Once I said to my spiritual director that I tend to slide between feelings of superiority and inferiority, back and forth like a sea-saw, tipped to one side or the other. He replied simply, “That’s the ego.” All I know is that it is very tiring and even destructive. There is wisdom in the Benedictine’s advice to take the middle path, “without exaggerated approval or exaggerated guilt,” as Sister Joan Chittister has said.¹
It makes me wonder if communities of any kind, our own included, have that same tendency too. We can be too sure of our calling, our own righteousness and importance on the one hand and too fearful of our own capacities to embrace change with confidence on the other hand. No matter which direction we go, at any given time, it can become all about us, and how well or not-well we are doing. Locked into a story that is very self-referential, it can drain our energy and sap our strength.
There is a bigger story embracing us, one which we can never grasp, a calling to purpose not our own. Such a purpose is never static for we can never be sure we have finally discerned it and uncovered its depths. Far from any sense of certainty, its unraveling is mysterious and we may be left with far more questions than answers. The Spirit moves where and how it wills.
The Israelites’ own calling – as was the early Christian community’s; as is our own – is layered with the struggle to move from a self-focused agenda to a more open and authentic relationship with others. Such an adventurous faith, which is more concerned with seeing Christ in others than in being correct, is a gift of grace which expands our lives. It is always prompting us towards new beginnings and a re-evaluation of what we thought we knew; even to risking our own demise and the death of our own stories.
Recognising our own fallen-ness is nigh impossible. Time and time again, we will rally our own defenses, with the claim that if things were different, we wouldn’t be like this. The tendency to blame others is an attitude which can never foster relationality. The tendency to blame ourselves is not helpful either. Where we see sin, Love sees woundedness and pain.
The German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer must have struggled with these issues too, grappling with his own part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. He could never know that what he had done was for the betterment of all. Faced with the likelihood of his own death, he came to the conclusion that the community of God is being called to a ‘religionless’ Christianity, where we can rest in simply being human.
In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, he wrote, “I shall not come out of here a homo religiousus. The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.”² While it is difficult to know exactly what he meant, I wonder if he felt that he could no longer be as sure of himself or of even what he meant by the word, ‘God’. Yet to many of us, Bonhoeffer exemplifies what it is to trust in God’s faithfulness.
Similarly, becoming more aware of our own complicity in evil, the suffering of our neighbour and of the suffering of the earth and all creatures may bend us in a new direction towards living a resurrected life, slowly but surely. In the Gospel of Matthew (27:52), the text reads that, “upon the death of Jesus, tombs broke open and the saints inside were resurrected.” Maybe the tombs in which we have encased ourselves also burst open when we witness Love dying.
Our deaths to ourselves, both individually and collectively, have the potential to inspire hope in others that their own deaths, failures and humiliations are not in vain. Supported by brain science, waiting in community, in silence and stillness, may assist us on this journey of learning to surrender our wandering mind – so full of thoughts about self – so that we are more able to listen for the sake of the greater whole. In such a space, there is the possibility of hearing once again the message of our own belovedness; our calling to a communion and community beyond ourselves.
¹The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century p.97.
²The Spectrum – The church in crisis – The religionless Christianity of DB – Ronald Osborn – Sept 30, 2016.