Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vinegar and Honey

Saint Augustine, in a homily on the First Letter of John, describes very beautifully the intimate relationship between prayer and hope. He defines prayer as an exercise of desire. Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. “By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]”.

Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil ). He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God's tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined.

Even if Augustine speaks directly only of our capacity for God, it is nevertheless clear that through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others. It is only by becoming children of God, that we can be with our common Father. To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well.
Spe Salvi 33

Reflection – Vinegar and honey! Nice images to ponder on a lovely Trinity Sunday, as we strive (not without some difficulty) to contemplate the inner reality of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the transcendent communion of persons in the one Godhead that alternately bemuses and entrances us.
We get a glimpse of what this doctrine of the Trinity means (see yesterday’s post) and are astounded at its implications. Then we lose it, and it all becomes a jumble of words – Three in One, One in Three, round and round it goes… what’s it mean?

It’s this whole business the Pope writes so beautifully of here, in which we are made for such a depth of communion and life with this God, and yet in our current state of being we are too small, too cramped, too bound by human thinking and acting.

We are made for the sweetness of communion and love, of total gift and total reception, but are filled with the vinegar of self-will and self-seeking. And so, the whole path of prayer is laid out here in this passage. God gives us a desire for Him, but withholds the fulfillment of that desire—and so we grow larger as we strain upwards to Him. God stands before us, sweetness itself, joy of life and beauty in full, but His work in us is mainly draining out the vinegar and scrubbing our walls of its acidic taint.

Yes, this is the way of God with us. It’s like the whole ‘plot’ (if you will) of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. The Lover keeps knocking at the door of the Beloved’s room, pressing in at her window, sticking his hand in at her lattice… and then disappearing. She runs out, searching for Him… she leaves her chamber, runs through the city, is beaten and mocked… and then she finds him, and joy is hers. Vinegar, then honey. Smallness, then immensity.

God is doing this in all of our lives. We want to nestle into our little chamber, our comfortable little room (symbolically speaking). He has made us for something bigger, something better, and he lures us outside of ourselves.

And in this luring, in this stirring us up out of complacency and comfort, he calls us to our brothers and sisters, too. God is Love; as we yearn for God and run after Him, we too must be love. And so prayer is this grand adventure, one not without pain and toil, struggle and darkness, but a grand adventure nonetheless. Out of self and safety into the wild of God, into the risk of love, into the immensity of the Trinity and the endless mystery and depth it holds for us.

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