They've Found Out, Run! or Rilke's Book of Hours: Whitterings, June 2007

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
II Corinthians 12. 7-10

Christians are marked by their particular emphasis on the strength of weakness: the weakness of the incarnation of God as a helpless infant, the weakness of Christ as a nomadic non-violent preacher instead of a mighty warrior king, the weakness of the Messiah crucified and dying as a common criminal, the weakness of the command to love our enemies, and the weakness of faith as submission to the will of God in meekness and humility. Yet even for those who understand weakness in these terms, St Paul’s assertion that “when I am weak, then I am strong” is often difficult to relate to.

In our society we are expected to be always strong, and not only strong but also rich, clever, beautiful, sexually appealing, funny and most of all successful. Every advertisement emphasises the need to fulfil these unrealistic goals. We relate to events as successes or failures. We relate to people as making the grade or falling short of it. We attach impact reports to projects and have formulas for arriving at realistic viability projections. I believe that many of these things are necessary and even helpful for good management and stewardship. Without them we lower the standards to the realm of mediocrity. However, as a spiritual outlook, a success based value system is deadly. The reason is simple: if we feel we must always be strong and successful then we do not rely on the grace of God to sustain us but on our own will. It is the ancient heresy of Pelangianism fought against so passionately by St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century. The Prophet Malachi reminds us that no one can stand on their own merit before God; “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”. The Psalmist in Psalm 130 also reminds us of the same thing “If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it?” as does St John in his first letter “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

We know in our minds that we are only justified and able to approach God because of our redemption by Christ. Atonement theology, in all of its various forms, is a working out of this one belief. Yet even those of us who know this do not necessarily feel it. I have long known that I am a Pelagian workaholic that tries to justify myself and my ministry by the production of good works.

I believe many of us forget more often than we remember it, that it is the grace of God alone that frees us and makes us able to accept love and forgiveness. From youth we have learned to hide our weakness and mask our failures. We struggle with anxiety about how other people perceive us and worry whether they like us or respect us. We wonder if those who say they love us actually do. Part of us thinks that if they really know who we were they would turn away. The former Primus of Scotland, The Most Reverend Richard Holloway, used to say that if you leaned over to a stranger in the street and whispered urgently “They’ve found out! Run!”, most would. These fears are the chains that bind us and keep us from taking chances, the fears that keep us from reaching out to others.

Ich bin nur einer deiner Ganzgeringen

No one lives his life.

Disguised since childhood,
haphazardly assembled
from voices and fears and little pleasures,

we come of age as masks.
Our true face never speaks.

Somewhere there must be storehouses
where all these lives are laid away
like suits of armour or old carriages
or clothing hanging limply on the walls.

Maybe all paths lead there,
to the repository of unlived things.
From The Book of Hours: The Book of Pilgrimage, II.xi, 1899-1903 by Rainer Maria Rilke

I believe the Christian path of Transformation, The Way as Christianity was called in the earliest church, is to come to realise with our hearts what we already know in our minds: that we are loved by God just as we are. That there is nothing we can do, nothing, that will make him love us any more or any less and that the same is true for your worst enemy. Often this transformation can only come when we have been battered to within an inch of our limit. Complete and utter failure and humiliation is often the greatest of gifts as it opens our hearts to need help, to need love, to need forgiveness. This desperate, overwhelming desire is the way to ask, it is the way to knock at the door. “Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you.” The only reason it seems that what we are asking for is not given is that we ask in the wrong way, the asking, the way to knock upon the door, is to drop the pretence that we can justify ourselves or make ourselves worthy of love and forgiveness, the way to ask is to speak out from behind the mask. Psalm 51 tells us “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise”.

St James is perceptive in his letter when he reminds us to be thankful for trials and worldly failures. This weakness helps us realise our real weakness. When we realise that we can not do it ourselves, and that we need the Lord, then we are free.

Wenn etwas mir vom Fenster fallt

How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the hearts of the world.

Each thing –
each stone, blossom, child –
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.

This is what things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.
From The Book of Hours: The Book of Pilgrimage, II.xvi, 1899-1903 by Rainer Maria Rilke

Many people hide their weakness, they hide their failures. They are ashamed because they are not beautiful and sexy, cleaver and witty, wealthy and powerful. They also are afraid because they know deep down that they are guilty. These people hide in the shadows because they are afraid. There are children of the light, who I believe are few, and there are also children of the dark, which I also believe are few, then there are the children of the shadows – those who have not yet made a choice, and they are legion.

"And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God."
St John 3.19-21

We, however, are the redeemed, the children of God. We may be ugly, poor, lame and blind. We may lack power or respect, and we may be foolish and awkward. We may be weak. The difference is that for us none of this matters. We are not afraid to be seen in the light of God, we are not ashamed by our weakness, we glorify in it. We do not despair of our own death for we know he lives in us and we have our life only in him. We know that in the eyes of God we are beautiful and attractive, we are forgiven, we are loved, for we are the redeemed. “Once you are loved you can never be ugly, except to those who do not understand.”

"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you."
II Corinthians 4. 7-12