RonRolheiser,OMI

Speaking with Authority

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We are growing ever more distrustful of words. Everywhere we hear people say: “That’s just talk! That’s nothing but empty words!”

And empty words are all around us. Our world is full of lies, of false promises, of glittering advertising that doesn’t deliver, of words never backed up by anything. We trust less and less in what we hear. We’ve been lied to and betrayed far too often, now we’re cautious about what we believe.

But distrust in the words we hear is only one way in which our spoken word is weak. Our words can be truthful and still have little power. Why? Because, to use Gospel terms, we may not be speaking with much authority. Our words may not have what they need to back them up. What’s meant by this?

The Gospels tells us that one of things that distinguished Jesus for the other religious preachers of his time was that he spoke with authority, while they didn’t. What gives words authority? What gives them transformative power?

There are, as we know, different kinds of power. There’s a power that flows from strength and energy. We see this, for example, in the body of a gifted athlete who moves with authority.  There’s power too in charisma, in a gifted speaker or a rock star. They too speak with a certain authority and power. But there’s still another kind of power and authority, one very different in kind from that of the athlete and the rock star. There’s the power of a baby, the paradoxical power of vulnerability, innocence, and helplessness. Powerlessness is sometimes the real power.  If you put an athlete, a rock star, and a baby into the same room, who among them is the most powerful? Who has the most authority? Whatever the power of the athlete or the rock star, the baby has more power to change hearts.

The Gospel texts which tell us that Jesus spoke with “authority” never suggest that he spoke with “great energy” or “powerful charisma”. In describing Jesus’ authority they use the word “exousia”, a Greek word for which we don’t have an English equivalent. What’s “exousia”? We don’t have a term for it, but we have a concept: “Exousia” might be described as the combination of vulnerability, innocence, and helplessness that a baby brings into a room. Its very helplessness, innocence, and vulnerability have a unique authority and power to touch your conscience. It’s for good reason that people watch their language around a baby. Its very presence is cleansing.

But there are a couple of other elements too undergirding the authority with which Jesus spoke. His vulnerability and innocence gave his words a special power, yes; but two other elements also made his words powerful: His words were always grounded in the integrity of his life. As well, people recognized that his authority was not coming from him but from something (Someone) higher whom he was serving. There was no discrepancy between his words and his life. Moreover, his words were powerful because they weren’t just coming from him, they were coming through him from Someone above him, Someone whose authority couldn’t be challenged, God.

You see this kind of authority; for example, in persons like Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier. Their words had a special authority. Mother Teresa could meet someone for the first time and ask him or her to come to India and work with her. Jean Vanier could do the same. A friend of mine shares how on meeting Vanier for the first time, in their very first conversation, Vanier invited him to become a missionary priest. That thought had never before crossed his mind. Today he’s a missionary.

What gives some people that special power? “Exousia”, a selfless life, and a grounding in an authority that comes from above. What you see in persons like Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier is the powerlessness of a baby, combined with a selfless life, grounded in an authority beyond them. When such persons speak, like Jesus’, their words have real power to calm hearts, heal them, change them and, metaphorically and really, cast out demons from them.

But we don’t always have to look to spiritual giants like Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier to see this. Most of us have not been so personally influenced by Mother Teresa or Jean Vanier, but have been spoken to with authority by people around us. In my case, it was my father and mother who spoke to me with that kind of authority. As well some of the Ursuline nuns who taught me in school and some of my uncles and aunts had the power to ask sacrifice of me because they spoke with “exousia” and with an integrity and a faith that I could not question or deny. They asked me to consider becoming a priest and I became one.

What moves the world is often the powerful energy and charisma of the highly talented; but the heart is moved by a different kind of authority.

On Hallowing our Diminishments

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Thirty years ago, John Jungblut wrote a short pamphlet entitled, On Hallowing Our Diminishments. It’s a treatise suggesting ways we might frame the humiliations and diminishments that beset us through circumstance, age, and accidents so that, despite the humiliation they bring, we can place them under a certain canopy so as to take away their shame and restore to us some lost dignity.

And we all suffer diminishments. Certain things are dealt to us by genetics, history, circumstance, the society we live in, or by the ravages of aging or accidents that, seen from almost every angle, are not only bitterly unfair but can also seemingly strip us of our dignity and leave us humiliated.  For example, how does one deal with a bodily defect that society deems unsightly? How does one deal with being discriminated against? How does one deal with an accident that leaves one partially or wholly paralyzed? How does one deal with the debilitations that come with old age? How does one deal with a loved one who was violated or killed simply because of the color of his or her skin? How does one deal with the suicide of a loved one? How do we set these things under some canopy of dignity and meaning so that what is an awful unfairness is not a permanent source of indignity and shame? How does someone hallow his or her diminishments?

Soren Kierkegaard offers this advice. He, who was sometimes publicly ridiculed during his lifetime, including newspaper cartoons that made sport of his physical appearance (his “spindly legs”), offers this counsel: In the face of something like this, he says, it’s not a question of denying it, covering it up, or trying various distractions and tonics to deaden it or keep its sharpness at bay. Rather we must make ourselves genuinely aware of it, “by bringing it to complete clarity.” By doing this, we hallow it. We bring it out of the realm of shame and give it a certain dignity. How is this done?

Imagine this as a paradigmatic example: A young woman is walking alone along a deserted road and is forcibly picked up by a group of drunken men who rape and kill her and leave her body in a ditch. Her shocked and horrified family and community do as Kierkegaard counsels.  They don’t try to deny what happened, cover it up, or try various distractions and tonics to deaden their pain. Instead, they bring it to “complete clarity”.  How?

They pick up her body, wash it, clothe her in her best clothing, and then have a three-day wake that culminates in a huge funeral attended by hundreds of persons. And their ritual honoring of her doesn’t stop there. After the funeral they gather in a park near where she lived and after some hours of testimony that honors who she was, they rename the park after her.

What they do, of course, does not bring her back to life, does not erase in any way the horrible unfairness of her death, does not bring her killers to justice, and it does not fundamentally change the societal conditions that helped cause her violent death. But it does, in an important way, restore to her some of the dignity that was so horribly ripped away from her. Both she and her death are hallowed. Her name and her life now will forever speak of something beyond the unfairness and tragedy of her death.

We see examples of this on the macro level in way the world has handled the deaths of people like Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Jamal Khashoggi, and others who were killed by hatred. We have found ways to hallow them so that their lives and their persons are now remembered in ways that eclipse the manner of their deaths. And we see this too in how some communities handle the deaths of loved ones who have been senselessly shot by gang members or by police, where their manner of death belies everything that’s good. The same is true for how some families handle the diminishments of their loved ones who die by drug overdose, suicide, or dementia. The indignity of their death is eclipsed by proper clarity around the very diminishmentthat brought about their death.  Their memory is redeemed. In short, that’s the function of any proper wake and any proper funeral. In bringing to clarity the very indignity that befalls someone we restore her dignity.

This is true not only for those who die unfairly or in ways that leave those they left behind grasping for ways to give them back some dignity. It’s also true for every kind of humiliation and indignity we, ourselves, suffer in life, from the wounds of our childhood which can forever haunt us, to the many humiliations we suffer in adulthood. We cannot change what has happened to us, but we can hallow it by “bringing it to clarity” so that the indignity is eclipsed.

Magnanimity

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What does it mean to be big-hearted, magnanimous?

Once during a baseball game in high school an umpire made very unfair call against our team. Our whole team was indignant and all of us began to shout angrily at the umpire, swearing at him, calling him names, loudly venting our anger. But one of our teammates didn’t follow suit. Instead of shouting at the umpire he kept trying to stop the rest of us from doing so. “Let it go!” he kept telling us, “Let it go – we’re bigger than this!” Bigger than what? He wasn’t referring to the umpire’s immaturity, but to our own. And we weren’t “bigger than this”, at least not then. Certainly I wasn’t. I couldn’t swallow an injustice. I wasn’t big enough.

But something stayed with me from that incident, the challenge to “be bigger” inside the things that slight us. I don’t always succeed, but I’m a better person when I do, more big-hearted, just as I am more-petty and smaller of heart when I don’t.

But just as our teammate challenged us all those years ago, we remain challenged to “be bigger” than the pettiness within a moment.  That invitation lies at the very heart of Jesus’ moral challenge in the Sermon on the Mount, There he invites us to have “a virtue that’s deeper than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees”. And there’s more hidden in that statement than first meets the eye because the Scribes and Pharisees were very virtuous people. They strove hard always to be faithful to all the precepts of their faith and were people who believed in and practiced strict justice. They didn’t make unfair calls as umpires! But inside of all of that goodness they still lacked something that the Sermon on the Mount invites us to, a certain magnanimity, to have big enough hearts and minds that can rise above being slighted so as to be bigger than a given moment.

Let me offer this example of what that can mean: John Paul II was the first pope in history to speak out unequivocally against capital punishment. It’s important to note that he didn’t say that capital punishment was wrong. Biblically we do have the right to practice it. John Paul conceded that. However, and this is the lesson, he went on to say that, while we may in justice practice capital punishment, we shouldn’t do it because Jesus calls us to something higher, namely, to forgive sinners and not execute them. That’s magnanimity, that’s being bigger than the moment we’re caught up within.

Thomas Aquinas, in his moral astuteness, makes a distinction that one doesn’t often hear either in church teachings or in common sense. Thomas says that a certain thing can be sin for one person and yet not for another. In essence, something can be a sin for someone who is big-hearted, even as it is not a sin for someone who is petty and small of heart. Here’s an example:  In a wonderfully challenging comment, Thomas once wrote that it is a sin to withhold a compliment from someone who genuinely deserves it because in doing so we are withholding from that person some of the food upon which he or she needs to live. But in teaching this, Thomas is clear that this is a sin only for someone who is big-hearted, magnanimous, and at a certain level of maturity. Someone who is immature, self-centered, and petty of heart is not held to the same moral and spiritual standard.

How is this possible, isn’t a sin a sin, irrespective of person? Not always. Whether or not something is a sin or not and the seriousness of a sin depends upon the depth and maturity within a relationship. Imagine this: A man and his wife have such a deep, sensitive, caring, respectful, and intimate relationship so that the tiniest expressions of affection or neglect speak loudly to each other. For example, as they part to go their separate ways each morning they always exchange an expression of affection, as a parting ritual. Now, should either of them neglect that expression of affection on an ordinary morning where there’s no special circumstance, it would be no small, incidental matter. Something large would be being said. Conversely, consider another couple whose relationship is not close, where there is little care, little affection, little respect, and no habit of expressing affection upon parting. Such neglect would mean nothing. No slight, no intent, no harm, no sin, just lack of care as usual. Yes, some things can be a sin for one person and not for another.

We’re invited both by Jesus and by what’s best inside us to become big enough of heart and mind to know that it’s a sin not to give a compliment, to know that even though biblically we may do capital punishment we still shouldn’t do it, and to know that we’re better women and men when we are bigger than any slight we experience within a given moment.