On offer is freedom from ourselves, for a God who fills. To trust–that God present in this–can turn the pain, where there has to be pain, from death-throes into the pangs of birth. (Ian Matthew, The Impact of God, p.87)
I sat in church yesterday, once again befuddled by God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only and beloved son on an altar. I scanned my memory for anything I may have learned in graduate school that might help me make sense of this event and listened carefully to the sermon in hopes of some revelation but none came. It was and remains a mystery. It makes no sense to me that God would “test” Abraham whom he dearly loved or that he desired Isaac to live with him in heaven as an angel and so would ask Abraham and Sarah to endure what could be the greatest pain of their lives.
And then this morning I read the words of St. John the Cross in Matthew’s book. St. John describing the spiritual journey out of darkness into light tells us that the only way through is to “make an altar of oneself…for a sacrifice of love.” Immediately I thought of Abraham in the middle of nowhere being asked to sacrifice his son.
Perhaps the story’s beauty and purpose lies in it not making any sense as so much in our own lives does not make sense. Catastrophes, twisters that come out of nowhere and take everything and everyone; calamities, experiencing the death of loved ones; heartbreak, standing by as we watch our beloved ones in the grip of addiction; deaths, having to let go of dreams, of friendship, of success, of a marriage…just to name a very few ways in which we face the bewildering sufferings of life.
There is some solace, St. John says, in knowing we are not alone and yet, we feel very, very alone. The remedy? For John, the remedy lies within the pain and bewilderment. Make an altar of yourself. Lay it all out there. Acknowledge. Acknowledge the pain, the suffering, the bewilderment, your utter helplessness.
He adds, “don’t run away.” Remain, hang in there so that you can “enter into the living reality” within. It’s so easy to try to distract oneself using the old self-soothing patterns that you have developed over time. Try doing nothing for a few minutes at a time until you get better and better at not responding to your pain and at not giving your pain more power than it deserves.
“Trust, in loving attentiveness.” Here is the crux of his advice: “let (your)self be carried by God.” As in learning to skate, let go of the guard rail, the seeming safety of self, into the unknown God. Expect to be caught and enfolded by Love.
In the end, we know that God didn’t ask Abraham to kill his own son. That is an important part of the story and shows God’s love and mercy to the ancient listeners to whom child sacrifice was not unheard. For me, though, the important part of the story is that it does not make sense, just as my own suffering and the suffering of my friends and loved ones makes no sense. And yet, in the midst of suffering and bewilderment, as St. John illuminates, God is present…filling me up, encircling me in Love and creating within and with me, new life.