The Personalist Project

The book of Esther has special significance for me. When I was a teenager, perhaps the most important spiritual influence in my life was a woman named Esther. She was warm and witty and kind and encouraging. She had a boundless faith in God, a tender love for humanity, and endless reservoirs of patience and humor. I loved her and wanted to be just like her when I grew up. In ninth grade I asked her to be my sponsor and took Esther as my Confirmation name.

So I'm always extra alert when readings from Esther appear in the liturgy. Today was no exception:

Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish,
had recourse to the LORD.
She lay prostrate upon the ground, together with her handmaids, 
from morning until evening, and said:
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, blessed are you. 
Help me, who am alone and have no help but you,
for I am taking my life in my hand.

Note the personalist elements. 

1. It begins by describing her subjective experience, her interior state. She is "seized with anguish." We cannot understand the import of her acts and choices, if we don't begin by grasping that inward reality. 

2. She is addressing and worshipping God personally, concretely—a God who has entered into relationship and has a specific history with her people. "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," not "the God of the philosophers," as Pascal put it. She hasn't reasoned her way to intellectual assent to the existence God; she has remembered and believed the stories she was told in her youth.

3. Then this especially, "I am taking my life in my hand." She is radically owning herself and her acts, to the point of death.

I recently watched an interview with the great Ayaan Hirsi Ali, reminding me of her book, Infidel, in which she describes her "birthday as a person." It was the day in her late-twenties, when she defied her father by refusing to comply with an arranged marriage to a cousin in Canada. Instead, she got off the train in Germany, abandoning everything safe and familiar to become a penniless refugee in a foreign country, and the enemy of her people. It was the day she "took her life in her hands" and committed herself to the course she had chosen for herself, rather than the one that her family had chosen for her.

And notice in the story of Queen Esther that her act of ultimate self-assertion is at the same time and paradoxically an act of radical self-abandonment. She is entrusting herself and her life to God, exposing herself to possible humiliation and death, out of love for her people.

This is the mystery at the heart of nature and calling as persons.

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