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“We See Light”: Reconciliation Must Cost Us Something

June 11, 2020


I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

—Thomas Merton

Merton’s Fourth and Walnut Epiphany—a moment when he gazed upon his fellow human beings and saw within them the divine connection—is especially poignant in light of Jesus’ discourse on how we are to treat each other, and not just today, but all the time:

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, Raqa,
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:20-26)

Reconciliation is never easy—not within a confessional, nor on the streets, nor even in the quiet of one’s own heart.

Obviously, some efforts at reconciliation—whether it is a small habit of sin that is ultimately between us and God, or something larger, ingrained, and systemic, like entrenched racism or the abuse of minors too long unheeded—require something more than confession. For those habits of sin we live with every day (and too comfortably), real reconciliation requires more of us than mere admission. It requires action meant to bring about authentic change.

Pope Francis has said of this Gospel reading, “I cannot go to the Father if I do not have peace with my brother. . . . One cannot talk to the Father if one cannot even speak to one’s brother.”

It is a challenge, the pope admitted: “This program is not easy, is it? Though, it is the way that Jesus tells us to keep going.”

No, it is not easy. And sometimes the way toward healing seems barely clear. Jesus tells us to be reconciled, with God and with each other. But he doesn’t tell us precisely how to do that. Yet, moments before his discourse on reconciliation, he has said to us: “You are the light of the world”—lights that are meant to “shine before all” that God may be glorified (Matt. 5:13, 16).

Perhaps there is a hint there—the beginning of a way that starts by acknowledging the power of light, even within our poor selves. A healthy body will often be described as “glowing,” but how do we help a troubled, sickened society to become healthy, to become so reconciled and healed of our crippling and sinful sicknesses that it comes alight?

Perhaps it will require a willingness for each of us to look at one another and actively seek out the light Christ says we possess, to pray for the gift of seeing each other as Merton did for that flash of a moment, when everyone before him shone clearly with the spark of the Creator that resides in each one of us. He says as much while relating the moment in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, written during a time of social stresses not unlike those we are experiencing today:

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

Perhaps we should pray daily that such a gift be bestowed upon us, that when we are making our morning and evening prayers, we might include a plea to see the light in others (and in ourselves), helpfully reminding the Creator that “in your light we see light itself” (Ps. 36:10).

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Do not be fooled. It is a hard, hard thing to make oneself a willing witness to the light of others, particularly if we are only willing to see it in those we want to like while resolutely unwilling to see it in others — unwilling to believe that the same light that resides within us might also reside in them.

It is a hard, hard thing to look at someone we utterly hate—whether that person is a politician or a sports figure or just someone down the street from us—and think, “Holy smokes! God loves him the same way he loves me! Even him! Even her!”

Try it. Think of someone you hate: that politician, that person at work who is disruptive, that fellow Christian who cries “heresy” on everyone, everyday. Now reconcile yourself to the fact that God loved that person into being, and loves that person still—despite all the flaws, all the sins, all the reckless, stupid things he or she says and does—just as much as God loves you.

That Christ died for that person too.

It can seem unthinkable, especially if we really, really love the way hating that person feels. It makes us roll our eyes and say (as I did at my home prayer corner, recently), “Ugh! Really, God? Christ in heaven, must I acknowledge this? Must I confess to my own awareness that you love that . . . that unspeakable idiot as much as you love me? Why do you make everything so hard?”

But if we’re sincere in wanting some sort of reconciliation with others, either to foment a greater peace in our own hearts or within the world, then we are fundamentally bound to see the one before us as God-beloved, no less than ourselves—a maddening truth and something we cannot deny or apportion only to the “good” people we approve of. Jesus actually gets into that a bit later in his discourse, reminding us that “even pagans” are good to those they like. We’re supposed to be better than that.

Reconciliation, then, has to cost us something. Whether in a confessional or in our hearts (or our social media threads), we have to bring some of our own skin into the game, if we are ever to help right the world by doing the daring work of seeing the light in each other through the light of the Father. If we can manage it, though—if we can acknowledge even the barest flicker of the God-given light in an “enemy”—that can be the beginning of genuine reconciliation, of real healing between human beings.

“God loves her too” really must be part of any foundation upon which we may safely, dependably build something finer.

There is a poem by Walt Whitman, “Sparkles from the Wheel,” and part of it reads:

By the curb, toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel, sharpening a great knife;
Bending over, he carefully holds it to the stone—by foot and knee,
With measur’d tread, he turns rapidly—As he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue, then, in copious golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.

A knife sharpener plies his trade, a stone wheel turns against an edge of steel and . . . sparkles fly.

The Word, the Logos, the Incarnation is the Rock. The Intention of the Creator hews the sharp edge.

All humanity, the sparkles.