The way of the mustard seed: Dying to the self you thought you were
One of my very favorite movies as a child was The Neverending Story. I was completely captivated by the fantastic world, but I especially loved the Childlike Empress. The bleak scene near the end (spoilers!) is etched in my memory: the marvelous world of Fantasia has been reduced to dust and ashes — in fact, to a single grain of sand. The Empress entrusts this grain to Bastian, the hero of the movie. His acceptance of this gift, and his willingness to risk his own dreams on it, results in a glorious resurrection of everything that was ever beautiful about Fantasia, and more.
I see this principle everywhere I look now: Something good is stripped back, and back, and back, until all that remains is a tiny, unrecognizable fragment of its barest essence. But from that tiny, barren beginning, something good may yet grow.
It is in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, from the Chronicles of Narnia, when Eustace is trapped inside the dragon skin. He tries and tries to scratch it off himself, but every time he peels back a layer, another dragon skin remains in its place underneath. Finally, Aslan the lion comes and rips at Eustace’s dragon skin with his claws, flaying open his flesh and tearing it back to the terrible rawness at its very bottom. And it hurts like anything. But Eustace is then fully restored to boyhood — to a better boy, in fact, than he was before.
It is in the parable of the mustard seed, the tiniest of all seeds, nearly invisible to the eye. But from this humblest beginning grows the tallest of all plants, a tree so large that “birds come and nest in its branches.”
And it is in the story of the Incarnation. Jesus, Lord of all creation, stooped down to enter humanity, and not as a king, but as a poor baby born to a teenage mother in a backwater town in a repressed and subjugated nation. But through these humble beginnings, God reconciled Man to himself and opened the gates of heaven.
“And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”
1 Kings 19:11-12
Since my confirmation in 2005, I have called myself a Catholic and considered myself a faithful one. But this year has shown me that my faith has always been precariously dependent on circumstance. Bit by bit, God has been stripping away all my identities and safety nets, all the things I thought I needed to feel fulfilled, happy, and successful. Sometimes, on my good days, I think he’s doing this so I will pay attention and hear his still small voice better. On my bad days, I think he’s just torturing me.
You want to have a career and raise a family? Nope. (I gave up working in 2007, when two separate job offers simultaneously imploded within a week.) Your faith is not rooted in your success at balancing career and motherhood.
Oh, but perhaps you’d like to support your parish with your time and energy instead? Nope. Here are six beautiful children. Some women might be able to raise this family and still have time and energy for running all the parish events, but you are not one of them. Your faith is not rooted in your public ministry.
Oh, well, at least you can be proud of your efforts at educating your children single-handedly! Nope. Your body is battered and tired, and you are pregnant and on partial bed rest again. Swallow your pride, and enroll your children in full time school. Your faith is not rooted in your homeschooling.
Oh, at least I can be grateful for this snuggly, perfectly healthy baby. Nope. Your faith, as it turns out, is not rooted even in the health and safety of your children, the thing that most people take for granted.
This last one. This, THIS is the test. This is the hour.
God has stripped away so much deadwood from my life over the years. But a good gardener, as you know, sometimes has to cut live branches, too, for the health of the plant. This last pruning, though. This experience of watching Oscar slip farther and farther from where he “ought” to be, of losing bits of hope one seizure, one milestone, one overly optimistic assessment at a time, of withstanding other extremely stressful blows at the same time (any one of which would have felt monumentally trying on its own, if not lived in the shadow of Oscar’s story)… this all might be my undoing.
Until now, my good cheer depended on a good day. Until now, the regularity of my prayers depended on what I needed to ask for — praise was an afterthought. Until now, I thought my faith was unbreakable, rock solid. I had weathered some rough patches already, and trusted mightily in God’s providence throughout! I was ready for the rack!
Bring on my martyrdom!
Well, here it is.
Am I going to let that “until now” stand? What happens now? Not every seed takes root, though thousands are scattered. Many people endure hardships and become bitter. Am I going to allow God, now that he has stripped me down, to plant me deep in the messy, messy soil of my real life? To put me exactly where he wants me? To endure hard, painful pruning in the future? Or am I going to stay a tiny mustard seed, protected within my hard shell, never giving life and shelter back to others?
That is an actual, open question right now, not a rhetorical one. I don’t know the answer to it yet. I have not been writing much because it’s hard to write about spiritual practice when you are not on speaking (or listening) terms with God.
Photo credit: Molly via Flickr