In the summer between my first and second years of seminary, with a string of failed relationships and an emerging sense of internal pandemonium eroding the fragment of my self-confidence that remained intact, I retreated to the forested hills of Burgundy, France among the brothers of Taizé—an international and ecumenical community of monks devoted to prayer and an extreme simplicity of life.
I arrived in the middle of June with hundreds of other young adults who, I am certain, had made the pilgrimage to Taizé in search of the same thing as I —a still, sure voice that could definitely proclaim all was going to be okay and that we each had some worth left inside of us despite the confounded mess we had made of our lives.
I had long been haunted by a Pelagian god, or at least the fear of one. It was he who demanded a perfection I consistently failed to meet. Guilt was his modus operandi. Grace and mercy I knew only as offerings of love given by me to my neighbor and even my enemy. God’s love for me was based solely upon my ability to do so.
One of the few things of which I was certain by the time I arrived at Taizé was that fundamentalists of every stripe — whether they be conservative or liberal — were all pretty much the same. At the end of the day, by their reasoning, God was severely disappointed with even my best efforts and had very little to offer in the way of true redemption. I longed for the God of my childhood, firm yet kind, triumphant yet meek, accepting, faithful, and approachable. But I had been reminded time and again that such a God was merely the product of childhood naiveté. There was nothing left but to fear God and to stay out of His way.
Towards the end of my stay, I plucked enough courage out of my timid little soul to approach one of the brothers following evening prayer. I can offer no description of the monk’s appearance; I was too consumed with my own inner turmoil to notice much of anything other than myself. I can only say that I felt secure in his presence. But this in itself was quite profound given the fact that it had been a long time since I had felt safe in the presence of any man other than my father, brother and one or two of their friends. Here was a man who wanted nothing from me. I was not there for his amusement, his pleasure, his demands or even his comfort. And somehow, without condescension, he offered himself to me.
I remember thinking, “Surely, this is a man who will tell me the truth.” And so I threw at him everything that had been welling up inside of me for the past ten years: my utter disappointment with and at times feelings of abandonment by the Church; my inability to find, much less trust, love; and my overall sense of spiritual homelessness that was quickly fading into apathy. I begged him to tell me what I was to do. He answered only, “The question is not ‘What will you do?’ but ‘Will you become who you are?”
I knew at the time that the answer to this question was that I was to become the child of God. This is supposed to be good news, and it is for those who know God to be a loving, generous, forgiving and faithful Father. But for those of us who have lived a life fearing God’s anger, judgment and grave disappointment it is of very little consolation. In fact, it feels nothing short of a prison sentence, a life enslaved to guilt.
As a seminarian, I could rattle off an abundance of scriptures that spoke of God as an adoring Father; of His Son who, out of love for the world, lay down His life for all; and of the healing and comforting powers of the Holy Spirit. Intellectually I understood it and knew it was the truth. I would have even died for it. But the profundity of grace eluded me.
That evening, after speaking with the monk, I went back to my tent and in the darkness, snuggled deep within my sleeping bag, I mulled over what he said. A thought occurred to me and my heavy heart leapt at the possibility. What if it were all true, not just intellectually but actually true? What if there really was a God who not only loved a hypothetical world, but He loved this world and each of us in it as if we were the only person to love? What if the Savior of the world would have climbed upon the cross and died even if I was the only one who was in need of salvation? What if the Father really had counted every hair upon my head and hung upon my every word just waiting for me to call to Him? What if He celebrated my accomplishments and mourned my losses? What if He really could heal my pain, silence my fears and remove my guilt?
What then would it mean to be a child of God?
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30