Israel was a spreading vine; / he brought forth fruit for himself. / As his fruit increased, / he built more altars; / as his land prospered, / he adorned his sacred stones. / Their heart is deceitful, / and now they must bear their guilt. / The Lord will demolish their altars / and destroy their sacred stones.
Reading these days from the prophet Hosea is a painful and disturbing experience. The admonishments that Hosea proclaims to the people are so challengingly relevant to us who are American citizens today. Perhaps this is actually a time of grace, for what is being revealed about us as a people, in our current public stances of arrogance, greed, selfishness, negligence, racism, and xenophobia may be but the outward expression of what has always lain beneath our outward civility and pretense of religiosity. As I feel shame as those representing our country behave as greedy capitalists and schoolyard bullies, I also cannot deny that this behavior is but the unbridled and unfiltered expression of some our deepest national qualities and sentiments. And beyond, they also, and this perhaps is the reason for the feeling of shame, manifest my own tendencies to each of these negative and hurtful dispositions.
If there is any truth to the proposition that the horror that we see manifest daily in our newscasts is but an expression of “America’s id,” then how are we called to respond? Perhaps the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew scriptures is the guide for our times. As we read Hosea today, might we ask whether or not what we are seeing is the Lord’s demolishing of our altars and destroying of our sacred stones. Is it time to acknowledge that the altars we have built to our own exceptionalism and self-righteousness are delusional and sinful? Is it time to realize the fragility of the “acred stones” of autonomy, independence, and capitalism on which we have attempted to create a national spirit to serve individual self-gratification rather than the common good? Is it time to begin to take seriously, as a so-called Christian nation, that those who are called to life in the kingdom are not to be first but rather last?
The history of Israel, as universal history, suggests that we do not readily as human beings attune to reality, especially when reality is revealing our own sinfulness. The prophets were not welcomed and heeded in their time. And so, time and again the Hebrews experience national destruction and exile. We know there is an alternative, for we read of it in the Book of Jonah. Jonah is sent by God to tell the NInevites that due to their depravity and wickedness they shall be destroyed in three days. Much to Jonah’s dismay, however, as he despises the Ninevites, the Ninevites repent and so are spared by God. In Matthew 12:21, Jesus tells the people: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” The rejection of Jesus is a rejection of the truth, or reality as it is. Much of our consciousness is built on our illusions about ourselves and about the world. We do not readily respond to the revelation of our own mistakes. Instead we are much more apt to defend them, to expend our energy ever more violently in keeping our illusions alive. The only result of such resistance to the truth, to the will of God in religious terms, is violence and destruction that then necessitates the rebuilding and reformation that reality requires.
As the years pass, I am more and more understanding the imagery of battle and warfare that has been applied to the spiritual life. As a young man coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s, I was largely formed, in a theological and spiritual sense, by an appropriate reaction to much of the negative theology and anthropology that had permeated the Church’s vision up to that time. Very appropriately, we awakened to the other side of the coin, to the goodness and beauty in creation and in ourselves. I know I am extremely grateful for what helped me to move at least slightly beyond my self-depreciative perspective on my own life. In more recent years, however, my experience is teaching me the truth that to walk the way of truth and to live with integrity does not come spontaneously. What comes spontaneously is the expression of our “id.”
Today is the feast of St. Benedict. Benedict says that we must “prepare our hearts and our bodies to do battle under the holy obedience of God’s commands.” The reaction to such talk was justified to the degree that our common understanding of “God’s commands” perceived them as external restriction, as a repression of our human nature. Yet, as witness aspects of the spirit abroad in our country today, it not easy to become truly and distinctively human. If to be human means to incarnate in all the dimensions of our lives the unique image of God we are called to realize, then there is most certainly a struggle and often even a conflict involved. The heart of that struggle, of that battle, is between our deep spiritual aspiration to realize the form of life that we are in God and those cultural pulsations, vital impulses, and egoic ambitions that seek an autarchic identity of our own making. I most often experience this conflict as between my desire for more and greater life, on the one hand, and what the tradition calls “acedia” on the other. Acedia is spiritual laziness; it is the choice always for the easier road. When violence, domination, bullying, manipulation, and resistance holds sway in us, it is almost always a cover for laziness.
To speak of this current in us as laziness can be confusing because it is very different from vital laziness, for example. Often spiritual laziness or acedia can manifest in overwork, over involvement, in a freneticism of activity. In our culture, it may well be the absence of true leisure that most attests to our spiritual laziness. For, in real leisure there is time and space for gentle reflection, for a self-presence that is open to repentance and reformation, for a restoration of a sense of awe toward the Mystery that replaces the inverted awe of ourselves and our own creations.
It is impossible to speak about the grace of repentance and conversion in the social sense as separate from the personal sense. To do so means to engage the faults of the culture on their own terms. I add my own violence to the violence of the culture. I counter the arrogance of the society with my own arrogance. On the other hand, this cannot be an excuse for “quietism” and conformity. Since our own true self is a call, it always manifests in doing something with and for — and when necessary against.
When I was a child, I always feared being not accepted and even being bullied. I was small, self-doubting and self-depreciative, and shy and introverted. Despite all this, however, I was seldom actually bullied, and even typically social and accepted. My reaction to the bullies, however, was to attempt to disappear in their presence. It was to distance as much as I could from the conflict I felt in their proximity. In the course of life I’ve learned that to try to disappear, to make believe that what is actually happening is not, is no way to respond. It may spare me, at least for the moment, but it does nothing for the world and even for myself in the long term. To keep disappearing is to fail to ever really exist. The only way to confront the less than human is to live as distinctively human.
Pope Francis speaks of the creation of “alternative spaces.” In the time of the Prophets, the Prophets themselves were the alternative spaces that witnessed to the lost human and spiritual values of Israel. A great danger of a moment such as ours in the United States is that collectively we shall “forget” the call to obedience to God’s will, that is to reality, that is our distinctively human response to the gift of life and a common home. Perhaps the strongest conceivable protest to such forgetfulness is the living out and witnessing to those deeper human values. This is being done by countless persons who are laying down their lives to serve those whom the society is choosing to reject. This feast of St. Benedict reminds us that the creation and sustaining of such alternative spaces is always a human struggle. As we attempt to do so our pride, selfishness, greed, violence will come with us. Yet, as Benedict says, we must “hasten” to engage this battle. For, not only our personal salvation, but that of our world may depend on it.
So, brothers and sisters, we have asked the Lord
who is to dwell in His tent,
and we have heard His commands
to anyone who would dwell there;
it remains for us to fulfill those duties.
Therefore we must prepare our hearts and our bodies
to do battle under the holy obedience of His commands;
and let us ask God
that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace
for anything which our nature finds hardly possible.
And if we want to escape the pains of hell
and attain life everlasting,
then, while there is still time,
while we are still in the body
and are able to fulfill all these things
by the light of this life,
we must hasten to do now
what will profit us for eternity.
Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue