I share with you here four tales of imbalance. Each is the story of a person who is sincere, Christian and dedicated, but has fallen from wholeness. From these stories of imbalance, hopefully, we will be able to see where proportion lies.
A tale of the neglect of social justice: A bishop I know recounts this story. One day, he received a phone call from an angry lady: “Why,” she demanded, “are you and the other bishops so hung up on social justice? Why don’t you stick with what the church is all about, liturgy, prayer and morality?” He answered her with another question: “What would you do, if you were a bishop and someone called you and said: ‘Our parish priest refuses to preach about private prayer and private morality. He tells us that these are fads that a few contemplatives have started. They are not important in the Christian life?’” “I would suspend the man on the spot!” was her reply. “Then,” replied the bishop, “what am I to do with a person who phones and says: ‘Our priest refuses to preach social justice. He tells us that this is just a fad started by the liberation theologians and a few social-justice types. You can be a good Christian and never practice social justice?’” This lady’s question betrays a dangerous imbalance: Spirituality is reduced to prayer and private morality. As important as these are, they are not enough.
A tale of the neglect of prayer and private morality: Some years back while doing graduate work, I was working as a chaplain at a hostel in a poorer section of San Francisco. One of the persons I was working with, a very dedicated person, once said to me: “Father, do you really think God gives a damn whether you say your morning and evening prayers, whether you hold a grudge, or whether you hop in and out of bed a few times with someone you aren’t married to? These small, private things are so unimportant. “What possible difference do they make in the light of the larger questions of peace and justice? God hasn’t got time for our private little prayers and little moral struggles!” For him, spirituality meant the struggle for peace and justice, the taking care of God’s poor. Just that. Private prayer and private morality were so dwarfed by these larger issues so as to be seen as unimportant. As important as is the struggle for peace and justice, being a prophet implies more.
A tale of the neglect of joy and celebration: Two years ago, I attended an international conference in Belgium on local church which brought together people from all parts of the world. On the second-last day of the conference, the organizers called a halt to work, to all the discussing and theologizing. We were all sent off to the beautiful city of Brugges for tours, cocktails, dining and celebrating. In my own group was a young nun from the Third World. There was no doubt that she was a woman who prayed, whose private morals were beyond suspicion, and that her whole life was being lived for the poor. But she struggled, and deeply, to be joyful, to celebrate, and not to be angry and bitter. She found our half-day celebration a tough chore, an evil to be endured, a waste of time and an insult to the poor. Again, I submit, there is here an imbalance. What is lacking from this lady’s life? Certainly not prayer, private morality or a preferential option for the poor. What’s lacking is friendship, celebration and the greatest asceticism of all, that of being a joyful, celebrating and non-bitter person. Prophetic witness lies as much in being a happy and non-bitter person as it does in being a person of prayer, morality and social justice; though, admittedly, the former is based a lot on the latter.
A tale of the neglect of love: Recently, after delivering a talk on prophecy, a lady challenged me: “You spoke too little about anger! You were too soft. Prophecy is all about challenge, anger and righteousness. Without a proper anger, you cannot be prophetic!” She said more, mostly about the need for anger and a bitter challenge to the mainstream culture. Again, at least in her challenge to me, there was imbalance. She spoke constantly of anger, of challenge, of criticalness. Never once did she mention love. Her attitude towards the culture was that of disdain, bitterness, anger and disgust. Nowhere in her did I detect compassion, sadness, sympathy and love towards those, or about those, she was supposedly preaching to.
A prophet, as Jim Wallis suggests, is always characterized more by love than by anger. Likewise, as psychology points out, we can only truly challenge another to change if that other first feels loved by us. There are certain non-negotiable prongs within Christian spirituality – namely, prayer and private morality, a commitment to justice and peace, the discipline of joy and celebration, (i.e. the Christian duty to be a happy person), and the duty to challenge by love.
And the key to health is proportion.