The Martyrdom of Inadequate Self-Expression


Art too has its martyrs and perhaps our greatest pain is that of inadequate self-expression. That’s an insight from Iris Murdoch and it holds true, I believe, for most everyone.

Inside of each of us there’s a great symphony, a great novel, a great dance, a great poem, a great painting, a great book of wisdom, a depth that we can never adequately express. No matter our wit or talent, we can never really write that book, do that dance, create that music, or paint that painting. We try, but what we are able to express even in our best moments is but a weak shadow of what’s actually inside us. And so we suffer, in Murdoch words, a martyrdom of inadequate self-expression.

What underlies this? Why this inadequacy?

At its root, this is not a struggle with what’s base or deficient inside us, pride, concupiscence, arrogance, or ignorance. It’s not ignorance, arrogance, or the devil that create this struggle. To the contrary, we struggle with this tension because we carry divinity inside us. We are made in the image and likeness of God. This is fundamental to our Christian self-understanding. But this must be properly understood.  We do ourselves a disservice when we understand this in an over-pious way, that is, when we imagine it as a holy icon of God stamped inside our souls which we need to honor by living a chaste and moral life. That’s true enough, but there’s more at stake here, particularly as it pertains to our self-understanding.

What we are forever dealing with is an immense grandiosity inside us. There’s a divine energy in us which, precisely because it is divine, never makes easy peace with this world.  We carry inside of us divine energies, divine appetites, and divine depth.  The spiritual task of our lives then, in essence, is that of ordering those energies, disciplining them, channeling them, and directing them so that they are generative rather than destructive.  And this is never a simple task. Moreover our struggle to direct these divine energies triggers a whole series of other struggles.

Because we carry divine energy within our very make-up, we should expect that, this side of eternity, to struggle perennially with four things.

First, we will struggle, at some level, always, to keep a balance between the pressures inside us pushing towards creativity and other voices inside that are telling us to keep a firm grip on our own sanity. We see this played out large in the lives of many artists in their struggle with normalcy, to keep their feet solidly planted within what’s ordinary and domestic because their push for creativity is also pushing them towards the dark, rich chaos that lies more deeply inside.  All of us, according to more or less, struggle in the same way as do great artists.  We too are lured towards the rich chaos inside us, even as we fear for what it might do to our sanity.

Second, we will struggle perennially with an overstimulated grandiosity. The divine fires inside of us, like all fires, easily flame out of control. In a world where everything is shown to us on a screen in our hands and where the successes, beauty, achievements, and talents of others are forever in front of our eyes, we are forever being over-stimulated in our grandiosity. This is felt in our restlessness, in our sense of missing out on life, in our jealousies, in our anger for not being recognized for our talents and uniqueness, and in our constant dissatisfaction with our own lives.

Third, because there is an innate connection between the energy for creativity and sexuality, we will struggle with sexuality. The algebra is clear: Creativity is inextricably linked with generativity and generativity is inextricably bound up with sexuality. No accident, great artists often struggle with sex, which doesn’t give them an excuse for irresponsibility but helps explain the reason.  In sharp contrast, many religious people are in denial about this connection. Unfortunately that only serves to drive the struggle underground and make it more dangerous.

Finally, we all struggle perennially to find that equilibrium between inflation and depression. We are forever finding ourselves either too full of ourselves or too empty of God, that is, either identifying with the divine energies inside of us and becoming pompous or, through false humility, over-sensitivity, and wound, not letting the divine energy flow through us and consequently living in depression because we have stunted our own creativity.

James Hillman suggests that a symptom suffers most when it doesn’t know where it belongs, and so it is important that we try to name all of this. Divine energy living inside of fallible human beings is a formula for tension, disquiet, and, yes, for martyrdom; but it’s meant to be a creative tension, a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved. Proper naming doesn’t take away the pain and frustration, but at least it affords us a noble, poetic canopy under which to suffer.

The End of the World 


People are forever predicting the end of the world. In Christian circles this is generally connected with speculation around the promise Jesus made at his ascension, namely, that he would be coming back, and soon, to bring history to its culmination and establish God’s eternal kingdom. There have been speculations about the end of the world ever since.

This was rampant among the first generation of Christians. They lived inside a matrix of intense expectation, fully expecting that Jesus would return before many of them died. Indeed, in John’s Gospel, Jesus assures his followers that some of them would not taste death until they had seen the kingdom of God. Initially this was interpreted to mean that some of them would not die before Jesus returned and the world ended.

And so they lived with this expectation, believing that the world, at least as they knew it, would end before their deaths. Not surprisingly this led to all kinds of apocalyptic musings: What signs would signal the end? Would there be massive alterations in the sun and the moon? Would there be great earthquakes and wars across the world that would help precipitate the end? Generally though the early Christians took Jesus’ advice and believed that it was useless and counterproductive to speculate about the end of the world and about what signs would accompany the end. The lesson rather, they believed, was to live in vigilance, in high alert, ready, so that the end, whenever it would come, would not catch them asleep, unprepared, carousing, and drunk.

However, as the years moved on and Jesus did not return their understanding began to evolve so that by the time John’s Gospel is written, probably about seventy years after Jesus’ death, they had begun to understand things differently: They now understood Jesus’ promise that some of his contemporaries would not taste death until they had seen the kingdom of God as being fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was, in fact, already back and the world had not ended. And so they began to believe that the end of the world was not necessarily imminent.

But that didn’t change their emphasis on vigilance, on staying awake, and on being ready for the end.  But now that invitation to stay awake and live in vigilance was related more to not knowing the hour of one’s own death. As well, more deeply, the invitation to live in vigilance began to be understood as code for God’s invitation to enter into the fullness of life right now and not be lulled asleep by the pressures of ordinary life, wherein we are consumed with eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage. All of these ordinary things, while good in themselves, can lull us to sleep by keeping us from being truly attentive and grateful within our own lives.

And that’s the challenge that comes down to us: Our real worry should not be that the world might suddenly end or that we might unexpectedly die, but that we might live and then die, asleep, that is, without really loving, without properly expressing our love, and without tasting deeply the real joy of living because we are so consumed by the business and busy pressures of living that we never quite get around to fully living.

Hence being alert, awake, and vigilant in the biblical sense is not a matter of living in fear of the world ending or of our lives ending. Rather it is a question of having love and reconciliation as our chief concerns, of thanking, appreciating, affirming, forgiving, apologizing, and being more mindful of the joys of living in human community and within the sure embrace of God.

Buddha warned against something he called, “slouching”.  We slouch physically when we let our posture break down and become slothful. Any combination of tiredness, laziness, depression, anxiety, tension, over-extension, or excessive pressure can bring down our guard and make our bodies slouch.  But that can also happen to us psychologically and morally. We can let a combination of busyness, pressure, anxiety, laziness, depression, tension, and weariness break down our spiritual posture so that, in biblical terms, we “fall asleep”, we cease being vigilant, we are no longer alert.

We need to be awake spiritually, not slouching. But the end of the world shouldn’t concern us, nor should we worry excessively about when we will die. What we should worry about is in what state our dying will find us. As Kathleen Dowling Singh puts in her book, The Grace in Aging: “What a waste it would be to enter the time of dying with the same old petty and weary thoughts and reactions running through our mind.”

But, still, what about the question of when the world will end?

Perhaps, given the infinity of God, it will never end. Because when do infinite creativity and love reach their limit? When do they say: “Enough! That’s all! These are the limits of our creativity and love!”

The Dangers in being a Warrior Prophet


A prophet makes a vow of love, not of alienation. Daniel Berrigan wrote those words and they need to be highlighted today when a lot of very sincere, committed, religious people self-define as cultural warriors, as prophets at war with secular culture.

This is the stance of many seminarians, clergy, bishops, and whole denominations of Christians today. It is a virtual mantra within in the “Religious Right” and in many Roman Catholic seminaries. In this outlook, secular culture is seen as a negative force that’s threatening our faith, morals, religious liberties, and churches. Secular culture is viewed as, for the main part, being anti-Christian, anti-ecclesial, and anti-clerical and its political correctness is seen to protect everyone except Christians. More worrisome for these cultural warriors is what they see as the “slippery slope” wherein they see our culture as sliding ever further away from our Judeo-Christian roots. In the face of this, they believe, the churches must be highly vigilant, defensive, and in a warrior stance.

Partly they’re correct. There are voices and movements within secular culture that do threaten some essentials within our faith and moral lives, as is seen in the issue of abortion, and there is the danger of the “slippery slope”. But the real picture is far more nuanced than this defensiveness merits. Secularity, for all its narcissism, false freedoms, and superficiality, also carries many key Christian values that challenge to us to live more deeply our own principles.  Moreover the issues on which they challenge us are not minor ones. Secular culture, in its best expressions, is a powerful challenge to everyone in the world to be more sensitive and more moral in the face of economic inequality, human rights violations, war, racism, sexism, and the ravaging of Mother Nature for short-term gain. The voice of God is also inside secular culture.

Christian prophecy must account for that. Secular culture is not the anti-Christ. It ultimately comes out of Judeo-Christian roots and has inextricably embedded within its core many central values of Judeo-Christianity. We need then to be careful, as cultural warriors, to not blindly be fighting truth, justice, the poor, equality, and the integrity of creation. Too often, in a black-and-white approach, we end up having God fighting God.

A prophet has to be characterized first of all by love, by empathy for the very persons he or she is challenging.  Moreover, as Gustavo Gutierrez teaches, our words of challenge must come more out of our gratitude than out of our anger, no matter how justified the anger. Being angry, being in someone else’s face, shredding those who don’t agree with us with hate-filled rhetoric, and winning bitter arguments, admittedly, might be politically effective sometimes. But all of these are counter-productive long term because they harden hearts rather than soften them. True conversion can never come about by coercion, physical or intellectual. Hearts only change when they’re touched by love.

All of us know this from experience.  We can only truly accept a strong challenge to clean up something in our lives if we first know that this challenge is coming to us because someone loves us, and loves us enough to care for us in this deep way. This alone can soften our hearts. Every other kind of challenge only works to harden hearts. So before we can effectively speak a prophetic challenge to our culture we must first let the people we are trying to win over know that we love them, and love them enough to care about them in this deep way. Too often this is not the case. Our culture doesn’t sense or believe that we love it, which, I believe, more than any other factor renders so much of our prophetic challenge useless and even counter-productive today.

Our prophecy must mirror that of Jesus: As he approached the city of Jerusalem shortly before his death, knowing that it inhabitants, in all good conscience, were going to kill him, he wept over it. But his tears were not for himself, that he was right and they were wrong and that his death would make that clear. His tears were for them, for the very ones who opposed him, who would kill him and then fall flat on their faces. There was no glee that they would fall, only empathy, sadness, love, for them, not for himself.

Father Larry Rosebaugh OMI, one of my Oblate confreres who spent his priesthood fighting for the peace and justice and was shot to death in Guatemala, shares in his autobiography how on the night before his first arrest for civil disobedience he spent the entire night in prayer and in the morning as he walked out to do the non-violent act that would lead to his arrest, was told by Daniel Berrigan: “If you can’t do this without getting angry at the people who oppose you, don’t do it! This has to be an act of love.”

Prophecy has to be an act of love; otherwise it’s merely alienation.