Living with Contradiction

The title of this entry, “Living with Contradiction”, is the title of a book written in the late 1980s or early 1990s by the English mystic Esther de Waal.   It is a collection of talks which she gave in 1988 at two different retreats at Holy Cross Episcopal Monastery in upstate New York and at Glastonbury Abbey in England.  The retreats were part of a series of “Benedictine Experiences” that brought people together for a period of time to pray, work, study and play according to the pattern of the Rule of St. Benedict, an ancient guide for monastic living that has shaped virtually every Western Christian monastic community past and present.

Each of these “Benedictine Experience” retreats lasted a week, and de Waal writes in the introduction to her book that each week “worked at two levels.   It was not only an individual experience in which each participant discovered much about him or herself through this daily balance and rhythm, it was also a shared life, an experience of making community, of learning to accept one another and to live together in love.  In this is simply reflected one of the most profound insights of the Rule [of St. Benedict]:  unless and until we can live with ourselves, we cannot live with other people.  But equally, unless and until we have learnt [sic] to live fully and creatively with others we cannot hope to live with ourselves.”

Later, de Waal goes on to say, “We all stand in need of healing.  We are all seeking wholeness.  For most of us it is a most urgent and ever-present reality in our lives, one we may perhaps try to bury or neglect but which, if we are honest with ourselves, we find we cannot ignore.  We all know also that unless we attend to our inner conflicts and contradictions, not only will we find ourselves torn apart by our inner divisions but also we shall very likely inflict wounds on those around us.”

These two ideas, of the necessity of learning to live with ourselves if we are to live fruitfully with others and of our tendency to inflict wounds on others out of our own unhealed woundedness,  are very powerful to me, and ring with a terrible truth in our society.  A quick look on the Google News feed this week opens a window onto the on-going violence in the Middle East, news of a professor denied tenure who draws a gun to kill and injure her colleagues, a man with a court date who inexplicably opens fire on middle school students in Colorado, teenagers arrested in Boston for killing a store clerk.   And then, of course, there is the on-going shrill screaming of politicians who should be showing us what it means to work together on our shared challenges but instead prefer to do verbal violence to each other in a relentless effort to prove who is “right” or, alternatively, to prove who is most likely to ruin the country.  No, one doesn’t have to go far or work all that hard to find the unhealed brokenness of humanity.

I am reminded of some words of Jesus, when he says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12b).   It is a statement that reflects an understanding Jesus had of what his mission, in part, was:  to heal those who were in need of healing.   If Jesus understood this to be a part of his mission, we who are his followers should understand it to be part of ours, as well.   What Esther de Waal was describing as “Benedictine Experience” retreats were experiments in living as intentional Christian communities for a period of time.   What she recognized as one of the benefits of those experiments were how the intentional rhythms of prayer, study and work in community helped to enable the inner healing of the individual participants which in turn affected the quality of the community which those individuals shared.  It seems to me that more permanent Christian communities, like those organized as churches, also have the ability to live with this kind of intention, with the same benefits of inner individual healing that leads to a new quality of shared community.

Such Christian communities can also have an impact on the larger world in which they are located.  As we achieve a greater inner wholeness, and experience within Christian community the impact of that wholeness, we are able to notice the lack of wholeness in the larger world, and bring what we experience in our churches to bear on the pain of our society.   In another of his teachings, Jesus suggests that his followers can be like yeast added to flour:  there is more flour than leavening agent, but the presence of the leaven impacts and changes the flour over time (Matthew 13:13).  So, it seems clear that part of our call as Christian people is to be an agent of healing in the world, and to do that, we need to experience that healing ourselves:  Christian community should be the place for that to happen.

But Esther de Waal gives us an important insight into how that healing happens and into how it is shared.  It does not happen by lecturing people about their moral failures.  The Rule of St. Benedict doesn’t image Christian life as a sustained harangue.  Rather, the healing happens through an intentional rhythm of prayer, study, work and play, rooted in a sustained awareness of God’s presence, love and grace.   It is that very rhythm that opens us up to God, and that nurtures our healing.  And when we share that rhythm with others, and live that rhythm among others, it impacts those around us, as well.

The Christian life does not happen by accident, but by intention.  And if we live it with intention, not only will we change ourselves, but we may change the world, too.

Jesus, Capitalism & the Common Good

I recall during the last presidential campaign that Barack Obama took quite a bit of criticism for suggesting in the midst of the unfolding economic crisis that the wealthier members of our society had a greater responsibility to the less privileged among us.  He even went so far as to suggest that in some sense there needed to be a redistribution of wealth in America if we were to provide a certain level of safety to the most vulnerable.

My interest in raising this is not to open a debate about Mr. Obama’s policies, but I remember very well that as he was taking a fair amount of criticism for these remarks, with some people accusing him of being a socialist and others simply outraged that a candidate for the American presidency would even dare to speak of redistributing wealth, I could not help but think to myself that this was exactly the kind of thing that Jesus was talking about in the Gospels.  All that stuff about loving your neighbor as yourself, taking care of the poor, giving people who asked you for your coat more of your clothing than they had asked for, the suggestion that we should sell what we have and give it to the poor, the parable about the rich man and Lazarus the beggar – these are all teachings about redistributing one’s own wealth so that the more vulnerable in society would be protected and provided for.   It seems clear to me that if we were to classify Jesus’ views according to today’s political definitions, he would probably fit into the category of “socialist” more easily than any other.

This is an uncomfortable realization for Americans with our commitment to capitalist market economics, a system which has been an integral part of the spectacular achievements of our society over the last 200 years.    We fancy ourselves to be, after all, a nation founded on Christian principles.  Yet, the fundamental principle that lies at the heart of Christian spirituality and the fundamental principle that lies at the heart of capitalism are difficult to reconcile.  At the heart of Christianity lies the principle of “other-centeredness”.   The teaching of Jesus asks us to let go of our own egos, to dethrone ourselves as the center of our own universes, and instead center our lives in God, who calls us to compassionate service to our fellow human beings whom we are to see as manifesting Christ to us.  In other words, our lives are not about ourselves; they are about God and about the human community – the beloved community.   We admire people like Mother Theresa, who embody this way of living so completely, and we recognize in their lives a deeper call coming to us from Christ that in our own way we should seek to embody this way of living, even if our own practice does not rise to the level of sainthood.

The central principle of capitalism is completely different, in that is seeks not the diminishment of the ego and the dethronement of the self from the center of things, but quite the opposite.  The success of market capitalism depends on economic participants who, instead of living other-centered lives, live self-centeredly, pursuing their own self-interest in order to acquire wealth.  Concern for the other actors in the economy becomes a function of self-interest rather than the response to a deeply perceived, transcendent call from beyond ourselves.  People are ultimately defined according to their capacity to consume, and consumption becomes an obligation upon which continuing economic prosperity depends.  The beloved community of Jesus is replaced with the community of consumers.

The truth is that Americans have not been entirely comfortable with pure capitalism.   We have come to see the need to modify that economic philosophy in order to provide some minimal level of care for the less privileged among us.  In a purely capitalist system, we would not have things like Social Security and Medicare.   We have come to the conclusion that there is something to the idea of the common good, and so we have set up structures to provide for the common good, while at the same time trying to leave room from that entrepreneurial spirit that allows individuals to achieve the kind of success that capitalism promises, and that has been the motivating factor in so much of our social and technological advancement.

In our current economic and political climate, we seem to be having a harder time discerning what the common good is.  Most of us are a bit irritated with those among us who seemed to embrace capitalism a little too much, enriching themselves but creating a dangerous and ultimately unsustainable economic dynamic.  At the same time, we are not very willing to look at how we ourselves were willing to take advantage of easy credit offerings and adjustable mortgages in order to obtain a standard of living that, in the end, we could not sustain.  Moral questions about regulating the financial system to try to keep us from getting carried away by greed again and about expanding the social safety net to include a basic good like health care have us tied up in a kind of political gridlock, which in part has to do with an inability to determine what the common good should look like at this moment in history.

If we who are followers of Jesus allow our commitment to Christ to encounter our commitment to capitalism as we grope toward some new definition of the common good, it seems to me a new question arises which is not currently much in evidence in our public discourse:  what are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of someone else?    It is an other-centered question, which moves us out of the center of the picture.   It is a question that asks us to think about what we really need in order to live a good life that is a blessing both to ourselves and others.   It is a question that asks us to examine our lives and wonder at what point we have enough.   It is a question that wants us to look at what we want in terms of material success and ask ourselves if all of our wants are really appropriate.  It is a question that asks us to recognize that our welfare is linked to the welfare of others, and that none of us is an island unto ourselves.  It is the question that lies behind Jesus’ invitation (command?) to take up our crosses and follow him.  The cross is a symbol of what we are willing to sacrifice for others, and at the same time, it is a symbol of a new and more profound life that emerges out of that very act of sacrifice.

One of my favorite passages in the New Testament comes from St. Paul, who advised his readers of the importance of working out their own salvation in “fear and trembling.”    I think that working out our own salvation means recognizing that our own personal salvation is linked to the rest of the human community.   Once we have worked out that connection, the fear and trembling come because we understand that something is being asked of us.   We are being asked to give up something – perhaps even something very dear to us – for the sake of others.  It is not easy, it is not comfortable, but it is, according to Jesus, the path to the new and authentic life that lies on the other side of the cross.

Sin and Repentance: Ugh

Next Wednesday, of course, is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  And Lent is one of those seasons that feature two words that many modern (post-modern?) people don’t like to think about too much:  “sin” and “repentance”.     “Sin” simply has gone out of fashion, for it seems hopelessly attached to a theological perspective that focuses on how bad human beings are, how unworthy human beings are, and how amazing it is that God tolerates us at all.  “Sin”, for so many people, I think, brings to mind lists of rules to be followed and the inevitable divine punishment that will come when God looks us over with that list in mind.  There is no question that certain forms of Christianity over the centuries have contributed to this sense of  “sin” as primarily a measure of human moral depravity.   And, frankly, most of us just aren’t buying it anymore.

As for “repentance” – well, most of us probably aren’t quite sure what it means, but it is certainly tied to “sin”, and seems to have something to do with how sorry we should be about exactly how sinful we are.  And, frankly, we aren’t buying that, either.

It is unfortunate that “sin” and “repentance” have lost their theological credibility for so many people, because in their original context, they are words that represent ideas that our key to our spiritual lives.   Far from being words that condemn us for our unworthiness and emphasize how much we deserve God’s punishment, their entrance into the Christian vocabulary was motivated by a profound understanding of God’s love for humanity, and as concepts, their value was seen chiefly as therapeutic.

The Greek word which we translate as “sin” is the word “hamartia”, which means “to miss the mark”.  When you think about it, this is a much more gentle definition than the one we usually have in mind when it comes to “sin”.   For me, the image of an archer comes to mind, carefully fitting the arrow into her bow, and releasing it to fly toward the target.   If she is a novice archer, she will most likely not hit the bullseye.   In other words, she will miss the mark.  As she becomes more comfortable with the bow, however, and as she acquires greater skill, she will hit the bullseye much more frequently.  The same thing is true about our own spiritual practice (and, let me say, that everything about being human is, in the end, a spiritual practice).  We are not always skillful about being truly human and we are not always skillful in the use of the spiritual tools we have at our disposal.   Thus, we sometimes (or often!) miss the mark.  Sin, when thought of in this way, ceases to be an occasion for wallowing in our own unworthiness, and instead becomes a call to greater skillfulness in living our lives and using the spiritual tools available to us.

This recognition leads us to repentance, but not in the sense of feeling terribly sorry (or terrible and sorry) about the way in which we have missed the mark.   The Greek word we are translating as repentance is “metanoia”, which means to have a second thought, to think about something after the fact and change one’s mind, to head out in a new direction.  Repentance is the simple recognition that we have missed the mark somehow, coupled with the resolve and determination to try to be more skillful as human beings and in the use of our spiritual tools – always, of course, with the help of God.

If we think of sin and repentance in these ways, in appreciation of their original Greek definitions, then it becomes easier to see how it is that certain strands of the Christian tradition have viewed them as a framework for a kind of spiritual therapy.  The skillful use of these terms does not lead us to wallow in our own unworthiness, but rather helps us to see more clearly and honestly where it is that we are missing the mark and how it is that we can try hitting the mark more often.  Just as a good psychotherapist will help us to see ourselves more honestly, yet with compassion, so the deeper tradition behind the language of sin and repentance seeks to encourage us toward a more honest appraisal of ourselves, always in a spirit of compassion, coupled with the humility to realize that becoming more skillful human beings requires a reliance on God’s grace and love.  Of course, the Christian tradition has also tended to maintain that we will never be perfectly skillful; that is, we will not hit the mark every single time.  And that also raises our reliance on God’s grace and love, to fill the gap.

So as the season of Lent envelopes us next week, I encourage you not to dismiss the ideas and language of sin and repentance as out of fashion, as things which belong to another era and someone else’s theology, but to truly embrace them in their proper spirit, recognizing their therapeutic value in helping us to see ourselves honestly and authentically, and leading us to a deeper resolve to live our lives more skillfully, and to employ to greater effect the spiritual tools we have at our disposal.  And, always confident in the love and grace of God.

The 10 C’s: Toward a More Whole Humanity

Many of you will have heard of Matthew Fox, the Roman Catholic Dominican priest who was shown the door for his rather revolutionary theological views.  He, of course, found his way to The Episcopal Church, and is now a priest of the Diocese of California.  He continues to explore the frontiers of Christian theology, and in doing so, often seems to go far afield of what is considered “normal” by our tradition.  He excels, in my mind, at doing what theologians really ought to do first and foremost:  get people to think.

Recently, he got me thinking about education and formation, through a book that was published in 2006 called “The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human”.    A.W.E. stands for Ancestral Wisdom Education, and Fox intends his book to be a call to supplement the rational “three R’s” of traditional education with an even more traditional education, a kind of formation with ancient roots:  an education or formation in wisdom.  The idea, it seems to me, is that for human beings to be whole, we must become practiced at different ways of knowing.  Our culture tends to value knowledge acquired through the sciences, and while that knowledge is certainly important, the kind of knowledge which falls under the category of wisdom is also important.  Wisdom is rooted in the collective human experience over the ages, the kind of knowledge which the world’s spiritual traditions are adept at preserving and handing down (though, it must be admitted, these traditions are also good at obscuring that wisdom from time to time).   The world’s spiritual traditions hand down that wisdom in a variety of ways, not only through texts and teaching, but also through ritual and practice.

In exploring the idea of wisdom education, Fox distills what he calls “The 10 C’s” which he believes should be a part of a fuller program of human formation:

  • cosmology (or creation)
  • contemplation
  • creativity (or co-creation)
  • chaos
  • compassion
  • courage
  • critical consciousness and judgment
  • community
  • ceremony and celebration
  • character development

There isn’t space in this blog to go into all of these 10 C’s — although one of the most intriguing of them to me is chaos.  I suppose I am intrigued by it because we seem to live in a cultural context that dislikes chaos, and craves order.  Yet, as Fox points out, chaos is part of the human experience, and can often be a fruitful time.  He quotes a midwife who describes childbirth as one of the most chaotic of human events, and yet, the end result is new life.  Chaos is the womb out of which galaxies and stars come forth.  And chaos in our own lives can give birth to new beginnings and new directions.  The wisdom of our spiritual traditions, including the Christian tradition, helps us embrace the chaotic parts of our lives and ourselves in creative, dynamic and transformative ways.

Considering all that Fox has to say, it strikes me that we so often think of our religious traditions as authorities that tell us what life is about and demand our allegiance to their doctrinal truths.   But I think that what these traditions are really about (in part) is preserving and passing on the wisdom of the ages.   If we are to live our lives meaningfully, if we are to develop a sense of wholeness within ourselves and our world, we need to discover this wisdom.  I wonder how our experience of religion would change if we saw our faith communities as wisdom communities, perhaps the only places in our society that provide a space to develop the intuitive, non-rational aspects of our being, and that preserve for us the fruits of human contemplation and experience over many centuries.   If we valued this kind of formation, then not only would we know how to do things, but then perhaps we would have the wisdom to know how best to do them or whether to do them at all.