Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Spiritual Liberation
 by Christian Paradoxes

Father John J. Lombardi

"The highest point of elevation lies in the deep ground of humility." Thus said German Dominican, Meister Eckhart. Equally and paradoxically, Jesus Himself counseled: "Those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Lk. 14: 11). Hey: It's one thing to be truly humble and selfless; it's another to want to be humble in order to be exalted.

Our Lord also said: "Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose themselves for my sake will find it " (Mt.10:39). And, recall: the bush that Moses saw burning never burnt up (Ex.3:2ff); it represented God: a finite object representing an infinite being: "God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). We are both attracted to, and afraid by, the Fire that is God. All these phenomena are paradoxes of Faith. They are not meant to hinder us, but to help us to believe and increase our Faith. Jesus says: "Do not doubt but believe" (Jn. 20:27). He realizes, though, we are sluggish and spiritually un-enlightened: "If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?" (Jn. 3:12). The Path to Spiritual Transformation is paradox and parable. Calumnious concepts constrict; paradoxes ungrip. Jesus-the Rabbi teaches this way, not force-feeding us as in "answer-in/salvation out" fashion, like we are robots, but rather delivers disciples by unleashing mind and soul from sinful thought patterns which imprison us. Jesus says: "This is why I speak in parables, because they (unbelievers) look but do not see, hear but do not listen or understand" (Mt. 13;13). The prophet Isaiah hears God say: "So, are my ways higher than your ways" (55:9). A holy person "penetrates the subtleties of parables" (Sir.39:2, NRSV trans). God wants us to think deeply, penetrate subtleties, embrace the secreted wisdom and then manifest God's ways to others-this is how we spiritually grow. Our Western, overly rationalized, heady, imprisoning minds, though, are not used to this wisdom-technique.

Years ago, as a philosophy major in college, this chaplain-then-searching student studied, Zen Buddhism and was entranced by their koans, which are kind of "philosophical-mind-puzzles" given to students to help them (in today's terminology) "think outside the box." Koans free the mind of mental-straight-jackets that prevent enlightenment. (The most famous ones are: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" and "Show me your original face before your were born."*-see Catholic comments at end). These koans were insightful and liberating, no matter their religious-philosophical bent-- like "mental flossing for the mind". Then that nascent disciple began looking around and found many koan-like parables in his own tradition (as a matter of fact, a Japanese Jesuit wrote a book on some, called "Zen and the Bible"). Point: paradoxes, mysteries and parables are part of our Catholic-Christian Tradition and are given to us to emancipate stale thought within, and free us to new ways: "A good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing will be poured into your lap" (Lk. 6:38). Parables shake us up, loosen frigid thought to help us to see anew (Mt. 13:13), to think higher (Phil 4:8) and love divinely: "The way we came to know love is that He laid down His life for us, so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers" (I Jn. 3:16). To do this and any sacred task we need God's help: "This anointing teaches you everything and is true…remain in Him (God)" (I Jn. 2:27).

Usually, we think a paradox, mystery or parable gives an "either/or" answer. For instance, Jesus is asked: Is it because of this man's sins or his fathers that he is blind? He responds, neither: "It is so that God's glory might shine forth" (Jn. 9:1ff).Jesus cuts through mental manipulations and manifests Divine liberation. And so, seek the Lord's grace that "the eyes of your heart be enlightened." (Eph 1:18).

Now, just think: every time we go to Mass we face and (hopefully) embrace many paradoxes. For instance: Christ is priest, victim and altar, all in Himself, though these are normally "separated" in various people and objects, both in our world in Jewish times. All things coalesce in Jesus that He might present all to the Father so that He may be all in all (I Cor. 15:28). Another Eucharistic paradox: each Mass is not separate from Jesus' Original Sacrifice but is a re-presentation of it under new forms. Deeply think: In the Mass, we are more one with Jesus at the last Supper and Calvary than we can perceive. Also, in the Mass before Communion, the priest prays: "By the mingling of this water and wine may we come to share fully in the Divinity of Christ Who shared in our humanity." Saints Athansius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas comment: God became man that man might become God. That's a towering, almost terrifying thought. Now, here's a bumper sticker moniker: Paradoxes free our paralyzed mental manipulation to spiritual liberation. Why? Because after meditation or deeply thinking (as in spiritual intuition by God's "anointing" we may gradually be graced by an answer to a question or paradox, and only then realize our previous way of thinking was encased in false, sometimes dualitisic thinking. Zen monks are trained, basically: "You can't force a koan-answer solely with your (shaved) head". We must remember the "answers" and solutions are form above, but we must exert effort, as St Paul said: "In all wisdom and insight, He has made known to us the mystery…" (Eph. 1:8-9). Here's a Spiritual syllogism: God's grace + human head and heart= wisdom. No God, no answer; Know God, know answers (cf. Jn 3:27).

Now, while we can understand part of a paradox, on the other hand, there is an "evasiveness" to the reality to which they point--"that-which-we-cannot-fully-comprehend." Another name for this is mystery. But paradoxes, while being mysterious, not only attract and allure, like a mystery, they differ by combining seeming opposite qualities in one subject which do not normally go together. German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa coined the phrase "coincidenta oppositorum"-a co-inciding of opposites. God works this way-this is His vocabulary, but not naturally our own. St Paul says: "Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up; if anyone supposes he knows everything, he does not yet know as he ought to know" (I Cor 8:2).

Paradoxes are a part of Christianity. (Just look at a crucifix: God Who is changeless suffers; By His Blood we are healed,etc.). From the Greek words, para (meaning past) and doxein (opinion), the word means beyond thought, indicating realties that surpass human understanding. A similar term would be transrational (from: trans-beyond, over; ratio, reason), describing realities that escape human reason's ability to "net the reality itself". Therefore, as Catholics: we should not not try to understand, which ends in nihilism or skepticism, and we should not pretend we understand, as in pride or feigning intelligence. The Bible describes this dialectical tension in us and our human condition: "Now we see as in a mirror, then we shall face to face" (I Cor 13: 12), and, contra intellectual despair, counsels hope: "When the perfect comes, the imperfect will disappear" (I Cor 13:10). The most famous paradoxes within our Faith are the central ones: the Trinity-God is Three Divine Persons in one essence. Not three gods but one God in Three Persons. Professor William Hill, famous Dominican theologian, once entitled a book, "The Three-Personed-God". This is the Ultimate Mystery and, if you will, The Paradox (cf. Catechism: #234).

Meditate: The Three Divine persons are interpenetrating each other in blissful love and ease while remaining distinct and unique-undulating unity amidst Divine diversity. How can I enter-into that "Divine dialectical dance"? St Gregory Naziansus meditates this ecstatic way: "I have not even begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendor. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me." Be grasped, seized, illumined, freed! The next paradox is: the Incarnation- Jesus Christ was both human and divine-perfectly both. Angelus Siliesus, Polish-priest and poet, paradoxically posed: "God has become incarnate; if you are not divinized, you revile His birth, and mock His Sacrifice." Jesus describes the paradoxical situation of some who say the Kingdom "here" or "there"-but, rather, it is within you (Lk. 17:21). The next holy paradox is: Mary as Virgin and Mother. St Anthony Mary Claret used to pray, ceaselessly: "Mary…Virgin and Mother." A beautifully beguiling statue in Bruges, Belgium, paradoxically portrays Mary both holding the Divine Child and still pregnant! Pray about it. This may exemplify Jesus' counsel: Whoever does God's will is mother and brother… to Me (Mk. 3:34-35 and Lk 8:21). Paradoxical point: Jesus frees the disciples' minds of the confines of biological destiny and determinism so His Way all can be related to the Lord- if they do His will!

The Saints themselves awakened to, and embraced, paradoxes by moving to new levels of spiritual awareness, freeing the normally-trapped mental powers (the rational process), and linking all to Grace (assistance) and melding head-prowess with the heart-intuition, in a new way of thinking. So, Padre Pio, an unlearned man by our standards, could read souls and hearts of penitents to free them. St Joseph Cupertiono, basically a peasant and bumbler, levitated in ecstasy because of his humility. St Francis of Assisi, knight turned disciple, once prayed: "It is in giving that we receive and it is in dying that we awaken to eternal Life." The Saints remember that: "Wisdom teaches her children and gives help," and: "Your desire for wisdom will be granted" (Sir. 4:11, 6:37).

Western Catholics have a balanced, beautiful tradition -between head and heart, mind and intuition, brain and spiritual brawn, although we, too, can become too intellectual. This is where paradoxes and parables can clean and clarify the hindrances and confines of the mind. "Wisdom is radiant and unfading" (Wis 6:12). Are you being radiated by God's light to be enlightened?

Paradoxes free the mind to surrender. "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!" (Mk. 9:24 ). The mind, even though we need use it and is very powerful, cannot know everything, certainly not God Himself. Paradoxes also allure. Moses could see "part" of the Lord Yahweh, but not fully, thus increasing his desire for the Divine: "Do let me see Your beauty," Moses says, and the Lord responds: "I will make all My Beauty pass before you…But My Face you cannot see" (Ex. 33: 18-20). His Divine Manifestation increases desirous intensification for Him. Paradoxes, whether they're about a sinner become saint (Peter), or about dying to live (Jn 12:24-25), these liberating lessons mystify and reveal at the same time. Why does God do this? Why does He "speak in paradoxes?" Not to negate reason but to free it, because it can get prideful or sluggish, vain and lazy. King Herod was both attracted to, and beguiled by God's spokesman, St John the Baptist: "When he (Herod) heard him (St John) speak, he was very perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him" (Mk. 6:17). We all probably feel like that; our "job," though, is to enter into Jesus' Mind (Phil. 2:5) , the Kingdom and paradoxes more fully, lovingly and gracedly to be freed.

It is especially in St Luke's Gospel we see, paradoxically, people and systems that are subverted, turned upside down, as in this Sunday's Gospel. Jesus first calls people "blessed" who are poor…hungry…weeping…", and then goes on to say: " But woe to you who are rich…filled…laughing" (Lk. 6:17ff). Isn't it paradoxical that the most religious of people in Jesus' time, those most supposedly familiar with God and religious practices, are given "woes"-the scribes and Pharisees? Could it be the same with us Catholics-"insiders" who are so privileged and graced with the "Keys of the Kingdom" (Mt. 16:18ff)? To turn a phrase: "Don't be an inside trader/traitor"; rather, be begotten from above (Jn. 3:3).

Angelus Silesius, the Polish-priest poet, once wrote: "The Ineffable Reversal: All things are now reversed: The Castle is the cave,/ The crib becomes the throne, the night brings forth the day/ The Virgin bears a Child; Reflect, O Man, and say… That heart and mind must be reversed in every way."

Also, in Luke's Gospel we find Wisemen/Magi, outsiders becoming "insiders," the "First Worshippers". The Virgin Mary, of all people, says the poor (anawim) are favored while the rich will be thrown down from thrones (Lk. 1:52-53); this Virgin becomes a mother (1:31,34); a Samaritan-outcast becomes a heroic-example (10:29); the Thief on his cross becomes "good," receives forgiveness and enters eternal life (23:39-43). These paradoxes of Luke's Gospel liberate our normally static, moralistic, linear and en-caging thinking, by a moistening mystification of reversals, turns and twists-- by the Divine Preacher of Paradox. On one level we must try to understand Him and learn His liberating lessons; on another, more advanced level, we should mystically mature and become like Him-St Paul says: "I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20); we should not just understand Him but live like Him: "Master, How can we know the way to eternal life?' Jesus said: I Am the Way, the Truth, the Life" (Jn. 14: 6). Look: Parables of the Preacher should prick problematic poisons, prompting practical progress.

What to Do? : Meditate upon paradoxes and mysteries of the Faith-summarized in the following: Realize implies disguise. Realize-This means, as when St. Luke encourages Theophilus to "realize the certainty of the teachings you have received"… (1:3-4). Realize, here, means to awaken, bring to fulfillment, to actualize; it is an interior arousal of that-which-exists-already. It means, here (to Theophilus and us): open your eyes for The Real--God, Jesus as the Messiah, is near you. St Paul asks: "Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? (II Cor 13:5).

Implies: some things in life are subtle; they don't hit you over the head. Interior intimacy with God's word will teach you this. Subtlety is a master of the inner world, Begin to embrace this now.

Disguise: The Bible reports: The Lord is "undercover"- "God puts on skin," He visits us not always as we expect Him-but in a different way of being. He is the "Fugitive Prince" ("criminal" and "royal" all in one); He comes in the form of a beggar, a stranger, a prisoner ("I was hungry and you gave Me food; When you visited ME" -Mt. 25:35). We often don't look under our "spiritual noses" for Jesus, yet He challenges and often changes our way of seeing.

So, you see: St Luke was trying to awaken the "most excellent Theophilus" into believing-with clarity, no longer in figures of speech or with doubt-that Jesus Christ, God Himself, has visited the Earth. This preaching paradox elevates us out of unnerving duality to realize (amidst paradoxical circumstances) the Divine diffuses Himself in divers places.

The Lord wants us to search, reach and embrace Him and His teachings with all our heart, mind and soul (holistically) so as to be freed from sluggish thinking, pride and prejudice.

What are Some Ways?...Bible meditation-think over, within, the mysteries, to allow God's graces and your intellect. Take-make-an hour of prayer each day: "A good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing will be poured into your lap" (Lk. 6:38), and "Let the word dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16).

Mass and Sacraments: Consume Him-Eat His Flesh and Drink His Blood for Him to dwell IN you (Jn. 6:56).. Confession-Sweep clean your house, your soul within that evil may not exist there (Cf. Lk. 11:24ff) .Frequent Communion -Confession to commune with Him.

Prayer: "Go into your inner room, close the door, and speak to your Father in secret…and He will repay you" (Mt. 6:6). "Everything exposed by the light becomes visible" (Eph 5:13).

Living: This means constant conversion-"Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2),uniting with His abundant life (Jn. 10:10). Also, Cultivate Wonder: "Consider the birds of the air…Learn from the way wild flowers grow…" (Mt. 6: 26, 28). Our way of being must be freed, taught by God's ways, before evil thinking corrupted it. Be mystified by God's Mystery even when you cannot understand much-this will help you to "wonder" and prevent you from wandering from the Faith. Be like the wise sage who "is at home with the obscurities of parables" (Sir. 39:3; NRSV trans.) Doing all these things will help you to think as He does-"Let this Mind be in you which was in Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:5). Attune to the Divine Mind and see, think, feel and act anew!

Joseph Pieper, a famous scholar, summarized St Thomas Aquinas' thought and thinking, in a paradoxical, yet evocative way: "The man who does not use his reason will never get to that boundary beyond which reason really fails. In the work of St. Thomas all ways of creaturely knowing have been followed to the very end---to the boundary of mystery. And the more intensely we pursue these way of knowledge, the more is revealed to us---of the darkness, but also of the reality of mystery."

Now, for a Catholic interpretation of those koans: "Original Face" may mean godly, original beauty before defilement by sin. I.e. Confess sins to clean and Strive for blissful purity in all your thoughts words and deeds. "One hand clapping" can mean the purity of silence before annoying noise, and: Don't do with two hands which requires one, simple, silent hand. "Go into your inner room, lock the door, and pray to your Father in secret and your Father will repay you" (Mt. 6:6). i.e.-be one with God and thru prayer, meditation, purification, self/selfishness, sin will be removed and then the "sound of one hand," God-centered silence and sound will be heard and manifested. Also, think, as Jesus says: "He who hears you hears Me," and, like Mary, "magnify the Lord" (Lk. 1:46), by your purity and oneness with God.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi