helps us-with us-in our place
I always make a point of pointing out that on most Sundays throughout Ordinary Time the second reading, which is usually from St. Paul, has nothing to do with the first reading, which is usually from the Hebrew scriptures, or with the Gospel, because those readings are on separate cycles. So we usually look in vain for anything but a remote connection between the three. It’s the first reading by way of the responsorial psalm that points ahead to the Gospel, like today, there’s the theme brought out to us in the 1st reading from the book of Wisdom (12:13-19) and especially in the responsorial psalm (Psalm 86) that is meant to lead us into the Gospel (Mt 13:34-43)––that God is good and forgiving, as we sang. Wisdom tells us that God is patient, God is lenient, clement; God is good. But there is also a subtle underlying assumption in the Gospel that coincides with that: not only that God is good but that we are good, too! It almost goes without saying that it follows that if we are in the image of God and God is good–-then we are good. Did you ever notice how often the Hebrew Scriptures are condemning the sinner, casting out sinners, especially the psalms. But Jesus never casts out sinners, never attacks sinners (outside of the religious hypocrites); Jesus attacks sin. God is good and forgiving, and we are good, made in God’s image. Jesus doesn’t cast out sinners; he casts out demons, and seeks out sinners, and sends his disciples, too, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
But also today, even if it’s only incidental or co-incidental, there actually is a key for me in the second reading from the Letter to the Romans that can unlock something in the Gospel. Paul is famous for twisting Greek words around to get them to mean what he wants them to mean, and even sometimes for inventing words if he can’t find the right one. And he does that today with this word syn-anti-lambanetai––the Spirit helps us-with us-in our place. In other words, the Spirit does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In this section from Chapter 8, St. Paul is specifically referring to prayer––probably the most sublime teaching on prayer in the Bible: because we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit syn-anti-lambanetai–helps us-with us-in our place––but this notion of the place of and the work of the Holy Spirit is actually a recurrent theme throughout the letter to the Romans.
At the risk of seeming to contradict Jesus’ interpretation of his own parable, the field onto which the seed is sown is not only the world; we could also think of the field as the ground of our own being. I like to imagine the human person at birth as a freshly tilled garden, and the ground of our being is like a field ready for planting. There is something pristine and beautiful and fertile about who we are, our nature, our natural state. And at least the Roman Catholic tradition insists that that nature, our nature, is good. Even if it gets corrupted, misdirected, wounded, it’s still basically good, because we are created good, in God’s own image. We’re like a blank canvas. And things get planted onto this virgin field of the ground of our beautiful, naked, pristine beings, like seeds. Some seeds get planted there by God and the followers of God, other things get planted there by our culture and our families, and some get planted there by shysters in farmer’s clothing. And the point of this parable seems to be that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Some things that seem to be good, or at least not harmful, at the outset wind up turning into weeds. But I want to insist again: it’s not the ground, the soil, that is bad. Paul teaches us this too in the same letter to the Romans, Chapter 7: My inner being agrees with the law of God but I do not do what I want but what I hate. But, he says, it is not really me who does it; actually he says twice, it is not really me who does it, but sin that dwells in me. I actually delight in the law of God in my inmost self, he says, my real self, which he says in another place is hidden with Christ in God. And that inmost self is the ground, the dough. But something comes between our ordinary consciousness and our inmost self; and other things get planted in our inmost self that are not from God––weeds, not wheat that keep us from our real self hidden with Christ in God. Good seeds get planted there in this freshly tilled garden of the ground of our being––love, respect, talents, industriousness, joie de vivre; but also, perhaps unbeknownst to us, not-so-good seeds get planted there as well. Think of children in war torn countries; children raised in poverty; children raised in abusive, dysfunctional homes, through no fault of their own. No wonder God is so merciful.
In some way what we are doing in the spiritual life, in the ascetical life, both individually and as a community, is, as the Preface for saints says, recalling “humankind to its first innocence,” re-tilling the soil of our being, starting the work of the harvest, and binding up a lot of the weeds through compunction in anticipation of the great day when we face the Merciful Judge. As an intentional community too, it as if we’re deconstructing ordinary everyday life in the marketplace, in “the world,” stripping down to the basics and starting all over again, in the desert, in the wilderness. But the important thing to remember is that we don’t have to––indeed we cannot––do it on our own! We’re cooperating with the work that God has begun in us. Notice that Paul never boasts of his perfection, nor of his holiness, nor of his mystical union. He boasts of his weakness! As a matter of fact, he says in Romans 7, What a wretched man I am! Who will save me? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ and his Spirit poured into our hearts who helps us-with us-in our place. We are constantly calling upon the grace from beyond, the Power-Greater-Than-Ourselves, the Holy Spirit who is both the inner and outer teacher. We are called to a kind of perfection, but it is unreachable. How can we do it? We can’t do it. That’s the point. But God can! The Spirit helps us-with us-in our place, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
We are both enough and not enough. We are enough in the sense that we are created in the image of God, good. Our nature, even though fragile and wounded and weak, is still intrinsically good, but it’s not enough. We need a power greater than ourselves. We need to empty ourselves completely and wait for the grace of God. And when and if we do, the Spirit will help us-with us-in our place, like yeast in the dough that makes the whole dough rise. Without the Spirit of God we are just fallow ground; with the Spirit of God wheat grows! With the Spirit of God the tiniest seed of the reign of God becomes the tallest of shrubs in the ground of our being. The problem is we try to do it without God! We’re both enough and not enough. Without the Spirit of God nothing good dwells in our flesh, as Paul reminds us; it simply rots and goes the way of all creation subject to futility. But with the Spirit of God––we are no longer just psykikos or sarkikos, of the soul or of the flesh––we are pneumatikos, of the spirit. And Paul says that if the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, like yeast in the dough, then the whole dough will rise. If the Spirit of God is planted in you, Paul says, like seed on tilled fertile ground, what a harvest that would be! And that was the whole message of Pentecost, that the love of God is poured into our hearts (Paul says in Romans 5) by the Spirit living in us, like yeast in the dough, like a seed that falls to the ground and dies and yields a rich harvest. God is good and we are good, and the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us, helping us-with us–in our place, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
And lastly, the main point of this snippet from the letter to the Romans, this is fundamental to our worship, prayer and meditation. Maybe I shouldn’t project this on to everyone here, but I want to say we monks are always looking for (at least as a young monk I was always looking for) the perfect technique, the perfect posture, the right formula. All those things can be of great benefit and I would be the last one to discount anything we can do to cooperate with the grace of God. But as Fr. Bede Griffiths told someone once, “You are not the subject of prayer and God is not the object. God is the subject of prayer.” That is just reiterating what Paul is very clear about here. The Spirit prays in us, helps us-with us-in our place. Not that we are completely passive in the whole thing; the whole corpus of scripture ends in the Book of Revelation with the Spirit and the Bride saying together, Maranatha. But still what we are meant to do is unite ourselves to Jesus’ own prayer, Abba, which Paul tells us the Holy Spirit is forever humming our hearts, poured into us like love, like yeast in the dough of our being, like a seed on the fertile ground of our being. What we really need to do is get out of the way, empty ourselves and sit waiting––content with the grace of God, ‘til it is I, no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
God is good, and we are good, and God wants to help us-with us-in our place. And God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us, helping us-with us-in our place, like yeast in the dough. And Jesus, especially, is helping us, in-our-place in the Paschal Mystery and on the Cross, and with-us in this feast at the Table of the Word and Sacrament, and because we are gathered in his name.