instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Risk free speech

It's been a long time since I read The New Man, but as I recall Thomas Merton's exploration of parrhesia in that book wasn't so much about speaking boldly to the world despite the attendant risks. He was more interested in God's gift to man of being able to speak freely to God. This essay reminds me that Merton wrote how, before the Fall, Adam and Eve were "in constant and unimpeded contact with the Spirit of God." Their speech was free, not because they were unafraid of the consequences (they no more considered whether they should be afraid than they considered whether they were naked), but because it manifested their direct, unfettered, and total communion with their Creator.

You and I don't have that paradisaical constant and unimpeded contact with the Spirit of God. We sin, then we run and hide. We go to Confession (we do go to Confession, right?), and even if we don't sin again right away, we still have imperfections and distractions and possibly attachment to at least venial sin, all of which get between us and God.

But we do still have the gift of parrhesia. We can speak freely to God, about everything in our lives and our hearts. The more we make use of this gift, the more obvious will be those things in our lives and our hearts that get between us and God (like father, like son, humans are still trying to hide things from God).

There are some evils in our lives through no fault of our own, and we should speak of them to God just as freely as we speak of the good things in our lives through no merit of our own. Whatever is brought into God's presence becomes blessed. It may be consumed or transformed, but even if it is simply returned it has changed under the act of the Divine gaze -- or better, perhaps, to say that we have changed by holding it up while under the Divine gaze.

Anti-sentimentalist that I am, I roll my eyes when I hear people (even saints) say things like, "Tell God about everything that happens during your day! He wants to hear all about it! Nothing is unimportant to Him!," as though God were your chatty grandmother who likes to sit down with you for half an hour when you get home from school and sympathize with you about the shortage of grape JELL-O cups in the cafeteria.

But my eye rolls don't make it any less true that you should talk to God about everything. The Divine gaze transforms the trivial along with the momentous. The grass that withers and fades by evening is part of His creation, as are the two sparrows sold for a coin. Something minor may be a way for you to give God glory in some small but still meaningful measure, or it may be the first step to something great. It may turn to ash, and you'll learn to give it up for something better.

What about our sins? We usually think of bringing our sins to God in the manner of the Prodigal Son -- whose rehearsed speech, come to think of it, was pretty bold given the circumstances of his last conversation with his father. It was a boldness born of... you know what, I was going to write despair, but I think it may have been born of hope. You can only hope for something that is both possible and difficult to attain; if it's impossible you can at most wish for it, and if it's easy to attain you can at most expect it. In all the world, his father was that rotten son's only hope. When you have exactly one hope, you go all in. The son didn't hesitate to ask to become his father's servant, he didn't finish with, "Or I can just go away again." He said his piece freely and boldly, and waited for his father's response.

[Note to self: Try confessing in hope rather than expectation next time.]

After the father responded boldly to his younger son's bold speech, the older son was moved to bold speech himself. Finally. If he had boldly asked his father for a kid goat years earlier, he would have been sure of his father's love for him and less jealous when his brother returned. Instead, he kept silent, feeling neither son enough nor hopeful/otherwise-desperate enough to speak freely.

At the end of the parable, though, he does speak freely. At long last he speaks, of his anger and resentment and pride and confusion and pain and alienation. He speaks, as it were, within and from his sinful attitude toward his father and brother.

The father responds with mercy and healing words. We aren't told how what happens next, but the opportunity is very much there for the elder son to go in and party as joyfully as his brother.

We don't really have a reason not to make full use of the gift of parrhesia God has given us. Not humility, not shame, not scruples. We can't purify our speech first, and not speaking of it doesn't make what's in our heart any less known to Him. Speak openly to God, and He will make your words into a hymn worthy of an immortal creature to sing to its eternal Creator.