Items for Reflection – Measure and the Unmeasurable

A. The Prison of Measurement

Work forces man to use measurements. He works eight hours a day, and for this work a certain average result is expected from him. The number of a certain kind of item a worker is able to make in a day, week, or year is fixed. Also fixed is the amount he needs to support himself and his family (if a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs cost such and such . . . ) and the amount he needs for pleasure (the cost of a ticket to the movies or to a soccer match). His entire existence is saturated with numbers, and each presents a certain measure. When something in the mechanism breaks down, he stands there helpless….

If a man gets completely accustomed to the idea that everything can be measured, then he loses any sense for eternity. His horizon does not reach farther than the measurable, passing time, and mortal existence. Everything he measures constantly brings him to limits: there lies the point where what he has planned comes to an end; beyond it begins something else to measure. The life of an individual passes away between such ends and new beginnings … as though behind bars.

Man Before God, pp. 109-10

B. Adventure Breaks Through

However, if he meets someone who lives from faith, he encounters in him God himself. Something adventurous breaks into his limited existence. He does not know whether he is thereby weighed and measured. One thing, however, is certain: his measurements do not suffice to determine these dimensions. His conventional categories, time schedules, and simplifications cannot cope with the phenomenon. He had arranged a plan for himself that would allow him to advance in his job in order to be able to afford certain things when he reached the age of fifty or sixty. If the Christian truth is valid, God could frustrate all his plans; he could perhaps even require him to give up his position. In any event, God could demand from him his advance calculations and small arrangements, which now appear to him as countless reservations against God. Who could place conditions on God?

 Man Before God, pp. 110-11

C.  A Tree in a Flowerpot

Interiorly, … everything has completely changed: time is now something in which eternity wants to find a place; and measure is now something in which the unmeasurable must be sheltered. Thus everything becomes quite uncomfortable. That which until now was correct is no longer correct, and it is not clear what can serve as a substitute. In many parables Christ speaks about things that are familiar to us: for example, about a heavenly meal, about the true shepherd and his sheepfold, about the lost coin, and about the fig tree that bears no fruit out of season. These [familiar] things … acquire in the Lord’s mouth a new and disconcerting taste. Human understanding is brought to an unusual place and bent down before the eternal so that the eternal can become graspable to mortal men…. If man discovers himself in a word of God and notices how the measures slip from his hands, he becomes dizzy…. The standard of his reason no longer provides a valid measure; instead, it is provided by the immensity of God that wants to find precisely in this small human life a place and foothold in the world. A tree in a flowerpot. The hardest thing required of the believer is to place himself at the disposal of something incomprehensible, something that begins to make sense only through love…. [N]ow he is meant to open himself in such a way that the hands he holds out to collect have to remain apart…. He must keep himself as vessel, and he cannot guarantee what this vessel will contain. He no longer knows it because he must allow what he had once well protected and thought through many times over simply to flow into the infinite, according to a rhythm that God alone determines.

Man Before God, pp. 112-13

D.  Mary, Joseph, and the Flight into Egypt

 When Mary flees to Egypt with the infant, she follows a directive from Joseph, who himself had been ordered to flee. The perfectly supernatural character of this flight opens heaven: if Joseph had to explain why he undertook this flight, he could only say that it had become clear to him that God wants it this way. However, he has no measurement by which to examine this certainty. Mary follows without questioning…. However, she does not follow him on the basis of natural reasons alone; she also follows because this is included in the Yes she gave to the angel. The fact that everything she will have to do is always already included in her Yes takes away the measuring of her days…. She lives a hidden life on earth that constantly unfolds in the public openness of heaven. She knows that she is watched from heaven and that her Yes is perpetual.

Man Before God, pp. 113-14

E.  The One Measure Left

[To say Yes to God authentically, man] must, in order to know what he is doing, hold on to that aspect of the Lord’s life that reminds him of a measure. As Saint Ignatius shows in his spiritual exercises, he always chooses a greater disgrace and humiliation. If it is pleasing to the Lord so to lead him, man chooses a path marked by the Lord’s Cross. He chooses the path of the flight to Egypt, or wherever it may be …. But he does so in the first place on the basis of a certain measure, which is revealed in the Lord’s life. He knows that behind this life the entire unmeasurable triune life of God lies hidden. He knows that God lowered himself … in order to present [man] with things characterized by measure so that man would not lose his bearings but could accept in obedience that which God shows him.

Man Before God, pp. 115

F.  The Rule and the Unmeasurable

To live in the unmeasurable and from the unmeasurable does not mean living in disorder. It means receiving today’s order as an order—as an order, however, that lies beyond our understanding completely in God …. [A]s order, it is a knowable measure for us. The one who gives to God his entire future with its promises and entrusts to God the order of his life through the choice of the evangelical counsels binds himself to an ecclesial rule. As a form of life through which the Holy Spirit blows, the rule mediates between the measure of ordinary Christians in the world and the unmeasurable reality that lies in a pure Yes. This mediation is not a compromise; rather, it is a way that heaven draws close to earth.

Man Before God, pp. 117

G. The Layman and the Unmeasurable

The Christian in the world and in a parish who does not live according to such a rule should by all means know something of the unmeasurableness of life bound to a rule…. This knowledge should not paralyze him, because he should be able to gain from this image certain insights for his own life…. He cannot limit his self-gift and love of neighbor to his family. That would be a form of egoism. He himself would thereby determine the measure of Christian love and thus refuse its unmeasurableness. [He also has to include his broader surroundings, his work as well as society.] In the same way, he cannot do the contrary and seek to meet his neighbor only in the outside world. In not having the measure at his command, although it nevertheless still obliges him, he experiences something of the unmeasurableness of God.

Man Before God, pp. 118-19

H.  Lively Exchange Between Different Ways of Life

If a Christian in the world encounters a true member of a religious order and comes to understand his rule, his way of thinking, and his way of life, a breeze of eternal life blows over him from here. He will understand something of the unmeasurableness of Christian life, and this knowledge will confer new dimensions to his measured life. A lively exchange of Christian ways of life is fruitful. Indeed, this exchange could be understood as an image of the inner divine exchange of love. The religious did not enter his order to escape from the world but in order to serve the world in God. But also the layman in the world is called to perform a divine service that is entrusted to him. He can only recognize the extent of this service if he knows what occurs in religious life. Moreover, he must always submit anew his measure to the unmeasurable and allow himself to be determined and transformed by it…. This exchange is important for both of them. Something that takes place in the triune exchange should also be present on earth among the Christian forms of life. These two not only communicate in Christ’s Church, but they are also animated by the thought that creation as a whole is created for Christ.

Man Before God, pp. 119-20.

I.  Prayer in the Holy Spirit

The Christian who becomes aware of his limits faces them from two points of view, one practical and the other theoretical. Practically speaking, he is called upon to overcome his own limits in the sense of believing in the unlimitedness of God. Of course, there exists a realm beyond our capabilities, a realm to which we no longer have access. But as Christians we must not mark out our field of activity with the boundary stones of what seems ‘‘possible’’. This means, however, that our ‘‘self-knowledge’’ cannot be the decisive factor. We have to act as if we were speculatively gifted; we have to consider the impossible alongside the possible and the limitless next to the limited. If we had to rely solely on ourselves and our self-knowledge, we would, when facing a task, prudently and anxiously fix the boundaries more closely. We would prefer the smaller job that is easy to oversee and that we can guarantee to get done. But if we are believers who are aware of the power of prayer, the Church, substitution, and the communion of saints, then we push the boundaries of our assigned task a bit farther. We place more trust, not in ourselves, but in grace and in the Church that accompanies us. First we have to acknowledge the measure meted out to us; then we have to forget it. For we can no longer trust ourselves to measure our own capacities. This does not mean, of course, that we should devise wild plans and put them into action. But we can plan in conjunction with prayer in the Holy Spirit, without fixing him or us. What is important is our direction, commitment, and attitude. Looking toward God, we attempt to perform the tasks that have been set before us in the attitude of believers. What subsequently results, how much we accomplish on our own power, how much the Holy Spirit does in us, how far the boundaries of nature have been moved—these are things that we do not need to know. It is enough for us to know that they have been moved in the direction of God. No one could accept any apostolic mission in the Church, no one could so much as dispense the sacraments, if he did not know that he performed only a fraction of the act and that it is the Holy Spirit who, in the realm of the Lord’s Church, does all that can be expected in faith. This consideration and its application can be taken as a maxim for action whenever there is some practical work to be done.

There is also the theoretical side: In what do the task and the efficaciousness of prayer consist? Such things are much harder to determine. A Carmelite nun enters the convent in order to make atonement for the sin of the world. If she thinks about it realistically, she realizes how unbelievably small her contribution will be. She prays distractedly; here and there she oversteps the rule in trivial matters. She feels herself to be a sinner and knows that her sin impedes the working of grace. In spite of that, she prays the prescribed amount every day, does various works of penance, helps where she can—and all the while sees the futility of her action and the nullity of her endeavors. If before her death she looks back at her life, she recognizes that despite everything the main thing was right, because at bottom she wanted to give herself to God. She recognizes that she has been sustained by many, by the prayer of her sisters (those of today and of yesterday), and by the founders of the order. She recognizes that she owes her life in the order to the prayers of all the saints, to the intercession of the Mother of God, to the grace of the Lord and the triune God, indeed, even to the many sinners for whom she supposed she had sacrificed herself and given herself up. What has proved to be the theme of her life ultimately stems, not from her, but from others. She has been carried along and sustained beyond the limits of her own nullity.

Only in extremely rare cases can a Christian see the fruits of his prayer so as to be able to say, for example, ‘‘Thanks to my prayer or to yours this was prevented and that granted; this or that ‘mountain’ was moved.’’ Nevertheless, from time to time we experience a miracle; something for which we had begged is granted, or the propitious turn of events for which we had hardly hoped actually occurs. Because in every prayer ‘‘futility’’ is overcome; because our limits vanish, and eternity manifests itself in time. And one who prays simultaneously experiences the invisibility of divine action, which weaves itself into and enlivens our prayer from within. Thus the futility and nullity of our today stands in the midst of the unshakableness and infinity of eternity, without our being aware of what is happening to us.

Man Before God, ch. 1c



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