RonRolheiser,OMI

Fear Masking Itself as Piety

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It is easy to mistake piety for the genuine response that God wants of us, that is, to enter into a relationship of intimacy with Him and then try to help others have that same experience.

We see this everywhere in Scripture. For example, in Luke’s Gospel, after witnessing a miraculous catch of fish, Peter responds by falling at Jesus’ knees and saying: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” At first glance that would seem the appropriate response, a wonderfully-pious one, an acknowledgement of his littleness and unworthiness in the face of God’s abundance and goodness. But, as John Shea points out in his commentary on this text, Jesus names Peter’s response differently and invites him to something else. What?  Peter’s response manifests a sincere piety, but it is, in Shea’s words, “fearfully wrong”: “The awareness of God makes him [Peter] tremble and crushes him down. If he clings to the knees of Jesus, he must be on his own knees. Peter does not embrace the fullness; he wants to go away. This is hardly the response Jesus wants. So he instructs Peter not to be afraid. Instead, he is to use what he experienced to bring others to the same experience. As Jesus has caught him, he is to catch others.” Jesus is inviting Peter to move out of fear and into deeper waters of intimacy and God’s abundance.

We see a similar thing in the First Book of Samuel (21, 1-6). King David arrives at the temple one morning, hungry, without food. He asks the priest for five loaves of bread. The priest replies that he hasn’t any ordinary bread, only consecrated bread that can be eaten only after the appropriate fasting and rituals. David, nonetheless, knowing that, as God’s king on earth he is expected to act resourcefully rather than fearfully, asks for the loaves and he eats the bread that, in other circumstances, he would have been forbidden to eat.

What makes this story important is the Jesus, when confronted by the fear and piety of the Scribes and Pharisees, highlights it and tells us that David’s response was the right one. He tells those who were scandalized by his disciples’ lack of fear that David’s response was the right one because David recognized that, in our response to God, intimacy and a certain boldness in acting resourcefully, are meant to trump fear. “The Sabbath,” Jesus asserts, “was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.  That axiom might be rendered this way: God is not a law to be blindly obeyed. Rather God is a loving, creative presence that invites us into intimacy and then gives us energy to be more-creative in the light of that relationship.

Some years ago, a young mother shared this story with me. Her son, six years-old and now in school, had been trained from his earliest years to kneel down by his bed each night and pray aloud a number of ritual prayers (the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, a prayer to his guardian angel, and blessings and protection for his parents and siblings). One evening, shortly after starting school, when his mother took him to his room, he crawled into bed without first kneeling to say his prayers. His mother asked him: “What’s wrong? Don’t you pray anymore?” “No,” he replied, “I don’t pray anymore. My teacher at school (a nun) told us not to pray but to talk to God … and tonight I’m tired and have nothing to say!” In essence, this is the response of King David, asking the priest for the consecrated loaves. This young boy had an intuitive grasp that God is not a law to be obeyed but an intimate presence that resources us.

A number of the great Christian mystics have taught that, as we grow more deeply in our relationship with God, we gradually become more bold with God, that is, fear gives way more and more to intimacy, legalism gives way more and more to resourcefulness, judgment gives way more and more to empathy, and the kind of piety that would have us clinging to the knees of Jesus paralyzed by our own sinfulness gives way more and more to a joyous energy for mission.

Of course, there’s an important place for piety. Healthy piety and healthy humility are gifts from the Holy Spirit, but they do not paralyze us with an unhealthy fear that blocks a deeper, more-joyous, and more-intimate relationship with God. David had a healthy piety, but that didn’t stop him from acting boldly and creatively inside the intimacy of his relationship to God. Jesus too had a healthy piety, even as he was constantly scandalizing the pious around him.

We too easily mistake unhealthy fear for genuine piety. We do it all the time, naively seeing fear as virtue; however the mark of genuine intimacy is never fearfulness, but bold, joyous energy. The healthiest religious person you know exhibits this boldness and joy rather than a dead, overly-fearful piety.

God’s Pleasure in our Action

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For the past six months, while undergoing treatment for cancer, I was working on a reduced schedule. The medical treatments, while somewhat debilitating, left me still enough health and energy to carry on the administrative duties in my present ministry, but they didn’t allow me any extra energy to teach classes or to offer any lectures, workshops, or retreats at outside venues, something I normally do. I joked with my family and friends that I was “under house arrest”; but I was so grateful for the energy that I still had, that being unable to teach and give lectures was not deemed a sacrifice. I was focused on staying healthy, and the health that I was given was appreciated as a great grace.

A month ago, the medical treatments ended and, soon after, most of my normal energies returned and I resumed a normal schedule that included again teaching inside a classroom. Having been on the sidelines for a half year left me a little nervous as I entered the classroom for my first three-hour session. My nervousness passed quickly as the class robustly engaged the topic and, after the three hours, I walked out of the class feeling a wonderful energy that I hadn’t felt for six months. Teaching (which I consider both my profession and my vocation) lifted both my heart and my body in a way that it hadn’t been lifted in months. It was the missing tonic.

At first, I felt some anxiety and guilt about this. What really triggered that wonderful feeling and burst of energy? Narcissism? Pride? Was I basking in the capacity to demonstrate some cleverness and learning and then drink in the students’ admiration? Did I feel good because my ego got stroked? Was my teaching really about furthering God’s kingdom or about stoking my ego?

I am not alone with these questions. These are valid questions for anyone who draws energy from his or her work, especially if, because of that work, he or she drinks in a fair amount of adulation. Our motivations are never completely pure.  Indeed, if we are fully honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there is always some degree of self-serving in our service of others. But, mixed as our motives will always be, something else, something much more positive, needs to be factored into this, namely, the fact that God gave us our various talents and that God feels good about us using them.

Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner, whose story is featured in the Oscar-winning movie, Chariots of Fire, once made this comment: “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” He didn’t make this comment lightly. As his biography and Chariots of Fire make clear, Eric Liddell, in his quest to win an Olympic gold medal was motivated more by his faith than by his own ego. His faith had him believe that, since God gave him this unique talent, God, not unlike any proud parent, took a genuine delight in seeing him use that gift. In his heart, he sensed that God was pleased whenever he exercised that talent to its optimum. Moreover, that inner sense that God was happy with his use of his talent filled him, Eric, with a wonderful energy whenever he ran.

Seen from that perspective, we see that the root and source of his motivation and pleasure in running was, ultimately, not his desire to win gold medals and popular adulation, though clearly no one is immune to these. Rather he was motivated by an inner sense that God had given him a special gift, that God wanted him to use that gift to its fullest, and that God was happy when he optimized that gift. Like everyone else who is human, he, no doubt, enjoyed the adulation he received for his successes, but he knew too that the deepest joy he felt in using his gift had its ultimate source in God and not his own ego.

And this, I believe, is true for everybody of us. When anyone uses properly the gifts that God gave him or her, God will take pleasure in that. After all God gave us that gift and that gift was given us for a reason.

Not long after I felt that burst of pleasure and energy from again teaching inside a classroom, I was talking to a colleague, a very gifted young teacher just beginning his teaching career. He shared about how much he enjoys teaching but how he worries too that the pleasure he derives from it is somehow too much connected to his ego. I gave him the Liddell quote, assuring him that, whenever he teaches well, God takes pleasure in it.  He much appreciated Liddell’s comment.

And so should we all. We shouldn’t feel guilty for exercising the gifts that God gave us, even though our motivations will never be completely pure. Whenever we use a God-given talent to do something well, God takes pleasure in it … and so too should we.

Christ and Nature

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Numerous groups and individuals today are challenging us in regards to our relationship to mother-earth. From Green Peace, from various environmental groups, from various Christian and other religious groups, and from various individual voices, comes the challenge to be less-blind, less-unthinking, and less-reckless in terms of how we relate to the earth. Every day our newscasts point out how, without much in the way of serious reflection, we are polluting the planet, strip-mining its resources, creating mega-landfills, pouring carbon dangerously into the atmosphere, causing the disappearance of thousands of species, creating bad air and bad water, and thinning the ozone layer. And so the cry goes out: live more simply, use fewer resources, lessen your carbon footprint, and try to recycle whatever you’ve used as much as you can.

That challenge, of course, is very good and very important. The air we breathe out is the air we will eventually inhale and so we need to be very careful about what we exhale. This planet is our home and we need to ensure that, long-term, it can provide us with the sustenance and comfort of a home.

But, true as this is, there’s still another, very important reason, why we need to treat mother-earth with more caution and respect, namely, Christ, himself, is vitally bound-up with nature and his reasons for coming to earth also include the intention of redeeming the physical universe. What’s implied here?

Let me begin with an anecdote which captures, in essence, what’s at stake: The scientist-theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in conversation with a Vatican official who was confused by his writings and doctrinally-suspicious of them, was once asked: “What are you trying to do in your writings?” Teilhard’s response: “I am trying to write a Christology that is wide enough to incorporate the full Christ because Christ is not just an anthropological event but he is also a cosmic phenomenon.”  Simply translated, he is saying that Christ didn’t just come to save people, he came for that yes, but he also came to save the planet, of which people are only one part.

In saying that, Teilhard has solid scriptural backing. Looking at the scriptures we find that they affirm that Christ didn’t just come to save people, he came to save the world. For example, the Epistle to the Colossians (1, 15-20) records an ancient Christian hymn which affirms both that Christ was already a vital force inside the original creation (“that all things were made through him”) and that Christ is also the end point to of all history, human and cosmic. The Epistle to the Ephesians, also recording an ancient Christian hymn, (1, 3-10) makes the same point; while the Epistle to the Romans (8,19-22) is even more explicit in affirming that physical creation, mother-earth and our physical universe, are “groaning” as they too wait for redemption by Christ. Among other things, these texts affirm that the physical world is part of God’s plan for eventual heavenly life.

What’s contained in that, if we tease out its implications? A number of very clear principles:  First, nature, not just humanity, is being redeemed by Christ. The world is not just a stage upon which human history plays out; it has intrinsic meaning and value beyond what it means for us as humans. Physical nature is, in effect, brother and sister with us in the journey towards the divinely-intended end of history. Christ also came to redeem the earth, not just those of us who are living on it. Physical creation too will enter in the final synthesis of history, that is, heaven.

Second, this means that nature has intrinsic rights, not just the rights we find convenient to accord it. What this means is that defacing or abusing nature is not just a legal and environmental issue, it’s a moral issue. We are violating someone’s (something’s) intrinsic rights. Thus when we, mindlessly, throw a coke-can into a ditch we are not just breaking a law we are also, at some deep level, defacing Christ. We need to respect nature, not, first of all, so that it doesn’t recoil on us and give us back our own asphyxiating pollution, but because it, akin to humanity, has its own rights. A teaching too rarely affirmed.

Finally, not least, what is implied in understanding the cosmic dimension of Christ and what that means in terms of our relationship to mother-earth and the universe is the non-negotiable fact that the quest for community and consummation within God’s Kingdom (our journey towards heaven) is a quest that calls us not just to a proper relationship with God and with each other, but also to a proper relationship with physical creation.

We are humans with bodies living on the earth, not disembodied angels living in heaven, and Christ came to save our bodies along with our souls; and he came, as well, to save the physical ground upon which we walk since he was the very pattern upon which and through which the physical world was created.