As I write I am painfully aware of a friend who has confided in me about struggles she has in the workplace with employers and colleagues. She faces injustice daily, and only by dint of dedication to her profession and commitment to those who work under her does she remain in her present situation.
I dare say she, and many others, could read what I have written about “owning” our problems and say, “I wish my boss or my colleague would do that!” There are many such situations in our world where the Christian must somehow negotiate webs of deceit and structures of sin. How does John Cassian’s teaching apply to such situation?
It is important to note that Cassian’s teaching is not geared to the political and social sphere but to the personal and spiritual sphere. And so, I think we find the answer to this question in Cassian’s sense of the power of God’s Word, and his repeated urgings to us to “remember the cross.” He says, “Thus at every moment we should cultivate the earth of our heart with the gospel plough – that is, with the continual remembering of the Lord’s cross”.
Cassian has changed the metaphor for the heart here from that of the vessel to that of a field. The gospel works on this field like a powerful plough. The continual remembrance of the Lord’s cross is the essence of the gospel, and is the power that eventually transforms us like a plough transforms a field.
It is worth lingering here a moment. Imagine the field, the great lumps and clods of dark earth, and the plough’s work of digging and turning the earth, back and forth, over and over. It is an image for the spiritual life that I have returned to many times over the years, whenever I feel that my inner “field” is being ploughed over once again. I find it very easy to relate to this, and when I remember the cross and the gospel plough I feel the return of hope amid an experience that might otherwise feel as though anything good I had done was being destroyed.
For Cassian, the Word of God – epitomized by the remembrance of the cross – is alive. It has its own intrinsic power to work within and strengthen our hearts if only we give ourselves over to it. I cannot change others. I cannot do away with structures of sin in the world. I can only change myself, but by doing this, I do make an effective contribution to the process of dismantling sin’s structures in the world. Through the continual remembrance of the Lord’s cross, personal change becomes possible. Then, it becomes possible, too, to experience the truth of the words of Karl Rahner, with which we began our reflections, “The Christian faith professes that God is not merely the God far off…. God wills to be, in self-communication, the ‘content’ and future of man.”