RonRolheiser,OMI

Our Most Common Sin 

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Classically Christianity has listed seven sins as “deadly” sins, meaning that most everything else we do which is not virtuous somehow takes its root in one these congenital propensities. These are the infamous seven: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

In spiritual literature the first three, pride, greed, and lust get most of the ink and attention. Pride is presented as the root of all sin, Lucifer’s primordial defiance of God as forever echoed in our own lives: I will not serve! Greed is seen as the basis for our selfishness and our blindness towards others and lust has often been given the ultimate notoriety, as if the Sixth Commandment were the only commandment.

Not to deny the importance of these, but I suspect that the sin which most commonly afflicts us and is not much mentioned in spiritual literature is wrath, that is, anger and hatred. I venture to say that most of us operate, however unconsciously, out of anger and this shows itself in our constant criticism of others, in our cynicism, in our jealousy of others, in our bitterness, and in our inability to praise others. And unlike most of our other sins, anger is easy to camouflage and rationalize as virtue.

At one level, anger often rationalizes itself as justified indignation over the foibles, stupidity, egotism, greed, and faults of others: How can I not be angry given what I see every day! Here anger shows itself in our constant irritation and in our quickness to correct, criticize, and make a cynical remark.  Conversely we’re very slow to praise and affirm. Perfection then becomes the enemy of the good and since nothing and no one is perfect, we’re always in critical mode and we see this as a virtue rather than for what it in fact is, namely, an inchoate anger and unhappiness inside of ourselves.

But our unhappy cynicism isn’t the biggest problem here. More seriously, anger too often parades itself as Godly-virtue, as righteousness, as prophecy, as a healthy, divinely-inspired militancy for truth, for cause, for virtue, for God. And so we define ourselves as “holy warriors” and “vigilant defenders of truth”, taking justification in the popular (though false) conception that prophets are angry people, on passionate fire for God.

However there’s a near infinite distance between true prophetic anger and the anger that today commonly parades itself as prophecy. Daniel Berrigan, in his criteria for prophecy, submits (and rightly) that a prophet is someone who takes a vow of love, not of alienation. Prophecy is characterized by love aching for reconnection, not anger pushing for separation.

And love isn’t generally what characterizes most so-called prophetic anger in our world today, especially as it pertains to God, religion, and defense of truth. You see this in its worst form in Islamic extremism where, in the name of God, every kind of hatred, violence, and random murder puts on God’s cloak. Blaise Pascal captures this well in his Pensees where he writes: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” He’s wrong on one thing; mostly we aren’t doing it cheerfully but angrily. One only has to read the letters to the editor in our newspapers, listen to most talk-radio stations, or listen to any debate on politics, religion, or morality to see raw hatred and anger justifying themselves on moral and divine grounds.

There is such a thing as healthy prophetic anger, a fiery response when the poor of God, the word of God, or the truth of God are being slandered, abused, or neglected. There are important causes and boundaries to be defended. But prophetic anger is an anger that emanates out of love and empathy and always, regardless of the hatred it meets, still exhibits love and empathy, like a loving mother in the face of a belligerent child. Jesus on occasion exhibits this kind of anger, but his anger is antithetical to most of what masquerades as prophetic anger today, where love and empathy are so noticeably absent.

Someone once said that we spend the first half of life struggling with the Sixth Commandment, and then spend the second-half of life struggling with the Fifth Commandment:  Thou shalt not kill!  We see this illustrated in the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, his Older Brother, and his Prodigal Father. The younger son is effectively out of his father’s house through wrestling with the seductive energies of youth. The older brother is just as effectively outside his father’s house, not through sin, but through wrestling with anger.

As a young boy I was catechized to confess “bad thoughts” as sinful, but bad thoughts then were defined as sexual thoughts. As we age, I suggest, we might continue to confess “bad thoughts”, but now those “bad thoughts” have to do with anger.

A cynic, it’s said, is someone who has given up, but not shut up! He’s also someone who has confused one of the seven deadly sins, wrath, with virtue.

Faith and Superstition 

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The power of a subordinate clause, one nuance within a sentence and everything takes on a different meaning.

That’s the case in a recent brilliant, but provocative, novel, The Ninth Hour, by Nina McDermott. She tells a story which, among other things, focuses on a group of nuns in Brooklyn who work with the poor. Times are hard, people are needy, and the nuns, who work mostly in home care for the poor, appear utterly selfless in their dedication. Nothing, it seems, can deflect them from their mission to give their all, their every of ounce of energy, to help the poor. And on this score, McDermott gives them their due. As well, for anyone familiar with what goes on inside of a religious community, McDermott’s portrayal of these nuns is both nuanced and accurate. Nuns aren’t all of a kind. Each has her own unique history, temperament, and personality.  Some are wonderfully warm and gracious, others nurse their own wounds and aren’t always evident paradigms of God’s love and mercy. And that’s case with the nuns that McDermott describes here. But, quirks of individual personality aside, as a community, the nuns she describes serve the poor and their overall witness is beyond reproach.

But then, after telling this story of faith and dedication and reflecting on how today there are few groups of nuns who still live so radical a commitment, McDermott, through the voice her narrator, introduces the subversive subordinate clause: “The holy nuns who sailed through the house when we were young were a dying breed even then. … The call to sanctity and self-sacrifice, the delusion and superstition it required, faded from the world even then.”

Wow! The delusion and the superstition it required. As if this kind of radical self-sacrifice can only be the product of false fear. As if whole generations of Christian self-sacrifice, vowed celibacy, and single-minded dedication can be dismissed, post-factum, as ultimately predicated on delusion and superstition.

How true is that?

I grew up in the world McDermott is describing, where nuns were like that, and where a powerful Catholic ethos supported them and declared what they were doing was anything but delusion and superstition. Admittedly that was another time and much of that ethos has not stood the test of time and has, indeed, to a large part succumbed to the raw power of secularity. And so McDermott is right, partially. Some of that selflessness was based upon an unhealthy fear of hell fire and God’s anger. To an extent too it was based on a notion of faith that believed that God does not really want us to flourish much here on earth but that our lives are meant to be mostly a somber preparation for the next world. Perhaps this isn’t exactly delusion and superstition, but it is bad theology and it did help underwrite some of the religious life in the world McDermott describes and in the Catholic world of my youth.

But there was also something else undergirding this ethos, and I inhaled it deeply in my youth and in a way that branded my soul for good, like nothing else I have ever breathed in in this world.  Notwithstanding some false fears, there was inside of that a biblical faith, a raw mandate, that taught that your own comfort, your own desires, and even your own legitimate longings for human flourishing, sexuality, marriage, children, freedom, and having what everyone else has, are subject to a higher purpose, and you may be asked to sacrifice them all, your legitimate longings, to serve God and others. It was a faith that believed you were born with a God-given vocation and that your life was not your own.

I saw this first in my own parents who believed that faith made those demands upon them, who accepted that, and who consequently had the moral authority to ask this of others. I saw it too in the Ursuline Nuns who taught me in school, women with full red blood flowing through their veins but who sacrificed these longings to come into the public schools in our remote rural areas and teach us. I saw it too in the little prairie community that nurtured me in my youth, a whole community who, by and large, lived out this selflessness.

Today I live in a world that prizes sophistication above all else, but where as a whole society we’re no longer sure what’s “fake news” as opposed to what we can believe in and trust. In this unsteady world the faith of my youth, of my parents, of the nuns who sacrificed their dreams to teach me, and of the nuns whom Nina McDermott describes in The Ninth Hour, can look very much like delusion and superstition. Sometimes it is delusion, admittedly; but sometimes it isn’t, and in my case the faith my parents gave me, with its belief that your life and your sexuality are not your own, is, I believe, the truest, most non-superstitious thing of all.

How does God Act in our World?

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There’s an oddity in the gospels that begs for an explanation: Jesus, it seems, doesn’t want people to know his true identity as the Christ, the Messiah. He keeps warning people not to reveal that he is the Messiah. Why?

Some scholars refer to this as “the messianic secret”, suggesting that Jesus did not want others to know his true identity until the conditions were ripe for it. There’s some truth in that, there’s a right moment for everything, but that still leaves the question unanswered: Why? Why does Jesus want to keep his true identity secret? What would constitute the right conditions within which his identity should be revealed?

That question is center-stage in Mark’s gospel, at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers: “You are the Christ.” Then, in what seems like a surprising response, Jesus, rather than praising Peter for his answer, warns him sternly not to tell anyone about what he has just acknowledged. Peter seemingly has given him the right answer and yet Jesus immediately, and sternly, warns him to keep that to himself. Why?

Simply put, Peter has the right answer, but the wrong conception of that answer. He has a false notion of what means to be the Messiah.

In the centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus and among Jesus’ contemporaries there were numerous notions of what the Christ would look like. We don’t know which notion Peter had but obviously it wasn’t the right one because Jesus immediately shuts it down. What Jesus says to Peter is not so much: “Don’t tell anyone that I’m the Christ” but rather “Don’t tell anyone that I am what you think the Christ should be. That’s not who I am.”

Like virtually all of his contemporaries and not unlike our own fantasies of what a Savior should look like, Peter no doubt pictured the Savior who was to come as a Superman, a Superstar who would vanquish evil through a worldly triumph within which he would simply overpower everything that’s wrong by miraculous powers. Such a Savior would not be subject to any weakness, humiliation, suffering, or death and his superiority and glory would have to be acknowledged by everyone, willing or begrudgingly. There would be no holdouts; his demonstration of power would leave no room for doubt or opposition. He would triumph over everything and would reign in a glory such as the world conceives of glory, that is, as the Ultimate Winner, as the Ultimate Champion – the winner of the Olympic medal, the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Academy Award, the Nobel Prize, the winner of the great trophy or accolade that definitively sets one above others.

When Peter says: “You are the Christ!” that’s how he’s thinking about it, as earthily glory, worldly triumph, as a man so powerful, strong, attractive, and invulnerable that everyone would simply have to fall at his feet. Hence Jesus’ sharp reply: “Don’t tell anyone about that!

Jesus then goes on to instruct Peter, and the rest of us, who he really is a Savior. He’s not a Superman or Superstar in this world or a miracle worker who will prove his power through spectacular deeds. Who is he?

The Messiah is a dying and rising Messiah, someone who in his own life and body will demonstrate that evil is not overcome by miracles but by forgiveness, magnanimity, and nobility of soul and that these are attained not through crushing an enemy but through loving him or her more fully. And the route to this is paradoxical: The glory of the Messiah is not demonstrated by overpowering us with spectacular deeds.  Rather it is demonstrated in Jesus letting himself be transformed through accepting with proper love and graciousness the unavoidable passivity, humiliation, diminishment, and dying that eventually found him. That’s the dying part. But when one dies like that or accepts any humiliation or diminishment in this way there’s always a subsequent rising to real glory, that is, to the glory of a heart so stretched and enlarged that it is now able to transform evil into good, hatred into love, bitterness into forgiveness, humiliation into glory. That’s the proper work of a Messiah.

In Matthew’s Gospel this same event is recorded and this same question is asked and Peter gives the same response, but Jesus’ answer to him here is very different. In Matthew’s account, after Peter says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, rather than warn him not to talk about it, Jesus praises Peter’s answer. Why the difference? Because Matthew recasts the scene so that, in his version, Peter does understand the Messiah correctly.

How do we imagine the Messiah?  How do we imagine triumph? Imagine Glory?  If Jesus looked us square in the eye and asked, as he asked Peter: “How do you understand me?” Would he laud us for our answer or would he tell us: “Don’t tell anyone about that!”