The man was wandering in a marsh. He ran in water up to his knees, more slowly as he tired. And the bird of prey continued to close, driving the man into the corner where there was no exit. He had been hunted and now was caught. Suddenly the bird descended, broke the man’s neck, and as he sank into the water, in some strange way he realized that he was one with the bird, who had returned to the sky.
It is Holy Week, and I have returned from the House of the Bishops, where our church seeks to turn itself to evangelism, at whose heart is personal witness. So here I would like to offer mine. I was 19, had left the church behind, but the confusion of college and a sense of lost direction afflicted me. I had begun reading Christian authors, and this sense of being hunted, akin to that in the poem `The Hound of Heaven,’ grew in me. Finally, I got to a crisis point, where running my own affairs in life became manifestly untenable. The lines that opened this blog relate a dream I had at that time. Shortly thereafter I did not so much give my life to Christ as clearly understood that he had claimed it. I did not make everything clear at once, but it did set a direction for my life that has continued, and for which I am grateful at the deepest level.
So let me offer a commentary on my own dream. The most important thing is that the main actor in the drama was not me. It was the bird of prey, who is Jesus Christ. In our conversions, in our lives, in our world if we could see it, He is the main actor. St. Paul says that we do so much know God as are known by Him. He took the initiative, at a time when I was landlocked: ‘while we were yet sinners Christ died for us…’ The key thing is not the experience, but He whom I had an experience…The word for this initiative, this having-something-done-for-us is ‘grace.’ There is no earning or qualifying for it, and realizing this takes a lifetime of overcoming our resistance. Another way to say the same thing is that each day we recall our baptism, whose pattern the dreamed followed, the sacrament in which Christ claims us and names us because of what He had done and not what we deserve.
Secondly, this grace is not first an idea but an event, an accomplished fact. The heart of the message of Holy Week is that Jesus on the cross is not just an example, though He is this too, but rather has taken on my burden and in dying has changed my circumstance before God, the ultimate ‘facts on the ground.’ That dying of His, first, is the shape of what the convert undergoes, as well as the shape of the Christian life that follows after, again if only we could more see it.
Third and finally, that time of my life was, in retrospect, full of relief and joy. God wasn’t ending my life- He was performing spiritual CPR, which makes sense since He created me in the first place. The news we hear this week is hard, especially the clear implication that we are in ourselves among the crowd, at Judas’ and Pilate’s side. But it is in retrospect a week full of relief and joy, and a sense of that is my deepest prayer for each of you who read this column.