God’s Spirit will not always strive with man.

In one of his cryptic notes, Pascal writes: “the motions of grace; the hardness of heart; external circumstances.” Pascal is referring to the fact that men who are conscious of the call of God (“the motions of grace”) nevertheless resist because of “hardness of heart” and “external circumstances.”

Lord Clark has just published the second volume of his autobiography entitled The Other Half: A Self-Portrait. Sir Kenneth Clark (as he then was) became a household name around the world in connection with the highly successful televised series, “Civilization.” Lord Clark does not profess to be anything other than a liberal, secular humanist; but (as his documentaries reveal) he is not indifferent to the role of religion in the history of Western civilization.

There is an arresting passage in his autobiography in which he writes:

“I had a religious experience. It took place in the Church of San Lorenzo, but did not seem to be connected with the harmonious beauty of the architecture. I can only say that for a few minutes my whole being was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy, far more intense than anything I had known before. This state of mind lasted for several minutes, and, wonderful though it was, posed an awkward problem in terms of action. My life was far from blameless: I would have to reform. My family would think I was going mad, and perhaps after all, it was a delusion for I was in every way unworthy of receiving such a flood of grace. Gradually the effect wore off and I made no effort to retain it. I think I was right: I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course. But that I had ‘felt the finger of God’ I am quite sure and, although the memory of this experience has faded, it still helps me to understand the joys of the saints.”

This passage is extraordinarily revealing. He acknowledges that he experienced “the motions of grace”; he also acknowledges that he deliberately hardened his heart by refusing to pay the price of obedience and amendment. As one reads that passage one cannot help but feel a sense of infinite sadness.

The Gospels tell the story of a young man who also experienced “the motions of grace.” With eager impatience, he asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied: “You know the commandments: Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” The young man replied that he had obediently kept all these commandments from his youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him: there was something attractive about this fine, morally upright, eager young man and Jesus coveted him for the kingdom of God; he therefore told him frankly that there was one thing that he lacked: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus knew that this young man’s wealth was a fatal impediment to full surrender. To be a disciple, he would have to give it up. When he heard the conditions of discipleship spelled out, “his face fell and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:19, 21, 22).

This young man, like Lord Clark, was conscious of “the motions of grace,” but because of “hardness of heart” and “external circumstances,” he was unwilling to pay the price.

John Updike, that polished and accomplished novelist of American bourgeois society, quotes Pascal’s epigram in the frontispiece of his early novel, Rabbit Run. “Rabbit” is Harry Angstrom’s nickname; as a boy, he had been given the absurd nickname because of a nervous flutter of his nostrils. The improbable name had somehow become symbolic of his character. Harry was one of those people who attempt to solve the discontents of being human by running. Confronted with a situation he cannot handle, he turns and runs. When his wife has a baby he returns home; he makes a determined effort to be faithful. But things don’t work out well. There is a bitter scene, and Harry storms out of the house. His wife, humiliated and hurt, reverts to drink. Later in the day, in her drunken state, she tries to bathe the baby and drowns it.

Harry returns for the funeral. He feels silently accused; he cannot talk. Desperately, he turns and runs. The novel ends with Rabbit’s flight. “Out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”

At one point, Eccles, the Episcopalian minister, tries to help Harry to understand himself. The problem, as he sees it, is Harry’s determination to run from reality rather than to face it. “Harry,” he reflects, “has no taste for the dark, tangled, visceral aspect of Christianity, the going through quality of it, the passage into death and suffering that redeems and inverts these things, like an umbrella blowing inside out. He lacks the mindful will to walk the straight line of a paradox.” Unable or unwilling to pay the price of authentic living, Harry, like a frightened animal, turns and runs. He experiences “the motions of grace” but because of “hardness of heart” and “external circumstances” those motions are once again resisted and tragically come to naught.

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God’s Spirit will not always strive with man; there comes a time when those who harden their hearts will hear his voice no more. Lord Clark tells us that, for a brief period of time, he had a feeling of “being irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy,” of “a flood of grace,” of being touched “by the finger of God”; but he “made no effort to retain it.” He records that now “the memory of this experience has faded.” What is so inexpressibly sad is that, having tasted the heavenly gift, by his own will and volition, he turned his back on the promised land and did not choose to enter in.

In the words of Shakespeare: “There is a tide in the affairs of men,/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; /Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

These are the alternatives: either a response in obedience to “the motions of grace” and the call of God, or “hardness of heart” and bondage to “external circumstances.” The choice is over to us.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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