Transparency

This contribution is from Ruth Alkema who contributes articles regularly both at Holy Trinity and Jeruzalemkerk in Utrecht.

Some two years ago, I came across the book ‘Morals on the book of Job’. It is a verse by verse commentary on the Bible book of Job, written by Saint Gregory around the year 590. For several reasons this book captivated my attention [1], and now I have read almost half of it, and just read a wonderful explanation on Job 28:17, where Saint Gregory dives into an explanation of how beautiful transparency is (he explains the ‘glass’[2] in the verse), and how wonderful it will be in heaven when we will all be truly open to each other. I enjoyed pondering a bit more on this theme, because I think that my joy in writing consists for a large part in a seeking of this transparency.

There are several sides to transparency: first, be truly open to reality, second express truthfully what goes on in our heart. If we have both, we will be completely transparent: we will be channels of light.

The importance of being open to reality is illustrated with a conversation that I had with a good friend of mine. My friend and I both like to ponder on science and truth, and all sorts of philosophical questions. Actually we think very much alike, only he has concluded that God is an idea that was made up by human fantasies, whereas I am quite convinced that I do have a real personal relation with God. He asked me: ‘But why would you even want to believe?’. The point here is, that he (rightly) thinks that the wish to believe something, will make it difficult for us to be truly open to all facts. And please let us be honest, and acknowledge that it is quite impossible to let go of these wishes. All we can do, is be aware of the fact that these wishes are there. The first step towards being more open to the truth, is finding out what things we really want. This will help us to distinguish our prejudices from the facts.

In a way, being open to reality means a loss of control, because it comes down to giving up our wishes of how the world should be, and subjecting ourselves to how it really is. This lack of influence is very scary. Especially when we consider the vastness of the universe, and the complexity of the problems between persons, and how little we actually understand of it all. Perhaps this feeling of smallness is even more horrifying when you consider the possibility of a personal God, because then it comes down to subjecting yourself to another person. Maybe the reason for not wanting to believe in God, is that it feels much safer to be open to measurable and impersonal and (best of all) predictable surroundings than to a personal God who might want to do God knows what..

So on the one hand, my faith could be a prejudice that might hinder my perception of reality. Yet on the other hand, my faith in a good God does give me the courage to be more open. Frightened people have the tendency to keep everything under control, and keep harmful things out. But I believe that God is good, and also that God created the world, thus it follows that there cannot possibly be any harm in exploring the world as it is. So in this way my faith helps me to release my tight grasp on anything that I wish to be true, because I know that by releasing my prejudices I will get to know more about God.

The other side of transparency: letting others know what goes on in your heart, what good does that bring? Is it even desirable? I remember vividly an occasion when I was deeply lost in thought, and then looked up to find someone looking straight in my eyes. This was very disconcerting, since I had been so absorbed in my thoughts that I felt as if all my barriers were down, and it felt as if this person could see right into my heart. Yikes! In reality this other person never noticed anything special, which was a huge relief to me, but also a little disappointing. Why a relief? Well, because our deepest self is very fragile, and easily hurt by other people who don’t understand, or are careless with our feelings. Why disappointing? Well, being able to share these deepest thoughts is a most wonderful thing, and a great acknowledgement of our value as persons. As Timothy Keller[3] wrote: To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our  greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretence, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.
Striving after relationships in which we can be open is valuable. Yet even though we cannot always share everything with other people, we can do this with God. It is healing for us, if we can open our hearts to him, somewhat in the disconcerting way that I described above: let down the barriers and allow him to look into our hearts and know us. God’s love for us is not as tangible as that of other humans, and we could easily deceive ourselves with some comforting fantasy, or perhaps with a harsh image of God, but still I have noticed that when I really try to be silent and wait expectantly for God, he is truly there.

It is also good for others around us, when we are open. Too often we surround ourselves with a fog of false pretences, and distractions, that create confusion and distance. Think of the relief when someone finally acknowledges something that we sensed all along. This fact gives me confidence that eventually truth (and actually I think here of God himself, as Jesus said: I am the Truth), will overcome. For we all have this inner sense with which we know when something is wrong. It is important to keep this in mind, as it gives ourselves and others some breathing space. The truth itself is not dependent on how we present it, or whether or not it is believed.[4] Therefore we never need to force our opinions on others, we can just share what we believe, and then they can judge for themselves what they will accept.

I am not saying that it is easy to be open (both in speaking and listening), because it really takes an effort to stop distracting ourselves and others. For me disciplines like solitude and fasting are a great help to bring to the surface what I’ve been trying to ignore. And of course it is most important to remember always that Jesus did shed his blood to make us clean. We do not need to be active in cleaning ourselves, but focus on becoming still and allowing Jesus to help us.

I have often been afraid that doing God’s will means that I myself have no influence whatsoever.[5] When I said above, that we will be channels of light, you might object: “But really, what is a channel, I don’t want to be a channel, I want to be a source!”. Perhaps technical persons can admire the beauty of a fiberglass cable, but still, isn’t glass rather bleak and nearly invisible? Figures of speech are always in some way incomplete and leave out important things of the reality that we want to explain. But perhaps in this case we might adjust the image a little bit, and think of transparent stained glass windows. In this example we can see that the cleaner they are, the brighter they convey their image, which is their part of the total story. Just so we, as living images of God, will share our part best if we are clean of distractions and use the fullness of our capabilities.


[1] Not in the last place by the sheer length of it! The book is available online and the part I mention in this text is in book 18, paragraphs 77-79
[2] In some translations the word is ‘crystal’ which makes me think that perhaps originally ‘diamond’ was intended?
[3] The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, by Timothy Keller.
[4] Of course for our own mental health and happiness it is vitally important that people whose opinion we value acknowledge our sincerity!
[5] I also explored this issue in my text Who lives my life