Understanding and Misunderstanding

I’ve been re-reading a book by Caryll Houselander called The Reed of God, which is a really beautiful book filled with great insights into the spiritual life, with the Blessed Mother held up as the spiritual master par excellence.  In the chapter entitled “Fiat,” Houselander writes about the effect of our surrendering ourselves to the will of God, noting that it simultaneously brings both greater understanding and greater misunderstanding. 

Greater understanding comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit, whom the disciple of Christ welcomes into his/her heart.  This gift involves suffering, she writes, because “we shall be obliged to see the wound that sin has inflicted on the people of the world.  We shall have x-ray minds; we shall see through the bandages people have laid over the wounds that sin has dealt them.”  Along with this, “we shall see the Christ in others, and that vision will impose an obligation on us for as long as we live, the obligation of love; when we fail in it, we shall not be able to escape in excuses and distractions as we have done in the past; the failure will afflict us bitterly and always.”  The gift of understanding will also fill us with desire for the things of God, experienced as a kind of “homesickness” for Him. 

But there will also be greater misunderstanding.  She writes: “In proportion to our understanding we are likely to be misunderstood; the world does not accept Christ’s values.”  She describes the Beatitudes of Christ as madness in the eyes of the world, which prefers to elevate the comfortable, the cheerful, the respected, those who are always willing to compromise, the well-fed and bored.  “Blessed are they… for their reward will not be very great but they will never be unduly disturbed and they will never disturb the complacency of others.”  The misunderstanding of the world causes suffering for the disciple, especially when it comes from those who are close to us, family members, spouses, “who are [often] the most bewildered by the mystery of our surrender to the Holy Spirit.” 

This passage from Houselander’s book came to mind when I read today’s gospel, where Our Lord challenges the Pharisees with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).  The rich man lives a very comfortable life, enjoying fine clothes and banquets.  Lying on his doorstep was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who “would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”  The rich man is perfectly at home in the world.  There is no indication that he is an intentionally cruel man. He is simply blind to the afflicted man lying on his doorstep.  Both men die, with Lazarus being taken to the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man suffering torment in the netherworld.  He cries out for relief, asking that Lazarus be sent to give him just a drop of water to cool his tongue.  Abraham explains that this would be impossible, adding: “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”  Only from the netherworld does the rich man finally receive understanding.  Only from his place of eternal torment does he recognize Lazarus and speak his name.  

Fearful that his brothers will suffer the same fate, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus from the dead to warn them to repent and change their ways.  Abraham points out that they already have the testimony of Moses and the prophets.  The man protests: “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”  Abraham responds: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”  Unless their hearts are touched by grace and they respond with faith, they will meet even the testimony of one raised from the dead with misunderstanding. 

The Lord is always reaching out to us, inviting us to allow Him into our hearts so that He can transform us into what He made us to be.  Like Our Lady’s “Fiat,” when we respond to Him by saying, “let it be done,” it will bring us joy but also a feeling of unease with the ways of the world.  More clearly we will see how our sins affect other people as well as ourselves.  More clearly we will see the terrible effects that the sins of others have on them and those around them.  And we will want to ask the Lord to help us to love them as He loves them, even when there’s painful misunderstanding, never doubting the power of God’s grace to touch the hearts of sinners, including and especially ourselves.  We will also ask the Lord to help us to love ourselves as He loves us, and join Him in desiring more for ourselves than the world offers, seeking rest only in the bosom of the Most Holy Trinity. 

A portrait of Caryll Houselander (1901-1954) by an artist named Bede

posted 3/4/21

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