After telling several parables to his disciples, Jesus asks, “Do you understand all these things?” “Yes,” they replied, in their all-too-quick fashion. In truth, has anyone really understood well and completely the meaning of Christ’s parables of the kingdom? One understands by living them well. Whom do we know who has lived the gospel well, but Christ Jesus, and his blessed Mother—and various saints, all to some imperfect yet beautiful degree. As Origen wrote (184-253 AD): “Jesus is himself the Kingdom.” Do you know of a better Kingdom of God than the fullness of God’s presence in Jesus Christ, and hence to a degree, in us, the body of Christ?
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” Jesus shows us what is of ultimate value or worth in human life: discovering God in Him, loving Him, following Him, obeying Him, rejoicing in Him. “My happiness lies in God alone,” sings the Psalmist, who has found in God alone his pearl of infinite value. Whoever finds God, finds the Pearl of great price. Whoever does not find God, however rich or powerful, comes up empty.
But here is the uniqueness of finding God: the One who is found is found to be ever with, in, and beyond the one finding. The God who is found is utterly inexhaustible, a spring of pure water ever flowing up out of the depths of the unseen earth. “The one who seeks, finds.” And the person who truly finds finds that he must keep seeking, as St. Anselm teaches. And he must keep loving following, obeying, or what he has found will be lost again. It is not that this Pearl of great price is slippery, like an eel; rather, we are inconstant, unsteady in our love affair with the all-loving One. And so we must seek to fall in love again and again—just as two married folks must keep striving to love each other ever afresh, here and now, and not say with Pushkin: “I loved you once, I love you still—perhaps.” That is not love, nor is it the way of life for one who keeps falling in love with the God who “loved His own in the world, and loved them to the End” (John 13).
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new; late have I loved You. Behold you were with me, but I was not with you.You were within, but I was without, spending myself on these things that ultimately do not satisfy, and would not be at all if You did not will them to be.” The true lover of God, like St. Augustine in his Confessionsparaphrased here, knows that he has “only just begun,” and in truth does not love as he knows and wants to love. And yet, even to taste, even to begin to live God in Christ, the Pearl of infinite value, one begins to leave the world of passing things and enter into communion with that which simply is.
“He who begins to love begins to leave. Many there are who are leaving Babylon, and yet they do not know it. And yet they are leaving by the affections of their heart” (Augustine on the Psalms). “Ubi caritas et amor, Dei ibi est.” “Where charity and love are, there is God.” One who loves has indeed found the Pearl of great price, “the many-splendored thing.”
Coming attractions at our week-end Masses: For the next three week-ends, we will hear three “parables of the Kingdom” from Matthew 13; then on 6 August, the Feast of the Transfiguration; then the following week, the story of Jesus walking on the water. All of this material is highly significant not only within the New Testament and early Christianity, but through the centuries, and in the life of the Church. My task will be to take each lesson as it comes, and seek to help make it meaningful for our parishioners. We will try to understand the LORD’s teaching together. It is not easily understandable, because Christ is leading us into the mystery of God; or rather, into a life well lived in tension toward the unknown God whom he calls “my Father.” As I have often done, we must move towards a true understanding dialectically: that is, warding off misunderstandings, and using misinterpretations to help us arrive at a deeper or better grasp of what Christ is telling us here and now. One learns to discern the truth by seeing and breaking from error. This process is never-ending, because our minds are limited, our understanding always fallible. The search for the truth of God is always greater than, and encompasses, any results one discovers along the way. If one is not seeking, wondering, exploring, then one is stagnating.
There is nothing stagnant about the “Kingdom of God.” This symbolic phrase, used by Jesus to speak about the reality and ways of God in our lives, is dynamic, creative, freeing, challenging, demanding, consoling, guiding. It is, among other things, a way to speak about God’s providential care for his creatures, for us. God’s way of doing things is not identical with our ways. Whereas human beings gravitate to the powerful, the famous, the wealthy, God’s way is to seek out the lost, the lowly, the humble, those rejected by fellow human beings. Whereas we human beings seek status, wealth, or power, the Kingdom of God—God’s way of acting—is life-giving, affirming, able to “tear down the mighty and lift up the lowly.” (Are you lowly enough to be reached by God?).
God’s way brings judgment only to bring peace, to heal, never to condemn and lock up in a hell of human imagination.
Human beings seek to be happy, to know the truth, to do good. In this quest we find fulfillment and happiness. A life of mere pleasure-seeking, of constant entertainment, of restless money-making, of power-seeking, will not bring one happiness or truth, and will not help one become a truly good human being.
To the best of my knowledge, three different and especially profound ways to live well and happily have emerged in human history: life under God as explored by Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and the saints; the discovery of reason and the search for wisdom and happiness as lived and taught by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and their philosopher-disciples; and the way of the Buddha with the search for inner calm and insight. To these three irreplaceable ways one should also add the works of science and scholarship that may usefully contribute to one’s search for happiness and truth. (Historically, western science is an offshoot of Greek philosophy.).
In my judgement, one seeking to live happily, and to understand the truth about man’s place in reality, should have recourse to Judaeo-Christian spirituality; to reason and the life of the mind that is philosophy; to meditative practices as developed within the Buddhist tradition; and to the best insights from science. There are other spiritual traditions that are very rich indeed, and no doubt one can draw spiritual nourishment from them (such as from Hinduism, the Tao, or from native American spirituality). One way or another, four enormous figures of human history keep presenting themselves in my search: Moses as the carrier of the I AM; Jesus as the human being fully immersed in God; Socrates and the unending quest for truth by means of right reasoning, with its openness to divine reality; the Buddha and the quest for inner peace and freedom from suffering.
As I look back on my life, and consider how to spend time remaining for me on earth, these figures keep emerging as demanding my attention and study. Moses is known primarily through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the Law, and in the Chosen People; Jesus is known through the same scriptures, but above all in lovingly doing the will of God and in the lives of His saintly people; Socrates is known through right reasoning, and especially as embodied in the texts of Plato and Aristotle, and their learned disciples through the ages; and the Buddha is known through his teaching, (the Buddha-dhamma), and through diligently practicing mindfulness-meditation.
The ways of the prophets, of Jesus, of Socrates, and of the Buddha, are not identical, nor can they be unthinkingly harmonized or “syncretized.” Each of these ways is valid, and requires a committed life. To give an example of an enormous tension between them—a tension demanding much study and thought—Moses and Jesus lead one into the mystery we call “God.” Socrates, open to all truth, respects “the gods” and God, but employs reason as moved through an inner dialogue with divine reality as it presents itself to consciousness. The Buddha is consistently non-theistic, avoiding all speculation on the gods, and any explicit reliance on divine help in the search for inner peace.
For years I have allowed my faith in God and Christ to be illumined through the life of reason as developed by Socrates and the best human minds who have written philosophy. On this path I have very far to go, but I found reliable models, as in St. Anselm, with his “faith seeking understanding.” The more difficult challenge is to explore and live more fully the mutual penetration of the way of Christ and the way of the Buddha. While being true to the God of Moses and of Jesus Christ, and true to right reasoning, I must seek to practice meditation as guided not only by Christian mystics and saints, but by Buddhist meditators. Only in meditative practice, and in right living, can one gain insight into how living faith in God, the life of reasoning, and the Buddhistic way of “being lights unto yourselves” are essentially one, or harmonize. For all that is true is good, and worth seeking.
One must live the truth to understand it. Otherwise, one is merely speculating and playing intellectual games—an enormous problem in our culture and in mass education today. The light of Christ, of Socrates, and of the Buddha all reveal our culture and contemporary ways of living as deeply flawed and self-destructive. In the question of Jesus, “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and lose his life?” In the Socratic insight, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And in the light of the Buddha, “To cross the stream of life, bale out this boat!”