Meeting Paradox – Falling in Love
From: RADICAL GRACE
(Center for Action and Contemplation)
Vol. 20, No. 3 July-August-September 2007
Pages 10 – 11.
For all of our strivings to place ourselves lovingly in the service of others in the way of Jesus, we can often encounter our own limitations and a sense that our actions have not always been consistent with our deeper values, hopes and desires. Despite our best efforts we often feel like we have failed to be in authentic loving service.
We are unsettled by the deep cries of anguish of those to whom we strive to open our hearts. We struggle to bear witness to their pain. Our best strivings require conscious commitment, a disciplined will, careful and rational choices, honesty and a sense of purpose, and we often fail to maintain this. We become overly preoccupied with particular aspects of our work, too easily fatigued, impatient with the failings of our colleagues, angered by our organizations, and even frustrated with what we perceive as the slow response, even resistance, from those we lovingly strive to serve. We distract ourselves with busyness to keep at bay the inner doubt that we are entertaining contradictions and are not keeping faith with our inmost truth.
My experience of living with contradiction came to a head for me one day when I was out walking and came across a person who was homeless. I was trying to clear my head so as to finish a conference paper, ironically on the theme of “Opening Our Hearts, so as to be in Solidarity with People of the Edge.” The man’s presence adjacent to my walking path irritated me. I would have preferred to walk by him unnoticed. I resolved to offer him a small amount of money so as to minimize contact, and to be on my way as quickly as possible; after all, I was very busy. I still remember with embarrassment the way his head dropped and how he said in a muffled voice, “I don’t accept money.” I had just witnessed stigma—and it had occurred at my own hands.
I wanted to develop an open heart, particularly to those at society’s edge. However I also had an urge to protect myself from the stranger. I felt guilty for such contradictory impulses. Yet, when I attempted to make amends and sat with this man after collecting some food and coffee, a strange and unexpected thing happened. As I mumbled an apology to the man, he said to me, “No. Today you have been the Good Samaritan.” I responded feeling totally ashamed, “I have been anything but that.” This time it was my head that dropped. He replied: “My Father tells me you are the Good Samaritan.” In that moment, I met paradox.
Paradox is when but in our thinking changes to and. It means holding the tension that I am both open-hearted and self-protective. This is not a weakness; it is to name what is most real. It is to gently carry open-heartedness in my left hand, self-protectiveness in my right, and to humbly wait with the living Christ, the true holder of contradictions, until the point of healing emerges.
In my experience with the person who was homeless, humbly acknowledging the desires for both openness and self-protection created the shift from contradiction to paradox. But first my ego needed to be destabilized to engage with the deeper truth. The incident and the gentle response of this homeless man certainly did that! He was then able to point me to something greater than both of us, to the author of the parable of the Good Samaritan, to the one whose strength is enough for me, and whose power is able to work in my weakness.1 As the Crucified and Risen One present to me through his servant, the homeless man, held my contradictions, these same contradictions were transformed and presented back to me as paradox.
It was an incredibly humbling experience. It gave me an opportunity for ongoing growth and allowed me to continue to offer myself to the service of others without having to carry the tiring illusion that I was whole within myself. I discovered that I had more in common with the person who was homeless than I had first realized, and that in fact I was not fully “at home” within myself. And perhaps it was this knowing, and his acknowledging this struggle for me, that enabled him to call me “good.”
In coming face to face with my contradictions, and through being held there, I opened up space within for my inmost truth. Contradictions can crowd into my life, noisily filling up my inner rooms with their loud banter. I cannot ignore or banish these conflicting tensions, as life itself is contradictory.2 But as Jesus holds these contradictions for me and offers me paradox, these tensions can be reconciled within the deeper inner symbolic rooms of my heart or soul. As the poet Rilke encourages in his Book of Hours:
Whoever reconciles the many
contradictions of his life,
gratefully gathering them into one symbol,
expels the noisy crowd from his abode
and in a different kind of festive mood
receives you as his guest on gentle evenings.
Acknowledging and holding paradox creates an inner silence, stillness, serenity and gentleness. This inner stillness encourages me to let go of my strivings, especially my more frantic efforts to extend my capacity for loving service. Recognizing the one who holds my contradictions, and accepting that his power is able to work in my weakness, I am freed to attend more closely to what is directly in front of me. It encourages me to work from a far less self conscious self, and to look more gently and lovingly at what is before me; at what is real.
It is to gently carry open-heartedness in my left hand,
self-protectiveness in my right, and to humbly wait
with the living Christ, the true holder of contradictions,
until the point of healing emerges.
When our response to others remains just an activity of the mind, we are in danger of being captured by ideologies and even by false images of ourselves in “loving service.” We are encouraged to invest in outcome-driven service and to become performance-driven, yet to base our efforts only on tangible outcomes can lead to a loss of hope, especially in our times when little seems to shift despite our good and highly conscious efforts. Worse still, we become increasingly immobilized by our contradictions. We can try to hide them, but that usually means blindly projecting them, along with our failing commitments, onto others. It is humbling to know that we cannot expel our contradictions. But the living Christ will act for us, holding them in his person, even opening a place of restful holding within us.
Human consciousness extends well beyond mindful activity. Its highest levels have to do with love. If consciousness has to do with love, and what we are seeking is loving service, then it is also relational. It is at once both tough-minded and tender-hearted.3 At its peak it is something greater that we fall into rather than something we access through our own strivings. And the greater relationship we fall into gently holds both our love and our contradictions in wholesome paradox and even opens up a place of both presence and witness deep within us. This dimension is far more mysterious and yields little to direct analysis and linguistic expression. Maybe it is more in the realm of poetry. One brief poetic glimpse comes from long ago through the lament of St. Augustine,
Too late I came to love thee, O thou Beauty both so
ancient and so fresh, yea, too late
I came to love thee. And behold, thou wast
within me, and I out of myself, where I made
search for thee.
The highest levels of human consciousness are offered to us from the place where the Spirit of God makes it’s home within us, where the Spirit of Christ ‘and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God’.4 Jesus invites us to bring our fears and burdensome contradictions into a place of rest, and through his gentle and humble heart guides us into this deep place of abiding presence which he calls “rest for your souls.”5 From this place of presence, of rest and firmer identity, it becomes possible to be more fully myself. I am able to offer more of my being, along with my un-wholeness and my contradictions, in the service of others. Part of the task of loving service in the way of Jesus is to know that contradictions, both my own and those of others, can be held for us. In this holding they are transformed into gentle paradox and invited to the places already set for them as humble guests around the table of inner reconciliation. Here they become sources, not of judgment but of healing; seeds, not of fragmentation but of wholeness, even holiness.
1. 2 Corinthians 12:9.
2. Adapted from Brother David Steindl-Rast.
3. Matin Luther King from Matthew 10:16.
4. Romans 8:9 & 16.
5. Matthew 11:28-30.
An earlier version of this article appeared in: Brown, Christopher. (2004). “Falling Into Love”; CRUcial Times, Issue 29. Brisbane, Australia: Community Resource Unit Inc. (Reprinted with permission from Community Resource Unit).