RonRolheiser,OMI

The Grace within Passivity

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A friend of mine shares this story. She grew up with five siblings and an alcoholic father. The effect of her father’s alcoholism was devastating on her family.  Here’s how she tells the story: By the time my father died his alcoholism had destroyed our family. None of us kids could talk to each other anymore. We’d drifted apart to different parts of the country and had nothing to do with each other. My mother was a saint and kept trying through the years to have us reconcile with each other, inviting us to gather for Thanksgiving and Christmas and the like, but it never worked. All her efforts were for nothing. We hated each other. Then as my mother lay dying of cancer, in hospice, bedridden, and eventually in a coma, we, her kids, gathered by her bedside, watching her die, and she, helpless and unable to speak, was able to accomplish what she couldn’t achieve through all those years when she could speak. Watching her die, we reconciled.

We all know similar stories of someone in their dying, when they were too helpless to speak or act, powerfully impacting, more powerfully than they ever did in word or action, those around them, pouring out a grace that blessed their loved ones. Sometimes, of course, this isn’t a question of reconciling a family but of powerfully strengthening their existing unity.  Such was the case in a family history shared by Carla Marie Carlson, in her book, Everyday Grace. Her family was already closely-knit, but Carlson shares how her mother’s dying strengthened those family bonds and graced all the others who witnessed her dying: “Those who took the opportunity to be with my Mom during that journey have told me that their lives were forever changed. It was a remarkable time which I will always treasure. Lessons of acceptance and courage were abundant as she struggled with the realities of a dying body. It was dramatic and intense, but yet filled with peace and gratitude.” Most anyone who has ever sat in vigil around a loved one who was dying can share a similar story.

There’s a lesson here and a mystery. The lesson is that we don’t just do important things for each other and impact each other’s lives by what we actively do for each other; we also do life-changing things for each other in what we passively absorb in helplessness. This is the mystery of passivity which we see, paradigmatically, played out in what Jesus did for us.

As Christians, we say that Jesus gave his life for us and that he gave his death for us, but we tend to think of this as one and the same thing. It’s not. Jesus gave his life for us through his activity; he gave his death for us through his passivity. These were two separate movements. Like the woman described earlier who tried for years to have her children reconcile with each through her activity, through her words and actions, and then eventually accomplished that through the helplessness and passivity of her deathbed, so too with Jesus. For three years he tried in every way to make us understand love, reconciliation, and faith, without full effect. Then, in less than 24 hours, in his helplessness, when he couldn’t speak, in his dying, we got the lesson. Both Jesus and his mother were able, in their helplessness and passivity, to give the world something that they were unable to give as effectively in their power and activity.

Unfortunately, this is not something our present culture, with its emphasis on health, productivity, achievement, and power very much understands. We no longer much understand or value the powerful grace that is given off by someone dying of a terminal illness; nor the powerful grace present in a person with a disability, or indeed the grace that’s present in our own physical and personal disabilities. Nor do we much understand what we are giving to our families, friends, and colleagues when we, in powerlessness, have to absorb neglect, slights, and misunderstanding. When a culture begins to talk about euthanasia it is an infallible indication that we no longer understand the grace within passivity.

In his writings, Henri Nouwen makes a distinction between what he terms our “achievements” and our “fruitfulness”. Achievements stem more directly from our activities: What have we positively accomplished? What have we actively done for others? And our achievements stop when we are no longer active. Fruitfulness, on the other hand, goes far beyond what we have actively accomplished and is sourced as much by what we have passively absorbed as by what we actively produced. The family described above reconciled not because of their mother’s achievements, but because of her fruitfulness. Such is the mystery of passivity.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his spiritual classic, The Divine Milieu, tells us that we are meant to help the world through both our activities and our passivities, through both what we actively give and through what we passively absorb.

Grieving as a Spiritual Exercise

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In a remarkable book, The Inner Voice of Love, written while he was in a deep emotional depression, Henri Nouwen shares these words: “The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to try to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart.  In your head you analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them.  But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.”

He’s right; your heart is greater than your wounds, though it needs caution in dealing with them. Wounds can soften your heart; but they can also harden you heart and freeze it in bitterness. So what’s the path here? What leads to warmth and what leads to coldness?

In a remarkable essay, The Drama of the Gifted Child, the Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller, tells us what hardens the heart and what softens it. She does so by outlining a particular drama that commonly unfolds in many lives. For her, giftedness does not refer to intellectual prowess but to sensitivity. The gifted child is the sensitive child. But that gift, sensitivity, is a mixed blessing.  Positively, it lets you feel things more deeply so that the joys of living will mean more to you than to someone who is more callous. That’s its upside.

Conversely, however, if you are sensitive you will habitually fear disappointing others and will forever fear not measuring up. And your inadequacy to always measure up will habitually trigger feelings of anxiety and guilt within you.  As well, if you are extraordinarily sensitive, you will tend to be self-effacing to a fault, letting others have their way while you swallow hard as your own needs aren’t met and then absorb the consequences. Not least, if you feel things deeply you will also feel hurt more deeply.  That’s the downside of sensitivity and makes for the drama that Alice Miller calls the “drama of the gifted child”, the drama of the sensitive person.

Further, in her view, for many of us that drama will only begin to really play itself out in our middle and later years, constellating in frustration, disappointment, anger, and bitterness, as the wounds of our childhood and early adulthood begin to break through and overpower the inner mechanisms we have set up to resist them. In mid-life and beyond, our wounds will make themselves heard so strongly that our habitual ways of denial and coping no longer work.  In mid-life you realize that your mother did love your sister better than you, that your father in fact didn’t care much about you, and that all those hurts you absorbed because you swallowed hard and played the stoic are still gnawing away bitterly inside you. That’s how the drama eventually culminates, in a heart that’s angry.

So where does that leave us? For Alice Miller, the answer lies in grieving. Our wounds are real and there is nothing we can do about them, pure and simple. The clock can’t be turned back. We cannot relive our lives so as to provide ourselves with different parents, different childhood friends, different experiences on the playground, different choices, and a different temperament. We can only move forward so as to live beyond our wounds.  And we do that by grieving. Alice Miller submits that the entire psychological and spiritual task of midlife and beyond is that of grieving, mourning our wounds until the very foundations of our lives shake enough so that there can be transformation.  

A deep psychological scar is the same as having some part of your body permanently damaged in an accident. You will never be whole again and nothing can change that. But you can be happy again; perhaps more happy than ever before. But that loss of wholeness must be grieved or it will manifest itself in anger, bitterness, and jealous regrets.

The Jesuit music composer and spiritual writer, Roc O’Connor, makes the same point, with the added comment that the grieving process also calls for a long patience within which we need to wait long enough so that the healing can occur according to its own natural rhythms.  We need, he says, to embrace our wounded humanity and not act out. What’s helpful, he suggests, is to grieve our human limitations. Then we can endure hunger, emptiness, disappointment, and humiliation without looking for a quick fix – or for a fix at all.  We should not try to fill our emptiness too quickly without sufficient waiting.

And we won’t ever make peace with our wounds without sufficient grieving.

The Arrival of Refugees, Old and New

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The religious congregation to which I belong, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, has had a long relationship with the indigenous peoples of North America. Admittedly it hasn’t always been without its shortcomings on our side, but it has been a sustained one, constant through more than one hundred and fifty years. I write this out of the archives of that history.

In the mid-1800s, a group of young Oblates left France to work with the native peoples of Oregon and Washington State. Given the means of travel at the time, particularly the challenge of crossing the entire United States, much of it on horseback, it took them almost a year to get from Marseilles to the Oregon coast.  Among that group was a young missionary, Charles Pandosy.

In the summer of 1854, Governor Stevens had called for a meeting of Native chiefs to be held at Walla Walla to discuss the tension between the USA government and the Natives. One of the tribes was stubbornly rebelling, the Yakima, a tribe led by their chief, Kamiakin, with whom the Oblates and Fr. Pandosy had been working. At one point, Chief Kamiakin turned to Pandosy for advice.  

In a letter written to our Founder in France, Saint Eugene de Mazenod, dated June 5th, 1854, Fr. Pandosy summed up his conversation with the Yakima chief. Not knowing what Europe looked like and not knowing how many people lived there or what forces were driving people to come to North America, the Native Chief had asked Fr. Pandosy how many white men there were and when they would stop coming, naively believing that there couldn’t be that many of them left to come.

In his letter, Fr. Pandosy shares, verbatim, part of his conversation with Kamiakin: “It is as I feared. The whites will take your country as they have taken other countries from the Indians. I came from the land of the white man far to the east where the people are thicker than the grass on the hills. Where there are only a few here now, others will come with each year until your country will be overrun with them … you and your lands will be taken and your people driven from their homes. It has been so with other tribes; it will be so with you. You may fight and delay for a time this invasion, but you cannot avert it. I have lived many summers with you and baptized a great number of your people into the faith. I have learned to love you. I cannot advise you or help you. I wish I could.”

Sound familiar? One doesn’t have to strain any logic to see a parallel to the situation today as millions of refugees are crowding the borders the United States, Canada, and much of Europe, seeking to enter these countries. Like Chief Kamiakin, we who are living in those countries and passionately consider them our “own” are very much in the dark as to how many of people are looking to come here, what pressures are driving them here, and when the seeming endless flow of people will stop. As well, like those indigenous tribes who back then had their lives irrevocably altered by us entering their country we too tend to feel this an unlawful and unfair invasion and are resistant to allowing these people to share our land and our cities with us.

When people initially came to North and South America from Europe they came for various reasons. Some were fleeing religious persecution, some were seeking a way out of poverty and starvation, some were coming to work to send money back to support their families, some were doctors or clergy coming to minister to others, and, yes, some too were criminals bent on crime.

It would seem not much has changed, except the shoe is now on the other foot. We, original invaders, are now the indigenous tribes, solicitous and protective of what we consider as rightfully ours, fearful of the outsiders, mostly naïve as to why they’re coming.

This isn’t just the case in North America, most of Europe is experiencing the exact same pressures, except in their case they’ve had a longer time to forget how their ancestors once came from elsewhere and mostly displaced the indigenous peoples who were already there.

Admittedly, this isn’t easy to resolve, politically or morally: No country can simply open its borders indiscriminately to everyone who wants to enter; and yet, and yet, our scriptures, Jewish and Christian, are unequivocal in affirming that the earth belongs everyone and that all people have the same right to God’s good creation. That moral imperative can seem unfair and impractical; but how do we justify the fact that we displaced others to build our lives here but now find it unfair that others are doing the same thing to us.

Looking at the refugee crisis in the world today one sees that what goes around does eventually come around.