For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Why do we so often exist at a remote and safe distance from our own actual lives? Lately a friend and I are finding ourselves pondering why it is that so often when a situation calls for some kind of specific response and action, we as individuals and as groups spend our time criticizing others and what they are doing or not doing and fail to do the little that we could do. And relatedly, so often when something, however small, is done, the very fact of doing it seems to evoke resistance and resentment from others. So often, we talk situations and problems to death but never get to a moment of acting.
Thus we have the far too common experience of endlessly criticizing a member of the community, but not speaking of the problem with him or her directly. His or her behavior continues to harm both him or herself and the group, yet we avoid the honest face to face encounter that is required. In our interpersonal and familial lives, when we experience the signs of a problem with the relationship between or among us, we are often likely to avoid addressing it together until it reaches a point where we are forced to do so or else the relationship becomes sometimes irreparably damaged. For those of us who live under an aspirational rule of life, we often avoid or suppress the truth of the gap between our call and the way we are living. We can do this for weeks, years, or decades, again perhaps not facing the call to repent and change until our life together atrophies or we move away from each other and our commitment.
On a global and geo-political scale, we live today with the reality of climate change. All nonsense to the contrary, we know that we are actually on the cusp of having created an inhabitable planet. Yet, we continue to allow those who in the blindness of their own greed would allow this to occur to dominate our lives and determine our future. What makes it so difficult for us human beings to do what clearly must be done? And why are we so quick to react negatively to the efforts of others when they try to do what they can?
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul speaks to the key conflict in our religious and spiritual lives. The Galatians having been taught and apparently appropriated that “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” are falling back into looking for guarantees of salvation and justification that do not require faith. They, as we, want assurances about life’s meaning and destiny that do not require faith, hope, and love. They want to know the outcome before acting, rather than working and acting in hope. They want established and set rules to follow and magical rituals and acts to perform that will control God’s attitude toward them, rather than living their relationship to God in the darkness of faith.
Much of “religion” often betrays our dis-ease with our humanity, with the reality of incarnation. The truth of Jesus is that instead of raising us up to a perfected state of divinity so that we can be “at-oned” with God, God enters our murky and messy human reality. Jesus comes into our world as flesh and lives our life of faith, hope, and love without assurance. The passion narratives make this clear. “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) Jesus must carry through the living out of his call in the same darkness that is ours, without clarity about the meaning of what he does and what he suffers.
Far too often religious faith is seen, sometimes rightly, as an excuse for non-involvement in the struggles and suffering of the world. True faith, however, is precisely the opposite. Faith, in the deepest sense, is always and of necessity “expressing itself through love.” It is an absence of faith that leads us to fear life and so to distance ourselves from it. It is the lack of faith that what we do through love means anything that paralyzes us. At the functional level, of course we fear doing the wrong thing, making a mistake, looking foolish and limited. Yet, at the transcendent level all of this is a manifestation of our lack of faith. It is hard for us to believe that the situation and moment and person before us is always appealing to us as a call to be who we can be and to do what we can do in response.
We speak a lot, perhaps far too much, in religious life these days of our mission. The danger in how we speak of it is that we institutionalize it in such a way that we tend to forget that every human person is mission. And as mission, as one who receives a call to act, we must act. Our mission is a summons to do what we can at each moment of our lives. it is to dare to act with all our limits and fears, trusting in faith that if we do what we can we are playing our part in God’s unfolding plan. We believe, of course, that ultimately God’s will is done. Yet, we have ample evidence throughout our lives that we must be active, in faith, hope, and love, if our unique role in that plan is to be fulfilled. We can withhold ourselves from it; we can refuse the impulse of grace that asks us to drink the cup that is ours to drink.
Richard Rohr says that in contemplation we “hold the contradictions and pain of the world.” To act, knowing full well how incomplete and feeble our efforts are, requires of us that we embrace and hold in our hearts “the contradictions and pain of the world.” It is much easier for us to spin out imaginative “solutions” that will overcome the contradictions and heal the pain. But this is illusion. All the while we are spinning our ideas and ideals for what others must do, or resisting and diminishing the efforts of those who are acting, we are betraying our lack of faith, a faith which must express itself through acting in love.
Some years ago, I watched a television series in which the principal character’s mother committed suicide. That character’s closest friend was unable to call or speak with him because he didn’t know what to say. Another friend, however, spoke with him, even though all she could say was how horrible this was, that it wasn’t going to get better in a hurry, and that she had nothing to say that could help him feel better. He responded to her with thanks for not lying to him or telling him what he should feel. We all know times when we avoid the other in his or her suffering because we don’t know what to say or do. We can think that if we had faith we would know what to do or say because we would know the meaning of what they are going through. In truth, however, that would not be faith. Faith is our capacity “to hold the contradictions and pain of the world” even as we act by giving what we have. It is to do what we can even as we doubt its significance or value.
Faith is always “expressing itself through love.” So, when we don’t know what to do or what to say and when we are overcome by what feels like the overwhelming scale of the problem, we can give in action the love that we have to offer. We can risk, which is the nature of faith, failing or humiliating ourselves, because we are not the point. We are but a mission, an instrument of the love of God that is weak and poor and ignorant, but that longs in faith to give itself away for the other’s good. So much of what the world suffers is due to the passivity and remoteness of us who are privileged. We feel that the needs and sufferings of the world need experts to respond to them. We are likely to keep doing studies or to remand the problem to committees, somehow thinking that we shall through these magically arrive at the right or ultimate conclusion. This is not meant to suggest that we are called to act on impulse, but we must, at some point, do what we can if our faith is to have any meaning.
In the contemplation that is a holding of “the contradictions and pain of the world,” we shall always experience a summons to do something. When we do the little that we can, we inevitably are led to do yet more. In this way, as we take one step after another in the living out of our “mission,” we are learning what it truly means to live in a faith that must always be “expressing itself through love.”
Etty Hillesum (1914–1943), a young Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz, shared an intimate glimpse into her own experience through her journals . . . .
June 15, 1941: For a moment yesterday I thought I couldn’t go on living, that I needed help. Life and suffering had lost their meaning for me; I felt I was about to collapse under a tremendous weight. . . . I said that I confronted the “suffering of mankind” . . . but that was not really what it was. Rather I feel like a small battlefield, in which the problems, or some of the problems, of our time are being fought out. All one can hope to do is to keep oneself humbly available, to allow oneself to be a battlefield.
This is what it means to hold the contradictions and the pain of the world, as we do in contemplation. Hillesum accepted her destiny. She believed, as I do, that we are called to be both the agony and the ecstasy of God—for the life of the world. For me, to be a Christian means to accept that battlefield, to accept and to somehow participate in the mystery of death and resurrection in oneself and in the universe. It is a process of “oneing” with Foundational Reality, which some call at-one-ment.
Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, October 15