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Fifth Sunday of Lent Reflection

Reflections on The Woman at the Well BY ADRIAN VAN KAAM (conclusion)

April 11,  2011

The woman at the well is moved by the essential spiritual disposition of gratitude.  What she expresses in words and gestures is her thankfulness for receiving the incomparable gift of God's grace.  What she has secretly longed for all her life is suddenly and surprisingly offered to her by a stranger seated at the well.  She responds to this gift by doing her part to lead others to the Lord.

     Of course, we cannot hope to be touched and transformed by God’s grace unless we recognize our sinfulness.  We are doomed as long as we believe that we can save ourselves.  In the words of the text, we acknowledge that “the Lord can only enter into hearts that are empty of feelings of self-sufficiency.” (p. 92) Without sin, there can be no repentance.  And God requires repentance of us.  A text from the Sufi tradition reminds us that “there is gracious favor in the emptying of the servant, in his sinfulness, and in his being mastered by the enticements of negligence and distraction.” The author continues:

These things happen because God desires to give him an intimate knowledge of His exalted qualities and an experience of His sacred attributes, including His glory, His gracious gift of forgiveness, and His acceptance of His servant’s repentance.

The author of this passage tells us that we should not be surprised by this, for “If you did not sin, God would not guide you.”  In a similar vein he offers another saying: “If you did not sin, I fear you would fall into something still more terrible ― wonder of wonders!” (Ibn Abbad of Ronda, p. 135)

     These passages suggest that the presence of sin in our lives can provide a graced opportunity to accept God’s merciful guidance. To quote the Sufi master once again: “Many a sin has afforded its owner entry into the Garden.” (p. 135)  We are being encouraged to let our experience become a means of our return to God.  Jesus longs for us to expose ourselves to the miracle of his presence.  With His help we can transcend our inordinate liaisons in this world.

     A related directive encourages us to be faithful to our humble calling.  Our sinfulness, the poverty of our lives, failed expectations and inordinate attachments--all of these can fill us with a kind of morbid dread and apathy concerning our spiritual worth.  The Lord calls us nevertheless to be faithful to our unique mission. Despite failure and sin, we are called to do the divine will.  We should believe with all our hearts that we are called to a humble yet unique divine mission in which we cooperate with Jesus in completing the work of God in this world.

     Finally, let us reflect briefly on some of the levels of faith formation that are implicit in The Woman at the Well.  Childhood faith (characterized by need, e.g., of a father­-provider) and adolescent faith (characterized by a need for rationalistic control) precede the stages we shall discuss here.  Adult faith formation can be considered in four different aspects or phases: namely, transcendent purifying (preparatory reformation), transcendent illuminating, pneumatic purifying (preparatory transformation), and pneumatic transforming.

     If the woman at the well represents our condition as fallen human beings, she also provides us with insight into the process of spiritual reformation.  A hard life and many failures in marriage have prepared her for transcendent purification.  This stage of formation is characterized by ego desperation.  It includes desperation on the level of sensuality and rationality.  The woman no longer knows what to do.  Sensually and rationally she has reached what appears to be a dead end.  In classic Catholic spirituality this experience is known as the dark night of the senses.  Despite all the pain involved in this period of formation, there is some gain: one begins slowly to go beyond anxiety and rage.  One may feel that s/he is not growing spiritually.  This stage is already evidence of transcendence (i.e., going beyond the “old self”).  Since we all have anxiety and rage, we rely on transcendent purifying formation to help us to negotiate the deformative effects of constricting anxiety and rage.

     Transcendent illuminating formation works hand in hand with transcendent purifying formation.  Ego-desperation increases my hunger for spiritual directives.  By the same token, spiritual directives intensify the desperation I feel on the level of sensual and rational incarnation.  I experience acutely the lack of spiritual integration in my life.  What we are suggesting here is that the experience of breakdown may serve a transcendent breakthrough.  As we let go of ego control, we grow in our capacity to trust the Lord and, consequently, to worship God in spirit and in truth.  Sensuality and rationality are gradually replaced by the spirit and truth of Jesus.

     Transcendent purifying and illuminating formation can happen at any time in one’s development, but it is most likely to occur in midlife or in periods of breakdown and loss.  The initial phase of transcendent formation is, in other words, usually a crisis.  A more spiritual life takes form as we implement the directives we have received.  For example, the appeal to be more gentle may lead to greater acceptance of the way my life has turned out.  I may be less harsh with myself and others.  Instead of being judgmental about my sins and failures, I may choose to express gratitude and praise for all that has been given me.  Interacting with spiritual directives initiates a process of reforming attitudes and dispositions.

     Pneumatic purifying formation is the work of God in our souls.  Only God can prepare us totally for spiritual transformation.  The price is another dark night: in this case a dark night of the spirit.  It is more intense than the dark night of the senses.  The result is an infused experience of the loss of any possessiveness with regard to illuminating experiences.  The purgation is no longer of the senses but of the spirit itself.  This means that all images and concepts of God must also be relinquished.  Pneumatic transformation occurs only when pneumatic purification has begun to prepare us for it.

     Some very few people reach the stage of pneumatic transformation in this life.  Obviously they have suffered much, having endured both the night of the senses and of the spirit.  They may come from any walk of life or faith tradition.  What distinguishes them is their childlike simplicity and radiant faith.  All their words and actions emphasize the value of love.  Regardless of race, color, or creed they are each in his/her unique way, missionaries of God’s universal love.  They live for no other purpose than to witness to that transforming love.

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Last updated: 11/25/10.