CONSIDER THIS— Why Does St Paul ‘Glory’ in Existential Infirmities?

1,

Though I do not go to church all that often, when I do it can happen that something from the Liturgy, or the Bible, really stands out, and grabs me by the scruff, and says, consider this.

So it was that I heard St Paul the other day speaking of something which, for me, is one of the two central themes of ‘passion.’ For St Paul said, ‘search the deep things of the Spirit.’

Passion of heart searches the deep things not only of God but also of humanity. Deep things abide in the Spirit, and are searched out, not just found but lived and checked out, through passion. Get rid of all passion and you get rid of depth.

This is what most people have done.

They have evaded the summons of passion to search out the deep things of the Spirit, by cutting off passion as such.

2,

In searching out the deep things of the Spirit through passion, the heart wrestles with its own mystery. ‘The heart is deep’, David declares in the Psalms. The heart is bound up with the deep things of the Spirit; these are key to its destiny. To lose these deep things is to lose the heart.

But this means there is a huge difference between the shallow heart, which is false to passion, and the deep heart, which is true to passion. The former is taken up with emotions full of sound and fury signifying nothing, mere distractions; and it is captive to fallen passions which signify the heart ‘failing to hit the mark.’ This is the smaller heart, as opposed to the bigger heart. The Hasids call it a heart of stone, hardened and callous= indifferent, as opposed to the heart of flesh, malleable and affectable= concerned.

The former is not available to that in existence which the heart must be available to, if it is to plumb its own destiny as bound hand and foot to the fate of the world. The latter remains available, no matter the disturbing things which this brings. It is thrown in at the deep end, and must persist or perish.

In effect, human beings in their everyday life have not the faintest notion, not even the beginnings of a notion, of what the heart really is.

The Sufi poet captures this=

“From the time of Adam to the resurrection people cry–
The heart, the heart! And I wish that I might find
Someone to describe what the heart is, or how it is.
But I find none. What, then, is this heart of which I
Hear only the name?”

But the error in Sufi mysticism, as in all religions pursuing the way of oneness, is to obscure the very aspect of reality with which the heart deals. The unitive Eros of mysticism misses the Otherness of God and the human, and thus the reality of the risk God takes with the human. The Sufi metaphor of the ‘Ocean of Love’ [a soul, not heart, image] allows only the beautiful things in this world to be a metaphor of God, whilst the ugliness, accident, evil, of history is excluded. But it is precisely what does not add up, and deeply offends the soul’s quest for unity, that the heart bears like a wound.

It is precisely what ugliness, accident, evil, says about God that is most vital for the heart.

These are the route into depth.

Closer to the true mystery of the heart is what the Sufi poet says here=

“The prayers of the sorrowful come from burning hearts.”

It is the profound trouble that the heart enters in this existence that is the gateway to unfathomable depths.

The heart bears a weight, a wound, a cost, a venturing, because it is staked to a drama, and a tragedy, where everything is at stake; of all this unitive Eros knows nothing.

3,

The next thing St Paul declares also struck me, for after inviting us to search the deep things of the Spirit, he goes on to add that he glories more in his ‘infirmities’ than mystical revelations. This is a powerful statement from someone who has actually had mystical revelations. Many people aspire to these, and would hardly trade them in for earthly and very human vulnerabilities. Maybe it is necessary to have had mystical revelations to understand why the earthy and all too human infirmities are more to be thanked.

The key to grasping this inversion of our usual spiritual aspiration, in which ascent is preferred to descent, beauty is preferred to ugliness, pattern and harmony is preferred to chaos and absurdity, is to realise that the infirmities to which St Paul refers are all existential. They are all to do with the existential arena of the world. This arena is ‘the killing ground.’

The temple is the place where the glory of God becomes visible. The world is the place of the risk and gamble of God; the place where everything must be redeemed.

What St Paul is saying is that his existential vulnerabilities tie him to the ground, and therefore plunge him into God’s existential gamble, and risk. He would rather know the angst of this ‘grounding’, and struggle in its fearful yet wonderful consequences, than be raised [prematurely] to heaven.

What St Paul is actually saying, perhaps even unbeknownst to himself, is that he would rather have a heart, and keep the heart, whatever its searing pain and profound trouble, than rise up the mystical ladder to heaven, where the impregnable ontology of God is disclosed; yet that glory is incomplete. For, without God embracing risk and suffering, this would be a height that left the depth unresolved. A no go area for God, no less than for the poor human heart. Despite the urge in many people to leave the depth, and get clear of the world where it is tested and lived out, St Paul is choosing to retain the heart, the fallible heart, the earthy heart, the heart which, however ruined, retains its strange love for what the depth subjects it to. The depth subjects God, no less than humanity.

There is no vision, nor is there any mysticism, that would reveal the outcome of the long journey and battle before it is over. That outcome — victory or defeat for the whole venture of heart — lays in a darkness of God that even Christ acknowledged he knew nothing about. Vision and mysticism are just helps along the way. When they become more than that, and are sought as ends in themselves, then they reduce the terrible and beautiful pathos in which the human heart is caught up.

Nothing penetrates the darkness in which the outcome of redemption for all creatures, things, persons, is suspended, and unknown. Only faith, existential faith born of existential infirmity, goes ‘with’ that adventure, and therefore leaps into that dark.