I know but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond. -- Charles Dickens
One of my favorite fictional authors is Charles Dickens. His melancholic but poignant portrayal of the human condition has always struck a cord with me. Though I'm a fan of his later, more brooding works, there is a compellingly beautiful story called The Convict's Return, in his early and voluminous The Pickwick Papers, that could easily be found in a Gerontikon.*
An elderly clergyman retells the story of The Convict's Return during a pleasant gathering of friends around a fireplace. The tale is about a notorious parishioner, "a morose, savage-hearted, bad man: idle and dissolute in his habits; cruel and ferocious in his disposition." He mistreated his suffering wife and young son. Though the pious mother and young boy attended church regularly every Sunday, when the youth grows older he associates with the same depraved crowd his father did, pursuing a rebellious lifestyle. As Dickens's so aptly exclaims, "Alas for human nature!"
The young man was eventually arrested and sentenced to prison. However, his desolate mother who dies before his release from prison, walked to the "prison yard from day to day, eagerly and fervently attempting, by affection and entreaty, to soften the hard heart of her obdurate son." The young man never sees his mother before her death, but his mother's unwavering love for him compels him to repent of his wayward lifestyle before his release from prison. It is during his last years of his life that the returned convict finds his final redemption being "truly contrite, penitent, and humbled, if ever a man was."
Dickens's story of the convict's return is so much like the parable of the Prodigal's Return. Though the long-suffering mother in The Pickwick Papers is not alive to greet her returning son, her "forbearance and meekness under suffering" is not unlike the father's in the biblical account. Our lives too are like these two stories where we are, at once, the prodigal and father, the convict and mother.
The Christian life is an endless sea sawing between redemption and downfall: between being 'beloved' and 'unforgiven.' Christ calls us to a perfection that seems so elusive. We know of God's promises, but we still seem to go through life filled with anxiety and discouraged at the futility of it all. God's joy only momentarily and occasionally breaks our dark moments. Our transformation to the person we want to be, and ought to be, is at best a dream to read about. Though we are often a shelter for the wounded, we can be, at times, so sheltered from the world's suffering that our callousness becomes a stumbling block to others. And so we drift, and sometimes run away, from the One who is running to embrace us.
Henri Nouwen describes our human condition quite accurately and writes: "Yet over and over again I have left home. I have fled the hands of blessing and run off to faraway places searching for love! This is the great tragedy of my life and of the lives of so many I meet on my journey. Somehow I have become deaf to the voice that calls me the 'Beloved,' have left the only place where I can hear that voice, and have gone off desperately hoping that I would find somewhere else what I could no longer find at home."
Like the convict's mother, God waits for us, His 'beloved.' He wants to love us and care for us. He wants to make His home with us. God's forgiveness clears the path for us to be with Him, to know Him and to be known by Him. But God expects our forgiveness of others to clear the path for them to know Him too. If God forgives us, shall we also not forgive? If God accepts us, even though we are sinners, shall we also not accept those who we consider sinners?
To love like the convict's mother in Dickens' story, you need to experience the darkness of God's absence. To love like the father in the Prodigal's Return you need to accept your own wasteful life. To feel God's compassion, you too must care for those who are fighting the demons of despair and failure. To know God's love, you too must love the unlovable. To know God's forgiveness, you too must be a resting place of forgiveness to those you despise. And that is not easy. It goes against our very nature, which is why Christ's love is so scandalous and so difficult. Christ loved us by running to us and embracing us when we were, like the prodigal, filthy, bedraggled, and not fit for swine. Gregory Palamas says that:
He Himself descends and searches [us] out. . .and comes near, and lets His love be seen. . .From those who despise Him He does not depart; He shows no anger towards those who defy Him, but follows them to their very doors, and endures all things, and even dies, in order to demonstrate His love.
Christ loved us by washing our feet and healing our leprosy. He became a convict for us, and forgave us by carrying a rough and heavy cross on his torn back. Christ is like the mother in Dickens' story waiting and visiting, His heart broken with the pain of our own anguish. If our love and forgiveness mean anything at all, we need to start acting and living the same way. His message is heady stuff. It's almost too much to bear. And yet, He calls us to love till it hurts because He did it first.
The Christian life is chalk full of paradoxes. But it is this illogical nature of Christianity, the foolishness of the cross, that we are called to live out. Then we will experience the lasting joy and abundant life Christ promised. And then we will make disciples of all nations. Gregory Nazianzen writes "a man must himself be cleansed before cleansing others. . .draw near to God before he can bring others near; be hallowed before he can hallow them."
Talking about God's love can be hypocritical, and in so many ways, I too am a fake, far too eager to rationalize my own weakness and behavior. "Let's not just talk about love; let's practice real love. This is the only way we'll know we're living truly, living in God's reality" (1 John 3:18 MSG). God doesn't talk to us about His love for us; He gives His son bloodied, hanging on a cross full of our shame. Before we can say, 'I'm sorry,' 'I blew it again,' 'Help me!' God is already running to us and opening His kingdom to us.
Living the Christian life is not about being cocooned from life. It is about risking your life to give life--life that only Jesus can give to you and to those you embrace in His name. Can you live your life like Stephen who being stoned to death cries out "Jesus, take my life. . .[and] don't blame them for this sin" (Acts 7:59-60 MSG)? This is real shock and awe stuff and it is why Christianity turned the world on its head. Forget that we've sanitized everything and become Stepford Christians. Mother Maria Skobtsova believed that the only Christian life was one lived at "the outer limit of love."
Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul holds nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred or valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ's name to those having a need for it. . .. This is precisely the genuine Christian way taught to us by every word and every thought of the Gospel.
Are you ready to live like that? Now you can understand the disciples worry throughout their three years with Jesus when they wondered, who could be saved? But, this radical, world changing, non-repackaged faith is what it's all about. The good news is you have help, because you can't do it alone. Luckily, it is Christ who, John Chrysostom writes, "draws near. . .saying 'Why are you afraid? I am not judge, but a physician. I come not to judge the world, but to save the world.'" Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Nick Trakakis, in one his essays, wrote a wonderful description of authentic Christianity:
Those who become citizens of the Kingdom are not those who are 'all right' in their own private religious conscience, nor those who are superficially respectable. They are the sinners, those who are not afraid to recognize their daily failures and the resistances put up by their rebellious nature. These people alone have the capacity to accept the call to repent, to seek refuge in the life-giving grace of God.
God has accepted us as His children. It is extraordinary, life-altering grace. The rest is up to you and me. When we truly understand what happened those two thousand years ago; when we fully comprehend the fantastical promise God has made to us; and when we realize, on our knees, that we have been given the greatest gift possible from God Himself. Then we too will run to be embraced and kissed by Christ. Then we too, will come forth and rise. And then we too will say 'This Christian is risen! Truly this Christian is risen!
* A book of sayings of the Monastic elders.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.