Thursday, July 3, 2008

To follow and live...

Several months ago, Sharon gave me this phrase, "follow and live," as a response to my questions about what to do in a confusing and ambiguous set of circumstances I face. These words struck me with the force of a ten pound hammer to the heart, and I have repeated them to myself often when I needed to strike a match in a particularly dark tunnel.

My recent meditations on words, though, made me think again about this phrase: how deeply do I really understand it? Perhaps the strength that it has had in my life is only a fraction of the power that it might have if I would only do the work to penetrate it more deeply? When Sharon asked her question about words and meaning this week, I knew that this was exactly the invitation to explore the meaning of this phrase, to make a commitment to it, to follow it where it might lead.

About a year and a half ago, something quite dramatic happened to me that pulled me up short and made me realize how little I understand the way in which Fr. Giussani uses the word, "freedom." Such was my need to discover what he means by "freedom," that I looked the word up in the index of each of his books that we own, copied out all the passages in which he uses "freedom," and then read them and reread them with attention. This work, that was undertaken to address an urgent question in my life at the time, was so fruitful for me, in so many unexpected ways! And so, I decided to use the same method with the word, "follow;" but alas (!) this word is not indexed in any of my books! This problem, in turn, forced me to search for other words that I thought might be related to following, and I chose "adhering," "authority," and "obedience." The work of slowly reading each book, to find the word "following," will have to wait for another time.

One thing that impresses me about the word "follow" is how Christ uses it in the parable of the good shepherd in the Gospel of John. "The good shepherd calls his sheep by name... and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger...I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep..." (John 10). This mutual knowing that Jesus describes is far deeper than what we usually take for knowledge; in the Bible, when two people know each other, such is the fecundity of the relationship that it ordinarily gives rise to a new life. Father Giussani makes a reference to this phenomenon of God calling by name:
When God turns to man to ask something of him, the Bible describes the dialogue with sublime simplicity. God calls by name, which is the sign of the person as a unique and free individual; and the person's adherence is free and unique: 'here I am!' In Christianity, the only thing that matters is the value of the person, because everything else depends on this; and the value of the person is measured by that free adherence... Perhaps the most understandable and clearest moment for us is the figure of the Blessed Virgin. 'Ave Maria -- Fiat': In the impenetrable free intimacy of this gesture of offering and acceptance lies the cornerstone of God's mysterious encounter with the human person. (Journey to Truth..., 15)
There is a fundamental connection between first being called, then knowing the Voice of the One who is calling, and then following/adhering. And what strikes me now, as I think again about Christ's words about the good shepherd, is that this movement -- calling by name, knowing, following -- leads to a new call: the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. There was no greater sign of adhesion to humanity that Christ's free offering of himself on the cross; but in the phrase, "lay down my life for...," is also contained the sense of giving one's whole life, including the living portion. Christ not only poured himself out for us through his death, but also through his Incarnation and later through his continued Presence with us now, through the gift of the Spirit. His whole life has been laid down for us, and this gift of himself poses the strongest call and invitation we can receive. In front of such a gift, we must be moved! Adherence and following flow from the recognition of Who is calling us and also from the recognition of the precise nature of the call.

So many times, during preparation for First Holy Communion, I have read the parable of the true vine with groups of children. What always strikes us is the number of times Christ uses the word "abide" or "remain" (depending on your translation). Jesus is so urgent on this point! Fr. Giussani's understanding of adherence gains new depth, when it is placed beside the parable of the true vine:
Personal Adherence: Our duty is to make ours all those things with which God lavishes His generous and deep love upon us. This is precisely how our personality develops, and this is called 'work.' This is all the more so when we are dealing with live and spiritual beings. We are called to discover their presence, to accept their person, to make their reality a part of ours; in a word, we are called to 'share' in their existence and ours, to 'share our life' (convivere) with them. This is the 'work' through which our personality becomes completely mature. It is called love. (Journey to Truth..., 25)
Christ's urgent invitation is to "remain in [his] love..." and he compares our remaining in him to his own remaining in the Father, who remains also in him. Then he gives us the "new" commandment: that we love one another as he has loved us.

Here is one other passage from Fr. Giussani on adherence:
We must live this Reality [the mystery of the visible Church], commit ourselves wholly to it; that is enter it and compare all its movements, motives, and directives with the ultimate needs of our humanity. And insofar as we discover that those suggestions, those directives, those initiatives respond to our authentic human needs and help us to understand them, our adherence and conviction will be deep and definitive. So it is not a matter of studying theology or forming a group, it involves everything, all of life, because the proposal comes to us and meets us as a new life. To be 'convinced' means that the totality of our 'I' is bound to something: thus shall we all be bound to that Reality. That Reality will become us and we shall sense that we are that Reality...Whoever does not undergo this verification process will remain a Christian, but have nothing new to say, or else will simply leave. (Journey to Truth..., 98)
In love, if we bind ourselves in love, if we adhere to Reality in love, "That Reality will become us and we shall sense that we are that Reality." This seems to me to be the essence of what it means to "follow and live."


clairity said...

It's always interesting to hear your words come back at you. It requires another comparison. And, yes, it's still true. In fact, it's an ongoing work.

You'll love this. The other day I went to Mass badly needing to adhere again, to follow and live. The Gospel was so clear it was as if spoken directly into my ear. I have been carrying the words since as a summons: "Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead." I realized for the first time that it's not just about a burial, but about those who aren't really living doing things that aren't really life, because only with Christ is life.

Freder1ck said...

This is a remarkable thing, Sharon. I once thought the words were so tired that I couldn't bear to hear them even once every three years. And now it's like I am hearing them for the first time. And it's not just the new perspectives and insights, but the words themselves have a depth that's beyond me, and the depth remains even though I can't grasp the total meaning.

Suzanne said...

thanks for these responses. They help me a lot.