I’ve just finished reading Timothy Radcliffe’s, Why Go to Church: The Drama of the Eucharist, which I talked about in a post a couple of days ago. I’m very grateful to my friend Julie for recommending it; there is a lot here on which one could profitably spend a lot of time reflecting.
One of the things that resonated very strongly with me is Radcliffe’s discussion of Paul’s line in Galatians, where he says that it is no longer he, but Christ who lives in him. Quoting from Pope Benedict’s 2007 Easter Vigil sermon, Radcliffe suggests that a proper understanding of this idea offers something of a middle way between the secular Western view of the self as “having a purely self-contained identity, hermetically sealed from others,” and the understanding expressed in some versions of Buddhism of non-self as meaning that the “I” is “utterly swallowed up on some impersonal ocean of being.”
Instead, our Christian understanding is really that in Christ we remain “both ‘I and no longer I.’” God gives each of us an identity; there is an “I.” But the “I” is not isolated; instead, it finds itself within the vastness of God. We have identities, our “individuality is not abolished,” but our identity is defined not by separation but by communion – with Christ and with each other.
As I was repeating to myself the words “I and no longer I, but Christ,” I realized that what helped me absorb the idea most vividly was not so much my actual experience of “I and no longer I, but Christ,” but my analogous experience of “you and no longer you, but Christ.”
The months, and especially the last few weeks, before my father’s death from pancreatic cancer six years ago were very difficult for me. Visits to the hospital, anxiety and worry, talking to out of town relatives about his condition, concern for my mother… all were very exhausting.
Often during that period, as at other times during the years I lived in the vicinity, I made frequent visits to St. Ignatius Retreat House for afternoon daily Mass, in addition to whatever programs brought me there. One of the Jesuits on the retreat house staff was at one time my spiritual director and is someone for whom I have a great deal of love and admiration. During that period, there were any number of occasions on which he saw me walk in, doubtless seeing the stress, anxiety and exhaustion, and simply held out his arms for me to walk into. Each time he hugged me, I felt as though I were being wrapped in the arms of God. I felt God’s presence. I felt completely supported and loved and strengthened and for those moments felt better.
What was clear to me then was that it wasn’t that it was God and not my Jesuit friend. My friend was there – but it was both him and more than him. Him and God at the same time. It is hard to put it clearly in words, but understanding “him and no longer him, but Christ,” helps me to understand what Radcliffe and Pope Benedict are trying to convey by “I and no longer I, but Christ who lives I me.”