It is my wish, then, that in every place the people should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.
1 Timothy 2: 8
“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Luke 7: 9
In today’s gospel we hear the familiar story of the healing of the servant of the Roman centurion. It is he who famously says to Jesus that he is not worthy that Jesus should enter his home, but that Jesus can heal his servant merely by a word. For this, Jesus commends the Centurion’s faith to the people around him. Yet, it is not merely the words of the Centurion that demonstrate his faith. As the Jewish elders go to Jesus on behalf of the Centurion, they say to Jesus: “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us” (Luke 7:5). One would expect that the representative of an occupying power would live among the occupied peoples in a defensive, forceful, and contracted stance. Yet, this Centurion loves the people who surround him and even devotes himself to fostering their means of expressing their faith in God, which has to be most foreign to him. Our capacity to live together in the way described by the author of 1 Timothy, “without anger or argument,” is largely a matter of faith.
Far too often, we speak of faith as that which defines and exacerbates our distance from and defensiveness toward each other. Yet faith in God supersedes any ideas or thoughts we have about our relationship to the Divine Other. It is an abandonment in trust and appreciation to the Mystery at work in the world. It is the ability to seek, to trust and to appreciate that which is good in the other. The Centurion’s faith results in the healing of his servant, not only because it moves Jesus to heal the servant but also because it moves the Jewish elders to intercede on behalf of the “other” who loves them.
The past weekend was a very graced time for me. On both days I was able to spend time in the company of good and “faithful” friends. As I returned home on Sunday evening, I reflected on the effect of spending the time with my friends, and I realized that I was, as a result of their presence, much more “open-hearted” than usual. This awareness brought with it an awareness of how often, as I move about in the world and as I relate to others in it, my heart is, to varying degrees, closed. Adrian van Kaam speaks of such constricted presence as being “contracted.” Faith is open-heartedness, while anger, fear, and depreciation is closed-heartedness.
It is the open-heartedness, the faith, of others that opens us in return. It is the fear, anger, and depreciation of the other that contracts and constricts our own hearts. It is said that at the heart of Martin Luther’s conversion, and so understanding of grace, is Romans 10:17: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” The great search of Luther’s life was to discover a love in those places where he could not love himself. It was, one could say, to have a faith in himself where he was unable to have faith. He discovers in the theology of St. Paul that faith is given to us by our hearing as that faith is proclaimed to us by another. That proclamation is one given in the very being of the faithful person, a communication to us from them of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
Faith, in turn, evokes more faith. The Centurion’s faith in the people and his love of them evoked their faith in return. We know that many religious leaders and elders of the time did not have faith in Jesus. And yet, it appears in the gospel story for today, that the Centurion’s faith in the elders of Capernaum leads them to come to Jesus with faith in him. This was my experience of the weekend. There was nothing explicitly “religious” about the encounters, yet they were suffused with faith, a faith expressed in the openness and hospitality offered to me. In the homes and in the hearts of those who welcomed me, I discovered there an appreciative and trusting space for me, in every respect, in all of who I am. And so, as I left them and returned home, I discovered that in spirit and in body I was in the world in a different way. My spontaneous description of that way of being was that I was more “open-hearted,” light rather than heavy-hearted.
In this morning’s news there is word of two arrests that have been made in London related to the bombing attack last week of an Underground train. it appears as if there may be ties of one of these suspects to an elderly couple who were recognized by Queen Elizabeth for fostering hundreds of children including refugees. All of this remains unsubstantiated at he moment but the story itself raises a question. Is what these people have done any less noble and right because one of the young people may have been involved in this bombing? We live in a time where a spirit of “contraction” is on the ascent. Some think that the way of safety would be to have not accepted and loved hundreds of needy and abandoned children because one became dangerous. From this perspective, it is the size and strength of our walls, societally and personally, that are the source of our safety and security.
The Centurion in today’s gospel does not build a “Green Zone” in Capernaum. Rather he builds a synagogue for the people to worship in accord with their aspirations and beliefs. This is the faith that Jesus himself says he has not found anywhere else in Israel. As a child, I suffered from extraordinary shyness. Enough of that remains that I realize my own tendencies in social situations, for example, to contract my heart and my body for self-preservation, to spare myself the expected rejection from others. Yet, throughout my life I have been offered the gift of faith from others who in an open and loving acceptance have made a space in their hearts and their lives for me. Through “hearing” what they were telling me, my own faith has slowly, at times almost imperceptibly, grown. As I sat in solitude last evening, I experienced, once again, the open-heartedness that had been evoked in me through the openness, hospitality, and faith of others.
Pope Francis tells us that the truly great need in our world today is to develop a “culture of encounter.” To truly encounter the other, we must have faith: in God, in ourselves, and also in the other. Now it’s undeniably true that this can be seen as very naive. We are constantly reminded that we live in a violent and dangerous world. It is, however, no more violent and no more dangerous than the Palestine of Jesus’ time. The Centurion, as representative of an oppressor, would have every reason to “believe” that he was despised. Yet, he chose to love the people and to support their way of relating to and worshipping God.
Faith is marked by an appreciative disposition of heart. Faith is to be found from and heard in the one who appreciates us and calls us to appreciate ourselves and others in return. No matter the amount of religious talk, there is no faith in the contracted and depreciative heart. Last evening, having received the gift of faith and hospitality from my friends, I realized how often I live in “depreciative contraction.” It often does take faith to recognize what is to be appreciated in the other, as it often does in ourselves. It also takes faith to recognize where it is that we live depreciatively. Sometimes our depreciation is so pervasive that we even cease to recognize it. To become aware of our depreciative stances, however, is to open up our hearts to the possibility of a conversion to appreciation. There is always a risk in appreciating the other, for we may find ourselves to be hurt or disappointed by the other’s inability to live and express their true potential. To not take that risk, however, is to live essentially faithless lives, lives in which our hearts are fearful, contracted and self-absorbed. Such a heart can never be a bearer of faith to others.
To be captured in a depreciative disposition toward others means that we will find it increasingly difficult to redirect our energy flow. Feeling secretly guilty and excessively angry, our entrapment in a depreciative disposition becomes intensified. Our body contracts even more. We are further apart than ever from the person we dislike. If we meet him or her, the other can sense us contracting in a depreciative stance. In response, he or she may contract too. Unavoidably, we withdraw from one another. Conflict becomes a contest of who can stay rigid longer in his or her contraction!
If you find that you are in a state of depreciative contraction, ask for the grace to appraise it as a warning that you are drifting away from divine appreciation, from consonance to dissonance. The grace to acknowledge an inner lump of stubborn contraction is precious. To embrace something appreciable in the person who upsets us will dissolve the lump that weighs so heavily on our heart. The Spirit will enable us to spot and affirm what is appreciable in others, no matter how veiled its appearance may be.
Much work in formation involves getting people to experience their hidden encasement in depreciative stances. They are usually not aware of them. It has become so much second nature for them that a feeling of bodily contraction seems normal. The purpose of our help should be to enable them to sense when they are contracting their forming energy in a depreciative way. Then a disposition of appreciation may begin to form itself within them.
Adrian van Kaam, The Music of Eternity, pp. 84-5