Be sincere of heart, be steadfast, and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to the Lord and do not leave him, so that you may be honored at the end of your days. Whatever happens to you, accept it, and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient, since gold is tested in the fire, and chosen ones in the furnace of humiliation.
Sirach 2: 2-5
And whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me
In a very popular book published first in 1969, Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull formulated a theory which became known as the Peter Principle. It asserted, in brief, that persons are promoted to new places in a hierarchy based on their current performance rather than their suitability for the new task. As a result, it is possible to generalize that in most human structures persons will always rise to the level of their incompetence.
At the time, many found great consolation in this theory as a ratification of the experience that their own bosses, as well as bureaucrats at every level, were hopelessly incompetent. Yet, from a wider perspective, the Peter Principle is a confirmation from the realm of management theory of a basic human and spiritual reality. As human creatures we are limited and fallible. Our unique perspective on the world is helpful and insightful, but it is always very partial. Our abilities may be significant, but they are never up to every task. Our hearts may be well formed, but they are never able to contain all of the world and its varied experiences. We all have a spark of the Divine goodness in us, but it is filtered in its expression through our limits and sinfulness. Thus, those who insist they are always right and always winners must considerably distort reality to avoid their own limit and inadequacy in the face of the world’s demands.
To live life honestly and fully will always bring us face to face with our own incompetence and the incompetence of others, not only in the work sphere but in every aspect of our lives. Given time, we shall always become disappointed with ourselves and with others, even those we most respect and love. Today’s reading from Sirach teaches that disappointment is the furnace and the fire of our spiritual and human formation. “Whatever happens to you, accept it, and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient. . . .”
We are well aware of the fact that spiritual teachers of every great wisdom tradition identify humility — honesty and an ability to face reality — as the ground of all spiritual development. As Jesus puts it, without doing and living the truth we build on sand (Mt. 7:26). Yet the humility that allows us to accept, to bear, and to listen to our experiences of disappointment (with others, ourselves, and the world) requires a kind of humility that knows its own ground and solidity. it takes courage to know one’s own desires and to live with the inevitable disappointment of them. This is the courage that is able to commit to another person, to a life work, to our own journey despite the fact that all of them will disappoint our desires as often as satisfy them. We are only able to do this to the degree that our final hope and trust in not in any other, or certainly not in our own “self” as we image it, but rather on the One who is “rock.”
On April 3, 1968, the night before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the final speech of his life at Mason Temple in Memphis. It was in that speech that he memorably spoke of how he might not accompany the people to the promised land of freedom and desegregation. In the midst of that speech, however, he also reflected on the parable of the Good Samaritan. He spoke of what was the difference in motivation of the Samaritan who stopped and helped the man who had been beaten and the Priest and Levite who refused to stop. His answer is that the Samaritan was able to put his fear aside, while the Priest and Levite were not. He then addressed his listeners:
That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
We overcome our fear, including our fear of our own disappointment, when our gaze turns from ourself to the other. We can be disappointed in others, but we can also be disappointed in life. We can fear that all that makes our life worthwhile or significant is, to some degree, an illusion. And so we avoid the appeals of life and of the world because we may encounter in them a painful disappointment in ourselves. This, however, may be in fact the great temptation of the evil one. It would rob us of our life by paralyzing us with a fear of our own failure. It is only by turning our focus away from our selves and our own fears and toward the others that we can escape this temptation. The question “If I do not stop to help what will happen to them?” has the power to overcome the fearful and debilitating question of “What will happen to me?”
So often I fail to do even the little I could for another because I fear doing the wrong thing. I fear looking naive, or clumsy, or inept. I hold to what I do well, because I fear the experience of my own incompetence. For God, however, incompetence is not a sin. The fact that we’ll never get it exactly right and probably never do exactly what the other needs is beside the point. Adrian van Kaam says that the other person that we encounter is always most deeply an appeal to us. He describes the nature of that appeal as: “Please be with me and for me.” I may not know what to do, but I can dare to be with and for the other to the best of my poor abilities. Disappointment with me will not kill them or me, but indifference may.
There is, in our time, a great conflict over the welcoming of refugees and immigrants into developed and affluent countries. At the level of soul and spirit, the conflict is precisely the one that Martin Luther King, Jr. described in his reflection on the gospel parable. For many the focus is on what will happen to us if we receive them. For Pope Francis and others, the determinative question is “What will happen to them?” It is a radical and dangerous thing to turn away from our self-centeredness and myopia and to enter fully into our world with the little we have to give. It is certain that if we do so we shall experience pain, and suffering, and disappointment with others and ourselves. Yet, such a turning from obsession with what might happen to us and to a concern with what will happen to them is the experience of love that casts out all fear.
Faith is not about God’s tending to my own fears and insecurities. It is the profound trust that ultimately, whatever happens along the way, God takes care of us all. Yet the way in which God cares is through the limited but generous action of the Samaritan and of ourselves. Any wall we build to defend us from the reality of the pain and suffering of others will finally come crashing down in the worst of disappointments. Those disappointments are a gift from God. If we allow them, they will teach us not to put our trust in ourselves or in our “princes” or in any others in whom there is no salvation (Psalm 146:3), but in the God who asks of us to care in God’s name for each other and for the world.
I should realize, however, that this negative state is of great importance for my religious growth, that it is the prelude of a new song, the pure beginning of a melody. It is like the shedding of the cocoon, the emergence of the butterfly in the radiant light of an exciting summer.
When I know how to work through this negative period, I shall emerge into the fullness of God’s light. I shall no longer do things to be praised by the people around me, or because I have the false notion that life is without blemish. I shall be able at last to shed these self-deceptions and to discover God. Now, every time that I discover limitations and imperfections in my world and in the people around me, I shall experience a deep and peaceful joy because my Beloved One alone is good and without blemish. I shall thank God that no human being or situation can touch his perfection, or even be compared with God. For everyone and everything are dust in the radiant purity of my Lord. . . Of course, the imperfection itself of human beings and the world is not a cause of joy but of sadness and of attempts to improve both continuously. In the strange and beautiful logic of love, however, the lover can be enthralled by the discovery that the beloved one possesses abundantly what is lacking in oneself and that one cannot transcend one’s own limitations without the help of the beloved. What causes one’s joy is not one’s indigence as such or the indigence of others but the increasing awareness of the infinite perfection of the creator. Our growing insight into the limitations of God’s creatures is the occasion from which a new awareness of the radiant perfection of our Lord emerges.
Adrian van Kaam, Religion and Personality, pp. 127-8