The Question

In The Shattered Lantern, Ronald Rolheiser quotes Dag Hammarskjöld:

I don’t know Who—or what—put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

When I read this, I immediately jumped in time and space to the memory of the morning of a retreat several years ago where faith found me. The poster behind the speaker was the name of his talk, “God’s Friendship.” I was sitting there kind of dumbfounded and saying to myself, “Hmmm, I never thought of it that way before.” It is not like I had not heard the saying before. That one particular moment was a moment of grace where I was open to see something in a new way. (By the way, that is one definition for grace, seeing things in a new way.) It opened me up further to see and accept the speaker and his words in a new way. By the end of the talk, I could say yes to faith.

After stepping out of this memory, my first thought was misleading, “This was where I remembering hearing the question.” My second thought was slightly off the mark too, “No, the question had been asked many times before in many different ways. This is where I remember saying yes.” The third thought struck true, “This is where I said yes and meant it.” Something was different this time. The seed had landed not on the path or among the rocks, but in good soil and it started to take root. I wanted it. Faith is a gift. It is freely given. I believe it is always being offered. It can only be received. You cannot take it, or fake it. But you can receive it if you honestly want it.

I keep forgetting this. Existence is meaningful. There is purpose to my life regardless of what meaning and purpose I assign it. I am yours Father, and that should be enough. It is enough. Thank You for the gift of faith.

I think it was Thomas Merton in New Seeds for Contemplation who talks about how doubt shifts. He describes doubt moving from the existence of God to oneself. The doubts concerning God and His promises always seem to remain, greatly diminished perhaps, but the focus of doubts switches from the external to the internal, to you and your abilities, to your faith or lack of it, to your hope or lack of it, to your love or lack of it, to you and your openness to accept grace, and ultimately salvation.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the narrator has a dream of visiting hell where he observes people wallowing in their own selfishness, obsessions, and attachments to earthly things. He along with a few fortunate individuals who are not yet too lost within themselves are transported to the lushious green fields outside of heaven. Off in the distant east is a mountain range where the sun is just about to rise. The narrator and his traveling companions are like ghostly whisps of smoke here on the edge of heaven. They are not yet real enough, solid enough, to enter. The ghostly people do not even weigh enough to bend the grass under their feet. Each blade of grass pokes painfully into their feet on each step. The narrator tries to pick up a leaf, but it is too heavy, too real for him to lift.

Solid, bright and illumuninous people approach the ghostly people from the direction of the mountain range. Each ghostly person recognizes one of the bright solid people who, after conversing for awhile, invite them to cross over into heaven. Everyone one of the ghostly people struggles with this choice. Each must choose to let go of their own selfishness, obsessions, and attachments to earthly things. Some choose to let go and begin to move in the direction of the mountains in the east, slowly turning into solid, real people as they go. Some do not, and turn inward on themselves instead of reaching out.

I doubt my ability to make this choice, to let go of earthy things for heaven. I do not know if my deepest desire to see the face of God is greater than my selfishness, my pride, my attachments. I hope it is, but I don’t know for certain. Is my urge to reach outward stronger than the urge to withdraw inward? One leads to heaven, the other to hell. One is love, the other is not.

I know that Lewis’s story is a literary device and powerful symbol. There is not one big choice made after death. No, that choice is made by all the little choices over the course of a life time. And no, God is not an accountant god talleying up all the choices to make sure the good outnumber the bad. It goes back to something like the Hammarskjöld quote above—did I answer “yes” to the question? Do I still try to answer yes each day?

There is a painting and a semi-famous icon based on scripture of Jesus knocking on a door of a dark house. The weeds have grown up around the door and it has no handle. The door can only be opened from the inside. It is dark outside except for the light eminating from Jesus’ himself. The scene poses the question: will the person inside open the door when Jesus calls? Only the person behind the door has the power of the choice, to open the door or not, to answer “yes” to His question. (And love waits patiently for the answer.)

But what if the person behind the door wants to open it but cannot? What if he or she is so paralyzed by fear or bounded by their slavery to attachments that he or she cannot get up from the middle of the floor to reach the door? What if the terror is so much that he or she cannot even call out for help?

I do not know the answer to these questions, but faith reminds me of the Apostles in the upper room. The door was locked too that one morning when they were hiding and afraid. And Jesus appeared to them within the room. No locked door stopped Him because He knew their answers in their hearts. He knew. And He came.

Near the end of The Shattered Lantern, Rolheiser tells this story.

There is a contemporary parable about a Cretan peasant, a man who deeply loved his life and work. He enjoyed tilling the soil, feeling the warm sun on his naked back as he worked in the fields, and feeling the dirt under his feet. He loved the planting, the harvesting, the very smell of nature. He loved espeically his wife, his children and his friends., and enjoyed being with them, eating together, drinking wine, talking, making love, and simply being united in a shared life. And he loved Crete, his tiny country. The earth, the sky, the seas, it was his!

One day he sensed that death was near. He was not afraid of the beyond, for he had lived a good life. No. But he feared leaving Crete, his wife, his children, his friends, his home, and his land. As he prepared to die, he grasped a few grams of soil from his beloved Crete in his hand and told his loved ones to bury him with it.

He died, awoke, and found himself at heaven’s gate, the soil still in his hand and heaven’s gate firmly barred against him. Eventually St. Peter came through the heavenly gates and addressed him: “You’ve lived a good life, and we have a place for you inside, but you cannot enter unless you drop that handful of soil.” “Why? Why must I let go of this soil? I will not! What’s inside those gates I don’t know. But this soilI know—it’s my life, my wife, my work, my family, it’s all that I know and love, it’s Crete! I will not let go!”

A silent Peter left him and closed the large gates behind him. There seemed little point in arguing with the peasant. Several minutes later, the gates opened a second time and this time a very young child emerged. She did not try to reason with the man, nor did she try to coax him into letting go of the soil in his hand. She simply took his hand and, as she did, the soil of Crete spilled to the ground. Then she led him through the gates of heaven. A shock awaited the man as he entered heaven. There before him lay all of Crete.

The man had answered “yes” to the question. He may not have explicitly stated it, but he lived it in his love for family, friends, the land, and for life. The Apostles said yes too, even though they themselves had abandoned their Friend in His hour of glory.

I hope to live my “yes” to You. You are the question. You are the answer. Please help me continue to say yes. Help me to live my yes. Help me be the yes.