Holy Terror – Lenten Thoughts on Love Sacrifice and Death

I was born a Catholic and reared, during Lent, on a diet of “sacrifice” talk. Meat was to be abstained from, but the lessons weren’t. We’d deprive ourselves of meat, but grow rich on Catholic Lenten teachings.

But I never seem to have internalized the messages. I knew them at a cerebral level, but the knowledge just didn’t stick. It would take more years of “traveling” by the dark side for me to reflect once again on all the “sacrifice”

Sometime last year, I saw a quotation from the Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe, which goes “If you don’t love, you’re dead; if you do, they’ll kill you.” I was struck. It was a radical departure from the usual Lenten reflections I got, educated as I was in Catholic schools. Apparently, they did not get round to putting things that way. Or at least, I don’t remember them doing so.

Anyway, the quote is severely heavy stuff, a challenge even. Of course, we have always been exhorted to love one another, but this way of phrasing it has a more powerful edge. It cuts through doctrinal banalities and gets right through the nature of Christ’s message of Love.

Love here is not a warm and fuzzy feeling, but a violent force, uncompromising, absolute, tyrannical, and reeking of blood, guts and terror. It is a terrifying idea, a frightening call, an iron challenge. And it tallies with what I have read: that what is most fearful about God is his Love, that the divine is a “holy terror” and that there is a violence inherent in the sacred.

There are many ways to account for this. On an etymological level, we see the paradox in the word “sacrifice,” the buzzword of the Lenten season, and whose root word means “holy.” Clearly then, to give up something is an act of violence, albeit one perpetrated on oneself. But at the same time, it is a holy act, an imitation of the divine.

We also see the paradox on a geographical basis. The city of Jerusalem is holy for three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But ironically, it is also a very violent one. For starters, the city is one focal point of Arab-Israeli tension and of Arab-Christian conflict during the Crusades.

Thirdly, we see the paradox in Jesus’ comment that “he did not come to unite but to divide with a sword.” The Gospel of Love is not just about reconciliation but also about division. More on this later.

This “holy terror” approach, for me at least, best captures the nature of sacrifice, or love for that matter. The issue of whether love is a gentle force that shelters us, keeps us safe, and protects us or not is irrelevant. It is both, and as such is a perfect example of how the divine defies easy and simplistic categorization, human categorization if you may. The sacred, as far as this goes, is not a black-and-white thing, but a breakdown and defiance of human conceptual thought and its neat, slot-like categories.

This is a venerable tradition, implicit in the Judaic prohibition on fashioning images of God (because humanity is the only authentic image of the divine, as the Parable of the Good Samaritan clearly shows). It is also present in the concept of the Holy Trinity, formulated to avoid an excessive humanization of the divine (as the story of Saint Augustine putting the ocean in a finite container also proves.)

And what does this mean in practice? Fine, the divine is a paradox, but how are we to translate this into action? Personally, it may be a confusing one, but that is well, for this is to remain faithful to the paradox. We know that God’s love shelters us and protects us, but it also challenges us to sacrifice, to die to ourselves, to “die every moment,” to refuse truck with evil, to subvert the oppressive powers of this world (he who is not with me is against me), to leave our families, to hate our brothers and sisters, to let the dead bury the dead, to suffer, to carry the cross, and to go through the eye of the needle. The Lord did all these, didn’t he, and that is what he calls to do. Love is to be absolute, uncompromising, unyielding, and tyrannical if you may.

It is scary, frightening, and when one reflects on it, one feels that one doesn’t measure up. Indeed, many are called, but few are chosen.  But all this is not a message of fear, of eternal damnation, of everlasting fire. Even if we do fail to love, we will still and do deserve it. The shepherd will seek us and bring us back into the fold. He will find the lost coin and rejoice when it is found.

What all this amounts to is that God loves us for who we are, and that we do not need to be well-behaved to deserve His Love. This is His most terrifying and greatest attribute. It’s hard to imagine a being, if indeed he is one, who doesn’t really care about good behavior, one who does not fuss whether we are toeing the line or not, like a neurotic father or boyfriend or girlfriend who constantly craves attention and obedience. God is not like that.  All this may a bit unsettling, but this is precisely how God trumps our conception of Him, which is all too often just a projection of our petty human desires. (I am who I am)

I have no doubt that to illustrate the impartiality of God’s love is one of the main purposes of the parable of the vineyard. God gives the same “wages” (his love) to all of us regardless of the amount of good work we’ve done. The story is a brutal assault on those who insist on good works as merit-making, on those who want God to be a judge because they know that they will favored upon, like the self-righteous Pharisee who condemns the sinner praying beside him!

*Even so, this God-loves-us-for-who-we-are talk is not an excuse for lax morals. This is no reason to relax our ethics, as it is (I think) for New Age philosophy, at least as far as Conversations with God is concerned. As I said, love is a challenge, and we are to meet it by following the Lord’s commands. But then, we will not be damned if we do not obey. It is just that if we do, we have to do it not out of duty or fear of punishment but out of love.

*This, for me at least, is the essence of love, which is its own reason, a la Boyzone.  It is not something we do because we have to, but because we want to. The truth is, we do not have to love God, and if we do not, that would be fine too. But it is precisely because we love Him that we love Him. We love him, have faith in him even if we don’t have to. Our love for God is a gift, freely just like His Love and Creation.

I said at the start that I gained a new look at these doctrines. I may not have said anything contrary to Catholic doctrine, but the fact I see everything in a new light, the fact that I can write it this way are perhaps a testimony to my finally understanding it directly, when previously I had just known it. It is an experience that the Buddha might have recognized and perhaps approved. He advocated a similar approach in learning the dharma.


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