such fantasies. And any letting go involved will repay one hundred fold. Selfishness and self-centredness is extremely subtle, cunning, and powerful, and one of its most insidious qualities is that it blinds me to its very existence. It is only those who do work on themselves, or who avail of guidance from others, that become aware of such lurking dangers. Exposing such dangerous and destructive impostors is uniquely the work of the Spirit. It is the work of the Spirit to open my inner eyes, and to let me see. This is the worst form of blindness, and no human effort can remove it, even if it can assist in helping making the situation a bit better.
A genuine desire on my part to really see what exactly those things are that I need to let go of, nothing short of that will lead to freedom. The discovery is likely to amaze me, because many of the things I cling to seems quite harmless and innocent in themselves. Put together, though, they can combine to limit my freedom, and to influence my actions and my attitudes. It may seem totally unreal, but what a gift it must be to be free of all the unnecessary things that I cling to. I know, in practice, that this won't happen this side of the grave, but it would be good to have made a decent and honest start before that time comes, when, without any thanks to me, I'm going to have to let go of everything anyhow. One of the more obvious ones that jumps out at me is the whole area of one's self-importance.
Humility is a beautiful gift, and it becomes more realistic when I think of it as being just another word for truth. Not to be humble, is to be living a lie. It is to present myself as someone or something that I'm not. The tragedy about this is that I even come to believe my own lies in this area. I don't honestly think that I can develop humility, as I might grow a flower in a garden. If I myself do it, I could end up being really proud of my humility! "The meek will find joy, and the poor among men will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel." (Is, 28:19)
It would be a wonderful and very beneficial prayer to the Spirit to pray day in day out for the gift of insight into what I should let go of, and what it is that weighs me down, and holds me back. Pride can be such a tyrant that it is impossible to satisfy its insatiable appetite. There is no way that any progress in this area can come about naturally. A heightened awareness of God's goodness should surely help to shrink the arrogance of my own self-importance. This is a dream to be yearned for, a vision that longs for fulfilment. I owe it to myself to unburden myself of all the myths, unrealities, daydreams, and selfish demands with which my ego can burden me.
"Am gonna leave this old burden down, down by the riverside". I can imagine Adam and Eve being heavily burdened as they walked away from the Garden. It is because of this that I like to think of the return journey being one that continues to become less and less burdened as life goes on. Our priorities change with the years. Those things that were so central to our lives in young ambition's vision, are not seen to be that central anymore. The focus of life can shift according to circumstances. There is an evolutionary force at work, and we are changing, whether consciously or not. That change is not necessarily for the good. I don't change for the good(or for the bad!) just by accident. OK, so I can 'drift' into the bad, without being fully alert to the ramifications of what is happening, and to the dangers that lie ahead, as I approach Niagara. I cannot, however, drift into good.
This involves a series of decisions, a day in, day out acceptance of the presence of the Spirit, and a declared willingness on my part to be open to the work of that Spirit. Of necessity, this has to be a process of letting go. Any change implies letting go, and living is about the whole process of change. The unborn baby is constantly evolving, and the mother is becoming more and more aware of the growth of life within her. The difference here, of course, is that the baby is not contributing anything to the process. After birth, the baby will get hair, teeth, etc., but, once again, will contribute nothing to speeding up or delaying this process. At our stage in life, however, the lever is in our hand; it is we who press the button. The Spirit is always on standby, but cannot work in us without our permission, freely given. Jesus makes a very important point when he talks about the problem a camel would have, trying to enter by the side gate of the temple. "Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Truly I say to you: it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Yes, believe me : it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the one who is rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven.'"(Mt. 19:23-24)
There is a simple lesson here, and it is important to understand it correctly. The side gates to the Temple were called 'needles'. Now a camel could pass through one of these, but only after all the load is removed from its back. It is only after it has shed all of its burden that it can enter those gates. There is nothing wrong with riches, and Jesus is not saying that there is. What he refers to here is the danger of clinging to riches, in the belief that this could even buy me heaven, or guarantee my continued happiness. "What did he leave?" a local man asked, after a wealthy neighbour died. "He left nothing! He was dragged away from it!" was the wry reply of his neighbour.
Let's leave the money aside for now, because I am more concerned about the other things we cling to, which are not as destructive, but not so obvious. Over the last decade or so we have witnessed absolutely ferocious and vicious destruction of human lives, of tribes, of a nation's people. Somewhere, in some one's heart, there was an opinion that was not going to be surrendered, and, because of this failure to let go, several million lost their lives. There would never be a war if someone somewhere was prepared to say "I'm sorry; I was wrong."
It sounds awfully simple, and it is, if the Spirit of God is given the slightest chance of entering into the situation. I have no intention of sitting here passing judgement on world or tribal leaders. Such condemnation should be forthcoming, but it's not going to change anything. For any good to come out of this, it must begin within my own heart. I wouldn't shoot a person, or torture them to death. However, I can have more subtle and underhand ways of hurting people. I can cut with a word just as with a sword. I have to be constantly on my guard against that subtle pride which can so easily blind me to the things I cling to at the expense of others.
Is my opinion really that important, after all?! Pride, selfishness, self-centredness, and self-preoccupation can be such a part of who and what I am that it is impossible to separate, to isolate, and to look at them objectively. Once again, I say that this is the work of the Spirit. Again and again, I can declare my willingness to let go, and trust the Spirit to build on my good-will. Even my choice of the things that I need to let go can be very selective, if I keep control of things myself. The Spirit may notice a trait that is more damaging than is obvious to me. I have no reason to trust myself in this process, and I have no need to trust myself either. Surrender, hand over, let go. All of this implies that Someone else is going to take over, and take it from here.
The final letting go, of course, is death. If I live with the process of letting go, during my life-time, I honestly believe that the sting will be removed from death, and it will be a gentle, peaceful birth into the fullness of life, where the stream has, at last, reached the ocean, and just slips in, to become part of something infinitely greater. This letting go is symbolised by unclenching the fists, which cling to that last clammy coin; ungritting the teeth, and swallowing our pride; unflexing the muscles, and allowing the body resume its natural and comfortable position.
This letting go involves dropping the masks, and revealing the real me, to discover that both myself and others actually like what they see. It means that I stop playing games, and begin to live life with integrity and uprightness. It means coming out from behind the barriers of insincerity and pretence, removing the grease-paint of the performer, and walking humbly with my God. When I am prepared to put my hand in Jesus' hand, and walk with him, all the way back to the Garden, then I had better let go of anything my hand clings to. When I let go, I let God, and nothing is ever the same again…..
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