Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Kingdom of God asks ignorance and impotence of us - A Reflection on the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time

"Jesus said to the crowds, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man throws seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, he loses no time: he starts to reap because the harvest has come.’ 
  He also said, ‘What can we say the kingdom of God is like? What parable can we find for it? It is like a mustard seed which at the time of its sowing in the soil is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.’ 
  Using many parables like these, he spoke the word to them, so far as they were capable of understanding it. He would not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything to his disciples when they were alone."
- Mark 4:26-34

If the Kingdom resides in me in the manner described in these parables then what the Lord asks of me in the spiritual life is ignorance and impotence. The growth of the Kingdom is not within my power to control: "Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting". Neither is its growth subject to my understanding: "How, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces".

This is a frightening receptivity. I cannot chart my progress in correlation to my actions. I cannot project a plan on the basis of the mechanics which I observe. I cannot even guess at the proportions, for the smallest and the greatest proceed at an inner pace. I am therefore left at the mercy of something I neither understand nor control nor predict. But it is a potent mercy, a mercy that carries its life within it.

What is then required of us in this sacred space of ignorance and impotence? "A man throws seed on the land", and then, "When the crop is ready, he loses no time; He starts to reap because the harvest has come". Of us is asked the trusting reception of the seed, creating only the space the dark, nourishing, hidden ground wherein it may come to fruition. Then, the discernment that comes from intimate knowledge. Any farmer knows his soil, its tendencies and trends. He knows the stages of growth; He knows the time of reaping. When the fruit is full-grown (fully, not merely the ear but "the full grain in the ear"), he harvests, at the end of a process of which he was only the custodian.

We may see this most practically in prayer, for there our tendency to want to be intelligent controllers of a process is clearest. We seek to pray in such-and-such way, so that we may feel such-and-such, and we may have a such-and-such measure of success : perhaps petitions answered, healing given, a certain glow of holy sentiment, some flashy new perspective on Scripture, tears and locutions. But soon, for the one who returns faithfully, the entire enterprise collapses. Attempts to measure prayer-effectiveness fail, the warm emotions lie unkindled, understanding is frustrated. Then, and only then, once the soul relinquishes its clutching, grasping control and lets the kingdom grow of its own, can true prayer begin, prayer which cultivates and tends a mystery which it cannot grasp, nor comprehend, but can only stand before in wonder.

The Kingdom of God asks ignorance and impotence of us.