We are rarely at our best. Too often what shows forth in our lives is not what’s best in us: love, generosity, a big heart. More often than not, our lives radiate irritation, pettiness, and a small heart.
Too often, we find ourselves consumed by petty irritations, conflicts, frustrations, and angers. Each of these might be small in itself but, cumulatively, they take the sunshine and delight out of our lives, like mosquitoes spoiling a picnic. Then, instead of feeling grateful, gracious, and magnanimous, we feel paranoid, fearful, and irritable and we end up acting out of a cold, irritated, paranoid part of ourselves rather than out of our real selves.
Why do we do that? Because we are asleep to who and what we really are, asleep in a double way:
When St. Luke describes Jesus’ agony in the garden, he tells us that after Jesus had undergone a powerful drama, sweating blood so as to give his life over in love, he turned to his disciples (who were supposed to be watching and praying with him) and found them asleep. However he uses a curious expression to describe why they were asleep. They were asleep, he says, not because they were tired and it was late, but they were asleep “out of sheer sorrow”.
That says a couple of things: First, that the disciples are asleep out of depression. Depression is what is preventing them from seeing straight. But they are also asleep to what is deepest inside of them, namely, that they carry the image and likeness of God. Jesus was not asleep to that and, because of this awareness, was able precisely to be big of heart.
As Christians we believe that what ultimately defines us and gives us our dignity is the image and likeness of God inside us. This is our deepest identity, our real self. Inside each of us there is a piece of divinity, a god or goddess, a person who carries an inviolable dignity, with a heart as big as God’s.
And that great dignity is not meant to be a source of wrongful pride and a justification for making an unhealthy assertion with our lives. Sadly, too often it does and a rather simple commentary on the state of our planet might be to say that this is what things look like when you have six billion people walking around with each one of them thinking himself or herself as God.
But our great dignity, the Imago Dei inside each of us, is meant rather to be a center from which we can draw vision, grace, and strength to act in a way that, ironically, precisely helps us to swallow our pride.
We see this in Jesus. In a famous text, St. John tells us that at the last supper, Jesus got up from the table and began to wash the feet of his disciples, against their protests. That gesture, washing someone else’s feet, has classically been preached on as an act of humility. It was that, but in the context of the Gospel of John, it is something more. It was a particular kind of humility, one that requires having a huge, huge heart and swallowing a lot of pride. When Jesus washes his disciples feet in John’s Gospel and tells us he is setting an example for us to imitate, he is inviting us to have the strength to bend down in understanding and wash the feet of those whom, for all kinds of reasons, we would rather not have anything to do with. It is akin to having Pro-Life and Pro-Choice, strident conservatives and strident liberals, fundamentalists and atheists, wash each others’ feet. Normally we don’t have the strength to do that, there is too much pride and desire for righteousness at stake.
So how could Jesus do it? He could do it because he wasn’t asleep to who and what he was. In a stunning description of what is going on inside of him when he got up and took the basin and towel to do this. John writes: “Jesus, knowing that he had come from God and was returning to God, and that the Father had put everything into his hands, got up from the table and removed his outer garments.” (John 13,3-5).
Jesus took off his outer garments (which symbolize precisely all those things, including our everyday irritations and angers, which block the view of our deeper selves) to show us his deeper reality, namely, the fact that he had come from God and was going back to God. On the strength of that awareness, he could swallow all the pride that he needed to in order to reach out in understanding, forgiveness, and love, beyond wound, irritation, and moral righteousness.
When we are in touch with that fact that we too have “come from God and are going back to God” then, and only then, can we too swallow enough pride to be genuinely loving.