Some years ago, Michael Buckley, a Jesuit theologian of exceptional insight, delivered a homily at the first mass of a young man who had just been ordained. His approach was paradoxical. Instead of asking the young man: “Are you strong enough to be a priest?” he asked him: “Are you weak enough to be a priest?”

That’s a curious reversal that needs to be understood: The “weakness” to which he is challenging this young man (and the rest of us) is not the weakness of moral failure or sin, but the weakness that Scripture attributes to Jesus when it says that he was “beset by weakness” in every way, except sin.

How was Jesus weak and how are we meant to be weak?

Buckley explains this by comparing Jesus to Socrates in terms of human excellence (as this is often judged). Here is his comparison:

There is a classic comparison running through contemporary philosophy between Socrates and Christ, a judgement between them in human excellence. Socrates went to his death with calmness and poise. He accepted the judgement of the court, discoursed on the alternatives suggested by death and on the dialectical indications of immortality, found no cause for fear, drank the poison, and died. Jesus – how much to the contrary. Jesus was almost hysterical with terror and fear; ‘with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death.” He looked repeatedly to his friends for comfort and prayed for an escape from death, and he found neither. Finally he established control over himself and moved into his death in silence and lonely isolation, even into the terrible interior suffering of the hidden divinity, the absence of God.

I once thought that this was because Socrates and Jesus suffered different deaths, the one so much more terrible than the other, the pain and agony of the cross so overshadowing the release of the hemlock. But now I think this explanation, though correct as far as it runs, is superficial and secondary. Now I believe that Jesus was a more profoundly weak man than Socrates, more liable to physical pain and weariness, more sensitive to human rejection and contempt, more affected by love and hate. Socrates never wept over Athens. Socrates never expressed sorrow and pain over the betrayal of friends. He was possessed and integral, never overextended, convinced that the just person could never suffer genuine hurt. And for this reason, Socrates – one of the greatest and most heroic people who has ever existed, a paradigm of what humanity can achieve within the individual – was a philosopher. And for the same reason, Jesus of Nazareth was a priest – ambiguous, suffering, mysterious, and salvific.

Jesus was weak in that his sensitivity and love prevented him from protecting himself against pain. Because he loved deeply he felt things deeply, both joy and pain. Sensitive people suffer more than others because their sensitivity leaves them vulnerable and unable to seal themselves off against pain – their own, that of their loved ones, and that of the world. As Iris Murdoch once put it, “A common soldier dies without fear, whereas Jesus died afraid.” That shouldn’t surprise us. Sensitivity leaves you open to pain.

When we are insensitive we sleep well, even when others are suffering and we may have contributed to that; when we are insensitive we have less fear, especially of hurting others; and when we are insensitive we are, from many points of view, stronger because we are more able to insulate ourselves against pain and humiliation. In the arena of athletics, we admire the player who can absorb a hard hit without apparent effect. To be hard and tough is admirable. That isn’t as true in the arena of the soul.

John of the Cross, the great doctor of mysticism, uses the question – How vulnerable and weak are we? – as an important criterion to judge whether or not we are on the right path in following Christ.

We enter more deeply into life, he submits, when we try to imitate the motivation of Christ. But how do we know whether we are doing that or are simply deluding ourselves?

His answer: We know whether or not we are imitating Christ or simply rationalizing our own desires by what begins to flow into our lives. If I am truly imitating Christ, I can expect to experience in my life the things that Jesus experienced in his, namely, a certain vulnerability that leaves me existentially incapable of protecting myself against certain kinds of pain. When I am genuinely imitating Christ, I will find myself “weak” in the same ways that Jesus was weak – more liable to physical pain and weariness, more sensitive to human rejection and contempt, more affected by love and hate, more pained over the state of things, more overextended, more prone to humiliation.

Proper sensitivity lays bare the heart and leaves it vulnerable. That doesn’t always make you look good, but that’s okay. The best people in the world don’t always look good!