Friday, September 19, 2014

The Gift of Vulnerability

"[God] will not find us at the center of our certainties. That is not where the Lord looks. He will find us on the margins, in our sins, in our mistakes, in our need for spiritual healing, for salvation; that is where the Lord will find us”.

This quote from Pope Francis is one to which the preacher on my recent silent retreat referred several times.

The "margins" of our hearts are the places where we stand in need of God's mercy, and we know it, but dang, we don't really like it.

Ironically, these are the places most people expend enormous energy in order to hide from others, from their own meditation, or hope they can hide from God. Our sorry stock of shame is exactly where God is attracted, exactly where He is hoping most to be admitted. It's where we are most painfully in need.

The margins of our hearts are where we are vulnerable.

I've had an interesting and varied relationship with vulnerability in my almost-47 years. But currently I realize that I have both a natural propensity for it, and I've also exercised it to the point where I am OK with being vulnerable. What is most interesting to me is that I have only now realized that this not something to hate about myself; is a gift, and something to be desired for growth in the spiritual life.

I've certainly spent a lot of time hating myself for getting in vulnerable situations and feeling needy. Of course, it hasn't helped that a lot of normal things make me feel that way! I have beaten myself up over how much it seems everything in my life has required courage. Everything! It has always seemed that things that came so easily to everyone else made me feel so terribly vulnerable.

A few decades ago I lived in an old apartment building that grew gigantic icicles in the winter. One day I watched one of these glisten on my fire escape: snow, melting from heat escaping from the poorly insulated roof, dripped down the icicle's side and hovered at the tip and froze there. I mused that its point of greatest vulnerability to breaking was also where it was growing and becoming what it was.

We are people, though, not icicles. The only way vulnerability can become a moment of growth is when you choose to step forward into that vulnerable state and find that not only are you not crushed, but you are safe. Completely safe. And the only way to step forward, I have found, is a combination of trust or faith in God (more-or-less specifically) or in the goodness inherent in the unknown factors involved. There is also something to be said simply for cumulative experiences of risk-taking. You leap across a rickety bridge, and each sure step gives you the courage to take another that you hope will also support you long enough to keep hopping.

And you know what? There are times when one steps out in faith into a vulnerable position and you free fall for a little bit. It doesn't feel safe at all. You have to seriously consider whether you just made a terrible, awful mistake. There is no immediate reward of a sense of safety. There is only faith, and the assurance faith gives you can be like a vaguely flickering light. This might last for weeks, months, or years. It kinda sucks.

But then the pieces come together, the lights come on, and you see all the risk and faith was perfectly reasonable.

I think if I were to watch my life like a movie running from God's perspective, I might see the action  differently. I think I would see the Holy Spirit orchestrating opportunity after opportunity to answer my desire to be drawn close to God. To God, the lights are always on. And He constantly sends the message: Trust Me. Be brave. Step forward. Yes, you feel all a mess because, in places, you are a mess. But I madly love you, and want to enter all that mess, all those margins, with My mercy. And then you can go and be My mercy to others so they might receive it, too.

When we feel accompanied in a place of our vulnerability, our hearts open wide. God's mercy is able to enter, and tremendous things result. Old pains are healed. We realize we are lovable and we can start to bask in being loved. Our thinking and our actions change as a result. We experience conversion.

But something else can happen when third parties witness experiences of vulnerability in others. This stirs up their own sense of vulnerability, from which they are busy hiding themselves. When these people start to feel their vulnerability, instead of feeling accompanied by witnessing God's mercy to a soul, they feel alone and left out. They shut down. They harden. They hunker down in their position of rejecting God's mercy and love or snap themselves out of any faint stirrings they felt towards openness and receiving. They push others away with layers of whatever they protect themselves with. They may resort to expressions of hatred, ridicule, and violence, or more respectable responses like indifference, eye-rolling, or the pursuit of distractions. Anything but the courage to believe that God's mercy is for them, too.

Sometimes I struggle to respect the delicate space where others hide their vulnerability. I have exercised so much courage, sometimes rather gruffly, for myself, that I forget that I cannot come ramming at full steam into the heart and life of another. And perhaps more often than not, fear of my own "full steam" will cause me to stall out before I get to the place where I can actually be of help to someone who desires it from me.

Because surely God has not tutored me with this bizarre gift that I railed against and rejected for so long just for the fun of it. Everything God gives to each one is for everyone.

So show me, Lord, how you gave me this for someone else. Or, at least make it a benefit for someone else, whether I see it or not.

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