A House of Cards
Almost 30 years ago I was taken by the image of a house of cards while on an eight-day retreat. The image was used by Maggie Ross in her book, The Fountain and the Furnace. As you may know, building a house out of playing cards is not an easy task. One needs to exert a great deal of control over the enterprise. With each additional level the danger of the house falling down becomes great, and more and more control is required. Eventually, all the control in the world won’t do the trick. An unexpected breeze, one card nudged from its proper place, and the whole house comes tumbling down.
When we don’t accept ourselves as creatures created in God’s image; when we don’t accept ourselves as “marvelously made” (Ps 139.13); and when we don’t accept that we are loved by God beyond all imagining, we usually begin to build an identity that is a house of cards. Unable to accept who we are, we construct a person that we think will be acceptable to the world around us and to God. Striving to present an intelligent, successful, accomplished, good looking and witty person to the world requires enormous amounts of energy. When the house begins to fall down, as it inevitably does, we have two choices: we can either begin building the house back up again (unfortunately most people choose this option), or we can look at the ruins at our feet and open ourselves to a new self-understanding that comes from a voice beyond ourselves. Both paths are painful. However, rebuilding the house will just bring more anxiety and stress and will never truly satisfy us. Acknowledging the ruins at our feet, painful as it is, opens us to the possibility of discovering the wonder of who we are.
On the same retreat, I remember thinking of Mozart. Mozart died tragically at the age of 36. Tragically, not so much because he was 36, dying young wasn’t that unusual at the time. No, the tragedy is that he died unrecognized and let lack of recognition destroy him. Thus, we are left with the haunting thought that the person one biographer described “as the perhaps the greatest genius in recorded human history” died not knowing the wonder of his extraordinary life.
At the end of the day all the recognition in the world will not give us what we need. In fact, it will simply drive our desire to maintain the house of cards that brings us the recognition. What we most need to hear is the voice of God declaring that we are God’s beloved child. This is the voice that Jesus heard at his baptism, “You are my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mk. 1.11). It was this voice that sustained him during his ministry regardless of public opinion.
Daily prayer is about listening to that voice. Daily prayer is about being grounded in the voice that establishes our true identity. Maybe the words God spoke to Jesus could be our mantra today: “You are my daughter/son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”