Rom 8:8-11 & Jn 11:1-45
These past 3 weeks our Sunday gospels have been used as teachings for the new members who will be entering the Church this Easter. They are familiar Lenten readings that renew “our spiritual longing and joy” in the hope of receiving Christ more deeply in our lives and hearts. First it was the Samaritan woman at the well – receiving living waters that brought eternal delight. Last week it was a blind man by the roadside – receiving his sight that brought eternal light. This week it is Lazarus at the tomb – receiving Christ’s word that brought eternal life.
When Jesus arrives on the scene, his friend Lazarus has been laying dead in a cave for 4 days. This cave is a tomb without life – without motion or movement. The stone covered the cave leaving it in utter darkness…a place of absolute powerlessness…a death that leaves us forever silent and still. St Bernard compares this story of Lazarus to what our sins can do to our interior life – graphically detailing the stench and smell as only Bernard can do! It seems quite permanent…this heavy stone. Certainly Lazarus could not free himself but neither could others on the outside. It would be unthinkable after 4 days. Yet this is not just about Lazarus’ predicament…each of us enters this cave!
But there is another kind of cave that we also enter! It is referred to as the “cave of the heart”. Nothing could be more opposite than these two caves for we enter this one willing…in contemplation to be with God. Unlike Lazarus’ cave, it is a place of life. It, too, is a cave that brings us to silence and stillness but not in death but in peace and energy. We are not alone but in communion with God. To use St Paul’s words to the Romans today: this cave of the heart is Christ’s “Spirit dwelling within you”. “The body is dead to sin but the Spirit is alive”…in our hearts. So we see quite a contrast between the cave of Lazarus with its sin and decay and the cave of the heart with its communion and love.
Why…and how…we enter the cave determines its character and effects. Do I enter the cave desiring communion with God or for isolation. In other words, to be for God alone or to be by myself alone? What do I do with my time of solitude? What do I do with my interval time? What do I do on my hermit day? Lazarus’ cave can be an image of what it is like to go interiorly to be alone in solitude – not with God – but with our self! Not for the sake of union but isolation. The stone can help in keeping people out but it also locks us into our self. In our monastic discipline it is our task to roll away any stones that block the entrance to the cave of the heart.
Pat K(psychologist) named one of these possible stones that can block the entrance: our anxieties and fears. I would like to recapture some of her key points as she discussed the four basic human fears we all struggle with from time to time:
The first is the fear of failure. How do I measure success and failure? Am I motivated by a need to please others? Is it about doing the work or about others’ expectations of me? Am I ruled by not wanting to disappoint others? How I see myself and where my self-worth is rooted is essential here and can change this fear into loving service…unclouded by my own or others expectations. Expectations sometimes real but often imagined!
The second is the fear of rejection. If we are oversensitive to criticism it will drain us. A 30-second message can be turned into an “issue” that takes a ton of energy from me. She repeated often, “reality requires feedback” so we should always embrace it as gift. Framing our stance in gratitude can change this fear into self-knowledge and growth.
The third is the fear of change. We naturally resist an ambiguous future. But it is fictitious to live thinking that what is today will be tomorrow. This can paralyze us, whereas, change is meant to be a source of creativity and life. Living in trust can change this fear from stagnation into stimulation.
The fourth is the fear of intimacy. This makes us want to hide and remain unknown. Have we ever said interiorly “if they really knew who I was they wouldn’t like me?”…so we hide. If we want intimacy with God there will have to be intimacy and vulnerability with others. Humility and self-acceptance can change this fear into communion.
How we enter is also important. According to John Climacus, “humility is the hardest virtue to acquire but it is what leads us to the entrance of the cave”. To enter the heart one must go there with the meekness of Mary and the confidence of Martha. Martha was confident in faith: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who was to come into the world” and she boldly ran out to meet Christ. Mary remains in the stillness and silence of humble devotion until she is called but then she runs to fall at Jesus’ feet. Together, Martha and Mary teach us that humility takes courage and strength…and leads us to Jesus.
Since these two caves are so different, we might think that we can make a choice on which one we enter. However, there is no choice…we must enter both!...one by our human condition; the other by the Divine Indwelling. In 2 weeks we will be visiting another cave. Jesus himself will be laid in a tomb, much like Lazarus’ cave, and a stone will be rolled over the entrance. Jesus in his humanity took on death and darkness, carrying our sins into the tomb with him. But Christ in his divinity was able to emerge from this tomb in resurrection. This changes everything! Through Jesus’ Paschal Mystery we see these 2 caves transformed into one secure and sacred place. With Easter we come to realize that these two caves are not as different as we initially thought. When we first enter the heart we meet our sin – our selfishness, hatred, and violence – but as we continue the interior journey of the heart we begin to encounter the beauty, goodness, and truth of our life. We begin to move from the chaos and the temporal to the unchanging and the eternal. This is what St Teresa of Avila was describing in her Seven Mansions. We begin first by going over the moat battling with the beasts. But even the first floors are pretty disarrayed and in need of much cleaning before moving to the higher mansions…or deeper into the heart. So we see it takes both humility and courage to overcome our fears and anxieties to enter into the cave…but it takes even more courage to come out transformed…to allow ourselves to change!
I would like to close with a quote from Isaac of Syria in the 7th century who knew well what it was like to live in the cave of Lazarus as well as the cave of the heart. He advises: “Try to enter your inner treasure house and you will see the treasure house of heaven. For both the one and the other are the same, and the one and the same entrance reveals them both. The ladder leading to the kingdom is within you, that is, in your soul.” So let us listen today to Jesus calling us out of the tomb to humbly enter into the cave of the heart…this is the place of transformation…this is the place of intimacy with God…and this is the place of Easter joy.